To celebrate Rich’s birthday we’d decided to park near a hotel in Valea Intunecoasa, walk a circular route via Vf. Trei Pietre, and stop off at the hot spring baths near the hotel on the way home. Unfortunately, neither the hotel or baths were still in use so we then tried to backtrack to Valea lui Antaloc using the tourist route. After an exasperating hour we realised that the tourist route shown on the map didn’t actually exist on the ground, so cut our losses and parked in front of the town hall on the main road. We’d walk to the viewpoint instead.

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Route 3a was supposed to be marked with blue crosses. But the guidebook was right – there are not many marks on the marked trails in the Harghita mountains. We saw three crosses in total. The rest of the time we just had to follow our noses, having learnt that many of the shepherd’s tracks haven’t been mapped.

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The initial pull-up was steep but the track was not nearly as rough as yesterday’s non-track track. The peace and quiet was shattered by barks as we approached one of the shepherd’s huts. The dog on the other side of the stile looked as if he could easily tear us to shreds, but despite the growls I sensed that he meant us no harm, and that he was simply doing his job. I moved slowly towards the fence, spoke softly, and once I was feeling brave enough, held out my hand. After a quick sniff he started licking my hand, wagged his tail, and then insisted that I stroke his head too. Rich had gone a bit pale and quiet but  followed me over the stile, and started shaking his head in amazement as the previously barky, growly thing with a huge chain around its neck followed us the rest of the way up the hill, all the while nudging our legs for more strokes. Just call me the dog whisperer.

Unfortunately my dog whispering skills were short lived. We make it to the Vf. Trei Pietre viewpoint at 1471 metres but had to turn back as a shepherd and his five dogs were working the sheep on the hill above, and they looked less pleased to see us. We weren’t so sure that this shepherd would call his dogs off  quickly so we backtracked to the shade of some conifers for what had become a typical lunch – salami, cheese, gherkins, boiled eggs and crisps, and then slowly descended.

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On the way back to the cabin we stopped off at a teeny tiny supermarket in Lunca de Jos to buy milk, salami, hard cheese and ice cold cans of pop, and sat outside quenching our thirst. There was a horse and cart parked outside the bar opposite, the owner having decided that he too needed some liquid refreshment. We received a few quizzical looks from other shoppers and passers by, but by now had realised that it must seem strange to those who work in the hills all day that foreigners pay to travel to their country to walk up those same hills.

Back at base Rich made a start on his birthday beer, whilst I made the most of the afternoon sun and breeze and hand washed some of our laundry. At 7pm we walked over to Julia’s house for a special birthday meal which she and Erika had lovingly prepared. A pork dish served with mashed potato, broccoli and pickled cabbage followed a delicious vegetable soup, with baklava for pudding. Then literally came the icing on the cake – a special birthday flan with candles, and ‘Happy Birthday’ sung in Romanian and English. Even though I’d arranged the dinner, the cake was a surprise to me too, and just one demonstration of the kindness and generosity we experienced throughout our trip.

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Erika dined with us and we talked about the experiences of Hungarians in Romania, the number of brown bears in the nearby woods where we’d recently been walking (!), and the wolves who will kill local dogs and pigs in Winter. They get so hungry that they stop being afraid of humans, and will take pets from gardens, including Julia’s poor dog last year. Winter starts as early as October here and lasts until April/May, with temperatures as low as minus 30 degrees C. It’s a very harsh environment to survive in , and certainly explains why Shepherds have several dogs to protect them and their animals from predators.

It also transpires that Erika lived in my home county in Wales for eighteen months a few years ago, and knows Carmarthenshire well! How’s that for a coincidence? She has very fond memories of Wales, found the landscape mesmerising, and would love to go back. Maybe I too need to take a closer look at South Wales. It’s certainly been a while.

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