In 2017 I, Sophie Smith, decided I would do something adventurous and signed up to volunteer in Romania providing NGO support. As part of my volunteering experience I chose to participate in the orientation week offered by Care2Travel and I was not disappointed. I got to see some of the beautiful sights Harghita county has to offer and meet some truly great people. I would definitely recommend partaking in the orientation week if you are interested in learning about the history, culture, and language of Harghita county. If you are unsure of what to expect during the orientation week or are wondering what’s included then hopefully some information about my experience will answer some of your questions.

Day 1- Monday: Language Lesson

An intensive language lesson is included in the orientation week and my first lesson was on Monday. These lessons are so much fun and Hungarian is a really interesting albeit challenging language to learn. At first I was really confused as to why I was learning Hungarian in Romania but once the history was explained it all made sense. Plus it’s pretty cool being in such a bilingual area and it’s really interesting how most of the signs are in both Romanian and Hungarian. Barni, the language teacher, was really nice and extremely patient (also if you ask very nicely he can teach you some funny phrases and tongue twisters). The language lessons are a great way to settle yourself into the area and makes communicating with locals a lot less stressful.

Day 2- Tuesday: The Red Lake and Bicaz Canyon

Tuesday was when the real fun began. I was picked up at the accommodation at 9:00am by my tour guide László. I was very lucky to have László as my tour guide as he was really lovely and very informative. He could answer just about any question that I had (and trust me I had quite a few). Our first stop for the day was the beautiful old fortified church in Csikkarcfalva.

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The church was built in the 15th Century but was completely renovated in 2012. It was so beautiful and offered an amazing view of the village. I was also fortunate enough to meet with the priest, who was so lovely and very friendly. He was very interested in hearing about Australia and why I chose to come to Romania. The village itself was also really interesting as I saw so many traditional horse and carts, which are still commonly used today by farmers throughout Romania.

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After saying goodbye to the priest we made our way to the Red Lake. The Red Lake was so interesting as it was created after a huge landslide and you can still see the stumps of old trees that were swept away in the flood.

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There was not much for me to do there as it was winter and the lake wasn’t quite frozen enough for ice-skating but during the summer there is plenty to do, including boat rides and hiking. There is a hike through the mountains of the Bicaz Canyon included in the summer orientation week for those who are able. For me it was to snowy to go hiking but the drive down the canyon was still absolutely incredible. On the way down we passed through, what the locals call, Hell’s gate then Hell’s porch, and then finally Hell’s throat. The mountains were so impressive and absolutely massive.

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After our drive through the mountains we stopped and had a traditional Hungarian lunch at a beautiful old bed and breakfast. We had a delicious vegetable soup followed by Székely káposzta (Sekler cabbage).

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On the journey home we stopped off in the small village of Szárhegy to see the Franciscan monastery and old castle there. Once a year there is an art festival held at the monastery and artists from all over the world come and create together. Often the artworks, particularly the sculptures, are donated to the village and you can see them at the monastery and in the village park. In summer there is no time to see the Szárhegy because of the hike in the mountains but if you have enough free time I would definitely recommend at least a drive through.

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Day 3- Wednesday: Praid Salt Mines

Once again I met my tour guide László at the volunteer accommodation at 9:00am but instead of stopping off at an old church before heading to the main attraction we went and saw the natural mineral water springs in Homorod. Homorod was a beautiful little ski town built around the natural springs. I was lucky enough to try some of the water and it tasted… interesting. It is definitely an acquired taste but it is very good for you and is full of iron.

After a short stop at the springs we made our way to the Praid (Parajd in Hungarian) Salt Mines. The mines are hundreds of years old and are still operational today. In order to get there you have to catch a bus that takes you through a tunnel to the main entrance.  Once you get through the gate, there is a 200 stair descent into a giant salt cave.

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I have to say I was very surprised once I got to the salt mines as there are cafes, playgrounds, chemists, and even a church. There was also a small museum that provided some information on the history of the mines, which was really interesting. My favourite part however was the old mine shaft. It was really impressive and it’s hard to believe that hundreds of years ago people used to work down there. It was absolutely incredible.

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After the salt mine we visited the town of Szovata to see the salt block and the Medvetó (Bear Lake). The Bear Lake is Europe’s largest heliothermal lake and gets its name from looking like an outstretched bear skin. In the summer it is a very popular swimming destination and is home to some interesting wildlife, the most famous of which is the stork. The salt block was also very interesting and had many intriguing patterns.

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On our way home we stopped in the small village of Korund where we met with some potters who were kind enough to show me their workshop. It was fascinating seeing how all the ceramic products were made and the family was so lovely and talkative. They also had a cute little puppy who sat with them in the workshop. Their shop was closed when we visited as it was winter and there were not a lot of tourists however if you are interested you can buy their handmade vases and plates. They are absolutely beautiful and make fantastic presents to take home for family and friends.

Day 4- Thursday: Sighisoara (Segesvár)

Thursday was my last day meeting with László at 9:00am. Our first stop was the village Máréfalva to see all the old Székely gates. Nearly every house in this little village has a Székely gate and there is a council program that encourages and helps people to maintain their gates. T​hey are intricately decorated and are quite spectacular to see.

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After Máréfalva we went to an old Saxon city, Sighisoara. Despite being a major German speaking community a few hundred years ago, today there are very few Saxons still living in the city. It is, however, a very popular city for German tourists and it is quite common to see many signs in German. Our first tourist attraction was the old clock tower and museum.

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The museum is very interesting with a collection of old building tools and information about guilds that were introduced by the Saxon communities in Romania. The view from the clock tower was incredible. You could see the entire city from there and there were even signs pointing to other famous cities that would tell you approximately how far away the city was. I was particularly excited when I found Sydney.

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Following the museum and clock tower we climbed an old covered staircase, which lead to a small high school and a church with a Saxon cemetery. I couldn’t imagine having to climb those stairs everyday to get to school. It would definitely keep you super fit.

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After a quick look around the high school and the church we slowly made our way through the old city. There were many interesting buildings and statues, I even found a statue of Vlad the Impaler. There are also many different towers, each representing a specific guild.

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There was a schneiderturm (tailor’s tower) and even a tower for the black smiths. All of the buildings were painted in bright colours and there was a great view of the city from the old fortification wall.

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After a satisfying lunch in a gorgeous little restaurant we made our way home. On our way we made a quick stop at an old Saxon church in Saschiz. During the summer orientation week, volunteers are usually taken to see the Jesus statue but it requires a small hike and the weather was a little to cold and snowy for us to make it. So we went to see the church instead. It was a very beautiful church but when we got there it was closed for restoration work. Despite the bit of bad luck at the end of the day, overall my day in Sighisoara was so much fun. I will definitely endeavour to come back and visit during summer.

Day 5- Friday: Language Lesson

On the final day of my orientation week I had one last language lesson with Barni. It was nice to learn more Hungarian after being able to practice what I had learnt during my travels through Harghita county. Barni was once again super patient with me and was even kind enough to teach me a little bit of Romanian. The lessons were a great way to finish off a busy week and once again made communicating with locals less daunting than it already was.

I would definitely recommend participating in the orientation week if you are thinking of doing so. It is a great way to get a feel for the county before you start your volunteer work and you will have so many great experiences to write home about. If I had the chance to do it all over again I would do so in a heart beat.

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