Tag Archives: adventure

Old castles, the Black Sea and a bike: bicycle touring in Romania

“I come to Romania for adventure!” the German cyclist on the train said in reply to my quizzical appraisal of his touring setup: mountain bike with suspension (a must for any life-loving cyclist of Eastern Europe), beat up pair of panniers, thick coat of dust. Sounds about right.

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Having been born here, I’d often wondered what brings tourists to Romania. But curiosity presses, and landing here after rolling in the unmotorized nirvana of Northwestern Europe, I had to try it for myself: bicycle touring in Romania. I sweet-talked a doesn’t-know-what-he’s-getting-himself-into friend and followed this well documented guide to cover the 110 miles (180 km) from Tulcea to Constanta along the Black Sea in 3 days.

The worst part? The 35℃ (95℉) heat and the barbarous mosquitoes. The best part? Well, of course: adventure.

Tulcea is an old harbor city in Eastern Romania, perched on seven hills by the Saint George branch of the Danube. Lovely place, if not for the scorching heat which nearly peeled the paint off my bike. To make for a relaxed first day, after getting off the train here from Bucharest, we decided to cycle just 20 miles South and camp at Zorile Albe, a charming campground in the border village of Sarichioi.

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This campground was unique in a number of ways. It featured cats, curious chickens and a fleet of remarkable organized ducks. Most interestingly, it was just a dude’s backyard. A sociable dude who came down and chatted with us and the other campers, and then proceeded to prepare an incredible meal of carp brine with polenta, a traditional fishermen’s dish from the Danube.

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Located right on the shore of Lake Razelm, this campground had one of the most show-offy sunrises I’ve ever seen. Nice, I guess, if you like that whole sun-reflection-water-boat-whatever stuff. Not me though, not me.

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The second day was grueling. But we knew it was going to be. Waking up at 5 am to get a head start on the already building heat, we aimed to cycle about 80 miles (120 km) South to Vadu, a beautiful wild beach where camping isn’t officially allowed but, like in the rest of Romania, done by many.

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We got to the first stop, Enisala fortress, around 8 am – perfect time for breakfast with a view. After a steep climb to the castle, we feasted on tomatoes and yellow sheep cheese by the old walls, amidst piles of trash, which sadly are everywhere in Romania.

Enisala looks straight from a movie, a 14-century fortress built by the Genovese on the grounds of an older Byzantine construction. This fortress somehow survived the long-standing pissing contest between the Russian and Ottoman empires and didn’t get blown up. It’s the only medieval fortress that remains in Eastern Romania.

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15 miles later, in Jurilovca, we got off the paved road and cycled towards the coast onto a gravel road, then a dirt road, then a single track, then a heinous single track with boulders, which climbed steeply then descended abruptly right along the coast, making us wobble with the loaded bikes and count our blessings as the cliff fell sharply to the left. We wanted adventure, right?

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Here we found Argamum, an old Greek fortress from the 7th century BC which sits on the tallest point of the Romanian Black Sea coast. This thing is old! The on-the-brim positioning and the history of the place impressed us, but the unforgiving sun and the trash which garnished the place as per usual made us want to get out of there as soon as possible. So we did.

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In summary, the journey to Vadu included: near-death experience cycling along a major two-lane highway with fast traffic (this is Romania, so no other roads!), tall poplar trees, endless fields of corn and sunflowers. But the morale was kept high by the friendly countryside people: cyclists wave, old people say hello, kids pedal alongside you till they run out of steam, drivers cheerlead you with friendly honks. Balkan people 🙂

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Approaching Vadu beach, there was so much trash and the road was so dilapidated that I dreamt of being back in Denmark on butter-smooth delimited bike paths, and almost cried. But camping on this wild, quiet beach after cycling all those miles, was a spiritual experience. Worth it – even though I took home some 200 mosquito bites as memento.

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On the last day of the Romanian seaside cycling adventure, we ruefully awoke to a blasting 5 am sun, and freshly sweaty proceeded to pack up the tent and make a hasty exit off the roasting, insect-infested beach.

The final stretch took us 25 miles (40 km) South to the city of Constanta, where we took the train to Bucharest. I don’t have a lot to say about this part, as it took us into the touristy part of the seaside where hordes of flabby, sunburned people gaped around and stuffed their faces in the sweltering heat by the beaches where last-year’s-finest music blasted from the speakers. Not my favorite landscape.

Most memorable part: fixing a flat on the train like a boss.

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It surprised me to see more touring cyclists on this short trip than in Scandinavia. All but one of the 6 groups I spotted were foreign. Most seemed to not know what they were getting themselves into. I felt for them. I was born here and still I was way out of my comfort zone as a cyclist, and as a human. Which really presses the question: why do tourists come to Romania?

Some lessons I took home: don’t come in the summer, just don’t do this to yourself. Come on mountain bike; no hybrids, no racers. Take hand sanitizer everywhere. And you’ll have to find a way to get used to seeing and smelling trash, because it’s there everywhere you go.

A lot of things don’t make sense in Romania but if you’re not a pansy and really, really want adventure, this is probably an experience that’ll quench the thirst.

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Lübeck, I love you

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When you travel on two wheels you absorb more of the feeling of place than when you drive, and get out of the car in various places to sightsee. Imagine you arrive in a city as people would arrive in the old days on horseback: slowly, deliberately, with suspense. You see the city skyline from afar, have time to form expectations, then you begin to make the city’s acquaintance from its fingertips, the outskirts, all the way to its lungs where all the tourists are. Biking into a city is an organic, fascinating way of knowing a place.

You may have read about my troubles with the rain, but all is forgotten now because I may have found the most beautiful place in Germany: Lübeck. This small Northern city with only 200,000 people is beyond lovely (its name draws from the Slavic “Liubice” – lovely), it’s like a museum-city that doesn’t try too hard.

It’s not a good route for cyclists for sure, the cobblestone is much too brutal. After securing the bike at my AirBnb for the night, I proceeded to explore the city on foot, which was the correct thing to do. And I loved Lübeck! Here I didn’t get the tourist-borne agoraphobia of trendier places like Bremen or Hamburg. The town felt airy and quietly artistic, but still equipped with all the quaint cafes and jazz bars and shops that are so charming for a tourist. The architecture blows you away, it’s easy to see why the city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Fun fact: this is also where some of the finest marzipan is made!

From Hamburg it was only 40 short miles to Lübeck, and I was lucky to find a route that took me along straight roads with solid, separate bike paths. The route was not scenic, nothing to write home about, and a little too hilly for my taste, but the slow descent into Lübeck along corn fields and then onto oldschool single track dirt paths by the Trave river turned on the poetry for this place.

Many bike roads are crappy in Germany but when you find one that isn’t, or a road, you ffffly! Here’s a short clip of me goofing off at 25mph (40km/h) downhill, around Kastorf. My bike’s never gone this fast before so I was excited:

 

Unhappy camper arrives in Hamburg

IMG_20170701_172441.jpgToday I made it to Hamburg. My original route avoided all big cities, and for good reason. I’ve no desire to navigate an unfamiliar route and urban combustion at once, by myself. But I ended up here because of the rain. I’ve changed the original route to cut out the entire Western part of Germany and Denmark, and am now traveling Northeast to resume my original route in Southeastern Denmark.

The rain finally stopped, but not before drenching all my belongings and seeping deep into my brain. I feel like I’ve been moisturized for a lifetime. Today’s 60 miles from Zeven to my AirBnb in the Northern part of Hamburg (important, because Hamburg is simply enormous so I kept crossing the city for over 25 miles) were the hardest yet. 60 miles in The Netherlands is easy, but 60 miles in Germany is like a multi layered pain sandwich.

I would not recommend Germany to any cyclist, if they have other options. In the countryside there aren’t cycle paths everywhere, and if even briefly your route takes you on a road with no separate path you feel very exposed. I live in San Francisco, I know what exposed means but this is something else. Cars drive very fast here, and though drivers are usually careful when overtaking and give you space (much kudos to German drivers!), the passing of cars on the already narrow roads is very unpleasant because of the noise and, if the street is wet, all the backsplash from the tires which hits you square in the face. This happened to me today repeatedly, as it was (still) pouring rain on me for at least 30 of the 60 miles I covered. Just what was missing from my already derelict appearance: some face mud.

Also on the “do not try” list is Hamburg on a bicycle. After experiencing The Netherlands, I’m downright offended as a cyclist about what passes as a “cycle route” in this city’s infrastructure. I switched 3 different routing apps because I couldn’t believe what kind of routes I was being guided on. Streets with large, uneven cobblestones, streets with broken pavement, streets where you have to jump the curb to get off the “cycle path” (?!). Halfway through the city I gave up on trying to navigate the ridiculous partitioned sidewalk “paths” (also cobblestone) and rode the rest of the way hustling for space with cars on the street like in San Francisco. Cars drive much faster here, and that made me feel unsafe.

Since there is no Google Street View for Germany, as a cyclist it’s impossible to preview your route ahead of time. Google Maps or other apps have to “guess” what would be a bikeable street, and often times they get it wrong. There is no cycling routing information I could find which provided the granularity I’d have needed to create a route through Germany, and this made me nervous about cycling here from the very beginning.

Hamburg is decidedly the least enjoyable city I have cycled it, surpassing even my native Bucharest. The two cities are similar in mood, and the scent of linden trees and those wafting out of large apartment buildings made me a little nostalgic, and regrettably in lack of cycling infrastructure they are also similar. But Hamburg takes the cake for the least enjoyable ride on account of the cobblestone and the lack of any information on how to make your way around town comfortably as a cyclist.

I wish I could say something nice about Germany. I really wanted to like it. Tomorrow I’m heading out to explore Hamburg on foot, and maybe I will find something redeeming.