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Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Transylvania's Dracula & Bear Sanctuary on 9/20

Last Saturday, the 20th, we went on an 8 hour day trip to see 2 castles and monasteries each around Brasov led by local guide and hostel owner, Gabriel, that I had arranged back in the spring. We were thus surprised, when Gabriel picked us up at the Black Church, that there was another couple already in the car.

It turned out that Julia and Marcus, a 5th medical student and a chemical engineering/business student respectively from Rostock in northern Germany, who were staying at Gabriel’s hostel wanted to come too. They wanted to stop first in Zarnesti, close to an hour from Brasov, to visit Libearty, a bear sanctuary founded in 2005. I think both Steven and I were surprised to find out from Julia, who had spent a year of high school in a small town in southern Illinois as an exchange student, that there are NO bears in Germany

They could hardly believe me when I mentioned that since we live so close to the mountains, that it’s not at all infrequent that we read or hear about bears being found in one of the nearby mountain towns foraging for garbage or even where we live in the Denver suburbs. We arrived at the sanctuary when it opened up at 9 and were somewhat shell shocked to learn the admission fee was 80 lei, or about $28, for both of us to go on its mandatory guided tour. That has been by far the steepest admission fee we've had to pay the whole trip or at least since the great museums in Berlin.
After watching a short film about the history of and need for the 69 hectare sanctuary containing XX bears, a few wolves and lots of stray dogs, our 90 minute tour began.

The wooden tags marked the date each bear was brought to the sanctuary, most of them after being rescued from circuses.
This particular bear kept going around and around in circles nonstop as he had been penned in a tiny cage before coming to the sanctuary. How profoundly disturbing to watch him.
Even Brigitte Bardot's foundation is a sponsor of the sanctuary.
Those of you who know me well are probably aware I hate heights; combine that with a high above the ground swaying bridge was not my idea of fun!

The small chapel was built for the  sanctuary's owner and founder. It was the coldest day yet by far and neither of us had dressed for being in the mountains, not expecting to come here. I can still feel how chilled to the bone we were until it warmed up a good while later.
Our tour guide told us that this bear had been riding a bicycle in a circus for many years until he finally refused to do so any longer. He, like most of the other bears, were very friendly toward people because they'd always been in around people in the circus.
Chow time at the sanctuary:even though the bears were in the wild in a huge forested area, they'd never learned to hunt for food. Most of them knew to stay near the fence since the food truck (this gives a new meaning to the term food truck, huh!) comes by normally just once a day. We were so lucky to be on the first tour when they were being fed.
Some of the bears became quite territorial over what they oercieved as being 'their' food.

Big slabs of fruit flavored ice cream!
It had to be chopped into pieces before being thrown in many directions over the fence. The bears sure loved their ice cream.

Another view walking back to the entrance.

It was interesting to learn that thanks to Romania’s megalomaniac dictator, Nicolae Ceausecu, who allowed no one but he to hunt bears, 60% or an estimated 6,000 of Europe’s brown bears, are today found in Romania.

The area around Brasov is known for its castles, Saxon churches and, because of its mountainous location, its many ski resorts too. We were only interested in seeing two each of the castles and fortresses which was why we had hired Gabriel rather than trying to get to each of the places using public transportation. He drove the four of us next to the town of Bran, best known for its ‘Dracula Castle.’ The town itself is a gauntlet of stalls hawking all things vampire so tacky to the extreme.

 There was a large Gypsy village near the bear sanctuary. These were the best photos I could of them get from the moving car. Gabriel said the Gypsies don't have steady jobs, they steal electricity from paying customers, don't pay taxes, force their children to beg from as early as 2 years old and the children normally only go to school for a couple of years. Take all that with a grain of sale as I've NO idea how much of that is true.

The beautiful countryside around Brasov: it reminded us of the mountains at home.

You might think that the gaunt castle with its mass of turrets perched on a rocky bluff rising from wolf-prowled forests might be rather sinister. However the castle is anything but gloomy with its geranium festooned courtyard, bright white rooms and hidden staircases. The castle was built by the Saxons from Brasov in 1382 to defend the Bran pass against the Turks and Vlad Terpes MAY have stayed there for a few nights on his flight from the Turks in 1462. The hype with the castle being so heavily marketed as Dracula’s arises from the Bram Stoker novel. Am I glad we went as part of our day tour? The short answer is yes but the crowds and all the Dracula souvenirs was for me too much to enjoy so I was glad when Steven, Julia and Marcus and I were all happy to leave after an hour or so.


In one of the defense corridors. 

Our next stop was at Rasov Fortress.

Kids: Do you remember when YOU all posed in cutputs like these on our long summer trips?!

Talk about recycling!  The outfits below would be perfect for Halloween - too bad we won't be back in time to bring you any.

 Our next stop was the Fortified Church of Prejmer. Its construction was begin in 1218 by the Teutonic Knights. The church is actually enclosed by a fortified wall and a large number of what would have been private homes. UNESCO deservedly included the church on its World Heritage List in 1999.

Finally a photo of  the delightful Julia and Marcus with Gabriel.

We saw the museum area first and then the church interior.

 Once again, some stunning carpets at the Prejmer  Church.

Having visited so many gorgeous churches already this trip, it has become hard to define beauty any more for me. I do remember being awed by the stunningly gorgeous churches in Poland and especially the Black Madonna Church, but the sheer simplicity of this was, in a way, even more breathtaking.

The homes inside the fortified walls.

Below are photos from our visit to the Harman Fortified Church, our last stop of the day. It is now a Lutheran church but, when it was built in the 13th C., it was dedicated to St. Nicholas as a Roman Basilica.

Just imagine sitting one's tush on these seats for any length of time! I have a new appreciation for our pews at St. Frances Cabrini after seeing these.

I don't know why the pews are numbered and wonder if they always were too?

I hope you enjoyed our tour through some of Transylvania's castles and fortresses.