Thursday, 21 June 2007

Romania: Braşov to Sovata

Cast iron detail, Braşov

Back on the road again, we were about 9km out of Braşov when we came across a "no bikes or horses-and-carts" road sign with no alternative route in sight. We felt more comfortable when we saw another cyclist riding directly past a police car that was stopped to book speeding motorists. The horses and carts didn't seem to heed the sign either.

Horses and cart on "no horses and carts road"

We pushed on to the small town of Bran to see "Dracula's Castle", a homely looking whitewashed castle filled with a maze of wooden staircases and buzzing with tourists.

Bran Castle courtyard - home of Count Dracula in Bram Stoker's book

Happily, we found a campground for the night in Bran. Roger made friends with a fellow camper who explained how he was more comfortable in nudist campgrounds and paraded around in stringy speedos until nightfall.

Camping European style

The next day we took the scenic forest road to Fagaraş, ignoring the "no bikes" sign again. It was on the 14 km stretch to Fagaraş that we experienced one of the only tailwinds so far, making the ride almost effortless, with a fierce storm building behind us over the Carparthian Mountains.

It was in the small Saxon town of Iacobeni, now inhabited by Gypsies, where we found accommodation near the Biserica (church). "Father Don" is a German priest who has spent the last 15 years in Romania running a home for street children. The grown children help run a small hotel, doing the cooking, cleaning and gardening. They showed us around the beautifully refurnished Biserica which is surrounded by a fortress, a common feature of Saxon villages. After dinner Father Don showed us some of the newspaper articles he has written about torture in Romanian prisons and the problems that communism has left here. It was a fascinating experience, one of our highlights of travel so far.

Iacobeni village from the church tower

We were fortunate to be travelling through Romania with two good maps. One was a German cycling map given to us by Darinka in Croatia (thanks!). This showed lots of good routes through the country and we learnt that deviating from them led to either really slow dirt roads covered in rocks or to busy highways with lots of trucks. The other map was a Romanian 1:600000 road map. Pink roads on this map were motorways; brown were busy highways; yellow were main routes that were usually some form of asphalt but sometimes dirt; and the majority of the map was covered in white roads which were suitable only for horses and carts, not for bikes. So we tried to stick to yellow where possible.

Luisa cycling through a Transylvanian village

On to the touristy town of Sighişoara where we stayed with a folk musician within the old town centre, close to this ornate citadel:

Sighişoara citadel

As we ventured through the Hungarian enclave in northern Transylvania the street signs were in both Romanian and Hungarian. The largest minority group in Europe, the Romanian Hungarians, number 1.8 million. The region was part of Hungary for 1000 years but was given to Romania as a gift for helping out the Allies in WWI. So even though it's been Romanian territory for 90 years there are villages where no Romanian is spoken, or even understood! Entering one of these small towns, Rugonfalva, we found we had no common language with most of the population - the most we could understand was a smattering of German! The locals at the pub found us a room with the chef, and we communicated in stilted Romanian.

Stork nest and church, Rugonfalva

A day or two and we were back to bilingual (Romanian and Hungarian) territory. Wandering off the known bike roads trying to find shortcuts left us on steep gravel roads, vowing never to shortcut again. Upon reaching Sovata we climbed to the top of a hill following "camping" signs to camping that never eventuated, the Romanian definition of camping being much broader than ours. We stayed in bungalows in Sovata, a town that appeared to have been built as a holiday resort around an disappointingly murky lake system where holiday makers sunbathed on concrete platforms. The "medicinal" spring waters that flowed from public taps tasted strange and metallic.

Triple bunger stork nest, Sovata

Sunday, 17 June 2007

Romania: A difficult start

The first Romanian city we entered had the unwieldly name of Drobeta-Turnu-Severin. We bought a language guide and threw ourselves wholeheartedly into learning to communicate. Romanian is a latin language and shares a lot of grammar and words with Italian and Spanish, so is quite easy to learn. That night we were the only guests in a newly opened pension with a piano on every floor! The fabled Romanian architecture was very visible in a tower near the centre of town.

Turnu-Severin tower

We wanted to fast-track this part of Romania by taking a bus or train to Transylvania, but it took us 24 hours to find one that would fit our bikes. We also had to fight the constant "can't do" attitude of transport staff and laws against carrying bikes on trains, which is unimportant when the offer of a little incentive is made...

We made our way by train and bus to the "European Union's Cultural Capital of 2007", Sibiu, a charming town in western Transylvania. This town has a really upbeat feel with lots of new tasteful development and refurbishment. This year there is live music on most nights. We encountered some streets still under repair:

Roger encounters some roadwork

Sibiu town wall

The architecture in this region has a lot of characteristic features too. One of our favourites is the eyelid windows in the roofs of many buildings.

Eyelid windows

A mushroom tower

Orthodox Frescos

But the stress of our transport woes of the past few days wasn't over. After spending the night in a pension we awoke to discover that our bike helmets had been stolen from inside the front door of the pension! We attempted to make statements at two police stations but gave up after a couple of hours when the language difficulties became too great.

Near the pension where our helmets were stolen

A day was then spent scouring Sibiu for a couple of decent helmets to no avail. None of the helmets in the five bike shops in Sibiu fitted properly. Our plan was to cycle in the direction of Brasov but we didn't feel comfortable doing this without helmets, especially since there were some highways involved. So we caught a train to larger city of Brasov to look for better helmets. On this train we were more savvy and paid only a small bribe, while at the smae time managing to make friends with the conductor.

On the train we met Romiro, a young engineering student with a great sense of humour. He gave us tremendous insight into the way Romanians think and many tips on language and customs. We had dinner with Romiro and his flatmate that night at the Romanian equivalent of McDonalds; hearty student fare indeed!

The Transylvianian Tennis Club in Brasov

The next day we searched all the Brasov bike shops and found good helmets in the last one on our list. They are Trek ones and fit very well. Roger's fits better than his cheap Aussie one. With the stress of the last week over we were ready to hit the road again.

Monday, 11 June 2007

Serbia: The "Danube Canyon"

We found a lovely guesthouse to stay in just before Donji Milanovac. It's run by a Serbian family with a good attitude to life after war and communism. The father is an artist of sorts and when he lost his job in the late 90s, he started carving sculptures. Their property is now an outdoor sculpture gallery and we stayed in the house with an amazing view.

View from guesthouse window

Meals are sourced from the farm and local produce where possible. The goats, sheep, cats and dogs entertained us for hours.


The most spectacular part of the Danube in Serbia is where the Danube narrows to about 100m with steep limestone walls on each side. Unexpectedly, one cliff on the Romanian side has a huge face engraved on it. The riverside road is good for riding with little traffic, and 15 tunnels.

Danube Canyon

Enormous carved face - no idea how it was done

After the canyon section, we crossed into Romania, meeting a German cycling couple in no man's land between the two countries.

Cycle tourists

Serbia: Ram to Golubac

An unusually early start had us on the road again by around 8am, where we met a German cyclist who had already done 30km and was planning another 100km for the day. He told us how he cycled across Australia, completing 100km a day with a headwind and 266km a day with a tailwind! Needless to say, he tolerated us for about 13 km to the town of Kovin where we had a drink and lunch, and then he was on his way.

Still following the Danube cycle route, we crossed the river via a car ferry the next morning to Ram Fortress.

Boats at Stara Palanka


The end of the day saw us at another riverside fortress, Golubac, but unfortunately a storm at around 4pm that cut off water and electricity to the whole town. Locals seemed unfazed, indicating that this happens quite often. We stayed at a cheap hotel ("Recommended in 1984") where we were told that if we needed water we could "buy it at the restaurant". At this stage Luisa was very tempted to cross the Danube to Romania, except that the next bridge was 120km away.

Farmer with Golubac Fortress in background

Roger riding through Golubac Fortress ruins

Serbia: Belgrade

From Novi Sad we headed east along the Danube to another monastery. By now we had learnt some Cyrillic and could slowly interpret signs like these:

"4km: Manastir Krusedol"

After following some tracks through the rolling plains and fields we arrived in a town called Inđija where we stayed with a young family who rented out rooms.

Rolling wheat fields near Indjia

A barnyard

The next day we cycled to Belgrade in the morning and wandered around in the afternoon. Belgrade is a big, happening city.

Traditional dress

There is a great riverside fortress where the whole of Belgrade seemed to be enjoying the evening, rock-climbing, doing tai-chi or just watching the sunset with beers.

Chess in the park

What a great use for a fortress - a giant bouldering wall!

Sunset at the fortress

This is a mural, not real life

But then we had our first mechanical failure! Roger's rear rack sheared where it joins to the bike at the bottom. Luckily, it broke just as we were riding out of Belgrade and we knew where the nearest bike shop was. We held it together with cable ties for the one kilometre journey and found the shop to have an even better replacement.

Bike shop guy fitting new rack

Leaving Belgrade was a bit scary and there's some real ugliness surrounding it. It's easy to see why Europe has problems with smog and acid rain.

Ugly factory near Belgrade

Eventually we found ourselves on a small road that we shared with tractors and horses, and stopping to harvest blackberries on the way, we found an isolated campsite where the friendly owners let us stay for free.

Local traffic