Well actually, he probably doesn’t, but there are enough ageing Dacia 1310s around (which seem to be Renault 12s in drag) to lend an almost African feel to parts of rural Romania. There’s more modern stuff around too of course, and not just local Dacias. To be honest, Transilvania Autos is now a franchised Renault dealer and Dracula these days is far more likely to be driving a Volkswagen Golf.
Leaving Hungary behind seemed a shame as the place had hardly been done justice. So much history and culture bypassed save for a quick dip in a hot spring. However, the scenery along the route across from West to East was not exactly inspiring. Arriving in Romania however immediately felt different. Firstly, the border was actually manned (on the Romanian side only, the Hungarians long since having abandoned their customs and immigration huts on the other side) so took a little longer due to showing passport, registration, insurance and driving licence for the first time on this trip, and being instructed to buy a Romanian “Vignette” (road tax) at a petrol station, required for all roads in Romania, not just motorways. Secondly, the road was significantly better, and if we’re honest – so was the weather and the scenery. At the first available petrol station, Dan dutifully pulled over and asked for a Vignette, pointing at his bike parked outside. From what little he could gather from the resulting Romanian, either they didn’t have any for motorcycles, or motorcycles didn’t need one after all. This wasn’t much clearer than in Hungary.
Continuing taxation confusion aside, Dan was really enjoying the experience of being in Romania. Of course, the scenery just inside the border was almost exactly like the scenery immediately preceding it, but it wasn’t far to the first hills. In Hungary, the road would occasionally bend, but it wasn’t immediately obvious to the casual observer quite why. The story was different here – actual twisting country roads skirting hills and winding alongside rivers. After scything along immaculate blacktop for fifty miles or so, the road surface eventually deteriorated a bit but the scenery didn’t. Even on roads that were more patch than road (and could still do with more patching) it was hard not to enjoy the ride. Another petrol station seemed to explain that they didn’t sell vignettes, but the OMV petrol station in Brad would, so Dan headed off, confident that if stopped and asked to show his vignette, he’d be able to explain that he was on his way to the OMV petrol station in Brad to get one. Twenty miles or so up the road, the OMV in Brad had Visa and Mastercard signs outside, prompting Dan to pour 20 litres of unleaded into the front of the DRZ despite not yet carrying any local currency. The man at the till spoke excellent English and explained that motorcycles did not require vignettes in Romania, contrary to the immigration officers’ claims. Fuel paid for with chip and PIN, Dan was back off up the road towards Siriu, confident that everything was in order for the first time since Austria.
Romania is a country of stark, almost grotesque contrasts – the majority of the population is poor, houses are generally as small as they are basic, the horse and cart is still a reasonably widespread form of transport, but there are a surprising number of modern, expensive Western European cars – witness the sinister shiny black AMG-Mercedes lurking the streets of Siriu – and a few large luxury houses. It is clear that some are doing very much better out of Romania’s newfound political freedom than others.
Just after dealing with the large urban sprawl of Siriu, the road traveller is faced with a beautiful sight in the distance – snow capped peaks to rival those of Austria. Sadly, the road that runs through those mountains made famous in the UK by Top Gear declaring it the best drivers’ road in the world, is closed each year except between June and October because of the snow. Dan had to turn off onto another twisting stretch of immaculate tarmac instead… As it happens, Garmin can’t help with campsites in Romania and Dan had looked up the GPS locations of a couple before leaving the UK. The one he was headed to appeared to be a couple of miles up a dirt track off the side of the road past some rather dilapidated farming infrastructure, so he headed up there only to be faced with a railway line to cross with the waypoint still the other side. Realising that whilst this was fun it wasn’t looking likely, Dan headed back to the tarmac road and looked for the next turning in that direction. Sure enough the campsite was clearly signed, 3km up a tarmac road which only turned to dirt within a few hundred yards of the campsite.
After a pleasant night at the dutch-run Camping de Oude Wilg, it was time to hit the road towards a highlight of Romania – the Danube delta. Today was just about making progress towards the delta and little time was taken to take in the sights. There is a pristine new motorway across Romania which Dan took advantage of, before heading northwards into the increasingly remote and much poorer North Eastern corner of Romania. Dan’s not very comfortable taking pictures of run-down areas, concerned that it might make the occupants feel rather like a freak show – so there are no pictures to show of the dilapidated cottages that lined parts of the route. On arriving in Murighiol, Camping Lac Murighiol (located from the UK) was immediately obvious, and Dan made his way straight in to talk about accomodation and boat tours of the delta. The camping was reasonable, the tours quite expensive. The proprietor explained that his tours were more special than some on offer as he had 20 years’ experience and knew the myriad small channels through the delta, not just the main two lakes. On the back of a recommendation from the Dutch couple who’d been on a tour that morning and based on the principle that the weather tomorrow is usually much like today (it was a lovely afternoon), Dan took his chances and signed up.
The following morning dawned grey and gloomy, but Dan was up bright and early to do some laundry and hang it out before heading out on the boat at eight. Just as he wrung dry and hung out the last item, he heard the first spots of rain patter against his tent. This was not looking promising. The proprietor had checked the forecast however and this morning had zero probability of rain predicted and the afternoon maybe 10%. Better then to get going now before the waters got busy with boats, as this rain would surely soon pass. Climbing aboard the ageing Dacia to get to the boat was probably more daunting than the boat itself, though the Dacia did at least have a roof.
The weather stayed wet for most of the time on the water and Dan was glad of having taken his motorcycle jacket, and wished he’d also worn the waterproof trousers. The dazzling array of birdlife on display was however worth the cold and wet. Spoon-billed ibis, black ibis, whole squadrons of two varieties of pelican, at least one sort of heron and numerous other birds that Dan could not identify were everywhere to be seen along with more familiar coots, ducks, swans and geese, and occasionally, the electric-blue dart of a speeding kingfisher all against the wonderfully wild backdrop of the delta scenery.
His guide pulled up next to an island of reeds in one of the delta channels to show a particularly vocal breed of frog, which was easily recognisable as being responsible for the noise that could be heard from the campsite for most of the previous night. Definitely worth the trip, even if Dan is hardly BBC Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year, and opportunities to wield the precious camera were somewhat rain-limited. A few acceptable shots of pelicans, and one of a drunken coot staggering into the air were a reasonable photographic haul.
As luck would have it, after shivering in his tent until mid afternoon, Dan was treated to a dry and bright afternoon, so at least the laundry was dry ready to be packed away and taken to Bulgaria. Saturday was to be a long day, 290 miles down to Sozopol on the Bulgarian Black Sea coast. A quick bit of web research before leaving the UK had located what seemed to be a cluster of campsites around the place so it seemed to be a good place to head for. The Black Sea coast of Bulgaria is becoming quite well known as a tourist destination, and it has to be said that it shows. Beach holidays are not really Dan’s thing and whilst the road down from the north was good fun in places, once the coast is in sight it feels more than a bit spoilt – like an up and coming Costa del Sol. Large modern holiday apartment blocks dominate, and whilst some are quite well styled, a few have hilarious names – the “Rich Daddy” holiday complex in Pomorie was Dan’s favourite.
Arriving in Sozopol in good time, Dan set about looking for some camping. After turning up a couple of dilapidated dives which at any rate appeared to be closed, it was time to head back to a sign 5 miles back the way he’d come pointing towards some camping. This also drew a blank, with nothing in sight and two locals being completely unaware of anywhere to camp. There was one more possibility Dan had a location for, but it was 120 miles away, and it was now nearly 4pm. But Sakar Hills Camping had a reassuringly English name – implying it was either British run or at least interested in attracting western visitors – so would probably be pretty good, and open. Figuring it was worth a shot, and balancing the extra miles away from his current goal of Istanbul against seeing a bit more of the real Bulgaria, Dan tapped the destination into the GPS and headed off inland. The road was more typical Bulgarian fare – alternately pristine tarmac or “more-patch-than-road-but-still-predominantly-pothole”. The showery weather didn’t help, hiding the depth of some of the holes, but for a lot of these extra miles the ride was entertaining and the scenery interesting. Hills and valleys were dotted with hairpins and small-holdings.
Against the odds of the weather, the speed limits and the road surface, Dan arrived at Sakar Hills Camping by about 6pm. Sure enough, it was British-run, with clean and modern facilities, inclusive WiFi, and a very friendly proprietor, Matt. After setting up camp and a lengthy chat, it was time to head into the village for a meal and a beer. Dan could see himself staying here for an extra day, to catch up with some emails and update this blog from his adopted office, before heading into Turkey, where rumour had it that fuel was going to be cripplingly expensive…