Cycling from Craiova to Calafat/Vidin: another Balkan trip begins

Several years ago my wife and I did a circle of some 3000 km from Romania through several Western Balkan countries and back again. It was a wonderfully memorable experience. As I found myself with two months free while the weather was still fine, I decided to do nearly the same route again, this time going alone to fully immerse myself in the local languages.

Instead of setting off from Timișoara this time, I decided to enter Serbia further south, near Niš. To save some time in doing this, I took the train to Craiova, the capital of southwest Romania, from which I could easily reach the former Yugoslavia by the new bridge across the Danube and then a brief traversal of Bulgaria. Continue reading Cycling from Craiova to Calafat/Vidin: another Balkan trip begins

Cycling Romania’s Transalpina road

In early August 2015 we cycled Romania’s “Transalpina” road (DN67C) over the Carpathians, going from south to north. While less well known than the Transfăgărășan road, which got asphalt first and has been raved about in international media, the Transalpina reaches a higher attitude at its peak and has much less traffic. Continue reading Cycling Romania’s Transalpina road

Pleasant cycling from Baia Mare to Cluj

The route we cycled from Baia Mare to Cluj was one of the smoothest routes in northwest Romania, away from any major highways but with paved roads for almost the entire length, no uphills that are too daunting, and some interesting scenery. The trip falls neatly into two days.

Continue reading Pleasant cycling from Baia Mare to Cluj

Cluj to Budapest with bikes, on trains, to get a plane

Wanting to get our bikes from Cluj to Budapest for our flight out to Madagascar, the most economical way seemed to be a combination of internal trains. In Romania, a bicycle can be taken on any train with the purchase of an extra ticket (costing 10 lei). At the ungodly our of 0238, we left Cluj on a slow train to Oradea, which turned out to be one of the new-model trains with doors that open at the level of the platform, so we could wheel them straight on instead of the usual frantic heaving. After a wait of an hour and a half in Oradea‘s abysmal unheated train station, we got a local train to the little community of Săcueni Bihor, and this time we could put our bikes in an spacious, but unused, compartment for wheelchair users. Săcueni is an hour north of Oradea and next to a little-used border crossing with Hungary.

From Săcueni we cycled 7 km to the border and stood freezing while we waited for the customs officials to return our passports. The officials, who rarely see anyone coming through here, let alone foreigners on touring bicycles headed for the Southern Hemisphere, kept us in conversation for a long time before handing our documents back. Map showing a cycling route from Săcueni to Debrecen

It was another 37 km or so from the border to Debrecen. Soon after the border we reached (along a paved bike path built alongside the road) the agricultural town of Létavértes. Afterwards, the road went only through deserted meadows and forests before we reached the outskirts of Debrecen. There is no shoulder to the road and passing drivers sped along the twists and turns, which occasionally proved stressful.

In Debrecen we quickly got a train to Budapest. The cost of a single one-way ticket, including bike, was around 17€. We were told that we could only take the bike in the first or last carriage, but as passengers started to board, a ticket inspector waved us toward a dedicated bike carriage halfway along the train.

Three hours later we were in Budapest. Navigating the city streets, riding alongside cars, on bicycle was initially daunting, but as we observed many local hipsters flying past us without helmets or cares, it was easier to make the journey to our lodgings without panic.

The next day, we set off in search of the bike boxes necessary to check our bikes as luggage on the plane. This proved slightly more difficult than I expected. Hugo Sport at Kalvin tér 7, one of the largest shops on the Pest side, had put all its boxes in the rubbish, which had recently been taken away. Nearby at Allez on Baross utca 3, a small supply and repair shop, we succeeded in getting one box, but the proprietor explained that he would not be receiving new stock (and thus new boxes) until the spring. He was kind enough to ring another shop he knew of, Bringaland at Dózsa György út 64, which had a few boxes in a rubbish closet and promised to hold one for us. So, we made our way there and picked up the second box, and got a fork spacer to boot.

Poșaga Monastery

The Monastery of the Dormition of the Theotoks at Poșaga is south of Cluj-Napoca, just across the border with Alba County. It was built in 1935 by Fr Alexandru Rujdea near a spring whose healing properties had been previously discovered. The monastery itself is exceedingly small, and its church holds only a few people. Everything about the church is handsomely carved from wood. The murals are now fading and less impressive than some other churches I’ve visited in Romania, however.

Cluj: scenes of anti-Hungarian sentiment

One year after he was finally voted out of office, the presence of Cluj’s ‘mad mayor’ Gheorghe Funar continues to haunt the city. His twelve-year term as mayor was marked by the installation of anti-Hungarian sentiment in the city’s parks and open spaces.

János Fadrusz’s statue of Hungarian king Matthias Corvinus, erected in 1902, is perhaps Cluj’s most recognizable landmark. With this sculpture and the Gothic church St. Michael’s behind it, Piața Unirii, the city’s main square, continues to look much as it did before Transylvania was handed over to Romania after World War I.

The city took several steps to erase the Hungarian heritage of this square. It renamed it from Liberation Square to Unification Square, garishly surrounded the statue with Romanian flags, and removed the word Hungarorum (‘of the Hungarians’) from the statue’s inscription Matthias Rex. Later the site was defaced by an archaeological dig, merely a pretext for getting rid of the statue. It found nothing of note and remains a large gaping hole in a once-stately square.
On the eastern boundary of the square, Funar erected an absurd, guillotine-like monument to ‘victims of Hungarian oppression.’

The square in front of the Orthodox cathedral was once a refreshingly open area, but now it is marred by a statue of Avram Iancu, perhaps the city’s ugliest artwork. Glorifying a man whose most noteworthy achievement was killing many Hungarians, the statue is said to have been enormously expensive.

The statue’s placement is surely not an accident, and it is greatly disappointing that the Orthodox Church here, which should be calling all peoples to itself, has instead decided to contribute to ethnic squabbles.

For the last decade, most of the city’s park benches, rubbish bins, and other outdoor installations were painted red, yellow, and blue, the colours of the Romanian flag. On my first visit here in June 2004 (coincidentally the very day that Funar lost his bid for re-election), I was appalled by the jingoism evident in the city’s colours. Under the new mayor Emil Boc, the city has thankfully restored most of the park benches etc. to a neutral green, but the red, yellow, and blue scheme is still visible in much of Cluj.