If you want to spend a holiday surrounded by stunning nature and friendly locals for only one-fourth of the price you would pay nearly anywhere else in Europe, then Romania is the place to go!
On my last holiday before I start graduate school in Munich I met up with some of my friends who were already biking through Europe. Catching a five A.M. flight, I arrived in Budapest just as the sun was rising; it was a stunner view to begin this end-of-summer adventure.
The plan was to catch a train to Oradea, Romania to pick up my bike (I found an amazing bicycle rental company located in Bucharest, Romania called Carpatbikes. They shipped the bike to my preferred starting point and arranged to pick it up from me the following week in Bucharest .)
However, the train situation was much more difficult than expected. Previously spoiled by efficient transportation in Germany, I was not prepared for the disorganization and chaos that ensued while trying to purchase a train ticket to Romania. Since we needed an international ticket, we can only purchase from one room. When we arrived to that room there was only one counter for English speakers. There was already a swarm of people and the number on the board was 121. When we took our number, it was 203. With the train we wanted leaving in thirty minutes we decided to come up with Plan B: catch a local Hungarian train to Békéscasaba, transfer to Kötegyán, take a taxi to Salonta, then catch another train to Oradea. But of course, that plan didn’t exactly work out as hoped. Once we reached Kötegyán–which is on the border of Hungary–with nothing surrounding to be seen for miles except the small train station–we realized that no one spoke English. So it took nearly an hour to figure out how to get a taxi. When the taxi did arrive, there was hardly any room for bikes; luckily our taxi driver figured out a way to creatively stuff them in the trunk.
So all was good until we reached border patrol. Most of the countries in Europe are in the Schengen Agreement, so you can travel freely throughout countries without having to show a passport. Unfortunately, one of my friends only had his German drivers license on him. But instead of passport control denying access to him immediately, they kept his license plus our passports for the next two hours! Every so often a guard would come over to our taxi and tell us the license was no good, but then walk back away with it. There were not many people crossing the border so nearly all of the guards took an interest in our situation. Finally as the sun was setting, and the final train to Oradea has passed, we were free to go; but our friend had to go back to Budapest to retrieve his passport. Luckily, our taxi driver offered to drive us to Oradea for the same fixed price of 35 euros that had been originally agreed upon, which isn’t bad considering it was nearly a two hour cab ride!
One of the many perks of traveling in Romania is the conversion rates from Euro to Lei. I got to live like royalty for the week– we spent the first two nights at the Astoria Hotel, which was once the Sztarill Palace and located right in the city center. It felt great to finally lie down on a luxurious bed after a long day of travel.
We spent the next two days exploring Oradea The city is one of the most important economical cities in Romania but still quaint in size. One thing I quickly learned is that if a sign says it’s a Cafe in Oradea, they only serve drinks–no food whatsoever.
Then it was off to Cluj-Napoca to meet our friend and start our bike journey. We realized that day that train travel in Romania is still very old fashioned in comparison to traveling by train in the rest of Europe. First, the wait to purchase a ticket was over thirty minutes (with only one person ahead of me in line at the ticket counter) because they still hand-enter all the information into a travel journal in lieu of a computer . Then, once I was finally attended to, I was informed that for that particular train ride I buy the ticket on the train from the conductor. But all the inconvenience was made better when I realized a train ticket plus bike ticket cost only 24 Lei (6 euros)!
At one point during the train ride the train stopped for nearly twenty minutes. This was not because of technical difficulties, but rather because our conductor was collecting and eating berries from a bush nearby!
When we finally arrived in Cluj-Napoca, the the sun was setting. The area is surrounded by rolling hills and mountains in every direction. One of my biggest fears prior to coming to Romania was the negative reputation of dog attacks. As we made our way to our pension called Déjà Vu, my heart stopped every time a dog was in our path. But we soon came to realize they were really harmless.
After the three of us had re-united, we sat in the city center discussing options for a traditional Romanian meal. That is when a local lady came up to us and told us to catch a cab and go to Hanil Dacilor. The place was exactly what we were hoping for–traditional Romanian architecture, a lively atmosphere, and absolutely delicious food (especially my cheese-stuffed mushrooms).
The next morning we started a three-day bike trip around the Cluj area. The first day was supposed to be all flat-terrain, and we would end the first day in Sâncraiu. Except, as it turned out, the flat-terrain turned out to be all off-roading on the dirt paths. The whole six hours on the bike were extremely bumpy and much more difficult than I had anticipated. But the off-roading led us to some hidden Romanian treasures, including the rural Romanian mountain towns where the main form of transportation were horses. Nonetheless, the locals were quite surprised to see the three of us arrive on bicycles!
By the time we arrived to the extremely small and quiet town of Sâncraiu, I was absolutely starving (60km of biking will evoke some really intense hunger). Our pension we were staying at was on top of the hill; we were greeted by our charming host who had already prepared dinner for us. As he walked us to the dining hall, he excitedly explained to us that dinner consisted of lots of different Romanian meat dishes. When I asked if they had any vegetarian options, he gave me a confused look and exclaimed, “Why? Are you crazy?”. But his hospitable charm continued as he created an entirely separate vegetarian dish for me, as well as hired some local musicians to perform for the three of us while we indulged in the home-made Romanian cuisine. We found out that night that Sâncraiu is one of many Romanian towns that is mostly populated by Hungarians. The musicians were performing for the Hungarian’s “Saturday Night Out”, which ended promptly at 10PM.
The next morning we awoke for day two of the trip, which would take us to Marisel. I was told it would be a hilly ride, but with little difficulty as there would only be a slow ascension. I quickly found out that this was false information. These hills were massive and the inclines seemed to be never ending. We ended the first big climb at the very top of the mountain and even though I was shattered, it was well worth it for the spectacular scenery!
We even came across a cow on the ascent!
There top of the mountain also had an abandoned church and never ending mountain peaks surrounding us.
After a quick break, it was on to the descent of the mountain, and then followed by the next big climb through the Apuseni National Park. This park was an absolute beauty and made cycling uphill the next four hours a pleasurable experience.
When we finally reached the very top at 1248m, we had finally arrived in Marisel. However, we had to conquer the last 5km on unpaved roads filled with a never-ending amount of potholes before arriving at our hotel for the evening.
We spent the night in a beautiful pension and the three of us had the whole place all to ourselves! But unfortunately our luck ran out, as the next day we woke up to the pouring rain. The next five hours were spent biking down the mountain completely soaked and covered in water and mud. I have never been so happy to have shelter once we made it back to Cluj! After drying off and resting for a few hours we then caught the overnight train to Brasov.
Once again, we faced more train difficulties. Unlike the previous train where we had to buy the tickets on-board, this conductor expected us to already have purchased the tickets. This gave him the perfect opportunity to overcharge us, but being so exhausted from the bike trip, none of us were in there mood to put up a fight.
It was really strange going from the nature of Romania to one of the most touristic cities in Romania–Brasov. The city even has a “Hollywood” styled sign of “Brasov” in the hills. Even though I am not too keen on overly touristic cities, I still really enjoyed Brasov because it is said to be home to the original castle of Dracula.
Only a thirty minute cab ride from the city center, we arrived at the inspiration of Dracula– Castle Bran. The castle looked especially spooky in the overcast night sky.
My last day in Romania was spent getting to Bucharest, which unlike my experience in the rural mountain towns the past few days, is an absolutely chaotic and overwhelming city. Drivers are overly aggressive and have no problem driving on sidewalks to skip traffic or speeding through crosswalks. Luckily, Carpetbike–he company I hired my bike from–offered to pick me up from the train station and personally bring me to the airport. I found out during the car ride that the owner of the bike company had left his other job early just to pick me up. He even made me a goodie bag full of Romanian treats!
My holiday in Romania has made me realize a few things. First is how fortunate I am to get to travel to people’s home towns who will most likely never get a chance to visit mine. Second is that no matter what the economical state of a country is, they always seem to be rich with kind-hearted people. I was really blown away by how helpful and accommodating the people in Romania were towards me and my friends. Third is that even though I was raised a “Vegas city girl”, I am starting to become a keen “nature girl”. The Romanian landscape is unforgettable, and it’s definitely worth taking a bike ride through the country. Just be prepared for lots of hills and bumpy terrain and being welcomed by some of the nicest people in Europe.