Bears and Strays in Brașov, Romania

by Thom Brown

In the latest entry of the On the Edges of Europe column, travel journalist Thom Brown travels to Brasov, Romania, and finds that the local bears are not the only four-legged creatures he needs to be wary of…

Brașov is one of those wonderfully walkable cities. Within seconds of getting the nod and the stamp from the border guard, I was breathing fresh mountain air and was free to wander toward the city. The walk from the airport to the Old Town was just over two hours, but it was sunny with a light breeze, so why not glide straight past the taxis and onto the open road?

Ahead, the endless ridges of Transylvania’s Carpathian Mountains stretched beyond the horizon. This was set to be an easy, insightful stroll as the scenic countryside gradually merged with the bustle of the city. From the rustic wooden farmhouses to the harsh concrete tower blocks, there’s no better way to get a feel for a landscape and its inhabitants than to trace it on foot.

But my assumed identity of the inquisitive explorer was quickly exposed as naïve at best and outright dangerous at worst. On my right, two shadowy, monstrous figures emerged over the crest of a hill. They were mere dots at first, but their deep rumbling barks were unmistakable. They were the aggressive snarls of free-ranging dogs. These weren’t the tame street dogs of the city, but the crazed, uncivilized, ruthless beasts of the countryside.

Within seconds, they’d gained enough ground to reveal their forms as enormous sheepdogs, with filthy, knotted fur. They’d been bred to defend livestock from brown bears, and their huge muscular bodies confirmed this, but there was no shepherd, and I could sense them salivating at the sight of this lonesome traveler.

The advice is to back away as slowly as you dare. That’s fine in theory, but every inch of my being ached to escape their territory, so my pace instinctively picked up. My suitcase caught some air a couple of times as I fled the scene. It wouldn’t have mattered how fast I ran, though: the dogs were here.

A rusted barbed wire fence fortunately blocked their path, but it had largely collapsed and was full of holes. They could easily get through. All that stood between me and a nasty encounter was their intelligence. At least, until a passing white van slammed on the brakes, creating a shield between me and the dogs.

The driver rolled down the window and shouted over the noise of the incessant barking, “Be careful! These are not good dogs!”

Yeah, I figured…

He opened the dog-side window to scream and honk his horn in a desperate but fruitless attempt to scare them off. Meanwhile, I continued on, slowly this time. The van had created a distraction, allowing me to sneak away.

“Be careful!” my white van hero shouted. “Don’t run!”

The dogs followed his van as he drove off in the opposite direction. This pleasant stroll had become a stress-fueled adrenaline rush. But I endeavored on, thinking, at least it wasn’t a bear.

Old Town Brașov

The fields turned to the unmistakable architecture of Romanian homes. Each one was uniquely carved and decorated, giving them character, their weathered exteriors a sign of the lives these buildings had lived. Rising above the buildings was Tampa Hill, a stunning forest that bursts out of the earth. On the side of the hill are the giant white letters that spell out BRASOV,: a shameless rip-off of the Hollywood sign. Regardless, it represented the climax of my journey: a motivation to keep on trekking.

The magnificence of Brașov’s Old Town washes over each and every tourist the moment they set foot within it. Every brick and cobblestone is medieval perfection, creating a labyrinth of architectural beauty that, if you weren’t aware of its 13th-century credentials, could easily have been constructed for a Renaissance fair.

The spotless streets transport visitors to a fairytale kingdom, a world isolated from the tragedy and mundanity of modern life. Unlike many other charming European old towns, Brașov is set within the mountains, surrounded in all directions by dense forests that rise above the buildings and are instantly accessible from the town center. The combination of Gothic architecture and misty mountains gives the city a mystical quality. It’s no wonder this region is considered the home of Dracula.

From the central square, Piața Sfatului, I was drawn to a gap in the buildings that led to the Black Church. Completed in 1476, the church is, rather disappointingly, not black. Nevertheless, it’s an astounding structure that further instills a sense of awe and wonder. From there, I explored deeper, until I stumbled upon Strada Sforii, one of Europe’s narrowest streets. It’s just about the only part of town with a graffiti problem. It’s not ugly graffiti, though, but rather a tapestry of a thousand untold stories.

Beware of the Bears

These twisted city streets feel connected to nature, not just because they’re surrounded by forests and mountains, but also because they’re frequented by wildlife. At one point, my pocket vibrated violently as an aggressive alarm poured out of my phone’s speaker. I checked the screen expecting an extreme weather warning, but nope, it read: “The presence of wild pigs was reported in Brașov on Cibinului Street! Avoid this area! Stay indoors!”

But I couldn’t stay indoors. I had an appointment to go and see some bears in the wild. Home to 60% of Europe’s brown bear population, Romania is the only country that has a bear problem. While other countries are working hard to protect these vulnerable animals from humans, Romanians are struggling to protect humans from bears.

Local wildlife guide Simona arrived in a white off-road vehicle, and we cruised out of the city, back towards the expansive forests of the Carpathian Mountains. This area is home to 6,000 wild brown bears, the largest population in Europe.

We pulled up at a car park on what felt like the very edges of civilization. There, we met two British travelers, a Spanish couple, and a German news crew who were doing a feature on bears. We returned to our vehicles and followed the road deeper into the dramatic scenery.

We passed huge dogs, the kind that had chased me when I arrived. These ones had collars with heavy metal bars, designed to stop them from running after innocent pedestrians. We drove through little farms, comprised of countless cattle and self-built wooden huts.

“For years, these bears would attack the farms,” Simona explained. “You know, bears are very lazy. If they can find easy food, they will take it. They eat meat, but they can’t be bothered to hunt, so they come to the farms and take the livestock, and the farmers can’t shoot them. There are strict laws, and they would get years in prison, but actually, the bears are smart. They know to avoid the bright lights and loud noises of the farms. They know this is dangerous for them, and if they have another option to get food, they will use it.”

That’s why we were told to wear dark clothes and to stay quiet while in the hide, which had been built at the edge of the forest. There was no fence, but the hide marked a limit that bears, for the most part, knew not to cross. Every day, humans come to the hide and throw apples out for the bears. This offers a quick treat, enough to stop the bears from venturing beyond the forests to the farms, where serious injury – to farmers, livestock, or the bears themselves – was pretty much inevitable.

We crept inside the hide, and seconds later, I saw my first bear. I’ve seen them in zoos, but watching them freely roam their natural habitat was a completely different, almost spiritual experience. I’d expected to wait patiently, but no, they were ready to come out as soon as we arrived.

“The bears have all they need in the forest, but they’re lazy, so these extra treats keep them satisfied,” Simona whispered. “Since we created these hides, attacks on farms have gone right down. This is helping to keep bears and humans safe from each other.”

The bears were already quite close, but a pair of binoculars revealed their beauty in all its glory: their soft fur made from a patchwork of shades of brown, their powerful paws, the twitch of their noses as they sniffed around like huge, overgrown puppies.

More appeared, around 13 in total. At first, when food was plentiful, they happily shared. They’re not as jealous or territorial as wolves. As the food became scarce, though, some bears began to show their dominance with that unique bear noise that’s somewhere between a roar and a howl.

The weaker bears ran back up the valley and disappeared into the darkness of the forest. This left the older, dominant bears – the ones with chewed-up ears and scars across their faces – to enjoy the final scraps of food.

One by one, the bears made their way back into the woods until a solitary male remained. He stood on the path at the top of the valley, watching us through the window as we had watched him.

“This one always wants to do some human watching,” Simona told us. “He’s just curious. They know we’re here, but they don’t mind as long as we’re quiet and give them space. Soon, he will give us a final look, then go back into the forest. That’s him giving us space so we can safely leave and get back into the car, but we need to be quick.”

As Simona predicted, the bear gave a final look, a kind of nod and wink as if to say thanks for the food, you guys are safe to leave now.

We came back around sunset, and the city was buzzing with activity. In stark contrast to the serene silence of the mountains, Piața Sfatului had a rock concert in full flow and was rammed with people soaking in the noise in what must be one of Europe’s most picturesque music venues.

“You can drop me off here,” I told Simona and went to join the party.

A Final Encounter

From the central square, I cut down an alley to the back of the heavy city wall, where a stream trickled down from the mountains. Here, just a couple of minutes away from Piața Sfatului, the noise of the city was muffled and replaced by the gentle roar of a small waterfall. A tiny footbridge took me to the steps that led to the White Tower, a medieval watchtower that offers panoramic views of the Old Town. I stood on the bottom step, slowly raising my eyes to trace the steps to the top. There were 200 in total, with a bench halfway for a break. The climb looked steep, alarmingly steep, but I’d already come this far.

The stairs were perfectly straight, allowing climbers to see the top and track their progress by counting their steps as they went. As I neared the peak of the climb, I grasped the handrail for balance and slowly turned to reveal the town beneath me. From here, the full beauty of Brașov revealed itself: the orange-roofed houses, the winding alleyways, the Black Church towering above it all, and the crowd jumping in unison to the drummer’s beat on stage.

One of my favorite spots in Brașov, this was a place to reflect, dream, and write. I stayed there for hours, thinking about life and travel, until a young couple descended the stairs, hand in hand. The night grew colder and darker, so I followed suit, staying several steps behind. Suddenly, the couple below stopped dead in their tracks, turned to face each other, and then turned further until they were facing me. Smiling but somewhat panicked, they ran back up the steps, still clutching hands. 

“Don’t go!” they yelled at me. “There’s a bear! There’s a bear down there!” And though I’d love to see one this close to the city center, I remembered my dog encounter and thought I’d best not risk it.

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