We inadvertantly tried cycling straight through the Romania border towards Salonka without stopping. The Hungary exit point near Sarkad was abandoned so we rode straight through, then took our now compulsory border sign photo and carried on. At the Romanian entry point we rode into a group of Policemen. I thought they were waving us past so I waved and carried on riding. After I eventually stopped it was clear I shouldn’t have nonchalantly waved back and rode past.
Immediately the countryside in Romania had changed from Hungary, it was still flat, but gone were the cultivated fields and tractors, replaced by shepherds where flocks of sheep lingered. Horse and carts became common and it reminded us of riding in Albania last year. Albania was where a shepherd tried to chase us down, so we continued with caution among the abandoned farms and abundant wild flowers blooming on the road side. There was initially a pretty decent bike path alongside the road, this lulled us into a false impression of Romanian cycling infrastructure! The terrain was still Hungarian i.e. super flat and the road had no corners for 25km, but with a tail wind we glided like swans up the road to Salonka in the north east.
Our first taste of true Romanian roads came after Salonka where a decent looking B road on the map towards Beius was nothing more than a cobble strewn cart track and true to form a horse and cart with a Romany couple appeared up ahead. The picture below is not here but another cart further south on a rare good road!
We soon learnt that our slick tyres were not the most appropriate for Romania, it has to have the worst roads in Europe. The roads may be bad but at least they are quiet with those vehicles venturing onto them, forced into a plodding pace carving between potholes on those with some tarmac.
We passed by the town of Tinca, possibly home to tailors, soldiers and spies but that remained unconfirmed. We then entered the market town of Beius, where we ended up diverting to a great campsite 8km north for our first night. It was run by a Hungarian Romanian who was a passionate supporter of an independent Transylvania. Due to the treaty of Trianon in 1918 massively reducing Hungary’s territory, many ethnicly Hungarians are technically stranded in Romania. Oddly he wanted independence from both. He told us the horrific history of the local villages, where after WW2 many Hungarians were massacred by the Romanians, a somewhat hidden history not taught in Romanian schools. We took parts of what he said we a pinch of salt, but it was interesting to hear his viewpoint.
After our history lecture, complete with hand out, we put up the tent and chatted to a friendly old Dutch lady who lived on the campsite it seemed! She had had some interesting adventures across Europe in the 1950s, including motor bike touring post war Italy, sleeping in hay barns.
I tell you cycle touring is like living in your very own documentary series!
The next day was huge, we set off for the famous bear cave near Stei on the road to Apuseni National park. The cave was home to the now extinct giant European cave bears and some of their skeletons were discovered intact as they died and are now on display. The cave was a good size network of tunnels and caverns, with bones from bears and the gigantic also extinct cave Lions/Tigers or Ligers maybe, whatever they were, they are said to be the largest feline ever to have lived.
I emerged from the cave disorientated into a world of Romanian souvenir sellers and a tremendous thunderstorm. We sheltered as the roads turned to rivers and the little old tractors cast tidal waves as they sped past in the little village of Pietroasa.
We progressed into the Apuseni National Park stopping for lunch in a odd local shop eating bread stuffed with potato. Apparently Apuseni is the premier park in the whole of Central Europe, a local told us, this was the view on the climb up.
This route was set to be a proper adventure, we read three maps and all three showed the same roads all going different places and of varying quality. The road from Pietroasa to Padis was new and paved, which proved correct. It would have been insane on gravel as the gradient was nothing short of brutal as we sweated our way up 1200 vertical metres to the village of Padis. So high it had even snowed here in August! The area above the tree line had flicks of sheep and shepherds herding them about in the misty weather.
Padis has lots of caves and hiking trails to explore, however with the new road was the start of an unregulated development boom up the top of the mountain. The old cabins were abandoned as new hotels part finished lay empty, mostly there were Romanian tourists camping everywhere, littering as they went. We didn’t hang about.
Sadly the paved road ended just at the top of the climb per the picture above and the descent was incredibly rough for 8km, 4×4 only.
How our bikes with the skinny road tyres survived unscathed amazed me, but they transported us beyond the tourists of Padis into the unspoilt forests of the park! We finally turned up at a park campsite about 10km before Giurcuta de Sus, just past an abandoned village at a clearing in the forest, next to a stretch of grass with goal posts.
A large marque was outside the cabins with some enthusiastic preaching going on. Not ideal but we were too tired to move on and it was a damp misty valley and a hot shower was very appealing. At the end of the field was a huge bonfire built like a funeral pyre, we joked there might be a ritual sacrifice later. I went over for a shower later and the electric had all been turned off whether a generator issue or for religious reasons, so I showered with a head torch, when I emerged I faced a youth, with a cloak chanting Hungarian, more and more aggressively in my face flanked by two others, as any Englishman would, I said good evening and walked briskly past, then another awkward teenager did a similar thing by the first goal posts before I reached our tent. This was all very was odd. We went to sleep as the huge fire was lit, luckily neither of us were sacrificed. In the morning we rode off pretty early.
More rough roads as we visited Giurcura de Sus then cut across towards Poiana Horea on a track as nothing corresponded to any map. Finally we reached the main village where we joined a major road, where we expected the road improved, it did but was still unpaved!
Just 100m further into Poona Horea and the police stopped us. It was clear the road had been blocked as a large religious ceremony was ongoing. We happily stopped and took pictures as the villagers attended a celebration with the mayor and took a mass with the priest. All in front of a bust of some one famous called Horea?
At the end of the chatting and community mass, a group of local youngsters played a noise, (not a tune) on some 2 metre long didgeridoo like wooden tubular horn. Afterwards an old lady borrowed one and played a beautiful melody showing how this traditional instrument should be played. She was so red in the face I thought she might pass out though!
We then passed a stage further down the road where we stopped to eat from some food stalls. I had greasey undercooked Koftas, with a soft n’ spicy gingerbread man. We also had the commonly found bread dough wrapped around a cylinder, coated in spicy sugar and cooked by rotating over hot coals, except here in Romania the traditional way was to use a hairdryer.
We listened to speeches by the mayor and some of his chums, before the awful horn girls made some noise. An older lady sang good folk music while a drunk man danced on his own. It was then time to leave, before the dancers.
We followed the dirt road for miles, past more really traditional villages, ovee taking just horse and carts in places that had stood still in time for centuries, where the old folk sat on benches by the road, raising a hand in response as we went past. The hay collecting was mainly complete and perfect haystacks litter the meadows all over the valley.
The descent started properly towards Horea and Albac, where in a thick forest the odd cow appeared and even odder old cow women with stick in hand staggered into the daylight. Finally we hit tarmac for the first time in a while, but we just couldn’t find anywhere to stay for miles, our only hope was the town of Brad. We did pass some stunning scenery like Vulcan mountain near Buces! We also passed the gold mining village of Rosia Montana. It was a huge day but beautiful riding, so stunning that not even 5 punctures annoyed me! That was remarkably the sole issue with the bikes on the rough roads, the punctures were all on my bike so a set of thicker tyres is probably needed!
We arrived in Brad as the sunset over the sight of abandoned industrial complexes on the towns fringes. The centre was surprisingly pleasant and we headed to the first and only hotel we found. They refused to house the bikes other than on the street outside. So the next guesthouse was 7km away at a monastery in the northern hills, given the distance covered already this felt like another 150kms. Just as we left Brad, on the busy dark road we spotted Mario’s, a motel and bar next to a possibly still active industrial site. The lady in heels, short skirt and tight red top suggested this was a place at the opposite end from the monastery scale. However the place was pleasant enough and an external stair case meant we could sneak the bikes into the room. Dinner was tomorrow’s breakfast of muesli.
Next day we stopped for the standard cake breakfast to replace the cereal eaten for dinner. We left town and we were headed for the castle at Hunnedoara, a real fairy tale place. Just as we left Brad we rode through a place called Ruda Brad, but the locals told us to piss off.
We toured into Deva for bike shops to replace destroyed inner tubes, then down to Hunnedoara just as the skies grew dark and a storm approached, given the vast steel works of the town it was an atmospheric entry. The dark sky cover merged into the dark fumes bellowing from the side of the factory, where exposed flames seemed to be licking the whole place to the ground. It really was satanic and an indicator of the scale of soviet industry. Hunnedoara was home to Corrin castle, the rest of the town was as one might expect a city with decking industry. Abandoned buildings, eerie streets and plenty of stares. Then finally the great castle rose above the surroundings. The rain had held off long enough to store the bikes in the ticket office and get inside.
It is wonderfully preserved and renovated and offered one of the most complete and interesting interiors and insights into a medieval castle I have seen. Sadly the tour was rushed as after 4 days in Romania we were still an hour off the real time and it was closing, nearly getting locked locked in the horrific torture tower section.
Outside the rain was lashing down and we passed the derelict gasworks and stopped at a cool bright purple building, that was called Hotel Corviniana. It was in fact an amazingly quirky old place, four stars nonetheless, with huge traditionally furnished rooms for about £25. To make up for such a lavish outlay we cooked dinner of pasta, in a park under the seemingly constant threat of mugging on the dark quiet streets. As the hotel took just cash we also braved a ATM visit, a few lively and fashionable cafes and bars probably meant it was safer than we gave credit. Apparently it’s on Booking.com and we would highly recommend it as probably the best place to stay in town!
The hotel owner drove me through the streets to get a good night picture if the castle which was really kind. But also I felt told of his apprehension of us venturing about the streets at night!
The road down to Hunedoara was horrible dual carriageway and we had to repeat it north the next day to get back on our route to Sibiu and the mountains. We caught the train rather than ride the dual carriageway back again which was probably slower but felt safer! Next we rode along a valley via Orastie, Sebes and into Sibiu, a popular mediaeval old town.
The town had a few cool churches and a maze of old streets, it was the most interesting place along that section and was fun to explore. For the night we headed just south to a traditional village Cisnadioara with a raised fortified church and a German run campsite. We had a long chat about the trip and India with the owner, he didn’t speak the best English but he had some interesting stories.
The north of Romania had been fun, the mountains are interesting and the old villages tucked away in the quieter parts were remarkable. Places that you just wouldn’t visit if not on a cycle tour, but they are truly unique. Life must be hard living such a simple life, but it has a certain romance as well on a summers day. There’s a feeling that this is a disappearing older generation who are still making hay for their solo cow, growing a few vegetables and using horse and cart. That is the reason Prince Charles owns a place and guest house near Sibiu as this unchanged traditional rural lifestyle appeals to him too I imagine. No doubt this tradition will soon disappear as youngsters leave the villages and the lifestyle changes.
For us it was on to the bigger central mountains and the flat south!