Friday Thought #89 Skiing in Romania

As I mentioned last time, my most recent eastern European ski jolly was to Romania; not a country renowned for its skiing, but somewhere with mountains nonetheless, plus with the added bonus of being a fascinating country, steeped in history and therefore with lots a exploring to be done. Unfortunately it has been a fairly dire winter across the whole of the European continent, and Romania was no exception, but despite the pretty minimal snowpack and obvious recent wind affect, with a bit of imagination and some searching, we managed to have some superb days out.

We were staying in the tiny village of Busteni, which does have a cable car, but no ski area. Theoretically the lift is for hiking and sightseeing only, but with a little internet research and a lot of map studying we discovered that there was a beautiful ski tour across the plateau at the top, with a potentially adventurous and exciting descent through a vast gully back down to the valley. It did indeed turn out to be quite an adventure, and we were slightly wary about the prospect of waking one of Romania’s hibernating bears…! But we had the place to ourselves all day in fairly wild country, and found some great skiing.

Despite day passes being disproportionately high in Romania (around the equivalent of €35/€40), one-way ski tickets are outrageously cheap (€5), leading us to wonder why anyone bothers buying a day pass, given the fairly limited lift-served skiing! So we generally got a lift bump at the start of the day, in neighbouring Sinaia and Azuga, and spent the day exploring with the skins. The weather was wonderful all week, so we may not have found powder heaven, but we saw some spectacular views and thoroughly enjoyed exploring and discovering some new mountains.

Friday Thought #88 Rescue Bears in Romania

At the end of February I had the opportunity to visit a country which has been on my hit list for a long long time. Romania has always fascinated me, everything I had heard about it seemed such a far cry from anything I knew, yet it’s just a short plane ride away, and in the very same continent I live in. The extreme poverty, the images of the orphanages in the 1980s, the horrific dictatorship, the hardships the Romanian people have had to endure; it seems like something that would happen in another world, far from privileged western society, and surely not in the modern day. Yet much of this dark history was during my lifetime, and since 2007 Romania has been a member of the European Union, the very same union shared by powerhouses such as Germany and the UK.

The trip was planned as a ski adventure combined with some culture and exploring of Romania, and I will share some of my experiences in Romania over the next few weeks, but I would like to start on a happy note. Whilst there we were absolutely delighted to be able to visit a rescue bear sanctuary in the town of Zarnesti, around 3 hours north of Bucharest, and we loved it so much, we visited again!

Horrifyingly, only in 2005 was it made illegal in Romania to take bears from the wild and hold them captive as ‘pets’ or tourist attractions, and thus the “Libearty“ sanctuary was created in an effort to try and rescue and care for the brown bears which had been mistreated and abused across Romania. Many were kept chained in front of restaurants, hotels, and gas stations as tourist attractions. Believe it or not, one bear was even rescued from a cage in a monastery.

Since the sanctuary opened, 95 bears have been rescued, and now live a life as close as possible to how they would be living in the wild, with 70 hectares of space to roam, hunt, swim and hibernate.

They run solely on donations and support from animal charities and supermarkets, and we discovered to our horror that the sanctuary’s running costs are a whopping €40,000 per month. It is a truly wonderful place and a remarkable achievement. I thoroughly loved spending time somewhere so selfless and so dedicated to others. I couldn’t recommend a visit more highly if you ever find yourself in Romania.

http://www.ampbears.ro/en/bear-sanctuary

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Friday thought #86 Snowy hikes and powder hunting

It has not been a great winter in Austria so far. The massive amount of sunshine has been delightful and absolutely welcome, but as an unfortunate consequence the snow pack is pretty thin, and anything decent off piste has been tricky to find.

Nevertheless we have tried our damn hardest to seek out the powder. It has taken some hunting, some hiking and a lot of trial and error, but considering we’ve only really had 2 major snowfalls all winter, I think we’ve done pretty well!

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Friday thought #85 Cloud inversions

The weather in the European Alps is never boring. It’s never just sunny, or simply raining, it’s always varied and interesting and often provides you with something you’ve never seen before; an incredible rainbow stretching across an entire valley, or a cloud formation so unusual that it appears the mountain peak is wearing a fleecy hat.

Every now and again you look out the window at a seemingly dreary day and find it difficult  to muster the enthusiasm to get out skiing. But when you’re sitting on the chairlift, rising up through the thick cloud, and suddenly you burst through into a perfect sky, complete with blue sky and sunshine, you grin and quietly thank Mother Nature for the wonder that is a cloud inversion…

Friday thought #84 WW1 battlegrounds – Flanders and the Somme

A slight variation on my usual posts, but nevertheless, a place that I have recently visited and something which I would like to share.

Whether or not history is something that interests you, I believe that there are certain things which should never be forgotten and we should always be reminded of, no matter how long ago they happened or how distant those memories start to become. The World Wars are two such things, and on the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, 2016 became the year I finally got the chance to visit some of the WW1 battlegrounds in Northern France, something which I have wanted to do for as long as I can remember.

I won’t go into too much detail, as everyone’s experience and interest is different, and I don’t think photographs will ever do justice to the places themselves, but I will share some of them all the same and hope that you can get a feel for these incredible sites. If you ever get the chance to visit, please do, it is an experience like no other.

The countrysides of Northern France and Belgium are quite literally full of history. You need only drive 5 minutes before coming across a memorial, a graveyard or simply a vast expanse where bloody battles were fought. The Battle of the Somme lasted for just over 4 months and with over 1 million men killed or wounded, it is known as one of the bloodiest battles in human history.

We visited as many of these sites as we could in 2 days and only wished we had been able to stay another week. The memories of the soldiers who gave their lives have been beautifully preserved and the War Graves Commission have done an incredible job in ensuring that the name of every single soldier who died is carefully engraved and remembered, even those who were never found.

The standout place for us, and the place that will stay in my memory forever are the preserved trenches in the Beaumont Hamel memorial park. The site has been preserved by the Canadian Government to commemorate all the Newfoundlanders who fought in the First World War, and must be seen to be believed. The original trenches are still there, complete with the remains of the barbed wire fences where the soldiers went over the top. Visitors pass the British front line and walk across no-mans-land to reach the trenches where the German front line stood exactly 100 years ago. Perhaps for some this means nothing, or perhaps as part of a noisy guided tour group in August, some of the atmosphere is lost, but on a freezing new year’s eve we found ourselves to be the only visitors walking through this eerie landscape, and looking across no-mans-land in the perfect silence brought tears to our eyes imagining what had happened here.

60,000 men died on the first day of the Somme, some just teenagers. I hope that people will always visit the Somme, as what happened here should never be forgotten.

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Thiepval Memorial, where the names of over 72,000 soldiers are engraved, soldiers with no known grave who were never found
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The Menin Gate memorial in Ypres, France. This impressive structure holds the names of over 60,000 men who fought in the First World War, and every night come rain or shine, the Last Post is played here as a tribute to those who died.
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Vimy Ridge, a Canadian national memorial with over 11,000 names carved on it
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Lochnagar Crater – the mine hole created by the blast which signalled the start of the battle of the Somme
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Looking out through the mist at the cemetery behind the Thiepval memorial
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One of the many beautiful cemeteries which dominate the landscape
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The reconstructed trenches at Vimy Ridge, exactly where the original trenches lay

 

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The Tyne Cot Cemetery, no words can describe this…
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Hundreds and hundreds of tributes to soldiers who gave their lives, some engraved with names, some simply dedicated to ‘A Soldier of the Great War’
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The British front line at Beaumont Hamel, complete with the long rusted remains of the barbed wire fences
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The German front line, a terrifyingly short distance from the allied lines

Friday thought #83 Early season skiing – making the most of what little snow we have!

So I hear that North America is getting a huge amount of snow at the minute, however sadly this is not the case here in Europe. Winter teased us back in November and as ever the snow canons were blasting 24 hours a day, a few meagre pistes were opened and skiers hit the slopes in their droves. But since then we have had literally no precipitation, just bright blue skies, sunshine and well below freezing temperatures. So I can’t complain, this weather is gorgeous, and we have been determined to make the most of what we’ve got.

Those in charge of the ski areas have done a superb job of getting resorts open, and the cold temperatures have helped the manufactured snow stick brilliantly, so with zero off-piste or back-country touring potential, why not make the most of the magnificent sunshine and the spectacular ‘half Autumn half Winter’ scenery and hit the pistes?!

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Very respectable coverage considering we’ve had no snow!
Not a bad lunchtime view...
Not a bad lunchtime view…
A 14km track leading from Austria across the border to Switzerland. I love popping over the border for lunch!
A 14km track leading from Austria to Switzerland. I love popping over the border for lunch!
Yeah lower down the snow really does run out! Although there's something really fun about skiing along next to grass...
Yeah lower down the snow really does run out! Although there’s something really fun about skiing along next to grass…
When you get tired of the pistes, why not have a go on the airbag?
When you get tired of the pistes, why not have a go on the airbag?
Ah lovely...
Ah lovely…