Travel planner: On the peaks of Ceahlau, the gem of Romania's Moldavia region
A recent trip to Rome made me realize how much I don't like the fact that the Romanian capital Bucharest lies in a plain area. I miss hills, I miss mountains. I could even put up with living in a block if somewhere around the corner was a mountain top. But until they move the capital city to Brasov or Sinaia, I hit the road to the North of the country, and decided to go up the Ceahlau mountain. Bucharest is at 85 meters above the sea, so it was quite a way up, to 1900 meters altitude in Ceahlau's highest peaks, Toaca and Ocolasul Mare.
Ceahlau has served as inspiration to many Romanians, including to their ancestors. The Dacians believed it to be the home of their god Zamolxis. Dimitrie Cantemir, the Prince of Moldavia in the late 17th century, called it 'Moldavia's most precious gem'. Famous Romanian writers such as Calistrat Hogaş, Alexandru Vlahuţă and Mihail Sadoveanu wrote in admiration for this lone mountain massif.
The Ceahlau mountain is close to our parents' house in Suceava, so it was a one-day trip from that home base. From Bucharest, it's a bit of a ride – more than 6 hours by car, and will require at least one overnight stay, as there will be other things to see in the area, such as the Bicaz lake.
We chose to go up Ceahlau from the resort of Durau, so the climb was from about 800 meters to 1900 meters altitude. We're not professional climbers, or trekkers, so we did our best, knowing that all we wanted was to breath fresh air, and spend time in nature. We were prepared for the trip, however: food, plenty of water, chocolate to give us some energy, comfortable shoes, and a fairly good research before heading there.
We chose to go up on one longer route, which also included the Duruitoarea water fall that we wanted to see, and come down via another route. Both were marked as medium difficulty, but for beginners like us, some portions of both routes were not easy at all, especially towards the end of the day, when we were already pretty tired. But it was doable, and above all, so much worth it!
So here we are, at 8-ish in the morning, paying the mountain tax of RON 5 per person – in fact the tax for entering the natural reservation of Ceahlau, and choosing a 4-5 hours route up the mountain. Had I known better, I would have bought trekking poles for this trip, and mountain boots, especially for the trip down, but we used two wooden sticks which still helped a lot, and our regular sports shoes.
The route to Duruitoarea waterfall and then to the Dochia lodge near the Toaca peak was well marked with a red cross on the trees, so it was easy to follow it through the forest. The beginning of the route was unexpectedly steep - I was expecting a nice walk through the forest, with little altitude differences - and for an hour or so, my breath kept adjusting to the effort. But almost without noticing, my body got used to being in nature.
As it was very early and as the route we choose was not the most popular for going up – we later found out- we didn't have a lot of company in the forest, which was so refreshing! The silent forest sometimes seemed out of this world. On some portions of the route, I could swear I was on the set for some kind of movie with hobbits, and it wouldn't have been surprising to see a fantasy creature of the forest approaching.
My batteries were in full recharge mode, despite the increased effort my body was subject to. The first 'wow!' moment was when, after a fairly complicated climb, we reached a peak, and could see the valleys around us. That was the moment we knew it was, and will be worth it, no matter how hard it might get.
It did get hard at times, but it took us less than two hours to reach the waterfall, at about 1,000 meters altitude. A beautiful 30-meters waterfall, quite noisy, which would have been better enjoyed if everyone else there chose to take just one picture near the waterfall, and leave the sight open for the others. But people love to take pictures, and plenty of them, in the most awkward places – some even went up some rocks closer to the waterfall, which to me seemed quite dangerous in the 'city shoes' and without any climbing gear. There were plenty of people near the waterfall, taking a break to eat - either half way down or half way up- but we still enjoyed the spot.We then headed up again, another steep climb helped by a wooden hand rail, and then after three more hours, and plenty of stops either to admire the nature, take pictures, or just catch our breath, we were almost at our destination. Before reaching the plateau at the Dochia chalet, we stopped in an open area called Piciorul Schiop (The Lame Leg ), where the 360 degrees view was astounding. Another half an hour walk partially on the plateau, and then accompanied by the fresh smell of the small pine bushes we had to cross, and we reached the chalet.
An amazing view on both sides of the mountain: the Izvorul Muntelui lake (also known as Bicaz) on one side, and a small part of the same lake on the other, near valleys and more mountains. A great place to take a nap under the August sun.
Ideally, after the half – hour nap, we would have conquered the peak we could already see, Toaca, at 1,900 meters altitude, but we decided just to admire it, take some pictures, and save it for another climb, when our legs would serve us better. We had to save some strength for the way down as well.
And it was good that we did. The route down, we then found out, is an educational route, so an easier choice for a climb, but not always as easy as expected. It goes round the Toaca peak and then down on the other side of the mountain. Thew first part of it was an easy way down, with a great view of the lake just above the pine bushes. The second part was not that easy on the knees on our way down, and it was also quite crowded, as many went up that way.
The route down took us about three more hours, during which we admired the beautiful Panaghia rock and the Sheperd's Rock (Piatra Ciobanului) on our way. We then reached Fantanele Chalet, a more modern chalet than Dochia. After an hour or so, we were back to Durau, by which time the sun was almost going down.
Later on, we calculated how much we had walked on that day. The route up is listed as almost 8 kilometers long, and the one down, 7.3 kilometers.
There are five other routes on the same mountain, some of which connect the lake to the peak, and probably equally beautiful.