My husband, Drew, and I have developed a tradition for our birthdays. We pack up and leave.
Traveling together is infinitely more fun and memorable for us than a physical gift or party. So, when the birthday that rhymes with shmorty was looming on my horizon, and the chance to take a kid-free trip (thanks, grandparents!) became a possibility, we knew we had to go for it.
Drew, who has developed a penchant and skill for ultrarunning over the past few years, managed to convince me to run my first ultra just after this big birthday. With a race on his schedule, as well, we made a deal that this vacation would also serve as training for our races. I know, it sounds like the antithesis of a vacation to many. For us, nothing beats the feeling of being dog-tired at the end of a day full of exploration and activity, celebrating with cold beer(s) and a little too much local cuisine.
Pre-child, our trips always involved pushing ourselves beyond our comfort zones. We were aching to get back to that style of travel. After a lot of research (by Drew, not me, I did nothing) and plenty of debate, it was decided. We would take ten days to run our way through portions of Romania. This trip was going to require us to be fast and light - a trail running vacation where we run with our “luggage” on our backs. (If you’re interested in my packlist and strategy, check it out here).
The plan was to wind our way through the Carpathian Mountains - sometimes on train or bus but largely on foot - between cities, mountain towns, villages, and huts. A sort of fastpacking variation that didn’t require us to pack shelter or cooking equipment, as we’d spend each night in a hut, home, or hotel.
If Romania isn’t on your bucket list, add it now. It’s an outdoor mecca on the rise that it seems US tourists have been the last to discover. In my experience, it offers the perfect combination of engaging people, reasonable prices, stunning mountain ranges, and compelling history that’s evident everywhere you look. In the span of two days, you can see the “real” Dracula’s castle, shepherds and their flocks high in the mountains, incredible Saxon fortresses, and communist-style cement block buildings.
I honestly didn’t know what to expect when it came to the trails we’d encounter there, but Drew had been warning me for months that it was going to be tougher than just about anything I’ve ever done. Was he just exaggerating so that I wouldn’t slack on my pre-trip training? On day one it was clear. He was not exaggerating. Though I went into the trip feeling very fit, these trails were no joke.
For the most part, the trails were very well-marked and cared for and they offered the rewards of stunning vistas and exposed ridgelines. But, wow, ever heard of a switchback, Romania? I found myself huffing and puffing up steep ascents and cursing my knees on intense descents that would have been mitigated by switchbacks on my local trails. Seeing elderly Romanians jaunt up the trail past me with no real sign of struggle didn’t help my ego, but it certainly helped my training!
We encountered so many surprises in our time there. Some incredibly beautiful, some mildly terrifying. All turned out to be memorable sources of joy for us both.
On the mildly terrifying side, we were rerouted by bears within our very first 30 feet on Romanian trail. Did I mention Romania has the largest population of bears in Europe? We didn’t have any other encounters during the remainder of our trip. Got that out of the way early, I guess.
A couple of days later after a very tough 13-mile run, we arrived weary and hungry at our Airbnb where we were greeted by a Romanian family that appeared to be very confused by our presence. Nonetheless, they warmly welcomed us, offered us coffee, and showed us to a room. Hours later we pieced together that this family had rented out the entire home, with the exception of our room. Yes, we were unknowingly crashing their family vacation.
In what we would come to experience over and over again as Romanian hospitality, they invited us to join them in a “real Romanian barbecue” that evening. They grilled every kind of meat imaginable, served up homemade wine, danced, sang, and celebrated life as the sun set over the bucolic mountain village. They even graciously accepted the tourist-trap Dracula wine that we had purchased earlier in the day as a joke and handed over with embarrassment as our only possible thank you gift.
We were also “escorted” along the trail by a herding dog overlooking his flock. Herding dogs, I had been warned, could be a more present danger than bears. Nah, this guy was cool.
We were chatted up and served homemade brandy by a lovely Romanian grandfather / retired mountain rescuer who was our home host simply so he could practice his English.
We took a wrong turn that led to the most intense section of trail (looked more like a rockslide to me) that I’ve ever experienced.
We connected with a Romanian blogger-turned-friend that treated us to online advice and IRL beers.
We logged 100+ miles of running, hiking, and walking together in unknown landscapes. Sometimes in silence, sometimes chatting about aspirations, sometimes bickering, always appreciating that we’d remember these experiences together forever.
Thank you, Romania.
This trip did all of the things I needed it to and more: gave me and my husband cherished bonding experiences together (an incredible feat with a toddler at home), prepped me to have a thoroughly joyful first 50k race, and sent me charging into middle-age.