I know, I know, we left you in Romania and now I’m talking about Albania. We finished our biking in Fagaras and spent the next three days in transit: first a 9-hour train ride to traverse 400 km in Romania to Timisoara (yes, Romanian trains are slow) and then a series of trains to Belgrade and onward to Podgorica. The largest hiccup was that the train from Romania to cross the Serbian border turned out to have been discontinued in August, so we had to take one train from Timisoara to a town near the border, then bike as fast as humanly possible across the border to catch the last train of the night to Belgrade. But we made it, had a rainy night in Belgrade, and spent the following day on a train into Montenegro.
In Podgorica, we met up with my parents, who’d flown in from Santa Barbara, and then headed out the next day across the border to Shkoder, Albania, where we spent the night and then took a shuttle up into the mountains on a winding semi-paved road. After two hours’ drive, we climbed out of the shuttle and onto a waiting ferry for an absolutely spectacular ride across Lake Koman. The steep, rugged mountains descended all the way to the lakeshore. I took way too many pictures!
At the other end of the ferry, we hopped onto another shuttle that dropped us by the side of the road, from which, in theory, we could walk to our night’s accommodation, a rustic homestay in the tiny village of Dragobi. After asking a few locals, we managed to find Fariz’s house, where we settled into a surprisingly comfortable night after going for a short hike up the side valley and then sharing dinner with Fariz himself.
Next we set out on our three-day loop hike, first along the river and up a gentle incline to our next night’s homestay, and then more steeply up and over a mountain to a sheep farm where we spent the following night. The weather was perfect and the scenery was stunning, with rugged mountains and alpine meadows framed by stony peaks. Our hosts fed us well, almost exclusively with food grown on their own land or milked from their own sheep and cows!
We had a comfortable night in a regular hotel in Valbona before setting out on the hike that brings thousands of visitors to the area: the hike up over the pass from Valbona to Theth, covering on foot a span unconnected by roads, through spectacular mountain scenery. The walk was easier than expected, and we arrived in Theth by 2 in the afternoon for a relaxing evening of reading and watching the clouds roll in for a nighttime thunderstorm. We’d really lucked out on the weather for our hikes!
From Theth we chartered a 4WD taxi to take us up the rutted, rocky road out of the valley and then on increasingly well-paved roads back to Podgorica. In the end we had four days of hiking and 6 nights away from our base in Podgorica, from which we’d head out the next morning for a week of driving through the Albanian countryside. My parents were a bit under the weather, but Michael and I still felt healthy as we did the grocery shopping and ate a tasty Italian dinner.
Before our week of biking in Transylvania, we spent a day in the city of Cluj-Napoca, a bustling town of 400,000 that is host to many students (and, as it happened, to the Eurobasket basketball tournament during the week of our visit). With all the students around, we heard more English in Cluj than we had anywhere else since leaving the US, though almost none of it was accented in American.
The region had prospered in the late 1800s, leaving it with a legacy of beautiful buildings. We spent the day relaxing, buying train tickets, doing laundry, and giving ourselves a walking tour of town. The forecast rain was slow to arrive but came in with a bang, and we sheltered in a church for a windy downpour! The skies quickly cleared, though, and we continued our walking tour before picking up groceries to make ourselves salad for dinner. After two weeks of eating pierogis and roasted meats in Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary, a simple Greek salad hit the spot!
Belatedly, here are some of the lovely buildings around Cluj, several just across the street from our Airbnb! You can see a few Communist-era brutalist masterpieces and some Art Deco sprinkled in among the turrets …
Despite getting off to a rocky start (entailing mud, busy highways, and bicycle discombobulation), our bicycling through Transylvania ended up being quite lovely. We rode from Alba Iulia to Miercurea Sibiului, took a train into Sibiu to avoid a busy highway, and over the next three days rode from Sibiu to Biertan to Sighisoara and on to Fagaras, from which we will start our train journey to Montenegro. Map:
The roads were quiet backroads, mostly paved, and wound through valleys of tiny villages dotted with fortified churches. Back in the 13th through 15th centuries, the area was populated by Germans and these Transylvanian Saxons built fortifications around the churches in their local villages as protection from the Ottoman invasions. Originally there were 300 such churches in this region, of which about 150 still exist. We probably saw twenty over four days of biking, and I could imagine putting together a wonderful bike trip through this region just winding your way from one fortified church to another!
In addition to the fortified churches, we had overnights in three impressive medieval towns: Sibiu, with a gorgeous church and a well-preserved walled inner city of Baroque and Renaissance buildings; Sighisoara, with nine different towers for the different craftsmen’s guilds; and Fagaras, whose main point of interest is a huge 13th-17th century citadel complete with a moat full of swans. And in Alba Iulia, we explored the star-shaped fort at the center of town, built in the 1720s, before heading out for the day.
Views of the fort in Alba Iulia:
Scenes from our third day biking, from Alba Iulia to Mercurea Sibiului:
Sibiu’s medieval town was amazing:
Our ride from Sibiu to Biertan and the next day to Sighisoara took us by a multitude of tiny villages and fortified churches:
Sighisoara was impressive but much less vibrant than Sibiu, with mostly tourists wandering the narrow streets. I really liked the clock tower.
And finally, our last day biking!
And now we hop on a series of trains to get us from Romania to Serbia and on to Montenegro – wish us luck!
Always allow more time than you think you’ll need. (We keep forgetting this one.)
Yesterday’s mud was not anomalous. At one point I had to carry both of my panniers and the bike because it had accumulated so much mud that the wheels no longer turned.
For all we found Slovakia’s “long-distance cycleways” to be a mixed bag of dirt roads, they’ve got nothing on Romania’s. Disused mud path? Let’s call it a long-distance cycleway! Yes, this was the mud.
When you’re super excited for a bumpy dirt road because it’s so much better than what you’ve just been riding on, you’re in bad shape.
Biking on a narrow shoulder of a busy highway is like single track, except that if you fall to the left you’ll die. Luckily, we didn’t fall, just got honked at by lots of trucks.
It ain’t over ’til it’s over. About 800m from our hotel, the bolt that holds my seat sheared in half, causing the seat to fall off completely, followed in quick succession by yours truly. Luckily, I wasn’t badly hurt. But seriously? A bolt shearing in half??
Here’s to better luck tomorrow. As we speak, Michael is combining Street View with komoot to try to build a route that avoids both the busy highway and the mud.
After a day of relaxing in Cluj-Napoca, doing laundry and admiring the interesting architecture, we set out for our six-day Romanian bicycle adventure. Here’s a map to give you an idea of where we are and where we’re headed:
Today’s ride was a short one, just 55km from Cluj-Napoca to the small town of Campia Turzii, but it turned out to be tremendously varied.
The first ten or fifteen miles out of town took us up into the hills surrounding Cluj, then along rolling country roads through beautiful villages teeming with plum and pear trees and elderly women in scarves and skirts collecting fallen fruits from where they had landed overnight. We had a lovely view down over a few small towns to some distant mountains, and very few cars were to be seen.
That blissful ride soon came to an end as we merged onto a four-lane highway, which we’d thought wouldn’t have too much traffic because of the nearby autoroute, and figured would likely have a shoulder. Wrong on both counts – we biked miserably up over a small hill as trucks and buses hurtled by us too close for comfort. We pulled over at our first chance, a small truck stop, and took a breath. Desperate for any option that didn’t involve getting back on the narrow shoulder and hoping to live, I explored a small farm road that seemed to lead the direction we were headed. It seemed to be still in use, and from Google Maps’ satellite view it appeared to probably lead into the next small town, paralleling the dreaded highway.
So we set off on the narrow dirt farm track, up over the crest of a small hill and into the valley below. We walked our bikes and as we headed down the hill they became increasingly encrusted in the stickiest mud I’ve ever encountered. At one point Michael’s tires seemed to pull the entire hillside onto his back wheel, with a clod of mud the size of a fist gathering on his back brakes. But anything was preferable to the freeway at this point, and we continued on down the hill into town as it started to drizzle. We celebrated when the road turned a corner to meet a paved road (huzzah!) but then spent half an hour slowly scraping the accumulated inch-thick mud off our bikes and shoes in the rain. Ah, lovely.
But the rain soon faded, and we took a short detour into Cheile Turenilor, a gorge cut through limestone and karst with spectacular rock formations on either side of the narrow valley. The road was dirt but had enough rocks in it to keep from sticking to us; we’re really learning to differentiate between all qualities of biking surfaces!
From the gorge we avoided the highway on side roads – mostly dirt, some mud, some rocks – to the salt mine of Turda, in continuous use from the Middle Ages to the early 20th century and now converted into a tourist destination complete with Ferris wheel, boating lake, minigolf, and bowling — all underground. Ridiculousness of this setup aside, the mine was beautiful and fascinating, with rippled patterns of salt on the walls and some of the original machinery used to extract salt and transport mined salt to the surface. We spent an hour wandering through kilometer-long tunnels and climbing down hundred-foot-tall staircases to explore various cavities in the mine, marveling at its scale and at the salt coating that everything left in there long enough seemed to acquire.
And then we made for Campia Turzii, a town with no particular claim to fame but with a comfortable and inexpensive pension from which I’m writing. For our first day of biking after a two-day hiatus, it was not too bad! Our muscles remain intact and our energy levels high. We’ll see about tomorrow …
After several days of bicycling in Slovakia, we learned that despite being well-marked and incredibly well-mapped, with bicycle maps of the region posted in every village and even at some isolated intersections, the bicycle routes of the country varied dramatically in quality and pavement type. Our offroad adventure en route to Spis Castle was not entirely an anomaly, and we traversed every sort of pavement, from smooth macadam to single-track dirt paths to grass and gravel as we traversed the eastern part of the country.
Our first day’s adventure was across Slovak Paradise, slowly climbing over a 3,000-foot pass to the southern side of the national park. Trees lined the road the whole way, providing welcome shade as we made our way up the gradual but steady slope, and the descent into Stratena was smooth, with the pavement a patchwork of repairs but nonetheless largely intact.
After dropping our bags at our pension for the night, we biked back uphill a few miles to the Dobšinská ice cave, a UNESCO world heritage site and a very striking one, with layers of ice a hundred feet thick and giant caverns once used for figure skating year round! We were glad to have brought all our warm clothes, though the temperature in the cave was just above freezing. It felt like walking through a glacier, with layers and layers of ice on all sides. Photos weren’t allowed so here are a few from the internet:
By three in the afternoon we’d finished at the cave and biked back to our hotel, with striking rock cliffs above us at the edge of the Slovak Paradise plateau, and it was such a beautiful day that we decided to strike out on a short hike up to a viewpoint above the hills. We quickly climbed between the cliffs and through the forest to a series of caves and to the top of a prominent rock outcrop with views over all of Slovak Paradise and all the way to Spis Castle. Our hike brought us back out to a section of road we’d biked three times already, an old road built in 1840 but converted to a bike-and-hiking “educational path” when a tunnel was built through the rock nearby. It hugged the sides of a narrow gorge, with eight different bridges over the stream below and placards on geology, flora, and fauna. By 6 o’clock or so we were back at the pension, where we couldn’t figure out how to run the sauna but had a lovely hot shower and a dinner of pizza, kielbasa, and langos, the amazingly delicious Hungarian incarnation of fried dough, usually served with a smear of garlic butter. Pretty much the best garlic bread in the world!
Our next day’s ride took us down a long valley to Kosice, the second-largest city in Slovakia and by far the largest on its eastern side. Beyond the sheer variety of riding surfaces – dirt, grass, rocks – that had been labeled as “suitable for road bikes” on the signs, the valley was a study in contrasts to our riding on the north side of Slovensky Raj: a series of former mining towns ranging from downright poor to just getting by. After one long series of bumpy, grassy dirt roads, we realized that Michael’s pannier had fallen apart, with two of the screws that hold the rack in place having fallen off! Luckily it was a relatively simple fix, but we’re definitely starting to learn about the different things that can go wrong in long-distance bicycling! We stopped for lunch in a field and continued on to Gelnica, where the castle we’d looked forward to was visible above town but largely in ruins, and finished our ride in Margecany, where we hopped on a thirty-minute train ride into Kosice on the nicest train yet: USB ports, outlets, and a screen showing the current and next stations! It was lovely and we enjoyed whipping rapidly through the countryside after hours of bicycling slowly on less-than-paved routes.
Kosice itself was a lovely surprise, with a beautiful elongated town square boasting a gorgeous cathedral (the easternmost western-style cathedral in Central Europe, according to Wikipedia) and a number of other gorgeous buildings. People were out in throngs, eating ice cream and shopping and visiting a recreated 1918 army train that was on special exhibit. We stopped and had a trdelnik before biking out of town a little ways to our hotel for the night, where we dined on pork schnitzel and blue cheese farfalle and slept soundly.
Our ride out of town the next morning was full of excitement, when we first realized that the route komoot had chosen for us was a glass-scattered dirt trail from an industrial site and then, on rerouting, learned that the bridge depicted on Google maps did not actually exist. Undeterred, Michael mapped out a route along an old cycle route along the river, and we pedaled our way along old dirt roads and a long stretch of single-track to finally reach a road and a bridge over the river!
We passed millions upon millions of dead and dying sunflowers as we climbed out of the valley to Slanec, home of a 13th century ruined castle in the middle of restoration, where we hiked up to the ruins and then paused for lunch at one of what turned out to be a long series of bicycle rest areas on the incredibly nice – and wonderfully smoothly paved – bike route across the border into Hungary.
Once in Hungary, we cycled on quiet rural roads to another castle, this one fully restored and perched high on a hill over the town of Fuzer.
We settled for admiration of the castle from below this time around, and as we cycled southeast we soon found ourselves on an honest-to-goodness rail trail for bicycles, complete with stands for bird watching. It was lovely and relaxing and surrounded by yet more sunflowers. This would have been absolutely gorgeous a month ago, before they started to wilt! We stopped for crepes and beer in Satoraljaujhely before taking another bike path all the way to Sarospatak, our home for the night, where our hotel turned out to be in a beautiful old college building – and had air conditioning, of which we made delighted use. Our dinner involved a treat for both of us – gazpacho and a bottle of an IPA – and we took a short walk around town before heading back to our room.
By now we were entering the plains of Hungary, and it was HOT. We got an early start, with a short visit to the castle at Sarospatak, and cycled on the EuroVelo route on a backroad all the way into Tokaj, the center of the UNESCO-listed wine region we’d visited by car two years ago when I spoke at a conference in Budapest. We took a break from our picnic lunches and ate royally: chicken cordon bleu, a traditional Hungarian pasta of cottage cheese and bacon, and an amazing cold sour cherry soup that struck the perfect note for lunch on a hot day. Most importantly, we looked up whether there was a train from Tokaj to Nyiregyhaza, our destination for the night, and decided to take a nice cool train ride instead of biking along the main road in the hot hot sun. Of course from the train windows we could see that there was actually a lovely paved bicycle path alongside the main road we would have taken, but it had little shade and we were glad to be on the train instead!
Our joy at having taken the train was especially strong when we finally emerged from the Nyiregyhaza train station two and a half hours later, after working with two ticket agents, one information desk, and three helpful fellow passengers who worked as translators, with tickets for our train the following day. It turns out that Michael’s skill at navigating train schedules to figure out which ones accommodate bikes is unmatched – even by the professionals who sell train tickets! They repeatedly refused to sell us tickets, saying that the train would not take bicycles, even as we pointed out that the schedule said it could carry bicycles internationally
(although not domestically) and showed a
diagram of the train layout that was posted on the station wall. Eventually – somehow – they said, “oh wait, maybe it’s possible!” and spent ten minutes on the phone and then another fifteen sorting out the tickets with things like our full home address. And now I am writing this from the train into Romania, where we managed to obtain seat reservations and bicycle reservations and now have our bicycles safely stowed in a bicycle car — where they are the only bicycles because no one can figure out how to actually sell the tickets for them! We feel victorious.
Also I managed to eat langos two more times in our 36 hours in Hungary, so life is good.
We ride the train all day today to Cluj-Napoca, Romania, from which we will head out on a six-day bike adventure after one day of rest. My sense is that we’ll go further along the spectrum away from Germany’s impeccable bicycle infrastructure, past Slovakia’s incredible network of bicycle paths that just sometimes could use some grooming, to a series of unmarked dirt and asphalt roads, but we’ll see! We’re excited to discover Transylvania — and we hope to have equal (or maybe even greater) success in buying our next round of bicycle train tickets …