Category Archives: Paris-Romania 2010: 9 Gyula to Sibiu

Sibiu, Manchester and Ripon

Well, as you can see, I’m afraid the adventure has come to a premature end. Sometime late on Saturday night in Sibiu we did a serious reassessment of the route ahead – in the light of our experiences of the previous few days – and decided that cycling across Romania is either too slow and difficult on heavy touring bikes (the dirt roads) or too traumatic and pretty nearly suicidal (the main highways). There is nothing in between. We have been beaten by Romanian roads – or, more precisely, by the lack of accurate maps showing the true state of Romanian roads.

We always knew that there are lots of dirt roads in Romania, and that we would have to ride some of them. But Romanian road atlases (and Google maps) show the usual range of roads – red or brown for big highways – yellow for larger country roads – white for small country roads or lanes – and a thin single line for very minor routes. In Romania the latter were clearly going to be dirt roads, and probably most of the white roads as well. So I planned our route mostly on yellow roads with, inevitably, some short linking sections on main roads or dirt tracks. You’ve guessed it. The yellow roads turned out to be mostly dirt tracks as well – and tiny ones at that. The road to Mag (a beautiful yellow road with a number on the map) was no more than a scrape in the grass at the crucial turning that we missed. The yellow road over the mountains from Brad was a tiny, stony track that would have been impassable for ordinary cars. With mountain bikes the dirt roads are rideable – and would be good – but we could only manage 5 or 6 mph with all our baggage, even downhill, and we were being shaken to bits. It just wasn’t practical to ride them all day over the mileages we had planned.

The second concern was the danger of the highways. We knew we would have to ride sections of them approaching Bucharest, and the day from Bucharest to Ruse in Bulgaria was planned as 40 miles of highway because of the lack of good alternatives (the only such planned day on the entire trip). But after the trauma of the previous few days we didn’t want to ride any of them – at all – ever again. I can still hear the rumble of lorry tyres fast approaching behind me on the bumpy paint strip at the side of the road – the same strip that I was riding 12 inches to the right of – and then being surprised to be still alive as he moved out just enough to thunder past me about 4 feet from my left shoulder.

We considered how to get across Romania by train or bus – but neither was very practical. All the locals warned us against Romanian trains – slow, filthy and unreliable. And they don’t take bikes except in boxes. Buses are also difficult with bikes. But when riding into Sibiu we had heard the rumble of a passenger jet overhead, and noticed the airport. It turns out that Sibiu now has an international airport – it has been upgraded very recently. So we weighed up all the options and, reluctantly, we decided to fly home. I should say that we are both as fit and well as we have ever been and have no doubt that, physically, we would have made it – had there been suitable roads to do it on. And we were still enjoying the trip (except for the roads – see above!). So I have to accept that, in my desire to see the Carpathians, I chose the wrong route. Sticking closer to the Danube would have been safer, but nowhere near as interesting. You win some and you lose some!

On Sunday morning we booked ourselves a flight home on the Tuesday, via Munich. But Lufthansa said that, whilst they normally carried bikes, unboxed, for a fee – they couldn’t take ours on this flight because the plane was already on its weight limit. Suffice to say that we were very unhappy about the prospect of leaving our bikes behind. We decided to try and box them up so that we could send them home by courier. And so we spent Monday tramping round Sibiu looking for a bicycle shop that might give/sell us empty cardboard boxes. We came across a wonderful shop called ‘Explorer Sport’. It was an all round outdoor shop, with a good bike section. And bicycle mechanics, as well as being the coolest guys on the planet, are also the salt of the earth. Having heard our story they moved heaven and earth to get 2 boxes to the shop, and our newest friend, Alex, even boxed them up for us and refused to take any payment. “I no want pay – this I do for you”. Though he did accept a beer! Thanks a million Alex.

Alex with 2 grateful customers
Alex with 2 grateful customers

With the bikes boxed we decided to try to get them on the plane – falling back to the courier plan if unsuccessful. And, would you believe it, there was no further mention of weight limits. Lufthansa charged us for them, and off we flew.

We have had a wonderful trip. Spending such a long time together has been absolutely brilliant, and the slow, daily rhythms of cycle travelling have been so relaxing. I am not sure that I want to go back to a faster pace. Of course, there are some regrets about not finishing what we set out to do, and about not seeing Istanbul. But we are happy that we made the right decision in the circumstances. We are already plotting what to do with the time that remains before we must return to work!

Helen’s tracks of recent days:

Monday has to be Shania Twain, I feel like a woman, as a memory will stay with me of Alex singing this in his heavily accented English whilst he worked miracles on our bikes to get them boxed up.

Tuesday has to be Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Spread Your Love as this turns out to be the most played track on my playlist so is part of my internal soundtrack for this trip. Just goes to show that rock is best, or something.

And finally, as we prepare to get home to Yorkshire today, the last track of the trip,
Midlake, Head Home.

Town walls at Sibiu
Town walls at Sibiu
Sibiu pottery market
Sibiu pottery market

Sebes to Sibiu

I’m not sure what to say about today – except that it was the strangest, and one of the hardest yet.

We had not intended to start the day in Sebes, so there was some rethinking of route to be done. The direct route was 32 miles straight down the D1 – yesterday’s nightmare road. From about halfway, at Miercurea, there was the possibility of a parallel route on small roads. Alternatively there was a 52 mile route up and over numerous ridges on higher ground, giving 2500 feet of climbing. And the sting in the tail was that an unknown percentage of all the small routes would be dirt track – which made the 52 mile route seem very daunting.

The Sebes hotel was magnificent – a beautiful place with really helpful staff. They recommended the bus! We even went to the bus station with the thought of taking the bus to Miercurea and cycling the parallel route from there. But somehow we never quite got on the bus. We had noticed that the traffic volumes were well down on the previous day, and the logistics of (crowded) bus travel with bikes just seemed too much. Just get on and pedal. So we did! Back on the main road.

Well, we were right about the traffic – there was less of it. But after a shortish distance the reasonable run off on the right of the road that had been just about ok the day before, suddenly narrowed. This was now very dangerous indeed. Lorrys were passing us within feet at 60mph and we felt very vulnerable. Just then the bus that we could have caught came past us. I have to say that this was something of a low point! But we made it the 15 miles to Miercurea in one piece – vowing, never again.

The change to a quiet, tarmac road was instant and wonderful.

Helen looking happy to have left the D1
Helen looking happy to have left the D1

But it didn’t last 5 minutes. After coffee in a tiny bar (where we met a lovely German man who was helpful and impressed!) we were straight onto the dirt road. Just doing 5 mph was difficult because of the bumps. But at least there were only 20 miles to go!

The villages here were, again, in another age. It was like being back in Nepal.

The main street in Amnas
The main street in Amnas

Leaving Amnas the dirt road went steeply uphill and we climbed our first series of graded hairpin bends since Switzerland. But apart from the gradient and the hairpins they had little in common! I was beginning to have fantasies about nice smooth asphalt, white lines, crash barriers and, above all, chalets for buying coffee and cakes all the way up! We stopped for lunch on grassland at the top – with expansive views of the distant, clouded, Carpathians – but with grey leaden skies that made photographs impossible.

We followed the broad dirt track downhill. It wasn’t going in quite the right direction, but we couldn’t see any realistic alternatives on the ground so we had to keep going. Unfortunately, after 20 minutes we were back to the D1 again. This time I managed to navigate an alternative route on the south side of the road, but there was no avoiding a final 4km stretch of the D1 before we could get off it again just before Sibiu.

On this section the run off strip had been widened so as to allow horses and carts to use it! But there weren’t any – so that the cars and lorrys were treating it as a narrow, additional lane – turning the road into a 4 lane highway with no central crash barriers and no hard shoulder! Madness.

We retreated to a roadside garage for a think. We got a helpful bloke to ring taxi companies in Sibiu – but noone had a vehicle big enough. We had a coffee and thought some more. I talked to a mechanic who assured me that the problem section was just the 500m or so that we could see, and that after that it was better. He couldn’t see what the problem was. So we cycled in gaps in the traffic, pushed along the grass verge at other times, and made it to the safer section. As I climbed the final hill behind Helen I noticed that she had a slow, rear flat. But I didn’t say anything and we reached the turn off safely. From there we limped into Sibiu, physically very tired – but more mentally exhausted!

First impressions of Sibiu were dire! The outskirts were the most filthy and dilapidated we have seen and our small pension is on a grubby backstreet. But the room is ok (in a brown, 1970s kind of way) and this evening we have been into the centre of town for a meal. The main squares are actually very grand – at last, a medieval town centre that is original and unbombed. It was smartened up for the Year of Culture in 2007 (as we had been led to believe) and we found good food in a pleasant restaurant. So we are finally looking forward to our day off tomorrow – having covered about 200 miles of the most difficult ground so far in just 4 days.

Brad to Sebes

This was a day of two halves (as they say) – and something of an epic. We started on a cart track across the mountains and ended by cycling on one of Romania’s busiest roads. (And no – we didn’t accidentally retrace our steps to the night before – that was Sebis, this is Sebes – do keep up!)

It started well enough – a misty autumnal morning hinting at good weather later in the day. And a decent tarred road leading up into the mountains.

The road into the mountains
The road into the mountains

We even managed to buy coca cola at a tiny village shop. But at that point, after 10 miles, the tarred surface ended and we were onto the rough stuff. In planning the trip there was no way of telling which minor roads are tarred and which aren’t. The local map I bought in Gyula indicated just a 5 km section of our was untarred – so this lack of tarmac was far earlier than expected. Oh well, grin and bear it!

Helen, not exactly grinning, but bearing it
Helen, not exactly grinning, but bearing it

The dirt track was very muddy and only just passable by bike. It was also climbing towards the first of 3 passes for the day, each one higher than the one before. After about 5 miles offroad we reached the top of the first pass.

On the climb to the first pass
On the climb to the first pass

But the descent was extremely rough – hard on the bikes and on our hands gripping the brakes. You could not have driven an ordinary car over this. As we descended we began to reach villages that were almost cut off from the rest of the world, though they had electricity. They all grew their own food and kept their own pigs and hens. Helen’s ultrasonic dog scarer finally proved its worth in silencing a dog that had chased me and was about to chase her!

Poienita village
Poienita village

From here the dirt track improved a little – for the first time there were signs of cars having actually been driven over it, flattening it down a bit.

Leaving Poienita on an  improving dirt track
Leaving Poienita on an
improving dirt track

But don’t get carried away with the idea that everyone was driving up to the village in their old Dacias. (Ok, some were).

TTravelling up to Poienita by oxcart
Travelling up to Poienita by oxcart

Shortly after this we reached tarmac again. We had covered 10 miles in 2 hours – similar to travelling from Pateley to Grassington over Greenhough on a terrible cart track. And there were 2 more passes to come, with a strong likelihood that the tarmac would end again as we headed up valley towards them! It was time for plan B. We turned the other way and descended the valley on the tarmac.

Downhill on the tarmac. Heaven!
Downhill on the tarmac. Heaven!
Haystacks in the valley
Haystacks in the valley

Even this wasn’t entirely plain sailing – because the valley kept narrowing into gorges too narrow for the road – leading to climbs to avoid them. But we began to get our first views of the Carpathians to the south. Stunning, but too far off to photograph.

Reaching the top of a pleasant climb whilst heading down valley!
Reaching the top of a pleasant climb whilst heading down valley!

We eventually reached then end of the valley. But there had been a good reason why this route was not plan A. Namely that we had now arrived at the major east-west transport corridor north of the Carpathians. There was really no alternative but to get our heads down and head east for 20 miles along the E68. There was just enough of a run off beside the road to make this slightly less than suicidal – but it was a very scary experience that we shall not rush to repeat. Because of the change of route we ended the day at Sebes, rather than Alba Iulia, but we have checked into the best hotel in town – a superb 3 star affair. Just as well, because this town is completely blighted by the gridlocked traffic from the E68 – there is no bypass. We are now working on an onward route that does not involve the E68!

Sebis to Brad

This has been a very different kind of day – one that we haven’t had since the Black Forest in Germany. We have had forested mountains to look at all day long. It’s been great!
It had been pouring with rain all night, but the forecast for the next couple of days didn’t look too bad, so we set off under heavy cloud, but in the dry.

Leaving our hotel in Sebis
Leaving our hotel in Sebis

After about 20 miles the valley narrowed right down and we were in a wooded ravine. In fact the river then entered a narrow gorge and the road was forced to find another route. As a result we went up and out of a side valley, thus climbing our first real pass for 1000 miles or so. Here is the view from the top.

 

Top of the first climb for 1000 miles
Top of the first climb for 1000 miles

I must say that we both welcomed the idea of having to climb hills again – though the motorists all seemed amazed. We were hooted at, waved at, and applauded! Lunch had a view (for the first time for weeks).

Lunch with a view
Lunch with a view

We were still on what is marked on the map as being one of Romania’s top class European roads (the E79, no less) but there was only light traffic. The surface was like a bad English country road. Two of the distinctive sights are the hay ricks in the fields and the copper or silver spired churches. I managed to get both in one photo.

Sights of Romania
Sights of Romania

We are now feeling brave enough to try just about any roadside shop or bar in search of sustenance. Some are well hidden and you have to get an eye for them! Today’s highlight was a morning coffee stop in what could have been a cow barn, (concrete floor, rough ceiling, breeze block walls) but was serving beer. Unfortunately we asked for coffee instead and I think the woman paniced! We got some sort of gooey sugary material floating on the top in what we took to be an attempt at a Cappuchino. It was still a good rest, and we got to watch the 3 locals playing pool.

The last few miles were flatter and included a wait at a level crossing for the arrival of the train. This seemed highly unlikely, as we had crossed the track several times before and it was overgrown and did not look used at all.

Give way to trains
Give way to trains

Brad is the largest town for some time and we have found quite a nice pensuina – with wifi. Time to recover and prepare for tomorrow – when we head up and over the mountains on very small roads. I expect it to be hard going, but we should see some of the remotest villages in the process.

Helen’s track of the day: Christy Moore, The Reel in the Flickering Light because this is my favourite of his songs and there is nothing like a bit of Oirish whimsy to keep your spirits up when you are a long way from home.

Gyula to Sebis

We left the posh hotel in Gyula with some trepidation – an set off towards the Romanian border. The good news was that, although the air had a distinctly cold and autumnal nip to it, there was some blue sky around and a brisk westerly wind mainly on our backs. This was our first proper, passport-inspected, border crossing since leaving St Pancras, and it was all taken very seriously.

Romania was different straight way. There were people, bikes, handcarts moving along the main road. There were stacks of hay in fields, and pigs and chickens loose beside the road. People called out to us and waved. But the main road was newly surfaced and in excellent shape. One major advantage is that the language is so much more intelligible – a lot of latin roots for words. We can read or guess at most of the signs, which is a relief after the incomprehensible Hungarian we have been coping with.

I had been concerned about choosing a route with the right balance between main roads with decent surfaces but possibly too much fast and heavy traffic, and small roads with impossible surfaces. But for the first 15 miles there was no alternative to the main DN79A road. I had studied the arial photos on Google maps – counting the cars and lorrys on a measured distance and comparing it with the arial photos of UK roads whose traffic densities I knew – in order to try to work out how busy it was going to be. My research had suggested it would be ok (provided the photos weren’t taken on a Sunday afternoon!) – but I was much relieved when the traffic proved to be fairly light. For much of the time we rode side by side, just pulling in to let lorrys and cars pass as needed.

The first town, Chisneu-Cris, saw us drawing Romanian Lei from an ATM, buying food and trying out our first Romanian cafe. Once they had got over the shock of our arrival, people were friendly enough – and the coffee was very welcome. By now it was threatening to rain – and still cold. As we shivered over lunch, at 100m altitude, and looked at the distant, cloud-covered hills, we couldn’t help but wonder what things are like at 2000m at the top of the Carpathians. Having been complaining of the heat only just over a week ago, it now feels as though winter is arriving early. Let’s hope the mountain road is still passable!

Another luxury lunch stop
Another luxury lunch stop

We ploughed on and, at the village of Bocsig, a funny thing happened. The road crossed a final irrigation ditch and went up a short bank – and we suddenly realised that we were on gently rolling ground. After almost 200 miles cycling from Budapest we had finally crossed the Great Plain. Now the hills were closing in a little as we began to head up the valley of the river Crisul Alb. It started to rain. We had made very fast time (for us) all day – thanks to the tailwind – but we had lost an hour on entering Romania (we are now 2 hours ahead of you on BST). So we rolled into our intended destination, Sebis, after 54 miles at 3.30 pm and were lucky enough to find an English speaker who was able to direct us to the only hotel. We are right off the tourist track here – there are no sign boards in town, no information of any kind. The hotel does not even have a sign out and we would not have realised it was a hotel without help. It is very basic, as you would expect, but clean and welcoming enough. Time to recharge the batteries before heading on up the valley tomorrow.

Helen’s track of the day: Simon and Garfunkel, Kathy’s Song, just because of mention of drizzle and rain and there was quite a lot today.