I got more than I bargained for when I began the mountain hike through the stunning Carpathian mountain range, but little did I know that I was walking in the footsteps of the gods too.
The Ceahlau National Park is an absolutely stunning region in Neamt County in Romania and is among some of the largest protected pristine forests in Europe. A part of the jagged Carpathian mountain range and surrounded by numerous lakes and watercourses, the jagged limestone peaks are covered in a blanket of thick forest and culminates in the majestic Ceahlau mountain.
Part of the appeal of hiking in this beautiful region was the fact that I had never even heard of the national park before, and hiking in the Carpathian mountains was a challenge that I couldn’t not accept! Put simply it was a no brainer, even with the tentative threat of wild bears! The forest was just too picturesque, and the promise of the views at the summit were far too tempting.
Starting off in the tiny but picturesque town of Durau early in the morning, the group slowly followed the ranger who was acting as our guide and everyone was in good spirits, but it proved to be a lot more difficult than I first thought.
The early morning hike started off easily, with the sunlight peeking through the forests canopy and rewarding us with some stunning views as it diffused through the branches and leaves above. It was genuinely hard not to keep stopping just to take in the views around me and I purposely slowed down just to try and take it all in. It is easy to get swept up in the mystery and mystique of surroundings like this, and just as easy to see how so man myths and legends could find their way down from the treeline far above us.
But this easy hike was put here to lull me into a false sense of security, and as I chatted to the some of the guides and the ranger that accompanied us through the forest I learned a little about the history of this amazing region and its strong link with the Dacians, the ancestors of the Romanians, and the gods that they worshiped. Gods that would in hindsight make me work hard for the achievement of reaching the summit.
The terrain slowly and gradually got steeper and more ragged as we progressed, and walking uphill gradually gave way to taking steep, uneven steps. These mountains once belonged to the Dacian gods, Zalmoxis in particular, and was considered to be his home. His Olympus. And it was getting increasingly obvious that he wasn’t going to give it up easily.
The trail was clearly marked, but as we got further into the forest and the climb got gradually steeper, it was clear now that outside of the relatively flat forested area, that this wasn’t a gentrified hike. This was a rough and ready trail with no frills or conveniences to help you along the way.
A small interlude at the Duruitoarea waterfall was more than welcome by the time we reached it. A couple of small benches allowed for a spot of lunch, simple meat, cheese and bread washed down with some of the coldest, clearest and delicious water I have tasted from the waterfall herself. The respite was made all the more restful by the roar of the waterfall, a particular quirk of the natural monument that gave it its name; Duruitoarea literally means very noisy. What the location lacked in imaginative monikers it certainly made up for it with ambience, and I could have literally rested there all day, surrounded by nature and the roar of the water.
This waterfall is an exemplary example of how special travel in Romania can be. Removed from the gentrified touches of other European national parks, it is also unspoilt from the huge crowds that can blemish them in many ways. This was a popular tourist attraction in the region, but was far from being overcrowded and still retained that rugged, natural atmosphere which has made it so popular in the first place.
As eager as I was to get to the summit, I also really did not want to leave the clearing at all. The waterfall’s thunder calling to me like some siren trying to veer me away from my path, as if it was another test put there by the gods to dissuade people from coming any further into their home.
But eventually I did carry on, and this is the point where the hike got serious.
Up until this point the terrain had been undulating but mostly uphill, and relatively steep in some parts, but had been nothing overly strenuous. The stretch of the route immediately after the waterfall was an almost vertical climb with steep natural steps that strained the reach of even my flexible legs in parts, and I’m 6″2! And it didn’t let up. Rough railings had been fixed to tree points in certain parts where the drop to one side or the other got particularly sharp or precipitous, and the entire trek became one long session on a particularly evil stair master.
But I was managing it. I admit to no longer being in peak physical condition, but my fitness levels aren’t too bad, so I may have been a bit breathless in parts but I was managing it. Slowly and surely, one step in front of the other.
An hour or so of constantly steep terrain, broken only by equally sharp drops down that jarred the spine if you weren’t careful, made me completely lose track of time. The dense mountain forest was showing no sign of letting up and one steep step looked the same as the next, and the next, and the next.
Then disaster hit.
It had been a while since I had topped up my water bottle at the waterfall and it was now empty with nowhere to top it up. It was a complete rookie mistake but one that had consequences that threatened my ability to reach the top. My body was getting increasingly dehydrated and my muscles starved of electrolytes, with the strain I was putting on my legs with the steep terrain the inevitable eventually happened.
My leg cramped up.
Stop laughing. It hurt like hell!
Specifically my hamstring in my right leg seized up and almost completely felled me like an axeman having a go at a huge oak tree! The pain was debilitating and I had to stop and rest. I had no water left to rehydrate and all I could do was hobble over to a rock and try and stretch it out. It worked, for a short time.
I carried on, but the Dacian God Zalmoxis was determined not to let me have an easy climb to reach his home on the summit. With no way of rehydrating myself and no let up in the steep terrain, eventually my leg cramped again, this time with both my hamstring and my quadriceps cramping as my whole leg was trying to compensate for the weakened muscle. Every step produced a new cramp and it was agonising, I had to stop again for another rest.
At least this time there was a glimmer of hope that I was getting closer to the top. The thick forest terrain broke up into a clearing that gave me my first glimpse of the views I had come to see. I was getting closer to my goal, but my leg was in agony. Every single step was producing a new and fresh cramp and it slowed me down to a crawl.
There was nothing I could do, I just had to carry on. There wasn’t exactly much choice. Gritting my teeth I just took one step after another, lurching through the mountainous forest like some overgrown Sasquatch with a gimpy leg, and the terrain wasn’t letting up either. Step after step of sheer, steep climbing. I just kept telling myself whatever god was still protecting this place was an utter bastard, and I was going to reach the top and stick two fingers in his face.
Eventually the terrain levelled out a little, and although the pain wasn’t going anywhere, at least I could move a little faster. It had taken me a few hours to travel what should have been an hours trek maximum. Rounding a small clearing the forested trail opened up into a grassy meadow that signalled the top of the mountain was near. The terrain was relatively flat from here on out and I collapsed gratefully onto the grass. My leg was screaming in agony but I didn’t care anymore. I had made it. I could rest.
Put in the effort, take the reward.
And rest I did. I picked some berries from the thickets that covered the clearing and rested my leg. A good rest made all the difference, and soon I was able to move it again without it suddenly cramping up. It was heaven. Literally. It was as if making it to the top of this mountain, the Olympus of Romania, had absolved me of the pain I had endured getting here.
As much as I was enjoying the rest, and the lack of pain, I still hadn’t quite made it yet. The lodge I was staying in was still a short walk away across the summit of the mountain top, and I set of once again. At least this time the walk was through flat grassland with plentiful berries to pick at to try and replenish some of the fluids and electrolytes I had lost on the climb.
Eventually I reached the other side of the field where the mountain lodge we were staying in sat, overlooking the views that truly made this a home of the gods. Surrounded by peaks that are shrouded with myths and legends, of old shepherdess’ and young maidens turned to stone by Zalmoxis himself.
The mountain lodge we were all staying at was basic and comfortable enough for a nights rest, but with cold mountain showers and hard dorm rooms it was far from a home fit for the gods. But the views of the mountains themselves were another story. As the night drew in and the sun set over the horizon, there was no doubt in my mind that just like every other mountain top I had been on, this was a magical place.
The mountain top had not given up her secrets easily to me, but that made reaching the top all the more satisfying. I had walked in the footsteps of the gods themselves and reached the Olympus of Romania.
Fully rested after a good nights sleep and some good food and drink inside me, my leg felt strong and relaxed again the next morning as I enjoyed the sun rise over the horizon. I felt truly lucky to have seen this stunning region and even more so to experience it before it becomes too popular with tourists, as it is bound to do when increasing numbers of people discover the wonders of Romania.
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This article was written in partnership with Eventur Bucharest as part of the #PriNeamt campaign. The views and opinions expressed are entirely the authors own based on personal experiences when travelling and are honest and factual without any bias.