Close to the border between Moldavia and Transylvania, eerie Red Lake, the dramatic limestone-walls of the Bicaz Gorge and the Cealhău massif are much admired by native Romanian’s but almost unheard of by anyone else.
Red Lake has a somewhat “other-worldly” feel about it. Legend has it that the origin of the lake involves young lovers, a stormy night and the wrath of the mountains, but the reality is more prosaic: a rockfall in 1837 blocked the stream, and the lake backed up behind it.
There are several walking routes in the vicinity, from a gentle stroll round the lake to more testing climbs into the surrounding hills. Our chosen route began on a stony track near the western end of the lake, gradually climbing to pasture below a rocky limestone crest.
Sheep and horses roam free here, but are corralled at night for there are wolves in these parts. We walked for a couple of hours across rolling hillsides, gradually gaining height before emerging on the edge of an escarpment that plunged dizzyingly into the valley beyond. Shortly, we reached a small summit with superb views: row upon row of hills fading into the hazy distance.
Although not far from the attraction of Red Lake, these hills are infrequently walked. Until we reached the smallholding at the start of our final descent to Balan, we hadn’t seen another soul all day. Yet there are good paths to walk and wonderful scenery to savour, and in many other places these hills would be a highlight.
In contrast, the five-kilometre-long Bicaz Gorge is busy with tourists and cars. In places so narrow that road and stream can barely squeeze between vertical cliffs only a few metres apart, it is certainly dramatic, and even though the shops and kiosks that crowd beneath the overhanging rock faces draw numerous visitors, the walls and pinnacles towering above are sufficient distraction from traffic and commerce.
Although not really suited to an exploration on foot (we just followed the road) it is worth a visit, as it certainly lives up to the dramatic billing.
Viewed from the main Bicaz-Gheorgheni road, the cliffs of the Cealhău massif are an impressive sight, especially when catching the sunlight. They are no less impressive from close-up: a long limestone ridge with a turret-like summit at each end and rocky battlements between, too steep for a frontal assault. Instead, the path takes a route via wooded shoulder and steep gulley to reach the ridgeline around 1000m above: easier, but definitely not easy.
The Dochia hut sits part way along the ridge. This large, slightly bedraggled-looking edifice offers accommodation and refreshment to passing hikers, and is a magnet for locals. Whereas on a nice day in the UK, folks may go out for a drive in the countryside and lunch in a pretty village, here they climb a large mountain in insubstantial clothing and inappropriate footwear.
Perhaps it’s the belief that eternal friendship awaits those who hike up it together that inspires people to climb, but besides Romanians and a few Moldovans, there are few, if any, foreign visitors. Overhearing us speaking in English, one man came over and enquired why we were there. When we told him we were on a walking holiday, he asked "Why, have you run out of other mountains to climb?"
Although a little off the beaten track and away from some of the more popular hiking centres in Romania, Red Lake, the Bicaz Gorge and Cealhău would combine well with visits to the painted monasteries of Moldavia for a varied break. There are other mountain ranges and National Parks nearby too (including Vânători-Neamţ NP where the European Bison has been re-introduced into the wild and the volcanic landscapes of Călimani NP) so no shortage of intriguing destinations close at hand if you wanted to base yourself in the Eastern Carpathians for a few days.