Touring Transylvania via BMW F 650 GS
Transylvania’s touring charms include amazing scenery, ancient architecture, crumbling soviet-era infrastructure and great food; oh, yeah, there are also some great riding roads and driving a stake through the undead to make them dead, too.
The first order of business when planning the tour was convincing my wife Kerrie that Transylvania is not a fictional place. In reality, Transylvania is a region of northern Romania. Once I told her we would be staying in Count Dracula’s castle for a night, she became a definite starter. She has watched too many Twilight movies, I think.
Organizing it with Transylvania Live, based in Turda, was easy via e-mail. My good mate Glen invited himself and his wife Sue along for the journey. They headed off two weeks before us for a bit of a European holiday and we met in Munich the day before our Transylvanian tour.
Tour guide Alin Todea was there to greet us when we arrived in Cluj-Napoca in Romania, right in the heartland of Transylvania. We met the other member of the tour, Geoff Thomas, a freelance writer, so it was to be six people on four bikes, including Alin. He told us he likes to keep the groups small so they are easy to guide. However, he has catered to much larger groups.
Traveling in the backup van from the airport into Cluj-Napoca was an experience. I had never been to an Eastern European country before, and you can still see Stalinist Architecture – row after row of identical concrete housing blocks. I also noticed the difference in wealth; Audis and flash BMWs share road space with Dacias and old Renaults.
Much of the housing and infrastructure is in a very rundown state, sort of like your next-door neighbor who has unfinished projects on his house for the last 20 years. We were to find out later that homeowners don’t pay tax for their house if it’s incomplete, so houses tend to stay that way for many years, if not forever.
We arrived at a house in the city where Alin informed me one of us would have to ride the BMW F 650 GS to our first overnight stay at Turda, some 20 miles away. Negotiating with drivers who don’t worry about lanes was another first-experience.
At Turda, we checked into a nice hotel and shortly after Alin took us on a quick ride to the massive Turda Gorge on the outskirts of town. This was an eye opener and a taste of roads outside of the major city. The gorge was a special visual treat, even though we had to deal with pouring rain and falling hail.
To cap off Day One we had a great meal supplied by Transylvania Live, met the rest of the crew for the first time, and were treated to a traditional ceremony where the undead are made dead by driving a stake through the heart. Don’t worry‚ vampires were killed during the ceremony.
I was excited to learn more of the Romanian culture and fellow riders and hosts. Over a few beers and Vampire Punch I learned that Geoff basically sold everything he owned, bought a Triumph Tiger, and did the Long Way Round trip, inspired by well known travelers Ted Simon, Charley Boorman, and Ewan McGregor.
We left our hotel at Turda, and visited an old salt mine that has been turned into a tourist attraction, complete with a number of amazing structures that look like alien spaceships. You really notice the different levels of occupational health and safety with dodgy steps and so on, through the salt mine. This is part of the beauty of Transylvania. It is one or two steps behind more developed countries and takes you back to a time when things were simpler and people took responsibility for their own actions.
From there we traveled towards the city of Medias via Ludus and Iernut, stopping to visit a World War II memorial. In Medias we met Emil Muresan, an 80-year-old former engineer turned artist/sculptor who showed us his works.
Muresan is an amazing man and has many ideas of future technology. He was keenly interested in our culture, as well as our perception of Romania.
A famous artist in Romania, and especially his own city, he took us to a fortified church, where in medieval times the occupants holed up if they were attacked. It’s hard not to find the history overwhelming.
We were hit by another torrential storm in Medias, and enjoyed a traditional meal in a restaurant while we waited out the weather.
From there we continued on to the medieval city of Sibiu, which has homes dating back to the 13th century. We arrived there in the evening while it was still light; it doesn’t get dark until 9 p.m. or thereabouts in summer.
Sibiu is known as the City of Culture and it is not hard to see why. Sibiu is beautiful and, being a Saturday evening, it was packed with people enjoying the town square.
Later, we also visited a monument that had been the pride of place in the town square until 1945 when the Communists were going to destroy it. Overnight the Saxons (what Romanians call people of German extraction) moved the three stories high statue through some small doorways and into a square in the middle of a block of apartments.
Fifty-five years later no one definitely knows how it was done, and not many people even know of the statue’s location as it sits on private property. Having a guide with detailed local knowledge is a major bonus on a trip like this.
It was hard to leave the historic Sibiu, yet we put on our waterproofs and headed out into the darkness towards Sibiel, about 30 minutes ride away. I thought we were heading into the unknown when we came upon the fantastic Sibiel Hotel at the end of a stone road. It has rooms that are like a scene out of Hansel and Gretel. We enjoyed some local beer and wonderful food.
This was the day we experienced the Transfagarasan, a highway made famous by the British Top Gear episode that featured the three presenters driving exotic sports cars through Transylvania and along the Transfagarasan.
The road was built back in the early 1970s by the Romanian Army as a way of getting troops and machinery across the Southern Carpathian mountain range. It was feared Russia would invade Romania as it had done Czechoslovakia, and the notorious President Nicolae Ceauscu had the road built. Hundreds of troops were killed during construction of the road and it stands as a permanent monument to them.
Because of Top Gear, you will find many Romanian families and tourists trying out the highway as a Sunday drive, heading up to the highest point at the top of the snow covered mountain. The view is breathtaking, the road itself is a rider’s paradise, and although the surface is a little rough in spots, it is okay where it matters. Being aboard a BMW R 1200 GS didn’t hurt.
On the way up I must have been shaking my head, as my wife asked me if I was disappointed. It was the complete opposite; I was amazed.
A coffee at the summit topped off a great ride. The girls then went in the car with Alin’s lovely wife Hertha, and the boys got to play racer on the way back down.
Reunited at the bottom, we headed to Brasov, another city steeped in history. A lovely evening in the medieval town square with more local food and beverages topped off this incredible day. At this stage we were all loving Romania.
We said goodbye to Alin and Hertha and said hello to two new tour guides‚ Bogdan and Daniel. Bogdan kicked us off with a walking tour of Brasov, his hometown. His knowledge of Brasov is extensive and the tour was an insight into the history of the city and, indeed, Romania.
Bogdan is a solicitor, a history buff, and motorcycle enthusiast. He also acts as a guide in a part-time gig. Maybe solicitors in Romania don’t charge like the ones back home.
We headed to a health and ski resort on the mountaintop just outside of town. After that it was through a great winding forest road to Bran Castle. This is generally associated with the Count Dracula story, but in reality has nothing to do with it.
The only link with the Dracula myth is Vlad the Impaler. Apparently, Vlad stopped two or three nights in this castle a number of centuries ago, and Bram Stoker did the rest. In the castle you get a full rundown of its history, including the fact that it is falsely associated with dear old Vlad. That doesn’t stop souvenir shops selling everything to do with the fanged one, however.
Last stop for the day was the walled citadel of Sighisoara, where we stayed in a delightful hotel that is hundreds of years old.
We began the day with a walk around the town, the only inhabited citadel in Romania. Included in this was a tour of a church that sits high up on the hill. When the church guide found out where we were from he said, “Gidday Mate!”
We hotfooted it to Bistrta for lunch, checked out the town by foot, and then rode to a mountain resort some 30 miles outside the city. Our hotel had a Count Dracula theme, including a basement show where we all got a fright when someone jumped out of the coffin during the show. It was pretty cold up in the mountains, though the night was enjoyable, telling tales and singing songs with our guides.
One thing you find is that 60 miles takes much longer to travel than it does back at home in Australia. Instead of towns being separated by open roads as they are in Australia, one town tends to continue into the next. It’s not all like this, but it is hard to keep the speeds up at times.
We woke to rain, which continued for the whole day. Even though my crotch quickly got soaked despite my good rain gear, this was one of the best days of the trip for me.
Checking out of the Vampire hotel, we headed to the region of Maramures. Along the way we visited an old enclosed wooden bridge in a small village, the only remaining one in Romania. While we were taking a few photos, a local man greeted us; the next thing you know we were invited into a lady’s home.
We drank Palinca a twice-fermented plum brandy that tastes pretty wild, ate, and had a great laugh with them, even though most of our group didn’t understand a thing they were saying. The old bloke even gave our two ladies a touch up on the way in for good measure.
After that we had a peasant lunch in a little cafe on top of the mountain that was opened just for us. It was a simple meal, and tasted great.
Just down the road, we visited a well-known wood carver and his parents who treated us with so much respect it was astonishing. He gave us the meaning and history behind some of his carvings, and why they were made a certain way. Although these people live very simply and would be regarded as poor by many westerners, they are rightly very proud of their culture and position in life. How can you argue with that?
After some more Palinca, we braved the weather and continued to our overnight stay. This region is close to the Ukrainian border and is renowned for its woodcarving. Our hotel, which was next to a monastery, displayed much of this, including an ornate staircase that was exquisite.
The reason this was such a great day was the people we met who opened their hearts and homes to us. This was very special to me and shows that we can all be friends, no matter where we are. The local people are interested in us as much as we are in them.
The last day is the longest in mileage, though we are getting used to the Romanian swing of things on the road and knock over the distances quicker than before.
During a U-turn I fail to give the big GS enough revs, the engine stalls; the bike is quickly going over. To have this happen in the middle of a Romanian road isn’t the best thing, so I try my hardest to keep it upright. On top of that, the horn is jammed against the tank bag and lets everyone know I am in a spot of bother.
I’m fighting a losing battle, and then all of a sudden the bike gets lighter and I get it back up – Kerrie has fallen off and Geoff is lifting the bike.
We stopped for a traditional lunch in Baia Mare, and then check out the Merry Cemetery, a colorful place where each gravestone tells the story in first person of the deceased. It is all about celebrating the person’s life, though the story of one little girl who died after being hit by a car had me in a somber mood for a while.
Bogdan says we need to make up time, and a slightly frantic horn-honking ride through the heart of Sighetu Marmatiei leaves us laughing. We take a detour due to flooding, find a bumpy and almost deserted road, and enjoy a spirited ride. We’re told it is a poor area, and people either stop and stare or wave to us.
We finally arrive at Cluj-Napoca to drop our kit off, and then continue back to our starting point in Turda. A farewell dinner was supplied by the local town council to promote tourism.
Each day was around 125 miles. With the walking tours, and the generally slow pace of Romanian traffic, it will take you most of the day to get to your destination. Those who rode the BMW F 650 GS were fine two-up, though I was glad to be on the 1200 GS. These types of bikes are perfect for negotiating the mostly poorly maintained roads.
You can do the full tour like we did, or you can rent a bike from Transylvania Live and use their written guide and tips of where to go for the best local experience.
It was sad to say goodbye to the Transylvania Live crew. We were treated with great respect and they went out of their way to ensure we had a special time. The trip was exotic, humorous, sobering, wild, breathtaking, and visually spectacular.
I found the culture and the Romanian way of life a special part of the trip, as it is a country of contrasts. To say this is one of the greatest things I have done on a motorcycle is a major understatement.
Story from previous issue of Ultimate MotorCycling…to view the digital edition, click here.