TRANSYLVANIA WITH DAVID DENNIS AND NEIL THOMPSON IN THE SAFE HANDS OF LAJOS NEMETH, JULY INTO AUGUST 2011
Wednesday 27 July
Neil had arrived the previous evening to stay overnight ahead of a 4.30am reveillé and a 5.10 departure for David's. The taxi was waiting for us and we were soon on the way to Luton airport. Heavy traffic leading to the terminal led us to walk the last 600 yards and by the time we had queued for the Wizzair bag drop, progressed through security, had a quick Prêt, the flight was already boarding for the 7.45am departure to Cluj in Romania. 2½ hours later, plus 2 hours' time difference and the exit process from the airport, we met-up with Lajos and by 1pm were driving away looking for a bank and lunch under less than promising skies. Parking proved impossible in the centre around King Mathias Square so the bank idea was abandoned temporarily in favour of a suburban branch.
Lajos took the road west out of the city eventually spotting a restaurant and a kerb-side parking space. But when reversing into it he collided with another car that had pulled-up behind and whilst the three of us went across to have something to eat poor old Lajos had to deal with the other driver and police.
After lunch we continued west taking a left turn towards Manastingeni along a lovely woodland lane in the Gorge of Magyarkapus but the rain started the moment we got out of the car! Thwarted, it made sense to retrace our route east to visit a hillside and the deep Torda Gorge to the south-east of Cluj. Despite pretty gloomy conditions we were stunned to locate the rare and rapidly declining Danube Clouded Yellow (Colias myrmidone) which wasn't flying much and this was followed by a specimen of the even rarer form alba! Dryad (Minois dryas), Common Blue (Polyommatus icarus), Silver-studded Blue (Plebejus argus), Marbled White (Melanargia galathea) and Meadow Brown (Maniola jurtina) completed the late afternoon list. At the far end of the hilltop we looked down on the dramatic limestone gorge and our attention was drawn to a Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) hunting to feed its chick that was calling in the distance. Lajos pointed out a massive nest on the rock face that had clearly been used over many years.
After this, I nodded-off in the car for most of the way to our first hotel - pensiune Muskatli Panzio - in the small town of Torocko/aka Rimetea, a pine-built/clad chalet-style place where we arrived just after 7pm and where David and I were to share a room in the apex. Without undue delay we went to dinner, through a large metal gate, across a wet cut meadow on wobbly duck boards, and into a pleasant hotel. We ate al fresco on the verandah starting off with a plum liquer, palinka, down in one, and the essential Ursus beer.
Thursday 28 July
David made his customary early visit to the nearby hillside before we met for breakfast 'across the boardwalk' at 8am. Within an hour Lajos was driving us south to the next village, Torockoszenrgyorgy, where we turned sharp right up a bumpy track towards an old castle perched on the hilltop ('Castle Hill'). The flowery slopes and meadows were fantastic and teeming with butterflies - by the end of our morning's visit we would see close to 80 species in a relatively small area! Neil drew our attention to 'what's that? A large moth?' sitting about 10' up on a bush - no, it was a huge female Lesser Purple Emperor (Apatura ilia), and even though it soon flew off the tone had been set for the day. Meleager's Blues (Polyommatus daphnis), probably my favourite blue, were present along with so many others that it makes no sense to list them here (see day list). This site must be the best I have ever experienced in Europe - can't readily think of a corresponding comparison. Around noon we walked up and into the castle ruins where a Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) was hilltopping and took in the views of the rolling hills and limestone outcrops. This is a very rich floristic part of the world, still benefitting from small scale traditional agriculture though it was interesting to note the advances in machine use since fellow traveller Alan and I were in the country 7 years ago.
Lunch was set-up by Lajos at the back of the vehicle in the welcome shade of a tree and a Dryad became very partial to probing on my camera. After lunch the three of us walked down the track to rendezvous with Lajos who had taken the vehicle ahead.
Around 2.30 we set-off back to the road and continued south for just a few k to a limestone gorge at Kokozi-szakadek to a Black Ringlet (Erebia melas) colony and another great habitat, this time much drier and stonier under the vegetated screes. We were rewarded with our target species, a truly beautiful insect, and added Chequered Blue (Scolitantides orion), Large Blue (Phengaris arion), and a Duke of Burgundy (Hamearis lucina) on the way back. This had been some day! A beer was now called for and we popped in to the pub in Torocko to sample a new brand, Ciuc. But a visit to the local hillside was taken before close of play and Blue-spot Hairstreak (Satyrium spini) was added to the tally.
Friday 29 July
After rain in the night the morning started cool and grey with mist on the hillsides so we delayed our departure until 10 o'clock. In light rain we headed north taking a right turn just before Buru following the road NE alongside the river - potentially superb nymphalid territory - then left up the hillside near Iara. This was supposed to be myrmidone habitat, grazed ancient terraces and old orchards, but apart from Common and Silver-studded Blues little was moving. David located a Large Blue, however, which livened-up proceedings. Danube Clouded Yellow remained elusive. So we looked for pastures new and rejoined the valley road turning left to Baisoara and up another muddy track through similarly grazed terraces. Lajos took the car as far as he could in the Magyarleta pastures towards an old tower, the Geczy Fortress (didn't see it) and parked at a wood edge where we all went off in different directions in search of Fenton's Wood White (Leptidea morsei). Very little was flying in the dull and cool conditions but Lajos caught a Wood White, later confirmed as Fenton's by accomplices of his in Budapest museum. Scotch Argus (Erebia aethiops) put in an appearance here. We lunched by the car, finding that the weather had turned heavily humid.
We walked down the slopes to be intercepted by Lajos at some beautifully flowery hay meadows, some still uncut, but in the absence of sun things remained quiet. Species included Scarce Swallowtail (Iphiclides podalirius), Dingy Skipper (Erynnis tages), Eastern Baton Blue (Pseudophilotes vicrama), Osiris Blue (Cupido osiris), and Chalk-hill Blues (Polyommatus coridon), Spotted and Heath Fritillaries (Melitaea didyma and Melitaea athalia respectively, Dryad, Meadow Brown etc. Then the rain started again making us dash to the car. Ursus beers in Baisoara seemed the only sensible option and as the rain continued to fall we headed back to the hotel, arriving around 4.45. David and I completed the day's list in our room before meeting L and N in the village bar at 6pm where we were re-introduced to Ciuc beer. Lajos spent the rest of the evening there nattering to an old friend from Hungary leaving the three of us to enjoy another dinner across the boardwalk.
Saturday 30 July
Today I joined David around 7am as the early mist moved down the valley allowing the sun to push through the patchy remnant clouds. Found a few roosters including Geranium Argus (Aricia eumedon), Silver-spotted Skipper (Hesperia comma), and Chalk-hill Blue. A couple of photos of the village were taken from higher up the hillside as the church clock struck eight summoning us to breakfast. A roosting Wood White got photographed, just in case it was Fenton's (but it wasn't).
Having packed, we got off at 9.15 in average weather northwards again towards Buru looking for a veg stall or supermarket for lunch items. Pulling in to the roadside in a small village we witnessed the death of a dog, its head being run over by the wheel of a horse drawn cart that it and another cur had been harassing. By the time we came out of the shop its body had been removed causing the inevitable speculation as to what dish it would be used for. In Buru we took a right turn, then another, bringing us along the other side of the hill facing Torocko. At the edge of cultivated land we found a Lesser Fiery Copper (Lycaena thersamon) colony in a very restricted area causing much excitement, and Chestnut Heath (Coenonympha glycerion) was also here but very difficult to get anywhere near. Had great views of a Goshawk (Accipiter gentilis) perched in a nearby hawthorn bush. Pushing on along muddy rutted tracks through crops we arrived around Pietroasa looking for Fenton's Wood White (does this species really exist?!). In the lovely lush flowery stream bed were Large Copper Lycaena dispar), Duke of Burgundy, and Short-tailed Blues (Cupido argiades) with the occasional Green-veined White (Pieris napi) promising to be a Fenton's. Up the path and along the forest edge, with rain threatening, activity slowed down but David reckoned a large dark nymphalid flying away from him was almost certainly a Poplar Admiral (Limenitis populi). I couldn't agree! A solitary Brown Hairstreak (Thecla betulae) teased David and I by perching just too high on some hawthorn bushes, and then was lost from view. With the arrival of rain spots it was time to get back to the car. In heavy rain we decided to go into Turda and have lunch in a restaurant - the Dana was chosen and a typical soup plus sausage and chips felt excessive.
As today was a transit day the heavy rain didn't matter too much and it accompanied us east to the rich loess hillsides to the north of Ogra. Large Copper was here, hunkered down against the stiff wind. In resumed rain, we drove past Turgo-Mures to the south and on to Sovata through sunflower and sweetcorn encroachment, continuing through Praid and eventually to our next destination, Szekelykeresztur/aka Odorheiu-Seciuesc in the Carpathian foothills, reached around 7pm. This is an apparently affluent town, quite Slovenian, and our Pensiune Petofi was very well appointed. After a quick change Lajos drove us to the restaurant 'Petho' for dinner where a christening party was enjoying disco-loud thumping 'music' from which there was no respite. Incidentally, we had passed three weddings today, clearly Saturday is favoured as at home.
Sunday 31 July
Heavy rain was heard in the night though the streets were drying-up by 7am under cloudy skies and patchy sun. Our breakfast experience was odd, to say the least. Ordered the night before we were not able to have muesli and a cooked breakfast, only one or the other. The table lacked knives, plates and we had to ask for coffee, milk, and bread - the glum waiter was totally clueless.
As we got underway at 9am it was clear that Lajos was concerned (as we all were) about the noises - or 'voices' as he called them - coming from the front right wheel. Under cloudy skies and a cool wind we visited Gordon's Hill above Farkaslaka to the east of Lupeni, not far from our unpronounceable pensiune town. The rich flowery meadows were so quiet that I didn't even turn on my camera. Further up the hill near the gas installation and towards the forest edge we tried again with similar results and I resorted to photographing Dryads and seeing if there were any Essex Skippers (Thymelicus lineola) flying with the Small Skippers (Thymelicus sylvestris). (That tells you something!).
Lunch was impromptu at a garage cum handicraft centre where Lajos had stopped in the hope of finding some oil to put on the front wheel. Encouraged to try the local speciality, a cholesterol pizza, we all succumbed against our better judgements. Returning to the field our route took us north a short way taking a left turn through an orchard slowly adding species though none new for this trip. A bumpy track through the next village - Enlaka - saw us stop once before and once after and David picked-up a Scarce Copper (Lycaena virgaureae). We retraced the route and at a subsequent stop were treated to 'an orgy of Small Pearl-bordered Fritillaries (Boloria selene)'. Still windy with little sun it was clearly beer time at a bar in the town where the original Bob Dylan 'Blowing in the wind' greeted us appropriately. Lajos went off to find a garage and later picked us up for dinner, once again at Petho. Today had been poor but amazingly the rain had held-off.
Monday 1 August
Yorkshire Day. Must augur well. A mozzy had buzzed in my ear during the night and had evaded slaughter. Breakfast was odd, as yesterday, but more leisurely as Lajos had taken the car to the Toyota garage. But there was bad news when he appeared around 9.30 - more work was needed. So he dropped us at an old orchard on a terraced hillside at the NW edge of town whilst he saw to the vehicle - fair enough. Still no sun, and therefore quiet, though there were plenty of Silver-studded and Idas Blues (Plebejus idas). A large female Silver-washed Fritillary (Argynnis paphia) was an exciting late discovery but the morning had been ordinary. Lajos turned up with the repaired car by noon and we lunched at the nearby Petho, though David missed-out having gone back to the orchard to find his camera bag.
Lajos drove us south after lunch towards his 'twin peaks' located at a left turn around Martine before going off road up the Castle Hill-side at Bagy. He had seen Hermit (Chazara briseis) here before and a couple of fresh specimens were soon found. This is a remnant population almost certainly doomed to imminent extinction as the sward was inadequately grazed. Other species on the breezy hillside included Swallowtail (Papilio machaon), Osiris Blue, Eastern Baton Blue, Turquoise Blue (Polyommatus dorylas), and Adonis Blue (Polyommatus bellargus), Mountain Small White (Pieris ergane), and a Small Copper (Lycaena phlaeas). Spots of rain came in the wind. Time to go back down, taking the track towards Meresti for woodland species but even though this was lovely nymphalid habitat the weather conditions were unfavourable. Time for more Ciucs at last evening's bar before repeating the hotel and Petho routine exactly as before. The evening was very enjoyable despite a serious 'end of the world' conversation but with laughs.
Tuesday 2 August
A grey start with complete cloud cover, but dry. David visited Lajos at his hotel to get our boarding passes printed and at 9am we set-off but now in a light drizzle heading NE. Soon we took a left fork into the hills through Zetea on a good road forking right at Sub Cetate. By now we were on a forest track in significant rain and heading into cool low cloud. The summit at Ferto-teto, 1,589m, was reached in low cloud and heavy rain. Mmmm! A quick dash into the wooden café seemed like a good idea but after two coffees each and an hour waiting for a change in the weather we concluded that another plan was needed for the day.
So, just after 1pm, we returned down the forest track a short way to where another, more minor, track led off to our right. Lajos decided to take it, reassured by his sat nav (?). We'd go off-road to Gyongyoskut and the Liban Pass. This soon became a conversation-killer. The track had looked dubious to start with but soon became very rutted, wet, and strewn with large boulders that somehow the vehicle surmounted: the pine forest became very dense and misty, enclosing us. For the first time I felt it was conceivable that a team of black stallions pulling a black coach would be seen galloping towards us…Then David suddenly called out - he'd spotted some erebias sitting on ragwort-like yellow flowers in the teeming rain! So we jumped out, cameras in hand, of course!! These were Large Ringlets (Erebia euryale) and a little further on a few were actually flying in the rain. Our track then became barred by a large and deep-looking puddle - nothing else for it but to get out and kick a drainage channel with my heel. Eventually Lajos edged his way through and we were on our way again. But then, another blockage. This time a group of soaked blueberry pickers (I'd have said bilberry) had built a bonfire in the middle of the track on which to heat their lunch. Lajos chatted away with them about the track ahead, and seemed relaxed. The fact that we were now descending seemed like progress until a fallen pine partially blocked the track but there was just enough room for the car to squeeze through.
As the vegetation became more deciduous and flowery the rain also stopped, and at the first reasonable opportunity we stopped to inspect this habitat. We even had a bit of sunshine! Immediately there were Niobe Fritillaries (Argynnis niobe) and Silver-washed Fritilaries, Osiris Blue, White Admiral (Limenitis camilla) and Hungarian Glider (Neptis rivularis), and Lajos had been forgiven. Half an hour was managed here until the rain returned. Lunch in the car consisted of wafer biscuits and an apple. Later, still in the Hargita mountain forest, a wide bend afforded another opportunity and the sun popped out again. Queen of Spain Fritillary (Issoria lathonia), (Polygonia c-album) and Map (Araschnia levana) were added to the previous list along with Scarlet Tiger moth (Callimorpha dominula). 30 minutes was again our limit as rain started once more. The tarmac road around Seneta felt incredibly smooth as we passed through Suseni in the rain. During a lull we inspected a peat bog between Suseni and the railway line for Large Heath (Coenonympha tullia) but found none. Wood White was abundant however. We could see the rain falling all around us and soon it enveloped us too.
Around 5.45 our hotel, the Napsugar Panzio, in the village/suburb of Gyergyoszentmiklos on the northern edge of Gheorgeni was reached as thunder rumbled distantly where we were greeted by a lovely, friendly, wrinkled old lady maitresse d'h. 15 minutes later we all dashed up the street to the nearby Panzio Teke restaurant for Ciucs and food, and a jolly experience! As we walked back to the hotel just before 9pm the red sky augured well for tomorrow. Today had been a good day to be in transit, but with all due respect to Lajos, we'd had enough off-road to last a very long time!
Wednesday 3 August
The day was starting misty but dry. Breakfast at Teke at 8.30 and as we departed the village an hour later the sun was coming through. Taking our road northwards for a short distance before following a muddy track right Lajos knew of a hillside - Kurucz Hill - where myrmidone had been seen previously. And there it was! This fantastic spot yielded in quite hot sunshine Berger's Clouded Yellow (Colias alfacariensis), Swallowtail, Scotch Argus, Weaver's Fritillary (Boloria dia) and Silver-washed Fritillaries, Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta), Peacock (Aglais io) and Small Tortoiseshells (Aglais urticae) mostly on thistle, and many others. Having exhausted this location Lajos took us up a track to the left of the road following the boundary fence of a decrepit military base. Being in the front passenger seat I scanned the track for puddlers and suddenly, up ahead, was that a Camberwell Beauty (Nymphalis antiopa)? Yes!! Stop!!! It took no notice of us whatsoever as we all crowded around waiting for it to open its wings. And it did. A truly fantastic experience. Close by, a group of four Danube Clouded Yellows tucked in to something on the track, not to mention the two groups of three, sometimes four, Swallowtails doing the same. After a morning like that we retreated to Teke for lunch and ciucs.
After lunch we went a few k south to visit an extensive peat bog, the Szenyete Swamp, where the cotton grass suggested Large Heath, but none were found. Horseflies were noticed for the first time on this trip, real bastards. Lajos wanted to find another swamp site a bit further south at Marosfo near Voslabeni behind Feszek Panzio where he'd stayed at some years previously and where Titania's Fritillary (Boloria titania) and Large Heath had been found. The latter remained elusive but we think Fenton's Wood White was there along with Chestnut Heath, Titania's and False Heath Fritillaries (Melitaea diamina) - another lovely spot. Just as we were packing up a Camberwell Beauty flew onto the trunk of a silver birch and stayed there, 15' up. Strangely the blues had not been much in evidence despite the rich habitat and sunshine.
We reached the hotel at 5.35 and were off 10 minutes later to Teke for beers and dinner.
Thursday 4 August
Looks like being a hot one today! Breakfast at 8 at Teke, as usual. A quick stop for lunch provisions en route to yesterday's Kurucz hillside where the Danube Clouded Yellows flew in good numbers despite an apparent complete absence of foodplant. Lesser Marbled Fritillary (Brenthis ino) was added to the list. In hot and sunny conditions, and lacking yesterday's humidity, we retraced the track up the left-hand side of the army base and stopped to observe/photograph Lesser Purple Emperor. The Camberwell Beauty was not in evidence but a mating pair of myrmidone was almost as good. Lajos had never seen this before. A couple of Camberwells were seen further up the track but photo opportunities were more typical - i.e. almost impossible. The car was parked off-track up a slope in the shade of a tree and almost immediately Lajos chased and caught a Transylvanian Turquoise Blue (Polyommatus dorylas magna) but its right forewing was damaged in the process. A male Purple Emperor (Apatura iris) flew past at speed. Peacocks were dazzlingly fresh, the blue of their forewing eyespots glistening iridescently. As we began our return leg, Lajos managed to get the car completely stuck, resting on the tow bar and rear bumper. The only solution was for him to find a tractor, so off he trudged. Embarrassing or what? It wasn't too long before he returned with a tractor and driver but his attempts to manoeuvre it into position saw him almost get stuck and more worryingly, at one point we thought he was going to overturn.
By now it was mid to late afternoon but there was still time to explore the adjacent valley where Hungarian Glider, Chalk-hill Blue, and a huge female Purple Emperor was tracked to ground by David. This was a fine way to end the session. The evening routine was by now standard - hotel 5.45, straight out to Teke for beers and dinner, and back to the hotel this time around 8.15.
Friday 5 August
Another sunny start as we took the road east out of town stopping by a fast-flowing stream at Bekeny on the left hand side about 15 minutes later. I spotted a mating pair of Silver-washed Fritillaries prompting an exit from the car. Though still relatively early, other species included Lesser Marbled and Small Pearl-bordered Fritillaries, Arran Brown (Erebia ligea), Large Ringlet, some pristine Marbled Whites and a Small Copper. Then it was back to the road and onwards over the pass before dropping down to Lagu Rosa, the result of a landslide-blocked river many years ago, old tree stumps still protruding above the green water. The deep, narrow and spectacular Bicaz Gorge was filled with souvenir and food stalls and packed with people. Lajos was suffering with a headache so at Sugo Gorge, just on the edge of Bicaz Chei, we let him doze it off and explored the flowery hillsides beneath towering limestone spires (a bit like the Dolomites). The target here was Apollo (Parnassius apollo) but nothing new was present, even though it was another lovely spot.
Returning through the packed gorge we parked up at the entrance to the old tunnel for our picnic lunch. Silver-washed Fritillaries and White Admiral visited a popular umbellifer. After lunch we passed through the tunnel before taking a sharp left following the river towards Balan, a holiday village with many Swiss-style chalets and small holdings. On the way back we stopped to photograph a mass puddling of Wood Whites - might be a Fenton's amongst them?! - and a little later a male Lesser Purple Emperor was seen on the track. Our final stop was at the Bekeny stream again where we'd started the day amongst many Silver-washed Fritillaries. A 95% dead Marbled Fritillary (Brenthis daphne) counted as a new species and a small erebia atop an inula flower looked very much like Sudeten Ringlet (Erebia sudetica): if so, this was a very rare find indeed.
The evening followed its usual pattern.
Saturday 6 August
Transit day to Targu Mures, some 250k to the west. But to pursue the Sudeten Ringlet possibility we went back to the Pass before Bicaz Gorge at 1,258m in reasonably sunny conditions. Dark Green Fritillaries (Argynnis aglaja) and a few satyrids flew when Lajos took us further up the hillside on a rough track. On the way back down a sunny bank attracted us out of the car and it proved to be butterfly-rich: Large Grizzled Skipper (Pyrgus alveus), Pearly Heath (Coenonympha arcania) and Chestnut Heath, a Heath Fritillary (Melitaea athalia) with minimally marked hind-wing upperside, but no more Sudeten. However, a small Large Ringlet with a miniscule 'tooth' indicated that yesterday's 'Sudeten' was, in fact, the same.
A return to the 'pensiune bog' near Voslabeni (at Marosfo) for a final lunch visit was irresistible. Whilst Lajos set-up the food the three of us wandered-off in different directions. Silver-washed Fritillary was common and we also saw Purple Emperor, Camberwell Beauty, another Transylvanian Turquoise Blue, more Chestnut Heaths that David was claiming as 'Large', and a large pale Swallowtail. Apparently this superb and rare habitat is soon to become a jet-ski venue…
At 2.30 it was time to get into transit mode as we set-off via Gheorgeni taking the northern loop via Toplita on roads that were very bad in places. A much-needed stop at Dedabistra to visit a valley (that Lajos didn't find) led to a cut meadow instead where Chestnut Heath, Short-tailed Blue and many Small Pearl-bordered Fritillaries were photographed. I got too close to a small wasp nest, about the size of an egg high up on grass stems, and got stung on my left jaw for my troubles. This was the final stop of the trip and we arrived at out hotel/pensiune Tempo in Targu Mures around 6.30 to find a wedding party in full swing. It was straight down to the restaurant for ciucs and a good final dinner. The sounds from wedding party's celebrations didn't penetrate my room!
Sunday 7 August
Homeward bound. Up at 3.30am and away by 4 for the small airport some 20 minutes away. The Wizzair desk was busy and slow but we left on time at 7.45am and arrived at Luton a few minutes after 7am.