“It’s a real shame that Transylvania is always reduced to this stupid Dracula story,” says Ionut Maftei as we sit in a café on the town square of Sighișoara, also known as Schässburg. The end of our 24-hour train journey from Rosenheim via Vienna and Budapest.
We started our trip at a time when Corona was still a beer brand with a lime wedge in the bottle neck for most people. And when there was no travel warning for Romania due to high numbers of infections. Now, in October, while lined rain jackets are being exterminated in Germany, the climate here is almost perfect for cycling trips. It doesn’t get really cold until November.
Ionut, a wiry 42-year-old, used to work for a management consultancy in Bucharest, today he is a self-employed bike guide who also guides multimillionaires from the USA through the Carpathian Mountains. “At some point in life you should perhaps dare to make your living doing something that makes you really happy. For me it’s cycling,” he explains.
Photo: Moritz Becher
I tracked down Ionut while researching our trip on the net. A stroke of luck. Because what my bike-crazy friend Andi and I had in mind wasn’t a comfortable bike hike, but a bike-packing tour through the terrain. With a sleeping bag in the least possible luggage and with Gravel Bikes, a new category of bikes that at first seems like a forced marriage between a racing bike and a mountain bike. A good choice for areas with little asphalt and for those who want to be a little faster on the road.
“I’ll be there,” was Ionut’s brief answer on the phone, “if you leave me alone with Dracula questions.”
Transylvania is shaped like a horseshoe in northwestern Romania, framed by the southern Carpathians. Around 800 years ago, settlers from many parts of what was then Germany, mainly from the Middle Rhine and Moselle regions, Flanders and Wallonia, moved to the “land behind the forests” in order to open up the country in return for numerous privileges.
The seven cities that were founded, including Schässburg, are – presumably – the reason for the name “Transylvania”. “Dracula”, the literary figure of Bram Stoker, could refer to Vlad III. Drăculea, who is said to have been born in Schässburg around 1431. However, we did not hear that from Ionut.
“Keep calm and keep going”
Our bikepacking round should start and end in the small village of Cund, once through the most beautiful Carpathian places and the wildest possible in between. Our first kilometers do not run along a trail, but through waist-high grass, at arm’s length past gawking cows, over ridges of hills that glow golden yellow in the autumn sun. A recognizable way? Nope. “That’s exactly how I imagined it,” Andi calls out to me.
Then with a shock we get to know one of the rougher sides of this idyll: a flock of sheep grazes on the opposite hillside. There are hardly any fences so that the shepherds can roam freely with their animals. Then we hear them before we see them shoot at us: herding dogs. We are insecure. “Stay calm and drive on – and not in the direction of the flock of sheep,” shouts Ionut. “They are trained to report intruders and keep them at bay.” Then the shepherd’s whistle sounds, the barking ceases, the dogs watch us watch our move on.
If we stop in amazement at the first one-horsepower panje wagon with bright yellow corn on the cob, the clatter of hooves will soon become normal. Old, colorful houses line the streets. Children interrupt their game, waving loudly to us. From their grandparents we get rather reserved, friendly to suspicious looks.
On the one hand, I think it’s fantastic to be able to experience this beautiful region while sitting in the saddle. At the same time, I almost feel like a voyeur who enjoys villages that look like open-air museums. But at the same time easily overlooks the tough life of its residents today. Almost a quarter of Romanians overall are at risk of poverty – a percentage that has improved massively in recent years, but is now the highest among the EU member states is.
After Dumbrăveni, Prod, Seleuș and Criș we finally drive down the main street of Mălâncrav in the late afternoon, count to number 335 and are greeted by Aurelia Boitor. It takes care of tourists who stay in one of the renovated guest houses in the village. A foundation funded with EU funds takes care of the maintenance and management of the old Saxony houses. Prince Charles, too, once fell in love with the region, visits it again and again and is committed to preventing decay. Aurelia serves us meat as a starter and as a main course and semolina as a dessert, translated by Ionut.
In the twilight we stroll to the fortified church of Mălâncrav. Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. The villagers have festively decorated the church and placed nuts, apples, potatoes, pumpkins and grapes in the aisle. About 160 fortified churches, which were built to defend against Turkish and Tatar incursions, are spread across Transylvania. Partly – also thanks to Unesco world cultural heritage status – in superbly restored, but partly in poor condition.
At night the wolves howl, during the day we see bear tracks
The next morning starts involuntarily hearty. What I think is a dried fig turns out to be fried pork fat when you first bite it. A matter of taste – especially that of the locals. With so much energy in the system, the kilometers fly by, the ground varies from narrow, loamy, slippery trails to gravel roads and freshly paved roads.
In the open barn of Villa Rihuini, a winery in the village of Richiș, which is run by young farmer Alexandru Ghorghe Andrei and his brother, we are allowed to set up camp for the night. Wine has been grown on the slopes of the region for 2000 years; the roots of the old vines protrude up to 50 meters into the ground. The long-established family business is worried about the large-scale land purchases by western agricultural investors. “They squeeze out the soil, destroy our smallholder structures, move on after ten years – and leave behind a completely destroyed cultural landscape,” says Alexandru in frustration.
Some paths simply end in the rustling leaves of a forest. Then it continues rolling and pushing. In the distance, the snow-capped peaks of the rugged Făgăraș Mountains shimmer. At night we hear wolves howling in their sleeping bags, as if they were sitting with their heads back, not a hundred meters behind the fence. During the day you can see fresh paw prints on the muddy paths – in Transylvania the density of brown bears is higher than anywhere else in Europe. However, I have more respect for the semi-wild herding dogs that keep frightening us.
Behind the village of Vișcri, what Ionut had announced to us as a “nice surprise” begins: 15 kilometers of the best flow trail, technically simple and easy to ride at high speed. The path, built specifically for cyclists, runs in never-ending curves, sometimes through young beeches, sometimes through widely distributed, ancient oaks, up and down to Meșendorf.
In a converted old barn, Oana and Adi Udrea run a kind of restaurant there on request: the Meșendorf 65. Five delicious courses, the last one is almost the best: products from their own cheese dairy, which they built with a farmer in the village. The couple had high paying jobs in Bucharest, but eventually got fed up with the big city.
Directly behind the dining table in their barn, which has been converted into a dining room, a route made of pebbles and wooden beams leads across the building. “It’s part of a mountain bike trail,” explains bike-crazy Adi and laughs. And that is ridden once a year during the Transylvania Bike Trails Race, if it takes place. Right through her dining room.
“Are you coming back?” Asks Ionut as we load our bikes back onto the night train to Budapest after seven days, 340 kilometers and almost 6000 meters in altitude at the Sighișoara station. “Definitely! We haven’t even talked about Dracula yet,” Andi answers him.