Discovering the world on $20 per day ......................

Post 325 Transylvania .... Reflection

Would I be free in the middle of June? Would I be interested in joining a guided biking tour of Transylvania? It certainly wasn’t the worst email that I’d ever received, but I had two burning questions. Did ‘Transylvania’ really exist and did the word ‘Free’ also refer to the price of the tour?

At the risk of sounding like a whining actor, I really didn’t want to go. I had a preconceived notion that while Transylvania would be fantastic, guided touring would probably be an experience to forget. A week spent visiting places that were of interest to other people and keeping to somebody else’s timetable. I ride bikes because of the freedom and the whole idea of following an official guide filled me with anything but enthusiasm.

Maybe all guided tours are different, but my initial worries were totally unfounded. The guides at Transylvania Live were simply fonts of local knowledge and the style of riding was entirely up to you. As fast or as slow as you like. You knew where the next stopping point was located and how quickly you got there was up to you. No matter how long the convoy of bikes, at it’s rear was the support vehicle carrying all of the luggage. Nobody gets lost and without the guides, the things that were of most interest would have been easily missed.

There are many great things to visit in Transylvania, but it’s the people who make it really special. Every day of the tour, along ribbons of gloriously winding tarmac, the local inhabitants gathered on the steps of their houses and waved as we passed. The laughing kids ran alongside us shouting and enthusiastically miming the riding of giant motorbikes. Whenever we stopped, people came over to talk and invited us into their homes. They baked us cakes, made strong coffee and often insisted that we drank a local plum brandy called ‘Palinkas’. We visited local artists and craft centres where artisans practiced their trades and invited us to try the techniques for ourselves. Spinning wool, fashioning masks to ward off the evil Strigoi and weaving fabric from hemp. Always they greeted us with a smile and looking into their small vegetable gardens, perhaps the reason for their smiles was obvious. Maybe not all of the hemp was cultivated for fabric?

Everyday Romania surprised me with something quite amazing and just when I thought that all of the surprises have been revealed, it presented me with something quite new. In the small village of Sapanta, we came across the Merry Cemetery. A cemetery attached to a church, but a cemetery like no other that I’ve ever seen. Each of the eight hundred burial plots is marked by a carved wooden plaque with a painting depicting the life of the incumbent below. Each plaque also has a story written in the first person and one that caught my eye was for a three year old girl: ‘’1995-1998 I am Anita of Nafur and I leave my parents with sorrow in the their hearts. They no longer sing in their vineyards because I was hit by a car. But my parents should not have sad hearts because God has simply taken me to his bosom’’. In stark contrast to most European cultures, the Merry Cemetery is a celebration of life and along with the generous warmth of the Romanian people, it is something that I will always remember.

Post 324: Transylvania ...........

It was a good day to ride, and according to the team from Top Gear, this was the best driving road anywhere in the world. The Transfagrasan Highway …… lets see

The first thing I noticed was that the road surface wasn’t great. Potholes everywhere, running streams and washes of gravel on every blind bend. The second thing I noticed was that I simply didn’t give a shit. Screw Ceausescu wanting to move his heavy armour quickly across Transylvania, this road was made for bikes. Enthusiasm takes over, the Transylvania Live guide disappears in the BMW's mirrors and the fun begins.

Thanks to Top Gear, this road has apparently become notoriously busy at the weekends. Today’s Sunday and it’s relatively quiet, so I guess they must mean ’busy’ in Romanian terms. What traffic there is seems very European. Cars see you coming from behind and pull to the side to let you pass unhindered. It‘s a beautiful thing but it certainly hasn‘t caught on in Blighty.

Just below the snowline, I stopped for a giggle and photographs. I’ve no idea how high the road had climbed, but it didn’t really matter, it’s just never ending. Around every corner there’s another mountain to conquer and more smiles to enjoy.

Just when you think that things can’t get any better, they do. It’s like riding into a photograph that you recognise. Hairpin bend after hairpin bend, climbing into the snow and clouds. The sight lines are perfect and all of the road is there to use. You don’t need to ride fast and it doesn’t really matter what your riding, it’s all just spectacularly good.

Just when you think that things can’t get any better, they do. It’s like riding into a photograph that you instantly recognise. Hairpin bend after hairpin bend, climbing up beyond the clouds and into the snow. The sight lines are perfect and all of the road is there to be used. You don’t need to ride quickly and it doesn’t really matter what bike your riding, it’s all just spectacularly good.

You reach the top and stop for lunch and coffee. It is the top but it isn’t. It’s just one of many tops along 90 Km of motorcycling utopia and the best thing about reaching the end of the Tranfragasan Highway, is turning around and doing it all again in reverse. Top Gear consider this to he the best driving road in the world and when it comes to supercars, they might well be right. Is it the best biking road in the world? I've no idea, but if I made a list of the greatest roads that I've ever ridden then the Transfragasan Highway would certainly be on it .... and quite close to the top.

Post 323: Transylvania ......

After the rains in Medias had stopped, we crossed the river that had earlier been a road and headed to Sibiu, the 2007 ''European City of Culture''.

The centre of Sibiu has a beautiful charm. Clearly a lot of European money has been spent here but none of the character has been lost. The buildings have been renovated and acres of cobblestones laid to give pedestrians priority. It'sa mixture of medieval and modern but there isn't an international brand name in site. No McDonalds, no KFC, no Starbucks and that's the way I like it. They've created a cafe society where a 'Tall Skinny Latte' is affordable to most people and it all seems to work wonderfully well. I like Sibiu and it would be great to spend a little more time here, but sheltering from the rain in Medias has eaten into the day and it's already late in the evening.

It had been dark when we'd arrived at our hotel, the 'Pensiunea Sibiel'. It had been almost 10pm when six soaking bikers had arrived on their four-star doorstep, but the welcome could not have been any warmer or the beer any colder. It's only in the light of morning that I can really appreciate just how beautiful the hotel and location really are. It feels like it's at the centre of some enchanted forest. The noise of the wind rustling through the trees and the rushing waters of the stream could have been created by Enid Blyton herself. It's not yet 6am but the staff are already on duty. Smiling and silent as they prepare everything for breakfast. They're the same staff who served us dinner last night, a dinner that didn't begin until well after 11pm and ended some time later in a confusion of empty beer bottles. I hope they pay them well.

As we fill the bikes with fuel, our guide Alain explains the sign that's attached to every fuel pump. It asks the customer not to pay the young attendant who kindly fills their tank and washes their windscreen, because they don't employ any such attendants.

We stop for coffee. It's mid morning and a perfect day for riding. Not too hot, not too cold and perfectly dry. Today is the day that we'll ride the Transfagarasan Road. I ask Alain where the road begins. He stamps his foot into the earth and points upwards into the mountains ... 'we are here my friend'.

'Trans' meaning over and 'Fagaras' being the mountain range, the Transfagrasan Road was built between 1970 and 1974 as Nicolae Ceausescu's response to the USSR invasion of Czechoslovakia. Ceausescu feared that Romania would suffer the same fate as Czechoslovakia and needed a means of moving his military forces quickly to the required borders. It runs for 90 Km, links the two highest points in the Carpathian Mountains and not a single kilometre of the road is straight. Because of the cost in monetary and human terms, the Tranfagrasan Road is often referred to as 'Ceausescu's Folly'. One mans 'Folly' is another mans 'Fantasy', but your perspective on that might well depend on what kind of bike you're riding .

Engage first gear ..... disengage reason ..... and let the fun begin

Post 322: Transylvania ......

Sunshine, no rain and Transylvania is certainly not in black in white today. It’s a good day for riding. We’re heading away from Turda but it feels really strange. No map or compass, not a clue where I’m going so I just following the leader. The leader in question is Alain, he’s riding his own BMW 650 F and his wife Herta is somewhere behind us in the Transylvania Live support car. That’s something else that feels strange, I’m touring without luggage. It’s strange but it’s good, I could really get used to this.

Everything here reminds me of Russia. The roads, the traffic, the people, the scenery. It’s just all very Russian, right down to the charming state of universal incompletion . At the side of the road, two houses stand out from all of the rest. Alain informs us that in these parts such buildings are known as ‘Gypsy Palaces’. After the ‘Revolution’ in 1989, many Gypsy’s travelled to Western Europe in search of their fortunes and used it to build homes back in Romania. Unfortunately, being from the travelling community, many of the Gypsy’s understood little about the ongoing costs of property ownership and taxation. The Gypsy Palaces almost without exception, remain unfinished and uninhabited. Upon completion, property tax becomes payable and as all of the wealth had been poured into ’Out-Crassing’ their neighbours, they can’t or wont, pay the taxes. It’s also further confirmation that money can’t buy you taste. Quite possibly the ugliest pair of houses that I’ve ever seen.

Just outside of Turda, we arrive at the Salina Turda. A futuristic visitor centre on top of an ancient salt mine. In the bad old days, this is where the naughty folks were sent to serve their sentences. Thankfully today is strictly for visitors and the occasional rock band.

I’ve never really thought about where salt comes from, or what it looks like before it’s refined and packaged. It’s actually one of the most beautiful natural things that I’ve seen. Amazing patterns and contours are everywhere. Long corridors open out into vast underground halls where twenty centuries worth of salt have already been extracted.

At Lernut, we walk around the war cemetery from 1944. Romania had entered the war with the Axis Forces, but towards the end of WWII joined the Allies. I should have remembered the dates, but sadly I didn’t. The graves here are from 1944 and beyond the cemetery is the Lernut Sculpture Park. A number of Romanian artists were each given a similar block of stone and asked to create their own sculptures. The results are quite impressive, but the fact that such sculptures were allowed during communist times is probably even more impressive.

A little further along the road, we find an old house. It’s a house that was once very grand but today is just very dilapidated. After 1945, it was taken from it’s owners and given to the people. Sadly, people who do not own property do not maintain property. It's not their fault, it's just a fact. Following the revolution of 1989, the house was given back to the heirs of the original family, who in turn offered it for use as an orphange. No plumbing, no running water, no electricity, very few glazed windows and even fewer functional roof tiles. Once again, if you should ever here me whining, then please kick me.

Medias is a beautiful old town. Cobbled streets, old buildings and all around is an air of class. We meet Emile Muresan, a local artist who creates sculptures from metal and pictures from spiders webs. In the thirty minutes that we've spent browsing in his gallery, he's provided us with coffee, soft drinks and a table full of nibbles. He explains his conceptual sculptures through a haze a smoke from his ancient pipe. It's impossible not to like this man. As we leave the gallery, the clouds are begining to gather above Meidias, clouds the shade of night.

We head for a local restaurant that Emile is kind enough to show us. We eat ‘micci’, a local delicay similar to sheek kebab and watch as the rain begins to pour. It’s proper rain and as the road outside begins to flood, the candles come out and the electricity fails. A blue Dacia car comes past the window. It seems to be aquaplaning. On second glance it’s not. No driver ….. it’s actually floating.