When Two Became One

Bear Left
Tuesday 14th October 2014


There were no jack hammers waking us up this morning but we couldn't sleep in either. We had a 10am appointment near a town called Zărnești to visit a bear sanctuary.

But first we had breakfast which was a challenge with no kettle and a broken toaster but we got there in the end.

We walked over to the car, relieved to find out there wasn't a parking fine stuck on our windscreen.

With the  satnav set for Zărnești we headed out of Brasov. I found driving a little more challenging this morning. Perhaps I hadn't woken up properly, or maybe it was the first time I'd done some real driving. The road from Bucharest to Brasov was besically a straight line with a few roundabouts.

Anway, as we drove towards Rasnov we expcting to see a fort on a hill that it's known for but we didn't see anything.  A few kilometers later we turned for Zărnești, tagging on to the end of a convoy of six  little Dacia Duster SUV's.  They all tuned off in unison, and it was no surprise it was the turning for the bear sanctuary.

We soon came to a makeshift bridge over a small stream and the Dacia Dusters crossed one by one. It was then our turn in our little hired Toyota. "Stop" yelled Julie.

It wasn't a proper bridge, it was more like some temporary crossing, made from a few planks, metal sheets and an iron girder, like something Jeremy Clarkson and his mates would knock up just to get over to the other side.

There were no sides barriers to it and there was a weird raised bar running along it, just off centre. The Dacia Dusters had no problem with clearance over this bar and could drive with wheels on either side of it.

"You can't follow them" said Julie "you'll damage the underneath". She was right.

We parked the car and went on foot to have a closer look. We couldn't work out how to cross safely, then another car arrived. It was even lower than ours, and clearly couldn't straddle the bar either. When they came to the bridge they didn't even break stride and crossed along one side of the bar. Their wheels were inches away from the edge but they were never in any danger of falling off.

Having been shown how to cross it was now our turn. Julie refused to stay in the car and walked over it. I edged slowly onto the bridge, trying to keep as close as possible to the bar on the right. After passing the halfway point I grew in confidence but I must have strayed a little. The alarm on Julie's face was a picture!

I eventually made it to the other side and we continued on our journey along a dirt track up the hill to the car park (or field) for the Libearty Bear Sanctuary.

, set up

The sanctuary was set up by Cristina and Roger Lapis. They had already began an animal welfare organisation called Millions of Friends when they came across a caged bear called Maya in the car park of a hotel near Bran Castle.

They regularly visited the bear, bringing food and love but freeing her from her rusty cage was out of their reach. They had nowhere to rehome the bear and just realeasing her into the wild was not an option. Sadly Maya died in her small enclosure. This was the driving force for Cristina and Roger to set up a sanctuary to rescue and rehabilitate mistreated brown bears.

In 2005 they acquired 49 hectares of land and Libearty began. 

We walked to the entrance gate where the group who arrived in the Dacia Duster were already waiting to get in. Visitor numbers was striclty controlled by only taking guided tours around the site and only having three tours for the day. A group of children from a local nursery called Snuffelgarten also joined the group.

At 10am the gates opened and we walked up to the ticket office. The entrance fee was only 40lei each.

We all then gathered by the first enclosure to wait for the tour to start. Here, on the other side of the fence, were five bears, looking at us looking at them.

"Oh my God" I heard Julie say. 

To be this close to a fully grown bear was so exciting. They were just lounging about. It was either after feeding time, or they were waiting patiently for food. One or two were so close you could almost reach out and touch them, if it wasn't for the electric fence.  

As we all moved closer to get a better photograph it was inevitable than someone would step too near the wire and get a shock. The lady next to me yelped out, dropped her phone, and stepped on my foot as she recoiled.

The tour began as two members of staff came out, one speaking Romanian and the other English to offer us a bilingual guide. They gave a bit of the background and talked about the brown bear in general.

They pointed out one bear as Cristi, the first Libearty rescue from a restaurant in Brasov in 2005. She was captured as a cub and spent her entire life in a small cage to entertain the diners. Now 33 years old, whilst she was still technically a tourist attraction, she lived a life as close to roaming wild and free within an ancient oak forest.

Our group moved on, following the guides gradually uphill towards the next enclosure. We were followed by one of the bears until something in the woods caught its attention and it disappeared into the undergrowth.

We came to the 'sick bay' as they described it. Not necessarily a place for bears with ailments but also where newly rescued traumatised bears would be looked after seperately until they improved, acclimatised and were ready to be integrated. 

The first one was in a terrible state, with a runny nose, sticky eyes and matted fur. It was hardly recognisable as a bear, it was as thin as a dog . Clearly malnurished.

How could people be so cruel.

Oddly enough the bear shared its enclosure with a wolf-like dog. Perhaps they were found together and it was decided not to seperate them.

In the next enclosure a bear called Max, who may have looked well fed, swayed its head from side to side in  a moronic fashion. He had been rescued from a place outside Peles Castle, in Sinaia and had been blinded by his captors. They would also sedate him daily by giving him beer spiked with a strong tranquiliser.  Tourists would line up to have a photo taken standing next to this cute brown bear, oblivious to the abuse and cruelty.

From here the hill got steeper as we marched all the way to the top, passing along the way a number of bears munching on apples dropped over the fence for them. We then passed a small little wooden church no bigger than a garden shed. Not sure what it's purpose was other than actually being a shed. 

Having reached the top of the hill we slowly made our way back down, catching glimpses of bears in the woods. All in all they had 81 bears here at Libearty, living out the rest of their days in comfort and freedom.

It was wonderful to see them roaming freely, just going about their business. Here they were dispersed throughout the forest, not sitting by the fence posing for the cameras, so it made spotting a bear much more rewarding!

When we returned to the begining we were made to sit and watch a short documentary film, which felt very much like we were on a school trip, especially with all the Snuffelgarten in our group fidgeting and not paying attention.

Once it had finished we were free to go.

We walked back to the car and decided to have an early lunch. Out came our peanut butter sandwiches which despite the incredibly dry bread tasted great. We were parked in a lovely spot for a picnic overlooking the valley below. 

As we prepared to leave I switched on the SatNav to enter the next coordinates when the little voice from inside the box said "Bear left" .

 "Where?" said Juile pretening to be looking for a brown bear to the left!  Well, we both fell about laughing. We couldn't believe it!! (This actually happened by the way, I'm not making it up!)

We set off for Bran, retracing our route this morning, back over the ridiculous bridge and then on to Rasnov. The satnav kept on trying to get us to turn in the opposite direction and head off the main road but I kept on ignoring it. I'm sure there was a short cut over the hills but I wasn't in the mood for narrow lanes. Eventually the SatNav gave up and calculated a route in the direction I wanted.  

When we approached Rasnov we saw for the first time the amazing citadel up high on a hill.

It was so impressive I had to pull over so I could take some photographs. It was originally built in the 13th century with forifications added over the centuries. It was built mainly as a safe refuge for the residents of the town below. At the first sign of trouble they would retreat behind its walls.

Apparently it was last used as a refuge as late as 1850's.

After a couple of false "You have reached your destinations" down some dodgy back alleys we finally saw a sign for Bran Castle. We soon parked in a makeshift car park unaffiliated with the famous tourist attraction and walked a short distance towards a small market.

Amongst all the customary local crafts and tourist souvenirs there was of course plenty of Dracula inspired items on show.

Dracula, a blood thirsty Transylvanian vampire, is of course a completely fictional character and Bran Castle isn't mentioned by name in Bram Stoker's book but that hasn't stopped anyone from choosing here as the focal point of the story. 

In his book he describes Count Dracula's castle as being  "on the very edge of a terrific precipice" in the Carpathian mountains. According to Bran Castle's own promotion it is the only castle in all of  Romania that fits this fictional description. So it may very well have been the inspiration for Irishman Bram Stoker, who had never actually travelled to Transylvania.

Another Bran Castle connection is that Vlad III, a brutal 15th century ruler of Wallachia (the other region of modern day Romania), better known as Vlad the Impaler, or sometimes referred to as Vlad Drăculea, and obviously often cited as a major influence on Bram Stoker's Dracula, .....  well .... it's documented that in 1462 he may have spent some time behind bars at Bran Castle.  

And let's not forget that Bran Castle sounds a lot like Bram Castle!

We paid 40 lei each at the ticket office and began the climb up the hill towards the castle. Along the way we passed a stone cross carved with strange texts and imagery that gave the impression it had less to do with the church and more to do with the occult. I don't know if it was an original piece or a modern instalation pandering to the fans of the Prince of Darkness.

The path eventually brought us to an unassuming entrance. I'm not sure if this was the main entrance or a small side door but it was the offical way to enter.

We climbed the final few steps up a stone staircase, of which Julie counted 13. (She always counts steps, it's a thing that she does). The door was open so I didn't have to use the a marvellous brass knocker but I did anyway.

After walking through a few dark vaulted reception rooms we were confronted by a member of staff asking to see our tickets. I huffed and puffed my annoyance as I had shoved them somewhere and couldn't find them. A few minutes later I found them crumpled up in a small pocket inside my bag. We were alowed to continue.

Up and down wooden steps we marched through several rooms filled with original artefacts and snippets of information about the castle's history. Some facts were more fascinating than others. It was originally built as a simple wooden fort by the Knights Templar in the 13th century.

 We reached the lounge, the largest room in the castle. It looked quite homely but the large bearskin rug on the floor was a disturbing sight, especially after spending the morning with the rescued bears of Libearty.

Dead animal fur on the floor aside the room was a pleasant space. The furniture was mostly 19th century nobility chic and much of it was the collection of Queen Marie, the last Queen of Romania and granddaughter of both British Queen Victoria and Russian Emperor Alexander II.  

After a brief hiatus after the second world war when the castle was appropriated by the communist regime and the royal family exciled, Bran castle is now back in the ownership of Queen Marie's descendents. 

I was glad to see that they hadn't turned the castle into a Dracula theme park experience. In the late 80s during state ownership it was promoted as "the real Dracula castle". Now any reference to the Count was kept to one small room with an old copy of the book, a movie poster, and a painting of Vlad the Impaler.  

We reached the top and decided to take a break, sitting down on a bench overlooking the Western tower and the courtyard below.  It was a beautiful view, especially how the autumn colours of the slopes complimented the red roof tiles.

Looking down into the coutyard we coud see a large set of scales. They would have been used to weigh merchandise as Bran Castle was at one time a customs border crossing between Transylvania and Wallachia and taxes would have been levied.

They were also used for another reason.

The practice of weighing someone accused of witchcraft was common place across Europe during the Medieval period. It was believed that witches weighed less than the righteous, probaby because they notoriously flew on brooms so must have been as light as a bird. What an incredibly stupid way of determining guilt especially as they were oftern burnt at the stake.

We walked around the courtyard, mostly gazing upwards at the impressive building. It was a real mash up of turrets, balconies, chimneys.

 There was an exhibition of torture in one of the rooms but they were expecting you to pay more to enter so we didn't.

We left through the back door, back down the way we came, down the hill and through the gardens, stopping briefly to look a large stone trough decorated with moustached faces from the past, which I found absolutely fascinating. 

On the way back we passed this stand selling something called kürtöskalács, or chimney cakes as they're known in English, a large pastry tube cooked on a rotisserie over hot coals. It was then sprinkled with sugar and finely chopped walnuts. I just had to try one!

It was only 10 lei and huge! Julie and I nibbled on it, pulling pieces off as we walked. It was sweet, warm and doughy, so delicious. We had gone a quarter of the way down when we passed  a quirky looking restaurant called Le Cristi.

It was built in a wooden Alpine lodge style and looked so inviting we decided to stop for lunch.  We sat at large rustic tables with benches. It was calling out for a large glass of cold beer and a plate of something cheesy.

Unfortunately I was driving and compounding my let down my only option on the menu was a Greek salad, and even then, when it arrived it was lacking in everything. It was essentially just a bowl of lettuce and olives. 

At least the skin-on fries I had on the side were amazing and Julie ordered lamb cutlets with boiled potatoes which in her words was "just perfect".  So it wasn't all bad.

Back in the car we drove out of Bran, further up the valley, the opposite way to our return to Brașov. The reason for our detour was to find a spot with view of the castle in all its glory.  We didn't have to drive far, only a minute or two and we came to a convenient lay-by where we could turn around and admire. It certainly was a dramatic scene, worthy of inspiring a classic novel.

Back in the car we returned to old town Brașov and found a space where Adriana from the letting agency had suggested was free to park. It was up Strada Cibinululi. We drove up to where the tarmac road ran out. It was like a scene centuries old but I think they were just digging up the cobblestones to replace them. It wasn't always like that.

It was only about 3:30pm so we walked to the main square where we marvelled at the City Hall once more on our way to the Black Church. Unfortunately the doors were locked shut. It had closed at 3pm in a new winter schedule. "Oh well, we'll have to pop back tomorrow before we leave" said Julie.

At a loss for what to do we headed back to our apartment for a siesta. We must have both been really tired as we fell into a deep sleep. It took us by surprise. One minute we were awake talking about our plans for tomorrow, the next we were snoring ike a pair of piglets. Hours later we woke up, it was dark and we were starving hungry.

We headed out, walking across the square and down a street filled with food stalls. It was just a regular Tuesday evening in October but there was a wonderful atmosphere about the place.


A wine bar called Terroir caught our attention. At first we misread it as Terror before realising it was Terroir, the French term used to describe the conditions for cultivating vines, the combination of the soil, the climate, the landscape and so on.  

Anyway, it looked so stylish and sophisticated we had to stop.

We sat down and ordered a glass of a Romanian dry white wine. The waiter politely asked us to move table to one in the window because we had sat at a table reserved for watching football later. We thought it slightly strange but moving wasn't a problem. Romania was playing Finland and it was due to kick-off in an hour.

The wine arrived and it was amazing, as good as any chablis from the hills of Burgundy, and half the price. It was a shame they didn't do food, only nibbles, so we moved on.

We found a place called Keller, a steakhouse. Not the best place for a vegetarian, or so you would think, but a quick browse of their menu was encouraging.

A bottle of the cheap house red came to the table. The waitress opened it and asked it I liked to taste. A splash was poured into my glass which I swirled around to give the impression I knew what I was doing. I sniffed the bouqet and it was fine. It hadn't corked. It couldn't have as it was a screwtop!

I then tasted it.

I think I winced as my saliva glands recoiled at its vinegary sharpness.  I smiled at the waitress and said  "it's fine". And it was. The further down the bottle you got the more one's tastebuds acclimatised to it. 

From the starters I ordered aubergines rolled and stuffed with goat's cheese in a tomato sauce with grated melted cheddar cheese on top. It was absolutely delicious. Despite just being a starter it was a large portion but I could have eaten it again it was so nice.

For our mains Julie had the lamb cutlets in a balsamic glaze which she enjoyed very much, but she raved mostly about the potatoes. They were like slices of baked potato and were blowing her mind.

I went for a roasted vegetables with hollandaise sauce, which whilst being listed as a main course was more of a side dish really. So I bulked my plate up with olive oil fried potatoes and rosemary.

We both agreed that this was the best meal of the trip so far! They just seem to be getting better and better!

It was late when we left Keller Steakhouse, although it was only half time in the match between Romania and Finland. We passed a bar showing the game but wisely decided against it. To carry on drinking late into the night would have been irresponsible with an early drive to Bucharest in the morning.

Like proper grown-ups we returned to the apartment. Julie went to bed whilst I watched the game. Romania won 2-0, in a dour second half which I watched whilst sipping a cup of tea.

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