As expected, the driving standard began its inevitable decline as it does the further southeast that you travel in Europe – manic overtaking that I won’t even attempt to describe – you really have to experience the driving idiocy to believe it. It’s always a good idea to have horse drawn carts and 1930’s style, 2 stroke carts sporting top speeds of maybe 30kph on skinny highways that almost seem as if they were designed with suspension repair specialists in mind. With more craters in some of these roads than on the surface of the moon and speed limits of 130kph at times, it’s difficult to understand why accidents happen!
Making our way off the very poorly maintained and dilapidated blacktop and away from the local kamikaze drivers for a spell, we hit the dirt and by late afternoon we found our way up a lovely and heavily forested valley into a campsite right alongside a small creek where we spent 2 nights decompressing after the fairly consistent road travel of the last few weeks.
Romania laid it on for us over the coming days – beautiful mountains with lovely panoramic views and snaking dirt roads with a few, very overgrown tracks requiring 4×4 and some persistence in order to do a little exploring.
Smiles and waves were again the order of the day and it reminded us of the friendliness shown to us by the people of the “Stan’s”. Well, other than the traffic police in Kazakhstan that is! So reminiscent of Central Asia in so many ways… The people just seem to have such a friendly nature about them and will react quickly with a friendly greeting, a theme that was set to continue for some time.
Finding campsites isn’t all that difficult, but even when you crawl along an overgrown track in low range that doesn’t look as if it’s been driven in ten years, your unlikely to be alone. Of the ten or so nights we spent camped in Romania, only 2 campsites were free of local visitation.
Usually beginning with the faint sound of a cowbell, before culminating in a herd of cows or flock of sheep along with a lonely shepherd wandering up to our car for a chat and handshake.
At our first nights camp in Romania, a horse drawn cart passed within meters of us at 1am on a moonless night. You couldn’t even see your own nose it was so dark! But we could hear the singing reins-man along with the distinct noise of his steed’s shoes and cart’s timber wheels as he trundled by. Had it not been for the small creek between his path and our camp, we’d have definitely found ourselves enjoying an encounter with a very confused local.
Another night, we wandered along a disused track and then deviated onto a feint set of wheel tracks into a nicely forested area but still managed to have a vehicle’s headlights and hand-held green spotlight sweep across our camp around midnight. After a while we no longer bothered trying to camp incognito, when we camped within view of a village on one occasion, no one came near us! Maybe we need a rethink!
Continuing through the Apuseni National Park we managed to stumble across a tourist information building containing some really helpful Ranger folk! We were very excited, as finding tourist information on the run can be all but impossible.
Anyway we were keen to have a look at some of the caves in the area, as they are reportedly some of the best in Europe, although every country seems more than happy to portray itself as the region of greatest natural beauty and generally being blessed to such a degree that you’ve no real need to visit any other country anywhere else on Earth… but we will visit them anyway!
Anyway, we gleaned some info and finally a small tourist map and set off in the direction of the Ice Cave, which is apparently on the Romanian must do list.
I’ll not even going to attempt to describe the experience other than to point out that it was our only visit to an official site in the area.
Hopefully some of the photos will put you there with us.
The drive out however was stunning; it’s a loop road and travels out through a long narrow gorge!
We then made for Sighisoira, where, upon our arrival, we found parking to be all but impossible due to the annual medieval festival. With a little tenacity from Jen who sweet-talked a parking attendant, we managed to park right in the centre in a fenced off area.
A standout town in Romania and birthplace of Vlad the Impaler, the oldest part is perched along the side of a hill, which makes for lots of quite steep, cobbled stone steps. The whole setting provides interesting vistas across sections of the old and new city from varying levels.
A stage had been erected in the main town square and whilst the band was in preparation mode, the background music they had playing was excellent so Jen set herself another task – find out what it was? She located the sound-mixing guy and he told her it was his own iPod mix and if she had a thumb drive, he could copy it. Ever efficient, Jen produced a thumb drive from her Aladdin’s cave bag to the stunned looks of the music guy and myself and ten minutes later and we departed with his complete collection of Romanian Folk music.
A few hours later and a few kilograms lighter due to the oppressive heat, we were back in the aircon and on the road. It’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks and that certainly applies to me! Finding a track on the map that looked as if it would get us further south we persisted well past the point of no return and ended up camped in a small pocket of forest amidst some small farms and logging communities. I only mention it as the following morning we were visited by one of the confused locals who wanted to point out that we weren’t allowed to camp in the area, as it is “Protected Area Naturale!” He was most friendly and more interested in the Patrol than pushing the point but I had to laugh as once again we find ourselves in an area being heavily logged and bombarded with livestock whilst sporting a nice selection of rubbish and yet to the locals its all about nature! Now I’m the confused one….
The following day saw us visit Bran Castle (aka Dracula’s Castle) amongst other destinations. I guess you can’t really visit this country without paying homage to Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I think the castle may be pulling in a good portion of Romania’s GDP given the amount of tourists. It was nice, however, to see China getting it’s fair share in form of remuneration for all of the amazing plastic junk that you can produce and apparently sell to tourists. Too much for us though, so we quickly had the blood sucker’s home in our rear view mirror.
Now finding ourselves caught in a massive traffic jam, I’d eventually had enough and cold beer and a campsite were calling. We darted off the highway and up a valley that looked as if it had potential and were suddenly met with a toll-booth and an enthusiastic attendant. “Welcome – Area Naturale” spilled forth! Here we go again, but we’d had enough of driving, so a few dollars parted with and we began our run up the valley where apparently you can camp anywhere you like for the next 4 km! He forgot to mention that the next 4 km had a camping population density of 1 person per square metre. It was unbelievable and really had us laughing as we cruised past all manner of humpy structures through to caravans and tents coated in a nice layer of dust from the continuous stream of speeding cars.
Thank God for 4×4! Up into the forest and we managed a reasonable camp perched high above the throng of locals. It did the job and was an experience – wild/feral dogs included!
Onward through Bucharest, we headed for the Bulgarian border, where we paid a 6 Euro toll to cross a bridge over the Danube in order to enter Bulgaria – a bridge that I drove across in low range. Should give you an idea of how bumpy it was and how slow the traffic was moving!
A consistent decline in the standard of infrastructure was now even more apparent as we made our way through open farmland and from small village to small village. If Romania reminded us of the “Stan’s”, then Bulgaria was parts of Eastern Russia! Even down to the return of Cyrillic characters and a 90% Russian language. Soviet style apartment blocks in varying states of decay, farmers still using horses and carts and locals collecting water at the town well.
Very hot temperatures had helped us choose a course and a swim in the Black Sea was extremely alluring. The reality of Bulgaria doesn’t exist along this coast. With an airport at either end of the tourist strip and a sudden dramatic improvement in both road and general infrastructure, hotels and theme parks are the God’s here. Tourists enjoying a spot of relaxation and spending their days in the small towns that only exist to serve their every need and remove a little currency from them, of course.
The average traveller in this area could be forgiven for having no real understanding of this country and is actually blinkered into a false experience by its very design. But if you’re after a few cheap days by the sea it certainly has that in store for you.
Somehow we managed to locate a great campsite right between 2 resorts, which allowed magnificent views along the coast and over the sea. With a little bit of mountain climbing we were able to enjoy our first salt water swim for some time and it was marvellous. Nothing quite like soaking in the sea to help bring down your core temperature.
Continuing south and not more than a few kms past the most southern airport exit along the resort strip, the nice black top again morphed into the style of dilapidated road that we are so accustomed to. At one point during our journey toward the Turkish border I considered the fact that we may be on the wrong road even though I knew this not to be the case. It was hard to believe that this overgrown strip of bumps and potholes could possibly lead to an international border crossing.
Cheers – Justin
Ps: every time we publish a post I find myself waiting with baited breath and tingling with excitement at the prospect of opening my email and finding I’ve been blessed with another witty retort from Rebecca! Truly Bec, I enjoy your mind-bending responses almost as much as I enjoy writing these posts! Keep ‘em coming.