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.