I flew Lufthansa from Munich to Bucharest, Romania's capital, to be met by two smiling, dark haired young men with a little Dacia (a Romanian Renault circa 1988 in style) for the 150 kms drive to Poiana Brasov. This was March and as we drove past bright green, flat fields with emerging spring crops, the hills, dark blue in the background, were dotted with oil wells and very large houses, in various stages of construction, on their ridge lines. "28 million inhabitants and 40,000 nouveau millionaires. At first they bought foreign cars, now they build big houses," declared my companion. The first non-communist government since the 1989 revolution had only recently been elected and Romanians are hoping that foreign companies will follow the lead of Korean car manufacturer Daewoo and choose Romania to invest in. In the meantime while waiting for prosperity the third world grime is punctuated by bright cigarette ads on huge billboards and the odd golden arches.
In Poiana Brasov the Hotel Alpin is an asymmetric, high-rise-in-the-snow, purpose built French-style building with German decor. Its unrenovated, faded 1970s splendour, once favoured by value seeking Germans, is now filled with first time British skiers on cheap holiday packages. Neilson, the British tour company, rated it their top value for money resort. The rooms have en-suites, a mini bar and satellite TV and there's a pool, sauna, beauty salon, bar and dining room downstairs.
Skiing is on one big mountain, its vital statistics making it sound rather like Thredbo, 755 vertical metres, nine lifts including two cable cars and a two-person gondola. But figures don't tell the whole story, the skiing is extensive, especially the off-piste tree runs, especially with a local guide, especially with new snow every day and especially on a fraction of what it costs to ski elsewhere. It snowed an average of 30 cms a day for the week I was there, light dry snow at that. Grooming was almost non existent so you didn't have to go too far to make your own tracks and each day you could make new ones in ever deeper snow. I guess we were lucky.
I joined Marion Murri of Mountain Magic Travel and her group of Australians at Poiana arriving in time for dinner in a hunting lodge on the first night. One of the advantages of skiing in a country with a long history is that the culture comes with it. Eating borscht and barbecued chicken with a crushed garlic 'sauce', being serenaded by gypsy musicians in a log chalet sitting around the central fireplace, drinking warm plum brandy and Romanian red wine, was easy to take. Incidentally, we quickly learned that the musicians would play, loudly and up close until you paid them to move on.
On our second ski day a young Romanian guy approached us asking if we'd like to ski off-piste as he didn't fancy going by himself. Marion and I chorused "would we ever" before he could change his mind and off we went on an adventure that lasted for the rest of our stay. Dorin Pipov is the Atomic ski rep for the area, a ski instructor, Romania's first snowboarder, ski photographer's dream and a nice guy. Dorin took us into tall pine forests where the snow, like fairy dust, having accumulated undisturbed, wafted around our faces as we swooped down effortlessly under the boughs and through the clearings. If there was undergrowth it was buried though Dorin warned us to watch out for stumps. The pines gave way to tall deciduous trees lower down and we skied all the way to the bottom in fluff. Marion, no stranger to snow of all sorts, dividing her year between Thredbo and Cortina in the Italian Dolomites said it was the best snow she'd ever skied. None of Dorin's runs had names, just the run from the third pylon or below the Club Restaurant or through the Bear's Forest or the Wolves Forest.
That afternoon we visited Bran Castle, home of the legendary Count Dracula which turned out to be a romantic rather than sinister castle used as a summer palace by the Romanian royal family until the communist take-over. Skiing powder, visiting historic places, eating Romanian specialities, being entertained by the Brasov Philharmonic, skiing more powder, visiting an ancient wine cellar, watching folk dancing, skiing more powder, shopping for bargains, skiing yet more powder - that was the pattern of the week. The sky was starting to clear the morning of our departure, we'd had the best of the snow.
We visited the medieval city of Brasov, driving past the Citadel set high on a vantage point above the town where we'd had dinner with philharmonic concert only a couple of days before. We stopped for thick Turkish-style coffee and cakes at Sinaia, another ancient town and resort, higher than Poiana and popular with climbers in summer. The Sinaia casino is a copy of the one at Monaco. A tour of Bucharest, Romania's capital was de rigeur, called the Paris of the East, three hours weren't enough to see it all.
At the airport I found my skis had come through the end of my ski bag but Marion, adept at first aid, bound it up like an injured limb with packaging tape. Reality hit when we had to pay a $50 surcharge for our ski bags and by the time we parted in Munich we'd readjusted to normal prices. The memory of goulash soup lunches with hot crusty bread and wine for $2 and fresh hot donuts filled with apricot puree and cream for $1, remained with us as did the memory of wonderful long runs, each turn a face shot, in the whisper soft, fresh snow.
Romania as a side trip or stop over can easily be added to your European or Round the World airline ticket. Contact Marion Murri at Mountain Magic Travel on (02) 6457 6806 or PO Box 152, Thredbo, NSW 2627 for details about the amazingly good value packages.
To see more of Margot's work visit her Gallery pages.
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