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Jof's World Tour: Papers Please!

Updated: Jun 17, 2023

Trip miles so far 4,295

By Jon Newey

My brief stay in Oradea was made more interesting than I expected thanks entirely to my host, Nico. If it wasn’t for his enthusiasm for the history and architecture of his home city I would never have ventured into the centre and would have instead used my time for R&R for me and Tigger before moving on. As it was, the city centre proved to be a fascinating place to visit. It would have been even better without the thunderstorms, but you can’t have everything in life.

Waving goodbye to Nico I set off heading for the small Transylvanian town of Sebes, roughly 200miles away. I’ve chosen a ‘non-motorway’ route again which takes me high up into the mountains through the Apuseni National Park.

The road doesn’t disappoint. It twists and turns through forests and gorges for most of the day. Occasionally I get stuck behind slow-moving vans but most of the time the Romanian drivers are driving past me like maniacs. It’s not a race you guys! The road passes through scruffy villages from time to time. At an altitude of 1,216m I reach the highpoint and stop to admire the view. Instantly I’m mobbed by a million flies, but thankfully they are not the biting variety and it seems they are more interested in Tigger than in me. I just have to stand a few feet away from Tigger and enjoy a swig of water in relative peace.

On the downward run It starts to rain, with occasional heavy cloudbursts. The rain had been predicted so I’m in full wet-weather gear in preparation. Revit’s jacket copes just fine. BMW’s gloves not so much.

Every couple of kilometres there’s a picnic spot at the side of the road. Most of these include a roofed shelter with a picnic bench underneath. In the worst of the downpours I pull over to take refuge, with the result that as the day goes on I stay relatively dry despite the thunder, lightning and occasional deluges.

Just outside the town of Abrud things get awkward. A police car roars up behind me with lights flashing and signals me to stop. The two policemen inside demand my papers, passport, driving license and vehicle registration documents. Apparently I was speeding. It’s ironic, I think, because as far as I can tell I’m the only vehicle on Romanian roads that has any concept of what a speed limit is! These mountain passes are popular with bikers – I’ve seen lots, mostly German and Polish – so I imagine the two patrol men must have thought I was some young tearaway. I see them smile when they clock my date of birth in my passport. They didn’t expect to be pulling over a pensioner. After keeping me at the side of the road for twenty minutes they use Google Translate to say “This is just a Warning” and “Don’t do it again”. Then they hand me back my paperwork and are gone.

The ”Don’t do it again” part is a bit of a worry. I’m not really sure what I did in the first place. Speed limits in Romania are a bit of a puzzle to say the least. At any time the limit can be 30, 40, 50, 60, 70 or 90 kmh, and the limits go up and down at short notice constantly along the route, sometimes within just a few metres of each other. There are signs, of course, the usual white circle with a red border or sometimes a yellow circle instead (don’t ask me why). Sometimes there’s a limit-cancellation sign, sometimes not. The main problem is the 50kmh limits because like in France, these are never sign-posted: It is a default speed in all built-up areas and you are just meant to ‘know’. ‘Built-up areas’ are not easy to spot. There may be houses and shops on both sides of the road – typical Romanian ‘creeping’ development outside of towns which means all towns are effectively joined together - but that doesn’t necessarily mean it is defined as a built-up area (yet..) so you’re OK doing 90. Or you may not have seen so much as a sheep shack for 4 miles but you’re still within the nearest ‘built-up area’ even though you can’t see it, so the limit is still 50. To add to the confusion my sat-nav ‘helpfully’ tells me what the speed limit is on every section of road that I travel. Helpfully, yes, but it doesn’t always agree with the road-side signage. I have a terrible feeling that the “Don’t do it again” warning is going to come back to haunt me…

I arrive in Sebes in the rain with thunder rolling overhead. The ABnB is easy to find and is perfect, right in the centre of town, a big comfortable room with its own ensuite and a locked, gated courtyard for Tigger.

The only downside is that it is Saturday afternoon and – you guessed it - all the cafes are closed. Eventually I find a pizza place for dinner. It’s worth knowing that Transylvania has close links with Italy because historically it was a northern frontier-land for the Roman empire. The Romanian language is similar to Italian so I find it is relatively easy to guess at* and the pizzas are good.

Next morning I have a day off to ride to Sibiu and back. It feels great to be out on the road without the panniers and luggage for a change. The sun is shining, there’s not a cloud in the sky, there’s no traffic and it’s a brisk 60km motorway hop over viaducts and through tunnels - a stark contrast to yesterday’s wet roller-coaster road. The town of Sibiu is the poster-girl of Romanian tourism. A picture-postcard perfect little place, with piazzas, cafes, churches and cathedrals. The must-see place is the Bridge of Lies. Right beside the bridge is the colonnaded ‘Butcher’s Hall’ which gives me a perfect shady spot to sit for a wee sketch. There are lots of legends about the bridge - aimed at explaining its name - involving lovers and liars and mermaids, even though the nearest sea is at least 700km from here. In fact, the name seems to be a corruption of an old German word for a drawbridge. I drink coffee – yes the cafes were actually open here! I eat lunch – more pizza.

Heading back to Sebes I pull into a petrol station to fill up with fuel but I find it is a pay-at-the-pump system and the instructions are all in Romanian. So much for being able to guess at the language. Eventually the forecourt assistant takes pity on me and shows me how to do it. Back at the ABnB I prepare for the next day’s ride. Tomorrow we’re crossing the Transalpina pass, the highest, twistiest road in all Romania and a 'bucket list' item for bikers. I’m hoping to camp tomorrow night on the south side of the Transalpina but suddenly my phone makes a loud noise and a general alert message from the Romanian government appears. They are warning of heavy rain and floods for the next two days. I immediately drop the idea of camping and book myself into a motel instead. It’s a shame. This is the only part of Romania where campsites are common.

Sure enough it rains in the night but the next morning I get Tigger packed up and on the road in the dry. The Transalpina route starts just outside Sebes. It is a gentle climb at first, winding its way through forests and valleys, passing a series of reservoirs and hydro stations as it goes. At a height of 1,200m I reach a crest and the road starts descending through a series of hairpins. That was just the start, though. A left turn takes me onto the Transalpina proper. The road is steeper, the hairpins are tighter and the weather turns nastier. Two hours after we started Tigger and I reach the top at 2,116m. At this altitude the road is lined with snow on both sides, the rain is soaking through everything I own and we’re now into the clouds so I can’t see much. I pause for a chat with some Polish riders who say they are heading for Turkey. It’s an easy one-week trip for them there and back!

The hairpins are tighter than ever on the downward slope. Feral dogs dart out from time to time and soggy-looking cows wander across the tarmac. Another two hours later and we’re back down with ears popping. What a ride. It must be even more glorious on a sunny day. Before long I’m at the motel I've booked in Ramnicu. It is a bit dingy and surrounded by industrial workshops, but I just need somewhere to hang up all my gear to get it dry. At 8pm a disco starts in the hotel next door. The loud music has an ‘eastern' flavour….

Traveling solo is hard work. Some of the people I’ve spoken to make it sound easy, but I don’t find it so. It’s not difficult in a physical sense. I’m over 60 but I’m still as fit and strong as I ever have been. Nor is it particularly difficult in a technical sense as long as you have access to the internet and carry a credit card. The difficulty is a mental one, all in the mind. I find the constant pressure to find petrol, decent food and a good place to stay is quite exhausting. My preferred strategy is to stop every now and then for two nights and spend the day in-between planning the next few days ahead. That way I can give myself a few days when all I have to do is ride from point A to point B. This week, however, the bad weather has messed with my plans and now I’m trying to do things on the hoof lurching from place to place and hotel to motel. That unplanned approach suits some people, no doubt, but personally I’m much more comfortable with a bit of advance scheduling. Other complexities include route-finding (made easy by the Garmin, not sure how we ever used to do this with paper maps), avoiding drinking the local water, keeping tabs on what the weather is going to be doing, tackling the various languages (having English as my main language is a blessing, a huge advantage over other languages) and making sure my phone, camera and comms don’t run out of battery power. All this makes solo travel really hard work. I take my hat off to the people who do this as a full-time lifestyle choice!

Being away from home and away from loved ones for more than a few weeks is harder than I expected too. I’m not ‘homesick’ as such, but the further away I go the further I will have to travel to get back home. I think this is an age-related thing. Most of the big names in solo-motorcycle travel (Ted Simons, Sam Manicom, Heather Ellis, Itchy Boots, Charlie Sinewan – I could go on) have done their traveling when they were around half my age, at a time when they were young, free and single and none of them had a ‘home’ as such hanker after. As I sit in another dreary motel room with my earplugs in to drown out the disco, I can’t help thinking that a quiet home life has its advantages!

By the next morning my gloves and socks have dried out.

Breakfast is included in the room price and despite low expectations it is very good. Tigger and I get on the road headed for Brasov. The sat-nav says it is only 112 miles away but will take more than four hours. That seems like a long time but I soon start to understand. The road is another mountain pass, twisty and bumpy. The road surface is patchy and broken and the rain has made the remaining bits of tarmac greasy and slimy. After a while I start to think that four hours was optimistic. There are scruffy towns along the way and stray dogs a-plenty.

Eventually the road brings me down into Bran, famous for Bran Castle, which has been identified - for the purposes of Tourism - as the original home of Count Dracula the Vampire. In fact, Bram Stoker, the author of the original Dracula story, had no association with Bran Castle at all. He wrote the book sitting in a flat in Whitby and in it he described an entirely fictional castle. That doesn’t stop the tourism industry making the most of an opportunity though. Bran is mobbed with tour buses, souvenir stalls and school parties.

‘Count Dracul’ was real enough, it’s the family name of Vlad III, the ‘Impaler’. There’s no evidence that he ever went to Bran, though. None-the-less it’s an interesting castle. I pay £2 to park Tigger, dodge my way through the souvenir ‘market’, pay a further £10 entry fee (automatic machines, instructions all in Romanian, helpful bystanders) drop all my Romanian cash down a grating (more helpful bystanders) and eventually make my way into the castle. There’s a defined route that visitors must follow, all shuffling at the same pace. In a courtyard I meet two British bikers, Neil and Ian from Cambridge, who are in Romania on a two week ‘jaunt’.

After a while I find a place to sit in the garden to do a quick sketch, then I dodge back to Tigger and ride away. Tourist crowds are not really ‘me’.

Forty minutes later I’m at my ABnB in Brasov. It is a perfect haven. A comfy room, private ensuite and locked courtyard for Tigger all for the price of a pint in a London pub. There’s a pizza restaurant at the corner of the street and that’s as far as I need to go. I’ll see the rest of Brasov tomorrow.

Next day is spent wandering round Brasov, having coffee in the piazza, climbing up the hill to the star-shaped fortress**, eating lunch, topping up Tigger’s oil and doing other ‘housekeeping’ tasks. Brasov old town is pretty and full of pavement cafes, most offering an assortment of pizzas. In the afternoon I relax in my ABnB’s courtyard for an hour or two and prepare for the next ride. The weather is OK, overcast but dry so I decide to camp tomorrow, choose a campsite near Bazau and plot a route to get there.

The ride from Brasov to Bazau isn’t long, only 75 miles or so, but again the sat-nav says it will take me four hours. Not long after I set off I realise why. The road climbs up into the eastern end of the Romanian mountains and winds past a series of reservoirs where the road-deck is cantilevered out from the rockface. The views are spectacular but the road is in poor condition, hence the slow rate of progress. There are the usual scruffy towns, stray dogs and horse-drawn carts to deal with. Lunch is a coffee and snacks in a roadside petrol station where for the first time I encounter the dreaded ’squat’ toilet facility. It’s not too difficult for me to deal with, being a man and given what I needed it for, but if I had a more ‘serious’ need it would have been a nightmare to use it when dressed in full biker gear! Let’s hope I don’t encounter too many more of those.

By mid afternoon I’m approaching my chosen campsite, the ‘Muddy Camp’ of Bazau. I take a few wrong turns up various gravel tracks – without dumping Tigger in any bushes this time – and eventually find the place. It turns out to be a great choice. The site itself isn’t muddy. The name relates to the weird volcanic mud pools at the top of the nearby hill. I walk up to take a look. The scene is like something from an alien planet. In the silence all you can hear is the gloop gloop of belching gasses rising though a variety of muddy pools. Hard to describe it if, like me, you’ve never seen anything to compare it to.

The camping is cheap and relaxed. The owner and his wife prepare food for anyone who wants it. The food is fabulous. I sit with a German couple, Wolfgang and Suzanne, and we swap life stories for an hour or two sitting by an open fire. While we’re eating, a thunderstorm drenches everything outside but it has finished by the time we finish our meal and there is no more rain after that. Two Polish bikers arrive riding a matched pair of Tiger 900’s. They pitch their tents next to mine and we chat about bikes until it gets dark. They are from Wroclaw. Typical Polish bikers, they’ve already been to Georgia and to Morocco. They say that these two countries were both quite challenging to ride, which worries me a bit since these guys are way more ‘hard-core’ than me!

The site owner, Aurel, reminds me of someone I know in Scotland. Aurel is in his early 70’s, retired from his day job, and has grand plans for his campsite venture. He’s building some cabins - building them himself - and some new shower blocks and he intends to add a heated swimming pool with a glass roof. The projects all sound fantastic, but most of them are half-finished and he never seems to finish one before he starts the next.

Friday comes and its time for me to pack up the camping gear and get back on the road, headed for Constanta. Today’s ride is not an exciting one. It is a 5-hour motorway schlep from the mountains to the coast. It is hot, 28 degrees on Tigger’s dash, so I’m glad of the fast run to cool me down. By 3:00pm I’m in Constanta, into my hotel room and showering away a day’s sweat.

A quick change of clothes and I’m out to look for ‘On Plonge’, the most easterly bar I can find on the map. In the past few weeks Tigger and I have made it from the western-most bar in Europe to the eastern-most, covering nearly 4,300 miles in the process from the Atlantic to the Black Sea. It feels like some kind of achievement, so I’m sure a beer is in order! Noroc as they say round here!


*Most of eastern-European countries have languages that are Slavic in origin, so Polish, Slovakian, Czech, Slovenian and Russian etc all have common Slavic linguistic features. Romanian, on the other hand, is sort of Roman (the clue’s in the name!) and Hungarian is an outlier, having more in common with Danish because of the 10th century Viking influences in the region. There. Now you know.

** If you know your castles, you’ll know that star-shaped fortresses became the norm across mainland Europe in the 16th century as a response to the use of mobile cannons in warfare. In the UK, castles are not like that. The UK’s castles are generally older with big tall flat walls designed to resist spears and arrows and siege ladders, walls that would make easy targets for cannon balls. But compared to Europe the UK was a relatively settled and peaceful place by the end of the 16th century (I said relatively!) so star-shaped castles never became the norm there.

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Unknown member
Aug 15, 2023

I know it's way too late, but there is a translation app built into the Android (and I think iPhone) camera. Switch camera on: - Goto Modes - Select Lens - Select Translate When you point your camera at a bit of Romanian, it will translate it onscreen into English. Anyway, a bit late, but for the next time...

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