The Carpathians, part of the Alpine-Himalayan chain, stretches from the Vienna basin to southwards of the Danube, in Timoc Valley, which separates them from the Balkans Mountains. They are lower than the Alps that make them easier to cross, but higher than Balkans Mountains.
The Carpathians contain 5 sections: Tatra Mountains (2655m), Eastern Beskizi Mountains, Eastern Carpathians, Southern Carpathians and Western Carpathians. The last 3 sections form the Romanian Carpathians. These mountains have only half of the Alps height and a winding line, being divided by many passes and gorges. The Romanian Carpathians-, whose main ranges run north south and east west respectively, form a natural chain demarcating the eastern and southern boundaries of Transylvania. Among the least spoilt mountains in Europe, mainly thanks to the old communist regime, the dense forests of the Romanian Carpathians are home for the European “Big Five” – Wolf, Brown Bear, Red Deer, Lynx and Wild Boar. They form the largest predator populations in Europe west of Russia. About 50 % of Europe’s brown bear population lives in the Romanian Carpathians- estimated at 5,500, wolves at 2,500 (about 30%), and lynx at 1,500 (about 30%).
The Romanian Carpathian chain is divided into 3 sections:
Eastern Carpathians (Carpatii Orientali)
The Carpathian Mountain chain rises in the Ukraine to the north, running southwards through Romania between Bucovina and Moldavia to the east, and Maramures and Transylvania to the west. In the sub-group known as the Vrancea Mountains – the earthquake epicentre of Romania – the Carpathians make a dramatic turn to the west, eventually heading out into Serbia and Western Bulgaria. The Eastern section of the Carpathians, between the Rodna (Rodnei) Mountains in the north and the Vrancea Mountains to the south, is known in Romanian as the Carpatii Orientali or Eastern Carpathians.
The highest peaks in the Eastern Carpathians are found in the Rodna and Caliman Mountains to the north – Pietrosul (Rodna) at 2302m/7550ft, Ineu at 2279m/7475ft, and Pietrosul (Caliman) at 2104m/6901ft. Further south the Ceahlau peak stands alone at 1900m/6232ft and Penteleu in the Vrancea Mountains reaches 1774m/5818ft. The Harghita Mountains to the west rise to 1800m/5900ft and are wild and densely forested, yet with gentler slopes. Deeply incised valleys separate each block of mountains with streams running east into the Siret River, or west into the Bistrita, Mures and Olt. The lower slopes of these mountains are forested with oak, hornbeam, lime and ash up to 800m/2600ft, and then with beech and birch up to around 1400m/4600ft. Above this spruce and silver fir dominate the beech up to 1700m/5600ft with low growing mountain shrubs and bare rock above. The lowest slopes are farmed on the traditional strip system – largely by hand and with horsepower, whereas the upper slopes are grazed by sheep – even to altitudes up to 6500ft. Transhumance – the movement of shepherds with their flocks across country from high alpine summer pastures to lowland pastures in late and early season – is still practised, although the number of bands of shepherds staying out all year is declining.
These mountains offer many attractions to eco-tourists. They are still well populated with European brown bear, wolves and (to a lesser extent) lynx, as well as chamois, wild boar, red deer, wildcat, and a variety of other mammals. Birds of prey are common, and it is not unusual to see 8 buzzards soaring at one time. Golden eagles are becoming rarer, but Lesser spotted eagles, various buzzards and harriers, ravens, nutcrackers, woodpeckers, and a range of smaller birds can be seen. Wall creepers are an occasional find in some of the limestone gorges like the impressive Bicaz gorge.
Due to the limited use (for largely economic reasons) of chemical pesticides and fertilisers, many wild flowers and plants can still be found especially in the spring and early summer. These include the protected edelweiss and the unusual “Brother & Sister” flower (Melampyrum biharense) – a form of cow-wheat with yellow flowers contrasting against blue upper leaves.
Primary Eco-Cultural Tourism points of interest:
1. All of the mountain massifs, including Rodna, Rarau, Caliman, Ceahlau, Harghita, Vrancea, Ciucas;
2. Various forest and nature reserves, including the Slatioara Secular Forest Reserve, which contains many ancient fir and spruce trees over 50 metres high;
3. Lake Bicaz and the Bicaz Gorge;
4. Other gorges with good opportunities for climbing and caving;
5. Bird watching right through the Eastern Carpathians;
6. Significant populations of bear, wolves, wild boar, chamois, red deer, and a few lynx.
7. The “Muddy Volcanoes” (bubbling mud pools), and “Focul Viu” (“Living Flame”) where natural gas escaping from fissures in the rock is burnt off, creating an eerie blue flickering flame at night – Buzau Hills to the south of the Vrancea Mountains.
Southern Carpathians (Carpatii Meridionali), also named the Transylvanian Alps, have the highest peaks in the Carpathian Mountain chain with a number of peaks over 2500 meters (8200ft). The French Geographer Emmanuel da Martonne who was astonished by the similarity with the Alps gave the name of the Transylvanian Alps.
The Carpathian chain runs into Romania from the Ukraine to the north, heading southeast and then south, until it reaches the Vrancea Mountain massif. Here the chain takes a sudden turn to the west, separating Transylvania from the southern province of Wallachia, and eventually heading southwest into Serbia and Bulgaria.
The northern escarpment of this section of the Carpathians rises steeply above the Transylvanian plateau, whereas to the south side, the mountains drop away more slowly into an extensive range of foothills. Several rivers have cut through the range, and their valleys have produced important strategic and trading routes for past generations of settlers and invaders. Notably the Timis and Prahova valleys to the south of Brasov, the Bran-Rucar Pass which was effectively guarded by the well-known Bran castle, and the gorges of the Olt and Jiu rivers which broke through the Carpathian chain to reach the Danube.
The Southern Carpathians are heavily forested with oak, hornbeam, lime and ash up to 800m/2600ft, and then beech and birch up to around 1400m/4600ft. Above this spruce and silver fir dominate up to 1700m/5600ft with low growing mountain shrubs and bare rock above. With the exception of the north side of the Fagaras massif, which rises steeply above the Transylvanian plateau, most of the lower slopes are farmed on the traditional strip system – largely by hand and with horsepower. Where gradients permit, the upper slopes are grazed by sheep – even to altitudes up to 7000ft. Transhumance – the movement of shepherds with their flocks across country from high alpine summer pastures to lowland pastures in late and early season – is still practised, although the number of bands of shepherds staying out all year is declining.
These mountains offer many attractions to eco-tourists. They are still well populated with European brown bear, wolves and (to a lesser extent) lynx, as well as chamois, wild boar, red deer, wildcat, and a variety of other mammals. Birds of prey are common, with Lesser spotted eagles, various buzzards and harriers, ravens, nutcrackers, woodpeckers, and a wide range of smaller birds visible. Wall creepers are an occasional find in some of the limestone gorges like the Zarnesti gorge on the southeastern flank of Piatra Craiului Mountain, and occasionally on the walls of the Vidraru dam.
Due to the limited use (for largely economic reasons) of chemical pesticides and fertilisers, many wild flowers and plants can still be found especially in the spring and early summer. These include the Piatra Craiului pink, which is only found amongst the upper slopes and crags of Piatra Craiului.
The Carpathian Large Carnivore Project was established in the early 1990’s near to Zarnesti and Piatra Craiului, to study the lifestyles of wolves, and later lynx and bears too – and their interaction with humans. The research work came to an end after 10 years. Much of the impetus to extend wildlife and nature conservation in Romania, and to develop sustainable eco-tourism, was inspired by CLCP’s work, hence the concentration of various eco-tourism services in this area.
Primary Eco-Cultural Tourism points of interest:
1. All of the blocks of mountains in the Southern Carpathians have individual names, and all are good for hiking, bird watching and botany: Muntii Baiului, Bucegi, Piatra Craiului, Fagaras, Capatanii, Lotru, Cindrel, Sureanu, Parang, Retezat, Mehedinti.
2. Several National Parks (Retezat, Piatra Craiului and Bucegi), and many nature reserves.
3. Hiking, cycling, horseback riding, horse-drawn cart rides, exploring by 4×4, and winter activities like cross-country skiing and snowshoe exploration.
4. Excellent locations for climbing, caving and gorge walking.
5. Many castles and forts built by the historical defenders of Transylvania and Wallachia, to deter attacks by invaders.
6. Cazan Gorge on the Danube between the Mehedinti Mountains and Bulgaria.
7. Mehedinti Plateau with very interesting karstic phenomena such us the God’s Bridge (Podul lui Dumnezeu) in Ponoarele.
8. Bear and wolf searching.
9. Meeting the semi-tame wolves at the old Carpathian Large Carnivore Project research base, or at the new Large Carnivore Visitors Centre (opening date to be announced).
Western Carpathians (Muntii Apuseni) have lower heights, which rare overtop 1000 meters. They are divided in many groups by depressions and valleys. This is the main karst zone of Romania with many caves, gorges and potholes. In these mountains there were also mined for more than 2,000 years gold and silver. From all of the Romanian mountains, these are the best inhabited with scattered villages at altitudes of up to about 1300m, higher than any fixed settlement in Romania.