Transylvania. The word alone conjures images of vampires, gothic castles perched on rocky outcrops and old peasant women wrapped in shawls making their way through mist-cloaked villages. Or have I watched too many old black and white movies? Like me, you may question whether Transylvania exists other than in the minds of Hollywood directors, but it does and it’s a beautiful province that fills the bulk of central Romania. Its physical diversity includes sun-baked plains and wide fertile river valleys, rolling hills and mountains where pine forests give way to sparsely vegetated tundra above the 1,800 metre snow line. Having witnessed terrific political and military upheaval through the centuries, it still maintains a wealth of medieval architecture and some of the towns and villages appear to be caught in a surreal time warp where the horse and cart is still king.
Romania may now be a member of the EU but about half the population don’t have access to a piped water supply, so perhaps it’s not surprising that there are occasional issues with the supplies that do exist, as I discovered at my hotel in the unfortunately named town of Turda. I’d just ridden through from Hungary, it was 37°C and although a shower would have been welcome respite, it wasn’t to be. There are times when it’s good to relax a little and go with the flow, so I embraced the aroma and luxuriated in beer’s cooling properties.
In the hills to the south a small glass and steel visitor’s centre in a valley devoid of vegetation, led to the most amazing underground world; a mine first started by the Romans two millennia ago and worked continuously and manually until 1932. One of the main caverns now hosts a ferris wheel, boating lake, basketball court, amphitheatre and bowling alley. That may help you gauge the size of this underworld, but the way the lighting is arranged convinced me that James Bond would burst in at any moment in search of tyrants intent on global annihilation.
Seeing the mines today, well lit and exuding ‘leisure pursuit’, it’s hard to comprehend what it must have been like digging through this 1.2km salt seam in the damp darkness. A skinned knuckle must have made the eyes water.
Remnants of Romania’s industrial past litter the landscape and Copsa Mica is a small industrial town barely 30kms from the beautiful Sibiu, (European City of Culture in 2007), which was the recipient of all the worst elements of industrial communism. It is known as Romania’s ugliest town and contains the rotting blackened shells of factories that polluted so heavily the atmospheric lead levels were 1,000 times the permissible rate. Infant mortality was the highest in Europe, with two thirds of those surviving suffering mental illness. Everything was permanently black. After the collapse of the State Communist system, white snow was experienced for the first time during the winter of 1995.
The revolution of 1989 was one of the quickest but bloodiest of the Eastern European revolts. It started on 16th December when the police tried to arrest a dissident priest in Timisoara (Timi-shwara) and ended on Christmas Day when the dictator Nicholae Ceausescu (Chow-ches-que) had been captured and shot. Over 5,000 other Romanians also died. Ceausescu had ruled Romania from 1965 to 1989, spending the nation’s money on himself and ‘neutralising’ those he considered opponents.
But for motorcyclists, his particular form of paranoia spawned what is perhaps the world’s greatest road: The Transfagarasan Highway. It crosses the centre of the Carpathian mountain range and is a direct result of Ceausescu’s fear of a Russian invasion and his desire to be able to dispatch troops north or south as necessary for defence. He demanded the road be constructed in four short summers, opening in September 1974 just before it was closed by snow. The northern side is a 37km switchback climb to 2,034m where almost a kilometre of unlit tunnel goes through the final rocky ridge to begin the southern descent. Six million kilos of dynamite were used to blow rock on the northern side alone. It was a phenomenal piece of civil engineering and may be a heavenly experience for bikers, but 38 workers died building this homage to megalomania.
It was bright and hot as I approached the jagged snow-capped Carpathian Mountains from the north. It seems rather trite to admit riding the width of Europe just to visit a sinuous piece of tarmac, but the truth is often hard to justify. The second week of June saw the road open for the first time in the year even though large sections were still only snow free on one carriageway. I crossed the 2,034m pass many times to the baffled amusement of the picnicking locals and clocked up a huge number of extra smiles and giggly footrest scraping moments. I may be well travelled, but I don’t pretend for a moment that I am a mature adult. This is the ultimate play place for any rider, with switchback after switchback, every one of them technically different, but none of them as slow and steep as those on the Stelvio in Italy.
The Carpathians have a rugged majesty, denuded as they are of vegetation at this altitude and decorated instead by tumbling waterfalls of melting snow. I stopped for lunch in what had been one of the Dictator’s getaway cottages and watched a huge flock of sheep being driven up an almost vertical valley wall in search of new pasture. It’s a route that’s only open until early October, but there are many great roads in the area and during the afternoon I wound my way to Brasov (Brash-ov), largest city so far, and another with an ancient heart. I don’t think there was a dull mile travelled as both my riding and senses were challenged by the incredible vistas.
Although so much of the fast-developing Romanian tourist trade focuses on Dracula, the ancient citadel of Sighisoara (Siggy-shwara) is the birthplace of Vlad the Impaler on whom Dracula is modelled. Vlad was certainly blood-thirsty but in the more common-or-garden, tyrannical, feudal lord sense, as opposed to the nocturnal tipple.
I had been scribing a large anti-clockwise circle and was now in the north of the country near the Ukrainian border, in the poorest Romanian province of Maramures. Here the pace of life is even slower and every house has a small seat on the roadside where the fine art of conversation is practised. The men and women always sit separately, regardless of age, but everyone was prepared to smile and wave as I passed.
Before riding south again toward Turda, I went to the Ukrainian border to see if I could take a photo. Now I know only too well that borders are not one of those places you can generally swing a camera around with carefree abandon, but if you don’t ask… I managed to get a border guard to lead me half-way across the bridge over the river Tysa, which divides the two nations, and he took a picture as I dipped my toe in another country. It was going well until the incredibly large Ukrainian secret police saw what was happening and we legged it back to Romania.
So can you have an adventure in Europe? Oh yes. Romania is doing its utmost to drag itself into the 21st century having been held in the past by a particularly irksome dictator. Go there before it succeeds and experience something really unique in Europe.