December 16, 2020. A year ago, and only two months before the pandemic, the sunset would have caught me sitting tight at home, on my sofa, dreaming about exotic places, where the thermometers were showing many more degrees.

I consider myself one of the lucky ones, in the fight with this crazy virus. Because it changed me. It pulled me out of my reverie and led me into reality. It took my mind from the palm trees and walked me through the fir trees. It carried my feet through mountains and valleys, through deltas and mountain tops. All of them, ours, from our country! It showed me a Romania that had been hidden from my view until that particular moment, and, most importantly, it connected myself with my old passion, photography. It transposed me from “portrait” and “street photography”, to “landscape” and “wildlife”. Or, in other words, it made me walk the way “from convenience to endurance”.

That’s how summer and early fall saw me waking up many mornings together with the sun, on the boat, through the thickets, silently watching for egrets, blue gulls and little grebes carrying their chicks, piggyback. It was also then when I discovered Viscri, the place I fell in love with at first sight, and where the herd of picture-worthy cows wake up to graze dreamily at the first hour of the day, as well. But – like waking up at 4 a.m., in the dark, through the snow, with snow spikes on your feet and backpacking – you can find no other sunrise! And no other sunset!

That’s how December 16 found me, on Ciucaș Peak, for the tenth time in three months.

I woke up to catch the sunrise, to take a picture of it, shivering, and to dream about the warmth of the cottage, from where I would be able to return to the peak, the same day. Because the sun rises, but it also sets. And the landscape photographer is somehow just like a criminal: he always returns to the crime scene. You never know what surprising setting you might find out there, so you return again and again, until the clouds settle just as you imagined they would, from day one.

That’s how The King – or the Sphinx from Ciucaș, as I like to call it – appeared to me. When the sun reached the horizon, when the trail became more difficult, and the majesty of the ridges seemed unattainable, then I saw “Him”. And I suddenly forgot that I had to find my way back through the fog and the darkness. I forgot that my body was all frozen and my jacket was still hanging on my backpack. I even forgot myself, lured by too much grandeur.

I discovered him in the shade of the rocks and the setting sun. He was looking down, polite and silent. He stands out there only in winter. I know this, because until the snow arrived, he hadn’t called me once. He stands motionless, facing the setting sun and lighting his smile in warm, reddish colours. You feel him like a friend up there, a reliable friend, high up, guardian of the “Citadel of Ciucaș”. He makes you happy and makes you crave to see him again as soon as possible. You want to come back before the heat covers him. He is shy. But he wanted me to be the first one to really know him and carry on his story. Even if he has the body of a lion and the allure of a king, he doesn’t make his appearance during the summer crowd. He trusts people and only comes to post in winter, when the mountain lovers are not able to guard the fortress. He is “the friend in need” of those who dare to turn their steps towards him and “shake his hand”. Once you know him, you can never forget him.

I discovered him through photography, and photography discovered me in return. It’s been a year since photography moved me (literally and figuratively) and my love for it gave me wings to endure the blizzard with a smile on my face, like a lunatic. To stop dreaming of palm trees and enjoy fir trees. It taught me to appreciate more the simple things and to enjoy my Eugenia cookies like a star-studded dinner. To open my eyes widely and really see what surrounds me. To always look for beauty and find it in the most unexpected places. To be able to discover lions and kings and other amazing things…