They say that Bran castle is most associated with Vlad the Impaler, aka Dracula, but rumour has it that it’s this set of ruins, Poenari Citadel, has more history. At the foot of the Transfagarasan Pass, Poenari is a climb to get to but the views are spectacular.
“The thought of seeing traumatised bears in captivity, albeit in the care of a loving environment, made me shudder.”
Mother Nature seriously penetrates my heart and the more we travel the more she gets under my skin with her authentic architecture and the wildlife that she holds within her protective embrace. It’s just one of the many things that I find so enriching with our life on the road.
Visiting new countries creates huge intrigue for me as we explore the unique creatures that grace our journey; pelicans in Greece, vultures in Spain and wolves in Bulgaria to name just a few. Seeing or hearing them in their natural environment is a joy and I love capturing them through the lens and immortalising them digitally.
Yet the one animal I’ve wanted to see that has eluded me for so long is the bear. Since our road-trips to US, they have fascinated me with their power and softness. Travelling to Bulgaria and Romania gave me some confidence that perhaps now I would see one, just a glimpse of this magnificent king of the forest. With Romania having 60% of Europe’s bear population surely our Carpathian Mountain adventure would reward my patience. Alas it was not to be – well not so far anyway.
When a friend suggested going to see the Bear Sanctuary in Transylvania, I was faced with a massive conflict. Many countries in Eastern Europe have been known for their historical use of caged and performing bears as tourist attractions and the thought of seeing traumatised bears in captivity, albeit in the care of a loving environment, made me shudder. Is this how I wanted to experience these magnificent creatures?
“Libearty Sanctuary – a Bear Necessity”
Having worked for two years as a volunteer at a Donkey Sanctuary, I have a deep respect for the work that these Charities and Conservation Centres do and their compassion and care for vulnerable and abused animals. So taking a trip to the Sanctuary at Zarnesti just outside of Brasov, seemed like a natural choice, despite my initial discomfort.
What an emotional rollercoaster it’s been and it took me completely by surprise – even now, at the of the day I’m left conflicted about the experience.
The Sanctuary was created by Cristina Lapis in 1998 after she saw three bears in central Romania cooped up in a cage outside a restaurant used to attract tourists. She was so moved by their plight that she committed to setting up an environment where she could rescue them from their torture and set them free. Libearty Bear Sanctuary was conceived. After years worth of work and investment, the 160 acre Sanctuary in the hills west of Brasov opened its doors to the public in 2005. It is now home to over 70 bears, Carpathian deer and wolves.
As you approach this out of the way place, which seems to be on a never-ending road to somewhere, it strikes you immediately that there’s something special is going on here. With very informal gates, a small hut for buying your life-blood entrance ticket (40Lei per adult – $10, €9) and an understated car park, you know instantly that this is not some Theme Park attempting to lure you into their unauthentic pretence. Instead you feel a family vibe of carers passionate about their pursuit of parental responsibility and a group of volunteers intent on making a small impact on a deserving cause.
You have a choice of three, one hour tours; 9.00am, 10.00am and the last one at 11.00am, which says something so important about the welfare of their bears. (We would recommend going on the first one of the day if you want a more intimate experience). It costs them €50,000 per month to maintain the Sanctuary and despite having the opportunity to generate more income with more daily tours, their priority is the animals’ well-being; these are not, in anyway a Zoo attraction for commercial gain. This is a home for abused animals where they can finally rest and heal from their tormented past.
The first experience that pulls on your heart strings, is a short video showing how the Sanctuary came to be, with the drive and determination of one woman – Cristina Lapis. Whether I’m just an emotional softie or others had subtly wiped a leaky eye or two I don’t know, although the video certainly gives a clear message about what the Sanctuary stands for. And then you leave the room and head up the carefully gravelled slopes into the heart of this bear community. Would today be the day I would finally see my bear and how would it feel?
“To witness these magnificent creates in the comfort of this haven; it’s a journey into relationship between humans and beast and how over the years we have both been savage and protector.”
And there they were. My first sighting and my heart skipped a beat. It took me a few minutes before I could even pick up my camera, which is most unusual as I live my experiences so much through the lens. I was enthralled by this magnificent giant. Lying there, clearly comfortable and happy, with the memories of his past now hopefully just shadows in his mind. What an incredibly humbling moment of my life. To be only feet away and see every detail of this beautiful creature’s body and to look into his eyes and dive down into his soul. And then it hit me…
These weren’t any normal bears, these were tortured creatures, plucked from the savage hands of men who used them as trade convertors.
The full horror of their journeys and their individual stories really gets into your heart when you look into their eyes and see their pain. On the surface, it is true that they are loved and cared for now. They are in the arms of a community who respect them and cherish their lives and yet beneath that fur-covered surface there is a horror that we can not begin to imagine.
And here the dichotomy emerges. These bears are liberated and yet they are not free.
And then the experience deepens as you see cubs climbing the trees as if it is the most natural thing in the world, and of course for them it absolutely is. Thankfully they have no abusive shadows to darken their lives. Just the joy of clambering up the oak tree with a clumsy elegance that leaves you no choice than to smile. Playing with their bear cub pals with no cares in the world and mama standing guard below to supervise the youngsters’ antics. This is a heart-stopping moment that takes you away from the electric fence reminder of the bears’ stories and reminds you of the symbolism of this beautiful, protective space.
“Libearty Sanctuary stands in the chasm between human behaviour and the natural world.”
It’s sad that a Conservation place like this must exist, as with any other animal sanctuary across the world, although without them animals would continue to fall victim to the hands of their captors and hunters, risking living a life of danger, threat and suffering. Whilst we have, by no means resolved the global problem, we must do what we can to limit and, if possible, prevent cruelty like this from happening. There are always two stories to every argument, although I find it difficult, as I reflect on my Sanctuary experience to see how there is any justification for the humiliation subjected to our planet’s beautiful creatures.
For Romanian bears there is HOPE. Laws are now in place to protect them and a Sanctuary that provides the haven for officials to enforce those laws. Now Zoos, who can no longer comply with the EU directives on animal welfare, have a chance to relocate the bears and, for those who pose a threat to towns and villages as they seek refuge and food, they now have a more natural place to call home.
The Sanctuary isn’t just about rescue, it’s also about rehabilitation, releasing cubs back to the wild and creating a natural and protected home for these lost souls. Many of the bears will never see the wild again because they have either been injured physically or are so mentally scarred that they would simply not survive in the outside world.
Walking around the permitted areas of the Sanctuary in your small, guided group gives you a feeling of something so much more than a Zoo. This is not about entertainment this is about awareness, protection and conservation. Libearty Bear Sanctuary symbolised for me the two faces of humanity; the compassionate and the perpetrator. A world divided by survival and ego, kindness and heart.
I am moved by my visit to the Sanctuary and felt that I could have stayed there for the day just gently observing and wishing for the harmony of all animals across the world. What a privilege to experience and see the efforts of this incredible place. Whilst my perspectives of human nature have not been improved, my fascination and respect for these gentle giants has deepened thanks to our short trip here. If you are in Romania, I urge you to visit, as it will stay in your hearts and your support will continue to make these animals’ lives peaceful and full of the natural instincts that they were born to experience. This really is a Bear Necessity in its most truest sense.
For opening hours and updates on the Sanctuary’s efforts to raise awareness please visit their website http://bearsanctuary.com/libearty-bear-sanctuary. You will not regret it.
What a jolly fine day out we had. 26 years after the fall of communism signs of recovery are everywhere and the capital city Bucharest is a prime example. We stayed in a secure parking area ( 50 Lei, £10 pp) right in the centre and did the bus tour (25 Lei, £5 pp) and the people’s palace tour (35Lei, £7.5). A friendlier place you couldn’t wish to visit. Click here to watch the video.
When Andi and Paul from Followourmotorhome said ‘We’re going on a steam train, do you wanna come” we said “Yeah, why not.” In the northern most part of Romania in the Maramures region the Mocanita steam train takes you up in the mountains right to the top – well that’s what we thought. Click here to view the video.
Romania is famous for many things; Transylvania and its Medieval Castles, Count Dracula and Bran’s Castle amongst other things. Although perhaps one of its lesser known assets is its collection of monasteries in Moldavia. Whether you are religious or not, these magnificent houses of worship are dotted all around the countryside in this north-eastern region and you can not help to be impressed by their stature, reverence and story-telling painted walls.
Most people head straight for Transylvania and miss out this corner of Romania. Yet if you decide to make the effort to come this way, then you will be in for a treat. With its charming countryside and rolling hills laced with tradition and folklore, fused with Romania’s eclectic mix of brightly painted homes with Russian and Asian styled architecture, you will not be able to blink for one second.
The main attraction of Moldavia are the Painted Monasteries of Bocovina; displays of incredible artistry, both inside and out are to be admired, especially given that they are between five and six hundred years old. The artists’ palettes dating back to the 15th Century are a sight to behold and it silences you into respectful admiration.
Do not be fooled however, because whilst these masterpieces may certainly impress, your tour of this enchanting fairyland starts way before Bocovina and so we must start our monastic journey right at the beginning…
Romania’s religious scene
Romania is a secular state and has no state religion, although it is one of the most devout countries in the EU. The country recognise 18 different denominations, according to the latest Census, although over 80% of the population are identified as Eastern Orthodox.
It’s important to understand that we’re not just talking about a few cute little churches. We’re talking about entire settlements; communities that have built up within and around the monasteries, where nuns and monks live, work and worship together. It is a symbol of harmonious, co-dependency living that has survived through the generations.
We have put together this comprehensive Guide to Moldavia’s must see Monasteries to inspire you to travel here, which we offer to you download for free. Click the blue link for immediate access to the Guide.
It shows you the path we took as we travelled around this fascinating region of Romania, a detailed list of must-see monasteries and our camping spots, if this is your chosen style of travel. Over five days we meandered our way around this endearing countryside and up through the Carpathian Mountains, drawing ever closer to a feeling of nirvana.
It is an incredible region and gifts you with a pocket full of amazing memories of this unique corner of Europe. You must come here…
Our Recommendations for your Monastery Trip
Moldavia is a huge region, with much to see – not just monasteries. You have hiking in the Carpathian Mountains, buzzing towns to stop off along the way and the general historical depth of the region to absorb. Doing a whistle-stop tour would miss out so much. Here are our recommendations about how to get the best of your visit.
- Take a least 3-4 days to explore from Piatra Neamt in the south over to Sadova in the east. This is not a place to be rushed, so do build in some rest time if you can.
- Don’t come to Moldavia just for the Painted Monasteries – come to see the range of churches as we’ve mentioned in this Guide as this will capture the real spirit of the region.
- There’s a lot of options for staying overnight in this region from campsites if you have your own camper or tent, to hotels in the larger towns and plenty of guest houses (Pensiunea) in the villages along the way. Even in August it didn’t feel overrun with tourists.
- Travelling in our motorhome, our overnighters were at Bistrita Monastery (46.957125 26.289086), where they kindly allowed us to stay in their car park in our motorhome. Outside Neamt Monastery (47.262982 26.208707) we had a couple of nights in their car park with water and free WiFi. Camping Dragomirna (47.757902 26.22857), which is a basic site offering a few pitches, wooden huts and a car park with access to showers and electricity for €8.50 per night. Pensiunea Cristina Camping d Guest House (47.602546 25.852718) €10 per night with full facilities.
- For all monasteries there is a dress code, so come prepared. For ladies, you must cover up with trousers or long skirt and a head scarf. For men it is less strict, although they prefer not to have shorts and t-shirts. In the larger monasteries like Voronet and Sucevita they have wrap around skirts for men and women to wear. Although in others, you may not be allowed into the churches if you do not have the right attire.
- For all the Painted Monasteries there is an entrance charge; 5Lei (€1 per person) and a Photography Tax of an additional 5Lei to take any pictures or video. For the other monastery settlements we visited, there was no charge, unless you wanted to take pictures and then there was either a donation or a 5Lei fee. During our trip we spent 100Lei €20, which isn’t bad and it funds the churches’ upkeep.
- The Painted Monasteries are generally open from 0900 until 1830 every day, although weekends get significantly busier.
- Time your visits ‘on the hour’ as you will then witness the traditional ritual of the call to prayer. A nun will take up a piece of wood (a ‘toaca’) and beat it as they walk around the church, which is followed by the ringing of the church bells. It’s a practice that goes back to the siege of Moldavia by the Ottoman Empire when the Turks didn’t allow the ringing of bells and the wood tapping replaced the chimes.
- If you have your own transport, then getting around to the churches is easy. There were only a couple of roads that were gravel and they were short lived. The Painted Monasteries are all accessible by good quality tarmac roads.
- If you don’t have your own transport, then why not pick up a personal tour guide such as Sorin Fodor who has a great website over at www.paintedmonasteries.ro. We didn’t use him, although we were impressed by the information he gave on the Painted Monasteries. Alternatively local buses and taxis will give you plenty of options for visiting as they are on the local tourist trail.
- We only came across one monastery car park that needed paying for, the rest were free. Voronet required a tariff per hour depending on the size of your vehicle. Not expensive, although worth knowing.
- And finally, do watch out for beggars who loiter around every monastery. Some are children who arrive on horse carts, others are mothers with young children holding kittens asking for money for an operation, yet are wearing the latest branded shoes. So just be vigilant.
And finally…. Here’s a little piece from Myles and there’s a little rendition of ‘The Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Now tell me you’re not intrigued?
Well, what a delight. When Ms Moneypenny suggested we go and see some monasteries I must confess to rolling my eyes up but I shouldn’t have done because they were rather nice. Watch out for her monastery eguide coming soon but for now here’s a little vid I put together to whet your appetite.