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PICTORIAL STORY

February 9, 2024

A TALE OF NATURE AND HERITAGE

The Frosty Winters of the Carpathians

Photography and story by Ana-Maria Alb
Introduction by Melanie Meggs

The land of Bukovina, located in North Romania, is a region rich in history and teeming with natural beauty. For Ana-Maria Alb, it is a place that holds a special connection to her heritage and a deep love for nature. Her journey in Bukovina is one woven with a passion for exploration and a dedication to preserving its hidden gems.

After living immersed in the lively cultures of Germany and Austria for a decade, Ana-Maria’s return to her grandparents’ hometown of Gura Humorului proved to be a transformative experience. It was there, surrounded by the majestic landscapes and vibrant forests, that she made the decision to relocate and dedicate herself to discovering and promoting the wonders of Bukovina.

With her certification as a tourism guide, Ana-Maria was granted the opportunity to serve as a local guide, sharing the magic of Bukovina with others. Her days were spent exploring the valleys of the Moldova and Humor rivers, carefully documenting the nuances of the local flora and fauna. The forest paths became her canvas, each step revealing the breathtaking seasonal transformations of the landscape.

Through her keen observations, Ana-Maria has identified an impressive 70 species of birds and 50 species of butterflies in Bukovina. Her love for the region only grew stronger, and in 2021 she poured her passion and experiences into a book that captured the essence of Bukovina.

Ana-Maria’s book not only delves into the rich history of the region but also presents its geographical wonders, maps out hiking trails, and celebrates the diverse flora and fauna that grace the area. It is a true testament to her love and dedication for this special place. The book caught the attention of local authorities, and with their support, Ana-Maria’s collaborative efforts resulted in the creation of four hiking flyers.

What had started as a personal passion for nature and outdoor walks organically evolved into a deeply satisfying profession. Today, Ana-Maria takes great pride in her role as a guide for Humor Valley’s natural wonders. She shares the region’s history, leads fellow nature enthusiasts through its breathtaking landscapes, and promotes its unique charm. This transition from a wanderer to an authorized local guide not only reflects a professional evolution but also a heartfelt commitment to preserving and celebrating the timeless beauty of Bukovina.

Ana-Maria’s journey in Bukovina has not only enriched her own life but also inspired others to explore this captivating region. Through her various experiences in the Danube Delta, Transylvanian villages, and hiking through the Carpathians, she has collected countless stories and photographs that can captivate readers’ interest and serve as inspiration for them to travel to these places.

Ana-Maria shares one of her many captivating stories - ‘The Frosty Winters of the Carpathians’. With her words and photographs, she invites readers to join her on a journey through the breathtaking Carpathians.

ANA-MARIA ALB

Snow and freezing temperatures persist for weeks during the harsh winter in the Carpathians. I write these words thinking of all the wonderful people I met in Bukovina. They taught me how to fully appreciate as well as understand the charm of this place. Come with me on a peaceful journey to enjoy the pastoral settings of northern Romania, in the regions of Bukovina and Maramureş.

(Pictures 1-3) After a week of heavy snow and blizzards, the sun lit up the entire Rodna National Park. Starting by car early in the morning from Gura Humorului, we arrived at the Prislop Mountain Pass, which ensures the connection between the historical provinces of Bukovina and Maramureș. Located at an elevation of 1416 m, the natural setting of the mountain pass takes your breath away. Majestic peaks frame the spot, the Rodna and Maramureș Mountains, the latter being the natural border of Romania with Ukraine. Our hiking trail to Gârgalău Peak is splendid; the first part is a walk on a mountain plateau, then a climb on the path made in the snow. From here followed the steeper climb, with several short breaks. Groups of hikers could be seen on the ridge, others behind us. The sun was sending its rays to our frozen faces. There is a little more and a little more. Steamy breaths could be heard with every step.

(Pictures 4-6) At the top, at last! With a height of 2158 m, Gârgalău is the fourth-highest peak in the Rodna Mountains ridge. Everyone experiences joy in their own way. The wind's whispers reached even under the hood and cap that covered my head. I turned north-east, my back to the sun, and couldn't stop marveling at the magnificent setting that unfolded in front of my eyes.

A warm shiver took over my whole body. Everything around me was so sublime: the ice embroidery, the shine of the snow, the white peaks of the mountain range…A stinging wind touches every inch of exposed skin. A few minutes facing the sun, a few photos, and we set off for the descent path. How lucky we were that we already had the tracks made by other hikers! Arriving at the Prislop Pass parking lot, we enjoyed a tasty meal at the restaurant. In a short time, the hot and spicy soup soothed our red faces and warmed us up. Late in the evening, I arrived home with the same joy that I have every season when I admire, from the valley and from the top, the greatness of these mountains.

(Pictures 7-8) Another cold winter morning. The car was going up the road, freshly cleared of ice and snow. The trees are adorned with rime ice, and smoke rises from the chimneys of the houses towards the blue sky. In the north-western part of the Suceava county, alongside the Romanians, live the Hutsuls, an ethnic group of Slavic origin. Their history is still shrouded in mystery, remaining throughout the centuries a compact community spread over the Carpathian area of northern Romania and Ukraine. Respect for traditions, religious and community holidays, and their own lifestyle are features that make this ethnic group something distinct and unique.

This Hutsul ethnic group has always had a close connection with the surrounding environment. The horse was the main form of travel in these mountainous areas where they live.

Specific to the community is a small, friendly, hardy horse. Its origin is Carpathian; currently, there are several breeding centers. The use of these horses by the Austro-Hungarian imperial army enabled the Carpathian horse breed to gain widespread recognition. Their toughness was also put to the test during the two World Wars.

In Romania, the Carpathian horse (hutsul pony) can be found in Suceava county, Moldova-Sulita locality. The craftsmanship with which they make and decorate household items, clothing, and household objects is representative of the Hutsuls civilization. The Hutsuls culture blends perfectly with the pastoral natural environment of the Carpathians through their wooden farms located in the valleys or on the meadows of the hilly coasts, near the forests. For centuries, the main source of existence for these mountain farmers had been provided by this small Carpathian horse.

(Pictures 9-10) We leave the village, and the car goes up the country road through the forest that stretches along the border between Romania and Ukraine. We reached the village of Lupcina, at an elevation of 1000 m above the sea. Once, the forests of Lupcina were the land of wolves, hence the name of the village. At the end of the street, after the last house, right next to the forest, there is a wonderful wild meadow. A multitude of wild flowers grow here in the summer; the freshly cut hay smells divine; and colorful butterflies fly gently, giving you the feeling that you are in heaven. If you look up, you can see far away the hamlets and the vast Carpathian forest beyond the border. Time stands still. In winter, this peace at the end of the world embraces you.

The thick fog is slowly falling over the forest. The trees look like biscuits sprinkled with sugar. The wooden fences are silent, frozen in the snow that covers the whole Carpathian world. A crow makes another sound and flies away quickly. At the entrance to the forest, we stop to devour the last reserves of food. From the village, you can hear a dog barking; otherwise, there is a penetrating silence like the cold mountain air. The way back means crossing the forest and then entering a county road. How strange it is, every time, the return to civilization.

(Picture 11) Between the towns of Gura Humorului and Câmpulung Moldovenesc lies the valley of the Suha River, a tributary of the Moldova River. The pastoral landscape of the Stânișoara Mountains is delightful; the villages scattered on the sloping coasts have wooden households, and the plots are marked by rustic fences. The locals are engaged in raising animals, working in the forest, and cultivating plants. Here, life is still archaic; everything is based on the peasant calendar, the change of seasons, and the difference between day and night. Suha Valley preserves the autochthonous lifestyle of the first inhabitants of this area, those who founded small communities in the middle of dense forests. The traditional houses combine wood and stone, the course of life in some villages, still follows an archaic rhythm. The gastronomic segment recalls the influences of all the ethnic groups that lived in Bukovina, the folk costume is a textile jewel or combination of textile, leather, fur and contains elements preserved from generation to generation.

(Pictures12-13) The lowest temperatures are usually recorded in January. In recent years, there have been exceptions. On a day when our resistance to the cold was tested as seriously as possible, we took a short hike in the Humor valley, not too far from my home. The river was completely frozen, and we were moving forward with difficulty through the hardened snow only on the surface. We arrived in the center of the village and met some friends. Their invitation to go for a snack in the old house they had from their great-grandmother could not be refused. The small house had a nice veranda with wooden beams. The fire lit on the old stove quickly warmed the room. For several minutes, I admired the shape of the frozen embroidery on the surface of the small window facing the street. In a short time, two plates of traditional food were placed on the table. Steaming potato slices were brought from the stove. These accompanied home-made sausages, smoked ham, onions and peppers, pickles, and cow's and sheep's cheeses. In the evening, I bravely set off for home. When closing the door, I felt a sting on my hand after touching the doorknob. A frosty night was coming. Until the city, only the eyes could be seen on our faces, everything else was covered. The snow crunched loudly with every step.

(Picture 14) A special moment in the winter is when I build a snowman. It's my way of forging a spiritual bond between myself and that location. Finding the necessary materials is not difficult; leaves, branches, seeds, and what is uncovered by the snow all help to bring the character to life. Therefore, when leaving, it's also necessary to say goodbye to someone - in my case, the snowman.

(Picture15) This wooden fence has the same vitality as a deeply rooted tree, in my opinion. These fences charge themselves with solar energy, become one with the earth they stand on, absorb the sap of the plants that grow nearby, and become cleansed by raindrops. How could there not be life on this fence? It appears that winter is nature's napping season, with nothing to rouse it from. A far-off human voice is sometimes the only sign that anything is, in fact, happening, including your own breathing. This snow-covered environment has left a deep mark on me: a sense of familiarity and belonging to everything around me — a place I can definitely call home.


About Bukovina and Maramureș - Spread over the territory of seven countries, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Ukraine, Serbia and Romania, the Carpathian Arc is one of the treasures of this continent. Virgin forests, meadows, peaks and mountain plateau are home to a multitude of representatives of flora and fauna, diversity that must be preserved, the balance of the trophic chain being ensured by these species of mammals, birds, insects, plants, fungi. Half of the area of the Carpathians lies on the territory of Romania. Specific to these mountains are vast forested wild areas, mid-altitude peaks, and large valleys.

Before 1775, Bukovina belonged to the Principality of Moldavia, after that year it was annexed to the Austrian Monarchy. The interactions between the communities, the exchange of cultures and the patrimonial wealth of each ethnic group, brought Bukovina a plus in its economic, administrative and cultural evolution. After the disintegration of the Habsburg Empire, Bukowina returned to the Romanian sphere, and after the Second World War, the territory in the northern part was taken over by the Soviets. Today, the north of Bukovina belongs to Ukraine and its south to Romania. Before the Second World War, the population of Bucovina consisted of Romanians, Ruthenians, Germans, Jews, Poles, Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks, Lipovian Russians, and Italians. In what follows, the term for Bukovina will refer to its south, Suceava County, Romania. The neighboring county, Maramureș, has a similar past. From its status as a voivodeship, it was integrated into the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy after 1688, and from 1919, its southern part was included in the territorial unit of Romania. Its north belongs to Ukraine today, with the Tisza River being the natural border.

As we come to the end, Ana-Maria Alb's love for Bukovina and its natural beauty has truly shone through. Her journey, from a wanderer to a dedicated guide, is a testament to her passion for exploration and preservation. Through her book and hiking flyers, she has not only shared the wonders of Bukovina, but also inspired others to experience its magic for themselves. Take more steps into the land of Bukovina with Ana-Maria’s photography in her portfolio and let its beauty captivate you.

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The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and are not necessarily shared by The Pictorial List and the team.

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