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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.