1300 Romanian Kilometres

A bicycle tour through Transylvania, Maramures and Bucovina
Jeroen van Marle © 1997-2004

‘Isn’t that dangerous?’
...the first reaction of many people who heard that Marije and I were going to make a trip through Transylvania by bike in September 1997. ‘Probably not, we’ll see’ was the only sensible answer we could think of. Going to Romania is generally considered an unwise thing to do over here in Western Europe (anywhere west of Romania, rather). Going there on holiday is considered reckless. Going there by bicycle is considered outright mad. Still, we went... and we were surprised by the unimaginable beauty of this country and the overwhelming hospitality of the Romanians. Of course, I already had the advantage of knowing the language and some parts of the country, but just to convince you to drop your prejudices too, we jotted down where we went and what we encountered.

Warning: this article was written in autumn 1997 - since then many things have changed in Romania. But fortunately most things have remained the same... except maybe the ones you wish would have changed. This story will however still give you a good idea of what to expect - cycling in Romania is still a very rewarding adventure if you try not to race through the country in four days on the main roads!

Index of Places & Topics   The Story

You can either read all 20.000  words from top to bottom, or simply be whizzed to your destination of interest here. I suggest you wait for the whole page to download, and then switch off the modem and lean back. Nearly all links lead you to other sections on this page.
By train to Hungaria and into Romania
Budapest, Biharkeresztes, border crossing at Bors, Oradea, Baile 1 Mai, Baile Felix, Beius, Pietroasa
Through the Apuseni Mountains
Padis, Poiana Horea , Marisel, Gilau, Cluj
A train trip to Sighisoara
Copsa Mica, Medias , Sighisoara, Cris , Stejareni (back to Cluj)
Northwards through the Transylvanian plain
Ghimbou, Jibou , Baia Mare
Over the mountains to and through the Maramures region
Baia Mare, Baia Sprie , Mogosa, Gutii Pass, Mara, Desesti, Budesti , Sîrbi, Birsana, Glod, Poienile Izei, Botiza , Ieud, Sacel, Moisiei, Borsa
Over the Rodna mountains to the monasteries
Borsa, Prislop pass, Cirlibaba, Mestecanis, Campulung Moldovenesti, Gura Humorului, Voronet, Humor, Solca, Arbore
Through the mountains and southwards
Vatra Dornei, Bicaz Lake, Tulghes, Telec, Bicaz Gorge, Lacu Rosu, Gheorgheni , Sfantu Gheorghe, Illieni
Through Siebenbürgen: the Saxon part of Transylvania (and a train ride to Bucharest)
Harman, Brasov , (Predeal, Busteni, Sinaia, Bucharest), Poiana Brasov, Rasnov, Bran , Zarnesti, Fagaras, Sibiu, Cisnadioara, Cisnadie
Back to Hungary
Alba Iulia, Arad , Turnu / Battonya (Hungary) - Mezokovacshaza - Mezotur (train to Budapest)
Here’s a select list of subjects discussed in the diary: pollution
borders (in/out ) selling Germans
culture shocks (entering Romania, the real taste of tomatoes) Romanian food (mamaliga)
mushroom picking Saxon fortress churches (Harman , Cisnadioara, Cisnadie )
shepherds Ceausescu’s palace
karstic phenomena around Padis The 1989 revolution (in Bucharest , what caused it)
Cluj’s ‘crazy mayor’ systematisare: village and town ‘planning’
selling Jews 'Dracula's Castle' in Bran, or his place of birth in Sighisoara

Getting in

We started off from Switzerland, where Marije’s parents live. From there, other than in the Netherlands, it’s no problem at all to take your bicycle with you on international trains. In the middle of the night we boarded the Zürich-Vienna train and set off for Budapest. In Sargans (still in Switzerland) I was surprised to hear a Romanian family board the train. Since 1989 many Romanians have left their country for Western Europe, Canada and the USA. I hadn’t expected to see Romanians this soon on our journey, though. We arrived in Vienna in the afternoon and quickly went through the routine of finding out when a train with a luggage compartment left for Budapest, what it cost, what the Austrian Shilling was worth how much time we had for getting food and where an ATM was (we took cash money and a few Travellers Cheques for in Romania, but used ATM’s where possible to avoid high commissions, queues and other rip-offs).

Soon we were back on the tracks, rolling through the boring landscape   (from the window of a train, at least) of the Austrian and Hungarian plains. The Hungarian border - former Iron Curtain! - was painless. No visas required for years now, and we didn’t even get a stamp in our passports. In the evening we finally arrived in a hot and sticky Budapest at Keleti Palyaudvar station. A taxi driver pointed us the way to a youth hostel. Now was the moment of truth - the first kilometres on two wheels. Budapest was dark, busy and paved with cobblestones, but we made it to the hostel on Döszy Utca, near Nyugati Palyaudvar (station) safely in no time. Our room faced the courtyard which turned out to have noisy airconditioners switching on and off every five minutes.

The next morning we had lots of time to find an ATM, get the train tickets to the Hungarian border town of Biharkeresztes and buy lunch in a supermarket. As we both had visited Budapest before, we decided not to go into town, but to eat and snooze in the sun on the lawn behind the McDonalds next to the Nyugati Palyaudvar. Departure time was 12.10. The Claudiopolis Express (going on to Cluj and Targu Mures) was a Romanian train: shabby carriages, seventies brown curtains (nearly fashionable again) and loose seats. But it worked. After a few hours of flat pusta we arrived in Biharkeresztes, and were the only ones to get off. We fastened the luggage to our bikes, switched the speedometer to zero and set off for the Romanian border, a few kilometres eastwards.

The two-lane road towards Romania going straight through Biharkeresztes is the most important route towards Cluj and Northern Transylvania, so the road was quite busy with cars and trucks. A part of this stretch was forbidden for cows, horse-drawn carts, pedestrians and bicycles, so we made a small detour through some side streets. At the border we could overtake the (not so long) lines of cars and passed the Hungarian customs quickly. In ‘no mans land’ we had to purchase Romanian visa by paying $31 each to a lady in a booth, and filled in the bilet de intrare (entrance form). (UPDATE - EU citizens and some others do not need visas any more for Romania - see www.inyourpocket.com for more information). We walked over to the Romanian customs (again skipping  the queue of cars) and got our stamps. As nobody seemed interested in our  bags, we soon were whizzing over new European Union-funded, four-lane asphalt. Passing the border had taken only about twenty minutes. However, it was an hour later now because of the new time zone we entered. We had to get moving to see Oradea and find a camping before dark.

Immediately after the border we encountered the first example of Romanian hospitality and concern for visitors. We decided to avoid the main road towards Oradea, and took a small road that also went there (well, according to the map). Just as I was wondering if the map was right we were stopped by a Romanian family in a Dacia (the most popular Romanian car) who had seen us at the border. They had driven after us to tell us we were indeed heading the wrong way. Back on the main road, the first thing we saw was an immense chemical factory spewing yellow smoke and a blackened power plant, both served by rusting trams trundling towards the town. An unpleasant welcome for first-time visitors.

After a few kilometres we reached the outskirts of Oradea. Entering or leaving a large Romanian town by bike is no fun anywhere. Here it took some time to get orientated, as cars are led around the centre. A few minutes of bouncing over cobblestones and tram rails later, we reached the centre. First concern was money. We hadn’t exchanged money at the border and it was running late now. Still, we found an exchange booth willing to swap our crisp Deutschmarks for thousands of not-so-crisp Lei. We got 600.000 lei... in 5000 lei notes, as the tenners were out, and nobody had seen the new 50 thousand note yet (February 2004 update - they just launched the 1,000,000 lei note, and announced a plan to hack a few zeros off the currency in 2005).

Oradea’s centre is in sharp contrast with her busy and ugly outskirts: a very Central-European looking town full of neo-baroque and other turn-of-the-century styles, reminding of the long gone booming years. Transylvania was a part of Hungary up until 1920, and Oradea ( Nagyvarad in Hungarian) clearly shows that in its architecture. As the Romanians are now the ruling majority, we only heard a few people speak Hungarian on the street. Still, there were Hungarian newspapers and books available in many shops. We visited the supermarket in the amazing Vulturul Negru (black vulture) complex; a Hungarian Art Nouveau building that looks like a wedding cake with a derelict shopping mall and a hotel inside. In the supermarket, they had lots of tins for sale (but no fresh veggies), so we bought some cans of vegetables and some pasta for the road. Afterwards we trotted through the car-free main street with our bikes alongside (raising many curious eyebrows). An old man stopped us and asked in German where we were from and where we were heading. He was delighted to see foreigners interested in his town and soon lapsed into a long story in Hungarian, undoubtedly about the virtues of the revolution in general and of international tourism in particular. We bit into some cakes in the park between the Catholic cathedral and the enormous Bishop’s palace. Cakes are widely available in Hungary and Romania: one of the positive aspects of hundreds of years of sweet-tooth Turkish rule. Getting out of Oradea was even less pleasant than getting in. We had set our minds on a camping in the spa resort of Baile 1 Mai, a few kilometres south-east of Oradea. This meant having to cross a large residential area composed of lots of  identical flats dumped randomly along a noisy, dusty and badly surfaced  road. Now we discovered that our new Giant bags easily fell off the bikes when riding over bumps.

Oradea is on the border of the Hungarian plain and the Western Carpathian mountains, so we had to climb a bit to reach Baile 1 Mai. A nice socialist name: May 1st Baths. In the meantime, it was getting darker and cycling on this busy road was getting tedious. The camping was a field in the middle of the spa resort. No other Westerners: just us and about ten Romanian and Hungarian families. The canned mushrooms combined with pasta and some Dutch spaghetti sauce were great. The house music that the other campers had blaring out of their car stereos wasn’t. Luckily, they turned in early too. In retrospect, this first day didn’t offer any good biking, but the next few days were to be completely different.

Spa towns, tomatoes and the Motz people

After breakfast and paying for the night (a stunning 10.000 Lei, or $1.5) we set off for the market in Baile Felix , another spa resort a few kilometres further south. Whereas Baile 1 Mai is a peaceful village, this resort has been commercialised big time: high-rise hotels, disco’s and large swimming pools and lakes here and there, but not many visitors. Baile Felix was one of the most popular spa’s of Transylvania, but internal tourism in Romania has dipped since 1989 (not so many trade-union subsidised spa treatments for workers any more) and the hotels are seldom booked full. Still, the small market in the centre was lively, and we got some fresh and delicious tomatoes, cucumbers (small ones, the size of pears), green/yellow paprika’s (you eat these raw for lunch) and plums. This is usually the moment that Westerners get their second  Romania-shock : for some reason fruit and vegetables taste much better here than at home. The difference between Dutch greenhouse-cultivated and over-perfected tomatoes (which taste like hard bags of sour water) and Romania home-grown non-insecticided tomatoes (which taste even better than Italian pomodores) is striking. Funny that the EU is lobbying to allow large-scale export of their subsidised agricultural products to Romania... can the fledgling local tomato market survive this invasion? For taste’s sake, let's hope so.

After leaving Baile Felix in beautiful weather (sunny and not too hot) on the now peaceful road, we got to cycle through the real Romania: rolling hills, long villages, chickens on the road, people watching their geese or working on the fields (something not seen much in the ‘richer’ countries of Eastern Europe) and pretty good roads. The contrast with Hungarian villages, just a few kilometres to the west, is very large: not so much western cars (not much cars at all, really), not so much large new houses or recent renovations, no ATM’s in larger villages, no tourist information signs. On the other hand there’s more to see for visitors: more animals pecking around, more people who wave or stare (or do both) at you, more horse-drawn carts, more old women letting their cows out (yes, holding a leash). The difference with Hungary becomes more striking when you realise that this is one of the richer rural parts of Romania.

As we proceeded south-east, the 1800 metre high Western Carpathian range came into sight to the left of us. We were planning to cycle straight through (or over) this range and reach Cluj avoiding main roads. We passed a number of hay-filled horse-cart ‘road-trains’. These belong to the lumberjacks who transport logs from the mountain valleys down to the towns and villages on the plain, and haul hay for their horses back up the mountains. Some of these people belong to the intreaging Motz ‘minority’: a special extra-stubborn group of Romanians (said to be descendants of the Celts) that fled into this part of the Carpathians after the Habsburg Empire ordered the men to serve in the army. They still live up there in characteristic villages and thatched houses (most found in the mountains south of the Aries river valley) in an almost mediaeval setting. Modern life has brought the lumberjacks easier ways of getting their carts uphill: they’re hooked in a long train behind a tractor, and the younger men gallop the horses up the road. On the steep way down, the cart’s brake is a piece of plastic or an old tyre, weighed down by large stones, that is dragged along behind the cart. Sometimes the stones drop off. The main cart route is the (asphalt) road from Stei (called Dr. Petru Groza on old maps) towards Arieseni and Campeni (which we didn’t take).

In the town of Beius we visited the market and bought enough food to survive a mountain trek. After another couple of kilometres we took a left turn from the main road that we had been following since Oradea, and headed over the last stretch of flat grasslands straight for the Apuseni (or West Carpathian) Mountains. To the south we could see dark rain clouds gathering against the range (which eventually decided not to rain on us), and increasingly had to struggle against a strong wind. We reached Pietroasa, a village beautifully situated at the foot of the mountains. No campings or hotels here: we wanted to camp in someone’s back yard or field. The wise old men of the village, discussing today’s events on a bench in the centre, advised us to go further towards the mountains and find a spot near the road. Heading on, the road soon turned from asphalt to gravel and after leaving Pietroasa the road entered a small valley gradually ascending into the mountains. After having passed a few horse-carts loaded with villagers returning from the fields and woods, we turned on to a steep and rough track, and found a nice spot of grass next to the stream. We also asked a woman who was hand-mowing grass in a nearby orchard if we could pitch the tent there, but the field still needed mowing, and she didn’t want us to flatten her grass. Next to the stream it was, then. After another successful joint-venture Dutch-Romanian meal we picked our dessert from nearby bramble and raspberry bushes. As a precaution we decided not to chain our bikes to a tree, but to lay them half under the front of our tent. Lots of people had seen us turn into this road, and we didn’t want to take any risks on our first night camping wild. After a very cold and very short semi-bath in the stream it took some acrobatics to get into the tent, but it was worth the peace of mind. Of course, nothing happened.

A starry night in Padis

After emptying the raspberry bushes, we set off in sunny weather for a tough trip. Today we would climb from the plain (200 metres) to the Padis cabana (mountain hut) near a 1200 metre high pass in the Apuseni or Western Carpathian Mountains. The route was simply magnificent, first following the stream through a small gorge, but later curling up against a mountain flank and getting really steep. Down in the valley we passed quite a few new summer houses and a sort of motel. There was hardly any traffic. We stopped at a farm to refill our bottles. Normally in Romanian mountain areas, there are lots of places where drinkable water spurts from a pipe by the side of the road, but we hadn’t seen any here yet. An old man cycling in the same direction accompanied us to the Padis turning, and blessed us before we hit the steep part.

Now, after two days of relatively relaxed pedalling, came a toughie. As the gravel (sometimes even rocky) road was meant for lumberjacks, farmers and their strong vehicles, it was steeper than an asphalt road would have been, and had lots of hair-pins. We only had had a day of training beforehand, and little more than a day of warming up, so it took us an hour of sweat to get to the top. Along the way we were twice engulfed by large flocks of sheep that were on their way to juicy pastures. The steep part ends at a pass, where we suddenly entered a completely new landscape: a wide panorama of typical kast landscape. Actually, it looks just like a gentle, well-kept English park, with happy little fir trees scattered around and small hills aesthetically placed here and there on a carpet of green grass. However, here it’s the sheep that mow the lawn here. The road forked here, one branch dropping into the valley and heading towards a sheepfold (with wooden fences and a portable wooden shed where shepherds hand-milk the flocks) and further on to the Poiana Glavoi campsite. We turned left, upwards a bit towards Padis cabana (mountain hut). A car that had overtaken us on the way up now came back from Padis and stopped when they saw us. The family inside warned us strongly against going to Padis, as it was raining like hell, prices were criminal and that the place was a miserie: no good for foreigners. As we had not scaled the mountain just in order to go back and cycle up to another high pass, and as there was no alternative route, we decided to ignore their advice and continue. Eventually we only felt a few drops (but the puddles were indeed quite large) when we made our way through the ‘park’ to Padis. Near to the cabana was a kiosk, selling liquor, beer, sodas and sweets to tourists and lumberjacks. Time for a coke. The lady also sold basic maps of the Padis plateau, so we got one for next day’s hike. Next door was the Padis Information Centre, from where young mountain enthusiasts co-ordinated their path-repairing and rubbish-cleaning actions, and where maps and booklets were sold. As for the rubbish: most Romanians say they love the mountains, but sadly many are also too ignorant to take care of their own trash: once I saw a girl casually throwing away a plastic Mars-bar wrapping, saying: ‘but it’s biodegradable, isn’t it?

The cabana looked much the same as when I was there in 1995: empty and beautiful (overlooking the valley just beneath the pass). We asked nicely, and could stay at the Romanian’s price (as opposed to the foreigner’s price, twice as much), 30.000 Lei per night for the two of us (about $3). We got the best room: on the south side, with windows and great views on three sides. The down side: the toilets were 100 metres away. The reason why could be smelled when approaching them. The cabana bar had no food except for chocolate, so we cooked our own Indonesian cuisine on the terrace. In the evening, the temperature drops quickly at this height, so we sipped beer in the bar and talked to a couple of Romanians and Germans (the first Westerners we saw since Oradea) that had arrived later. No washbasins here, so we brushed our teeth next to the outdoor tap under a sky with 100 million stars.

Wolf bites sheep near collapsed caves

A warm and sunny day. After buying bread from the lady in the kiosk, and washing some clothes in the river, we set off for a hike to the highlights of the Padis plateau . Millions of years of rain combined with the soft limestone of these mountains have resulted in extraordinary karstic phenomena (named after the Mother of Weird Landscapes, an area called Karst in Slovenia). Most common are caves. Padis and surroundings literally has thousands of caves, most of which still are unexplored. Only one is really geared up for busloads of senior citizens: the Bear Cave (Pestera Ursilor) near Pietroasa. A few other caves are also accessible on fixed hours with guides, but these are generally less easy to reach (like the famous Ice Cave of Scarisoara). All the others are just waiting out there and accessible for well-equipped speleologists (if you want to have a go yourself, don’t ever try entering without any experience, but contact the Faculty of Speleology in Cluj or one of the outdoor activity clubs mentioned on the links page). Special caves are the Ice Cave mentioned above, a two hour walk from Scarisoara on the main road in the Aries valley, and the Focul Viu Cave.

But Padis has more fun to offer than just caves. Some parts of the plateau consist of harder rock other parts. The stream that runs past the cabana ends a few kilometres further on when it suddenly drops into a gaping cave, to appear peacefully from under a cliff on the other side of a mountain (an hour’s walk further on). From there it enters a wide grassy basin that occasionally becomes a large lake (after plenty of rain). The lower end is cut up by deep meanders, and further on the water drops through various small holes to go underground again. The reasonably well-marked paths between all the sights (we twice had to backtrack a bit and take another turning) were practically deserted. On this warm summer day we only saw a few dozen tourists (mostly Romanians) and two shepherds accompanied their dogs and flocks. The first time we missed a turning, we ended up near a  shepherds hut: a small wooden building with gaps between the logs forming the walls. A woman gave us the right directions, and then invited us in to show us how she made brânza (sweet cream cheese) and telemea (a kind of salty feta cheese). After churning the milk around for a while, lumps show up that are filtered out and suspended in cotton cloth bags from the ceiling of the hut. This way the cheese can dry and ripen (that’s the reason for the slits in the walls of the hut). The flies seemed to be enjoying this part of the process in particular. The woman was surprised that we didn’t know much about cheese making, as we were from a country famous for cows, milk and cheese. Actually, most Dutch people usually only see cows from the windows of cars or trains. She asked if we wanted to buy anything, but as we had a long hike ahead of us, we promised to pass by on the way back.

Most impressive of Padis’ sights are the dolinas: caves of which the roof has collapsed due to too much erosion. Most are very small and look like bomb craters, but Padis’ finest are the three huge interconnected dolinas called Cetatile Ponorului, the ‘fortresses of Ponor’. These are near to the Poiana Glavoi campsite, but also close enough to the cabana, just follow the above mentioned Ponor stream. We entered dolina 1 by climbing down a slope of rubble via an iron ladder. The river that runs past the campsite carves through the slope towards the cave. From here we saw the enormous mouth (largest of Romania) of the cave that connects dolina 1  to dolina 2. Standing at the bottom, there are three options: a path following  ladders over a small ‘pass’ to dolina 3, a dark cave into which the river noisily plummets (accessible if you have the right equipment and stamina) and the large cave connecting dolina 2. We first scrambled over the rocks, down a chain and up a steep slope through the large entrance into dolina 2. Once we were on top of the slope, the noise of the river faded away and we were alone at the bottom of an enormous pit, with two rubble slopes (the one we had just scrambled up, another steeply leading down into another cave entrance). Time for lunch. Looking up, there was a circle of sky about 200 metres above us, surrounded by sheer rock cliffs with trees perched on the edge. The dolina floor was strewn with boulders and trees that had come down. The booklet we bought at the Information Centre said that the micro-climate in this dolina is unique, and that many rare subalpine plants grow only here... but I wouldn’t be able to point them out.

After lunch we headed back down the slope to dolina 1, and took the ladder  route to dolina 3, the largest of them all. The same cliffs, boulders and  trees here, but more and higher. The path first goes over some rubble to  reach a cave emitting cold mist and noise from the river, invisibly eroding  more tourist attractions somewhere deep below. It then leaves the dolina by heading up another steep slope. Here we encountered some sweating tourists  who were definitely not having fun, who visibly enjoyed eating, and probably  seldom left the comfort of their car. The path finally emerged at the top of the cliffs and then followed the rim around dolina’s 3 and 2. Some brave people had constructed sturdy wooden balconies, sticking out over the edge so you can peek straight down. Great views downwards, but also over the forested hills around. From now on the hike was easy, along logger’s roads and onto the gravel road leading to Poiana Glavoi. Near the campsite was a kiosk: time for a well-earnt coke. The campsite here is very basic. Water from the stream (which sometimes dries up), toilets in the adjacent woods. No reception, fees or guards... but magnificently situated. From here a path over the hills quickly took us back to the cabana. In a clearing on a hill we saw a man sitting on a log, looking very depressed. As we passed him, he asked us: ‘Have you seen my horse?’. He had lost it somewhere, and was just waiting patiently for it to come back.

Back at the shepherd’s hut, the shepherd himself had turned up with his tractor and a cart. In the cart a sheep was bleeding and bleating. We were told it had been attacked by a wolf that night. They were going to take it to a vet in the village. The shepherd invited us to eat along. We were given fresh home-baked bread that was eaten with a bowl of sweet cheese-chunks floating in a watery white substance. Not bad at all. Afterwards we bought half a kilo of telemea for future lunches, and took photo’s of Marije wearing a shepherd’s hat in front of the tractor, which we promised to send later. If we came back, he said, we should visit him and go on tours through the mountains together with his son. Next time.

Rain, sun and drenched mushroom pickers

The view from our room had vanished completely behind a solid wall of white fog and rain. As we had quite a distance to cycle, and as the roads are just sand and stones around here, we started the day slightly depressed. We decided to wait for the worst to pass, but grey clouds kept on racing through our valley and dropping water. At about ten we decided to go anyway, and dressed ourselves in all the plastic we had. The rain was not so bad as we thought. After just a few minutes we reached the pass, where we were in for a surprise. Sun on the other side! Just a few minutes into the descent, the sun beat down and the wind died down. Off went all the plastic again. Now for the first real downhill run, and a chance to use (well, wear) our crash helmets. Some parts of the road were rocky, but mostly there was an even sandy track along the road where you could make some speed without being shaken around too much (important, as we needed extra pieces of tape to help hold down the bags to our bikes). As the weather got better, the view of the valley ahead and the road got better too. Only the puddles on the road were annoying: you never know how deep these are in Romania, so sometimes some slaloming was required. It took quite some time before we more or less reached the valley floor (still high in the mountains, though). Here we met a group of four Romanians who were wet to the bone and shivering. They were dressed in imitation leather jackets and thin old trousers and were wearing shoes totally unfit for nature. They looked potentially threatening at first, but they were just thoroughly depressed. They had lost their way in the forest while picking mushrooms, and now wanted a light for their cigarettes, and some directions too, please.

Delicious mushrooms literally explode from the ground in Romania’s forests after a good spell of rain. Nearly all Romanians can tell you which are good and which will kill you, and you often see whole families tramping through the woods collecting them. The drenched Romanians we met were from Zalau, fifty kilometres to the north. They had come to the Apuseni mountains for a few days to pick mushrooms and berries that they would sell again on the market back home. This morning they had left the cabana early, and got lost during bad weather. Now they seemed to be randomly following the road in the wrong direction. We gave them one of our Padis maps, but they couldn’t really remember the name of their cabana, let alone find it on the map. They also were surprised to see bikers here, and asked our ears off about where we were going, how fast we could go, how much a bike costs in the Netherlands (we usually lied about this: they cost several months of an average Romanian salary). Anyway, our information made them turn around and head the other way with a slightly more confident stride.

The road we were on went on to Huedin... and civilisation. We wanted to avoid asphalt for as long as possible, so we took a right turning back up into higher parts of the Apuseni instead. Our new road immediately went uphill again. No signs anywhere (and we didn’t really trust the map), so to avoid disappointment we asked directions from more mushroom gatherers along the road. We were on the right track. A little further on we overtook four Motz’ horse carts, that were heading towards their summer village higher up in the mountains. Even going uphill with packed bikes we were much faster than them. The men greeted us cheerfully and asked the usual questions about where we were from, where we were heading and if we were mad to cycle all around Transylvania. Higher up the road we had lunch (with cheese and a melon that we had dragged up here from Beius) next to the stream, basking in the sun. A few kilometres further the trees made place for pastures and amazing views. On the meadows a few lumberjacks’ summer houses in the settlement of Poiana Horea emitted the sound of chain saws. Piles of logs and planks were lined up by the side of the road waiting for transport... probably the horse carts we passed earlier. The smell of freshly sawn wood, hmm.
 Now it was just a short steep part through the meadows to the saddle between two mountains. Nice views of the valleys on both sides. Helmets back on; the road went down steeply all the way to the large Fîntînele lake. In the meantime we passed many loggers’ houses, and after a while the first farms appeared again. We entered the first real village since leaving Pietroasa, two days before. As we stopped to remove helmets and some clothing, a woman appeared from a farmhouse, delighted to see foreigners come ‘all the way from Olanda to our village! ... and on bicycles, too!’ Soon we encountered asphalt (and the first cars since Padis) again. This was not a pleasant experience: the village was apparently the place where lorries went to collect logs, and therefore the road was wide and (once) had been asphalted. But now it was wide and full of big holes. A great opportunity to further practice our slalom and swerving skills.

 The lake, a very long and narrow flooded valley, was hidden behind the dense forest. The road got better here: this one had been built in the seventies as an alternative for the old road, now at the bottom of the lake. Actually, the road was quite boring: not much views and slowly ascending, following the contours of the mountain. Just before reaching the dam, we took a right turning up the hill and over a pass again. Suicide, after all these ascents and descents? Maybe. But we wanted to reach Cluj via Marisel, another village high up on a hill. As it was getting late and cold (we were still at an altitude of about 1000 metres) we wanted to look out for a spot for camping soon. First, we had to get over this last pass. It turned out to be really steep: a sign indicated 14%, and I believe it. After half an hour of tough pedal-pushing we were glad to arrive at the parking lot (!) on the pass. Really nice views over the hills towards Cluj. From here it was a short ride to the outskirts (and logs) of Marisel. 

Marisel is basically a long row of houses along the road (most of them made of wood and decorated), surrounded by rolling hills with meadows, pastures and the odd field. Marisel is situated on top of a sort of plateau, into which rivers made deep incisions. After visiting the local shop/bar for food we started down the road that hairpinned its way though such an incision. Great fun and great views along the way. When we eventually reached the bottom, we spotted a nice site for the night along the stream. We had to scramble down from a high bridge and over the stream with our bikes. We were quite exhausted by now, and gladly turned in after having dinner next to the campfire. 

Hungarian charm in the shade of extreme politics

 After having pushed the bikes up the slope on to the road again, it was practically only downhill or flat stretches to Cluj, 20 kilometres away. A relaxed ride. What’s more, the weather was good (a few degrees warmer than up in the mountains) and the wind was in our backs. We had chosen a perfect spot for camping: only one kilometre down the road an ugly concrete construction - some kind of dam? - was the first proof of modern civilisation. The road got better while we approached Cluj: bad concrete slabs (not completely joining) were followed by bad asphalt attempts and then by some better attempts. We passed the beautiful artificial lake near Gilau, lined by impressive weekend houses (also called cabanas ) of Romania’s nouveaux riches. The road crossed the dam from which there was a nice view of the valley below and another lake. We were entering tourists’ area now - bars and terraces appeared, and lots more cabanas. After passing a few villages and doing some shopping we finally reached the main Oradea-Cluj road and sped eastwards to Cluj, stopping at a modern petrol station to see the first tap, warm water and good toilet since Oradea. This stretch of road was great - downhill and smooth. We could easily sail along in the highest gear - doing 35 km/h on average. The down side was the traffic - large lorries emitting really bad fumes, and lots of speeding cars. 

After struggling through Cluj’s large high-rise residential areas and crossing through the city centre we headed towards the Do-Re-Mi Hostel where I had stayed before. As the name suggests, this is a dorm for students of the local music faculty. In summer it is transformed into a nice hostel with bunk beds (ten people to a room), centrally located, hot water all the time, cooking facilities and permanent guarding. All that for a few bucks a night. We learnt from the director that the hostel had closed for winter just a day earlier, but I guess my big blue eyes did the trick, and she let us stay a few nights anyway. We planned to stay two or three days here to get a rest: I was starting to feel my knee protesting from all the action. After washing ourselves, our clothes and the bikes (parked in the room), we walked into the centre and worked off a list of things: shopping, telephone cards, calling mum and dad and a few friends in Cluj. We also visited a good new outdoor-activity shop to buy some straps to secure our Giant bags to our bikes. We met Radu Mititean, the chairman of Cluj's cycling club (see the links page) who provided some very useful information. Together we had a good laugh at my maps. He drew in roads that he recommended (that were simply left out from the map) and summed up all the other mistakes. 

Cluj’s centre is very nice for strolling around. Mediaeval churches hidden in side streets, parts of old city walls popping up here and there, an enormous gothic church in the central square, baroque houses lining the busy streets, etc. Unfortunately, traffic spoils the fun: the main roads of the region converge in the centre. Time for a bypass? The city council has done efforts to repaint the whole centre, and it all looks very fresh (although some colour combinations on Piata Mihai Viteazul are dubious).

It’s just too bad that this city has a disproportionate share of ethnic problems - mostly sparked off by Cluj’s ‘crazy mayor’, Gheorghe Funar, who belongs to the extreme-right ‘Party of National Reunion’, PUNR. (Warning PUNR-fans: this paragraph contains some personal opinions as well as facts). Some Hungarian must have done something really bad to him is his youth, because he really hates them - or is scared stiff. And they form a fifth of the city population. During his reign he has launched all sorts of campaigns to pester the Hungarians, like abolishing the use of Hungarian on signs, blocking investments from Hungary in the city, refusing to place bilingual signs at the city boundaries (recently required by law) and by not being co-operative at all when a Hungarian consulate was opened on the main square after the bilateral treaty of 1996 (refusing to let them fly their own flag). He even tried to outlaw speaking Hungarian on the street. He renamed the main square from Liberty Square to Unification Square - referring to Transylvania’s transfer from Hungary to Romania in 1920. While we were there, he had all the benches in the centre painted in the colours of the Romanian flag. The Romanians we met just underwent this with another sigh and a crude smile: ‘asa este’ (that’s just the way it is). The most obvious dirty trick can be seen on the (Hungarian-built) main square. Here the nice park next to the cathedral has been torn up for ‘archaeological research’ - Funar is looking for traces of Dacians (the forefathers of Romanians, see also my article about ethnicity in Transylvania ), so that he can prove for once and for all that Cluj is a Romanian city, and not Hungarian. The communists already renamed Cluj into Cluj-Napoca, referring to the ancient Dacian name of the town. Recently, there has been evidence that the ‘archaeologists’ actually transported ancient columns and pottery from a local museum to the excavation site and then claimed that they found it all there! In fact, they only seem to have uncovered some unspectactular medieval foundations. For years, Funar has been threatening to move the impressive equestrian statue of Matthias Corvinus (a great Hungarian king born from a mixed Romanian-Hungarian marriage in Cluj, and a hero for Hungarians) to Hunedoara (where Corvinus’ castle stands), so that excavations can continue. In the meantime, the park has been a mess for years and is unlit at night, while the rest of the centre is spick and span. For your interest: the park around the Romanian Othodox cathedral 500 metres away has been redesigned, has new lighting, new fountains and a terribly ugly and expensive statue of a Romanian national hero (who fought against... guess who). The sad thing is that Funar was re-elected to four more years of rule in 1996 (according to my Romanian friends by ‘stupid people’ in the high-rise suburbs). Check out a typical Funar speech here. Thank goodness he’s getting less popular in government - at least they understand that he’s a threat to Romania’s international respect. Even so, the extremists are winning popularity now (1998), as nobody seems to be able to put an end to the economic crisis.

 Even so, walking through the town is a pleasure, and most people wouldn’t notice anything at all of these problems. The weather was too nice for visiting the Banffy Palace (art museum) on the main square so we walked through the city sightseeing the medieval parts, visited the Botanical Gardens (a lush park practically in the centre, with some nice wild parts) and met op with Oliver on Piata Viteazul. Oliver had helped my colleagues and me during my fieldwork in 1995, and with other things since then, so I owed him a few beers. Oliver had a good idea. This weekend the Festival of Mediaeval Arts took place in Sighisoara. As he was going there for two days with his girlfriend, and as we hadn’t planned on cycling past Sighisoara later on our tour, we decided to come along too. The next day we finished sight-seeing, did shopping and visited the family I had visited over Christmas in 1996. We arranged to leave our bikes and luggage in the grandparents’ house the next morning. This is one of the few Jewish families left in Cluj.

Gramps lived in the centre next to an old synagogue that was crudely being rebuilt into a warehouse. Only a fraction of the Jews had survived the war, and later, dictator Ceausescu literally sold them to Israel for hard currency (he did the same on a larger scale with the German minority; see further on). For about $5000, someone could emigrate to Israel. The economical and political situation was terrible in Romania then, and many were eager to leave. Ceausescu used the funds for his private projects (building nice palaces for himself and feeding his dogs beef while normal people saw meat maybe once a month) and for other large investments, such as (I heard) the ski resort of Poiana Brasov.  

Towers and turrets, Dracula’s restaurant and hippies

 The three-hour train ride from Cluj to Sighisoara took us through peaceful Transylvanian landscapes. The sight of Copsa Mica from the train is astonishing. This is one of the most polluted places of Romania. The area is perfect for extracting methane gas from the ground, and about a hundred years ago the first chemical industries settled here. Now a huge ‘soot-factory’ (once producing stuff like black paint and car tyres) stands next to an immense chemical complex. Ceausescu’s industrialisation efforts in the sixties made the factories grow large, but he didn't give a damn about the environment. Only after massive complaints and health problems was a tall chimney built. Of course, this measure simply spread out the pollution over a larger area. Pollution was worse about ten years ago, when walking outside for a few minutes left you covered with black particles. Trees in the immediate vicinity have died (causing landslides on the surrounding hills) and the river Tarnave Mare is biologically 100% dead from this point. After 1989 the economic crisis caused this factory to shut down, so the visible pollution has decreased enormously. Even so, Copsa Mica still looks black, and trees standing up to 10 kilometres away have black trunks. At the moment the invisible pollution is bad. The chemical plant still spills a cocktail of poisonous chemicals into the air. A high percentage of the inhabitants of Copsa Mica and the nearby town of Medias have serious stomach problems, caused by eating local fruit and vegetables. The difference with other polluted areas in Europe is that Romania’s problems are much more concentrated. Only here and there are some pinpoints of heavy pollution, in huge tracts of otherwise clean land (and air) ...unlike the areas in South Poland and North Bohemia, where it’s more widespread. 

Sighisoara was, of course, amazing. I have visited the showpiece fortress town several times before, but again and again the mediaeval centre doesn’t fail to impress. Sighisoara started off as a Roman fort, but what you see today is mostly what the German minority (called Saxons) made of it in later centuries: a mighty hilltop fortification. The great thing is that the entire centre (except for a few buildings) looks like nothing changed since the 17th century. Furthermore, most of the city wall, lots of towers and the two gates are still standing in full glory. The clock tower looms over the whole area and climbing up gives great views over the town and the surrounding hills, as well as insight in the workings of the mediaeval clock mechanism with cool moving wooden figures. The gate under this tower is forbidding. The invading tourists have to pass three doorways up the steep curving street (curved so that cannonballs or arrows can’t damage anything or anybody when shot through the door) and have to avoid the holes through which arrows, boiling oil or stones were catapulted before finally reaching the upper town. Welcome! 

The first small square is dominated by the clock tower and the barn-like monastery church. In another corner stands the house where Vlad Tepes (aka Dracula) was born, now a restaurant. Further along is the main square, surrounded by the typically German two-storey mediaeval/baroque houses. The main street goes uphill from here, reaching a slope at the top of which the main church stands. A unique wooden covered staircase dating from the 17th century takes you up the last steep part. The church is surrounded by trees, so the views aren’t overwhelming (maybe in winter?). The church itself was built for defence purposes, not for beauty. In case of invading Turks, Tatars and what have you not, the townsfolk could use it as a last retreat. It has been in scaffolds for years now, after decades of neglect. The German Messerschmidt foundation donated millions of Marks to reinforce the foundations and walls, redo the floors and restore the frescoes. I heard that work will be finished in 2000. We were lucky, a man invited us in the church and showed us around. The floor had been removed and the walls were covered by scaffolding and plastic, but even so the interior is impressive. Next to the church is the old churchyard, with many German names on the ivy-covered tombstones. Alas, most Germans have now left Sighisoara (or Schässburg, as they said), and Romanian is what you hear on the streets. As with the Jews, Ceausescu made millions by selling emigration permits to the German government at 5000 to 8000 DM a head. The exodus speeded up after the revolution, when people with German ethnicity were allowed to move to Germany without restrictions. Now maybe only 20.000 of the 900.000 Germans still live in Romania: mostly elderly people.

The lower city, just down the road from the main gate, is more shabby. Restoration is badly needed here and there. Some blocks near the main square have been completely bulldozed by Ceausescu for new 'development' (see the part about systematisare further on). They’ve been left empty ever since. Thank goodness his plans didn’t include the upper town (yet). The Festival of Medieval Arts we had come for in the first place is a very popular annual happening. For Romanian terms, I though it was organised quite well: at the station an accomodation office found us a house where we could stay two nights, extra mobile (and clean!) toilets had been installed in the centre and things generally started on time. I can’t remember hearing much mediaeval music though: we saw a group of clowns from Bucharest give a nice act, and a popular Romanian band and a few other things. Apart from the nice atmosphere, there was not much exiting stuff for foreigners (there weren’t that many, anyway), as most acts involved understanding Romanian. Performances were planned all over the three days of the festival, with lots of spare time in between. Most visitors seemed to be quite happy just hanging around most of the time, though. The average visitor looked like a 1960’s hippie, toting guitars and flutes all over the place. This seems to be the ‘alternative’ youth trend of the day now. A refreshing sight, as the ‘normal’ Romanian youth trend involves fake leather jackets, training suits, a crew cut and loud braindead Italian house music (just like at home).

After a day we got bored with it all, and decided to skip a day of festival and visit some German villages in the surroundings. As it was weekend, the bus services were down, and reaching these isolated villages meant hiring a taxi. We got dropped off in Cris (Kreisch in German), about 20 km west of Sighisoara, and made the driver promise to pick us up a few hours later. According to the Rough Guide this village featured one of those old fortified churches that are common in this area. Wrong: a plain ‘new’ church had been built on the hill in the centre in 1914. To compensate, the village did have a renaissance castle, which was being restored. We walked over the hills to the even-more-isolated village of Stejareni (Peschendorf to Germans). On the way we got lost, scrambled on top of a hill and then saw the village lying in the valley. A beautiful sight: typical German farmsteads, with stone gates facing the road, arranged in accurate German fashion, the barn and stables pointing to the fields behind. And another 1914 church. We got to see some real fortress churches later on the trip, near Brasov and Sibiu. The village was beautiful, though. The houses had been beautifully restored. The names of (former?) German inhabitants were painted over the doors. Hardly anybody was on the dirt road... no cars to be seen... nothing to be heard except for cows and crickets... the sun burning down... my passport getting soaked by sweat in my safekeeping-pouch... bliss. Even the taxi driver pleased us by showing up again.

After collecting our bikes and bags from our friends back in Cluj, we checked in for the night at the Theological Institute on Piata Victoriei, behind the Romanian Orthodox cathedral. They rent out their luxury student rooms to agnosts like me in summer, for even less than the Do-Re-Mi Hostel. The rooms have two beds and a sink with warm running water: unbelievably luxurious for Romanian student standards. The rooms have recently been renovated with Dutch charity money: religious (Protestant) contacts between Transylvania and Holland go back hundreds of years (the rector of the institute studied in Utrecht, my home town, for a few years in the sixties and still speaks some Dutch!). The institute (100% ethnic Hungarian: hardly any Romanians are Protestant) was witnessing a revival after having been forced to admit no more than two (!) students a year in the eighties. Now villages all over Transylvania are screaming for fresh priests, and the number of students has risen sharply. Religion is a good business to be in here.

Rain, mainly on the Transylvanian plain

Rain. When you’re on a bicycle-trip, waking up to hear rain pouring down is terrible. Instead of getting up early, we decided to take it easy to see what would happen. Nothing changed. At eleven we got our bags packed, covered ourselves up in plastic and set off to the centre to meet Oliver and Lucky, two old friends. After two cups of hot chocolate it was still raining. Fed up with it all, we just left and made our way to the north of the city. Soon we were in the hills of the Transylvanian plateau, steadily pedalling northwards. After two hours of cycling the rain decided to stop, and we gratefully changed our plastic and soaked clothes for dry stuff and de-numbed our fingers. Now things got nicer, as we could look around and enjoy the rolling hills and villages for a change. We were heading for Baia Mare in Maramures county, which we planned to reach with a detour (so we could avoid the busy main road) in two days. At Ghimbou the landscape got wilder, with larger forests and a brilliant view of the mountains ahead, laced by frail sunlight. After racing down from a pass the villages got nicer too, with more wooden buildings and more people and animals on the road. We planned to sleep somewhere near Jibou. No campings there, and two motels we passed were not functioning (except for the bar, of course). We got permission to camp on a field behind one of the motels. 

Thick fog surrounded us when we woke up, and it was pretty cold. We packed slowly and at about 09:00 the sun had warmed us up enough and we cycled into Jibou. Here we found a restaurant where we could order breakfast, and a small market to get some fresh food. From here it was all flat area to Baia Mare, following the Somes river valley. The road got quieter as we proceeded north, and in the afternoon we twisted our way through an impressive mountain range together with the river and a rail-track. A few kilometres before Baia Mare we regrettably had no choice but to join the main road. It was really busy, and people were speeding, so we were happy we took the detour. Getting into Baia Mare was terrible: the roads were awful, there was dust and fumes everywhere and it took a long time to reach the centre. Marije hates this, and needed a few drinks on the main square to recover. We got a Maramures county map from the helpful tourist agency, and looked for a market that was marked on the Rough Guide map, but couldn’t find it. South of the centre we had more luck, and bought enough food to last for a few days: we were warned that Maramures villages rarely have shops. At the market there were also peasants from the surrounding villages selling beautiful pottery, carpets and sheepskin rugs. Too bad we weren’t here by car.

Now, after a few days of relative flatness, came the mountains again. Baia Mare is separated from the rest of Maramures county by a high range. We aimed for the Mogosa hotel, halfway up the southern side of the Gutii Pass. After having passed the Baia Sprie mines (baia means mine) in the foothills, the road into Maramures proper turned out to be very quiet, even though it’s the main road north. It was in perfect condition, better than any road we had seen until then. It wasn’t too steep, and made lots of hairpin turnings. On our way up we were overtaken by three cyclists from Baia Mare also heading for the hotel, just for the fun of racing down again. They were members of the local bike club, and ‘of course’ they knew Radu of the Cluj club! Eventually we arrived at the Mogosa turning: the hotel was three very steep kilometres from the main road... The Romanians, having no bags and probably more training, sped up ahead while we sweated on. Funny, how you can take your bike with luggage up really steep parts without much pain, if you have the patience and stamina to keep on pedalling for a while in the lowest gear. Mogosa hotel was perfect. Peacefully situated next to a lake, in the sun, overlooking wooded valleys... yes, that would do nicely. Only cold water though. After a very short shower we made fools of ourselves by hanging out every damp piece of clothing or tent out to dry on the balcony, and went to the restaurant. The food was very good, and they had nice waiters too. The only other customers seemed to be people who had come up especially by car to eat here. After shoving the two beds together (do Romanian couples always sleep in separate beds in hotels?) we soon sank away in blissful sleep.

Over the time-warp pass into Maramures

After breakfast a walk around the lake seemed a nice thing to do. Some lucky bastard had a beautiful house on a small island in the lake (must remember to buy it one day). Further up the hill were ski slopes, and we had a good laugh at the derelict ski-lift. Wonder what the place looks like in winter. After retrieving our bikes from the storage room, we got a short hefty kick from racing back down the three steep kilometres, but then had to adapt to a slower pace on the main road till we reached Gutii Pass . The cafe at the Gutii Pass (at 987 metres, named after an infamous local outlaw) provided coke and Campion (a very tasty Romanian strawberry drink). Now came the fun part: whizzing downhill for kilometres on perfect roads with no traffic except for some lorries loaded with logs (wood being the only thing that people seemed to transport around here). Beautiful views over the hilly Maramures landscape ahead. The first village, Mara, showed us what was in store: old wooden houses, many with carved wooden gateways. We stopped in Desesti to visit the church, hidden away on the hillside next to an old railway. It was beautiful: a wooden spire pointed sharply upwards from a large roof, covering a squat building made of huge logs. As it was locked, we asked around for the key. In the house behind the church we were welcomed by a lady (who was making delicious plum jam) who showed us around. The roof had just been restored after decades of neglect and recent damage by lightning. The restauration came just in time, she said, because the frescoes inside were beginning to suffer. The whole (dark) interior was covered by naive paintings of saints and biblical scenes, dating from the 17th century. We made a donation (no entrance fees in Maramures) and were invited in the house again to eat some mega-sweet hot plum jam. 

After having passed some beautiful wooden farms and a few surprised children, we left the main road and headed towards Budesti - the most 'untouched' village of the region. It was like cycling through a Breughel painting: haystacks scattered all over the rolling hills, people working on the fields, horse-carts being loaded, small wooden villages: very arcadian. The only 20th century artefacts in sight were electricity wires and asphalt. We decided to camp wild near the village, as there was no camping in the area. When we passed through Budesti looking for a good spot, a woman invited us into our house and immediately offered us her kitchen to cook our meal when she heard we were camping rough. We grabbed the opportunity and she even helped us cook our pasta & spaghetti powder meal. She lived in a modern house that the family had built themselves: the interior was beautifully adorned with wood, sometimes hand carved, as is the tradition in these parts. Even though this area may seem the most backward of Romania to the untrained eye (because of its isolation and surviving customs), the villages didn’t seem so poor. We suspect lots of money is made with their woodcarving skills, for which they are famous in Romania. We thought the number of Mercedeses with local licence plates on the main road to Sighet (the northern Maramures town) was surprisingly high for Romanian terms. After dinner we set off again towards the fields north of the village. It was getting dark now, and farmers were returning from the fields on their horse and oxcarts (and on one tractor - one of the few we saw in Maramures). Up a steep road we went, back a bit into the foothills of the Tiblesului Mountains. After a while we found a suitable field and set up camp between the haystacks.

The morning began cold and foggy, but soon the sun had warmed everything up again. Back down in the village we tried to find someone to open the church for us. Budesti, like many Maramures villages, has two wooden churches (de sus, the upper one and de jos, the lower one). But this one was supposed to be especially good. We were told that our key person was ‘tending his potatoes’ somewhere on the fields, but that we could wait for the clopotier, the guy who is supposed to ring the bells at noon. Eventually nobody turned up, except for a bunch of schoolkids who were very interested in us and our equipment. A few of them wore traditional ribboned straw hats, ‘because that’s normal here’. One lad wanted to trade his hat for my cycling gloves, but I needed them too much. After a while they got irritating and ceased to listen to us when we told them not to touch the bikes (even though passing eldely men and women told them to be good and not to be a rusine -shame- to the village), so we gave up on Budesti and headed down the valley.

The road turned into a gravel track and soon we passed through Sîrbi, stopping at an old wooden water mill, that was still being used for sawing logs. The villagers had built an ingenious washing machine next to the water mill. It was a system that I had never seen before. An impressive jet of water coming from a hollow log was pointed into a large wooden tub with gaps, causing a violent whirlpool. A woman was throwing her dusty rugs into the tub, where they were left to spin for a while. A few minutes later she dragged them out again with a hoe. No detergents, no electricity needed: 100% ecological. Further along downstream there was a hut built over the water with two more of these eco-washers. In Sârbi we asked an old man for directions to the church: he was wearing traditional clothes, including the footwear consisting of a piece of leather tied to his feet with strings. The small church was beautifully set on a hill in the centre, again built on massive oak logs and with a high steeple. Further down, we reached the main east-west road through the Iza valley, famous for its wooden villages and churches.

In Birsana workers were busy restoring another wooden church. The structure was covered in scaffolding and plastic, and was being taken apart, beam by beam. Now you could see how ingenious the architects had been. Most Maramures churches were built entirely from wood - no nails or screws. Everything fits together perfectly. An engineer from Bucharest told us that there are more than 100 of these wooden churches in Maramures (most of them needing repairs) and more than 1000 ‘historical wooden constructions’ in the whole country. Every 30 or 40 years, a church needs a new roof, otherwise the interior woodwork and paintings rot away. Ceausescu’s coup (after 40 years of neglect) came just in time. Now a massive restoration programme is underway - while funds last. Locals are hired for impregnating of new beams and the woodwork (fitting it all together and doing some carving) as they’re still best at it. Birsana’s church was nearly finished, it had taken three months to restore. Restoring the frescoes inside however, takes years. At the other end of the village, a brand new orthodox church and monastery had been recently finished - all of course in Maramures style. We visited the church that looked very freshly decorated, and bought a postcard from a nun. It was here that we first saw other tourists in Maramures - three Frenchmen (one in a monk's habit), maybe making a religious tour of the country. For some weird reason Maramures kids speak French to foreigners instead of English (like kids elsewhere in Romania). It seems that schools here have chosen for French as most important language. Maybe French tourists have a weak for rural traditions and therefore visit this region more intensively than others.

After a while we turned south again on a minor road towards the nicely named village of Glod. It felt completely isolated: situated at the end of a ten kilometre long dirt track from the main road and surrounded by high hills. A boy asked us to come to his house to stay the night, but we had planned to take the road from here to Poienile Izei, across the hills to the north. It turned out that the map was wrong, and there was no road to speak of. So after asking around for a while (the people we asked obviously never had seen a map of Maramures before), we ended up pushing our bikes up a steep muddy lane, that later ended in the fields above Glod. On the way up I helped a farmer load some (extremely heavy) sacks of potatoes that had fallen off his cart on a steep part. Now these guys are really strong; he had no problem picking the sacks up, while I could hardly manage, despite having a perfect body. We took a break on a hill overlooking the patches of fields. A woman was surprised to see us here, and when she heard we were planning to camp, she immediately offered us to stay in her house; ‘it’s much too cold to sleep outside!’. We hesitated, but kindly refused, as we had just struggled up through the mud, and didn’t want to do it again the next morning. A little further on we found a nice spot with beautiful views over the hills and mountains around us. Later, looking up, I had never seen so much stars in my life. The lady was right: it was a cold night. But we had the best camping site of Romania.

Horrorshow frescoes and idem socialist accommodation

 In the morning, the sight of the sunlight burning away the cold fog encouraged us to make our way through the last fields on the Glod side of the hill. Soon we met a path leading down to Poienile Izei (‘the fields of the Iza’), Poien for short. The track consisted of two very deep ruts for cart-wheels and a small footpath on the side. I actually managed to fall from my bike into a rut, and couldn’t help getting mud on some bags and clothes. Down in the village, we passed a monstrous new concrete church under construction, and eventually found the house of the caretaker. This lady greeted us by saying: ‘Do you want to eat now, or after seeing the church?’. Poienile’s church has a new roof that yet has to acquire a dark colour, but here it’s the interior that’s worth seeing. The 300-year old frescoes depict horrible torture scenes - a woman being ironed (supposedly for having burnt a hole in the priests clothes when ironing them), a man being ploughed, a man being pumped full of air (after having farted in church) and worse. The perpetrators are all small red devils, no doubt the crew of the big fire-breathing dragon depicted at the bottom, symbolising hell. The best picture is one of a little devil cruelly playing violin to a man with enormous ears who is tied onto a bed. Of course this is all meant as the painted essentials of the bible, for a (then) illiterate populace. It sure would have scared the wits out of me, if I had lived there and then. 

The woman offered us a great three-course meal after seeing the church. A glass of tuica (the local poison - plum brandy with up to 65% alcohol) to warm up, vegetable soup with bread for starters,  mamaliga (polenta - cooked or baked maize-mush; the national farmers’ food) and sour cream as main course, and coffee and cake to finish up. And that all in the standard generous Romanian portions (thank goodness we were to cycle downhill for the next few kilometres). We gave an equally generous donation for the church before leaving, as the lady refused any payment for the food.

The road down the valley is described as a muddy track in the Rough Guide, but actually it was quite good. We turned right onto what I though was the main road, but discovered in Botiza that we should have gone left. Anyway, the detour was beautiful: on the way we saw farmers putting their hay in an antique machine (powered by belt-traction from a tractor) that makes bales (a year later we saw the same kind of machine being demonstrated in Utrecht at a festival of old steam machines). Back on the quiet main road we turned east towards Ieud , perhaps the most famous Maramures village. It has the oldest church and the most lively traditions - not all of them as friendly as you would think: divorce and abortions mean social exclusion or expulsion here. It’s typically Romanian in the sense that it’s a very long village: it took quite some time to reach the centre. Here a few small concrete flats looked very out of place in this mediaeval landscape - Ceausescu’s claws reached out here, too. The large josan church was just being fitted with lightning wires when we arrived. The interior was not spectacular, but the walls were decorated with curious naive icons that were painted on glass - another local tradition. The susan church was better, but was shut for restorations, so we had to settle for a peek through the small windows and still got an impression of the amazing frescoes inside.

In Sacel we noticed we were leaving Maramures proper - different architecture of houses, wilder landscape. Also the Rodna mountains doomed up in front of us. We had to cross them the next day. But first we wanted to reach Moisiei in the valley to the north of us. We cycled over a low pass and zipped down again to Moisiei. This place is (in)famous for the massacre of a number of inhabitants by the fascists (the Hungarians, actually) who occupied Northern Transylvania during the second World War. Here it turned out that the motel was closed. Camping was no option: up here it was too cold at night. So we had no choice but to follow the road up to the town of Borsa, nine kilometres further on. We were getting really tired, and cycling up this busy road that seemed endless was no fun. Finally we reached the centre of Borsa, and checked into the lousy Iezer (state!) hotel. An ugly room, unfriendly service (not totally true: they did their best to find somebody to change money for us) and no warm water for a too high price. We regretted our choice even more when we discovered that 200 metres further on the Perla Maramuresului hotel had opened recently (not yet listed in any guide at that time). They offered hospitality, warm water and nice rooms.... for half the money! Not looking around first in Borsa was a typical once-only-never-again mistake. The Perla had really good food (the best mamaliga until then), so we gratefully dug into that. A small stroll through the centre (which didn’t add up to much) gave insight into miners’ and lumberjacks’ lifestyles. The road was filled with people wearing cool track-suits. As most of the street lamps were out of order, it was all a bit eerie, but also interesting. Back at the Iezer we had another freezing shower, ritually shoved the beds together and nodded off.

Torture and martyrdom - crossing into Bucovina

 The next morning started depressingly. Rain and clouds blocked any view of the surrounding mountains. We had breakfast in the Perla of course, and made use of the opportunity to buy and write lots of postcards. At eleven the rain had reduced to drizzle, and we decided to go. Once on the road, things dried up and we saw the mountains again. Snow had fallen up there. We had to cross the 1400 metre Prislop Pass today, so it was going to be cold. The road up to the pass was quiet and not too steep, but very long. Much longer than we thought, because maps are not clear at all on the distance to the pass. We ascended through Borsa’s ski resort and after that saw only woods, trucks with tree trunks and the occasional car. We passed a monument to the last battle against the Tatar invaders, who had made life here very miserable. It was here that they were kicked out for good in 1717. After about 14 kilometres, with the pass in sight, Marije got a puncture by a wood splinter (what else, in this region). We made it to the cabana at the top and were invited to the owner’s own heated room. The cabana was closed: only a bar (what else, in this country) was functioning. We repaired the tyre indoors, and had some delicious scrambled eggs, that turned out to be not so healthy later on. 

We cycled the remaining 100 metres to Prislop Pass, at 1416 metres above Holland-level. It was only about five degrees Celsius, but the view made up for that. The rugged snow-covered Rodna peaks rose up to the south of us, and in the valleys impressive forests of fir stretched out to the horizon. Our sweat was now to be rewarded by a great run downhill (on good asphalt) into Bucovina, the northern part of Moldavia. Fingers wrapped in socks, to keep them warm. This must be what Canada looks like: steep valleys going on for ages, covered in dense fir forest.

We planned to stay the night in Cirlibaba , the first village after the pass. After having a talk with a Ukrainian Romanian who worked at the market, we found out that the hotel here had closed, so we had to go on. It was getting colder again, and neither of us was feeling too well (the eggs!?). We took desperate measures to find accommodation before dark... and started hitch-hiking. The unbelievable happened (as always in Romania, when you pray for a miracle to happen): the very first van that passed stopped and gave us a ride (bikes and all) to Mestecanis, 23 kilometres further on. The driver had worked in Germany for a few years, and had set up his own business with the money. He was eager to practice his German again, and was still pretty good at it. He went out of his way to drop us off at Mestecanis cabana. Of course, only the bar was functioning! They did offer an unheated small hut on the camping field outside. But outside we met a couple that had been picking mushrooms and who had a small pension nearby. We were lodged in a wood-heated room, and had more mamaliga. The 16-year old son was very good at English, and was dreaming of running a pension business and offering more tourist services in the future. Of course we encouraged him to do just that, and told him to start by clearly signposting the pension. 

Today we made our way through a more populated part of Bucovina, planning to reach the monasteries by the end of the day. The road following the river down to Campulung Moldovenesc (‘Moldavian long field’) was great. Village architecture differed from that in Maramures: the plan of farmbuildings is different, and other friezes and colours are applied. Also the churches have a more ‘byzantine’ look, resembling the architecture of the monastery churches we were about to see. Campulung itself is not so special, and we stopped only for supplies. The road flattened out, and the mountains turned into hills as we proceeded east. We passed through Vama (‘customs’), which had been the border and barracks town between Austro-Hungarian Transylvania and Moldavia for centuries. We reached Frasin, where we planned to stay at an ECEAT-farm (a network of eco-farms offering accomodation; see the accommodation links), but the place turned out to be booked full with the farmer’s daughter’s wedding guests. In Voronet we found another ECEAT-farm, and checked in for two nights (including a great hot bath and good Romanian meals).

We went through the village towards the famous monastery, which was strategically situated at the end of the valley, deeper in the hills. When the Bukovina monasteries were built, the Tatars and other invading forces formed a great threat to the Romanians living here. Religious practice, Romanian culture and language survived partly because of the ‘fortress-monasteries’. Just like in the Saxon areas of Transylvania, big walls and defence works were built around the churches to offer protection to the people - and their culture. However, the monasteries are better known for the paintings that adorn the outside walls of the churches. Even now, 400 years after painting, the colours are vivid and the scenes impressive. At Voronet Monastery, a special kind of bright blue was used, that is now named after the monastery. The subjects depicted are to be found on all the churches, like the Tree of Jesse and Judgement Day. The latter is usually the most imposing: God and angels stand above, while below the dead are trumpetted awake from their graves, souls are weighed (to see if enough people have prayed for them after their decease), and they are consequently ushered into the merry queue waiting for heaven’s gate, or else led (by devils) to a horrible fire-breathing dragon: hell. Tatars and Turks (the main enemies at that time) are standing in line for hell, of course. By the way, I once visited the new orthodox church at Râmet monastery (near Teius, south of Cluj), where Stalin and Lenin are among the sinners being led to the dragon!

Today we planned to see three other monasteries in the area on a relaxing trip without our luggage for a change. We set off for Gura Humorului (‘mouth of the Humor [river]'), where we changed money and shopped. Just to the north is Humor Monastry. This one is also very nicely painted (although it has faded and worn more than Voronet), and lacks the outer walls (except for a large tower). We devised a cunning plan to keep heading up the valley, and cross the hills to reach Arbore and Solca quicker. We had to ask the way to find the right turning, but soon were cycling confidently through beautiful surroundings. At the top, we left the dirt track and proceeded over grass and sheep trails (where I once again managed to fall off my bike, softly landing on the grass). We went through a village where dogs ran out barking at our ankles, and where kids were amazed to see bikers coming from the hills. Two colourfully dressed gypsy girls (who were selling large pans door to door) inquired where we came from and if we were crazy to cycle all over the country. Romania is home to a large amount of gypsies (estimates range between 300.000 and 3 million!), some of whom are totally assimilated, some of whom still live a semi-nomadic life (see also the minority page ).

A few hills and villages further on we reached Solca, which turned out to be a spa town (offering fresh air and healthy water). Doctors, nurses and patients in night-gowns were strolling through the parks, a funny sight. Solca Monastery was deserted and probably closed, but we managed to open the gate and went in anyway. It was white on the outside, but still was impressive for its size and architecture. It’s surrounded by overgrown remains of the large defence works, and the neighbouring brewery has taken over part of the storage rooms built into the outer walls. Solca is situated at the very edge of the Carpathian foothills: the transition to a flatter area was remarkable when we cycled further east to the village of Arbore . Here we sent a few telegrams to Romanian friends (a cheap way of telling someone without a phone that you’re coming) and visited Arbore Monastery. This one is not so famous as the monasteries further west, but made the greatest impression on me. Only parts of the frescoes had survived the hundreds of years of sun, rain and snow. Even so, these were the best ones I had seen until then. Incredibly detailed faces, gruelling scenes of torture and martyrdom and vivid colours. The Tree of Jesse was being restored when we visited. Experts on scaffolding were carefully inspecting the layer of paint and cement, injecting special glue behind weaker spots to avoid bits falling off. An art graduate was meticulously copying and reconstructing a faded painting of the siege of Jerusalem for research and archive purposes. What a great job. We took the long route back over asphalt roads to Gura Humorului and Voronet.

Rolling down the river on a sunny afternoon

 To speed up things (and to avoid having to retrace our route for half a day), we hopped on the train in Gura Humorului, and travelled to Vatra Dornei. Here we briefly saw the centre (our quick impression: a nice but dilapidated spa town) and took the road south, along the Bistrita river. The asphalt was really good, but after a few villages we had the ‘pleasure’ of passing the (temporary) asphalt factory, bellowing thick black smoke over the road: the worst case of local pollution we had seen so far (except for Copsa Mica near Sighisoara). Further on, we passed less and less villages and the area turned into Canada again: a broad river valley surrounded by forested mountains. Going downhill for most of the day with a strong wind in our backs and the sun in our faces, it was a great ride. Halfway the valley, in complete isolation, was the mining and logging town Holda. A few flats, a bus stop, and that was that. Some time later, we reached the point where the Bistrita flowed into the enormous artificial Lake Bicaz. We took a break on the wonderful arched bridge spanning the lake (I think this must have been built before the valley was flooded... I’d like to see pictures of that). We traced the rim of the lake and turned up the valley leading eastwards to Borsec. 

We were going to visit some friends in Tulghes , where I had spent Christmas of 1996. It was freezing -25 degrees when I last saw Tulghes; it was much more pleasant now. We were getting weary now as we had cycled more than 100 kilometres today... and the road to Tulghes went up (a bit). So we were very glad to arrive before dark, and to be received with open arms and lots of alcoholic drinks. Drinking the alcohol (wine, beer and wodka) proved to be not such a good idea. I woke up feeling very sick, and this condition didn’t change much for the rest of the day. Thanks to the care of our hosts, I was able to spend the next day slowly exploring Tulghes (a nice one street village) and the hills around. We made it to a spring in the mountains where fizzy water welled up, colouring the ground a rusty red.

Gorgeous stumps

 The next day, after a night with lots of rain, we packed our bikes and set off southwards again. Today’s route was to be a gamble: following a cart-track over a pass (not on our maps) and down the other valley towards Bicaz Gorge. Soon after leaving Tulghes, we also left the asphalt behind us, and missed the turning. Locals directed us back to the village limits (and told us it was going to be hard). Now we had the good road. It immediately went up into a valley, following a stream. As usual, the scenery compensated for all the sweat. Soon we were lost in silent forests. Despite a sunny start, a small shower hit us, just when the road became too steep and stony to cycle. After a bit of shelter, we went on, walking and pushing until we reached the pass, about half an hour higher up. From here it was helmets on: a really wild ride down. Mud, stones, deep tractor tracks and a part where the road had been washed away (glad we were going downhill here: uphill would have been impossible). A great place for mountain bike tours, but also fun for luggage-toting bikers like us. 

After passing the ubiquitous wood-sawing industries we reached Telec, a small village with quite a lot of traditional, blue-painted farmhouses. After a while we were back on asphalt and whizzed down the valley to Cheile Bicazului village, where we joined the quiet main road west to Lacu Rosu and Gheorgheni. This took us up through the fantastic Bicaz Gorge (Cheile Bicazului). The road shares the gorge with a foaming river, and some parts of the road are cut into the rocks for lack of space. The gorge’s dark grey walls rise up to 300 metres above you. Halfway we passed the place where buses park (and where wooden stuff and woollen pullovers are sold to tourists). A group of bored Romanian kids, being aired from a bus ride, cheered us along. We needed it: the next hundred metres were really steep. There’s always a down side (or up?) to crossing a pass. We pedalled through the gorge, made our way up a few hairpin-turns and passed through a narrow, unlit (and by the feeling of it, unpaved) tunnel. A modern tunnel two-lane was being built next to it, perhaps to divert heavy traffic from the scenic route through the gorge, but it looked like all activity had been stopped for somewhat longer than your average coffee break. A little further (and higher) on we passed the first houses of Lacu Rosu. This place is renowned for healthy air, the beautiful surroundings (walking, skiing) and of course the lake it is named after. Lacu Rosu (Red Lake) was formed when a huge landslide in the 1700’s (half a mountain, actually) blocked a valley, forming an artificial lake. Special about it is that the trees standing in the valley have only partly rotted away: hundreds of stumps still stick (a bit) out of the water. The reason for calling it ‘red’ is unclear - I may have heard five explanations by now.

We stopped at a pension by the side of the road. They had nice rooms, but we were thinking of something more lakeside than roadside. We met a pensioner selling carved wooden souvenirs by the side of the road. He seemed very surprised to see us pop up on our bikes. Bang next to the lake was an old vila (a sort of pension, purpose built for tourism in resorts like this), that had been privatised recently, like most of the vila ’s in Lacu Rosu. It now was run by an energetic lady from Bucharest (and her daughters) who was sick of the exhaust fumes and had taken a risk and moved here (Bucharest-Lacu Rosu: quite a difference, believe me). She told us that a group of French bikers en route to Istanbul stayed here this summer as wel. We installed ourselves in a room with a view of the lake, dragged our bikes up, and had a nice dinner in the in-house restaurant. Family business: Granny was responsible for cooking, in the cellar.

Making friends is easy

 The next morning after breakfast we rented a boat from two young entrepreneurs and rowed all over the lake. The view of the surrounding mountains was marvellous, and the tree stumps looked even weirder from close up. Although the trees were dead, some small new fir trees had decided that these stumps were good places to start growing. I wonder how long the stumps will survive with idiots like us rowing around and bumping against them all the time.

The weather today was cloudy, a few drops of rain fell while we rowed around. It got better as we cycled on through Lacu Rosu towards the pass back into Transylvania proper. As we went up, the clouds set in and soon we were surrounded by mist. All we saw was the asphalt stretching 30 metres ahead, and the silhouettes of trees. Eerie. After a while we reached the pass, and just as we munched on some nuts, the sun came through and cleared some clouds away for us. An impressive valley with a winding hairpin road lay ahead. In the distance Gheorgheni, our destination for now, could be seen. Helmets on, and down we went again. Down in the valley the sun had got rid of all mist and it was much warmer. Soon we reached Gheorgheni, a nice little town with a multi-ethnic past. Armenians (now assimilated) have left their marks here (check out the wonderful Armenian alphabet on the church tower), and ethnic Hungarians still form a large part of the population. We skipped all the attractions, and headed for the station, where we caught the slow train to Sfantu Gheorghe, near Brasov. Nobody knew if we could take our bikes on the train legally, so we bought two normal tickets and waited. The conductor was not happy when he saw us putting our bikes in the luggage compartment, but when we mentioned we were from Holland, heading for Sfantu Gheorghe and that there was no alternative train, he agreed to let us on board if we paid the bike-fee to him. Officially, there should be a luggage guard in the train, and since there was none, no bikes could be taken along. Later the conductor came long to settle the score. We chatted a bit, and then (as I suspected) he offered cheaper means of paying: directly into his own wallet. We gave him the amount that we had paid before at stations for the bikes, and immediately he broke into a broad smile, shook our hands extensively and offered his help should we need anything. Later we calculated that we had probably given him a day’s wage: the average salary still is about $150 a month. We had a picnic on the floor of the empty luggage wagon, and enjoyed the view of the East Carpathian mountains from the open doors (couldn’t be closed due to rust). Soon the reason we had taken the train here became apparent: a thunderstorm broke loose, unleashing cold wind and uncomfortably large hailstones. A few hours later, after trundling through great landscapes (and feeling guilty for having skipped Tusnad’s volcanic mountains) we arrived in Sfantu Gheorghe.

The smiling conductor helped us out, and waved goodbye as we biked off to the centre. Here we had to shelter for another downpour before we could set off (taking a wrong turning and therefore making an unnecessary detour through the town’s outskirts) towards Brasov. We planned to stay in Illieni, where according to the guidebook a Christian conference and youth centre would be able to accommodate us. The centre was beautiful, but also very closed. The caretaker saw no possibilities for us to stay there. They must have noticed I’m no Christian any more... A family walking home from church directed us to the only alternative in this village: a pension next to a farmhouse, along a muddy road. In the bar downstairs we asked about accommodation, but apparently the rooms upstairs were not rented out any more. The farmer/owner told us he only used the room for visiting friends from Germany (this guy had travelled around, had money, and seemed to have some political influence around here). It was also an investment for his daughter, so one day she could run the place. He liked us enough to give us a room for the night anyway. The pension was very nice: large rooms, beautifully decorated, clean and brand new. Good sanitary (even hot water), and plenty of warm blankets. The farmer’s wife cooked us dinner, and we ate in the otherwise empty restaurant downstairs. The father saw career opportunities, and encouraged his daughter to play some songs on the synthesiser for us. It was pretty loud, but entertaining enough.

Honey and hams: Saxon legacy in Siebenbürgen

 We made our way from Ilieni through small villages to Harman- (German for Honigburg, ‘Honey fortress’). Harman has one of the greatest Saxon fortified churches of Transylvania (together with Prejmer and Biertan). The centre still looks like a sleepy mediaeval German village: rows of sturdy homesteads behind by large stone gates. The fortress was enormous: the high walls behind the moat actually concealed most of the church. The caretaker, one of the only 143 Saxons left over (of 1056 in 1989) in Harman, showed us around the grounds and the church. In case of attack, the whole village retreated into the fortress (cows and all) and lived off the goods that were stored in the fortress towers: cereals and hams. This habit is typical of the Saxons in the southern part of Transylvania: they are appropriately nicknamed Speckdeutsche: ‘ham Germans’. Families in these villages were obliged to hand in a part of the harvest and hams each year. In some villages this is still the habit today, and people are prepared for sieges just like their ancestors were 500 years ago. Harman has special fortifications. Rich families had small apartments made in the walls. The priest, the mayor and the treasurer each had the mediaeval equivalent of an nuclear-proof bomb shelter: special family rooms (each with its own retractable ladder) stuck high on the church itself. Very smart indeed. 

From here we had to take the main road for the remaining 12 kilometres to Brasov. No fun at all: a strong side wind, no trees around, lots of traffic, endless and straight. The only good thing was the view of Brasov in the distance, clinging to the foothills of the Southern Carpathian range that abruptly soars up from the plain we were cycling over. In Brasov we had to make our way through the ugly outskirts before we reached the wonderful old centre. We went to find accommodation. Exo (the private room agency) had nothing near to the centre. We were offered a room in a centrally located pension by a man waiting outside a hotel door. He turned out to be another guest, who earned a commission by getting the rest of the pension filled up.

Later we explored the historic centre. Brasov is a really nice town, and one of the best things about it is that the old centre is largely free of traffic (other than most other Romanian cities). Due to its situation in a dead-end valley, there is hardly any through traffic (except to the small old Schei quarter stuck picturesquely between the mediaeval city walls and the end of the valley). What’s more, the centre has been pedestrianised, giving the fresh mountain air a chance. I was in for a pleasant surprise in Brasov: an ATM had been installed outside hotel Palace. This means: no more shady cash transactions in the future! From now on also in Romania you can safely get money out of the wall for a good exchange rate, and without having to put up with any bureaucracy ...if the machines work.

Brasov was founded nearly a millennium ago by German crusaders (who named it Kronstadt) returning from their battles in the Middle East. The city was situated in a valley within a day’s horse-ride of the most important mountain pass towards the south and Turkey. After the massive immigration of Germans in the early middle ages, Brasov became a bustling centre of trade, culture and industry. Christian merchants donated beautiful and priceless Persian carpets from their trading missions in Asia to Brasov’s gothic Black Church (called this way after invading Austrian armies had set fire to the town, blackening the walls of the church). This way they expressed their relief for returning safely from the ‘barbarian lands’ to this first outpost of Western European civilisation. The German name Kronstadt refers to the status of ‘first town after Asia’: here the law of the king (crown) was valid: no barbarians please. The Persian carpets (some with arab texts about Allah) still hang in the (Protestant) church, and form the largest carpet collection of Eastern Europe. Brasov was an outpost of culture too, for Romanians and Germans: book printing was important in this town for both ethnic groups from the 16th century onwards.

Apart from the Black Church, Brasov has lots more city sights on offer. The main square, Piata Sfatului ('Council square') is a great mixture of baroque styles, with the exception of the Romanian Orthodox church that sticks out with its Byzantine facade. In the middle of the square stands the old Town Hall, partly rebuilt after a fire. Brasov’s coat of arms is depicted on its southern facade: a large crown (power, justice) on top of a tree trunk with an impressive amount of roots (good ancestry, strong tradition). The cobbled Strada Muresenilor and the pedestrianised Strada Republici (with the supermarket, market and a bunch of hotels at the north end), both leading north, are the main shopping streets of Brasov’s old town. Especially Strada Republici has some nice buildings, a few large Jugendstil merchant’s houses for example. The rest of the old centre is a maze of small streets, and blocks crammed full with small houses. For an excellent view of the town centre and immediate surroundings, take the cable car from the park up to mount Tampa. The centre features other churches worthwile visiting as well: the Romanian Orthodox church, the Greek Orthodox church nearby, built into the city walls behind a small courtyard. The Synagogue has not much people left to service, but is still active and has its own kosher restaurant for the local parish. The fortifications alone are a good reason to visit Brasov: the walls on the east and west side are still standing, as are a few of the original gothic wall towers. One of them houses the fortification museum. Three gates have survived the centuries: the Catherina Gate, straight from a fairy tale, and the Schei gate. Between the western wall and the hillside stands the third gate, spanning the stream. Go see it while you can: there are plans to build a road here, so that Strasa Muresenilor can be closed for traffic too.

Schei Gate leads you to Schei, the Romanian quarter outside the German old town. Romanians were not allowed to live within the city walls for a very long time, so they built their own quarter on the south side of the town. Schei today is a pleasant residential area with a maze of streets slowly creeping up to the end of the valley, and ending in the woods. The Romanian Nicolai church stands proudly on a hillock in the middle of the area. The writer of the national anthem is buried on these grounds. Near the church is a museum dedicated to the history of Romanian book-printing and local Romanian history, concentrating on the annual ‘Juni’ parade of Romanians into the city. Yes, once a year they were allowed to enter, and this parade still is a proud display of colours, music, dance and folklore.

At the northern end of Strada Muresenilor there’s a small market as well as a bus station. From here every half hour a bus drives the 12 kilometres up the winding road to Poiana Brasov , Brasov’s (and Romania's main) ski resort. Here in a nice park-like setting are a dozen hotels and restaurants, but also amenities like cable cars, a skating rink and an indoor swimming pool. You can go up the Postavarul (about 1900 metres high), but you can also head down to Brasov taking a short cut. This way you can ski straight into Schei and the old city. Enough about the city, you should go and see for yourself. After visiting all the sights we bought trains tickets to Bucharest for the next day: this way we would get to see the beautiful Prahova valley and the capital city on a day trip.

Palaces and casualties: Ceausescu’s legacy in Bucharest

 We set off early, taking a taxi to the station. The InterCity train we took to Bucharest was the most luxurious (and most expensive) train Romania has to offer, and I must say, I’ve seen worse. Free orange juice and chocolate are handed to you by friendly staff. A single first-class trip costed about $6: return trips do not exist yet in Romania due to the complicated reservation system. Buying a ticket in advance from another station than the station of departure is also out of the question. That meant we probably had to queue in Bucharest later that day. We eventually did. 

The train ride was spectacular: after leaving Brasov the train climbs 400 metres within a few kilometres before reaching Predeal , the ski resort at the pass (and the highest town of Romania). From there on they only need to use the brakes going down the Prahova valley. To the right were the immense rock cliffs below Caraiman peak (rearing straight up 700 metres from the valley floor) near Busteni. Later we came to Sinaia , the royal ski and health resort, featuring Peles Palace. This we saved for a next visit. After another hour we reached Bucharest’s Gara de Nord (which is not as bad as its reputation suggests). The temperature was much higher here than in Brasov: we were in for a warm and sunny day. We had planned our city tour in advance, because we had just half a day to see the sights. And in Bucharest, that’s just possible.

We took the metro down to Piata Unirii, a huge square on the southern edge of the old town. This was where the ‘Genius of the Carpathians’ had torn down a fifth of the old centre to make way for his own megalomaniac projects: a five-kilometre long boulevard (just a wee bit longer than the Champs Elysees in Paris) and of course His palace. The Uranus quarter which stood here till fifteen years ago had been damaged somewhat by the 1977 earthquake: Ceausescu used this as an excuse to demolish the whole area. Many characteristic 19th century houses and streets as well as a number of churches and monasteries were bulldozed away. Thanks to the ingenuity of the engineers who were assigned this project, a few churches could be saved by moving them over rails to a spot out of the way of new construction. They really did their best to save what was possible, under terrible -psychological- conditions. Now these churches stand out of place in between high rise apartments, out of view from the main boulevard. Ceausescu’s palace (after having two other names now called Casa Parlementului: Parliament House) houses the parliament, but is still not quite finished. It seems to be the second or third largest building in the world, and it certainly takes a long time to walk around it. I visited it on an earlier trip, and on the inside it’s slightly pompous, but good enough for a palace. The tour guide was one of the engineers, and he told us that the pillars had been reinforced three or four times as necessary, because of the changing insights of the leader. Ceausescu and his horrible wife Elena dropped by every week to see what progress had been made, and as he leaned over the plans (even though he clearly had no notion at all of construction work) he ordered changes... like moving the swimming pool from the ground floor to the top floor. That’s why the pillars were so strong: the builders never knew what they eventually would have to support. As visible progress was required on each and every visit (otherwise the darling couple would burst out in rage and fire a few people), chandeliers were hung in half finished rooms, and gold coating was applied to decorations on the walls while the ceilings had yet to be plastered... In 1989, when the Ceausescu’s were executed, the building was just about half finished. It was decided to finish it anyway, as Romania had let so much blood, sweat and tears for it. Now ‘Bucharest 2000’ plans have been made to fill in empty spaces in the new centre, also to partly hide the palace. From the palace we walked into the small and charming old quarter, which consists of a few narrow 19th century streets. Strada Lipsca is the main street here (named after merchants from Leipzig, Germany), and it is full of interesting old shops. Traders from the east had a great influence on the city, and the Hanul lui Manuc (Manuc’s Inn) is a great example of a 18th century caravanserai, a place where you could park your horse, eat, sleep and do business. I still think it’s one of the nicest buildings of Bucharest. On its courtyard terrace you can’t hear the ubiquitous Bucharest traffic noise for a change. The wooden decorations were recently restored by Maramures woodworkers. Around this neighbourhood stand grand buildings from the turn of the century: the national bank, the university, the national museum, etc. This is where Bucharest’s nickname ‘Paris of the East’ still lingers... a bit. On Piata Universitate stands a memorial to the people killed in the revolution during Christmas 1989. Later it was the place where students were punished for their ‘anti-democratic’ demonstrations by hordes of rampaging miners, who had been called in to ‘restore order’ by the first new president. That was the moment when everybody realised that not much had changed in the first year of ‘democracy’, and that the same old faces were still in the same high places. Graffiti on the walls of the architecture faculty still protest against the ‘neo-communists’ and the slow pace of tracing down those guilty of killing during the ‘so-called revolution’. Now, nearly ten years later, still nobody knows how many people died and who was responsible. Further north, on Piata Victoriei, stands the building with the balcony where Ceausescu made his famous last speech. This weird square also features the national library (deliberately set on fire, destroying many unique books and documents, by... secret police? ..nobody knows) and the Royal Palace (now the museum... here lots of paintings were systematically destroyed by the same idiots, who went around the whole building shooting at art). The reason for the strange shape of the square was that all buildings immediately around the Royal Palace were demolished when it was built in the previous century, so that shooting approaching rebels was easier. Other nice bits of Bucharest include Cismigiu park (an amazing oasis of peace in this otherwise traffic-crazy city) and the Open Air Museum to the north of town (although I find Sibiu’s version better). After briefly visiting the Irish pub on Strada Titulescu, we went back to the station to get our tickets, but had to stand in line so long that we missed the train. We should have bought tickets immediately on arrival... This is Romania, so we calmly counted to ten, adjusted our plans and bought a ticket for a train departing two hours later and went back into town... to the hair dressers. We both ordered a short hair cut (baietesc - boy-like) and the hairdressers had a good laugh at Marije getting what is a man’s haircut in Romania (I guess men think women are supposed to have long hair so they can look like models all day). In the metro, on the way back to the station, we sat opposite a western-looking guy who eventually asked us in Dutch if we were tourists. It’s a small world: he turned out to be a teacher of Dutch at the university who I had phoned (but never had seen) just a few months earlier. We arrived at the Gara de Nord, and boarded the train which took us back to Brasov.

‘Dracula’s castle’ and winking roofs

From Brasov we headed south-west towards Bran, avoiding the main road by taking the Poiana Brasov road over the mountains. It costed us some extra sweat, but was well worth it when the views turned out to be good. From Poiana Brasov we took the minor road down to Rasnov and Bran... the steepest asphalt road we encountered in Romania. Whizzing down at 60 km/h was great fun but also a bit dangerous, as you never know what the road is like around the next bend. Back on the plain, halfway between Rasnov and Bran, we asked a truck driver for some oil, as the chains on our bikes were squeaking more and more (we’ll bring our own can of lubricant next time). The oil helped, but also made a mess. In Bran we went to a new and well-signposted pension (‘agro-turism 100m’), some way from the main road in an orchard. The rooms were good and cheap, and parking our greasy bikes indoors was no problem. Outside it was cold, so we ate cakes in a cafe. 

The next morning we went to visit Bran Castle, a cute little castle perched strategically on top of a rock in the middle of a valley. It is marketed as Dracula’s castle , but it was built by the Saxons, and our fanged friend probably only visited it once. Even so, this must be the main tourist attraction of Romania.The world turned out to be even smaller than we thought, because here we met a busload of colleague geographers from Holland, who were in Romania for a conference. Due to renovations to the rock the castle was built on (a small tremor could cause it to break apart), we had to use another entrance that was of course not indicated anywhere. We were smuggled in by the geographers and trotted around the castle (nice, but not as impressive as some other castles in Romania) for half an hour before going back to the hotel and packing. We now took a minor road via Zarnesti to Fagaras. It was a nice route through hills and isolated villages, but once we were on the Fagaras plain, the wind hit us. The rest of the day was spent struggling against it, and we were exhausted when we arrived in Fagaras town. Especially the last few kilometres through the industrial area (chemical factories) were not pleasant at all. We checked into a small local hotel and had dinner in the cellars of the imposing fortress in the middle of the town. As we were not in for a battle against a strong headwind along a busy road, we chickened out and took the morning train to Sibiu. Here we bumped our way over the cobblestones in the centre and visited the Exo office to find a cheap and central place to stay. We ended up in a furnished apartment along the city wall. We suspected the woman who looked after the apartment of poking around our things (although nothing disappeared), but after a complaint Exo solved that (when we left she asked us timidly if she had been a good hostess!).

In Sibiu we extracted some more Lei’s out of the ATM and set off to see the centre. Sibiu and Brasov are in my view the two most attractive towns of Romania. Although Sibiu’s location is less spectacular, it too has a beautiful German-looking centre. Sibiu (Hermannstadt in German) was the Transylvanian Saxon’s main city, and their wealth is still apparent from the buildings in the centre. The main square is surrounded by large houses in mediaeval and baroque style, and their enormous roofs feature small ventilation holes that look like winking eyes. On the northern side of the square stands the imposing Baroque cathedral and the Bishops' palace, flanked by the palaces of the wealthiest burghers. One of these houses is now the Bruckenthal Museum of Art, one of the best art museums in Romania (occasionally showing modern art too) with nicely creaking wooden floors. To the right stands the sturdy tower of the old Town Hall. Underneath the tower is a gate leading to Piata Mica (Small Square), a smaller version of the square above, with arched mediaeval houses. From this square a road goes steeply down into the lower town, a large area filled with fairy-tale houses and streets. This road is crossed by a small iron bridge: Liar’s Bridge. Legend goes that if you tell a lie standing on the bridge, it will collapse. One of the streets of the lower town leads to two stairways going back up to the higher town, ending on either sides of the large Evangelical church. The interior was being restored when we visited, but one of the few German residents left in Sibiu showed us around, and even took us to the room behind the altar, where beautiful gravestones and other artefacts could be seen. Our German guide even invited us to climb up the church tower (adorned with four small turrets, a Transylvanian way of saying that this town was an official market town) for a great eagle’s eye view of the town. The next day we made a day trip by bicycle to the foothills of the Carpathians south of Sibiu. First we visited the ‘ASTRA Museum of Rural Technology’, which was an excellent skansen, focusing on technical buildings like windmills and water mills (some very nice ones, they even had a few ingenious floating water mills that I had never seen before). Even though the guide says they are assembled ‘in working order’, I was disappointed that they don’t actually work. There were also lots of farmhouses, a Maramures church, a few traditional sheepfolds and much more. For us it was a lot of fun, as we had cycled through many of the areas where these buildings came from and it was a great opportunity to see them all on the inside too. The staff told us we should have come on a weekend, as then people demonstrate things in many of the buildings. Still, we had a great time exploring the museum, and spent nearly three hours there. Afterwards, we cycled through the woods to Cisnidoara (Michelsberg in German), a good example of a Saxon village. Cisnidoara is special because of the Romanesque church on top of a weirdly conical hill. After lending the keys we were free to walk up and unlock the citadel ourselves. The church itself was empty except for the gravestones of soldiers from here who were killed in the First World War. The view over the village and the surrounding mountains was marvellous. Most Saxons have left Romania for Germany, but strangely enough, many of them stayed in Cisnidoara. Maybe encouraged by the good economical prospects of (German) rural tourism? The village has a grand total of 40 young Saxons (while most of these villages only have a few elderly Saxons left over). In the small town of Cisnadie (or Heltau) a little further on, we visited the impressive fortress church and had a chat with the caretaker. Here the situation was ‘normal': an exodus had left only a few Saxon pensioners here.  Better Living Through Bulldozing - getting out of RomaniaAs our visas were valid for just one more day, we had to find a way of getting out of Romania quickly. We jumped on the train again to Arad, via Alba Iulia. Here the Romanian railways fail, as important lines connect badly in the most absurd of places... unremarkable villages like Teius or Razboeieni. It turned out that cycling the few kilometres into Alba Iulia to take the train there would save us lots of time, so we had the pleasure of being blown ahead by a strong wind to this town. After getting our tickets we visited Alba Iulia’s centre, which is situated in an impressive fortress built by Austrian armies in the 1700’s. Alba Iulia has quite a few important buildings. The unification of Transylvania with the rest of Romania was declared here in 1920, and this is also the town where the famous leaders of Romanian peasant uprisings were imprisoned and tortured. For Hungarians the town is important as the seat of the Catholic Church, and the beautiful cathedral (with clear romanesque, gothic and renaissance elements) stands proudly next to the Romanian Orthodox church.

The rest of Alba Iulia is unimpressive, except if you want to see how Ceausescu envisioned the ideal city centre. Alba Iulia is one of the cities that was ‘modernised’ because of Ceausescu’s so-called systematisare policy in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Part of the old fortress moat has been filled up, and a huge new boulevard lined by high-rise blocks of flats stretches into the distance. Systematisare was meant to be a way of improving Romanian living standards to the level of the ‘enlightened socialist society’ which meant that everybody had a right to live in a modern flat, with amenities like TV (broadcasting three hours of Ceausescu propaganda each day), hot water, heating, etc. In practice it was an important way to increase the state’s control on normal people’s lives even more: house owners were to be forced into flats, people would have to give up their back yards and become dependent on (state) shops for fruit, vegetables, etc. In the cities, Ceausescu wanted ‘modern new centres, worthy of the socialist man’ to be erected next to (or if possible on top of) the old centre, doing away with old and unworthy buildings. In Bucharest he did a pretty thorough job, and a number of other cities also had their centres radically changed (Miercurea Ciuc, for example). Most cities were lucky and had the new centre built at some distance from the old centre (like Cluj, Brasov, Alba Iulia, Constanta and Sibiu). According to the first plans, Sighisoara’s old town was destined for 'systematisation' too. Thank goodness only a small part of the lower town eventually suffered.

For the villages, systematisare policy was an outright disaster. Ceausescu wanted literally to get rid of about 7000 of the 13000 Romanian villages: these were inefficient in his eyes. The surface could better be used for agricultural purposes. The idea was that the smaller and more remote villages could be bulldozed away, to make place for fields. The inhabitants were to be moved to the regional centres (often a larger village nearby), which were to be expanded with residential areas: blocks of flats. Of course this was disastrous for the villagers. They would lose their plot of land, lose the space to keep their own animals, have to travel longer to reach the fields they worked on, have to pay rent, etc. These changes would make everyone dependent on the state for almost everything. But most of all, village culture was under siege here. Communities with century-old traditions were to be torn apart and monumental churches and farmhouses torn down. And when you know that Romanian culture essentially is rural culture and tradition, you can imagine the extent of psychological devastation. Even though the systematisare plans first emerged in the early seventies, lack of money caused them to be postponed in favour of more important city projects (like Bucharest’s palace). This was a lucky break for the villages: many of them now escaped modernisation (= bulldozing), and only a few villages were eventually systematised. The idea of systematisare is not Romanian - the Soviets had similar projects carried out in the fifties. However, Western Europe was first, although not on such a scale and to this extent (rural policy in some Western European countries was to concentrate services in regional centres, and to cease investing in smaller places).  

Actually, it was protest against systematisare that sparked off the revolution of 1989. The ethnic Hungarian priest Laszlo Tökes gave an interview to the Hungarian television in spring 1989, telling them about this disaster waiting to happen. For Hungarians, Transylvania is a special area. It is the place where they consider their language and traditions preserved best. Turkish occupation had destroyed much of Hungary’s cultural heritage, but Transylvania had not been occupied, and many old churches and traditions and a ‘pure’ form of the Hungarian language survived here, mainly in the rural area’s that were now threatened by Ceausescu’s plans. Tökes’ message caused outrage in Hungary and Western countries. He considered systematisare to be designed especially for silencing the Hungarian minority for once and for all, but I don’t support that theory. Romanian villages were faced with the same terrible prospects as Hungarian villages, and the few villages that were eventually bulldozed, were all Romanian ones near Bucharest. Even so, thank goodness that Hungarian and Western protests, as well as insubordinate local officials (who sometimes risked a lot by not implementing the Leader’s wishes) helped to postpone the systematisare plans long enough for the revolution to put an end to all the madness. Now you may imagine the new flats in the towns and villages to be horrible, grey, cramped and falling to pieces. I was surprised by the architecture of most flats, and now I consider Romanian flats from the 1980’s to be much nicer looking than those in other Eastern European countries. In Brasov I was told that architects really made effort to make the best of a bad situation, and that they now were proud of these buildings. In Odorheiu Secuiesc I lived in such a new flat for two months, and it looked pretty nice. OK, the finishing touch wasn’t perfect (once the bathroom sink fell from the wall when we flushed the toilet) but on the whole it was a good appartment.

After visiting the centre, we went to Alba Iulia’s train station.  It wasn’t quite clear if our train had a luggage wagon, so we were  held in suspense till the very last minute... luckily it had one (otherwise  we’d have to wait for hours for the next train).  In Arad we quickly visited the centre, got a few more Lei out of an ATM and spent it all on chocolate and salami. Rid of all Romanian money, we followed the signs to the Hungarian border at Turnu / Battonya. Arad lies on the edge of the Hungarian plain, so it was all flat (and rather boring) with a strong sidewind until the border. We were practically the only ones crossing into Hungary, and we were through in just half an hour. After setting our watches back to Western European time we headed for the first village and made plans to cycle through Hungary for a day or two until we found a station with a train to Budapest. As it didn’t really matter where we would intercept the railway, we headed north-west, making sure the wind (still going strong) came straight from behind. The pusta may look boring from your average car window, but on a bicycle it was fun. Passing through minuscule villages and dusty towns, going through fields with nice smelling crops was great. We found a pension (and an ATM) in  Mezokovacshaza , and reached Mezotur the next day. From here it was a short ride by train to Budapest, where the next day we took the train back to Switzerland. 
 Back to the Romania page, Jeroen's homepage or the top of this article
Last modifications: 15-02-2004