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by - August 4 2010

Brasov is one of the few cities in the world where bears roam the streets at night. The Transylvanian forest runs right up to residential neighbourhoods that are filled with tasty rubbish bins. As a result, if you are in the right part of the city at the right time of day, it is common to find bears wandering around in search of food.

When I checked into my hostel, I saw a photo of a man hand feeding a bear and asked what was going on. The receptionist told me that she had a friend who knew the bears and that I should go with him to meet them. She assured me that these bears were safe bears and that it wasn't dangerous.

When I met the bear guide I noticed that his car had had it's airbag deployed and had no seat-belts. I worried a little that perhaps his definition of "safe bears" was not quite the same as mine, but I had already payed for the tour and wasn't inclined to back out.

It turned out that bear watching is quite a popular activity in Brasov. There were about seven cars driving around the most bear-infested part of the city, looking for bears. The drivers all seemed to know each other and the protocol seemed to be that if you found a bear then you phoned everyone else to say where it was.

The standard technique for finding bears seemed to be to listen for barking dogs. Brasov has a large population of stray dogs and the dogs don't like the bears, so if a bear is somewhere nearby the dogs will all start barking. If you hear a dog barking, drive to where to dog is, then turn out the lights, get out of the car, and wait for a bear to appear.

It wasn't long before a bear appeared, quickly followed by her cub. My first reaction on seeing the bears was to want to run over and give them a hug, followed by the realisation that this would be a really bad idea. Bears are rather like kittens, only larger and somewhat more dangerous. The bears bumbled around in a rather dopey way, played with wheelie-bins like they were toys, and gazed around in a confused way whenever there was a loud noise. They behaved more like giant furry toys than potentially dangerous animals.

In California I had been told that the correct thing to do when you see a bear is to back away slowly and not make and sudden noises. In Brasov the advice was instead to walk towards them slowly while taking lots of flash photographs. I worried a little that this might be a bad idea, but there was soon a huge crowd of people doing this, suggesting that the popular consensus was indeed that the bears weren't dangerous, or at least that if they were then they would probably eat someone else first.

In total I think we saw around four or five different bears, many of them at very close range. It was definitely quite an experience. It's just a shame I can't take a bear home with me. Note that the attached photos were taken by my guide rather than by me. He wanted me to take the photos, but I thought I would prefer it if the source of the bright flashes was someone other than me.