Romania has more brown bears per square kilometer than any other country in the world. Unspoiled forest covers 80 percent of the Carpathian mountains. Transylvania is home to thousands of wolves and 30 percent of Europe’s lynx population. Wild boar, chamois, eagles and red deer abound.
Throw in Gypsies, Dracula’s castle, 4,000 sq. km of bird-filled marshland around the Danube delta, and you’ve the makings of a pretty solid Nature Travel column.
Even now, I’m not sure how things went as wrong as they did.
The Paxtons Failing To Even Reach Romania saga began with a magazine article about wolves and bears in the city of Brazov.
There, it seems, both species wander into town of an evening to forage among the communist-era tower blocks, thereby giving scientists an opportunity to study them close-up. To generate international and local support for the Large Carnivore Project, ecotourism operators are conducting educational tours to the region.
The tour itinerary, when it arrived, was a zinger! Day One: fly from Gatwick, London, to Bucharest. Drive to Zarnesti in the heart of the Transylvanian mountains. Check into a guesthouse run by the Gigi Popa family. Day Two: Meet LCP Director Cristoph Promberger, one of the world’s leading wolf experts, then climb Mount Ciuma searching for wildlife among the precipices of the Piatra Craiului mountains.
Day Three: Visit a radio-collared wolf’s den (which enables scientists to track the wolf’s movements) in the Postavaru mountain region. Day Four: More Transylvanian exploration with an evening in Brazov “where we shall observe brown bears close-up from the bus.”
By this stage, we were hooked. The prospect of observing bears pursuing wailing locals through the streets . . . think of the photo opportunities!
The remaining four days featured: more wildlife; Bran Castle, once the home of Vlad the Impaler, aka Count Dracula; traditional shepherd camps; and barbecues with Gypsies. All-inclusive, a mere $700 — a fee that included a donation to the carnivore project, with the rest going into local purses, thereby proving that conserving wildlife can bring economic as well as ecological benefits.
But the tour dates offered by the Romania Travel Center, which organizes the tours, didn’t jibe with our schedule.
So we decided to do it independently. We would drive there. Without more ado, we booked flights from Japan to the United Kingdom, a car ferry from Newcastle to Amsterdam (that alone cost more than the wolf tour) and, as an afterthought, bought a guidebook to Romania.
That guidebook was an education. “Austerity programs,” “local roads little better than tracks,” “queues for fuel,” “rampant car theft,” “no spare parts,” etc., etc.
Also, closer inspection revealed that our car had nearly 320,000 km on the clock and was barely capable of reaching Newcastle, let alone cutting a swath across Europe almost to the Turkish border.
We decided to fly instead. We canceled the ferry. Bade tearful farewell to our crippling deposit. And phoned the RTC for flight details. There was good news. And bad. British Airways and Tarom Air (Romania’s finest) fly regularly to Bucharest, but owing to the imminent solar eclipse, every seat was booked. “A lot of people want to gather at Dracula’s castle to see it,” the travel agent explained. After the eclipse was over (and I hope it rained), flights were not a problem, but due to Pavarotti giving a performance, there was no possibility of accommodation anywhere in Bucharest. Anywhere? “Anywhere. It will be full of Italians.”
Oh, and Gigi Popa’s place was full to the gunwales with German ecotourists.
Before leaving Japan, we had visited the Romanian charge d’affaires to inquire into the possibilities of logistic assistance on the trip. He had made no promises but indicated that his office might be able to help us in finding accommodation. Time to play this trump! We e-mailed him. No sooner had the e-mail gone off than the RTC phoned to apologize. There was in fact plenty of room at Gigi Popa’s place. The Germans had canceled. We e-mailed the charge d’affaires, thanking him for his time and effort but asking him to cancel any arrangements he might have made on our behalf. For journalistic purposes, it would be far better to stay at Gigi Popa’s place rather than some luxurious five-star setup in downtown Brazov.
Flights were booked. We mopped our brows. Romania was less than a week away. Paul Lister, the LCP’s U.K. representative, talked to us enthusiastically over the phone about Romania. The LCP was doing wonderful work and needed all the press coverage it could get. Don’t worry, they’ll be only too delighted to help you get the best photo angles. You’ll have a splendid time.
Then RTC phoned to inform us that Gigi Popa’s place was, in fact, full of Germans after all.
Also, Cristoph Promberger had just been involved in a traffic accident in Hungary and had been taken to a hospital in Germany. RTC’s director was due to depart for Romania himself in two hours’ time. He sounded panic-stricken, and there was no indication that he had booked anything on our behalf. At all.
Furthermore, with Promberger in intensive care, some obstreperous jerk at LCP was invoking a peculiar regulation that required visiting journalists to give them three months’ notice prior to arrival. Otherwise journalists couldn’t come. Anyone else could; trapeze artists, hunters, ex-convicts, shoe salesmen, astronauts. Just not journalists.
We canceled our flights. We decided we’d pretend we’d been to Romania. Who in Japan would know different? We went to the Lakeland Wildlife Center to fake a photo of a wild wolf. Their wolf had just died. It figured. We went to the pub.
The motto to this tragic, to say nothing of extremely expensive, tale is this. Either avoid Romania completely. Or join an RTC tour, accommodate yourself to their dates and book well in advance. Maybe you could drop us a postcard and let us know what it was like?