The Real Dracula’s Castle?

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.

Bear Necessities

Bear Necessities

“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.

Bear Paws, Libearty Sanctuary

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…

Liberty and yet not free

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.

Can you see me?

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  You will not regret it.


Travelling Mindfully

Travelling Mindfully

Navigating mindfully through the bad days

“We often hold this notion that when we move house, change our job or the car that magically things will shift, that life will somehow transform into the land of our dreams.”


Sat in the wilds of Transylvania, we have a moment of stillness to reflect on what has been a challenging couple of weeks and make sense of all the events that have unfolded.  It’s been a bit odd really as it feels a bit like having a favourite sandwich; some fabulous experiences in the middle of some personally and financially stretching events. The unexpected storm tonight seems to match with my mood, as my mind races erratically like a tempestuous teenager, reviewing the series of challenges we have had to deal with. It causes me to reflect on my own learning and the dualities of a nomadic life and our travel choices.

The magic of change

“It is such a romantic notion to run away into the sunset and travel aimlessly, being guided by the wind, your intuition or the warmth of the sun.”

We often hold this ideal that when we move house, change our job or the car that magically things will shift; that life will somehow transform into the land of our dreams.  And it is true, that for a time, it will certainly feel different, may-be even better. It could last a week, a month or a few years.  Although the reality is that there is no complete escape – because life still vibrates around us, the clocks still chime and the earth still revolves.

The same happens when we decide to travel.  Whether we choose backpacking around the world, an exciting sponsored-trip to the jungle or embark on a 3 month tour of Europe in a camper, we don’t escape life, we simply change the parameters within which we choose to live.

It is such a romantic notion to run away into the sunset and travel aimlessly, being guided by the wind, your intuition or the warmth of the sun. And it is a privileged and wonderful life, there’s no doubting that.  How amazing is it to swap the routine of the Home, Work, Shops triangle for the sound of wolves in the mountain depths of Bulgaria or the crashing waves of the azure Grecian seas?  I certainly wouldn’t swap.

Yet whilst we may find the courage to change our lives beyond recognition and, to use that cliché, ‘live the dream’ there is another perspective that must be packed into the suitcase of our new life choices – called the shadow.

As there is day, there too must be night, where the sun shines, the rain too must fall.  The shadow exists as part of the duality of life and is not intended as a gloomy insight, just an aspect of life that, with awareness can keep us rooted into the reality of this beautiful, challenging and crazy world. Knowing the shadow exists can maintain our nomadic sanity

Amidst the joy of waking up in a new land with evocative smells of the local street food or the prospect of walking to the local bakery for your morning’s croissant, we need to be mindful of the shadow’s role in throwing challenges, problems and crises our way.  I’m not suggesting that we keep this as such a strong focus that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, although if we can just ‘keep our heads, when all around us are loosing theirs..’ to quote Kipling, then surely our travelling experiences will be all the richer.

The problem with shadow’s presence on our travels is that it can cause us to get lost in fear, stress and anxiety, none of which are healthy places at any time, least of all whilst we are away from home.  So what if we could apply some techniques for navigating these difficulties more smoothly, which would allow us to return to the business of seeking adventures?

Tips for Travelling Mindfully and navigating the bad days

There are so many things we can do to prevent the travellers’ droop and the risk of our dreams crashing to the floor.  Here are my mindful insights, based on our recent stretching experiences:

  1. Acceptance.  Let’s face it, bad days will happen from time to time.  We could well have something stolen, a laptop damaged by a freak storm, an uncomfortable interaction, an accident that damages our vehicle or break pads that need changing in a country of a strangers. And of course Banks still need to be dealt with, Insurance firms want us to jump through hoops when making a claim and compliance to the System’s rules keep a loose thread around us.  Health issues are bound to crop up and stuff back home still needs our loving support and encouragement. Accepting that things will happen out of the blue will help you navigate this journey with more ease.
  2. Awareness.  What defines us and our happy lifestyle is how we handle what comes up.  Our typical response to a crisis is to move into a flight or fight reaction, where primal behaviours kick in and we go into high alert. This protects us to some degree although may have us acting in a way that is not natural on a day to day basis. Instead, as our martial arts friend recently quoted ‘Be prepared not paranoid’.  Know what action you will take in the event of a crisis, such as someone breaking into your space.  Have a plan about how you will go about dealing with a stolen wallet. Know the emergency numbers of the country you’re visiting and always make sure your phone is charged.  Be aware and alert without being paranoid – this pairing can carry you through a crisis or challenge with dexterity and calmness.
  3. Breathe.  In the midst of the vortex we go into a instinctive mode where our body reacts chemically to protect us from harm.  In this high alert state we forget to breathe, which can instantly calm us and reduce our racing heart-rate. In stress or an event that triggers anger, sadness or disappointment, remember to breathe as it will reduce the alertness we are experiencing and creates a more rational space for us to operate in.
  4. Be mindful.  Travel and mindfulness is an art and skills we need to acquire. I’ve found travel to be my greatest teacher in the last 18 months and I continue to stay grounded in the experiences, both good and bad so that I can grow.  Keep coming back to the here and now.  It’s all too easy for our primitive, reptilian brain to scatter fear, uncertainty and doubt around our feet so that a forest of anxiety springs up, suffocating our dreams. Be attentive to how you feel, sit with whatever comes up and give it space to breathe.  Don’t feed it, just be aware of it and it too will pass.
  5. Rational thinking.  We often believe that our thinking is the root of all evil and it certainly rules the roost much of the time especially when they come from our unconscious mind or reptilian brain.  Instead when we mindfully bring our thoughts back into our conscious mind in the pre-frontal cortex, then we can rationalise what is going on and challenge our irrational thoughts. Take a step back, assess the bigger picture, see all sides and decide on appropriate action. This will hold you in the reality of the situation rather than the nightmare action movie you have just directed in your head.
  6. Be grateful for all you have, all you experience and all that goes well.  It’s so easy when there is a run of bad luck or challenges sent to try us, to get into a victim mentality. It is from this space that our thoughts of ‘home’ may return and we start to wonder if we should continue.  Gratitude is key to us being in the moment and appreciating all we have, thanks to our life choices.  Whilst ‘going back’ may be the right thing to do, listen to your heart and not your head, especially whilst it feels in crisis mode. Make decisions in the cool light of day.
  7. See things as they are, not as you think they are.  It’s that reptilian brain playing tricks with us again.  It sees a situation and starts bringing in historical events, drama and over-generalisation and, before we know it we’ve inflamed the situation.  See it for what it is.  A stolen passport, a disgruntled person or a soggy laptop.  Avoid the trap of ‘Why me?’ ‘It’s not fair’ and concentrate on creating a resolution.
  8. Take responsibility and learn from what has happened. As with everything in life, there is always a lesson.  I’m a great believer in ‘People (and indeed events) come into your life for a reason, season or a lifetime.’  Take time, after the challenge is over to explore what you can do differently to prevent it coming up again.  Take the experience positively so you can move on quickly.
  9. Let go!  Whatever has happened, work through the resolution and then let go.  Releasing the tension over a challenging situation means you move on with your travels, without the shadow clouding your experiences.  We hold onto too much negative emotion that affects our enjoyment of the the moment.  So learn to accept what has happened and then move forward.

So as we throw ourselves at the mercy of our wanderlust and commit to the joys of travel, remember that travelling mindfully is the key to our positive, self-expanding experiences that will have us trotting around the globe seeking out new adventures for as long as forever may be for us.

With love and happiness Karen x

Karen is a life coach, author and travel commentator who, with her seriously entertaining husband Myles, are feeding their curiosity with full-time travel in their camper. Together they are passionate about inspiring you to travel; whenever, wherever and however you can.


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The Motoroamer’s Brief Guide to Bucharest, Romania

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.

Travellers’ Challenges

Travellers’ Challenges

So here’s the thing.  We buy a motorhome which soon becomes our pride and joy and we float on Cloud 9 dreaming of adventures and the freedom of life on the open road!  We’ve done our homework, we’ve got our insurance, put security measures in place and now happy times discovering the world is surely our reward!  What could possibly go wrong?

The one thing we’ve learnt from 18 months on the road is that travelling; full-time or long-time still brings its own stresses.  We don’t magically escape from life’s challenges just because we’ve decided to go travelling or have a long-term holiday… there are still a whole host of issues that may need dealing with.

So how do we cope when our tyre bursts, our bikes are stolen or our brakes don’t feel right? All situations that could well happen to any one of us, at any time, in any country.  And when they do, they will most likely be completely out of the blue and throw us into a potential complete frenzy.  Add to the mix that we’re likely to be in a country where English is not the first language and a whole dictionary of technical words and phrases may be needed to resolve the problem.  Tricky!

Is this the stuff that travellers’ nightmares are made of?  Perhaps, although let’s face it, if we worried about these types of issues, we would never leave the house, let alone go travelling into new and undiscovered corners of the globe.  So knowing how to cope with these challenges is an important part of the travellers’ toolkit and once mastered will see us gliding through the problems with ease and minimal stress.

Why, you might ask, am I writing this blog today?  

Good question…   After being in the northern reaches of Romania heading south towards Bucharest, we drove down a gravel path from a car park, only to hear a strange noise coming from the front wheel.  ‘It’s ok’, I said, as if I had some sudden hidden knowledge of motor mechanics, ‘It’ll be some loose gravel got into the brakes.  It’ll be fine!’ I’m not sure who I was trying to convince more with my comforting words – myself or Myles.

As Myles has some mechanical knowledge from his youth, he decided to take off the front wheels to assess the situation.  His report was neither full of positivity, nor was it a message of disaster.  The brake pads on both sides were almost out and in fact he was adamant that both needed replacing ‘tout de suite’ as they say in France.  They were fine for our short journey to the city, although it needed immediate attention.

So we discussed the options; we either stayed put in the hope that we could get fixed at the small Fiat dealer in town, or we limped our way very slowly to Bucharest, where being a city, we would hopefully have more options and a better chance of repair.  Given that it was late Saturday afternoon and nothing would be open on Sunday, we decided travelling south was our only real option.  The mountainous terrain didn’t help our nerves and a five mile traffic jam added to our intensity, although we made it to our destination.

With a bit of googling, we found four Fiat garages and with a plan of action conjured up over a glass or two of something soothing, we headed for an early start before the morning’s rush hour.  Of the four garages I had found, the first one had long since closed!  Hope slowly stumbled…  The second was in a tower block where getting the camper anywhere close to the suggested location was an impossibility… Hope was sighing now!  The third was on the opposite side of a dual carriage way.  So with the dexterity of a spring lamb I hopped out of the van and armed with Google Translate I found someone at the garage and asked, in my best Romanian, if they could help.  And indeed they could, on 28 August. Given it was 14 August and we needed to be in Budapest by 2nd September, my hope gasped in horror.

We consoled ourselves with the compromise of buying a set of brake pads and Myles fitting them.  It was doable; not our greatest outcome, although doable.  As we made said purchase, in a passing conversation with a young mechanic who had spent 12 months in UK, I asked him how long brake pads would take to fit. He said no more than an hour and, unprompted said he would talk to the boss.  Now this was the boss who had already said ‘no way today’.  So could my hope finally have a little rally?  Oh yes!  And then it did a dance when the boss started to fill out the job sheet – happy days.  This young chap had secured us a place on their morning’s schedule and to say we were grateful is an understatement.

And indeed within the hour the job was done and Scoobie was back on the road, fit and well once again.  And with a bill of €100 plus a little tip for the mechanic who saved our bacon, we were as you can imagine, over the moon.

So what have we learnt from this challenge, probably one of our biggest in the last 18 months?

  • Don’t panic.  These situations are going to happen at some point.  We had little notion of how long brake pads would take to wear on the camper as we only have a car as a comparison.  And whilst we have travelled 19000 miles there’s no rule book that says when to be prepared. We have a figure in mind now so that’s a great lesson for us. And of course wear and tear on brake pads is dependent on so many factors including the terrain you travel and how often you use the brakes. We all drive differently although for our travel style we’ll diarise to have them checked on 37000 miles.
  • We Googled dealers that were close to us and made sure that we had a number of options, not just one.  Don’t assume just because they are listed on the internet that they still exist.  We were glad to have had a number of alternatives to choose from.
  • Keep your phone charged so that you have enough juice to keep in touch with garages, friends or each other if you need to split up to assess your options on the other side of the road.  A uncharged phone is like a chocolate fire guard.
  • Get the co-ordinates of the places for your Sat Nav because if you have to navigate around a city with just an address, it could be costly – for your stress levels.
  • I was so grateful for Google Translate on my phone so I could communicate clearly and without anxiety.  We always go into countries with conversational basics, one of which is ‘do you speak English’.  That is always a good starting point.  From there Google Translate and its playback facility becomes your greatest friend.
  • Have a back up plan.  If this third option of ours had not worked out, then we planned on going to another car manufacturer and asking for their help.  They could then at least ring around their network and source a solution for us, rather than us trawling around a town or city looking for a needle in a haystack.
  • Worst case scenario. If we had needed to, we could have contacted our European Breakdown Cover and asked their advice.
  • Our final option was to head for a campsite where we could consider our options. Whilst not all campsite hosts speak English certainly those we have come across have been incredibly helpful and they will, most of the time bend over backwards to get you the help you need.  At least you will be safe and secure at a site and you can then look for options in the cold light of day.
  • And finally, take one step at a time.  It’s so easy for our minds to go into overdrive and start worrying about the ‘What if’ scenarios.  Although this really doesn’t add anything to the situation.  We just simply dealt with what was facing us in that moment and decided to suspend any other conversations until they arose. The situation has the potential for so much stress, so don’t add to your load.

We learnt a long while ago, and it was reinforced today, that you should never loose faith when incidents like this happen.  Things going wrong with the camper are inevitable at some point on your journey and in fact it’s no different to a problem arising in a house.  It just needs tackling with a clear head and a strong resolve.  Thankfully we managed to get things sorted out and all is well.  It tested us that’s for sure, although with some teamwork, we navigated around the problem and now we are ready to continue our adventure. Problem solved!