“Romania is nothing short of breathtaking. It offers an almost bewildering array of options to the adventurous traveller.” Janneke Klop.
Many trips, hikes, and tracks through Romania’s mountains have made Janneke Klop, a Dutch young woman a self-declared “roamaniac”, which means she has fallen in love with Romania in such a way that she has invented a word for it. After exploring the country’s wild areas, its forests, lakes, little villages, and towns she decided to help other travelers by writing a brilliant traveling guide for hikers called ” Trekking the mountains of Romania. Trekking and walking in the Carpathian mountains.”
Janneke, you named yourself a “roamaniac”. What does this term mean and why did you come up with it?
“Roamaniac” is a merger of the verb “to roam”, “Romania” and “maniac”. I call myself a Roamaniac because I am head over heels in love with Romania, and need a lot of freedom: freedom to roam, to breathe – mountains, the sky over my head. I started calling myself this when I launched my blog in 2015 and started doing research for my guidebook about the mountains of Romania soon afterwards.
Why did you decide to visit Romania instead of any other country?
In short, all of my needs are perfectly met in Romania: my need for freedom, for beauty, for mountains, nature, spontaneity. Sometimes I wonder if I couldn’t go to just any mountainous country and fall in love with it the same way – but I tried and so far it hasn’t happened. There is a mixture of ruggedness and warmth and originality in Romania that makes it feel like it’s embracing me. Like it doesn’t want to let me go. Romania really feels more like home to me than my home country, the Netherlands, or my current country of residence, Belgium. When I’m not there I feel homesick.
You said it in the book that it was love at first sight between Romania and yourself. What made you fall in love with our country?
I first visited Romania in 2005 – more or less by chance. A friend had invited me on a summer camp in Săcele (near Braşov) and I said yes, despite not knowing the first thing about Romania. And yes, it was love at first sight. And although I can now explain why I love Romania so much, it started with just feeling good there. I remember opening my window in Săcele that first morning and seeing the Piatra Mare – and just wanting to go there. It’s a sight I will never forget. But mainly Romania just makes me feel good. And that’s what true love is about, I think.
You organise self-guided tours and you have provided many interesting routes in your book. Do you have an absolute favourite area where you love to trek?
That’s a hard one. Instinctively I always put the Retezat at the top of my list; I love how compact yet versatile it is. Of course it gets rather busy in summer at Cabana Pietrele and around Bucura Lake, but there are so many approaches that few people seem to explore – such as the Lolaia spur, the trail from Bucura Lake to Gura Zlata via Zănoaga Mare Lake, and the Retezatul Mic. And I can’t claim to have explored every trail – there is a lot of work left to do!
If you are worried of getting stuck somewhere, or meeting any bears or wild animals, Johanna has you covered with practical advice. Although, you do not need to worry, bear sightings are extremely rare as bears tend to avoid humans in general.
You mentioned bears in your book, which might frighten any tourist. Although you did say it is very rare to meet one, as I’ve never met one in real life and I’ve been in the mountains. Have you had any encounter with a bear or a wild animal?
Yes, I have! In 2016 I was walking out of the Bucegi towards Poartă and Bran and I just really, really wanted to see a bear. So I started singing “I want to see a bear today” and then all of a sudden I saw two! A mother and a cub about fifty metres to my left, in the forest. I stared at them in amazement for a while, too stunned to take out my camera in time. They stared back at me, then ran away into the forest. So all I have now is a picture of a baby bear butt.
I’ve seen three more bears near Sfânta Ana Lake in Harghiţa, but that was from a bear hide, so slightly less spontaneous. Other than bears, I’ve seen plenty of capre negre (chamois) and marmots. I guess it helps if you’re alone – it increases your chances of seeing such a shy animal as a bear is. I don’t think people need to be frightened of bears – you probably won’t meet one in the first place and if you behave sensibly, you shouldn’t get in any trouble. It doesn’t do any harm to make some noise to make your presence known to the bears though.
How would you compare hiking in Romanian mountains to other countries? Is it more difficult to travel or easier, what about in terms of communicating with locals?
I suppose Romania is slightly less accessible for mountain lovers than, say, Switzerland or Austria – although that guess is only based on hearsay because to this day I have never been in the Alps! I just keep going to Romania. I think there is a bit of a threshold you need to get over the first time you travel to Romania; you need to know how to use public transport, how the country works (and doesn’t work); that things tend to move at a slow pace and that you can always expect a surprise or two. And that two weeks are usually not enough for a holiday in Romania: I’ve heard so many people sigh they wished they could stay longer! This country slows you down, in a good way: it calms you and takes you away from the mad hubbub of modern life. Unless you go to Bucharest, of course.
I hope my guidebook will help people to move over the threshold a little more easily: it should offer them all the introduction they need to make travel smooth in Romania. As for communicating with locals: it’s hard not to communicate with Romanians! Since I don’t have a car or driving licence I always traveled by public transport or I hitchhiked. People always wanted to strike up a conversation; wanted to know where I was from, what I did for a living. And when they heard I was writing a book about their country they always wanted to know more.
Romanians are incredibly warm-hearted and spontaneous people – it’s really easy to build a connection with them. The only trouble is you will often need to speak a little Romanian to do so; if you’re in Cluj or Braşov plenty of people will speak English, but in the countryside – not so much. Which is why I’ve included an extensive language guide in my book. But Romanians will always be ready to help you, whether you speak their language or not.
The book also includes a mini guide on Romanian phrases, should you need them in the mountains. While many Romanians speak English, whilst in the countryside you will need to know some phrases as it older people only speak Romanian or they might know a bit of French or Russian. No matter the language spoken, people will be really friendly and helpful, as Janneke admitted, while trekking in Maramures
“ The inhabitants of Maramures must be among the most hospitable people in the world: in the mountains you may meet shepherds who offer you fresh cheese, in the villages, farmers who pour you glasses of tuica. And don’t be surprised if you are offered a traditional meal made of home-grown ingredients, or even a bed. Here, people still know what hospitality means- and how to love the land.”
I am sometimes asked by foreign friends if Romania is safe to travel. What is your opinion?
I would say Romania is a very safe country to travel in. As a woman traveling solo, I’ve almost always felt safe, except in a couple of hitchhiking situations with crazy guys – but I’m afraid that could happen in any country. Especially in small communities in the countryside I’ve always felt that people really looked after me.
I think Romanians feel a strong responsibility towards strangers visiting their country and take pride in making sure they have a good time. They sure make excellent hosts. They will feed you, host you, drive you, hug you. The only aspect of Romania that I consider unsafe is the roads – the fatality rate is a little too high. But once you’re up in the mountains or the countryside you don’t need to worry about that.
You’ve been to Romania lots of times. Apart from the nature, is there a city that you like or love?
Braşov and Sibiu will forever be competing in my head for the number one spot. I’ve spent considerably more time in Braşov and I really enjoyed living there, but Sibiu is a bit calmer and arguably even more picturesque. Although I’m not a city girl – I can’t handle the buzz very well – I’ve come to like Cluj more over the years too. It has a really good vibe and lots of great cafes and cultural festivals, such as TIFF. I think in Cluj you can really see that Romania is on the move – it’s Romania’s creative hub, brimming with ideas, thanks to an optimistic new generation.
Is there a place you haven’t been to and really want to? For example, I always wanted to see the Delta, but I did not manage to go there yet.
Well, like you, I haven’t been to the Danube Delta, but it’s definitely on my list. As is the Black Sea coast, but I’d only want to go there outside the peak season since I absolutely hate crowds and the noise they generate. And although I’ve spent three years scouring Romania’s mountains there are still plenty of places in the mountains I want to go. I definitely need to have another good look at the Apuseni and surroundings – I want to explore the Padurea Craiului area, for example. There are also a lot of routes in the Bucegi and Leaota I still haven’t done – all on the Bran side, which is wilder and steeper than the popular routes starting in the Prahova Valley.
How is your Romanian? Do you think it’s a hard language to learn?
Romanians often tell me my Romanian is ‘destul de bine’ which I consider a compliment, but they might be flattering me. I think I can manage in day-to-day situations, but if I were to have a conversation about politics with an educated person I would be entirely out of my depth. Although I started learning Romanian from a course book I learned most of it on the road, during the many rides I got from people and stays in villages.
For instance, I learned what ‘am glumit’ meant because a new friend in a tiny village bar kept telling jokes and then laughed really hard at them himself. People have always been really happy to help me work on my Romanian and in many cases, they simply didn’t speak English so I had to make do with whatever Romanian I knew. In terms of vocabulary I don’t think it’s a very hard language and it helps that it isn’t spoken as fast as French (although that depends on where you go) – and that people are so incredibly communicative and helpful.
I’m improving my Romanian on DuoLingo now, and am running into the hard parts of the language: mainly the accusative and dative cases. Why on earth do I need to mention the same person twice in one sentence, using different pronouns? I really don’t get it. I mean, I can learn how to, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me and the sentence structure can be very complicated. Pe tine te întreb. And that’s only a simple example. In practice I just try to avoid having to use those structures, and generally I can make myself understood.
Have you received feedback from the tourists you guided? What do they think of the tours or areas they visited?
Since I’m still in the process of setting up a business I can’t answer this question very well – I haven’t guided any groups yet. At the moment I’m dreaming about organizing yoga retreats for small groups of people who really need rest – such as highly sensitive people, people who have experienced burnout or depression, et cetera.
I can’t imagine better, more healing surroundings for this than the mountains, hills and villages of Romania. The idea is to have guided yoga sessions every day and explore the surroundings – on foot, of course. So if anyone wants to know more about this, give me a shout!
If someone gave you a house for free and money wouldn’t be an issue where would you choose to live ( in Romania)?
It’s silly of me, but I do dream of people giving me a house for free. In practice, we’ll probably have to buy a place. ‘We’ is my husband and me – fortunately, my husband is really fond of Romania too. It’s going to be hard to pick a place – there are multiple areas that I really love. The two main criteria are that it has to be in a quiet village near the mountains and that I have to feel good there.
A place can look really great, but if it doesn’t feel good then it isn’t right. So I can’t name a single place right now, but close to Braşov would be great, since it would give me access to most of Romania’s major mountain ranges: the Făgăraş, the Piatra Craiului, the Bucegi, the Ciucaş… However, somewhere near the Retezat could also be very interesting. I’m also looking into the surroundings of the Buila-Vânturariţă Mountains, which few Romanians seem to have heard of – but it’s absolutely stunning. So over the next few years I’m just going to keep my eyes and ears and heart open.
Any funny story you would like to share? Or is there anything that impressed you in your trips or made you feel better about humanity in general?
I’ve got a ton of stories to share, and I think most of them have to do with the heart-warming hospitality of Romanians that I’ve encountered in virtually every corner of the country. On an autumn day in 2017 I was trying to get away from Băile Herculane; my destination was Cheile Nerei which is notoriously difficult to reach if you don’t have a car. There isn’t a lot of traffic in the area either. A truck driver took me out of town and then I tried to hitchhike further towards Sopotu Nou from a junction. It took me longer than usual to find a ride: normally I hardly need to raise my hand to get a ride, and it hardly ever took me longer than five minutes to get a ride.
This time it took me about twenty minutes, which is long by my standards. I got picked up by a lovely couple who were visiting their family in the next village. First thing they did was throw my banana peel out of the car window which I regretted very much. So at the next junction, I was standing on the road again, in an even remoter place. Thankfully, another couple turned up – and they questioned me thoroughly, as I’d become accustomed to.
So I explained my plight and when they learned that I wanted to start hiking in the Nera Gorge the next day, they suggested I come with them to their parents’ place in a neighbouring village – they were having a family reunion – and they could drive me to the trailhead the next morning. I happily agreed, and within half an hour I was seated in a courtyard where two brothers in law were chopping wood for winter.
I got directed to a chair with an extra pillow, and got treated like a queen: of course, I got the obligatory glass of ţuică, as well as loads of food. And then I got the front room all to myself: as you well know, virtually every Romanian family in the countryside has a sleeping couch for guests. The next morning they prepared me breakfast and a lunch package; the mater familias declared that she’d gained a daughter and the son drove me to a junction from where I got another ride to Sopotu Nou within minutes. It may not exactly be a funny story, but it’s one of the many memories that never fail to put a smile on my face. Romania has taught me that I can trust providence: my plans may not always work out, but there is always a solution. And often it’s better than the original idea.
If I want to go to Romania now I know there are dozens of people who would happily open up their homes to me once more – and I can’t wait to embrace Romania again. Because you can bet that I will come over as soon as we are allowed to travel again! Romania, te iubesc!
The descriptions of the treks, together with the high quality photos and personal opinions and practical useful information will make you want to take your backpack now and go up the mountains. Is Romania worth a visit? Johanna definitely thinks so:
“ Romania is a place where you can learn to breathe again if you have forgotten how to: in most of Romania, the pace of life is much slower than many of us living in throbbing cities are used to.”
You will be happy to know that the guide has everything you need: every route has a map, it tells you how difficult it is, how many km you will have to walk and it has photos so you will know if the landscape will be spectacular.
If you are in love with climbing, trail running, mountaineering and trekking this book is for you. The guide has a brief introduction to Romania’s culture, history, food and drink and vital information about health and safety, travelling and rules and regulations.
More importantly, it has thorough descriptions of every route within the mountains of Maramures, the Eastern Carpathians, the Mountains around Brasov, Fagaras mountains, Apuseni mountains, Retezat, Banat and the area around Olt valley towards Jiu. All the routes in the guide can be downloaded online in GPX format, if you prefer to not take the book with you.
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