A thru-hike across the Carpathians: Czech Michal Medek's on his two-month journey, the beauty of the Romanian ranges, and how the mountains are changing
In the summer of 2019, Czech Michal Medek embarked on a special journey. Setting off from the Pálava range in the Czech Republic, he went on a two-month thru-hike across the Carpathians, crossing Slovakia, Poland, Ukraine, and Romania. He ended his route in south-western Romania, in Coronini, in the area of the Czech settlements in Banat.
His 2,200-kilometer walk, which he chronicled on the website Transcarpathian.org, came after numerous previous hikes in the region and in Romania, the fulfillment of an idea and dream that started in part with a reading of Miloslav Nevrlý's Carpathian Games, the English translation of which he recently edited and made available here. Nevrlý hiked through the Romanian mountains in the 1960s and 1970s and wrote this book about the beauties of Romania, Medek explains.
"It all started in 1991 with this book, Carpathian Games by Miloslav Nevrlý. It is a book about the beauties of Romanian mountains; it was published by the Czech naturalist in 1982, actually illegally; it was not an official book, it was just published for friends, and then people started reading and copying it. It was also published in Romanian."
The account provided the first inspiration for the many hikes he made in the Carpathian ranges. "I came to it when I was 18 years old or so, and it struck me; I was like 'Wow, it's beautiful, it's wonderful.' Of course, I had hiked before, mostly the Czech Republic, but at that time, I thought it would be great if I hiked all over the Romanian mountains but also the whole Carpathian ranges. And I started doing that, from 1991- 1992, I went every year to the Carpathians. To some ranges, I went many times, to Czechia and also Romania. […] I first hiked with my friends from university, then my girlfriend, who is now my wife, then also with a scout group in the 2000s. Then I also discovered in 2005 Albania, and I was there also three-four times. I also hiked the Slovakian Carpathians, and then last year I went to the Polish side, I hiked around the Ukrainian border."
Other aspects played into the decision to plan the thru-hike, including the time spent hiking on the Pacific Crest Trail while he was on an internship in the United States in 2002 and a passion for hiking nurtured from the Scouting movement.
In the Czech Republic, scouting "was really a nation-wide movement," he explains. Nevrlý's book was published unofficially as scouting was banned three times in the country. "We are a nation of 10 million now, there used to be 12 after World War II together with Slovakia, and there were approximately half a million scouts; it was really a mass movement from the very beginning. There was a lot of influence from the Woodcraft movement in North America. In the Czech Republic, it was always for peace and nature, […] democracy. And this is why they hated it. It was an organized movement."
Scouting was banned during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, then in 1948 after the Communists seized power, and again in 1970, after the Soviet occupation of the country. "For the Czechs, it was always a symbol of democracy. There is another thing specific for Czechoslovakia: it is what we call wild scouting. It was something that started in the 1920s and flourished in the 1930s when there was the Great Depression. Many young, unemployed, urban men just went out to the countryside, to forests, and they built small huts and lived there, and lived their dreams about the wild lifestyle. It developed into a subculture. Also, in Communist times, the Communists never dealt with this culture. It was always perceived as something Western-oriented. But it was very strong, millions of people were part of this. On Fridays, you could see railway stations full of people with backpacks, going to forests, making hikes there, out of the Communist society. I was a member of the Scouts, many of my classmates were in high school. It kind of finished in the 1990s; now it's mostly the older generation that are still meeting, it's not so widespread."
This also explains why there are so many Czechs coming to Romania but also to the mountains in general, he says. "We've got these cultural roots; it's normal to go hiking; it's this cultural thing, I would say."
A changing landscape
His many trips to the Carpathians allowed him to see the mountains transforming in time. "My first degree is in biology- geology, I'm trained in natural history, and I can see how the mountains are changing. This is also why I made the webpages, and we translated Carpathian Games because I feel that the changes are very fast."
From an increase in the number of tourists and price hikes to a change in land management and overgrown meadows, "the Carpathians, as they have been for centuries, are now changing very fast," he explains. "When I was hiking through Romania, not the main ridges, of course, Făgăraș, Munții Rodnei, but if you go say to eastern Călimanii Mountains, you see the big change in the land management. If you go to Maramureș, you can see there are many meadows that are abundant. The highest ridges are not changing so fast, but the lower ones are changing really fast."
He thinks it would be great to focus the attention on the Carpathians in general as they a sort of a hidden gem. "Everyone is going to the Alps, but if you go there, everything is perfect for tourists, everything is ready, […] outdoor shops and all the marked trails. Of course, it is beautiful, but to some extent, its beauty is just kept for tourists. In the Carpathians, there is this original land management to really care about the property, but it is diminishing."
He contrasts the local case, where some complain about the overgrazing from sheep to the situation in Czechia and Slovakia, where "we try to keep at least some parts of this traditional management to see how the mountains were in the past. In Romania, the change is inevitable because people will be leaving the mountains, I mean the shepherds, and the tourists are coming. That's the trend."
He points out the role that shepherds play in the traditional management of the land. "I think it is important to see the shepherd as someone who is keeping the traditional management of the mountains; without them, there would be completely different habitats […]. I think people should be nice to shepherds. […] They are the mountain people.[…] Sometimes national parks are just paying shepherds as a way of land management. If you go to Poland, you can see how the mountains change without the shepherds."
Hiking has become an increasingly popular activity, but it has its issues. "I can see that many Romanians now go to the mountains, it's becoming a nation-wide pastime activity, and there are a couple of differences. Number one: there a lot of people who are coming by cars, which is pretty bad, it's a destruction of mountains. […] And another group is the people who are going to the mountains hiking, and they perceive it as a sport. I could see a lot of people running through the mountains now; it was never there before in the 1990s or even 12 years ago. Now it's just popular, people who are just running through the mountains. Of course, it is all across the world, but there are these different relations. A lot of people are now in the mountains, and I can see, also I feel that the older Romanian mountaineers can feel, that these people are not all the time understanding what the mountains are and that there is a certain ethics," he points out.
He gives the example of a previous hike when he was kicked out of refugiu (refuge/shelter) into the rain by a group of Romanian tourists with no tents or sleeping bags or of seeing refuges being used more as hotels by people trying to claim them and not as shelters for hikers who need them. "If you are out there in the mountains, of course, it can become very soon dangerous, and many people who are coming there today got the equipment, they think it's about the equipment, and they do not understand it is also about the ethics and helping each other and being polite to each other."
As he mentions that the ethics hasn't had time to develop in keeping with the interest in hiking, he references another book, Cartea Munților (The Book of the Mountain) by Romanian writer Bucura Dumbravă, first published in 1919. "The book is really beautiful, it's also about the mountains, how to behave, about the ethics, how to be lighthearted, how to be polite and respect the nature."
The freedom of the Carpathians
On the topic of what makes the Carpathians an attractive hiking destination, he mentions the sense of freedom, the same aspect that inspired many who read Carpathian Games to go hiking here. "If you read the book Carpathian Games, it's all about freedom, because going hiking in Romania in the 1960s, 70s it was all about freedom. People hiked the mountains, and there were no rules, nothing, just meeting the people, talking to them, […] because if they were going to the Czech Republic mountains, there would be immediately the Police asking them how they got there - 'It looks like a scouting, it's banned.'"
At the same time, the mountains are quite empty, he explains, recalling how many people he counted through his whole 2019 journey. Except for the more popular ranges, which make up 15-20 percent of the whole Carpathians, "in the rest 85% I met just 13 people hiking, apart from Tatry, Rodnei, Piatra Craiului, Făgăraş, maybe Retezat, and one range in Poland that's quite popular; that's really amazing. The mountains are basically empty, so there is this feeling of solitude, and you are in nature."
The Carpathians are rough, "they are still like they used to be in the past, you can see that the land management is still alive in many areas, especially in Romania, which is unique, and then the freedom," he goes on, as he points to the option of wild camping and being able to put up a tent anywhere, something not allowed in the Tatras or other high Carpathian ranges in Slovakia.
The reverse is the danger of the mountains becoming too crowded in some areas, which would be unsustainable, he points out. Especially if those visiting are not used to being in nature, are not aware of the rules, and can end up destroying the landscape. "If you are a mindful hiker, no one finds that you stayed somewhere. If you follow the 'leave no trace' philosophy, then you pose no danger to the mountains. Much more danger are, of course, the blueberry pickers, and they are leaving a lot of garbage in recent years. It wasn't like that in the past; now I can see a lot of garbage there."
The thru-hike meant numerous opportunities to encounter the wildlife of the Carpathians, either in Czechia, Slovakia, and Poland or Ukraine and Romania. For instance bears, which he met about five times. He explains that in some areas of the country, he could feel the presence of bears many more times, which made him cautious. "They don't want to meet you. Many, many times, the bear was nearby, and I just couldn't see it. In areas like eastern Călimani or Vrancea, you just go and see the bear was here a few hours ago; it's still warm where he lay, so I was using jingles to warn the bear that a human was coming." It's important to feel unsafe, he says, "because then you are vigilant, you take care; otherwise you might get into trouble."
One memorable encounter was with a wolf. "I met a wolf once, yes, and it was beautiful. It was this 'once in a lifetime moment' when I could see – I was down mentally, because it is tough to go there alone, it was raining all the time, these mountains are really wild; the sun was shining for a moment, and then I could see the wolf, and this evening sun, really beautiful. He spotted me, and we looked at each other for a few seconds, and of course, the wolf went away."
Still, the dogs were the biggest concern, even though he was expecting to meet them. "From the hiker's point of view, the worst thing is not the bears, it's the dogs. I've been to Romania many, many times, and I felt I'm used to them, no surprise. […] It was tough, even for me. And when I crossed the border from Ukraine to Sighetu Marmației and immediately, when I went out from the town, I could see the dogs. I said: 'Oh, welcome to Romania!"
Among the favorite moments of the hike, he mentions the encounter with other scouts in Făgăraș Mountains. "I met there a couple of scouts, it was really beautiful; when you meet someone, and you've had friends in this Scout movement […] you always talk to each other, ask how things are. It's also when you meet hikers […] you immediately recognize each other, the long-distance hikers, not just someone who goes for three days, and you can always, always, see them; you meet and talk, and ask how they are doing."
The same day he spotted the wolf, he also experienced what he calls the miracle of finding shelter at the right moment. "For me, the most difficult mountains were these eastern Carpathians, like Vrancea, Penteleu, a lot of forest, no signal; if you meet dogs they are very aggressive because they are not used to tourists at all, no one is going there, I haven't met a single tourist. And it was raining all the time, I was down mentally, I didn't think I would make it, it was too far; and then it starts raining again, and then there was a rainbow. I looked at the rainbow, and in the middle of the bow, there was a house in the mountains. A shepherd's house but it was empty, it was newly built, two-three years ago. For me it was like a miracle, for normal people this is nothing, they wouldn't stay there, it doesn't look beautiful, but when you are on a hike, in the rain for many, many days, you feel cold all the time - it was a miracle."
Arriving in Băile Herculane was a much-awaited moment and came with a feeling of achievement. "You walk, walk, walk, and I was walking quite a lot, 35 km per day, it's quite a lot; on this trail I think I was the fastest so far. The reason was I started quite late, I had some commitments at work. I was supposed to start on June 1st and I started June 10th, and I really needed to go fast. And then you walk, and walk, and it's raining, and I had it on my mind, it was this feeling of achievement."
Another emotional moment came with hearing Czech again, spoken in the Czech villages, where he also noticed a certain distance towards tourists. "I think it's a good point if someone talks about eco-tourism development to go to the Czech villages and see how it works. It would be interesting to do some research, the psychological defense of the locals towards the tourists."
Looking back on his hike, he recalls the days he spent hiking on the Pacific Crest Trail, which starts at the border with Mexico and finishes on that with Canada. It has grown so popular in time that now people need to compete for permits to go there, he points out. Hiking the trail was once a dream he was looking to make come true, but he has now switched to the Carpathians.
"I think the Carpathians have the potential to become absolutely superb for long-distance hikers, especially with this freedom, possibility of staying anywhere. In the US, the Pacific Crest Trail, you've got designated camps, and you just stick to them, you need to have permits, you need to have bear cans for protection of food against bears. That's another point. The Carpathian bears are super, and they are usually scared, compared to the US, where they are really used to humans, they sniff the food and are able to tear your tent and eat your food. It will become more and more popular. And I think it is also an opportunity for tourism in Romania."
He also points to a local entrepreneurial spirit that he has seen developing. "If I go back to the 1990s, I must say there was not a big difference between Romania and Ukraine. But when I was on this hike, 2019, when I crossed from Solotvyno to Sighetu Marmației, it was a completely different world, with a lot of shops, and people doing business. You feel this entrepreneurship spirit. I was impressed by that, how you are able to row the country and how so many people started small businesses; you can clearly see how things are going forward."
Recently asked by a tourist with little time to spend in the country what is the nicest part to go to in Romania, he pointed to Vatra Dornei and the surroundings because of the options there for different mountains, including Călimani or Rodnei. He also gave the option of going to Băile Herculane or Petroșani because of the different possibilities to hike from there.
While he has seen many more tourists coming to the Romanian Carpathians, they usually explore just a few parts, with Făgăraș being one of the favorites, he explains.
"At the moment, people are coming, they are focusing on just a few areas, but the beauty is hidden; the real beauty are those meadows, with the people with the scythes mowing them, which is going away. It's a beautiful country. When I think of where I might retire, I may go to the mountains there."
Michal Medek is the director of the Kaprálův mlýn SCENES center (Scout Centre of Excellence for Nature and Environment). He also works on the development of soft skills in the field of heritage interpretation in the Czech Republic. He is a member of the Educational Committee of Interpret Europe. He teaches three one-semester courses on environmental education and heritage interpretation at Masaryk University in Brno.
(All photos courtesy of Michal Medek)