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Jof's World Tour: Roads to Romania:

Updated: Jun 11, 2023

Trip miles so far 3,487 (last week’s blog now corrected to 2,687…!)

By Jon Newey

Staying with Chris and his girlfriend, Kate, in Wroclaw (for non-Polish readers it is pronounced Vroshlav, or at least that’s the nearest I can get to it) is a great experience. In the evening they take me into the centre of Wroclaw – a fabulous market square well worth a visit – and we eat gourmet burgers in a café before moving on to beer and wodka shots at their favourite bar. It’s the kind of bar where the barman greets the two of them when they walk in and lines up the shots before they ask!

Then, slightly ‘weary’ we head back to their flat where I sleep the sleep of the just. Next morning Kate serves me scrambled eggs and bacon, then I pack up my stuff and prepare to leave. Tigger has spent the night in a nearby underground garage where Chris keeps his Versys and Kate keeps her camper van. It is Saturday and Chris and Kate are heading out for a ride in the countryside, so Chris and I go to collect the bikes together. I pack all my luggage onto Tigger, make my farewells and set off towards Krakow.

There’s not much option on the route today, it is toll-road motorway all the way. Chris has already logged Tigger’s registration on the Polish e-toll system (Thanks Chris, I owe you) so Tigger and I sail through all the tolls without stopping. Around lunchtime I see a sign to Moszna Castle so I pull off the motorway and follow a few country back roads to go and take a look. The castle is interesting in a Disneylandish kind of way, but it isn’t very historic and it is mobbed by day-trippers so I don’t hang around. The country roads are more interesting and at least I feel a bit cooler when I’m riding along. It is 26 degrees C today and stomping about in full biker gear in the mid-day heat isn’t much fun.

By mid-afternoon I’m in Krakow, parking Tigger outside the apartment block where I’ll be spending the next couple of nights. The apartment is owned by Kacper, who lets me in and shows me round. There are two bedrooms, a tiny kitchenette and a small shower room. The second bedroom belongs to Kamilla. When Kamilla gets home from work we get to chatting. She is mid 20’s and works as a manager at a local open-air attraction, the ‘Garden of Experiments’. This apartment is her permanent home so I ask her how she feels about the bedroom next to hers being used for AirBnB. She admits that it’s not ideal because she never knows who is going to be in the flat, she doesn’t get much privacy and some of the guests are not very considerate. Her job is seasonal, and during the summer months she works seven days a week which doesn’t always fit well with the habits of the guests. On the other hand, she says, the flat is in a good position near the railway and near the trams, and it doesn’t cost too much to rent. I guess life is all about making such compromises. She would really like to have a steady job working in a library. I hope she gets to do that someday.

I intend to spend the next day, Sunday, exploring Krakow. It will be my first day of not riding in almost a week. So for the rest of Saturday afternoon/evening I commit a little time to doing routine maintenance on Tigger (tyres, chain, oil, water, lights etc) then I wander down to the nearby Lidl to buy some food to cook. I buy a couple of Polish beers too. Before long I’m fast asleep in bed.

Sunday morning and I’m up and ready to explore Krakow. It’s another fine sunny day. I start with a walk to the top of the Krakus Mound, a small hill that overlooks the town with panoramic views from the top. The path to the top starts outside my apartment’s door so it would be rude not to do it, I think. It takes just 15 minutes to get to the top, the same to get down again, and then there’s a 30-minute walk to Krakow’s central square. It’s a cracking place. I fully understand what makes this city such a hot-spot for tourists. In the centre of the square is the Merchants Hall, the Sukennice. The colonnades make shady spaces to sit (see sketch). There are market stalls selling all manner of souvenirs. It’s a tourist trap but still quite a magical space.

There’s an inflatable dragon bobbing about in the square. The story of the ‘fat dragon’ is a famous legend of Krakow. The legend involves a dragon demanding a regular supply of human heads to eat, a king offering a reward to anyone who could kill the dragon and a young shoe-maker who fed the dragon a lamb carcass filled with sulphur. The legend says that the dragon drank so much water to quench the burning of the sulphur that it grew enormously fat and eventually exploded. Thankfully the inflatable version doesn’t explode, it just bobs about in the breeze.

I sit at one of the thousand or so pavement cafes for a beer and a Pepsi. Soon the square starts to fill with people – lots of people waving Polish flags and EU flags. Before long they are standing shoulder to shoulder across the whole square, chanting something in Polish. Apparently it’s part of a county-wide demonstration against the Polish government.

Upstairs at the Sukennice is an art gallery. I duck inside to avoid the crowds. As I expected there’s no more than a handful of people in there apart from a few trying to get out on the balcony to wave their flags. Most of the paintings are portraits of Polish nobles from years hence. There are a few paintings depicting scenes from Polish history. The stand-out work is a huge painting maybe 8 metres by 3 metres called ‘Four in Hand’. It shows a chariot pulled by four manic galloping horses all charging straight out of the canvas at you. It’s

truly stunning. Go see it if you get the chance!

The crowd has dispersed a bit by the time I step back out into the sunshine. They’ve formed into a march that is heading out of the south corner of the square. I work my way through and head off towards the ‘Wawel Zamek’, Krakov’s castle. It’s another show-stopper. Partly built as a military stronghold, extended to become a royal palace, and then with a huge cathedral added too so that it could also be the central location for the Church. There are archways and turrets and courtyards and gold domes everywhere. I settle into a shady corner to attempt a sketch. I have some gold paint in my painting kit which has never come out to play before but today is its chance to, well, shine….

By mid-afternoon I’m hot, sweaty and tired so I head back to the apartment for a nap. My day isn’t over yet, though. I’ve arranged to meet a friend of a friend, Marcin, in town for a few beers.

In the main square there’s a huge bronze sculpture of a severed human head. Don’t ask why. Anyway, it is a good landmark for a place to meet. Marcin is there when I arrive. He’s already eaten but I haven’t so he takes me to a small bar a few streets away where they serve a selection of beers and simple bar food. I eat a chilli con carne (easy choice, it’s spelt the same in every language…) and we drink beer and we set the world to rights. Marcin rides a V-Strom 650 and he’s toured all the way down to Croatia and back. His idea of touring is to take a hammock and a bivi-bag and to wild camp every night. That’s hard-core! My trip isn’t exactly luxury but a man has his standards! At least I have a tent and I’m not afraid to use it!

Marcin lives alone, works for a bank and spends most of his time working from home. It’s a lifestyle faced by ‘millennials’ all across the western world today. He knows he needs to get out more because days and weeks can pass when he hardly leaves his flat. He seems genuinely pleased to have the chance to get out to a bar and have a chat. We don’t stay out late. By 10:30 I’m back in the apartment and into bed. Tomorrow I have to pack up and ride to Rzeszow.

Next morning I’m on the road at 9:00. I stop at Lidl again to pick up bread rolls and salami for lunch. The route to Rzeszow would be a short motorway hop eastwards but I decide not to do that and instead I go into ‘no motorways’ mode and ride into the hills to visit Nowy Sacs. On the map the roads look like they will be fun, full of twists and turns and forest and lakes. In reality they are full of trucks and traffic and dusty roadworks. Oh well, one has to try these things. Nowy Sacs is worth the effort, though. A lovely, peaceful little town. I park Tigger on the market square cobbles, indulge in an ice cream and a coffee and then set off to find some more wiggly roads (and roadworks) down into Rzeszow.

Riding a motorbike for long distances gives you time to think. It has been interesting meeting some Polish bikers. They seem to have already traveled to many of the places I want to visit. I come to realise that if you are a biker living in Poland then chucking a rucksack onto the pillion seat and heading off to Croatia or Bulgaria and Turkey isn’t an adventure, it’s a simple two-week holiday. By contrast, back home when I’ve mentioned to people that I intend to ride to Romania or Georgia they look shocked and think I’m nuts. However, the shoe is on the other foot when I suggest to the Polish bikers that they might like to take a tour of Scotland one day. Woah, they say, that’s a long way and it’s a big commitment. That’s a big, long adventure…. I guess it is all a matter of perspective.

The final few miles into Rzeszow are hard going, with slow moving city traffic in baking heat. When I get to my AirBnB I’m pleasantly surprised, though. It is a brand new high-spec apartment block, all shiny marble and balconies. No hammock and bivi-bag for me, but at less than £20 per night I can’t complain! My host is Maciej. Familiar story: 30-something, lives alone, works from home. I think he lets rooms out as much for the company as for the money.

It is a short stroll into town for the evening. Rzeszow town square is very pleasant despite a dreary walk to/from. At a pavement café I get served a plate full of traditional Polish dumplings and a couple of beers. Then I stroll back to the apartment to catch up on some admin jobs, charging up cameras and sat-navs, planning the next few days of the trip and such. The good weather is set to change in a couple of days so I decide to leave the tent in my panniers a while longer and book some hostel-space in Slovakia.

From here onwards overland travel in Europe gets increasingly complicated. It’s a bit like some kind of computer game where you progress slowly up the levels of difficulty. When I enter Slovakia I will have to start filtering my drinking water and speaking a few words of Slovak. When I go into Hungary I have to learn to use Forints instead of Euros and when I go into Romania I will leave the Schengen area so I have to do a proper border crossing for the first time. After that when I head to Bulgaria I will have to learn to read Cyrillic script, and in Bulgaria everyone carries a gun. And so it goes on.

Still in Rzeszow the next morning I have my monthly Zoom meeting with the office back home. They seem to be coping just fine since I retired. I decide to spend the afternoon exploring the roads and forests around the Solina Lake. Tigger’s temperature gauge reads 35 degrees C as I set off, but within half an hour that has dropped to 15 degrees, the skies have darkened and then the rain hits me. I didn’t bring any cold weather gear with me today, nor any rain-proof layers! Within minutes I am soaked and the roads are covered in a greasy slick of rain-soaked dust. I persevere for a short while but long before I get anywhere near Solina I double back to Rzeszow. I park Tigger and trudge soggily back to my room. I strip off all the soaked clothing and hang it out hoping it will be dry in time for packing up tomorrow.

This evening I am meeting another friend of a friend, Szymon, in the centre of Rzeszow. Szymon is another biker, riding a Yamaha Fazer 600. He’s also a martial arts referee and he plays in a band. We share some beers and burgers and the conversation ranges across motorbikes, music, MMA, linguistics, star-gazing and Polish history. We finish the evening with a few wodka shots in Szymon’s favourite bar. He suggests that I should ride into Ukraine to visit Lviv which is less than two hours ride away. It is “like Krakow on steroids” he says. But I decline the suggestion. I’ll stick to the NATO side of that particular border for the time being. I also decline a third round of shots and head back to my room…

The next morning I get up early, cook myself a cheese omelette for breakfast and by 9.00 am I’m on the road again heading south towards the Slovakian border. I’m in full rain-proof gear today because thunderstorms are forecast over the Tatras mountains. Sure-enough it rains most of the day. I avoid motorways and sweep through Polish and the Slovakian mountain villages. I pause at the Slovakian border, wanting to take a photo of Tigger under the “You are now entering Slovakia” sign, but the sign is obscured by a big workman’s container and yet more roadworks. What a disappointment!

I realise that I’m not going to be doing Slovakia and Hungary much justice on this tour. I’m crossing them both in two half days, planning to keep myself mobile until I get to central Romania and pause there for breathing space. Slovakia has some great mountains, the High Tatras, some amazing historic castles and numerous hot springs and spas. Hungary has lakes and forests and farms. I’ll scoot past them all.

To be fair, I do make an attempt to visit one of Slovakia’s castles. The ruins of Kopiensky Hrad are really dramatic perched high on a cliff overlooking the town below. Having decided to make a detour to see the Hrad up close I pop the details into the sat-nav and slavishly follow the instructions in my headphones. All is fine while the road is made of tarmac but before long it turns to gravel, then mud, then a vertiginously steep gravel/mud combo. A better rider than me would no doubt have opened the throttle and squirrelled their way up with a confident rooster-tail of dust and spray behind them. Not me though. I stall, grab the brake, Tigger slides backwards downhill with both wheels locked and ends up sideways in a bush. No harm done – that’s what I fitted the crash bars for – and no-one was watching so it doesn’t count, eh? I haul him upright, admit defeat and gingerly crawl back down to the tarmac at the pace of an arthritic snail. So much for castle-bagging in Slovakia. More off-road riding practice is needed I think!

One night-stop in a rural Slovak motel later (having thought better of the pre-booked hostel/doss-house in grimy Kopiece which really didn’t inspire me) and I’m riding across the Hungary flat-lands heading for the Romanian border. I’ve paid online for an eVignette for Hungary, allowing me to use the country’s toll roads*, but I choose not to use them. Eastern Hungary is flat rural countryside, with occasional factories, electricity pylons and grain silos to break the skyline. The villages are small and a bit run-down. The road takes me past an attractive looking town, though, so I divert for a short break. The town’s name is Hajdúböszörmény, which I can’t hope to pronounce, but it is worth the small detour to see the pretty central square with its floral displays and fountains.

Before long I arrive at the Romanian border at Letavertes. It this point I am leaving the Schengen area of the EU so there’s is a full paperwork check-up for me and for Tigger. I park in the shade (it is 26 degrees C again) and after a 15-minute wait I’m stamped through. I’m in Romania!

My plan from here is to spend two nights at a guest house just beyond the city of Oradea where I can gather my thoughts and decide where to go and what to see in Romania. This is a huge country and there are lots of options. The weather will play a part in my planning. Thunderstorms are predicted for the next few days, so maybe camping will have to wait. There are mountain passes and castles and volcanoes to see. So far I have no plan beyond today.

My host at the Casa Alba guest house is Nico, a mathematics teacher in a nearby school. He greets me with a shot of home-made plum brandy – nice - and tells me that he will take me into Oradea this evening for a walking tour of the town. I’m the only guest and it seems the tour is not optional. In the end Nico’s enthusiasm for his home city proves to be infectious. Oradea is a beautiful place to be sure. My ride into the area earlier in the day had taken me along the bypass, past some truck stops and round the back of a railway goods yard, so my hopes were not high, but boy was I wrong. The city centre is fully pedestrianised and has streets and streets of Art Nouveau court-yard palaces, piazzas and pavement cafes. Nico takes me into his daughter’s apartment to show me the inside of one of the buildings and drives me up to one of the high viewpoints for a night-time view across the city. Magical.

Back at Casa Alba I collapse in my room. The clock has moved ahead an hour when I crossed into Romania so I need to catch up on my beauty sleep. I have a week of roaming in Romania to organise tomorrow!

Jon Newey

*Toll roads in Europe are complicated. They are free for motorcycles to use in Slovakia and Romania (and some others), pay-as-you-go in Greece (and some others), and uniquely for Turkey you need to buy a transponder chip and pre-load it with Lira before you can cross the Bosphorous. The different systems are an absolute minefield if you are trying to cross multiple countries. Anyhow, I’ll literally cross those bridges as I come to them and will try my best to avoid any big fines!

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Unknown member
Jun 18, 2023

Hi Jof.

Some years ago was in that area delivering reconditioned ambulances from West Yorkshire to a town called Turnu Sevrin. Couldn't get my head round within 3 days from Yorkshire with Super Market shelves bursting in Turnu there were shelves but virtually nothing on them.

Would it be possible to put a map of your ride or position? All the best. 👍🏻


Unknown member
Jun 09, 2023

Good to see you get some travelling under your belt Jon, looks great.

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