Cities / Towns Visited: 66
Countries Visited: 19
Steps Taken Today: 17,432
Steps Taken Around the World: 2,269,227
We were awoken by our alarm much earlier than could be considered desirable, but it was for a good cause I assure you. You see, we had organised a tour out to a place we had been eager to visit but would have struggled to reach on our own. Walking into the town square, by the fountain, we met up with out guide, and a British couple with their two kids who were also taking the tour, and piled into the van. The mother of the kids was very friendly and made plenty of conversation on the journey, which was a little overwhelming for us as non-morning people, but we somehow bumbled through structuring semi-intelligible answers.
I was pleasantly surprised to have some of my faith for the future generations restored while listening to this happily involved mother using the ride to teach her daughter (who is only about 8 or 9) a new word for the day, which, going by the tone, is a regular thing, even though they are all on holidays. And I’m not talking simple words, she was teaching her the meaning of the word ‘bias’, and how to use it in a sentence. Its so nice to see parents who are actively being involved in the education of their children, instead of just leaving it all to the will of the school system. Even when her young son (maybe only 5) accidentally hit her, she made a point of asking if he meant to do that, and inadvertently reiterating the difference between apologising for things dependent on whether it was accidental or deliberate. A model parent, I must say.
Eventually, after a questionable drive down a rather treacherous dirt road we arrived at our long awaited destination; Libearty Bear Sanctuary. Now as I have previously stated, my partner’s spirit animal is the brown bear, mainly due to an encounter he had with one as a young teen while living in the US, thus the visit here was in our calendar long before the rest of the trip fell into place around it. I was also happy to discover during my research that the sanctuary also has a number of rescued wolves; my spirit animal. As we joined the first English tour of the day we were led up to a small room where an introduction video is played. To share the back story, this sanctuary is home to a few hundred brown bears, almost all of whom were rescued from zoos, or more often than not, cruel captivity where they were brutally forced to perform for the amusement of people. The sanctuary was started by a wonderful woman named Cristina Lapis, who tried to save a female bear named Maya who she rescued from captivity in 1998. Unfortunately she could not save her from self mutilation and depression after her rescue and the beautiful brown bear died in her arms. She made a promise as the poor creature died that she would build a sanctuary and rescue other bears in her honour, and that’s exactly what she did.
After the video had finished we followed our guide into the sanctuary, and were told two very important rules; no flash photography as it scares the bears, most of whom are already fearful of humans because of their abuse; and no eating as the food attracts the bears and can make them aggressive. The park is made up of a number of huge fenced off areas thick with woodland to give the bears the feeling of being in the wild, but without the dangers as many of them were born in captivity or were raised from cubs by humans and so do not know how to protect themselves properly from threats like wolves and other more wild bears. The fences are all electrified, which sounds cruel, but it’s mainly to keep wild animals out than to keep the bears in as such. As we stopped at the first enclosure we saw our first bear, sitting alone, relaxing in the grass.
We took a long moment to simply admire this majestic beast, and be thankful that there are wonderful people in the world to save them from their horrible fates. In a blip though we were hurried off on our way; there was much more to see. We paused for a moment at a board which had the stars of the Ursa Mare constellation marked with names beside each star. We soon learnt that these were the names of the bears who have died at the sanctuary since its opening. It was at this point that we were surprised and shocked to see that two of the names listed were the first and last name of my partner. A happy coincidence, and one which made him feel even more akin to the animal he loves so much.
The next enclosure we reached was to be the saddest of them. Inside sat a bear hunched over in the most depressed manner. We learnt that his name was Max, and he had the most troubling story of all of the bears here. He had been rescued from a cage in Bran, where he was kept as amusement and for tourists to have their photos taken with. Now, as I’m sure it is fairly obvious, bears do not generally take well to being close to humans or being trapped, and thus to keep him sedate and unthreatening the evil keepers had blinded him by poking his eyes with needles, as well as cutting off his canine teeth and his claws, spraying his nose with pepper spray to ruin his sense of smell, and feeding him a sedative mixed with beer everyday. His sight will never return, and it has taken quite some time for any of his smell to come back, which at least makes it easier for him to eat, as at the beginning in the sanctuary he could not even locate food put in front of him. My heart broke at his story, and I longed to just hug him.
We were comforted to know that he shares his cage with another bear who helps look after him, a female who is rather new, and thus is still very weary towards humans. The guide asked us to step back from the cage as sometimes she charges and touching the electric fence hurts her, but as usual some selfish person on our group went closer and took a photo with flash. All of a sudden the bear came rushing out of the bushes and stopped just short of the fence, growling and huffing; clearly distressed by the ghosts of her past. Sufficed to say we hurried off on our way, as my partner and I thoroughly shook our head in disgust at the disrespect of the aforementioned person.
As we passed the next cage, one of the bears came out and paced along the edge of the fence as we slowly passed. Naturally, once again, someone thought to not respect the two simple rules and took some food out of their bag to eat, which they were promptly and sternly told to stash back in their bag. The guide explained how at the start of their time in the sanctuary they would feed the bears by throwing fruit over the fences, but as many were kept in captivity from birth and were fed on bread, they took some time to begin eating and different foods. The keepers here make sure they vary the bears diets with fruit and some meat, along with everything they need for their proper nutrition. They also make sure to place it in different spots each day so the bears don’t get into a routine and can have some hunting and foraging skills. The cages are rigged with CCTV cameras and are never entered except for when one needs medical help, or to retrieve a deceased bear. We were also told that as many of the bears have trouble adjusting to forest life, they often pair new bears with some of the rescued wolves they have here as they help to teach them how to get around the wilderness, and how to hunt. We smiled at the natural partnership that blooms between our two spirit animals.
The next two cages held two mother bears with their growing cubs, as some come to the sanctuary pregnant or as families, and are isolated until they have grown to prevent aggression between the older male bears and the male cubs. This is also to let the male cubs reach maturity before castrating them, as all the bears are here to prevent more bears being born in captivity. They once made the mistake of releasing an adolescent bear uncastrated in with the others and he quickly became a teen father; so never again.
The cage across from this surprisingly held some rescued deer, frolicking happily; even the one with three legs bounded around. Our guide explained that as the sanctuary was able to grow, with sponsorship, and support from visitors, they have been able to open a large rescue dog shelter for strays, as well as being able to rescue other mistreated animals like these deer, as well as donkeys, mules, horses and many birds. An amazingly honourable feat.
The last cage we came to made my heart soar, because as we approached two wolves stepped out from the trees and followed along the fence as we walked past. The other cage also housed another wolf, and a cross-bred wolfdog who’s owners abandoned her when they realised she was more work than they’d expected. Being close to wolves and dogs melts my heart, and makes me feel at ease. It has been ten years since our family dog died, and I have longed to own one again every day since then. Being able to will be the only comfort to me when I finally stop travelling after I see the world.
Eventually our tour sadly came to an end, but seemingly this was just in time, as the heavens opened just as we jumped in the van, and absolutely bucketed down as we made our way back. We had asked the guide if he could drop us in Râșnov instead, as it was on the way back anyway, so that we could go and see the fortress, before making our own way back by bus. He was kind enough to not simply drop us in town, but took us all the way to the base of the mountain that the fortress sits atop, and explained how to get to reach the summit. At this point the rain had cleared (lucky for us), and we said a cheerful goodbye to our guide, and the friendly British family we had shared the morning with.
Now there are seemingly two ways to reach the peak of the mountain; the cable car, which we had intended to take from the front of the incline; or (unknown to us) a tractor from the back (which luckily for us was notably cheaper). Thus paying our fee we jumped in the seated trailer and were hauled up the hill by an actual farming tractor; a rather bizarre but efficient way to do it.
As we disembarked, we passed through the gates and were met with the sight of the fortress. This medieval beauty sits perched atop the mountain, with commanding views of the city it served to protect in centuries past. Although it is somewhat of a shell of its former self, we scurried in undeterred, along with the throng of other tourists. Within the walls sits a mixture of ruined old stone walls of the buildings which used to fill the inner space at one end, and restored old stone buildings now housing small souvenir shops at the other end. I will say that the souvenir vending kind of takes away from the time warp of the rest of the space, but I guess everyone has to eat. Weaving around the old and the new was the occasional stray cat, a rather regular sight in the Balkans I’m afraid.
This 13th century fortification had been integral to the safety of the townspeople of Râșnov in medieval times, and said times must have been tough as they essentially made the inside of the walls a long term place of residence with shops, tradesmen, forges, houses, and even a small school. It was only ever conquered once when the secret route to the spring outside the walls was found by the enemy; cut off from water they were forced to surrender. After this a deep well was dug within the walls to prevent a reoccurence. The well is said to have been dug by Turkish prisoners who etched verses from the Quran in the walls of the well as they dug, and these verses are still there today, although the fate of the men is unknown.
With the fortress thoroughly explored we exited, stopping briefly in a tower just outside which gives a stunning view of the fortress as well as some history on the armies of Romania throughout history. Deciding to save our pennies we chose to take the forest path down through the trees until we reached the town. It was a peaceful walk, and gave us time to contemplate and discuss all we had seen that morning. A quick stop at a bakery to buy Corvidogs (hotdogs wrapped in a spiral of bread dough), and we were soon on the next bus back to Brașov.
Our evening was a rather relaxed affair of a home cooked meal and plenty of time to reflect on the day’s adventure. As I tried to relax in bed, I found that I still had bears on my mind. I was upset by all I had heard about the horrific treatment of those noble creatures who had been torn from their homes and their very nature for the sick pleasure of us humans. I cannot imagine taking any enjoyment from seeing a beast which should be roaming large tracks of land, instead chained to a post and baited, or kept in a cage with barely enough room to lie down in. I will never be able to understand why it took so long for the governments of the world to ban such atrocities, and yet they did. Killing animals for food is one thing, but torturing them for amusement is a special kind of evil. With that said, it gives me hope that there is a place in the world for them to be kept safe and cared for, in an environment as close to the wild as they can get; and that there are amazing people fighting to expand this sanctuary ever further to help more and more mistreated fauna. We were truly in awe of the amazing work the keepers do there, and were so inspired that we decided then and there that instead of buying each other Christmas presents this year, we would instead pool the money and sponsor a bear. I can only encourage all of you to consider doing the same, and if not this charity, then any other reputable charitable organisation that doesn’t spend the money on huge CEO wages, or holds questionable beliefs. In a world where we are all brainwashed to think happiness only comes from owning things, may I beseech you to purchase your joy by helping others. Altruism is a gift which serves to provide true happiness, one which you cannot hold in your hands, but instead only in your heart, where it is needed most.