Cross-continent cyclist Helen Moat hits the back blocks of Romania and discovers she's the fastest thing on the road
Children lined the village streets of Romania’s villages, arms stretched and palms held up. When three sweet and innocent-looking little girls almost knocked me of my bike with the force of their high fives, I pointed to Jamie behind me: I didn’t want to re-break my smashed wrist in rural Romania and have our trip come to an abrupt end just short of the Black Sea.
Romania was becoming something of a rollercoaster ride: I’d felt every emotion cycling through this land caught between the past and present. I’d loved the sense of rural isolation of the Nera river valley from the moment we crossed over the border from Serbia, but when we finally met the Danube again, just before Bazlas, elation turned to revulsion as I took in the abandoned litter that lined the banks of the river.
Beyond, the most beautiful section of the entire Danube awaited us: the Iron Gate. We headed out of Coronini in the early morning light, unaware of the drama of the landscape ahead of us. We passed by Decebalus Rex, a monumental face carved into the rock face, 40 metres high and 25 metres wide. The carving pays homage to Dacian King Decebalus, the last king of Dacia (Romania today) who died in 106AD.
From here the Danube squeezes through the Carpathian Mountains. The road hugged the river mile upon mile, the wooded hillsides dropping steeply down to the river, its water sparkling as we cycled along in the first rays of the day’s sunlight. We spun the wheels on the traffic-free road, occasionally skirting great rock falls that blocked one lane, praying there would be no landslips as we cycled through – I didn’t want to join the copious roadkill.
It seemed incredible that this road, probably one of the most beautiful in Europe, was almost devoid of humans. Apart from the clusters of tourists in the odd waterside hotel and the fishermen who lined the shoreline with their multiple rods, parasols, tables and chairs, we had the road to ourselves.
Just before Orsova, the Danube squeezes through the cliffs, the narrowest point of the river. We climbed through the pass and freewheeled into town. Ahead the last of the Danube bulges and squeezes between the Capathian Mountains before meandering once again through the flatlands and wetlands of the Danube valley.
My bike book, usually pragmatic when describing the regions of the Danube, dropped its positive spin when describing the Romanian plains, referring to them as ‘monotonous’, and suggesting skipping the section by taking the train from Calafat. I’m glad I didn’t take the book’s advice, for what this area of the Danube lacks in geographical diversity was made up for by the richness of our encounters with the Romanian people.
Here almost every village had its own magazin, an old-fashioned grocery store with outside seating, also serving coffee, beer and spirits. No hour is too early for the male villagers to congregate at the magazin for a beer or a swig of homemade rakia straight from the bottle.
The men would try to engage with us as we sipped on our coffee, dredging up any word that we’d recognise – words like Chelsea or Margaret Thatcher. Sitting with our coffee, we’d watch the village world wander in and out of our line of vision: scarved and aproned women carrying large sacks of wild herbs; youths balancing gas canisters precariously on ancient bicycles; old men chatting on the summer seats found outside the garden perimeters of most homes. These were villages poor in worldly possessions and rich in community lives.
Out in the sticks, in the village of Bechet, Jamie broke a third spoke. We stopped at a hostel and within no time, the family-run business had found a replacement spoke, fixed it, refused payment, and invited us to join them for watermelon. In the next village, a man stopped the two cyclists we’d joined forces with to give them a large bag of tomatoes.
In Corabia, we headed through the ruins of monstrous factories and blackened crumbling blocks of flats: Ceaușescu’s legacy. It was a depressing sight. We stayed in communist-era hotels, untouched since their conception, where customer service is an alien concept and flouncy synthetic furnishings still adorn the rooms. We almost came to a sticky end when the lift got stuck just short of the third floor of one of them – it would have been an ironic way to die after surviving the lorries and tunnels outside of Drobeta Turnu-Severin.
Still we rode on.
Each village seemed to have its preferred choice of greeting, and everyone everywhere called out to us and waved at us we cycled through. The passengers of the ubiquitous horse and cart shot bolt upright as we passed by, their faces breaking into wide grins of delight.
Romania: it’s been a rollercoaster ride, but never boring. I’m so glad I didn’t take the train.