Very heavy overnight rain with news reports of golf ball sized hailstones, localised flooding and dark clouds sitting low on the Făgărăş mountains made up our minds to reluctantly pass on the Transfăgărăşan, opting instead to spend a couple of days in Brașov before heading a little further north east. This decision was aided by Bob’s morning observation that the water in our motel room was ‘non potable’ (great, we’d been drinking it all night!) and it would give us a couple of days for things to settle down if necessary!
After mistakenly taking the ‘ring road’ through the industrial zone of Făgărăş we picked up a minor road into the foothills, past the (so far) sensibly developed Poiana Brașov ski resort and mountain bike centre (good riding too!) before dropping down into Brașov itself; a lovely rural ride through quiet villages and autumnal wooded slopes. We found the Pensiunea Italiana, so named due to its Italianate décor although, apart from a couple of dodgy statues, I didn’t quite see it. It was a good place to stay though and the courtyard parking was definitely secure behind a set of large wrought iron gates and a pair of Yorkshire terrier guard dogs!
Being brutally honest, the old town of Brașov was a little disappointing. It’s a pleasant enough place with interesting architecture, café lined town square, claims to the narrowest street in Europe, fortified walls etc. but efforts seem to have been concentrated on said square and the pedestrian Strada Republicii where it’s very commercial, ‘Europeanised’ and the overriding feeling was that of your wallet being gently bled dry – quite appropriate for Transylvania I suppose!
First stop on Day 25 was the UNESCO listed fortified church at Prejmar; Teutonic in origin with Saxon updates, it didn’t have the same impressive bulk as the Saxon church of Biertan but impressive nonetheless. It was surprisingly compact considering it effectively had a double defensive wall and almost 300 hundred rooms, stacked four high, burrowed into the inner wall.
We were slightly taken aback to see a WWI German war memorial inside but probably shouldn’t have been! Something we’ve noticed again on this visit is that the once Saxon ruled areas are popular with Germans, some of whom seem to invest quite heavily in the preservation of what they see as their heritage. A good thing in principle but there is a risk of things being rebuilt rather than preserved.
Next up was St Annes Lake, apparently the only intact volcanic lake in Europe. The ride was a mixture of patch work road, dirt, cobbles and new tarmac; the latter presumably paid for by the toll charge to ride/drive, rather than walk, the last couple of kilometres; a fee worth paying judging by the expressions of those who didn’t! It was a tranquil place with almost mirror calm water and a touch of autumn colour in the trees; its circular shape being the only reminder that we were in a volcano – having just made our way up its flank before dropping down into the crater. An unusual experience!
Heading up north took us into Székely territory with its strong Hungarian influence. The area was obviously ‘different’ with tiny hill top chapels and fantastically ornate carved wooden gateways, complete with integral dovecotes. The shallow, rolling hills were strip cultivated resulting in a multi coloured patchwork of fields and (due to the Magyar influence?) handsome horses, obviously well cared for, worked the land and pulled the carts.
A ‘detour’ east of Miercurea Cuic (home of a great beer!) took us into the backwaters of the Gyimes Valley and the wonderfully picturesque villages of Lunca de Sus and Lunca de Jos that have been lost somewhere in time. The slopes were striped with small holdings and the immaculate little wooden homesteads were surrounded by orchards with conical haystacks to the front, mountains of pumpkin/squash to store for winter and a clutch of cattle and poultry roaming the back yards. After passing a military outpost that looked more like a holiday camp for boy scouts and with the villages becoming smaller, the road deteriorating and the fact that I had not so recently gone to reserve (!) we finally stopped to check the map. Having only covered 20km or so with about another 70km to reach a village of any size we decided the best option was to retrace our steps to the automatic petrol vending machine Bob had fortunately noticed. Having got there we then couldn’t operate the thing! As we were being discreetly observed by a couple in their back garden I wandered over to ask for help, my intention already realised, the lady of the house came to my rescue where it seems the issue was that our money was too new and a deft crumple did the trick! Back on our intended road we struck lucky (again!) with the Karpatia Panzio before reaching the outskirts of Georgheni.
Since our last visit three years ago Romania has developed at an astonishing rate and, among other things, there is a good range of accommodation both in and out of town. Generally the towns are not pleasant so, unless intending to see something specific, we’ve found that staying just outside is a far more relaxing, and rewarding experience. The food is good too – even more so if you’re happy to eat ‘peasant’ grub which is cheap and incredibly tasty – fwartybun! (How about a pineapple ring of fat as a garnish anyone – seriously tasty the way it was done!) It’s also good to see the Romanian love of colour and decoration hasn’t been crushed by the rate of change; even though many of the beautiful filigree wooden houses seem to have gone the ornate decoration and colour combinations are still there, so much so that sometimes it’s like riding through a village of gingerbread houses in the aftermath of an explosion at a Dulux factory!
Day 26 seemed to be all about water. First the Lac Rosa, not red as supposed and formed in the mid 1800s by a landslide, the dead tops of the trees still visible.
We were surprised at the low key approach until we left, rounding the bend to be confronted by an enormous collection of cafes, hotels and tourist tat offerings. Next was the Bicaz Gorge; imagine Cheddar Gorge but at least three times as high and half as wide, down to single lane in places, with limestone cliffs towering over a cascading stream – and tourist offerings at all the key points. How many multi coloured jumpers or sheepskin rugs can one have?!
The potentially claustrophobic gorge was followed by the potentially vertigo inducing Lake Bicaz, the largest artificial lake in Romania at over 40km long, where we had lunch and met Philip, a Romanian living in Romford!
With rain chasing us up the valley we followed the Bistrița River towards Vatra Dornei, retiring to the first place we could find before hitting town and the rain finally catching us. The Pension Voidor, where we had the undivided attention of our host as we were the only guests, was a gem.
(All images are copyright to Noeline Smith)