Romanian bike tour through picturesque villages
Romanian bike tour through picturesque villages

I’ve always been into cycling. I started with races such as the Argus and the usual road-race jaunts, but mountain biking has become my new hobby. An old friend of mine, Paul Lister, got in touch about The Wild Transylvania Bike Ride, and I thought why not take advantage of a mountain-bike trek with a difference. I’ve always loved travelling to destinations where the landscape and scenery is a far cry from what we have at home in South Africa, so I thought it would be an excellent way to explore a completely foreign land, as well as contribute to charity.

Lister has a passion for protecting environments, and in 2000, he established The European Nature Trust (Tent), which focuses on environmental and educational projects in Scotland and Romania. The wilderness of Romania and its surrounds — in particular the Carpathian mountains — is made up of beautiful alpine meadows, virgin forests, and Medieval villages. However, much of this untouched and rural land is subject to illegal logging.

The money from the five-day cycle trip all goes towards the Regatul Salbatic (Wild Kingdom) initiative. This project, founded by Lister, provides thousands of children with the chance to learn and enjoy the forests — and their wild inhabitants, such as bears and wolves — that he aims to protect. The trip (in which about 20 people take part) pays for a brilliantly decorated double-decker bus to function as a mobile education unit or travelling classroom. The race is now in its third year, and 100% of the funds from the cycle tour are used to try to add to the fleet.

We started the Transylvania Bike Ride in Cluj-Napoca — the second-biggest city in Romania. From here we transferred to our first stop, Valea Verde resort in the village of Cund, in the heart of Transylvania country. The scenery in the region is astonishing: rolling hills and stony Medieval buildings. During the ride, we would see local women dressed in traditional garb watching time go by as they sat alongside the road — it felt as if we were in a time warp.

A fortified church
A fortified church

On day two, we began the 35km trek towards Sighisoara, a 16th century town that is a World Heritage Site and birthplace of Vlad Dracula, the real-life inspiration behind Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Day three saw an early start, and we biked 50km through the forest towards our next destination, the Saxon village of Viscri, stopping for lunch in Saschiz. Each day, our guide marked out a route between the trees. He was fantastic and would spend a lot of time cycling backwards and forwards to gather misguided cyclists along the way. At dusk in Viscri, you can watch the cows guide themselves back to their barns, with the tinkering of their bells punctuating the silence.

Day four was a hefty 65km, but was well worth it after we stopped at the Stromba Valley to visit a bear hide, and saw these majestic creatures in their natural habitat. We spent the night in a village called Sinca Noua and stayed at Equus Silvania, a guest house whose owners, Barbara and Christoph Promberger, are also involved in the conservation of the region. Each evening we were welcomed into these local inns and fed on regional fare. Romanian food is generally preserved and there’s much nose-to-tail eating, including lots of preserved meat. The locals live off the forests and they forage seasonal fruits such as fresh berries, which happened to be in season during the trip. I’ve never tasted such vividly flavourful or fresh berries as I did during those few days. My wife, Jodi, accompanied me, and she and a friend hired a car and went exploring during the day while we were on the trails. One morning, she walked with our guide and his dog through the forest. His dog was trained to sniff out truffles, so that evening we feasted on these knobbly delicacies with our dinner.

On day five, a 45km journey enabled us to see the Wild Kingdom bus in action; this was followed by a stay at the Inn on Balaban near the village of Bran. The following day, which was our last, we had a gentle downhill ride to Bran Castle, commonly known as Dracula’s Castle, and after this we visited a bear sanctuary on our way back to Bucharest by road.

Overall, being able to experience these dramatic forests are what made the tour truly special. Romania isn’t usually a sought-out travel destination, but the trip was quite remarkable. One morning, it had just rained and the fallen leaves were soft under the tyres of my Merida Big Nine 500. There was a gentle mist, and it was dark, still, and quiet. And yet, I could hear other cyclists up ahead, about 100m away, in perfect clarity. It was quite a special and surreal experience.

February 2017

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