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Harghita: Sfanta Ana Lake and Tinovul Mohos, must-see places


'Sfanta Ana and Tinovul Mohos should become pilgrimage destinations. This is a sacred place we all should visit at least once in a lifetime.' This is how the custodian of Sfanta Ana-Tinovul Mohos Natural Reservation, Kerezsi Laszlo-Laci bacsi begins his presentation. He has been living on the mountain top for 23 years, regardless of weather conditions, and cares for the reservation, which he calls 'the gift of God,' being the eloquent example of the man who sanctifies the land. He says that Sfanta Ana Lake is his life and believes he ended up being in charge of the reservation 'maybe because my soul was once a tree and saw how trees were cut and then felt I must take over the reservation.' Thanks to him and to the team he coordinates, the area is much more visited and tourism there is respectful of the environment and does not endanger the natural area.

Sfanta Ana Lake, the only volcanic lake of Europe

In Ciomatu Mare Massive, at the border between Harghita and Covasna Counties, embraced by forests and watched over by the mild sun, there is Sfanta Ana, the only volcanic lake of Europe. Located at approximately 950 metres elevation, Sfanta Ana Lake covers 20 hectares and is 7 metre deep. The lake water is not fed from springs, but only comes from rains and snow melt and is pure, almost distilled, with 0.029 milligrams of minerals per one litre of water. As it lacks oxygen, there is no life form in the lake.

Kerezsi Laszlo guarantees that this place and its surroundings have been seen as sacred ever since the pre-Christian people times and this belief is kept even today. Near the lake, there is a Catholic chapel devoted to Saint Anne (Sfanta Ana in Romanian), which is a pilgrimage place for hundreds of faithful each year. 'Saint Anne holiday is celebrated each year on July 26 and pilgrims come here from everywhere, because there is a saying: if you have faith in God and a pure soul, what you pray for to God and the Holy Virgin in Anne's chapel will come true,' says the custodian of the reservation. Before that, all those who come to the area must place their hand in Sfanta Ana Lake, to cleanse themselves of sins.

Several legends were woven around the lake's origins in time, as it happens in the case of the places the beauty of which people cannot explain. The most spread is that of Anne (Ana), the young girl who was draft to a carriage together with other 11 virgins by the master of Tusnad town. 'As they did not have strength to pull the carriage faster, the girls were whipped and Anne, no longer taking her and her fellows' pain, cursed the tyrant: May God break the earth underneath us/ May this bad man sink in/ And us, together with him,' Mr Laci tells the story. The legend says that God listened to her prayer, the mountain tore down and the girls' tears gave birth to the purest lake, which if you bathe in, God cleanses your sins and you are safe from trouble for one year.

'It is a legend, but it is beautiful. I tell the foreign tourists, mainly to those of the US and the developed countries: You see, we, Romanians, have legends of giant people and of the creation of the Earth, but you only have legends since 1800,' the reservation custodian explains.

All those who come to the area must respect certain rules, which became sacred for the reservation rangers. There is no swimming in the lake after using sun protection lotions and oils, the barbecue fires can only be lit in especially set places, the garbage is selectively collected and the car access to the area is only allowed up to a certain point and in exchange for a fee. Before Kerezsi Laszlo became the reservation's custodian, the water of the lake was polluted by those who washed their cars there or bathed without observing any rules, garbage was dumped everywhere and fires were lit in the woods, many times causing vegetation fires.

Bit by bit, the situation changed and Mr Laci proudly says that Sfanta Ana-Tinovul Mohos reservation received 'the EU diploma of honour and was ranked first nationwide under the category of natural reservations.'

Sfanta Ana Lake represents one of the most important tourist attractions of Romania and is visited each year both by regular people and by politicians of Romania and Hungary, but also by billionaires, such as famous George Soros. The reservation custodian remembers that even Romania's President Traian Basescu visited the area several times. On one of his visits, the head of state came unannounced and he was asked to pay the access fee to the reservation, as any other tourist.

The custodian insists on bringing to mind the Japanese tourists, 'who have four cameras hung around their neck,' who are much disciplined and who took a bow and saluted the small trees of Tinovul Mohos. 'When I took them to Tinov and I showed them the small trees, they took a bow and saluted them, saying 'bonsai.' They also asked if they could smoke in the reservation and if the smoke did not harm the plants. I tell this story to everyone, because this means respect for nature,' Mr Laci says.

Tinovul Mohos - the reservation hosting glacial relicts

Not far from Sfanta Ana Lake, in an even larger and older crater, there is Tinovul Mohos, a natural reservation hosting rare plants, some unique in Romania. Kerezsi Laszlo says that the volcanic peak where the oligotrophic swamp is, 'which is about 1,600-1,800 years older,' erupted first and a volcanic lake, similar to that of Sfanta Ana, formed there. Later, a new explosion occurred, the one that created Sfanta Ana Lake, and the ashes that spread clogged the first lake and led to the formation of peat moss and of Tinovul Mohos area. 'There currently are small, but very deep lakes, measuring in between 7 and 37 metres in depth, like some windows to the depths, hosting on their shores a great number of plants, relicts, some even unique in the world, of the Drosera family, commonly known as the sundew, a carnivorous plant, remained from the glacial period, but also small trees, bilberries, cranberries or rosemary. (...) A number of 104 species of spiders were also discovered in Timov, following the researches carried out by higher education institutions,' the custodian says.

Tourists can visit Tinov accompanied by a guide, providing explanations in several languages, namely Romanian, Hungarian, English, German or even Hebrew. For people to be safe and for rare plants not to be affected, wooden visiting paths were setup, covering a part of the oligotrophic swamp and provide the possibility of admiring lakes with almost black waters, but also the sundew or other glacial relicts.

'I am telling you, it is another dimension. We don't show it to tourists, but the wolf's-foot clubmoss, stag's-horn clubmoss, or ground pine, that is lycopodium clavatum, also grows here. Those who know a bit of botany know that this is a medicinal plant, but is very much protected and does not live just anywhere. It is a plant regenerating the body through radiation, it puts the entire immune system to work,' Kerezsi Laszlo explains.

In the reservation there are also eleven bears, who don't bother people too much, mostly because the rangers take care that tourists don't leave food traces nor feed the animals.

The custodian says there have been scientists who proposed the setting of a barbed wire fence around the oligotrophic swamp, for the animals - deer, wild boars, bears - not enter the area in question and destroy the rare plants. Kerezsi Laszlo voices himself being completely against these ideas and says that the animals and people have co-habited for thousands of years and that these days only knowing nature one can protect it. 'I told them not to come with foolish ideas, as the wild animals shelter there during winter. There they can find food, cranberry leaves, mushrooms, dry fruit. The bear has been going to the oligotrophic swamp for millions of years and there have no problems. (...) This is how nature works. I am very determined against those who want to make an enclave around the reservation. Over these 23 years we have highlighted knowledge. If you learn, and you should now that very many pupils come to our reservation, then you start to love and then to protect. Therefore, we want to protect the reservation through education, not by coercive means' the custodian says.

He passed on to his grandchildren the love for nature and the reservation he administrates. He says that one of his grandsons, when he was four, told the teachers at the kindergarten that he did not want them to stick the photograph with a red mushroom with white spots on his locker because it is poisonous.

'At four, when he was stuck on the locker a red mushroom with white spots, he said: I don't need amanita muscariana, because it contains a neurotoxic substance,' Kerezsi Laszlo says amused.

Sfanta Ana Lake-Tinovul Mohos reservation is visited each year by a few thousands of persons, their number depending both on the weather and the economic and financial situation of the country. In theory, the season concludes at the end of August, but the landscape is splendid in autumn, too, and Mr Laci invented a sport that tourists can engage in in winter if they dare go up to the lake. It is about the sleigh on skis, which is very successful each year.

'I have bought 100 second hand skis (there have been some Canadians who said that the Romanian had a brilliant idea), we removed the bindings and we placed the sleigh on the ski foot. When the tourist comes, he gets the sleigh and the entire family can go down to the lake by sleigh. Then Laci bacs comes with four-wheel drive cars, connects the sleigh with a chain and pulls it back up, and this is how we earn a little extra money,' the custodian explains.

Kerezsi Laszlo says he could not imagine his life elsewhere but there, on top of the mountain, even if there have been winters when he remained isolated by snows for 21 days, and he also says that if he was a religious leader, he would organise a pilgrimage to Sfanta Ana, 'because you are closer to God, because the landscape and the ionised air make you feel very well and because it is unbelievably beautiful.'