Cycling in Transylvania July – August
When I told people we were going on holiday to Romania I had doubtful looks and many quips about adopting orphans. My mental picture too was of communist style buildings (monolithic or spartan), social problems and shabbiness. The other image promoted by the tourist board, of Dracula castles, did not attract me either. I anticipated pot holed roads and high risk of our bikes getting stolen. But my usual cycling partners were keen and I thought it was time we explored a new place. France is without question the best country for cycling, but one can’t limit oneself only to there. Besides, my friend had found a Romanian tour group on the web that offered to arrange it all for us and transport our luggage at a reasonable rate.
‘Carpathian Adventures’ turned out to be a small operation and very new (we were their first clients!) but ideal for our needs. Our friends hired their excellent hybrid bikes and we brought our tandem which fit in their minibus along with the four of us, a guide, driver and our luggage. The guide spoke excellent English and had chosen our route carefully to include quiet roads, unspoiled villages and a little sightseeing.
We chose the Transylvania Tour as it was nearest to Bucharest. The area west of Brasov is famous for its German towns and attractive rural countryside. Prince Charles visited it in 2001 and is quoted as saying it is his favourite landscape. The meadows are full of flowers and you see people farming in traditional ways with scythe and horse plough. Many of the German-speakers have emigrated now, but they have left a legacy of 16-18th C gothic evangelical churches, some fortified by high walls, with space for the villagers to store food and move inside to survive attack. Some towns, like Sibiu, seem like the more attractive parts of southern Germany, with cobbled streets and brightly coloured buildings sloping out at the bottom. The Romanian majority there have re-elected their German speaking mayor because they think you can trust the Germans to run things well.
Other villages are inhabited by the Hungarian minority. The people are fairer and the houses are distinctive for their indigo colour, built side on to the road with vine-shaded courtyards. As both these minority language groups are in decline, the empty houses have been occupied by gypsy families. We happened to pass a horse fair which brought them out in all their best clothes: wide brimmed black hats for the men and long red pleated skirts for the women, though there were signs of change with a younger woman in a see-through black lace top buying sunglasses from a stall.
The great thing about cycling is that you can go at a speed to enjoy the landscape and villages and exchange a few words with people in a horse and cart as you pass. We saw very few other cycle-tourists, so we provoked a lot of interest. The tandem is a good icebreaker and we got used to the refrain of “Mama mia, che do-bicicletta!” – at least that is what is sounded like to our Italian-trained ears. You don’t need much language to say where you have come from and where you are going and to give children rides on the back.
We appreciated the advantages of the organised tour: especially having our luggage transported for us, and hotels booked. We had one of the guides cycling with us as well as the van either ahead or behind. This meant that if you wanted a drink or to take off a layer, your need was met at once. Though it was August, we had quite a bit of rain, but avoided getting wet thanks to the van. It was useful having someone there to translate for us and interpret. The tour was very good value as it included all meals as well as 12 night’s accommodation for about £550. Most days we had a picnic lunch and restaurant supper. Romanian food is heavy on the pork, but can be tasty and we really enjoyed the fruit and vegetables. Soups were always good and very welcome after cycling on the cooler days. Our hotels ranged from luxurious (one was a glitsy nineteenth century palace with a sliding roof on the dining room), to simple farm house pensione, complete with wooden verandas and kerchiefed granny dressed in black.
The roads were certainly pot-holed, but without paniers this was less of a problem, and at least it slowed down the traffic. We did a few stretches on main roads which were not that bad as the roads were wide and the traffic quite slow. Many of the rural roads are unpaved and it is not clear even from the best map (the Hungarian 1:400.000) which are and which are not. Our guide’s knowledge was invaluable there. The most dramatic cycling we did was over the Fagaras pass. This is a great road, well-surfaced and with little traffic, built by Ceausescu as a defence against possible Russian attack. It goes up at a manageable gradient to 2050m (a climb of 1600m). If it gets too much you can do the last 800m of the climb by cable car. We stayed in a very comfortable refuge at the top with spectacular views as the clouds came and went around us. An impressive sight were the traders who had come (often hitchhiked) to sell blueberries and blackberries by the cup and hand knitted sweaters and socks. In the evening we shared the dining room with groups of walkers, including Saxon migrants returned from Germany who sang songs in their strange dialect.
The last day we spent in Bucharest which was less quaint, but still an attractive place with many intact buildings from the late 19th early 20th century heyday. The People’s palace is the monstrosity you expect, but there are nice tree lined boulevards and parks too with good public transport and restaurants.
We formed a very positive impression of the Romanian people. Like the Italians they are easy-going and warm; good-looking too, with straight noses and even complexions. We had many generous offers of hospitality from people who could hardly afford it and left with a strong desire to explore more of the country on another visit.
Vicky Bullard, Oxford , UK
Costin guided us on a cycling trip in Transylvania. He was a wonderful guide – well organized, attentive and having him and his fellow guide, Relu gave us much more inside into the country than we would have had if we had tried doing this trip on our own. It was fun staying at a variety of different places – from modern functional to historic palace to farm stay. Cycling is a fun way to see a country – and Romania was a fun place to cycle.
7 rue de la Bussière 21220 MOREY SAINT DENIS FRANCE
If you are looking for a supported cycle tour in Romania you couldn’t do better than choose ‘Carpathian Adventures’. Their well-chosen routes on quiet roads through unspoiled villages took us past the fortified churches and beautiful landscapes of Transylvania. Each night we stayed in comfortable hotels and pensions ranging from simple to luxurious. The minibus easily accommodated the seven of us with luggage and bikes (including our tandem), taking us over busy stretches and offering sanctuary from the rain. English-speaking guides Costin and Sabina had excellent local knowledge and were always considerate of our needs. Ex-wrestler Relu provided muscle-power effortlessly loading the bikes and cycling up hills. Picnic lunches included delicious local produce. Tomatoes, smoked pork and peaches never tasted this good at home. All in the entire trip was well-organised, congenial and represented excellent value. I warmly recommend Carpathian Adventures.
Vicky Bullard, Oxford UK