Singletrack Magazine Issue 112 : Riding Romania

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Words & Photography Tomasz Debiec

Glimpsing a world of open spaces, empty mountains and wickedly tough trails.

Romania is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful and interesting countries in Europe. It attracts increasing numbers of tourists looking for traces of its famous vampires (Prince Vlad Palownik – Dracula’s inspiration – was born in Romania), and visiting historic cities and castles. It is also a popular holiday destination for motorcyclists, car drivers and lovers of enduro racing. But don’t expect typical bike vibes like you get in classic Italian places like Lake Garda or Finale Ligure. Forget about all the infrastructure of Alpine resorts. Here, you’re more likely to bump into a bear than another cyclist. I love the riding here so much that I’ve made the trip from my native Poland to Romania many times, and I still feel there’s more to explore.

Romanian mountains are definitely my favourite. They are not too easy – like the mountains in my village that just slightly exceed an altitude of 1,000m – but at the same time, they are not so hardcore as to make you want to quit them. The Rodna Mountains in the north of Romania have no cycle-specific tracks, but many of the paths frequented by shepherds and walkers can easily be used for trail riding. In the Fagaras Mountains to the south you’ll find technical trails with switchbacks so tight, you can only turn by making a front wheel endo on every corner. The Parang Mountains, where the main access road was only covered with asphalt in the last few years, offer more steep and technical riding, while the impressive Retezat mountain range… well, we’re hoping to go there next. Romania has so much to offer that it will take some time before my friends and I become bored with mountain adventures in the wilderness there.

After a start in the dark, we reached a ridge in the Fagaras Mountains at 6am and saw clouds engulfing it. A layer of fog maybe 50 metres thick was going from one valley to another above our heads with dizzying speed. It was barely 3°C and, even though it was midsummer, the grass was still covered with frost after the freezing night. Slowly the wind etched a sunlit whiteness in the fog until we could finally see the clouds under our feet and our own shadows surrounded by glowing halo-like rings: the unique and rare Brocken Spectre, a phenomenon that was once associated with superstition. That supernatural fear is still present among Polish climbers: ‘Those who see the spectre for the first time shall fear for their life because death is near in the mountains.’ A spell that can only be undone if we admire our shadow three times.

There’ll be fast descents with loose stones flying out from under wheels, and others where oddly sized rocks interfere with the fluency of riding and the going will be so slow you may have to camp overnight to complete the descent.

Don’t count on being able to ride everything you see on a map – these paths were not charted with bikes in mind. In many places there is little uphill riding – it is simply impossible. There is no point pushing your bike, so it is better to just carry it. Descents can be as tricky. Bring your gymnastic skills, maintain focus and precision, quell your fear on trails where every possible fall might pitch you on to sharp branches. Even the best possible scenario is that you’ll end up with big bruises. At this level of difficulty and technicality, you have to take satisfaction in every single metre, rock, fault, or sharp turn that you manage to ride. If you can pause to look up, the surroundings are beautiful and picturesque but you might not always find the relaxed and fun riding you are used to. Some of these hard trails are really hard.

Camping is popular and in some places there are roadside stands offering food, though don’t expect the locals to speak English. Normally, when I’m in such a situation, I just point at products I want to buy, smile, then pay, but Maciek, our cook and a real gourmet, wanted to learn everything about the cheese from one stall. Repeating his questions in Polish more and more slowly did not help, although the universal language of ‘moo’ and ‘baa’ got us there in the end. 

For more comfort and convenience than camping there are also mountain shelters, where some of the owners might even speak English. We spent nights in mountain shelters in Lac Bâlea and on the Prislop Pass. You might think ‘Prislop’ rings a bell if you’ve travelled in Eastern Europe, but there’s a good chance you’d either be wrong or very lost. From Romania through Ukraine to Slovakia and Poland, every other pass is named Prislop which in Old Slavonic means ‘a pathway or pass through a mountain range’.

This breathtaking landscape can be witnessed even by those who don’t necessarily enjoy sweating or panting – some people don’t even get out of their cars to take pictures. The Transfagarasan road (aka Ceaușescu’s Folly), which bisects these mountains from north to south, is considered one of the most beautiful mountain driving routes in the world (as seen in Top Gear, no less). There are many perfect shuttle options, so if you’re lucky enough to have a friend who likes driving, they can appreciate the roads while you enjoy the trails. It is just like in Finale Ligure or San Remo – classic places for enduro in Italy where hordes of cyclists make use of shuttling – but without the crowds.

Romania – The Facts

Currency: Leu

Exchange rate at time of print: £1 = 5.2 LEU 

(or 1 LEU = about 20p)

Airports accessible from the UK: 

– Bucharest

– Bacau

– Cluj-Napoca

– Timisoara

Flights are available from pretty much all UK major airports to Romania and budget airlines seem to love the place. We’ve found flights from £41 (one way) and return flights with RyanAir from £81 (although that will undoubtedly not be your ultimate flight cost if you take your own bike).

Other airlines serving Romania from the UK include:

– WIZ

– Blue Air

– Hahn Air

– British Airways (From London Only)

//MAP TO GO HERE//

How far away is it?

If you really wanted to drive, which could be an option for a group of you, then the shortest driving route (from London for reference) takes you through Belgium, Germany, Austria and Hungary to reach Romania. It’s just over 1500 miles and Google says that would take you at least 26 hours, non-stop. The direct route does take you through some excellent riding options, especially in Austria, so Romania does offer up some seriously tempting grand road trip possibilities.

Get someone else to organise it all:

Mountain Guide Romania offer a guided tour of the Carpathian mountains. More info to be found at 

www.mountainguide.ro

Mtbtours.ro can organise quick guided tours over a few days to week long tours of the Transylvanian Alps. 

mtbtours.ro

Carpathiandreams.com offer up everything from one

day guiding services to big full week tours. 

carpathiandreams.com

Dracula and all that…

You know that was all made up, right?

Detailed maps are available from Bel Alpin (1:50,000) and DIMAP (1:60,000).

Information on this page was correct at time of printing and provided here as a starting point and general guide.

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