Romania Reconnaissance 2018 – Trip Report
The idea of a tour to Romania, and especially the forested area known as Transylvania, rapidly developed during 2017 from a simple trip to Romania into a tour of Eastern European countries with Romania as the highlight. After all Romania is a long way east, so why not explore some of the less visited countries of Eastern Europe on the way over there and back ? After months of route planning, research, reading and talking to other bikers who had visited Romania, we set off in late July for the Eurotunnel crossing to France and points east.
Following a classic Magellan route across Western Europe we visited the cathedral city of Reims in Northern France, the spa town Baden-Baden in Germany and then beautiful Oberammergau on our way to Austria, checking out some new roads on the way. In Austria we scouted an amazing new mountain road from our normal stop near Zell-Am-See to the Glacier caves, and this road will feature in several 2019 tours. We then incorporated the new find into our route east to Hungary.
New Austrian Mountain road for 2019 Heading for Hungary
Leaving Austria via a short autoroute stretch, after being delayed by roadworks and torrential rain, we crossed the border into Hungary and immediately had the impression that we had travelled back in time to the 1950s. In contrast to the immaculate manicured towns in Austria, Hungarian towns had a rather forlorn look, and power cables were strung willy-nilly from overhead concrete posts everywhere rather than buried underground. Many power pylons had stork’s nests perched on the top! Road surfaces became a little less reliable and horse drawn vehicles suddenly appeared on the main roads in towns. Fortunately, horse drawn vehicles, tractors and bicycles are not allowed on main roads between towns!
Storks nesting Local Bus in Ulles, Hungary No horse&carts !
We stayed the night in the town of Veszprem and discovered what was to be a surprising feature of this tour of Eastern Europe …. despite being in the EU the ex-communist countries, including Hungary, still use their own currency. All prices in Hungary are quoted in Hungarian Forint (HUF) and most places are reluctant to accept Euros in cash. However most places do accept Visa and Mastercard (phew).
Leaving Veszprem we headed east again towards the Romanian border. The roads were good, with some sudden un-signposted sharp bends, and what seemed to be endless fields of sunflowers. A short stop at the border to buy a vignette (foreign vehicles have to effectively pay Romanian road tax by buying a vignette, but don’t worry, motorcycles are exempt) and we were in Romania, heading to Timisora through yet more sunflower fields.
Again, Romania has its own currency, the Lei (also occasionally called the Rom) so changing some Euros was in order. After an overnight stay in a great hotel and an early morning dip in their outdoor pool (it was over 30degrees by 10am) we headed deeper into Romania and began to appreciate this great biking country. Through rolling hills, and past locals picnicking in sand dunes (1000 miles from the coast!) we headed north towards the distant misty mountains. These misty mountains were to become a feature of touring in Romania, everywhere we went there were mountains in the distance. Through the small town of Hunedoara with its very weird Chinese style architecture and on to a stop at the amazing Corvin’s castle. We then overnighted in the town of Alba Lulia, with its enormous spectacular star shaped medieval citadel.
Chinese style in Hunedoara Corvin’s castle Citadel in Alba Lulia
The next morning, we set out for the famous trans-alpina highway (also called the Devil’s path) which cuts due south across the Parang mountains and which was the only north south route across these mountains until the Transfagarasan highway was built. The trans-alpina route is variously attributed to the Romans, 18th century locals and the Germans during World War one, but in its present form it was opened by King Carol II in 1938. The road winds relatively easily up through the mountains to a small plateau and then much more steeply to the final altitude of 2,145 meters at the Urdele Pass, making it the highest surfaced road in Romania. The first section was a nice gentle twisty forest road, and we stopped at the dam on the way up for langos, a Romanian street food which is sort of deep-fried sweet bread with goats cheese, and then onwards and upwards. The views were spectacular, despite the rain, and the landscape rapidly became alpine. Across an unmarked dogleg junction teeming with Romanys selling tat and the road suddenly became a series of a dozen closely coupled hairpin bends, before topping out in the clouds… amazing! Then down in a more gentle relaxed manner to our spa hotel in Baile Govora. Built in 1914 and used as a Communist party retreat until the Romanian revolution in 1989 the hotel resembles a time capsule of the decadence the communist elite must have enjoyed.
High alpine environment Villages in the clouds Our 1914 Classic Hotel
After poaching in the spa for a while and a great evening meal, we retired happy and full.
The morning saw us heading east to the city of Brasov via Campulung on what should have been decent scenic roads… however the road surface was so badly degraded in places that even at walking pace we had problems! Huge deep ripples for hundreds of metres in places coupled with sudden long potholes on blind bends that could swallow a small child meant this was a route section we would definitely NOT be using on the Magellan tour in 2019!!
Oh well, that is what a reconnaissance trip is for, to check out the roads in order to exclude the bad bits and include the best bits! Once past Campulung the road improved markedly and became very scenic to the town of Rasnov with its funicular to the huge castle on the overlooking peak. From Rasnov we followed a great road which is a local bikers favourite past Brasov city up to the ski centre at Poiana Brasov and our hotel. Staying two nights here allowed us to visit the amazing mud volcanoes near Berca. The route we chose to these ‘volcanoes’ was the beautiful D10/DN1A which lived up to its reputation as one of the top 5 biking roads in Romania (as voted by Romanian bikers) and the bubbling mud volcanoes themselves were very weird, set in the surreal barren landscape they had created around themselves. This is one of only two places in Europe that ‘volcanoes’ of this sort can be found, so well worth a ride-out to visit.
Funicular to castle at Rasnov Mud volcanoes landscape Mud volcano
Leaving Brasov the next day we visited the Liberty Bear sanctuary just outside the city. Over a third of all the wild bears and wolves in Europe live in the Transylvania area of Romania, and this sanctuary cares for over 50 bears most of whom who had previously been kept in captivity, allowing them to live their lives in peace in almost natural conditions.
We also took in a visit to ‘Dracula’s castle’ in Bran. Romania seems totally obsessed with the tourist value of the Dracula legend, and there is a ‘Dracula’s castle’ every few miles. The reality is that Romania is full of well-preserved castles, but Bram stoker the author of Count Dracula, never actually visited Romania, still less Transylvania. His description of Dracula’s castle is believed to be based on an engraving he saw in a book! The character/name of Count Dracula is however widely believed to be based on the Romanian prince Vlad Dracula, (the son of king Vlad Dracul) who earned the name of Vlad the Impaler for his many barbaric acts of vengeance during his reign in Transylvania in the 1400s. In 1460 for example Vlad Dracula invaded southern Transylvania, destroyed the suburbs of Brașov, and ordered the immediate impalement of the hundreds of men, women and children who had been captured.
Squaring off in the bear sanctuary DN1A…twisty, twisty, twisty! ‘Dracula’s castle’ in Bran
Next morning, we set off for the world famous Transfagarasan highway. This road was once described by Jeremy Clarkson as ‘’like all of the bend in all of the racetracks in the world strung together”. Built by the communist dictator Ceaușescu as a means of getting military supplies across the country rapidly, the road is an engineering feat of the first magnitude. Unfortunately, it is also a favourite picnic destination for Romanians from far and wide at the weekend. As the weather was still in the 30s and it was a Sunday the road was packed with cars for the final 2Km to the top. We queued up the north slope to the top, and then after a short tunnel which pierces the peak we were on the spectacular downward section on the south slope of the mountain. The road then winds down the river valley and becomes a great forest route for the next 50Km.Traffic here was much lighter, but even so we resolved that the 2019 Tour would definitely ride this road mid-week to avoid the picnicking locals. We decided to stay in a small guest house at the south end of the Transfagarasan highway and do it again in the opposite direction the following day, Monday. What a revelation! No traffic superb views and the weather was better too, a little cooler. What an amazing road this is, it should be on everyone’s bucket list (the 2019 Tour will ride this on a Monday).
Transfagarasan north side… Scalextric track! Transfagarasan south side… more gentle
After an overnight stay near Sibiu we headed north and west exploring the roads around the city of Turda much nicer than its name suggests) and discovered the amazing salt mines in Turda which have been turned onto an impressive tourist attraction. Overnighting in Alba Lulia again, we discovered a super Italian restaurant just opposite the hotel, and again walked around the citadel complex, which stays open till 11pm.
Heading west next morning we wanted to check out a little-known road which local bikers had voted amongst the top 5 biking roads in Romania. We joined the road at the tiny hamlet (2 houses and a goat) of Buru and what a great route it was. First a twisty forest road along a river valley then passing through a gorge and up into the mountains again, spectacular views and hardly a car in sight! Lunch in the small village of Albac, where the postman turned up in the small café, ordered a beer and then distributed letters to all the locals present. More great roads on and down to the city of Oradea near the border.
On the road to Oradea Into the gorge
The next day we bade goodbye to Romania, having explored 4 of the 5 roads voted as the best by local biker’s, and headed back into Hungary. The route we had planned to Budapest however turned out to be a major lorry route and also severely disrupted by 120Km(!) of long-term roadworks, so once again it was re-think time. Staying just over the border we planned a new route on minor roads, with the input of friendly locals, which would take through three national parks. Leaving the next morning we had a great day of forests and small mountains with great twisty sections and almost empty roads and then joined the motorway a few Km from Budapest to make getting into the city easier. Much better route!
Oops…time for a re-think Take two…this is much better Bikers cool it!
A day off in Budapest allowed us to explore the city using the efficient public transport system. The city is really two cities, Buda and Pest which are separated by the River Danube. A 19th-century Chain Bridge across the river connects the hilly Buda district on one bank with flat Pest on the other side. A funicular runs up Castle Hill in Buda to the Old Town, where the Budapest History Museum traces city life from Roman times onward. In Buda we visited the Fisherman’s Bastion, the inspiration for the Disney fairy tale castle, which is only about 10 mins walk from the main Old Town area.
Disney inspiration in Budapest Castle hill in Buda
Next day we headed north to Krakow in Poland, which involved crossing the whole width of Slovakia. 3 countries in one day! Our route included a visit to the impressive castle at Orava and a super traverse of the Nízke Tatry National Park which led us up into the mountains and through the small ski resort at the top, before looping down to the plain and across the border into Poland and on to our hotel in Krakow.
Krakow is close to the memorial site at Auschwitz and also boasts a superb old town and a salt mine complex which is even bigger than that at Turda.
Orava castle in Slovakia National park road in Slovakia
With a day off in Krakow we decided to chill in the old town rather than taking a day trip to one of the above sites. Auschwitz is 90 minutes away and a visit is only really possible by joining one of the full day excursions advertised in all of the hotels, and the salt mines, although very near did not really appeal.
The Old Town proved a great choice, with a big outdoor market in full swing, music, street food and lots of amazing buildings to explore. The Old Town is best reached by taxi as the narrow streets are not bike friendly, as they are full of silent electric trams (and so lots of tram rails), horse drawn carriages everywhere, frequent cobbled sections and hordes of unobservant pedestrians. Dinner in a very nice and extremely reasonable restaurant on the main square rounded off the day nicely.
Main square in Krakow Beautiful buildings everywhere Not bike friendly streets tho’
Heading west again the next day we passed through the more industrialised steel working area of Poland and crossed the border into the Czech Republic, stopping off at an open air tank museum just over the border. Pressing on we followed some great forest roads and then some nice twisties up into the rolling hills. Coming down again towards the plain we were treated to a very long fast section of well-designed sweeping bends very reminiscent of the b500 in Germany.
Open air tank museum Great Czech forest sections Is this the Czech b500?
Then the roads became much straighter as we crossed the central Czech plain to our overnight stop in Hradec Králové, where we stayed in a quirky converted monastery on the main medieval town square. The hotel even had areas with the original wooden cobbles in the internal courtyard. The main town square in Hradec Králové is very beautiful, and we chose one of the many restaurants around the square for dinner that evening.
The next morning, we negotiated the confusing one-way system around the main square and eventually found our way out and onto our route westward to the German border. We visited the town of
Views of the main square in Hradec Králové, Czech republic
Melnick, and then our route took us through long stretches of wooded roads and into a National Forest on the border with Germany. Once over the border we hit a great 40Km sweeping section of 100Kph road which led us to within 2Km of our hotel, in a the scenic Bavarian ski village of Bishofsgrun.
Next morning, we headed west again across Germany using rural roads to Langstein on the mighty river Rhine. Several times we were diverted due to roadworks related road closures (which are unfortunately common in Germany) and the SatNav had a field day recalculating our route, but as always it got us to the hotel in the end!
Our final day back to the Eurotunnel terminal included a visit to the Nürburgring race track and some very nice twisties through the forests around the town of Nürburg itself before a motorway blast through Belgium to the coast and down to Calais.
Castle above Lahnstein Nice roads around Nürburg Cool it guys!
Overall Impressions ?
There really are some terrific roads in Romania, and not just the famous ones like the trans-Alpina and the Transfagarasan. Some of the roads recommended to us by Romanian bikers proved to be just as good in their own right. There is also lots of cool stuff to see, mud volcanoes, bears, medieval towns and villages and loads of castles. Once you are off the beaten track, Romania is like a time capsule from the 1930s. Horse-drawn vehicles are very common, lots of village back roads are unsurfaced or roughly cobbled and the legacy of Communist misrule is still visible in crumbling architecture. Definitely worth visiting Romania before it catches up and becomes “westernised” ie just like the rest of Europe.
Add the bonus of visiting 9 countries in one tour, including several which most bikers will never see, and the side visits to amazing places like Auschwitz and Krakow Old Town and Budapest and you have the all the ingredients of a great bike tour.
Fancy joining us on the road in 2019? Book now…