What a sheer delight it was to be greeted each morning by the lovely smile of Leonard Soare, owner of the Pensiunea Piscul Soarelui, county councilor, President of the Mountain Community Iezer Muscel Association and one of the driving forces behind the twinning of this area with places like Lazio in Italy, Listowel in Kerry and indeed the aforementioned Downpatrick affiliation. ‘How you sleep my friends?’ he would ask in delightful slightly broken English. In this clear mountain air; like a log… Out on the covered patio, Marlene and the girls from the kitchen would appear to set us up with a hearty breakfast of coffee, omelet, freshly baked bread and home-made jams. After breakfast, we would contemplate the day ahead with Leonard under sunny blue Romanian skies…
To be honest we’d never really paid much attention to the notion of ‘twinning’ other than noticing the ‘twinned with’ declarations on entering towns around home and across Europe. According to the blurb, “A twinning is the meeting between two municipalities to act together within a European perspective, confronting problems and developing increasingly closer and friendlier ties between one another.” There are currently over 34,000 ‘twinnings’ in place across the EU and, listening to the tales of Leonard’s travels, they are a fantastic way to bring people together for cultural exchanges and a broader view of the world (for more information of Leonards perspective on this see his website, twinning.org)
For all the blue skies we had a slight cloud spoiling our fun in the form of a clunky chain on my bike. It already had a slight tight spot when I left home but, assessing this against its predicted service life, I reckoned it should have been good for a few more thousand miles. However in the past few days a clunking noise had set in to the back wheel and upon closer examination it looked like the rivet link was badly worn and I was wary of transmitting more damage to the gearbox or other running parts. The nearest city, Campulung, offered few services for motorcycles but Leonard made a few calls and found us a mechanic who could look at least at replacing the worn rivet link with my spare split-link.
Theo worked out of a little workshop at the rear of some ugly communist-era apartment blocks in Campulung. The workshop was packed from floor to ceiling with tools and old car engine parts. We split the chain and on closer examination found more damaged links. He disappeared for ten minutes, made a few calls and he announced that he had sourced a new chain. It proved to be an expensive purchase but then Theo had given up a whole morning to sort my bike. We had come here to ride the fantastic Transfăgărășan Pass and I really didn’t fancy risking it with a bodged chain.
Next morning we were up early and set off on bumpy, concrete-section, rural roads to Curtea de Arges and the start of the Transfăgărășan. We would ride it south to north and then circle back to the Pensiunea via the Bran Pass. The southern gates are guarded by the impressive fortress of Poienari high on the canyon top with associations to Vlad the Impaler and more Dracula lore. The road continued to ascend some pine-clad canyons via a series of fairly gentle switchbacks and bends ending in a tunnel ride at the end of which is the impressive dam at Lake Vidraru. We chased this long lake through more pine-forest taking care to avoid the folk picking raspberries at the roadside, which were abundant in the area. We gradually eased out of the canyon, leaving the trees behind, to be met by a sheer stone face of Carpathian mountain and a zigzag of a road to the top.
The Transfăgărășan Pass was constructed in the early 1970’s, following the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet Union. Romanian dictator Ceaușescu saw the road as a military strategic necessity, giving him access across the mountains in the event of a Soviet invasion. It proved to be a bit of a folly, as the weather does a better job of preventing access to the pass than any military force ever could, but it was argued that the other trans-Carpathian routes followed river valleys and so could be easily blocked. It was estimated that the military construction teams used over six million kilograms of dynamite were used to blast out the passage and possibly several hundred conscripts lost their lives during the four-year construction of the pass.
On scaling the southern approach, it ends in a tunnel that then breaches the pass and spits you out at the beautiful bowl of Bâlea Lake, a glacial melt-pool at the top of the 2000-metre pass. At the top there is a small restaurant and dozens of food stalls and souvenir shacks. We pigged out on rotisseried roast chicken with spuds and then sauntered over to gawk at the amazing views over the mad spaghetti descent down the north side. Also at the top were lots of little cars from the UK all out for the Mongol Rally. The rules of this annual event are simple: (1) The car must be small and crap. (2) The teams are totally unsupported and (3) Teams need to raise at least £1000 for charity. They then drive all the way from London to Mongolia, where the cars are donated to charity or properly disposed of.
Our ride today was stupendous and we were blessed by beautiful weather all day. We read of the pass being described as one of the world’s most dangerous roads, which is all hype if you ask me. The road surface is poor in places but this is typical in Romania and nowhere did we feel like we were in danger of going over the edge or toppling to our doom down some deep canyon.
Back at the Pensiunea, Leonard greeted us with two ice-cold beers after a truly fantastic day’s motorcycling. Then dinner… The fare was from a simple menu but everything was delicious and once again homemade fare topped the bill. You can read in our ‘Food’ section of our encounter with Zakuska, a delightful aubergine and roast pepper paste that is simply to die for, all made of course by Lily, Leonards adorable wife. After dinner we took pleasure in the company of these two and whiled away the evenings in pleasant conversation. By the end of our stay this all led us to enquire as to whether Leonard had ever considered giving up ‘twinning’ and consider ‘adoption’ as a pastime. We both come fully house-trained…
Inevitably the call of the road beckoned and we set off south for Bulgaria. The ride took us down out of the mountains and across endless fields of sunflowers that ran unbroken all the way to the Danube. On empty roads it felt like the bikes had disappeared and we were on flying carpets over this sea of yellow smiley flowers; truly an adventure in yellow. We’d been badly bitten by Romania, fallen in love with the place and it’s people, be they sun-bleached farm-hands on mountain passes, who waved and smiled as we rode by, to the most hospitable of hosts in this amazing land.
You can see the associated photogallery for this blog post at Romania – Part 2