Day 27 dawned bleary eyed and sullen with ragged clouds skulking in the darkly wooded hills; our weather luck had temporarily run dry – unlike the weather!
We left in light drizzle, passing through Vatra Dornei, which appeared smaller than the blob on our map; the Hapsburg era architecture had definitely seen better days and the grand Casino had obviously been caught on the wrong side of the odds. Our route then took us south west through the Bârgău mountains and the expansive Tihuţa Pass, with its landscape reminiscent of the lower Alpine slopes, to Bistrița where we had stayed on our previous visit. Entering from a different direction revealed that it was a lot bigger than we had realised back then but it was fortunately well enough signposted to get through with relative ease. As we left the sky darkened, the heavens opened and by the time we reached Beclean we were soaked to the skin and definitely not clean! We had picked a bit of a duff route as the traffic was probably the heaviest we’d had in Romania and, to top it off, we somehow got sucked into the middle of Cluj Napoca – a huge place, second only in size to Bucharest. Finding ourselves in chaotic gridlock with cars every which way, horns blaring and policemen frantically whistling but completely ignored we took a dive for a side road which, with incredibly good fortune, very quickly took us in the direction we wanted. A couple of villages had already been swallowed up by the expanding city but we soon got back onto the open road and quickly dried out.
Not a good day’s riding; wanting to cover a few miles that day we had made the mistake of choosing bigger roads on the assumption they would be better surfaced and flow well. Our assumptions turned out to be basically correct but what we hadn’t anticipated was the volume of traffic along with the usual proportion of suicidal drivers and the rain; it’s one thing dealing with it in the dry but quite another in the wet!
Nearing Huedin the blurred horizon smudged and disappeared into a solid curtain of rain so we made for the first place we could find. It looked a bit so so but wasn’t bad and turned out to be a popular restaurant stop off for truck drivers which meant good value, decent food. It absolutely threw it down all night; rain beating loudly on the roof and cannoning from the outpipes – out, not down!
It was still hammering down the following morning but with clearer skies in the direction we were going we waited for a lull and made a break for it, heading south west across the Apuseni Mountains on minor roads; a landscape of steep coniferous woodland, high alpine meadows, gorges – a couple of foxes and very few cars!
The weather was kind to us for most of the morning but as we neared the top of our third pass we rode into euphemistically named mist which soon made it very clear that it was rain and stayed with us back down to the valley where we were forced to join the main road for a short stretch … and what a stretch! Pockmarked with potholes, trenched with road works, log jam traffic and who dares wins ‘contraflow’ it took an eternity to get anywhere and, combined with the rain, we could hear our bikes gradually being ground into the muck and grit we were caked in.
Somehow the downpour increased in intensity and we decided enough was enough; once again the first place we came to was a so so truck stop! With our bikes attracting a lot of attention and some dubious looking characters barely visible in the smoke laden bar we booked into a room, thankful to clean up and dry out. English was definitely off the radar and with our Romanian falling well short we had something of a ‘lucky dip’ stay, by the end of which our helpful hostess had probably reached the conclusion that we were completely barking as we holidayed in roadwork hell, didn’t have sugar with our espresso and ordered three meals for two!
Dire warnings and groundless preconceptions had niggled at me through a fitful night’s sleep such that it was almost a surprise to see our bikes in the morning of Day 29 – abashed, I reminded myself of all help and friendly welcomes we had received whilst in the Balkans. Thankfully it was an overcast but dry day and, by another stroke of luck, our truck stop was right on the junction with a minor road leading directly to the Hungarian border. Taking that, we passed through a handful of small, sleeping villages; the only signs of life being church goers and two young lads with grins as big as the wheelies they pulled on their bicycles when they saw us.
Slowing down unnecessarily to ‘check out’ of Romania (no exit control) we were overtaken by a van that became the head of a queue of one – again. Our first impressions of Hungary were that, although the border region was similar in many ways to Romania, it was somehow more ‘civilised’; an impression difficult to pin down but perhaps due to the clipped hedges, mown grass verges and pavements/drives/car parks etc. being tarmacked or gravelled. It was also incredibly flat – I would say flat as a pancake but even they have the occasional air bubbles! In fact, in our first 150 miles we had three changes of elevation; a bridge for a river, one for a motorway and finally one for a railway. The incessant wind howled across the vast wetlands and the roads were also very long, very straight, very dull and generally well surfaced – apart from a minor road we took by mistake which turned out to be worse than pretty much anything we’d encountered in Romania!
Deciding to spoil ourselves after a couple of offish days we booked into a plush hotel adjacent to the castle in Eger for two nights. Eger was a pleasant enough town but unbeknown to us most things were closed on Monday so it didn’t take too long to explore the obvious sites or mooch through the market before a cold wind drove us into a café for a warming bowl of soup. Later in the day we tried our luck with the castle but the combination of Monday closure, restoration closure and an even colder wind soon had us scurrying back to our room to warm up and plan our inevitable route home.
Day 31 greeted us with blue sky, sunshine – and the wind! On the third go we found our way out of Eger, on the minor road we wanted, to take us into the Bükk Mountains where all the lumpy, bumpy bits and road bends of Hungary have been neatly stacked. We wriggled our way through them to the Slovakian border just north of Salgótarján where we passed through the … err … nothing! No border control at all and no one sharing the road with us.
Our north-west route followed a more or less direct line across the country where an enormous road building project is underway and, judging by the old surface left, a necessary task as the tram lining is pretty bad. We meandered across wide valleys surrounded by low hills all around but somehow never seemed to actually go over any. The strong tailwind effectively blew us across the country in a day and rather than crossing into the Czech Republic we decided to stay in Slovakia (the easy option as we have Euros). We ended up in the spa town of Piešťany, just down the road from Nové Mesto where Bob spent much of his latter working days!
Our plan is to cross the Czech Republic more or less directly east-west tomorrow and see if we can make it to Germany.
(All images are copyright to Noeline Smith)