In the summer of 2012, I cycled from Istanbul, Turkey to Poznan, Poland, while along the way crossing through Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova, Transnistria, Ukraine, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. One of the many highlights from this multi-month-long bicycle tour was my time in Romania – a country that I knew nothing about when I first crossed the border and began cycling north from the tiny town of Giurgiu (near the much larger city of Ruse, Bulgaria).
My plan at the time was to cycle through Romania as quickly as I could so I could spend most of my bicycle tour in Ukraine, but once I reached Transylvania, the Carpathian mountains and the city of Brasov (in central Romania), I decided to stay in the country for a short while longer (1.5 months in total).
As I write this now, I am in Sibiu, Romania, in an apartment that I rented on AirBNB.com. It has been exactly two years since my initial bike tour across Romania and because I never really wrote a long blog post about my first experiences in the country, I thought I would take this opportunity to write about it now… and share with you some of the reasons why I believe Romania is one of the best bicycle touring destinations in the entire world.
After spending the night in a high-rise hotel on the border town of Ruse, Bulgaria, I cycled down the road a short distance, crossed a bridge and then rolled to a stop at the border station in order to get my passport stamped. Without a word, I was through. I was in Romania! But I didn’t get far. About five minutes after crossing the border, a Police man stopped near the side of the road motioned for me to pull over. “Oh dear!” I thought to myself.
The policeman wanted to know where I was from and where I was going. I couldn’t tell if he was asking because he was personally interested or if he was simply doing his job. When the short, stout man realized our inability to communicate with one another (I didn’t know a single word of Romania and he didn’t know a single word of English), he waved me forward and and I continued on my way.
The first stop I made in Romania was at a small ATM machine bolted to the wall of a small 7-11 style mini-market. I withdrew some cash and felt suspicious when I first felt the money. It felt like plastic – not the normal paper-like feel that most money has to it. “Is this real money?” I thought to myself. I decided to test it out by paying for some water and an ice cream at the mini-market next door. I walked inside, handed the woman this strange-feeling cash, and walked out with the goods. Apparently, that is what money looks (and feels) like in Romania!
Cycling out of town was easy. I just aimed my handlebars north and then cycled straight ahead. Outside of town, the traffic diminished quickly and I was soon on my own, cycling through a long tree-lined road with a beautiful stretch of pavement laid out beneath me.
That didn’t last long, however. The pavement soon ended and my road turned to dirt. Sometimes the road was all gravel, making it difficult to push forward on my heavily-loaded touring bicycle. Other times I found myself riding along narrow, but compact dirt roads – which are quite fun to cycle down when there are no cars present on the road. This section of road was incredible long, and there was still plenty of daylight available, so I put in my earphones and rocked out to some music while happily cycling along, hot and sweaty in the bright Romanian sun.
There weren’t many trees in this part of Romania, so when I came across an old, abandoned railway station, I was quick to use the location as a shelter from the heat.
Camping in a new country is always a little frightening – especially on your first night. I wanted to find a place in the trees where I wouldn’t be spotted or disturbed, but that wasn’t as easy to do as I would have hoped. Once it began getting dark, I was in an area that was heavily populated and with few obvious hiding spots nearby. Luckily, I was able to find an area in a small forest just outside of town where I pitched my tent just moments before it began to rain. And boy did it rain! It rained so hard, in fact, that I was forced to stay in my tent for an entire day. I spent two nights camped out in the woods and only came out of my tent for about 10 minutes, during a short break from the rainfall, in order to (pee and) take the photos you see below.
After packing up my camp the next day, I pushed my bicycle out of the trees and back onto the dirt road I had cycled up the day before. Only now, that dirt road had turned to mud. It was wet and sticky and slippery. I pushed and carried my bike through the slop, only to reach the bottom of the hill and find that my wheels could turn no longer. They were so covered in mud that the wheels would no longer spin between my fenders. I laid my bike down on the ground and used a stick to dig, flick and scrape the mud off of my bicycle wheels. It certainly wasn’t a fun way to start my day. I was covered in sweat by the time I finished.
Turns out, my second day of cycling in Romania would not be an easy one. In fact, it would be my most difficult day of cycling in the country. Lots of dirt roads; hot blaring heat; the biggest potholes you have ever seen; and then my rear bicycle rack broke off the back of my bike!
Here I am (in the photo below) taking a short snack break in a field beside the road.
These two Romanian boys were tending to cattle nearby, but they ran over to see me and say hello when they say me cycling past. It’s not every day you see a guy on a fully-loaded touring bicycle riding past you in Romania.
The photo below gives you a good idea of the type of roads I was traveling on. Because of the rain the previous two nights, there were large sections of the road filled with water. And other sections of the road were almost impassible on a bicycle, let alone in a car. Needless to say, I didn’t see many vehicles that day, which was fine with me.
Here is what my bike looked like when the rear rack of my bicycle broke off. What happened is that both of the bolts that hold the top of the rack to the part of my frame near by seat post had slowly wiggled themselves out during my bumpy ride over the dirt roads over the previous two days. When the last bolt fell free from my bicycle frame, the rear rack and everything on it went crashing to the ground while I was moving forward. As you can imagine, it was quite a shock for me to be cycling along, hear a loud bang and then feel as though I was pulling a 50 pound anchor behind me on my bicycle.
Luckily, I was able to find one of the bolts that had wiggled itself free from my rear rack and screwed it back in place. The other bolt was long gone and I’d have to find a replacement in the next town or somewhere along the way.
I cycled over 100 kilometers during my second day in Romania (which isn’t easy to do on dirt roads filled with water, mud and potholes) and then spent the night in a cheap hotel in the city of Pitesti. The following morning I jumped back on the bike and headed east toward the city of Campulung and nearby Lake Rausor, which is where I would end up camping for the night.
The bike ride form Pitesti to Campulung was a good one. There was a lot of traffic, but the road was in good condition and the scenery changed dramatically from my previous two days of cycling. I was in Transylvania now and there was a lot to keep my mind occupied. From the beautiful architecture, to the cars and the people dashing about on horse-drawn carriages, I was really enjoying myself during this long (but gradual) up-hill climb.
After loading up on food and water in Campulung, I decided to cycle just a short distance outside the city and up a long hill to nearby Lake Rausor. It didn’t look that far away on my map, but it took me quite a long time to reach on my bicycle. When it began to get dark, I pitched my tent a short distance off the road, in a hilly area just south of the lake.
After pitching my tent on a tiny, flat little area near the side of the road (well camouflaged from anyone who might walk or drive past), I walked around the area and found this little man-made waterfall.
That night, I peeked outside my tent and realized just how dark and scary it was outside. I was camping in Transylvania!
The following morning, however, the sun was out and it was lovely. After packing up my tent and loading all my earthly possessions back onto my bicycle, I pedaled a kilometer or so up the road and finally reached Lake Rausor. Not only was it big and beautiful (with the fall colors spotting the trees all around the lake), but I had the entire place to myself. There wasn’t another soul in sight.
Lake Rausor was a beautiful location and I spent more than an hour there, just taking photos, riding around on my bicycle, and eating/reading on the dirt roads that run around the lake.
Eventually, I left Lake Rausor, cycled down the long hill I had climbed up the night before, and then turned my bicycle back uphill toward the city of Brasov.
There was a lot of climbing and descending that day. It was hot and I was sweating. But the scenery was spectacular and there was a lot to look at and think about during the ride.
When I reached the tiny tourist town of Bran (which is where Bran Castle is located (aka “Dracula’s Castle”), I ran into two young backpackers from Poland. I stopped to talk with them for a moment about their travels, and then I continued on my way.
I stayed in Bran for two nights and spent my day in the tiny tourist city taking a tour of the castle, which was more interesting on the outside than it was on the inside. And no, I didn’t see Dracula, bats or anything like that inside the castle. On the inside, it just looked like a old Romania estate house. You can watch a video I created of the inside of the castle if you are interested – just click here.
After two nights in Bran, I cycled a short distance to the city of Brasov, and waited in the woods for a few hours before checking into a tiny studio apartment I had rented on AirBNB.com. This small studio near the center of town would be my home base as I explored Brasov and, believe it or not, learned how to paraglide. That’s right. Paraglide!
Here’s a shot of the inside of the apartment I rented in Brasov, Romania. Because I rented this place for more than a month, I got a really good deal on it – paying no more than $20 USD per night. Not shown in the photo is the apartment’s kitchen, bathroom and entryway.
When I was on the Internet and researching what there was to see and do in Brasov, Romania, I came across a website offering tandem paragliding flights (which is where you fly in a paraglider with an instructor flying with you. You just kind of sit there and enjoy the view.) I had seen people paragliding in other locations all around the world on my travels and always thought it looked like a lot of fun. But when I saw that this company in Romania not only offered tandem flights with an instructor, but also taught you how to fly your very own paraglider, I knew what I wanted to do. I was going to learn how to fly a paraglider on my own! So I signed up for a 2.5 week course in Brasov, Romania to learn to fly a paraglider.
Before my paragliding lessons were to begin, however, I had a few days to kill in Brasov. So I used my time to not only do some much needed computer work, but to also wander about the city and take photos. Here, are just a few of my favorite shots from the city of Brasov, Romania.
There are so many interesting mail boxes in Romania.
Capturing people in candid moments is a hobby of mine when I’m traveling.
This blue car seemed out of place when compared with many of
the other Romanian vehicles I saw while in the country.
The faded colors that spot the buildings in Romania make the place truly magical.
It seems like every home is painted a different color.
Strada Republicii – the main shopping/dinning street in Brasov, Romania.
Brasov Romania’s central square with the Black Church
in the background on the right-hand side of the photo.
A view of Brasov’s famous Black Burch from above.
Brasov Council Square.
Even the buses (like the houses) in Brasov, Romania
are painted a lovely autumn color.
Another view of the Brasov sign positioned high above the city.
During one of my free days in Brasov, I cycled to the nearby city of Rasnov,
paid to go inside the castle that is positioned on the hill above the city
(which wasn’t all that interesting from the inside),
and took this photo of the city below.
While in Rasnov, I also toured the inside of a large cave,
which was dark and spooky and amazing.
Only a day or two after arriving in Brasov, Romania, my paragliding lessons began. My instructor’s name was Robert Gyorgy. He was a 30-something-year-old man from the Brasov area and he was quick to give me the reigns. During our very first flight together, he let me steer his large tandem paraglider, and I think you can tell by the expression on my face that I was absolutely terrified. But wow! Can you believe those views?!!!
After taking me on two short flights in his tandem paraglider, my regular instruction began. We started on the ground, learning how to properly fold and unfold the paraglider. Then I began walking the paraglider on the ground, learning how to balance it in the air and safely bring it to a stop.
At the end of my first day, I had already done three short flights, getting no more than twenty feet or so in the air. I was hooked as soon as my foot left the ground on that first day. Paragliding is so much fun!
I wasn’t the only student Robert was teaching to paraglide, however. There were several other people I would meet and fly with over the following three weeks. Below is Mihai, one of my favorite paragliding friends.
There were times during my paragliding lessons with Robert when he would let me tag along on some of his personal paragliding adventures. One day, Robert and I went with a bunch of his paragliding friends to a beautiful Romanian forest/mountain area south of Brasov, where we spent the entire day climbing up a steep mountain only to get to the top and jump off with our paragliders. It was so much fun – not only flying the paragliders, but meeting all these other like-minded people.
In the photos below, Robert is picking wild blueberries at the top of the mountain, just moments before we all loaded ourselves into our paragliders and flew down to the bottom of the mountain.
One of my favorite days was spent paragliding with Robert and his friends, Iulian, Andreea and Ioana. After a full day together flying on a small hill overlooking a charming Romanian town, we went out to dinner together and then drove back to Brasov in the dark.
Every day of the paragliding course would take me somewhere new. The direction of the wind determined where we flew our paragliders each day. This made the flying lessons exciting because we rarely ever flew in the same place twice.
After not much more than a week’s worth of training, Robert took me on a weekend trip to the nearby city of Targu-Mures, Romania. While there, Robert and I both entered ourselves in a paragliding competition, where a large target was placed on the ground in a field at the bottom of the mountain and our goal was to land as close to the center of the target as possible. The person to land closest to that target the most amount of times throughout the course of the day would win the competition.
I, of course, knew I wasn’t going to win, because I was the least experienced person there that day. I was more worried about not making a fool out of myself in front of some of Romania’s most experienced paragliders. In the photo below you can see me at the top of the mountain, watching the other paragliders preparing for takeoff.
During my first flight of the competition, I overshot the landing target and the tried to turn quickly afterward, almost crashing into the judges’ booth on landing.
On my second flight, all eyes were on me as I again flew well over the target and landed my paraglider in a nearby parking lot. A camera crew from a local Romanian TV station met me on landing and asked me about my experience flying paragliders in Romania. They were amazed to see such an inexperienced American flying a paraglider in a Romanian competition. I was truly making a fool of myself, but I was having so much fun. By the end of the competition, I was able to land on the target… and I was extremely proud of myself.
While at the paragliding competition there was a small group of Romani locals gathered nearby. I stopped to say hello to the group and take their picture, and the children were soon thereafter following me around wherever I went. When I landed on the ground with my paraglider, the kids would run over to me and watch as I packed up my glider. Some of the people in the competition didn’t like that the children were following me around so much, but I seriously didn’t mind. I thought it was fun!
After the paragliding competition was over, we all drove back to Targu Mures and in a large banquet hall we were treated to dinner, desserts and drinks.
There was even a small award ceremony after the paragliding competition in which T-shirts were handed out, prized were awarded to the top pilots, and I even received a certificate for being the only paraglider in the competition that was not from Romania.
After the competition was over, I hitched a ride back to Brasov, not with Robert (my paragliding instructor), but with two of his paragliding friends, Mihai and Claudia. We had a good time getting to know one another and we’ve been Facebook friends ever since.
Back in Brasov (now mid-October, 2012), the weather started to turn toward winter and the trees began to change color. The temperatures dropped and I started to wear more of my warm, winter clothes (which I had mailed to me from a friend in England who had been storing them for me since my bike tour in Iceland several months prior).
One of the great things about Brasov, Romania as a city is that the mountains and the wilderness are so extremely close. The nearby resort town of Poiana (only a short bus ride away from Brasov) is a great jumping off point for hikes and bike rides in the wilderness.
During one of my last days in Romania, Robert took me on another tandem paragliding flight over the ski resort at Poiana. The views from the sky were absolutely incredible. Just look at those trees!
When it finally came time for me to leave Brasov, it was near the end of October. The weather was cold, and it even snowed the first night I was on the road. Luckily, I only had to camp in the cold for a single night before taking up lodging at a small, nearby hotel. The storm soon passed and I continued on my way.
I was a little sad to be leaving Brasov after having such a good time there, making so many friends, and accomplishing so much in regards to learning to fly a paraglider. During my last day in Romania, I did two solo flights from the top of a nearby mountain. It was the highest I had ever been on my own and I felt extremely proud of myself for being able to accomplish such a feat – especially considering the fact that I have a small fear of heights.
The cycling north of Brasov was beautiful though and I quickly fell back into my bicycle touring routine. Passing fields full of people picking crops, I would wave and smile, while being greeted with friendly faces in return.
No longer shopping at the giant supermarkets that were available to me in Brasov, I bought most of my food in tiny village stalls like the one you see below. When I’d walk into a shop like this, not knowing more than a few words of Romanian, I was always a bit intimidated, but I also found the experience to be a whole lot of fun.
One of the things I like about Romania is that traveling through the country is a bit like stepping back in time. Not only is the architecture unique and interesting, but there are still people moving around the country on horse-drawn wagons.
When I cut off the main road and began making my way toward a steep mountain pass, the man in the photo below stopped me and spoke to me for several minutes (even though I couldn’t understand a word he was saying). Even though I don’t speak Romania, however, I could tell what the man was trying to say to me. He was saying, “If you go this way, it is a steep mountain pass. The road is narrow and windy. You are going to have to push your bike and it won’t be easy.” I understood that much at least. I thanked the man for his warning and then I just kept going.
That night I camped beside a small river and when two men in a car drove by later that night and started collecting firewood in the area, they walked right past my campsite without ever noticing that I was there. I am seriously the kind of stealth camping!
The next day was a long one. I pushed my bike up a steep, narrow and windy mountain pass (the one the man had warned me about the night before). I saw bear footprints in the muddy road and celebrated upon reaching the top of the mountain. The scenery was spectacular and I didn’t see another person for the first several hours of the day.
Making my way down the hill, I cycled through several small, remote mountain villages before the road turned to dirt once again and I found myself pushing my bike up yet another steep mountain pass, spotted with small farm houses on the sides of the road.
At the top of the mountain, far from any towns or villages, I set up camp just in time for a small rain shower to come through the area. Dressed in my warm, winter clothes now, I felt right at home in my Romanian mountain paradise. I could have spent an entire week just roaming around the area, camping in my tent and reading books on my iPod Touch.
The next morning I cycled down a long dirt road, through a series of tiny villages that lined the roadside. There was little to no electricity in this part of Romania. Homes were being run on water, wind or horse power. The place was dirty and cold… and I loved it! The roads were a complete mess (full of water from the previous night’s rainfall), but it’s exactly the type of off-road riding that I enjoy most. Slow and technical, but with very few cars and lots to look at. I took my time making my way through the villages and was slightly sad when I eventually rolled back onto modern pavement.
About twenty miles or so before the tiny town of Piatra Neamt, I pulled over to the side of the road (next to this fountain that you see in the photo below) to inspect my shoe. My toes were beginning to freeze and I was fearful that the tiny hole I knew existed in the bottom of my shoe had somehow gotten larger. When I flipped my shoe over I was shocked to see that the entire front part of my shoe (where my toes are located) was almost entirely worn away. My toes had almost no protection from the cold or wind. It was no wonder that my toes had gone numb!
The bike ride from Piatra Neamt to the Moldova border was a good one. Lots of dirt road riding (which I enjoy), tons of beautiful little towns and villages, interesting and friendly people all along the way, and autumn colors everywhere.
This photo (below) is one of my favorites, because it shows a small town near the Romania/Moldova border with a vehicle flipped upside down on the right-hand side of the street. With tons of people walking past, no one seems to care.
During my last day in Romania I spent the night camping in a small wooded area not too far from the town of Lasi. A series of narrow dirt roads ran through the forest and every once and a while a family on a horse-drawn wagon would creep quietly through the woods. It was seriously like stepping back in time… and I loved it!
The next morning it was extremely cold, but I packed up my things and pressed on. After no more than two hours of riding, I reached the Romania/Moldova border near the town Vanatori and cycled into a new country. My bike tour in Romania was over, but I loved the place so much, and I knew that I’d be back soon.
That all happened almost exactly two years ago today. I came to Romania knowing almost nothing about the place and had plans to cycle through the country as quickly as I could. But I ended up spending more than one-and-a-half-months in Romania while cycling, learning to paraglide, and making new friends along the way.
Since my time in Romania, I’ve been telling people that this eastern European country is one of my favorite places in the world, and I’ll try to explain why that is right now (in a short, single paragraph).
I like Romania because it’s cheap, because the people are friendly, because the architecture is interesting, because it’s 50% modern and 50% old world, because it feels dangerous at times (without being all that dangerous), because many of the people speak English, because there are so many wild places, and because the Internet is fast.
I enjoyed myself so much during my 2012 bike tour across Romania that I vowed to return to the country as quickly as I could. It took me two years, but I did it. I’m writing this post from Sibiu, Romania. I’ve been here for about two weeks and I’ll be here for two weeks more. I still really like Romania and there is still so much more I want to see and do in the country. I’m already making plans to return to Romania next year (in 2015), and I hope to make even more friends here during my next visit.
Thanks for reading my article about my bike trip/paragliding adventure in Romania… and if you ever have the chance to visit Romania for yourself, I highly suggest you do. There is so much to see, do and experience in this beautiful, friendly, and interesting country!