… Our extraction from Slovakia was a beautiful twisting mountain road that dropped us onto the scorched plains of Hungary. The road to Romania took us in a more or less straight line across red-hot skillet flatlands with temperatures hovering just below 40°C. Just across the border our first Romanian halt was the ‘Robinson Country Club’ in the city of Oradea where we had a novelty accommodation in the form of a little wooden cabin. Five of them were dotted around our own ‘private pool’ and it all cost little more than if we had camped. The first ‘surprise’ was the access road into the site; it ran parallel to a railway line had been completely dug up with a No-Entry sign barring the way. From here all roads ran up a steep hill and we had a nightmare trying to gain access to our lodgings, getting stuck at the top of one of these hills on fully loaded bikes in the sweltering heat, making a U-turn which only dumped us at the foot of the hill our way once again barred by an earthen ramp. In the end I rode over the ramp and we finally arrived at the ‘Country Club’ where our host, a young lad named Adam, made us very welcome. We tried some ‘Mici’ (“small things”) for dinner – a traditional Romanian dish of grilled ground meat rolls made from a mixture of beef, lamb and pork and spices that was quite tasty.
The next day was spent hoofing around Oradea, finding succor from the heat sipping local made lemonade and lunching on savoury pastries in one of the cities fine delis. It’s a pretty city but there are roadworks everywhere; it seems Romania is on the up as infrastructure is put in place. By 3pm we were thoroughly hot and sweaty and decided to retire to the pool for a cooling soak. That’s when we found that our ‘private pool’ was also available for the local mafia and their molls. On arrival back at the Country Club the carpark was full of AMG Mercedes / flash BMWs and their owners had nabbed all the sun-loungers and were using the porches of all of the cabins to store their cigarettes / keys / mobile phones and items of clothing. We smiled; they returned stony frowns. We picked a path through their stretched legs and dumped our bits inside our cabin; they glared and tried to see inside. We retreated to the shady bar and sat supping a beer, asking Adam to explain who these thugs were? ‘Businessmen’ he said… “Are our bikes OK here?” we asked. “Don’t worry” said deadpan Adam, “none of them mess with my father…”
The wooden cabin was a bad idea in other ways. It was stifling hot so we slept with the window open and had night intruders in the form of mossies or so I thought. Each morning we woke with a few more bites. On the morning of our departure I saw what I thought was a sesame seed on the bed and flicked it. It was full of blood; we had been sleeping with bed bugs. An online search revealed this is a worsening phenomenon in the travel industry as DDT is banned in insecticides and laundries are now using low temperature washes, which eggs are able to survive. It seems it is affecting the hotel business the world over with outbreaks not only in low level hostels but also in flashier haunts like New York and London. Scratching our bites we left…
If Oradea was a poor introduction to Romania then things could only go up and indeed they did. Our next stop was the medieval city of Sighișoara, with its beautiful castle overlooking the Târnava Mare river in Transylvania. Also known as Schäßburg, the citadel was built by an army of imported German craftsmen and merchants known as the Transylvanian Saxons way back in the 12th century. They were invited to settle here by the King of Hungary, who was keen to exploit their skills in fortress construction. The entire city has something of a gossamer fairytale atmosphere to it and we spent a couple of days meandering its winding streets and visiting the castle. The German legacy is very much in evidence with shop names like Muller and Schmitt.
Sighișoara is also famous as the birthplace of Vlad Tepes (Vlad the Impaler), inspiration for Irishman Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula and consequently a beacon for tourist souvenirs around town. You can visit the house where he was born and buy all sorts of Dracula regalia from vampire teeth to Vlad T-Shirts. What is amazing is that Stoker never visited Eastern Europe and Vlad the Impaler has nothing really to do with vampires, he just had a bit of a reputation for not going to easy on his conquered enemies. After one victorious battle he reputedly created a forest by impaling 20,000 of the vanquished.
Later we would spend a day at Bran Castle, ‘Draculas Castle’, a place where Vlad himself has no dramatic historical links, yet the castle is one of the major tourist draws in Romania purely on this Dracula connection. The place was horribly overcrowded and, although the castle itself is quite pretty, it is small and was easily over-run by the coachloads of tourists. The Dracula phenomenon must be perplexing to many Romanians as they view this sensational horror story set in Transylvania, written by some bloke who’s never been there, a story that attained ultimate popularity when Hollywood put it on the silver screen to terrify audiences the world over. Some of the ‘anti-Dracula’ postings by the locals were quite witty as you can see in the photogallery.
After Sighișoara, the road continued south through rural landscapes and wound on through the Bran pass and some of the most beautiful alpine scenery on Earth. We’d come here to ride the legendary Transfăgărășan Pass, one of the most stunning rides on the planet. We checked into a small Pension and when I entered ‘Belfast’ as my place of birth on the registration form, the owner Leonard became ecstatic in the extension of his warm welcome… Turns out this place is ‘twinned’ with Downpatrick in Northern Ireland but that, as they say, is another story… to be continued…
For photographs see Gallery ‘ Romania Part 1’