Transylvania: So glad we came

Alba Iulia, Romania

40+ years of working long hours was worth every second given that it led to this phenomenal retirement experience for both Mike and I.

We have just got back from a drive in the mountains.  As I write this Mike is dozing in his lounging chair with our recorded music from home coming through the RV speaker system.  It is 7pm on a Thursday evening and still sunny and quite warm outside.  Life is good.

Mike at the top of the Transfăgărășan Highway

Romania’s two highest highways across the mountains are the Transfăgărășan and the Transalpina highways.  The mountain passes in the middle of both of them are still closed and won’t open until June or July because of snow and ice at altitude.  Today we travelled as high as we could on the Transfăgărășan and plan to investigate the Transalpina in a few days.  The Transfăgărășan is closed near the Bâlea waterfall which starts at an altitude of 1234 metres (4050 feet) and flows down the side of the mountain.  There is a cable car that takes you over the closed highway to the top of the mountain pass.  It gives you a great view of the waterfall and the land below although driving on the switchback road would have been even more fun.  The Transfăgărășan was featured in a segment of the British TV show Top Gear and was proclaimed “the best road in the world”.  I can see why.  There are lots of videos of the road online for anyone interested.  It was very interesting going from 29C or 82F to slip sliding in the snow.  The views were phenomenal.   When you get off the cable car at the top of the mountain you pay for your ride and you are given two tickets.  Close by, a gazebo has been built that you can stand in and look out over the valley.  As you climb the steps of the gazebo you are asked for more money.  We didn’t pay as there were great viewpoints all over, but it didn’t feel right.  When we were leaving Mike presented the two tickets we had just bought and we were told that they were to let us ride up, from there we had to pay all over again to get down.  Although the amounts were not huge, it all left a bad taste.  It was the first time that we felt like Romania was out for a cash grab.  It wasn’t really the amount as much as being asked to pay three times for what we thought of as one ride.

Can you find the “best road in the world”?
From heat to snow in less than 1 hour

The Transfăgărășan was constructed during the rule of Nicolae Ceaușescu as a response to the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet Union. Ceaușescu wanted to ensure quick military access across the mountains in case of a Soviet invasion. The existing passes were mainly through river valleys and would be easy for the Soviets to block and attack.  Built mainly by military forces, the Transfăgărășan had a high financial and human cost.  Unofficial estimates put the number of workers that died in the building of the road in the hundreds. The road is often referred to as “Ceaușescu’s Folly”.

Two days ago, Mike and I started out on a bike tour of the area we are staying in.  We visited a museum that specialized in icons painted on glass.  Our campsite owner had recommended it and we were glad he did.  We had a lovely young lady, with very good English, give us a private tour that made it much more interesting.  In the 1970s the church got a new priest.  When he saw the glass icons hanging on the walls of his parishioner’s homes he asked them to donate them to a museum that he would build. Over time he gathered a lot of icons, the vast majority of which were simply donated to the church and museum.  After the museum we stopped for lunch in a traditional Romanian restaurant about 8 km from our campsite.  During lunch it started to pour outside.  We waited for the first thunderstorm to pass, looked at the remaining dark clouds and headed back on our bikes.  We got slightly wet, but it wasn’t too bad.  Yesterday the weather was predicted to be 29C or 82F and sunny and we started out again.  We rode about 43 km in total yesterday, added to the 16 km the day before made for a significant amount of travel on our new bikes.  While we don’t have to put as much effort into pedaling now that we have the motors we are physically pedaling the entire way.  Pedaling is like the on/off switch for the motor; no pedaling no motor assist.  We would never have been able to do anything like this on our old bikes.  In addition to the distances, the roads we were riding were in the foothills of the Carpathians and were quite hilly.  With our electric bikes we did great.  At the furthest point from our campsite Mike’s motor quit going up a fairly steep hill.  We got quite concerned that the hilly roads had run the battery down much sooner than expected or worse yet he had blown an fuse somewhere in the system.  Luckily after a minute or so the motor started again.  It must have overheated a little.  It was a bit of a scare as this happened 20 km from our campsite.

Mike on our 43 km ride through Transylvania

Everything in Europe is so compressed compared with Canada and the US.  This actually makes it great for Mike and I.  When we cycle in rural Romania you can’t ride more than a couple of kilometres without going through another village.  In one short ride you see rural vistas, interesting villages, animals, farms, mountains and more.  It is the same with driving the RV.  After driving for an hour or two there is a completely different set of towns and area for us to visit.

We visited the archeological dig at Sarmizegetusa Regia, the ancient capital of the Dacians from Kingdom of Dacia founded in 100 or 200 BC.  This empire ended around Julius Caesar’s time, when the Dacians were conquered by Romans.  They obviously didn’t make it as big as the Ancient Greeks or Ancient Romans in our history books.

Sarmizegetusa Regia, Dacian Capital in 100 BC

There was a camper in our campground that was about the size of the campers that Mike and I have rented all around the world for short holidays.  In it were 2 adults, their three grandchildren and one very large dog.  They were on the road for three months and were visiting Italy, Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Austria, Hungary, Germany, Scotland and more before returning to France.  I have no idea how they fit in that one camper and for that long.  I met one of the young girls, possibly about 10 years old, I think the other two were even younger.  The grandfather was a retired school teacher and the girl I met was having to keep up with her school lessons and her violin music lessons every day.  They all had to be back in France on June 24 so that two of the children could fly to China to visit their Chinese grandmother.  Wow, what a great education those kids are getting.

Another young couple in campground were from the Netherlands.  They have just returned from a year or two in Asia.  They worked in China for almost a year and then toured around Asia.  They flew back to Greece and are living in a small VW van as they tour around Europe, slowly heading north to the Netherlands where they will presumably end up living a more “standard” lifestyle.  We meet some of the most interesting people.

One day we visited two churches and planned to visit two fortresses spread out over a fairly large area.  Of the four, one fortress we never found, the other three buildings were all closed and locked.  We wandered around the outside but never got inside any of them.  The day was quite enjoyable anyway.  We had a lovely drive through mountainous countryside.  The trees are in leaf and the fields are yellow and green.  It is all quite picturesque.

We did tour one church recently.  Its tower had four turrets at the corners.  Apparently, the number is significant as it symbolizes that in the past the city had the right to issue the death penalty.  What unusual little facts you learn as you travel.

We have toured some great fortresses in different stages of ruin or renovation.  Here is an interesting picture that I took of a sign at Corvin Castle in Hunedora.  It shows the castle and the way it looked at various points in time from the mid-1800s until today.  What was so interesting to me is that the very different looks weren’t based on the castle falling into ruin, or on different owners doing huge revamps.  Public or government renovations started in the 1800s.  The difference in the looks of the same building in each of these pictures is based on the era that the renovators chose to try and emulate.  I had never before thought about selecting a time frame for a renovated building as being a problem.  They would fix the building up until it resembled what it did in one era and then someone else would decide that it should look like the 14th century instead of the 16th century for example and do it all over again.

While we were walking around one city we saw tall cases with clear plastic doors and shelves of books just out in the open in the squares and on the sidewalks.  There was a sign addressed to Deva (the town) citizens on the cases that, when roughly translated, said: “if you love books just take one, it costs nothing.  Return it to one of these shelves around town.  If you like the book very much then keep it and bring back a different one.”  What an interesting idea.

We have stayed at three campgrounds in Romania so far.  The first two were owned by people from the Netherlands.  The father-in-law of our current campground is from the Netherlands.  The campground we are looking at visiting next has a mobile phone number from the Netherlands.  We don’t know what the relationship between Romania and the Netherlands is, but Mike quite likes it.

A lot of the places that we stop in for lunch turn out to not serve meals.  The majority of what look like “restaurants” only serve drinks, including both my cappuccinos and beer and alcohol, and baked goods or ice cream.  Every restaurant that serves food serves lots of soups.  Soup in large bowls, is extremely common here.  The waitress asked Mike if he wanted “treep” soup and he said yes.  When it came, as he started to eat it he asked me what did I think he was eating. I explained what tripe was.  His comment when he finished was that the soup would have tasted a lot better if he just hadn’t asked what he was eating ?

I felt a little silly recently.  I had seen a colourful sign reading “Drum Bun” fairly often on the side of the road.  At first, I thought it was advertising a fiesta but that didn’t make sense as there were no dates on these signs.  Next, I thought it was saying that you were in the area of “Drum Bun” but that would have been a very large area.  After days of wondering, I entered the phrase into Google Translate.  I was a little embarrassed to see that it was a normal phrase that translated to “Farewell”.  The signs were saying Good-bye, as you exited a village.

Mike and I saw a security firm advertised called “Thug Security”.  We didn’t think that the name would go over very well at home.  A few days later we saw the billboard below on one of their offices.

Here a few miscellaneous bits of local trivia.  If you go to cross the street in Romania at a crosswalk the cars will usually stop for you quite quickly.  If you try to cross elsewhere you are taking your life in your hands.  The speed limit on the motorways is 130 km/h for cars and 80 km/h for trucks.  The truck speed limit isn’t posted, you just have to know it.  Luckily, depending on what vehicle it thinks we are driving, our GPS adjusts the speed limit display.  Cars pass the trucks and RVs like they are standing still.

There are two major competing phone companies here: Vodafone and Orange.  They are everywhere.  Think Tim Horton’s at home and quadruple.  In two city blocks in the historic area of Sibiu we saw three Vodafone and three Orange stores and there might have been more.  Often there are multiple of the same brand in one mall.

I have one big concern and that is the weather to come for the summer of 2018.  Mike and I were concerned that we would be cold in the mountains of Transylvania in April and May.  The average temperature in Bucharest, which is south of us, in April is reportedly around 11C.  The last week or so has been mainly sunny and humid and 27 – 29 C.   I can’t stand the thought of being in anything like last year’s heat wave in southern Europe.  While southern Europe was in the grip of a major heat wave in 2017, northern Europe had one of their coldest, wettest summers on record.  We didn’t like the wet, but we didn’t mind the cold.  The thought of biking and walking a lot in humid, sweaty weather does not appeal to Mike or me.  Trying to find out what the forecast is for this specific summer is difficult.  I must admit that the weather we are having has been in direct contrast with Toronto’s weather recently, to our benefit.  A side comment; on our electric bikes we travel about 50% faster than we used to.  We generate enough of our own wind to keep us cool while riding in the warm weather.


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