I heart Romania … Part 1

Entering Romania at Bors was a totally unnerving experience … My experience at the boarder was not a pleasant one with a power altercation from a boarder guard who sneered and made jokes to his colleagues about tipping his coffee over my kit.  Cycling across the Bors area I didn’t take any picture because I was too scared to stop.   I felt like I was in a post apocalyptic nightmare where barrels of tyres are on fire, there are people running in a directions (reasons unknown) there is acrid smoke in the air, queues of trucks are all trying to leave the country, its hot and I am being confronted by barking, snarling dogs.

By the time I reach Oradea I was certain that Romania wqs terrifying and hat I wanted to get through it as quickly as possible.  I should know better by this point …I have consistently  been told through the trip so far that ‘over there’ is a dangerous place and that I should not be travelling there … let alone as a single solo femaile on a bicycle….

And so I stop briefly, oh the shame, at Mcdonalds and have a chocolate shake and try to reach some equilibrium through familiarity ….. the best decision I could have made.

I calmed myself, made a plan and looked to leave the city …. however just at the point of leaving I spot an interesting building covered in tarps and go to investigate.  This feels like it was a turning point in the trip for me, one of several which Romania dealt me kindly, calmly and with purpose and love.

I was totally amazed by the building in what I came to realise was part of the old town and as I walked though the streets towards Downtown Oradea I came across building after beautiful building … most of them in disrepair, rocking the shabby chic look which would, unless checked, kill them.  As I am pushing Tilly about and gazing about in awe I hear music from one of the buildings and go to investigate.  It is the performance school reversal and as I listen a group of women approach me and advise that there is a hostel near or that I should seek sanctuary at one of the churches since this is an old custom for travellers.

They point me in the direction of the nearest church and I head off, happy to have made contact with someone in the city.  As I push Tilly down the street to the church I pass a couple, arguing, in love and notice the great arty style she has … kind of 40s I think … And his height!.   I get to the church which is locked up … oh no I think! Im British and I have to pass the arguing couple again!!!!!!

Gilda and Dan turn out to be the most amazing people!!!!  Of course!!!  Gilda immediately stops me and questions what I am doing, discusses it with Dan and instructs him to walk me to the local sports institution hostel just round the corner. Dan speaks with the guy running the place, does some translations and we part company …

Only we don’t …. because 10minutes later Dan returns with a jar of zakouska from Gilda (homemade by family in the countryside) and an invitation to go out for pizza … Quick shower and change and 20minutes later the 3 of us are heading into Downtown Oradea and I am being shown these beautiful buildings in the dwindling evening light …. Which makes them even more romantic and stunning.

Dan and Gilda are the most lovely couple … Happy to discuss Romania and help me get more of an understanding of the country … impossible without that insider knowledge. Most importantly they both take my initial anxiety on the chin and remind me of common experience and humanity … We all shit, we all die! were I believe Gildas words! Great to be reminded!! I love her no messing, common sense approach to life ….. which included coming out for pizza in spite of being ill with a cold!

My initial feelings about Romania are obliterated by my time in Oradea and I am suddenly looking forward to my time in the country again. Gilda puts me in contact with different friends and I feel I have more stability here. We discuss my basic planes and Dan points out the bookshop he works in, where I can buy a map in the morning.

Happy, we part company back at the hostel and one of Tilly flowers goes to Gilda’s bike … The Prophet!!  I hope this purple bike is gliding around Oradea dreaming of far off lands ….

In the morning I see more of the city, buy a map and leave …. Following yet another river! But not for long as outside the city I turn into the countryside and start off on some of the smaller roads!!! What a joy to see such amazing countryside already!

As I pass a group of corrugated iron, cardboard, wood and string homes with brightly coloured washing hanging outside, I met the first of many Romanian dogs … This one snaps and snarled and barks at me and I completely forget the ‘stop and shout’ rule and my fast peddling feet further enrages the dog … But amazingly I move fastest and get away!!!!

After a time I sit outside a house in one of the villages and can hear the radio playing inside … It reminds me of radio 4 and could be the Romanian equivalent of The Archers … As I listen I watch a spider play with a leaf and I eat my lunch … Oh how I spend my time!!!

A few villages on and I am knocking on the house next to the church to see if I can stay there … Unfortunately the lady who lives there and I have a bit of a communication problem and she advises I go on a bit further to camp … So I do … Quite a bit further …

And find a totally idyllic spot in a valley by a small stream … The area is evidently used by people with herds of livestock or horses and there are fire pits by the stream and up near the road/track. The sun has gone behind the hills and so I put the tent up and get some sleep … I wake a couple of times when a car drives down the track but have no problems.

In the morning I wake to the sound of the stream and a cow bell clanging in the distance … I get up and see that the cow herd dog has been sent to investigate me .. He causes no issue and trots back to his owner who I see a short time later … I wave at her, she returns the greeting and carries on with the dog and cows.

Coffee, sunshine, sounds of water, beautiful grassy green valley … Heaven. One of my favourite camp spots so far!! I pack up and leave up the dirt track …. Only to misjudge a rut a few hundred yards from where I camped and receive my newest set of scars … Regular gouges from the chain set up the back of my right ankle!!! Amused and pained and calling myself ‘idiot’ I continue and find a couple of houses 30minutes on.

The house has a well of clean, cold water … Imagine … Sunshine, green hillsides, stone well, tin bucket and bright red beaker to drink from!! The woman is happy to chat to me in Romanian despite me not understanding or responding verbally!! She speaks louder in case that helps!!!!

Moving on again I pass a wooden church, take a wrong turn and go through village after village up and down beautiful hillsides …when you have no definitive destination every road is the right road!!! Meeting different people along the way all of whom smile and shake their heads at me!!! One family laugh good naturedly as they drive down a steep dirt track and I struggle up it. Eventually I  reach Zete Hotare and ask around about camping …I go to one farm for water … Ask about camping and within the hour am sitting in the kitchen eating pre dinner food!! Nico and her family are so amazingly welcoming … Aunt and Uncle come to see the tent and if I am really travelling by bike!!!

In the short time I was with Nico and her family I was able to bring the cows in, take them out, have a barbeque, learn some Romanian and hang out with 4 really friendly, helpful, kind, caring and fun young people and their family. Amazing and special times with wonderful people … I even had to pack the tent away again on the 1st night  as they wanted me to sleep in the house … I had one of the most relaxed, happy, contained nights sleep I can ever remember in that house. I woke to a feeling of blissful peace,  I feeling I can still summon up when needed.

Leaving was hard and my bags are heavier than ever with homemade bread, cheese and jam in the front panniers and a container of strawberries swinging off the back. The cycling downhill after the previous days uphill struggles was wonderful and the scenery incredible. The valley I cycled down into becomes rolling farmland … Transylvania is truly beautiful … Evidently very hard manual work since the majority of the work is done without machinery … Nico’s father uses plough and horse for the fields.

I reach a campsite where I end up spending a couple of days … And I get to hear some of the more recent history of Transylvania. This is a history I have no idea about … Where the region is given over by Hungary to Romania after WWI in spite of the Hungarian population which has to adapt overnight. There is a lot of strong feeling in the region that this area should have self governance as a result of its different cultural and ethnic identity from the rest of Romania. As ever I feel humbled by my lack of insight into this history and by the on going impact of British and Western Europe’s boundary drawing and decision making … I also get to see the beautiful kitchen gardens and lodges that go with the campsite.

After the couple of days rest I’m eager to get going again … And I have decided to visit the ice cave before heading to Alba Ilulia. For a change I have a plan and head for the pass I need to cross to get there … its a hard days riding to get up there.  Hot and sweaty I arrive at Vertop, have a coffee and ask about camping.  I’m initially told I can camp opposite the shop/pub but this is rapidly amended to camping in the pub garden. Its cold and beautiful up there and the following day the downhill through alpine meadow landscapes is awesome but can’t last indefinitely. I realise that the ice cave is about 20km up a road which has a 15% gradient. Its tough going and I cycle most of it … pushing Tilly is even harder work.

The ice cave is incredible …the moisture and rainfall collect and the low temperature creates or develops the stalagmites and stalactites each year … I have it totally to myself. Its eerie being inside the earth with this ancient ice and one of the stalagmites crashes down while I am there. The familiar feeling of being so small in this world returns. I leave just as a 30 strong tour group arrives. I feel privileged to have been there alone.

From there it was a couple of days crossing initially hilly becoming more plains like countryside to Alba Ilulia where I met Father Simeon, who was Romania’s climbing champion but changed tack and trained as an orthodox priest. He had passed me on the road earlier that day and told me I was making lots of work for God to keep me safe!!! He told me, nicely, that I needed to give God a break …. I said I thought I was good value for money/effort!!!!

In Alba Ilulia I meet Florynel, who cycles and who toured most of Europe last year, doing about 120km/day!!! Even discussing this made me feel tired … Florynel has tons of energy and whilst he still loves his bikes he no longer works for a bicycle company but is currently training in the army … Our meeting was for me quite hilarious be use he was so excited to see someone in Alba Ilulia cycle touring, he did a manor paparazzi job on me and was snapping away from the moment he saw me.   Initially annoyed about this I was quickly put at easy by his chat and being shown amazing photos from the trip!!! Go Florynel … Fly High!!!!!

Shortly after this I’m looking around for a place to stay and find myself at some student accommodation. The wonderful Alexandra assists me and we head off to see one place she knows … Turns out to be too expensive … So she makes a couple of calls and almost immediately I am taken in by a lovely couple of families, one of whom has a caravan in the garden. So I spend the night there listening to one of the children practicing her English … She is 4 and already has a great vocabulary. The family have relatives farming in the areas I have just cycled through and we discuss that with my limited Romanian and some German and English.  In the morning I am talking with the family in German and some small pieces of Romanian when I inadvertently touch upon the sadness I have that I am not a mother … The sadness is there in spite of the knowledge that I would potentially not be doing this if I was!! Talking with someone about quite a personal subject, in a language not my own, has a profound effect … Alongside the effect that cycling alone is having … And I am in tears in a strangers kitchen being given a big hug and additional tea. I think that having such kindness shown to me across Romania is breaking down some of my cynical wall … I am less worried by these emotions and allow them to come more easily.   By the time I leave the home I am a little bit emotionally raw and wobbly ….

So continuing on my way and using the back roads rather than the main road it was probably not the best day (there is never a best day!) to strive up a conversation with an elderly shepherd and his grandson, see them attempt to teach me to do the loud high pitched whistle and then get my arse groped by the 70 hear old as I take a photo of the 3 of us!!! I can laugh now but at the time this, in addition to the mornings emotions, really wobbled me further and I started berating myself for getting into the situation etc etc …. And as the day wears on I decide to head for a campsite I have seen the signs for and hole up in the tent for a day or so and hide from the world!!!! Yes I felt pretty sorry for myself …. No it didn’t last too long but the impact and learning did, and still does.

I set up camp in Saliste in the Transalpina area of Romania and am thinking I will cycle to Bran in a day or so. This unusual piece of forward planning was rapidly changed as a result of reading a tourist brochure on the campsite to me cycling over the Transfagarasian Highway … The pictures looked amazing and when I spoke to the owner of the site I was advised that the road should be open after the weekend. As a result of the height the Highway is often only open for 3 or 4 months of the year, due to visibility, snow and ice issues …. This weekend it remains shut as it is being used for a ‘drift’ rally!!!! It has become a bit of a focus for European drivers since it was featured in Top Gear and given such glowing references. So I have 3 days on the campsite in which recover my equilibrium and get ready for this challenge!!! Oh and visit the Roma horse and livestock market that happens 2 or 3 times a year in the town and is on whilst I am staying!!

The following morning I am woken early to the sounds of the market in full swing … People shouting, horses neighing, chickens and cows agitated and trucks spinning gravel. I hot foot it over there and remembering Christian’s (Brugge … Thank you friend!) rapid photography tutorial about markets, I find a mud bank to sit up on and watch from … Well initially it was impossible to watch much of what was happening as I was a accosted by a man trying to sell me the horse which pulled his cart. Different tactics tried with no success …. 10 children, cheap horse, his son telling me their sad story in broken English …. And I am finally left alone.   Being a woman alone with a camera I stand out too much and I can see people looking at me curiously but I sit still for long enough that the interest passes and watch the nightmare of people trying to get horses in and out of trucks and see one horse rear up and try and bolt away from the owner. My anxiety rises as I can see the owner losing community respect and his reaction is to hit the horse and try to get it back under control. Enough people assist and it goes into the truck.

The market is an amazing thing to see and I felt lucky to be there at the right time to see it … Likewise with the opening of the Highway … Right place right time? or just this place this time and any other place would have been just as right!! The quote I love is ‘if you don’t know where you are going … Any Road will get you there’ (Lewis Carroll). I have a destination of sorts … Varanasi, India but no fixed route and so any road is what I take and decisions are make spontaneously based on where I am at the time and who I am with. Father Simeon told me that this way of living … Following providence  …is a spiritual or Christian (for him) way of living … For me it just feels right to listen to the here and now and go with that …… I cannot see everything or do everything or travel every road so when I go left I see left when I go right I see right …. This just is!!!

In the midst of this fun I go to the local church to see the frescos and sit outside listening to what I think is a service. It is but not a mass. It is a funeral service and within minutes for being seen as the family leave the church, I am invited to the wake lunch. What would you do?! So I go along and some more of the service is sung before food, have amazing traditional soup and vegetables and then am given a sweet loaf, in memory of the families father, to take home and to have with coffee later in the day. I really liked this idea, giving a present from the deceased to the living so they can meet in joyful act … Eating cake and drinking coffee …. So back at the site I raise my mug to the man I never met and his amazing family who showed such kindness and even wanted me to come and stay, at a difficult time.

I spend the next couple of days with the luxury of security, running water and nearby grocers and bakery. I meet a lovely Dutch couple who I chat with about the trip and who are very positive and supportive. Unfortunately when they leave 2 new caravans arrive, German couples, and when they hear what I am doing I am told it is impossible and that I am stupid and will ‘make my mother cry’. I politely didn’t tell her I already had . All this in German … I should have played the ‘sorry I only speak English’ card. What equilibrium I have achieved diminished and I felt uncertain about the forthcoming challenges so leave for Sibiu with a heavier heart.

Lucky for me then I meet Sarah and Tjell in Sibiu. They are a German and Dutch couple who are also cycle touring and are very cool!!! We hang out together for the afternoon, watching some street theatre, eating ice cream and whilst picnicking I have 50lei thrust into my hand. I jump up concerned that the woman thinks we are begging but she shouts ‘bisiklette, bisiklette’ and apparently is just please to see me touring!! I leave Sibiu late and end up cycling a main road in the dark … Not my best move and I hate the speed of the trucks in the dark so I find a field and pitch up for the night, just in time to see a shooting star and watch distant lightening threatening to come closer. Tomorrow the Transfagarasian Highway!!!!

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