Romania’s singing sheepdogs

After videoing a canine concert in Romania I forgot to turn my camera off and accidentally captured a crash involving a horse-drawn cart. I was going to edit the video but decided to leave it as is — I think it’s funnier this way. You can watch the clip here: 

One of my favourite experiences during my last visit to Romania involved a chance encounter with a shepherd, a pack of singing sheepdogs and a 19th-century-style road crash involving a horse-drawn cart.

Traffic jam on the main road to Sighetu Marmației
Traffic jam on the main road to Sighetu Marmației. 

I’d been exploring the country’s bucolic northwestern corner, Maramureş, and decided to take a bike ride in the countryside around the town of Sighetu Marmației.

Unfortunately the bicycle I hired was crap — the good ones were locked up and the hostel owner couldn’t find the key — and the road up the Iza Valley, which had seemed so pretty from a distance, was in fact full of diesel-belching trucks which thundered past just a few centimetres from my elbow. Eventually I gave up, had a nap beside a haystack, and pedalled back to town.

At the outskirts of Sighetu Marmației I was surprised to get caught up in a traffic jam until I saw it was caused by shepherds herding a flock of long-tailed sheep.

Marius and his flock head for the hills
Marius and his flock head for the hills. Photo: Peter de Graaf

I followed them as they turned up a gravel road and got talking to the chief shepherd, Marius, a cheerful ethnic Ukrainian with a smattering of English. He seemed quite happy for me to tag along and take photos as his shaggy sheepdogs coaxed the flock towards a range of hills along the Ukrainian border.

The shepherds insisted I share their picnic
The shepherds insisted I share their picnic.

Every now and then he’d pause to offer me a swig of tuica, a fiery, home-made plum brandy which all the shepherds seemed to carry in small glass hipflasks, before downing a mouthful himself.

The shepherds stopped for a picnic where their route left the road and headed towards a grassy saddle, insisting I share their meal of bread and cold pork washed down with yet more tuica.

At Marius’ prompting one of the shepherds demonstrated a bugle which appeared to have been welded together from lengths of steel pipe. It wasn’t terribly melodic but it was no doubt highly effective for signalling across mountains.

The moment the bugle sounded the sheepdogs threw their heads back and howled in a deafening accompaniment. Within minutes every mongrel in the neighbourhood had trotted down the road to join the show.

The shepherd's bugle appeared to have been welded together out of bits of steel pipe
The shepherd’s bugle appeared to have been made from bits of steel pipe. Photo: Peter de Graaf

I got quite a surprise when, months later, I watched my video of the canine concert for the first time. It seems I forgot to turn the camera off — possibly due to the tuica — and accidentally captured a road accident involving a horse-drawn cart.

More tuica?
More tuica? Photo: Peter de Graaf

Fortunately Marius was able to pull the spooked but uninjured horses out of the ditch and the cart carried on its way. I was going to edit the video and cut out the bits I’d recorded by mistake but I think it’s funnier left as is.

Apart from their musical abilities, Romanian sheepdogs are famous for their size and courage, useful attributes in a country where wolves and bears still occasionally pick off an unsuspecting sheep.

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