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BIKEPACKING IN ROMANIA

Chasing Vampires and Adventure in Transylvania

Story by Dan Bailey July 6th, 2016
Sunset over Beritan, Romania.

the Old Country

Romania is steeped in history invaded by nearly everyone in the region for two thousand years, (the Romans first conquered the Dacian Empire in 106 AD), Transylvania is known for expanses of wilderness, and a lifestyle that still clings to medieval ways. Cycling around this area is like stepping back in time. On any given day, you’ll bike through sleepy villages, past shepherds tending their flocks on gentle hillsides, farmers working their hay fields, horse-drawn carts plodding along dusty gravel paths, and you’ll pedal through the shadows of centuries old castles and Saxon fortified churches.

Fortress ruins on the hill in the village of Saschiz.
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Cycling village to village over faint cart tracks through.

BUCHAREST TO BRAŞOV

We flew to Bucharest, the capital of Romania and a city of 2 million people. Our adventure stated immediately with our taxi ride form the airport. For the record, two full bike boxes will indeed fit in the back seat of a tiny Dacia Motors Romanian taxi cab. Amy sat in the front seat and I crouched on the floor behind the passenger seat with my camera backpack in my lap. Good thing I’m small. Our kind cab drive George, took us to a great little hostel right in the city center, called Crazy Duck Hostel, where we got our bearings and assembled the bikes.

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Courtyard ar the Crazy Duck Hostel.
My Salsa Fargo with Alternator Rack and Revelate Designs Frame Bags. Ready for adventure!

Bucharest bikefsest!

What better way to begin a bike trip than with the BikeFest event in Bucharest. We bought a cap from a this guy, who sews bike bags, hats and wallets. His company is called Turific. Check out his Website and Facebook Page. I gave him a Revelate Designs sticker for his Sewing Machine.
Amy warmed up for our big tour by taking part in a giant outdoor spin class right in front of the massive Palace of Parliament building, which is the second largest building in the world.
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We then took a bike ride around the city, eventually finding a pleasant bike path alongside the river, where we watched a nice gentleman in his Sunday clothes help land a large carp for a stranger who was fishing in the Lacul Herăstrău.
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Train to Braşov

We started and ended our main tour in the medieval city of Braşov (pronounced Bra-shov), which is about a two-hour train ride north of Bucharest, in the southern part of Transylvania.

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Cheap Eastern European train station pastries. Yum!!!
The "Hollywood" sign above Braşov.

First Castle Sighting at Rupea

Our first day of riding was hot. Almost 90 degrees hot. Apparently, Romania was having a newsworthy heat wave. Coming from Alaska, we weren’t quite used to that kind of heat. However, it only took a few hours of riding before we saw our first castle. Technically, it’s a fortified Saxon church, but to my excited American eyes, it was as good as a real castle.
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first week: The Saxon Lands

We spent our fist week riding through the gentle hills of the Saxon area, making circles,
Lodging on our first night of the trip: A medieval-style pensiune in the Saxon village of Saschiz.
The picturesque village of Sashiz
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Romanian tomatoes are the best!!!
Essential gear
Pedaling through Saxon Land.
Dropping into the next village
Yea. We had some of this.
Entering the village of Daia.
Checking voicemail message.
The Fortified Saxon Church at Biertan, a UNESCO World Heratige Site.

Navigation

On the first night of our ride, we met up with Mircea Crisbășanu, a freelance Romanian guide who owns Cycling Romania and leads bike tours around Transylviania. Mircea gave me some beta and let me take pictures of his much more detailed maps than the big, laminated Romania map I had. Between these maps and my GPS, I had just enough info to get me plenty lost. My goal was to always try and find the little white roads on the map- those were the ideal bikepacking routes between village. They didn’t always go where the map said they would…
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Looking for the White Road... It's supposed to be around here somewhere...

Camping

With its buttery soft hills, the Saxon areas of Transylvania were perfect for camping. Sometimes we pitched on hillsides above villages, other times we camped in farmers’ fields, usually after asking and receiving friendly permission. Often times we found ourselves near shepherds and their flocks, which made for quite a sight during some mornings.
Our first camp spot.
Sunrise.
Romanian shepherd
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Transylvianian bike Trail Network

The riding is so good over there that there is a growing network of bike trails in Transylvania being established and linked together by the locals. The Transylvanian Bike Trails Network even has a Facebook Page. Before I went, I downloaded a GPS track for a route near the towns of Saschiz, Bunşti, Crit and Viscri.

After circling around the area for a few days and getting lost a couple times, I finally found the the route for the Transylvanian Bike Trails Race, which had taken place a month prior to our visit. Aside from a very brief wrong turn, we were rewarded with a fantastic afternoon of quality mountain biking.

Leaving Beirtan
Singletrack by the cornfield!
Sometimes the GPS Track isn't quite accurate...
Amy on her Niner MCR Hard Tail.
Me on the Salsa Fargo.
Buttery soft hills!!

the Gear

With mountain bikes rigged up with Revelate Designs frame bags, we weren’t limited by any terrain- we could go anywhere. I carried clothing in my seat bag, a beer can stove and food in my frame bag, the Black Diamond Megamid tent and a couple layers in the Sweet Roll dry-bag style handlebar bag, snacks in the Gas Tank and both sleeping bag and Ultralight 3/4 Thermarest sleeping pad strapped to Salsa Anything Cages on my fork. A third rack under the down tube offered space for extra fuel or water.

I rode my Salsa Fargo and Amy rode her Niner MCR steel hard tail. We trained and dialed in of our gear for the trip during the summer on some of Alaska’s remote gravel roads, like the Denali Highway and the Nome-Teller road, which dead ends at the shores of the Bering Sea. Everything performed flawlessly during the entire trip, and we had no mechanicals or issues with any of our equipment.

On the rear rack, I had a prototype pair of the new Revelate Designs Micro Panniers, where I kept both of our running shoes, a spare water bottle and a rain jacket. Essentially, light bulky stuff that isn’t going to stress the rack if I’m bouncing on rough trails.

I carried camera gear, chargers and Goal Zero solar panel on my back in my F-Stop photo pack. I’ve toured numerous times with a variety of different setups over the years, but this was, by far, the most streamlined and efficient rig I’ve ever run.

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After spending a glorious sunny week and a half in the Saxon and Hungarian regions, we pedaled west across the middle of Transylvania and spend time in the Apuseni Mountains. With much steeper ground and thicker forests, camping options were much more limited. We mostly stayed in cheap hotels and pensions.
Fueled by hoards of cheap eastern European cookies and snack cakes, fresh plums and walnuts we picked from tress right at the side of the road, crusty bread, couscous, heaping bowls of polenta, mountain cheese that’s stored in casings made of tree bark, and some of the best fresh tomatoes known to man, we lazily picked our route each day and took each day in stride as we explored.
Creepy Eastern European architecture.
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Fresh plums! We often picked these right off the trees.
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The city of Blaj.
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Hayfields in the Apuseni Mountains.
Fresh walnuts, right off the tree.
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market Day

Fried Hungarian sweet bread. The yummiest snack ever!!!
This is what it's really called.
This is how it's made.
Hungarian peppers.
Bikepacking gear for sale!
Who needs frame bags...?
Sale on FUJIFILM brand beans!!
Sheep cheese stored in bark.
Pedaling just after sunrise near Sebeş.
Head Shepherd.
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Rainbow of the city of Turda.
Storm passing over Turda
City of Turda.
The old section of Sibiu, with its characteristic attic windows that look like eyes.
Portrait in the village of Daia Romana
Transylvanian traffic jam

Last Leg

During the last leg of our 845 mile circle, we crossed to the modern city of Sibiu and visited the very old-world medieval town center. After Sibiu, we turned south and set our eyes on the final prize, a crossing of the southern range of the forbidding Carpathian Mountains by way of Transfăgărășan pass.

Nervous about the Soviet Union’s 1968 invasions of Chechoslovakia, Ceaucescu built this winding strategic highway over the Făgăraş Mountains, in case the Soviets turned their eyes toward Romania. A massive undertaking that cost many live, the mighty Transfăgărășan rises with a dizzying maze of switchbacks for 20 miles and climbs over 5,000’ to an altitude of 6,699’ before cutting through the mountain tops via an 800-meter long tunnel and dropping another 36 miles down the other side.

The second highest road in Romania, the Transfăgărășan is considered one of the great mountain roads of the world. In 2009, the TV show Top Gear called it “The best road in the world.” The route actually has historical significance; it follows the traditional crossing between Transylvanian and Wallachia.

We rode up and over in a day, and camped at around 5,000’ on the backside with a French cyclist, also named Dan, who was making his way up to the pass from the sound.

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UP THE TRANSFĂGĂRĂȘAN

Start of the Transfăgărășan road. It climbs all the way to where those clouds are.
10 miles in and gaining elevation.
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Above treeline now
The hairpins.
View from the top!!!
Me and the girl who beat me up the Transfăgărășan.

AT THE TOP

1.9% lemon beer. Perfect thirst quencher on a hot day!
Grilled cheese-filled polenta bomb we ate at the top.
Into the tunnel!

AND DOWN THE OTHER SIDE

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Down, down, down...
Selfie.
More downhill.
Sheep in the Carpathian Mountains

camping with Dan from France

The French Dan has been cycling for over a year. He figures he’ll be out for another year. Looking at his bike makes us glad we travel with a much lighter setup. Given that you can buy food in almost every single town, you can get by with minimal stuff, even if you’re on a long tour.
Sunset on the Carpathian Mountains
The French Dan.
Dan's bike.
We travel lightly.
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Tunnel near the border of Wallachia.

CHASING DRACULA

All along our tour, we’d seen numerous guest houses, hotels and souvenirs, all referencing Count Dracula. However, near the end of the trip, we finally laid eyes upon the real Dracula’s castle, where Vlad the Impaler held court.

Born the son of a Hungarian count, Vald Dracul, Vlad Tepeş, (Vlad III) ruled Wallachia between 1456-62. His father, Vlad II, was a member of The Order of the Dragon, whose mission it was to protect Christianity in Eastern Europe, and Vlad III was a revered folk hero in Romania for his victories agains the Ottomans.

Vlad III earned his moniker for his legendary practice of impaling his enemies in such a way that they’d suffer in agony for many hours, sometimes even a day or two before succumbing to death. His reputation spread across Europe and inspired the main character in Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula.

Bram Stoker used the castle in the Transylvanian town of Bran as the home of the fictional Dracula. It is said that Vlad III was said to have visited the Hungarian owned stronghold a few times during his travels through Bran, but her never lived there. To this day, Vlad III remains a legendary hero in Transylvania.

One of the many "Dracula" signs in Transylvania
Castle Bran, the fictional home of Bram Stoker's Dracula.

POENARI CASTLE

Poenari Castle was a 13th Century fortress that lies at the Transylvania-Wallachia border. Abandoned sometime in the 14th Century, the castle ruins were rebuilt by Vlad The Impaler, who was drawn to the strategic nature of the fortress. Situated high on a steep precipice and reached only by 1,480 steps, it’s an impressive sight- we rode right by the castle at the end of our long descent from the Transfăgărășan.

The story goes that Vlad heard up a potential uprising in the nearby village, so he marched in and gave everyone a choice: Be impaled or march to Poenari and rebuild the castle under brutal slave labor conditions. Most who chose the latter ended up dying anyway, and the finished fortress was used by Vlad by many years. It truly is “Dracula’s Castle.”

The ruins of Poenari Fortress, the true Dracula's Castle.
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THE END OF THE TRIP

Two days later, we turned north and did the long climb back into Transylvania. We spent a few days in Bran and Braşov before taking the train back to Bucharest and flying home, just as the leaves were starting to change. We look back on our time in Romania with great fondness. We saw a lot, but barely scratched the surface, just as this photo essay only tells a brief story of our adventure. I hope it gives you a good idea of what our trip was like and inspires you to travel as well.

I’d love to go back to Romania someday. I know some great places to hike and ride bikes over there.

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Riding into Bran
The other type of Transylvanian traffic jam.
The impressive Piatra Craiului Mountains west of Bran.
Fresh sheep cheese.
Picking mushrooms with our friend Alina
Ready for transport. 5 weeks of mud and dried dung from various animals washed off, which will please the US Custom's officers.
Braşov's Strada Sforii, the narrowest street in Europe
View of Braşov from its "Hollywood sign."
Eastern European men playing chess in the park.
Castle Bran
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Map of our route.
GPS breakdown of all the photos I shot during the trip.
Elevation profile of our trip. Transfăgărășan in purple.

Camera info

All of the photos in this essay were shot with FUJIFILM X Series camera gear and lenses. I love the Fuji gear for travel, it’s lightweight, and highly capable equipment that offers a high degree of performance and wide creative options.

I used both the X-T1 and X-10. For lens, I took the XF14mm f/2.8, XF23mm f/1.4, and XF90mm f/2. The 90mm lens stayed fixed to my X-T1 all the time, and I swapped out the other two lenses on the X-T10. I mostly used the 14mm on the X-T10, and switched to the 23mm when I needed the faster f/1.4 aperture.

Had the XF35mm f/2 had been out when I did this trip, I would have definitely taken that lens, possibly in place of the 23mm. If the FUJIFILM X70 had been out, I might have taken that camera, instead of taking the X-T10.

If you use the Fuji cameras, download my free PDF guide, FUJIFILM Tips and Tricks: My 10 Favorite Settings for the X Series Cameras. It’s a 5,000-word ebook that is designed to help you get the most for your Fuji camera.

If you’re not a Fuji shooter, check out my blog- it’s full of outdoor and travel photography tips, reviews and insight.

Thanks so much for reading. To see more of my work, follow me on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter

- Dan

www.danbaileyphoto.com

Lush hills near Fundata.
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Footnote: Dan Bailey is a professional outdoor, action and travel photographer based in Anchorage, Alaska.
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