Off Roading: Transylvania
Exploring Transylvania is like taking a journey back in time. Ancient castles and fortified churches, cobbled streets and vibrant markets, quaint villages and hauntingly beautiful landscapes make it a truly unique destination. From lush forests to the snow-capped Carpathian Mountains, Transylvania has something to offer everyone. This region is full of rich culture and colourful history, and exploring by bike is truly the best way to see this amazing landscape. In the hazy days of August, we sent Max & Simon to go check out this gravel nirvana.
We departed London on a grey Tuesday morning in the UK, apprehensive with what to expect in a relatively unknown cycling destination. We began our trip in the city of Cluj-Napoca and after meeting our host Ionut, we transferred to Cund, a small village which is home to a number of guesthouses and we felt we had truly arrived in the Romanian countryside. After building up our bikes, and after a delicious meal at sunset we looked towards the days ahead, 4 days riding with 440 km and 6800m of climbing. A slightly daunting prospect, especially considering I had traded my bike for dancing shoes the weekend previous at a local festival.
Stage One: Cund to Viscri
Day one was upon us and we were heading for the mediaeval town of Viscri known for its fortified church, traditional Romanian architecture and the holiday home of the now King Charles. The route took us through rolling hills, farmland and lush forests.
There was a bit of everything, we started out on some wide gravel tracks (after we had navigated through the sheep migration), a bit of road and then started on what Ionut had described as a long section of single track. Personally as a gravel cyclist, whenever someone mentions a section of singletrack it throws my mind back to being chucked down a ‘gravel’ descent in the peak district.
Fortunately Ionut pulled through and it seemed like this 40km section of singletrack had been made specifically for gravel cyclists, fast, flowing and some of the most fun I’d ever had on a bike.
The day finished with meeting the local mayor of Viscri to discuss cycling in the region, this wasn’t before we got our first taste of local schnapps. I made the mistake of assuming it was a drink to ‘noroc’* and drink in one, but oh boy was I wrong!
After a truly throat burning experience I was just glad to keep it down. We were then served some traditional Romanian food and some much more pleasant homemade wine.
*Cheers in Romanian
Stage Two: Viscri to Talisoara
The next day started with a little bit of regret about that last glass of wine, but we had another great day of riding ahead of us and it was soon forgotten. We would be taking in a lot of historical sights today; middle age fortresses, the oldest oak tree in the Carpathians and an ancient inactive Volcano.
The ride started uphill and we were soon rewarded with some stunning views of the countryside, one feature of the local countryside are dogs. Local farmers usually have a group of dogs protecting their cattle from the few bears which inhabit Romania, the dogs are pretty much harmless but they do like to bark. We found the best way to deal with them was to hop off your bike and walk past, it was a slight pain but something you quickly get used to.
Lunch today was at a traditional Romanian restaurant and we both had Borsch, a typical thick Romanian sour soup. The rest of our ride was along the banks of the river, gently rolling and on some smooth gravel. We arrived at our hotel to the fantastic news that there was a free spa, bliss.
Stage Three: Talisoara to Stejarisu
A bigger day on the bike was waiting for us on day 3 with over 100km of riding.
The day started on perfect gravel tracks (one of the reasons you should get to Romania ASAP is that these tracks are slowly turning into roads, Romania has one of the lowest percentage of paved roads in Europe and as they look to change this their perfect gravel tracks are slowly disappearing). As we were on a tight schedule today, no local lunch but a classic side of the road corner shop experience, we had kilometres to tick off today.
Ionut had warned us that further into today’s ride we would be passing through a NATO training area, where allied forces are training with Ukraine. As we got closer we started to hear fighter jets, a few explosions and we started to wonder how close our route would be taking us to the action. As it turns out, extremely.
As we climbed up a small climb on to the ridge we were soon met by a few members of the Romanian military, fortunately they were incredibly friendly and pointed us in the right direction. The whole experience is a very real reminder of the war being fought not too far away in Ukraine.
Feeling grateful to simply be enjoying ourselves on a bike ride we trudged on towards our finish town.
We had a surprise in store for us, we had the chance to explore one of the local fortified churches and find out why they exist all across the country. Fortified churches were built by the Saxons in response to the threat of Ottoman invasions during the Middle Ages. The churches were designed to provide refuge for the local communities in the event of attack as well as a place of worship.
After our tour of the church the sun was starting to set and we still had 15k left to ride, inspired by golden hour we ticked off the K’s and made it to the small village of Stejarisu and after some more homemade schnapps we got to bed with one more day in the saddle to come.
Stage Four: Stejarisu to Cund
We had one thing on our mind for the final day, make it back in time so we could watch a concert in the volcano we had previously visited.
6pm was our deadline and we had another tough day in the saddle ahead. When the first 20k took us 3 hours we were slightly concerned, the routes aren’t always perfect though and we were glad to have checked this bit out.
After a quick shuttle in the car through the road section we just had one gravel climb left to soak in the rest of the amazing trails of Romania. Once back we had time for a quick shower before we hopped in the van and headed for what would be a fitting end to our trip.
As our trip came to an end Simon had a smile on his face and said to me ‘I’ll never forget this trip’ and I couldn’t agree with him more, the people we met, the unique culture we experienced and the general feeling that we had explored a unique area in the world and that’s not even mentioning the amazing riding. If anyone has the chance to visit Romania, take it with both hands!