Overall rating

For info about Romania see this Wikipedia article.

30/9    After changing my Hungarian money for Romanian Lei, made confusing by the fact that there are old and new Lei in circulation at the same time, I get bike insurance. No problem, but at 50 EUR for one month I wonder whether I didn't get ripped off. The country is just as flat as in Hungary, but the driving gets more interesting. Everybody overtakes everything, anywhere. It's all quite civilised, though, indicators are being used and so far no oncoming vehicle has expected me to get off the road. No worse than the Riviera, I'd say. There are a lot of horse carts on the road, though.  About halfway to Cluj-Napoca, where I am to meet another HU contact, the road passes through some hills. Too bad the excellent road surface is bad just here in the bends, where it should be fun. Two lanes uphill, but on the downhill there is only one and I'm soon stuck in a short queue of trucks and cars. The windy bit continues down in the valley, there is a car in front of me trying to overtake a truck, when from behind comes another car flying along. Nobody can pass here, but the truck soon wants to turn off to the left. As it slowly comes to a stop I start passing it and the car in front of me in the gravel on the right shoulder of the road. I notice a big pile of gravel in front of me, but there is enough room for me to get through. The car behind me just follows, but I get a good lough as I accelerate away over the edge of the gravel pile: in the mirror I can see a cloud of dust rising, as the car has to brake hard, perhaps he's even hit the pile. Keeps me chuckling for a while. I get to Cluj and find myself a camp site, cheap but miserable: there is almost no flat ground, full of thistles and gravel, there is a rusting container full of rubbish that a stray dog is getting stuck into. Somebody sets the trash alight later. The shower only sort of works. After exchanging several SMS Alex finally turns up at the camp and we arrange to meet later in town. He then shows me around the inner city a bit, including some interesting nightlife. The streets are full of people, mainly young ones.


1/10    Using a map kindly provided by Alex I go for a tiki tour of a nearby river valley. In Turda I stop to visit the underground salt mine, started in the 15th century. I always envisaged salt being white, so I'm quite surprised to find black polished walls. There are 1 to 2 % impurities in the salt, sufficient to make it black. There are cavities in the ceiling like what you find in caves where water has flown through and my guide explains that this is caused by air currents, which also polish the walls.

There is even a chapel in there, with a VIP staircase to the surface.

The caverns are enormous, one of them 90 m deep with a lake at the bottom, the other one is only 40 m and I climb to the bottom via an old wooden staircase. All this has been dug out by hand, i.e. without machines. Regrettably, my camera can't handle the low-light conditions and most of the photos don't turn out. Outside the gate my bike has attracted attention. One of the onlookers, an old man in a clean, but tatty old suit, on learning that I am German, greets me with "Heil Hitler!" He speaks only a few words of German but I gather he is telling me that the extermination of the jews and gypsies is just an American lie and that he fought for Germany during the war. Remembering how in the novel "Captain Corelli's Mandolin" the author tells that some of the worst atrocities were committed by locals serving in the Wehrmacht I wonder whether he is trying to rationalise deeds he has done... (I thoroughly recommend the book, BTW.) There is no point discussing anything with this guy, he doesn't understand what I'm saying.

Old and young converging on a way cross for an Orthodox ceremony involving a priest or monk, a bottle of mineral water on a small table and a plastic cup. Don't ask me for the meaning...

Onwards along mainly bumpy, dusty and often holy roads. As I often do I go too far and have to come back on a big road with lots of fast traffic. Back in Cluj I stop at the first roundabout for internet access and I'm in luck. I've never had so many possible connection points in one place. I have a rapid exchange of emails with Mesut in Alanya, who has kindly ordered some parts for me and is checking out availability of a tyre. I sit on my bike on the footpath for about 2 h and update two trip reports until my bike battery goes flat, making the power supply go wobbly which in turn causes Windows to crash. Amazing, this internet. Even more amazing the kindness of people who don't even know me.

2/10 I have slept badly that night. Not only do the neighbourhood dogs all start barking at the slightest sound I make, but one neighbour across the road has the music going full noise until the wee small hours. There is life under my tent: the moles are pushing up their hills right under me and beside me. Then there are rustling noises and movements under the floor, I guess mice. In the morning a German couple in a Landcruiser camper come over and report that it has rained heavily further South, past Sibiu. I hadn't noticed... The area there should be really interesting, totally backward. I pack up and trundle South along back roads. No food or accommodation for miles, until I pass Rimetea Monastery (completely rebuilt, everything brand spanking new).

Around a bend there is a Hungarian pension and camp, spotless, new and flowers everywhere. Unfortunately it's closed, but I have a long talk with the owner, a lady from Budapest. When in the course of our long conversation I mention that Jenny has split she gives me hug! As they say, it's either a famine or a feast: in the next village there are so many pensions that I don't know which one to choose. I pick the one where I can see that somebody is at home and they have "rooms free" in 4 languages on the wall. Never mind the signs, the nice lady and her mother only speak Romanian and Hungarian and I don't. The place is spotless and it's less than 8 EUR and I have a base. It's after 14h and I wonder whether I can get something to eat anywhere, but asking is difficult. She rings her daughter to translate, who explains that they don't do lunch. But, if I would accept just a plate of soup they would do that for me. OK, 10 mins later I sit at the garden table and eat. Soup finished the plate disappears and then my eyes pop as another plate full with red cabbage and a tender pork steak arrives, followed by grapes and coffee. Communication...

For the rest of the afternoon I think I try out the mountainbike route on the map to a nearby monastery. I turn off the main road where another village is signposted, traverse it and at the other side ask an old farmer, who confirms that this is the right way. Wrong. For the second creek crossing I have to rearrange the stones, drop the bike twice and finally, after less that two km I get stuck in a steep muddy and stony section. Very slowly I have to reverse manhandle the bike down the rut, before I can drag it around. I am sweating from exertion. The bike is too heavy for this unfit man. When I stop in another village later on to cool off and have a drink the owner of the farm in front of which I have stopped chances out and starts talking in French with me. He introduces himself as Jean and fills my tankbag with apples and pears, then his son Katilin joins us, an engineering student speaking good English. More talking, he gives me a topographical map of the area and points out that I wasn't on the right track to the monastery.

3/10 I call Alex and again he wants me to stay with him in Cluj, but I know he's far too busy. It seems he can't even find the time to go for a ride, so I think I'm making the right decision to stay here. Must not abuse people's hospitality. In any case, the pension is wonderful. Only problem is, there is nowhere to eat around here. I climb the mountain range opposite and find it very clearly marked, but extremely steep. Well worth it for the views, though, despite the haze. I'm afraid, the pics are again no good. I was planning to go for a ride to the valley of the monasteries (the road I didn't find yesterday), but a migraine takes up the rest of the day.


4/10 The morning is strangely warm and clear, with some wind. I wonder whether this is Foehn. I find the road to Ramet without problems, it's even signposted. Strange, as I ride down into the valley towards the turn-off it gets colder and I end up in fog. It soon clears and gives way to a warm clear day as the road winds its way up into the mountains.

I manage to ride past the turn-off back down, as there is no sign at all. This is a winding cart track. I'm really glad again I've got an enduro. At the end of the valley is a busload of tourists from Slowakia having their picture taken. The guide explains that this is a nature reserve where the rare Stella Alpina grows down to 300 m above sea level. I walk up the valley which is very pleasant and has some interesting via ferrata sections.

Funny how I get alternating warm and cool air currents. On the way out I can't find any of the places the guide mentioned where one can supposedly eat, except for the Cabana, but the lady there just shakes her head. I get all the way back into the town of Turus. After a good meal I think the lady is trying to rip me off big time. I don't get a docket and I pay 161 Lei, which she generously rounds up to 170. Now, 1 Euro is about 3.5 New Lei, equal to 35000 Old Lei. So, am I paying 45 EUR for this at a roadside restaurant? Things are further complicated by the fact that old and new Lei are in simultaneous circulation. I hand over a 1 Million note and get 830 change. Confused? I was... I tried to get her to explain, but she just kept showing me on her calculator that 1 Million has 6 zeros (I couldn't possibly know that now, could I?) and then she substracts 170 and gets 999830. Oh well, that doesn't make sense, so she just clears it again and punches in more numbers until she gets 830, which is what I got in change, or so she says. I can make it 83... Still confused, I thank her and wander into the bank next door to check the exchange rate, just to make sure I didn't get diddled when I changed the money at the border and that life here wasn't horribly more expensive than I thought. The nice lady in the bank offered to go upstairs to clear it up, but when I told her what I paid and what I got back she could explain it all: the restaurant lady had quoted the price in old Lei, but in thousands, which is what people apparently do for convenience sake. So, we now have THREE concurrent currencies in Romania: New Lei, Old Lei and "Virtual" Old lei, which is a thousand old Lei. Ouf!

Next stop Internet and I learn to my horror that Linda on arrival in Indonesia had her bike impounded by police. She's not the first one. It seems that Indonesian police think that if locals aren't allowed big bikes than foreigner shouldn't be, either. Looks like I'm going to have to scratch that one off my itinerary. Check out Linda's trip on the link above. On the way back to the pension I stop off at Jean's chicken yard to return the map that I don't need any more. Just before my village I pass a wooden tailgate lying on the road, then a rusty shovel. I stop to remove it from the road lest it gets flattened and plant it visibly on the side. A few hundred m down the road a tractor driver coming the other way tries to flag me down. Not speaking the lingo I decline. He will recover his belongings anyway. Then I pass the lone wooden trailer - minus tailgate. Later Alex phones to say goodbye. I sit down in the garden to eat my dinner and one could enjoy the mild evening in this quiet village, with the moon rising over the mountain range and a few thin clouds passing in front of it, if - it wasn't for the annoying habit of Romanians to keep dogs in their yards, lots of them. All day and night there is an almost continuous cacophony of dogs barking and yapping away and the people couldn't care less. Like they don't care about their environment. There is rubbish everywhere, not so much in the villages themselves, but along roads and trails and particularly in waterways and where people spend time, like picnic spots and nature reserves. Images of India keep passing through my mind.

5/10 It rains a little before I get up, but breakfast is in the garden again. It sure is cloudy, though. As the clapped-out old bus chugs and rumbles past in a cloud of dust a thought crosses my mind again: there are children on the road and animals. The poor road condition forces drivers to go slow. So, progress is that we build nice, smooth wide roads through towns and villages so people can drive fast in comfort. We then have to put in speed bumps, traffic lights, radar traps and traffic cops to slow the traffic down again. But once every family has a car there is no more room for children and animals and other slow moving items on the road. Are we crazy, or what?

It's time to say goodbye to my nice hosts and I make my way to Sebeş, to follow one of Alex' recommendations, i.e. go up the valley to the lake. A lovely valley it is and the road is quite good. Should be a dead end on my map, but not so. Once I pass the almost empty hydro lake the road deteriorates, but continues. As usual, tar sealed sections with or without holes change with dirt sections, but the road continues to get a lot worse as I go. Eventually it is little more than a logging road, but it still has highway markers. Up here just about all the traffic is logging trucks. About half way I get stopped by a tractor driver (what is it that makes tractor drivers want to stop me?).

There are three guys standing in front of the machine and there is an oil patch underneath and water pouring out of the radiator. Oh dear... I take a quick look and can see that the leak is at the bottom hose connection where somebody has already soldered. They ask whether I have any "metaal". I do, as a matter of fact, and dig out my left-over half strip of cold metal and give it to them. (This is some chemical compound putty that you knead in your hands, thereby mixing the ingredients, and in 2 h it becomes hard and workable like aluminium). The package says that it is for sealing. They thank me profusely and immediately set to work removing the radiator. Good luck to them. I'm sure this is going to be another permanent repair.

Highway 7c, and it hasn't even rained yet.

Eventually I get to yet another half-empty hydro lake and strike it lucky: there is a road house, the young manager speaks good English and yes, I can eat here. Two Austrian BMW bikes pull up and we have the usual conversations that bikers in strange places have. They tell me that apparently there are no pensions in or near Sibiu that they could find and they had to spend 70 EUR for a hotel room. Bummer, this is my next destination. After they leave I have a long conversation with the manager, mainly about politics and economics. The more often I have these sorts of conversations the more I realise that, rightly or wrongly, most of today's global problems get squarely blamed on the US. I battle further along the road, which turns to hardish mud in places. Then I hit another good highwayand turn East over a pass. In the next valley one pension after another. Bummer, it's too early to stop and too far from Sibiu. I know I'm going to regret this and I do: I end up in an expensive motel by a busy main highway. Still, it's a lot less expensive at 15 EUR than what the Austrians paid.

6/10 After a bad nights' sleep I wake to rain, the first in over a month. I ride to Hermannstadt (Sibiu) and walk around the town for half an hour in the rain in all my bike gear. That way I stay almost dry, except for my bum and feet, where the water had already gotten in. There are lots of old buildings in various stages of (dis)repair and some of the back streets are still nice with the round stone paving, but the town is a big construction site with many buildings being restored and the streets get "proper" paving. I'm sure it's welcome by the locals, but it's loosing its charme, plus the tourist shops are making the usual appearance. Oh well, that's progress. I'm glad I came to Romania now and didn't wait for a few more years. I move on further North to Mediasch. When I stop after a turn to check the map a car with München number plates stops and I meet Kurt, who takes me to his bike business. It's amazing what he has built in a few years from nothing. He claims to run the first and the biggest bike import in the country. He normally lives in München and does most of his deals over the net, buying used bikes all over Germany and shipping them home by the truck load. He also has a workshop and says he can help any biker broken down. (Update 2011: his web site has disappeared. Archive is here.)

After a couple of welcome coffees and a long chat it's on to today's destination, Birthälm with its large fortified church. Quite an impressive complex towering over the village.

Copious lunch at the Ungerus "Medieval" Restaurant, I almost can't eat all that's on my plate. Outside a British BMW pulls up and I have a yarn with the rider and his Romanian partner. They are here to launch a book about a proposed ecological reserve and he tells me that he, too, wanted to ride to Oz, but he spent too long in Romania... There is a guest house in the outer church complex wall, but despite open windows I can't rouse anybody. Not to worry, there are plenty of other pensions about. (As usual, feast or famine...) In the evening I wander the streets and I realise a difference to the village where I stayed before: most of the farms here aren't farms any more. There are very few carts in the streets, but there are nevertheless a lot of people about. I don't know what else they might live off, as there doesn't seem to be any other employment around. In the evening Mahdokht, a student from Iran and Sylvain, a French engineer walk into the pension. They are on a backpacking trip to Cambodia, so are more or less following the same route as me, but by public transport.

7/10 Some blue sky in the morning and apart from some cloud later it becomes fine again. Mahdokht and Sylvain have a disagreement with the lady who runs the place over the price. They were quoted 24 EUR per night, but the lady uses a poor conversion rate for Lei and they end up paying in Euro. I'm in the same boat now, but at least now I know what I have to pay. At breakfast time a German guy from Saarlouis joins us and tells that he's just starting a firewood business here, exporting the wood to Germany. He brought a whole truckload of machinery with him, but has only been here 4 weeks. Good luck to him. Quick look around the fortified church. It looks more impressive from a distance. Close up you can see that it's crumbling in places. Inside there is a strange musty smell. The inscriptions are all in German or Latin. With the bike unloaded I ride mainly reasonable backroads to Schäßburg (Sighişoara). On the way I get flagged down on a dirt road intersection and give a man a lift. Strangely, after two km he wants to stop and wants me to write down my address. Then he starts asking for money! He wasn't hitchhiking at all, he was begging and not interested in going to the next village. Weird, in a place like that where there is almost no traffic.

I arrive in town and find not a lot left of the old castle and fortifications. The old town is mildly interesting and full of tourists (mainly US, from the sound of it). The main street is swarming with human parking meters, people in reflective green vests selling parking tickets. Not to me... When I gas up the gas station has new wizbang pumps with screens that give pictures of current road traffic somewhere and the current temperatures around the country. I note with interest that it's only 20 deg in Constanta, on the Black Sea coast. A few days ago I was told it was still 30 deg there. Here is hoping that this is just the front that's just passed through here, as I intend to head that way, if it's nice and warm. I do a loop around South to get back to Birthälm and pass through several villages with fortified churches, some pretty derelict.

In one dead-end village I get cornered by 4 young boys begging for chewing gum, pens and money. Their interest soon switches to the bike, though, and I end up giving each one a ride in turn, down the hill into the village and back up. That lights them up! They jump with excitement. Down the hill bemused adults start assembling, but it's not all smiles and I'm not sure what they think about this. A slightly older girl joins in and bullies her way through the boys to make sure she gets a ride, too. She screams with excitement (no, not fear). I quickly realise that they aren't content with one short ride each, so when one of them gets on for the second time I say goodbye to the others and drop my passenger off away from the others, so I can't be mobbed any more and leave. It was good fun, but I'm not sure whether this is a good idea.

In the evening I wander around the village a bit and talk to a couple of the locals.

8/10 Another foggy day and I ride South to the famous and often recommended Transfăgărăşan road. I take it that this is Romania's only alpine pass and I have been told that it was one of Ceaucescu's megalomaniac projects, the road being quite unnecessary, as only a few dozen km to the West a river passes through (or around, don't know) the Făgăraş Mountains and naturally, a road follows it. Alex said that I probably wouldn't want to cross the pass, the Northern side being the interesting one, but when I get there the Northern side is completely in fog and cloud and I don't see a thing, except for a few minutes near the top, where the clouds clear. At the top is a pay car park and it being Sunday they are doing good business, despite there being nothing to see but cloud. People and souvenir stands everywhere, then through the tunnel and on the other side - great views (but overcast and still bloody cold). Once I get down into the valley the road surface deteriorates back to RO standard, i.e. poor, and I quickly start to understand what Alex meant: there is a large hydro lake and the road twists and turns along the shore and I take ages to reach the next town, Campolung, where I want to turn off to Kronstadt (Braşov). Turning off, however, turns out to be not so easy, as there are no signs in the direction I travel. "Lung" probably means long in Romanian; I ask directions near the end of the town and get sent back 6 km. This is still in the same small town! From there the road is good fun, initially good and twisting and turning, up and down, but generally climbing until the scenery resembles Switzerland a little, or is it Slovenia? I have to stop for road works: there is a piece of road simply missing and a front-end loader is filling the depression with earth, precisely directed by the big boss, recognisable by his fancy jacket and air of authority. I decline to wait half an hour to then have to ride through soft dirt and pass over the pasture, to the amusement of all the bystanders. There are pensions everywhere, but when I finally stop to make enquiries I am shocked by the European prices they are demanding here. Eventually, an old and very friendly lady drops her price a bit and I get the choice of the room. It's Sunday night, the place must have been full and hasn't been cleaned up yet. The price agreed upon, the lady breaks out in hectic activity, cleaning and arranging, helped by several other old ladies, who magically appear. Nobody speaks anything but Romanian, but we are having some fun conversations anyway. The landlady tells me that she has a daughter in Besançon who speaks 4 languages and is studying there.

9/10 I wake up early and go out in the dark. Clear sky and almost full moon, but it's freezing cold. Apparently this place is at 1100 m altitude. I quickly get to Kronstadt and find a town centre full with nice old buildings, but it's very touristy already and the place is one big construction site. Upon the Austrian bikers' recommendation I take the Eastern route towards Bucureşti. Now, this road is a bikers' dream road, brand new tar seal all the way, almost no settlements, nothing but nice smooth bends, twisting its way over a mountain pass or two. No radar, either, as opposed to the main E routes. Not that I go that fast, anyway. The hills are covered in forest, which is now showing beautiful autumn colours. The whole thing is only slightly spoiled by the fact that trucks are not allowed on the Western route, probably because it's a bit steeper, so I often sit behind smoke belching trucks, one hairpin bend after another... I pass the last pension and think that I'll regret it, and I do: when I turn off the main road to head East towards the coast there is nothing any more and I end up having to search the entire town of Buzău in the dark for a hotel. Romanians tend to hide things, probably a habit learnt under the Ceaucescu regime, and hotels, bars and some shops are no exception. One hotel is full (!), the second looks very expensive and I end up in the third, still too expensive for my liking, but, well... When the receptionist hands me the remote for the aircon I ask her whether she expects a heat wave tonight. Did I mention it was cold?

10/10 From Buzau on the terrain is flat as a pancake and I just ride, only stopping for a few photos and to eat. For a little while I'm able to follow the Danube/Dunarea river. Its valley seems to contain the only forest in the entire plains.

In Medgidia I spot a brand new Plus supermarket. Great, perhaps the last possibility to buy a few things that I might not be able to get further East. They are still putting the finishing touches on the carpark, etc., but a worker opens the door for me. As I make my way towards the filled shelves I am informed, to my great surprise, that it's not open yet, tomorrow. Bummer, but 100 m further there is a Penny Market. Where the German army failed German traders are winning...

At Techirghiol I get my first glimpse ever of the Black Sea. Surprise, it's blue, not black. I try to follow the coast, but it's soon hotel country and you can't even see it any more for all the concrete. All hotels are closed. Oh dear, perhaps I'm just gonna sleep in one of the closed down huts. I could easily go to Bulgaria today, but then I have to find accommodation in the evening in a country where I can't even read the signs. In the last town before the border (shipyards and naval base, no hotels) I easily find a nice, cheap and very rustic pension. The owner runs a small shop and his son is in the navy and speaks good English. They are going to enlarge the shop next year, because the president has apparently passed a law or decree stipulating that shops must have a minimum size of 40 sqm. I wonder which supermarket chain he's bought shares in. I tell them what has happened to small shops further West in the EU and about the two new supermarkets in the small town up the road. I wouldn't sink any money into such a shop, for sure.

11/10 Another fine day dawns, but there is a strong Northerly wind blowing. Valentin, the owners' son, presents me with a farewell souvenir from Romania, so to speak: a very nice saucer to hang on the wall. I am touched and I certainly didn't expect it. I say my farewells, spend my last Lei at the petrol pump and I'm off to the nearby border at Vama Veche. In my rear view mirror there is Romania and blue sky, in front of me dark, threatening clouds and Bulgaria.

I thoroughly enjoyed my trip through Romania and I urge everyone to visit it soon, as in a short while it will have changed and become another EU-country. This will certainly benefit many Romanians, but I'm afraid that in the process it will loose some of its charme.

Overall rating