The Espresso Trek: “Bears have been along this trail,” Dan Marin says, picking up two empty beechnut shells. He explains that beechnuts provide enough fat and energy for bears to survive their hibernation during winter.
Five thousand brown bears roam the Carpathian Mountains and the Piatra Ciaului natural reserve, located in Transylvania, is also home to 3,000 wolves and 2,000 lynxes. Dan Marin, owner of Transylvanian Wolf, gives us a tour through the reserve, spotting lynx tracks and wolf feces with bits of deer bone inside.
But the tour is far richer than searching for wild animals, none of whom have ever been known to hurt humans. Hiking in the beechnut forest, Dan explains that loggers here fell trees through natural regeneration, cutting older trees in small patches, while leaving younger trees to grow over a thirty-year period. Thanks to this care, the forest burgeons with plants that Romanians still use today for their medicinal value. Dan points to plantain leaves (wrapped around wounds), foxglove (helps the heart pump harder), and St. John’s wort. He tells us that Colt’s foot can be turned into an infusion to help cure lung diseases and the willow has aspirin properties. Elder leaf makes a fizzy juice that acts as an anti-inflammatory for arthritis and rheumatism; the branches have a white substance that can be pushed out and, when stopped with a cork at one end, becomes a shepherd’s flute.
From the forest, we spill into a shepherd’s village where houses perch atop mountain slopes. Sheep graze on these grasses, which naturally fertilize them. As a consequence, the region has the largest variety of wild flowers in Europe, including wild orchids, which have vanished on the rest of the continent.
We visit the village in August when families work long hours in the hot sun cutting meadow grass by hand using scythes. They then dry the grass on racks and press them tightly into haystacks. They need to make enough hay for their sheep to survive the winter, which lasts from November to March. Each shepherd family owns between five to ten sheep. During the summer, they herd their flock to an Alpine camp where a head shepherd manages an intense period of milking. Each family then receives six kilos of a semi-soft cheese wrapped in bark and an additional 1 ½ kilos of Urdu, a ricotta type cheese, all of which they can eat themselves or sell.
Shepherding can also be wrought with danger. The government charges around 7,000 Euros for gun licenses – an unaffordable price for any shepherd. So sheep and cows stay in night huts. The doors to these huts have nails sticking out to keep bears and wolves away. But wild animals are less of a threat than China and Austria who have saturated the Romanian market with cheap wool, so that shepherd’s can only dump their own stock.
Almost everything is made by hand here. The shepherds construct their own homes using 10,000 wooden shingles. They build fresh water wells and a hut for baking bread. Families also raise lambs to be sold as meat for the traditional Romanian Easter dishes, keep cows for fresh milk, grow vegetables in their own plots, and watch satellite television.
“Westerners come here to study the sustainable growth methods of these shepherd’s,” Dan says. “But many people here would prefer to be like the West.”
Before Dan became an award winning tour guide, he spent sixteen years working at the local ammunitions factory assembling bomb and weapon pieces together. Because the work was considered high risk, he received good benefits. His income provided the seed money for his Bed and Breakfast, which in turn became the center for his nature tours and charitable works.
After we drink from a freshwater stream, Dan drives us back to his hometown of Zarnesti. Along the way, we notice many abandoned factories. When the Communist regime collapsed, big industry – including a chemical plant, a fire brick factory, and the ammunitions factory where Dan worked – went bankrupt. It’s the reason why the air and water are so clean, the plant and animal life so abundant, and the unemployment rate so high.
Dan works hard to reverse this trend. He’s given lectures in Sweden on sustainable growth, has worked with USAID, and took the US Ambassador of Romania on a tour of the nature preserve. He also cooperates with the Roma villages in his area and gives charity to the local psychiatric hospital. A true visionary, Dan can be found at Transylvanian Wolf, where visitors can reserve lodging, book tours, or donate to his charity.
Hotel Recommendations: We stayed at the exceptional Vila Trapez. Located 15 km outside of Brasov, the prices are reasonable and the accomodations are top notch. Within five minutes we got a cab to the center of town for a reasponable price. Vila Trapez also offers private tours, free breakfast, satellite television, and a friendly staff. Dan Marin can be found at Transylvanian Wolf. Dan also works with charities, including with the Long-Term Stay Psychiatric Hospital of Zarnesti. You can donate to his work here.