Sunday, 28 July 2013

Istanbul or Bust - Vampire Country

It was day three of our trip (new readers might want to start here) and we'd just left the small town of Komárom in Hungary. We had four working bikes, just over a thousand miles behind us, and a long way to go. We'd lost a fair bit of time getting Steve's exhaust sorted, but it was worth it just to have him not cause accidents, let alone to know the bike was going to be reliable.

But we were running late, and we needed to be past the Romanian border by the end of the day to stop the trip going off the rails. To add to the fun, the Romanian border would see us officially leave central Europe and enter eastern Europe, changing time zones from CET to EET. Nice to know, but not great when you're behind schedule and about to lose another hour. So we hit the motorway towards Budapest and made rapid progress.

Budapest felt like the crossroads of Europe. It was the point where we started to see country codes and place names on road signs and vehicle registration plates that took a bit of thought. NL, D, A, I... SRB - Serbia. UA? Now I was stumped. Ukraine? Ukraine! A coach went by with MD on the plate. Moldova. It really did start to feel like I was a thousand miles from home.

Cruising at a steady 77mph, the SMT was giving me economy I'd never seen before, even with luggage and a tent strapped across the back. Mark and Steve were seeing over 70 to the gallon. All because we were sticking to the speed limit - maybe the tree huggers have a point. More importantly, the miles were ticking by and by late afternoon we were past Szeged and approaching the end of the motorway, at Makó.

As soon as we left the motorway, the road deteriorated, as did the driving, and the paranoia started to creep back. We'd heard that the roads in Romania were going to be bad, and the driving in Bulgaria even worse, but we weren't even at the border and people were doing blind overtakes and driving on the wrong side of the road.

Romanian border, trucks and the campsite

Romania was going to be the first time we'd need our passports since Holland. It was a Schengen member, but hadn't yet got all of the controls in place, so passports were still being checked. I was expecting a bit of grief, being only too used to the happy smiley people the UK has at Calais, but all it took was a cursory glance at my passport, without even taking my helmet off, and I was through. The others came through behind me and we pulled in at the first big petrol station to fill up.

Border towns tend to be grotty, and the Romanian border at Nădlac wasn't the best. In a poor part of a poor country, it was crawling with touts pushing their particular outlet for petrol, currency or a Rovinieta, the Romanian vignette. In Romania, unlike most countries, vignettes apply to all roads, not just motorways. It's not applicable to bikes though, and I'd changed some cash just before we entered the country.

I'd first tried to get some Romanian Lei before leaving home, nipping round to the bureau in Wimbledon. They were able to fix me up with a fistful of Euros, Lira and Leva, but when it came to Romania they were pretty much out. All they could offer was 16 Lei, and though I'm no expert on exchange rates (it was £3.25) I had a gut feeling that wasn't going to buy me a pint, let alone see me through three days in the country. As it turned out, I was only half right.

It takes a while to get four bikes fuelled, so we usually pull over near the shop after filling up and have a quick tweet, coffee, pee, whatever's needed. While hanging around this time, a chap came over, looking inquisitive. My defences were back up and I was expecting hassle, but he was just a truck driver who'd spotted our UK plates and was wondering where we were from, where we were going, and just fancied a chat.

It was the same everywhere really, but it took several days for me to lose the paranoia and move straight to being open and friendly with people. I felt a bit guilty for thinking the worst of anyone who came near me, and I'd like to think that one thing I learned from this trip was to be more open with strangers - expect the worst and that's what you'll get. 

This chap specialised in transporting cable to car factories. Nissan, Toyota, Honda, Sunderland, Derby, and Swindon. He'd clearly seen Britain at its best! Just as we were about to head off, a kid appeared with vignette stickers under his tshirt, stuck to his torso. His trick was to go up to cars and offer to wash their windscreens, under the guise of which he'd have a good feel around and see if he could lift the vignette off the glass. He seemed a bit baffled when we said we wanted to keep our Austrian stickers, despite them being valid for another 7 days. I'm sure there's a Romanian word for souvenir, but none of us knew what it was.

After the border came the trucks. While Schengen means there were no border checks for people, there still seemed to be some checks for goods. Trucks were filtered off on approach to the border, but before that they were parked up by the side of the road for mile after mile after mile. With so many drivers hanging around, often far from home, services had sprung up along the road to see to their needs - mostly tyre repairs and hookers.

I've seen them in Spain and Italy, standing by the side of main roads looking for business, but I've never seen so many, working so overtly, as in Romania. At one roadside stop the next day, while Steve and Mark looked longingly at a flick-knife/knuckle-duster combo in a shop, I watched the scene at the other side of the road. A queue of trucks by the side of the road, and two hookers sitting having a smoke break. Meanwhile a couple of kids came over, chattering away, running their hands over our bikes looking for anything loose enough to steal. Cheeky little sods.

I am conqueror of all Romania - kneel before me

From the border we headed for somewhere to spend the night. Before we left I'd put a bunch of campsites in my satnav, so we'd never be more than an hour or two from somewhere to stay at the end of each day. It wasn't really worth camping at all, accommodation being pretty cheap in that part of Europe, but the lads were determined to use their tents and I couldn't be bothered to argue. Not until they started trying to camp in ditches, anyway. There was no way we were going to make it much past Arad before the end of the day, so the nearest one was Camping Route Roemenië, which didn't look like much from the website but it claimed the owner spoke English and that'd be handy if nothing else.

On the way there we had our proper introduction to Romanian roads. These tended to be pretty well surfaced for miles at a time, suddenly turn into rubble for a bit, and then go back to normal. The tricky bits were railway crossings. Anywhere else, they were laid so the top of the rail was level with the road surface. In Romania the rails stood proud, and had to be ridden over like metal kerbs. Not the most level of crossings. Roundabouts, surfaced with gravel and rubble, involved guessing at exits in the absence of any signs. I was glad I was on the big KTM - I'd bought it with a big trip in mind, and this was turning out to be it. The combination of big engine and long-travel suspension seemed to fit the bill perfectly.

We were all pretty tired by the time we turned off the main road to find the campsite. Tarmac became shale, shale became dirt, and there it was. As we pulled up, the owner appeared, gave us a smile, and told us to park up wherever we liked - it wasn't exactly rammed and there were plenty of spots to choose from.

Keeps the wind and rain out, but not the noise of dogs and roosters

Cornel, the owner, was a great host, and the campsite was far better than it looked from the photos on the web site. My new tent was up in no time, so I went to deal with the paperwork while the rest caught up. Four tents, four people, four bikes, and four bottles of beer, for €34. Bargain! Cornel asked if we'd eaten, and offered to sort us out a meal. The choice between some local grub or a boil-in-the-bag curry wasn't hard to make, so we sat down for some home-cooked goulash and a few more beers. As the food appeared, so did a bottle with no label.

Plums are rather plentiful in Romania, and the locals had a tendency to turn them into a substance called țuică - not that different to slivovitz, rakia or any other plum-based moonshine found around the Balkans. We were told of a limit to how much they're allowed to make, which obviously they ignore, and this batch, had been twice-distilled under the cover of smoke from a campfire while out fishing. With only a 90% chance of it making us go blind, we tucked in, and found it smooth but lethally strong - just what the doctor ordered.

Cornel left us with access to the beer fridge, payment via honesty-box, and we rounded off the night with deeply awful conversations before heading for our tents. Romania had a bit of a problem with stray dogs, and as I laid in my tent all I could hear was packs of dogs howling, hopefully from a distance. The beer, țuică and long day's ride meant before long I was off to sleep, waking occasionally to fight a battle of wills with my own bladder. Around 5am the dogs went to sleep, just in time for the roosters to start crowing, and wake the dogs back up. Ah, the countryside. So tranquil.

Day 4 began fairly early, as we needed to make up some time. I was aiming for us to at least make it over the top of the Transfăgărășan, the road proclaimed the best in the world by Top Gear a couple of years before. So we packed up quickly, waved Cornel goodbye, and hit the road towards Sibiu.

It must be a blood bank. Haha! Oh, please yourself.

At times it felt like somebody sold the country a job lot of 50 limit signs and they'd been planted around the country at random. The motorway hadn't yet been built, and towns and villages tend to stretch along the roads, almost blending together. This meant progress could feel slow even when the road surface was good. And it mostly was, at least on the main roads, with signs along the side of the road advertising the EU money that had been poured into the country. People in the UK often get the hump about foreign aid, but it's easy to be short-sighted. It's hard to complain about a few potholes after an English winter when you've spent whole days riding on roads that haven't been resurfaced since the Berlin wall came down, if they were ever sealed in the first place.

The trick, I realised, was to latch on to a local. When they sped up, we sped up. When they slowed down, we slowed down. We're told speed kills, but that's not the whole story. What kills is speed differential - if you're sticking to a limit, and everyone else is doing double, then at some point you're going to either be clipped by someone overtaking badly, or rear-ended by someone who misjudged the closing speed. Do what the locals do and everything'll be alright. So we did, and the ride got easier.

Now there's foreign

Somewhere along the road between Arad and Sibiu, I caught up with a truck. Looking at the back of the trailer, I couldn't see a reg plate. When I saw the country code, I realised why my brain hadn't spotted the plate: Arabic numerals. I felt further from home than ever - I'd come all this way from London, and the truck was from Tehran! Not something I'd have seen on a weekend ride around the home counties.

Nothing unusual about a hundred foot scimitar, nothing at all

One thing the old eastern bloc countries did well was mad stuff by the roadside. I'd seen a massive wooden eagle in a Czech field next to the motorway a few years before, but it was probably just an advert for beer. Romania moved things up a notch, with proper communist-era monuments. And tanks, which are hard to miss, though Mark, Simon and Steve managed it.

Makes a massive scimitar look a bit weedy really

As we rode through Romania, we passed through poorer, rural regions and towns which seemed better off.  In the villages there were very few local cars, most of the traffic was trucks passing through, and most people were travelling on foot, or the odd bicycle. In one village I saw an old woman pulling a gas bottle along on a metal cart. Kids appeared at petrol stations with empty drinks bottles to buy a litre or two of fuel. And people get wound up about foreign aid!

Around lunchtime, while filling the bikes, we stopped for lunch at a Turkish truck stop west of Sibiu. Looking at the menu, obviously in Romanian, we realised we had no idea what anything was, other than the meat being indicated by weight. The waitress helpfully leaned forward, pointed at the menu, and said something which clearly implied "you want this". Another lesson learnt - trust the restaurant staff, they probably know best.

Turn left for fun

By mid afternoon we were past Sibiu and mountains dominated the horizon. The Carpathians seemed to have just appeared from nowhere. One minute, grassy plains, the next, mountains, with no foothills. There are a few roads over the top, one of which is the Transalpina. That previously treacherous road had recently been upgraded to be an arterial route between Sibiu and Bucharest, which meant it was no fun for us. We were taking the other option, the Transfăgărășan, Ceaușescu's folly. A military road built over the mountains, it was a hundred miles of winding tarmac - part country road, part Alpine pass, part river valley - rising to over 2000m and with a surface that made me wonder just what the Top Gear guys were on when they declared it the best road in the world.

We stopped for fuel at the bottom, and while hanging around we saw something we hadn't really seen much since Austria: motorcycles. Four supermotos came roaring down the mountain road and pulled in to fill up. One was on the supermoto-equivalent of the bikes Mark and Steve wer riding, and seemed rather excited to see another pair of XT660s parked up. While he was having a good look at the bikes, two American muscle cars went past and turned up towards the mountain. We'd see them again later.

Riding up the north side of the Transfăgărășan

The mountain road started out as a dead straight line towards the foot of the mountains, and then started to wind sinuously upwards. The road had only been open a couple of weeks when we arrived, the previous winter having been longer and colder than usual. While landslips and potholes had mostly been dealt with on the north side, wherever there'd been any real damage, a rectangle of road surface had been cut away but not replaced. Riding safely was a matter of picking a path between the gravel-filled holes, often using the other side of the road.

Stopping for some sightseeing

As we gained altitude and broke out through the tree-line, we stopped by a monument to those who'd died building the road in the early 1970s. While parked up more bikes passed us in both directions - this was clearly a Romanian biking Mecca. From the monument we headed on up to the top of the pass. While the rest of the road clings to the side of a valley, winding with the rock and gradually climbing, the highest part looks like it's been nailed to a vertical cliff face. It was quite good fun to ride, but better to just look at as a feat of engineering. Really quite remarkable, if ludicrous.

Twisty bits

At the top, we stopped to look down at the classic Transfăgărășan vista, facing north over the valley. It was sunny but cold at 2000m, and there were still vast areas of snow beyond the souvenir stalls at the side of the road. Simon and I added to our fridge magnet collections, Steve went for a wander in the snow, and then it was time to make a move. Just before getting on the bike I noticed my headlight bulb had blown, which wasn't great considering the first thing we needed to do was ride through a half mile long tunnel. I had the spare with me so made a mental note to replace it when we stopped for the night.

Parked up at the top

The ride down the south side was no less spectacular than the ride up the north, with a near vertical drop down the rock face to the top of Bâlea lake. This is a glacial lake blocked at one end by an enormous dam, and the road skirts the eastern shore for mile after mile. We were below the tree line, and it was quite late in the day, so shadows made it hard to pick out the road surface at times. This wasn't great, as the surface deteriorated quickly, every corner covered in sand or gravel. But we were on the right bikes for the job, and before long Steve and I had caught up with the two muscle cars we'd seen earlier. They were stuck behind a maintenance truck, and the twisty nature of the road meant they were having trouble getting past, so I took the chance to show them why two wheels is better than four and shot past. They were having none of it, and from his position behind Steve had a great view of two horrible overtakes into blind corners as they hoofed it past the truck to catch up with me.

Riding down the south side of the Transfăgărășan

What followed was some extremely spirited riding, something I'd promised myself I wouldn't do because any crash could jeopardise the entire trip. That promise was less broken, more smashed into smithereens, as I hustled a somewhat overloaded KTM along the lakeside. Feet out round corners, in case the front started to slide, standing on the pegs while barrelling along a broken surface, eventually I saw them fade away in my mirrors and decided it was probably a good time to stop before my luck ran out. I spotted a lay-by with a metal picnic bench and thought that'd be a good place to stop, and made sure I had my helmet off and looked suitably settled by the time Steve caught up.

Steve had similar ideas, and quickly got his stove out in the hope that we could be sitting drinking coffee when Simon and Mark arrived. We didn't quite pull it off, but we did have a brew on by the time the two muscle cars pulled in. They were driven by two yanks, based in the UK, doing a tour of the best mountain passes in Europe, and they were beaming huge grins as they got out of the cars and shook our hands. A Camaro and a Mustang, with a 800bhp between them, they'd been left behind by a two-wheeled tractor that was handling like a drunk pig, and they were only too happy to have taken part in the fun.

When in Transylvania...

It was getting quite late in the day, so we made a move for the next campsite, which I'd picked for the name, if nothing else: Camping Dracula. We were still quite high up and there was a chill in the air, so I was pleased to see they had wooden huts. Face with the choice between £3 each to sleep in our tents, or £5 each to go halves on a chalet, it was a no-brainer. These were better than the one in Hungary, with comfier beds and a couple of power sockets for recharging.


Once we were unloaded, I got on with the most important thing: buying beer. Four large bottles from the restaurant bar cost the princely sum of 16 lei, exactly what I'd picked up in Wimbledon. Rather than not being enough to buy a single drink, it was enough to buy a whole round. Romania has cracking scenery and cheap booze. They should put that on a poster.

Maps plus beer = new friends and their illegal booze

Before we called it a night, I needed to fix my headlight and get some dinner. It'd been a long time since lunch, but the restaurant was absolutely crawling with kids and none of us really felt like dealing with the noise, so dinner was mostly liquid. While hanging around outside our huts we got chatting with some locals from the next one along. They were a couple from Bucharest, who spoke pretty good English, and his or her dad, who spoke some French. I've heard that, before the end of the Cold War, French was the default second language taught in Romania, after Ceaușescu fell out with Stalin. As we chatted about our trip, how lucky we were to be able to afford to do it, and how tough life could be in Romania, the younger chap produced a bottle which, while it did have a label, contained a familiar clear liquid which wasn't what the label said. Any chance of an early night vanished in an instant as Mark and I tucked into the țuică. I've no idea what time we called it a night, but we felt pretty rough in the morning.

The ride down from the mountains was a fairly dull one, as roads go, but it offered enough distractions. We passed through areas where scythes were still being used as agricultural tools, and horses and carts were still the primary means of getting around. Romania felt like the poorest country we saw on the trip, but it's somewhere I'd love to go back to, just to explore properly. We were only there two days and we hardly got a taste of the place, but what we did get was enough to make us want more. Friendly people, great scenery, and cheap as chips.

At Pitești we picked up the main transit route south, with a new EU-funded motorway to Bucharest, skirting the city on a local ring road, and then another new road to the border at Giurgiu. The contrast between roads funded by the EU those not was stark, and none more so than when we left the motorway north of the capital. The ring road was the worst we saw in Romania, remarkable considering how vital an artery it was for getting trucks past the city. The surface varied from reasonable, to poor, to appalling. Huge sections had been dug up, leaving nothing but rubble, which caused the trucks to slow to a crawl. At times we were all standing up, riding as if we were on dirt, as even the tarmac was rutted like dried mud. At one point I found myself in a rut and realised that the crap at the bottom was likely to give me a puncture, something I didn't have time to deal with, so tried to change line. Absolutely no chance - the rut was six inches deep, if not more, and I was stuck in it.

A pleasant spot for our last meal before Bulgaria

Eventually we got to the new road heading south, which was bizarre. A four lane dual carriageway running from Bucharest to Giurgiu, with a 90k limit most of its length but dropping to 20km/h at times for pedestrian crossings. Ever tried doing 12mph on a dual carriageway? Not great. But at least the surface was good, though sideways glances at junctions showed side roads rapidly turning into gravel or dirt.

We arrived at Giurgiu early enough to use the last of our Romanian cash to have a proper lunch on a hotel terrace. After that, it was time to visit Bulgaria.

Read on here.

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