Around Bran

Bran's surrounding villages are enchanting in their rural attractiveness. Modern luxury villas abound but the wild landscape remains untouched. Traditional occupations such as sheep farming, wool weaving and cheese making are vital to the villagers'

tlHllv survival. Agro-tourism is well developed iind linding a bed is no problem.

Some 3km southeast along a dirt track limn Hran is the village of §imon, from (uluie hiking trails lead into the Bucegi Mountains. Moieciu de Jos, 4km southwest of Hi,in on the road to Campulung, is known tin Its pine-aroma cheese, still religiously In.ide by many families in the village. It irlrhrates a summer festival at the end of lime. From Moieciu de Jos, a dirt track ImhIs northwest to Pejtera, named after the tillage's 160m-long cave said to be full of hills. From Pe$tera, it's an easy 6km ride/ hike north through Magura to Zarne;ti.

A few kilometres southeast of Moieciu de jnx is Cheia, home to one of the region's few Mil act 19th-century painted churches. Wool Iws been manufactured in this village since the Middle Ages. Continuing south along l lie upper course of the Moieciu River, you rriich Moieciu de Sus, with another pretty village church. Hiking trails into the Bucegi Mountains are marked from here.

Staggering views of the mountains un-lold along the road signposted to Campulung, proffering a breathtaking panorama ,it 1290m before reaching the minuscule lundata, 25km south of Bran, where you i .in cross-country ski or hire a mountain hike. On the last Sunday of August this village holds the highly worthwhile, fascinating Mountain Festival (Nedeia Munte-lui), bringing together local artisans and tradespeople.

Continuing south along the same road, you come to Podu Dambovitei, home to the l'e$tera Dambovicioarei. This 870m-deep i .ive is not particularly noteworthy but the drive to it is. Sheer rock faces line either side of the road, as do villagers who stand on the roadside selling their home-made cheese (ca$caval de casa), sausages, smoked and dried meats, and fresh milk. Coaja, another unique cheese wrapped in bark, is sold in several villages in this area.

Antrec (see plOO) provides English- and French-speaking guides and arranges hikes, fishing trips, bear-watching and cheese-lasting tours in the area.

Zarnesti

While the town itself has a creepy, Twilight Zone edge to it (it couldn't be due to the fact that one of Romania's largest arms manufacturers is based here, could it?), it's an excellent springboard to the incredible richness of the Piatra Craiului National Park and the base for one of the country's most interesting ecological projects.

The miniscule village of Sinca Noua, 27km north of Zarnesti along the 73A road to Sercaia, is slowly developing into Romania's first ecological village. Over the next few years, all agriculture will be organic, the surrounding forests will be certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, and an ecotourism infrastructure developed. Contact Christoph Promberger (@ 0744-532 798; [email protected]) for possibilities of exploring and staying in this area; he runs a guesthouse and equestrian centre, Equus Silva-nia, there.

PIATRA CRAIULUI NATIONAL PARK

Headquartered in Zarnesti, this newly formed park (fa) 223 008; www.pcrai.ro; Str Raului 27) covers 14,800 hectares of formidable landscape. Its office can provide all the information you need about hiking, climbing, skiing or even driving around the Piatra Craiului mountain range. As there is a range of trails to choose from, each varying quite a bit in its level of difficulty, your trip could benefit greatiy from the office's sage advice.

LARGE CARNIVORE CENTRE The Large Carnivore Centre 0744-532 798; [email protected]) is an outgrowth of the former Carpathian Large Carnivore Project, which from 1993 worked towards the survival of Romania's large wolf, brown bear and lynx populations, and is involved in government lobbying, research, public-consciousness raising and ecotourism. The centre, to be officially inaugurated in early 2005, is an interpretative centre about the relationship between large carnivores and humans. It will consist of an exhibition hall and adjacent large enclosures (two to three hectares each) for the seven large mammal species of Romania (wolf, bear, lynx, red deer, roe deer, wild boar, chamois). Hand-raised wolves, which happily mingle with tour groups, serve as vital educational tools.

To visit a unique bear hide from which you can safely observe bears in their natural habitat, or for other wildlife-related tours of the region and any visit to the centre, contact Carpathian Nature Tours (@ 0745-512 096; [email protected]) in Zarnesti. Prices are reasonable and include transport, and you can also rent bicycles. Even before the centre's inauguration, it will be possible to arrange excellent hands-on visits and tours.

Sleeping

There are numerous pensiune options in Moieciu de Jos and Moieciu de Sus as well as in Zarnesti (particularly along Str Carpati). Check out www.ruraltourism.ro for detailed descriptions of options in both Moieciu de Jos and Moieciu de Sus.

Craiasa Muntilor (@476 763; d €15) Smack in the centre of Moieciu de Sus at No 20, this place has several doubles with pottery stoves, wooden furnishings and shared bathrooms.

CasaOrleanu (si 0745-978023;[email protected]; s/d €20/40) Also in Moieciu de Sus at No 125, this place has six rooms for two or four people, decked out in rustic style. The price includes breakfast and supper. Mihai and Nathalie, who run the place, also run the adjoining Centrul de Ecologie Montana, a mountain and ecology centre which organises guided hikes and botanical/nature trails and rents mountain bikes. To get here from the end of the village opposite the troill basin, bear left where the road forks.

Pensiune Mosorel (@ 236 307; Str Dr I Jenchm 162; per person €25) Located in Zarnesti, tlii'. pensiune has rustic, simple rooms and is the closest you'll get to a hotel in town The staff are helpful and can give hikiiin advice; even better, they rent bikes.

Getting There & Away

From Zarnesti, there are two daily buses to §imon, nine to Moieciu de Jos (via Bran), and eleven to Bra^ov's Autogara 2. Five daily trains link Bra§ov with Zarnes|i (€0.80, 50 minutes), stopping at Cristian and Ra^nov on the way.

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