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Published: August 27th 2005
Some of the rock formations on the summit plateau of Bucegi.
We finally leave Brasov quite late in the afternoon after last emails to Robin’s parents arranging for replacement bank cards etc. We cycle for a meagre 13 miles but it feels so good to be cycling again and we find a lovely camp site near the main road but back up near the woods and a river. The land is for sale so this actually translates in Romania to a free camp site that is already well dotted with Romanian families camped for what looks like a good while, all with their own camp fires. We pitch our new tent and gather fire wood for cooking dinner and thank the fact that in Romania it is normal to camp and have fires just about anywhere where there is wood - including in state forests right next to the big signs saying ‘no fires’!
Somehow the next day we don’t manage to get to the base of the mountain until after lunch and by the time we find a place to put the bikes and get supplies it is late and we are tanking up a very steep gorge in to the Bucegi mountains. The river is rushing down and there
The gorge on the ascent into the Bucegi mountains of Romania - probably thre most interesting part of these mountains as the top is a bit flat and boring.
are cascades and huge buttresses of rocks. It is really beautiful and our souls start to feel soothed again after all the stress. We stay that night in a Cabana because we are told that it is illegal to camp in the Bucegi natural park. However in the morning we are a bit miffed to see a tent blatantly bedside the cabin and the particular cabin we stayed in did not even have food so there was not much advantage to us staying in it, except that there was a magnificent view down the gorge we had rushed up the day before and we were on the top early to make a full day walking around the massif. We set off to the most famous sight of the mountain the Sphinx rocks and the geological formations around the area at the top of the cable car. We are quite impressed with the rock formations but not with the hideous mountain “huts” which are monstrous huge buildings, I don’t think they have any planners on their natural park administrations.
We take a day wandering around the top of Bucegi and realise that the most interesting parts of the mountains are
Ceaceuscu craziness part 6 - the Trans Fagarasan highway on the way up, up and up......
the gorges and buttresses on the way up because the top is pretty much a flat open plateau, but there are quite interesting looking shepherds around. In fact this whole area is seriously grazed, but we do find some edelweiss and head off onto the far side of the mountains and away from most of the tourists who mostly just walk to Cabanas rather than to mountain tops, (‘Why bother if there is no cabana’ seems to be the attitude). We walk for a few hours on the far side of the massif where there are no high level cabanas, hotels, roads or cable cars and see nobody.
Our camp that night was in a small glen that could have been Scottish apart from the alpine flowers and in the morning after the rain stopped and the sun came out we have our breakfast surrounded by shepherd dogs and their flock of sheep.
We leave the mountains after getting a meagre meal in one of the monstrous hotels, return to the bikes and find a camp late at night in another bit of land that is for sale, that has obviously been used by many for camping and for
Above the Clouds
On the Fagaras ridge, Romania.
rubbish dumping. This is one of the worst things about Romania, there is loads of litter! We head west now which feels very strange (the afternoon sun is burning our left sides instead of the usual right) but we want to cycle the Trans-Fagarasan highway. That night we find a great campsite near Lisa and some locals take it upon themselves to help us light our fire; they are very amusing and drunk and eventually leave us to cook our diner. The cycle round to the start of the Fagaras highway took all morning as we are stopping at every shop to try to find supplies to take up the Fagaras mountains - since we have no stove we need to get loads of bread, cheese and sardines.
After lunch we start on the Fagaras highway - the highest undertaking we have ever attempted. This road is another Ceacescu extravagance, but one that we appreciate more. Apparently over 200 people died building it and it serves no real purpose since there were already roads through the natural passes connecting all the villages. The highway snakes up to a magnificent 2044 metres where it then ploughs in a tunnel through
After the Storm
On the Fagaras ridge, Romania, after some severe hail, thunder and lightening.
to the other side of the Fagaras ridge. We are full powered on chocolate and at the start of the cable car we are only at 1200 metres and our legs feel tired as this is already the highest we have ever cycled and there are loads of hairpins winding up above us. On the way up I am being constantly overtaken by an old, battered and overladen red Dacia car - the driver keeps having to stop to pour water over its steaming engine! I don’t think that car made any faster progress than me!
The road is very impressive - a good bit of Swiss-style engineering with ridiculous hairpins, tunnels, bridges spanning huge chasms in the rock, sections where there is a sheer cliff above you on one side and a huge drop on the other, and roofed sections to protect from avalanches and rock falls. We toil up slowly with regular stops for chocolate - it takes us about 4 hours of slow grinding in the lowest gear to reach Bulea Lac at the top. We really feel the altitude for the last few hundred metres of ascent - much more so than when you are walking
Road to Vratsa
Our hearts soar as the Balkan mountains appear out of the rain and we arrive on the outskirts of Vratsa.
or hiking at this level. Erika starts to get a really funny headache and I have to stop for a bit as I feel queasy from struggling to get enough oxygen to power the bike. The weather has been ominous all the way up but fortunately it has not actually rained on us - until we stop at the top that is. The road at the top is a bit of a mess - dirty snow fields with lots of people camping in between them and lots of ‘street’ vendors selling boiled corns, fruit and tourist tat from battered stalls at the roadside along the 50m or so of flat land before the road plunges into the tunnel at the sheer wall of rock that forms the highest part of the ridge. We stop to survey the scene as the first thunder clap tears our eardrums and heavy rain starts - we quickly find a spot for the tent and pitch it but not quick enough and we dive inside totally soaked. We shelter for about an hour before venturing out to check out the two cabanas/hotels on the sides of the lake to try and find some hot food.
At the entrance to the Balkan hills just out of town.
We get a bowl of hot soup from one and seek refuge from the weather for a bit, before spending a very stormy night in the tent. I am not a great fan of dome tents but our new one stays up - despite threatening not to several times and we stay dry all night.
We wake late in the morning to bright sunshine and eat our breakfast of bread and cheese outside in the sun while trying to dry out our stuff on the huge boulders scattered around the camp. Our fellow Romanian campers are moving their tents around and digging drainage ditches around their pitches - many clearly suffered badly during the overnight storm. We laugh at some - they have an enormous family size canvas tent that stands about 8 foot high and has tables and chairs inside, not really a good tent to pitch high in the mountains in a storm with high winds! Others have crazily pitched single-skinned dome tents on rocky patches on steep slopes in favour of flat, empty grassy pitches nearby.
I am keen to make an attempt on Moldoveanau - the highest mountain in Romania - which lies several miles
G and his bike relaxing on the grass after the monster 10km ride from Vratsa....
away to the east along the ridge of the Fagaras. Erika is less keen and decides to have a rest day, so I set off at speed as it is a late start and a long way to go and leave her to relax in the tent. The mountain looks close on the map and it looks tantalizingly easy - but this map has 2km squares instead of the usual 1km squares on British maps and the contours are 100m apart not 10m! I soon realise this and increase my pace to a slow fell run in an attempt to make it to the summit and all the way back within daylight. The mountains are awesome and the views are good but there is no view down to the Transylvanian plain as it is hidden under a sea of white clouds. Standing on the edge of the ridge it feels like looking out of an airplane window. After 3 hours of serious pace along the ridge - including a lot of ups and downs and some knife edge scrambles, I am starting to think I will not have enough time and maybe I should think about turning back and having
At G's family's villa - G our host is on the left nearest the camera.
an enjoyable, relaxed walk back. I stop for some food while trying to decide what to do, but the weather decides for me. The distant rumbles of thunder suddenly start to get closer and louder and the cloud lifts so I sitting in it. I pull on my jacket with the first few drops of heavy rain but with a loud rip of thunder and instantaneous lighting bolt very close by the rain turns to massive hail stones which are being hurled from the sky with some serious force. I start to move back along the ridge but it is now very slippy underfoot and constant lightening bolts all around are both awesome but a bit scary on an exposed ridge at 2300m. The hail eases a bit after 10 minutes and I look around to see the clouds have lifted and there is now an amazing views along to Moldovaenau which has been transformed from grassy green to pure white by the hail. It turns to rain and I have a slow plod back to the tent through Scottish style mist and rain - typically it stops as soon as I am within sight of home and the sun
Relaxing and chilling out at G's villa - observe Erika's camouflage skin tones....
comes back out! I resolve to return another day and climb the mountain, perhaps to walk the entire ridge which would be a really good expedition.
We visit the other cabana that night to dry out in the restaurant and get some ‘mamliga cu brinza’ - polenta and cheese, a Romanian specialty. As we are nearly out of a our supply of bread, cheese and sardines we have to leave and cycle downhill to find a shop the next day. The weather is much better once we make our way through the cold, damp, dark tunnel and emerge on the southern side of the ridge and we make our way slowly down the hairpins and into the forest on the southern side. We make slow work of cycling along Lake Vidraru - a huge lake behind a big hydro-electric barrage. With the forest and hills and views to distant mountains, and the fact our legs are so heavy, it reminds us of the cycle along Loch Trummel and Loch Lomond all the way back in Scotland at the start of our trip. From the dam it is steep downhill again through a spectacular gorge along the Arges river, past Poieni castle - a ruin perched high on a rocky promontory above the river. This was the stronghold of Vlad Tepes and is therefore the real ‘Dracula’s castle’ - but being a ruin the authorities direct tourists to Bran castle instead and claim this is Dracula’s castle.
We continue on down the valley and slowly leave the Carpathian mountains behind - we have been following them for so long now since the Tatra’s - but our goal is the Danube and the ferry to Bulgaria. We pass through Curtea de Arges, the old capital in the time of Vlad, and then cross from the Arges valley to the Olt valley which we intend to follow to the Danube. While Erika is in a café getting water in Curtea a pregnant gypsy woman approaches me trying to sell me some rings - I don’t want them so she then just asks for money pointing at her child. I have no money as I have no wallet, but she is very persistent. I get fed up and turn my back on her hoping she will take the hint and go away, but she gets very irate and I turn around to realise she is cursing me, and her other gypsy women all join in. Now I am not really so superstitious, however I was not too happy about being cursed by a pregnant gypsy, but thought nothing of it and we cycled out of town quite happily. We stopped for lunch on the top of the pass between the two valleys and got moving again just as the storm we had watched approaching hit us. We cycled through the rain for an hour or so but as we approached the Olt I started to feel very strange - first the usual aching legs but this soon spread to my whole body, joints and bones and a massive headache. Within the space of 10 minutes I went from feeling totally fine to feeling like death. By now we had turned onto a rough back road and as I was feeling so bad we decided to get supplies and find a camp soon. It took about 4 stops to find enough food to make dinner and I found it harder and harder to cycle on after each stop. Erika reckons it was just exhaustion as I did not have a rest in the mountains, I am convinced it was the gypsy curse! Eventually we found a nice quiet camp and pitched the tent and I crawled in and passed out. Fortunately Erika had managed to get the stove working again a bit (though still not properly) and so we could cook on this - just as well as the heavy rain would make fire lighting pretty hard. I still felt rough the next day even after a long lie-in so we had a full rest day and lazed around the camp. It rained most of the day and then again all the following night, but the next morning I felt well enough to cycle on and we had a long push to the Danube - 95 miles on good, flat roads, our longest day so far. We left any trace of hills behind and entered a flat plain reminiscent of the Ukrainian steppe but with the advantage of decent tarmac! All the rain had caused some bad flooding here though - lots of maize and sunflower fields were half submerged - kind of strange seeing dried sunflower heads growing out of a lake. Several houses were also flooded out - most of the areas along the road are on the floodplain and we could see the Olt contained behind high levees away to our left. We finally reached our camp in the only forest on the plain just after dark.
The short ride to the Danube the next morning felt like we were approaching the sea - the town of Dabuleni has windblown sand all over the roads. The sun was hot and the birds and plants all gave a much more Mediterranean feel. On the way into Bechet we nearly ran over a huge snake writhing around in the road - it had just been hit by a car - which only added to this impression. The border police were amused by our passports and our letter from the consulate explaining why we had no immigration stamps but we were allowed out without any problems. Following our experience of trying to offload Ukrainian money we decided to get rid of all our Lei before leaving Romania, so once we had paid for the ferry Erika made a quick dash to the shop to buy loads of junk food - chocolate, crisps and cake was all they sold. We just made it onto the ferry as it was about to pull away from the ramp. Despite only taking about 10 minutes to slowly chug across the mighty Danube the ferry doesn’t actually seem to go backwards and forwards very often. The Danube is definitely the mightiest river we have encountered so far, and will be the last of Europe’s big river we cross. When cycling you measure your progress by the landscape - mountain ranges and rivers take on much more significance. We have now met/crossed the Meuse/Maas in the Netherlands, the Rhein in Germany, the Labe/Elbe in Czech Rep., the Visla in Poland, the Dneistr in Ukraine and now the Danube, the mightiest of them all. By crossing it we leave Romania and enter Bulgaria, but also enter the Balkans proper.
Bulgaria is instantly different - Slavic language again instead of Latin and the signs are all in Cyrillic. Horse and carts have also been replaced by donkey carts, and we see the first ladas again since leaving Ukraine. The plain on the Bulgarian side is not so flat or low down as in Romania, but more rolling hills cut by shallow river valleys. We make some progress south on the road towards Vratsa and find a camp by one of the rivers - it is swollen from heavy rains and all the riverside trees are under water. It is also obvious that the flood has been much higher very recently. We find a spot for the tent on some high ground and manage to cook supper before another storm rages all night. We make another late start the next day but the sun is shining once again, though there are some ominous black clouds around too. At a rest stop we meet a Bulgarian family also traveling by bicycle - father, mother and daughter all on one normal bike! We have a stilted conversation in Bulgarian and they warn us a storm is on the way and urge us to follow them quickly to their house. We decline as we want to make some decent progress and get past Vratsa today as we are en-route towards Sofia where we are expecting to find a package waiting for us with replacement bankcards etc. A couple of miles later we regret this as the most serious rain lashes down on us and turns the road into a river. We shelter under a shop front and eat our lunch watching streams of deep, muddy water racing down the road. After an hour or so it eases off and we cycle on slowly through more gentle rain but still get soaked. A few miles out of Vratsa we reach a huge line of traffic and cycle to the front to find the road blocked by a jack-knifed lorry and a smashed up wreck of a lada. Police and accident investigators are everywhere taking photos and measurements so the road is totally closed. We rest the bikes on a Turkish truck and get chatting to a group of Turkish truckers - these guys know everywhere and have been everywhere in Europe. Our truck is on its way from Glasgow to Istanbul with computers, and we explain where we have been etc. - some them don’t know where Scotland is so we draw a map on the side of the dirty truck - this leads to a big graffiti session with them drawing maps of Turkey to show us where to go and not to go etc. and teaching us some Turkish. The first thing nearly everyone we have met in Bulgaria so far asks us is “you go to turkey?” as if the only reason anyone would travel to Bulgaria is because you are on the way to Turkey. Eventually the road is cleared and we continue onto Vratsa - it is now late so we decide to look for a hotel in town. The town is situated right under the Stara Planina - old mountains (Balkans) - a chain of wooded limestone hills with big rocky outcrops and cliffs forming an impressive backdrop to the town, especially now the sun is shining and gleaming off the white rocks still sparkling from the rain. We find the cheapest room of the journey so far and the biggest - a massive room with three beds, TV and en-suite shower all for about 7.50GBP - and go out to take a look around town and buy some food, including the best ice-cream in Europe.
Next day we check out, find some internet and discover we no longer need to rush to Sofia or go there at all as our package is not on its way (DHL will not carry bank cards or ID cards!). While doing this Erika gets talking to young boy who tells us there is good bike shop in town and offers to show us there - we follow him and get some new puncture repair patches as Erika has had 3 punctures in 3 days. At this shop we meet another colourfully clad cyclist called ‘G’ - we get talking and he shows us to his friends who have an art workshop where he thinks this will have some soldering/welding gear to try and fix our stove as we now suspect we have a cracked fuel pipe. The art place is full of cool sculptures and other artwork and some really interesting guys. One of them tries to fix our stove but has to go and get some other tools so we go with G for a picnic in the gorge just above the town and then to visit the museum as he wants to show us some of the Thracian treasure found in and around Vratsa. We learn lots about Bulgarian art, history, geography and the Vratsa area in particular. Back at the art yard we meet his father Ognyan (lit. means ‘fire’) who is a local politician and who helped draft the first Bulgarian constitution after the fall of communism. He invites us to stay in the family villa out of town in the mountains and we gladly accept. We load up with food and beer and ride out to the villa with G and his friend Volen while his father drives out with some other friends - Vale and George. At the villa we make a fire and cook on this before drinking and partying for most of the night - good music, good food, good company, good Rakia (Bulgarian homemade spirit ) and we are the happiest we have been since the bad events of Brasov. We stay at the villa all of the next day - making a trip to the nearby village for more food and beer of course - and keep the party going all day and well into the next night……
We then cycle back into Vratsa to stay at G’s house and visit his friends bike shop for a service and to type this on his computer while listening to his reggae/ragga collection. We visit his mother’s restaurant where they won’t let us pay for our feast of delicious Bulgarian food before spending the night in an ‘underground club’ - actually a band rehearsal room under the hotel we first stayed in. Another great party night. What can we say - we intended to stop in Vratsa for half an hour before heading on towards Sofia - 4 days later we are still here having made some great friends that it seems like we have known for ages. Bulgarian hospitality is even more impressive than Polish or Romanian. Although we keep planning to leave tomorrow we end up staying up too late, drinking too much and having too good a time so the next day becomes a slow morning followed by more plans of how to party the next night away…… This is kind of exactly what we needed though - the vibes have been strange and strained ever since Brasov and we were both tired and stressed all the way through Romania from Brasov - we kept going because we wanted to get out of the country quickly in an attempt to put events behind us. It has worked and our prolonged stop here in Vratsa has been just what we needed. As we have now decided to reach Istanbul around the end of September/early October we have a lot of time to tour Bulgaria and maybe go to Macedonia and Greece too, and are now looking forward to the road ahead once more.
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