Rory & Tom's Motorbike Tours

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Rory & Tom's Motorbike Tours - rtbiketour.com

Romania

Romania Map

Date: September 2012
Duration: 3 days

Crossing over one of Europe’s great rivers, the Danube, we enter into Romania just south of Bucharest. The Danube runs along the border between Bulgaria and Romania, and we will revisit this river further upstream when we return to Budapest.

Soon we are on to a dual carridgeway headed for Bucharest. Recommendations from Romanians before our trip advised to stay away from the Capital. Our plan was to bypass the city and head for Brașov up in the mountains of Transylvania.

Historic centre of Brașov

Historic centre of Brașov

Bucharest like most large cities in Europe has a ring road, although this one is just a single carrigeway in either direction. Hoping for a motorway, we are instead held up with the rest of the traffic slowly navigating their way around the city. Stray dogs and street sellers mingle in the traffic, one guy attempts to sell me a Nokia smart phone (a difficult sell at the best of times). The weather was hot and dusty.

Clear of the Capital, the roads becoming wider and calmer as we head to the mountains. It feels as if we have culturally shifted to the west, as we pass by McDonalds restaurants on the side of the road – the first since leaving Hungary at the start of the trip.

Brașov

Brașov locals

Brașov is in central Romania, in the Carpathian mountain range – about 400km by road from Veliko Tarnovo (Велико Търново), Bulgaria. Turning off the main highway, following the signs for Brașov, we ride for 10km along a straight road continuously lined with communist-ear tower blocks. The city centre is wedged against the mountains so that the suburbs could only sprawl out in one direction. The “old town” centre is signposted, but you have to drive through all the suburbs, making you think you’ve missed it because “the town can’t be this big”.

The city has what appears to be a well established tourist industry. The mountainous location brings respite from the extreme heat experienced around Bucharest.

Transfăgărășan pass, 2,000m altitude

Transfăgărășan pass, 2,000m altitude

Nearby is the famed Transfăgărășan pass, 90km in length and up to an altitude of just over 2,000m. The road was built at the orders of the crazy dictator Ceaușescu for strategic military purposes.

The Transfăgărășan pass cuts over the Carpathian mountains, one of Europe’s large mountain ranges. It divides Transylvania from the rest of Romania. Driving from Brașov, the road is parallel to the mountain range. We ride along the large open plain, stretching out to the right, and the wall of the mountains in the horizon to our left. Soon we turn off the main road, and ride straight towards the mountain range.

Numerous hairpin bends, motorbikes, slow moving cars and a solitary caravan ascend the pass. The cars are easily passed and the caravan in a rarely seen display of courtesy, kindly pulls over for us.

For almost the entire 90km there is no sign of habitation, not a village in sight.

Reaching the highest point of the pass, we pause on the edge for photos and chat with a Serbian Outlaw biker. There is the obligatory shops selling knick-knacks and coffee.

Transfăgărăşan pass, heading south

Transfăgărăşan pass, heading south

A Polish biker follows us down the pass heading south. He has spent the previous 7 weeks riding around the Black Sea and appears quite concerned that his bike might struggle to make the trip back home. Carrying a spare tyre on the rear, he is far more prepared than ourselves.

For our final night in Romania, we pull up in Motel Dracula a couple of kilometres from Sibiu. Using only gestures, we book a room for one night and arrange to park the bikes behind a big gate in amoungst their dogs.

A short taxi ride has us in the middle of Sibiu for dinner time. Like Brașov, it is quite attractive with plenty of restaurants and bars, and we are well fed at a local steakhouse.

The next day’s plan is to make considerable progress back to Budapest, which is why we’re staying in a motel on the city outskirts. There’s a nice new EU-funded road a couple of hundred metres from our motel, which bypasses Sibiu and heads towards Arad in the west.

Road around Arad, under development

Road around Arad, under development

Like Bulgaria and Ireland a few years earlier, Romania appears to be making use of EU development funds. There are many new roads being built and existing ones being maintained and widened. However some sections are still in development.

We travelled across Romania mostly on secondary roads. There were considerably more trucks and lorries than in other countries. But otherwise the countryside was lightly populated, and we made decent time on most of the roads.

After several hours riding we arrive at the border between Romania and Hungary. This is the border into the Schengen area of Europe which allows unrestricted travel between member countries.

The line of trucks waiting to cross into Hungary is about 4km long. It suddenly becomes obvious why Overlanders shipped the bikes to Budapest and not Bucharest which would have been a far more convenient starting point. Following the cars in front, we put on our left indicators and overtake the long line of lorries.

Entering back into the heart of the EU, where if we carry on riding we would not need to show our passports until we arrive back into Ireland, we were expecting rigorous checks. At every other border crossing we were required to remove our helmets and show our passports, at some we had to produce registration and insurance documents. To enter Hungary we were asked for our passports but nobody asked us to remove our helmets, so we did not remove them.

It was as easy as arriving into Ireland on a previous trip away, where the Guard only checked our skin colour.

Bulgaria

Bulgaria

Date: September 2012
Duration: 5 days

Crossing over from Macedonia at 1,500m altitude, we return to the European Union and into Bulgaria one of the newest members. Our initial research indicated that even motorbikes require vignettes to use any major road, however the customs officials just wave us through.

We have crossed a timezone and lost an hour. It has taken us all day to cross Macedonia and the clock change has thrown us into the evening. During our research for the trip, we highlighted interesting towns, cities and sights. The nearest place worth staying is Bansko (Банско) 80km away.

Bulgarian Border

Bulgarian Border

Leaving the border crossing road quality rapidly deteriorates, potholes everywhere.

In a little over an hour, we arrive in Bansko. Accommodation is found at a hotel nearby the centre, and it is ridiculously cheap (€25 for a double room). The receptionist speaks no English but a family checking-in offer up their daughter to translate.

Bansko is a tourist resort town, finding beer and pizza is not too difficult with plenty on offer. What is noticeable, is that outside the immediate town centre the street lighting is far more scarce than would be expected elsewhere in Europe.

From Bansko we plan to head to Hisarya (Хисаря), a pre-Roman and then a Roman spa town just north of Plodiv (Пловдив).

The route should be simple but Bulgaria appears to be undergoing a massive investment in infrastructure by the European Union, and many of the roads enroute are closed for roadworks. The sections of road works are 50-100km long with complete closure of the roads, which results in extremely long diversions on backroads through rural Bulgaria. Once finished the road network should be as good as Ireland’s.

By early afternoon after spending all day on rural roads, we reach our planned destination. Hisarya is a popular destination with international and local tourists. Searching for accommodation I inquire with the tourist information, only to be informed that it is a 4-day bank holiday weekend in Bulgaria and we would be lucky to find anything.

Drinking the waters in Hisarya

Drinking the waters in Hisarya

Approaching the finely dressed concierge standing in front of a rather fancy looking hotel, I ask if there are any rooms available. There is one room, a top-floor suite with separate lounge that has spa water pumped into the bathroom. All this luxury for just €90 and we are allowed to park the bikes inside the enclosed courtyard.

Observing that we have travelled from Ireland, the concierge remarks that one of his best friends is Irish and they bought a house nearby (presumably like many other western Europeans).

Buzludzha

Buzludzha

From Hisarya we continue on northwards and towards the Balkan Mountains (Стара планина). A range of mountains which run across the center of Bulgaria from east to west.

We are heading for Buzludzha, a communist monument built on top of a mountain. The monument looks as if it is the lair of an evil villian and features in the video below.

Buzludzha-2

Since the fall of communism it has been abandoned and is falling apart. The doors are bolted shut and the access road is blocked off to cars – bikes can easily ride around the barrier.

After a brief stop to take photos and nibble on some food, we head down the other side of the mountain. We are aiming for Veliko Tarnova (Велико Търново) to stop for a couple of nights. It’s an extremely old settlement, full of history, previously the capital of the second Bulgarian empire and currently an active university town.

Tsarevets, medieval castle for the 2nd Bulgarian Empire, Veliko Tarnovo

Tsarevets, medieval castle for the 2nd Bulgarian Empire, Veliko Tarnovo

We take the Sunday off and wander up to see the medieval complex and castle on the hill above the old town. Much steeper than it looks but interesting to see.

There are still a few estate agents in the old town area advertising properties in English. One of them prominently featuring the banner “As featured on Channel 4″ – are foreigners still buying homes in Bulgaria?

Eating breakfast on the morning when we’re due to leave Veliko Tarnovo and head for Romania, I suddenly feel quite unwell and refuse to ride anywhere. Our room is available for another night, so we stay.

Requesting a doctor, the hotel receptionist says that we must go to the local hospital. The hospital is not far, but it is very grim – this is public health care in the poorest EU member state. Nobody speaks any English, the place is dark and looks like something from the past.

Returning to the hotel, demanding to see an English speaking Doctor and stating that we do not care how much it costs, the receptionist eventually contacts her manager.

It turns out that a private General Practioner is located ten metres away from the hotel. After a detailed examination, he indicates that I has a bacterial infection in the gut and will be fine tomorrow. A prescription is provided and the total service cost just €10.

Rory collects the drugs with names written in cyrillic and instructions given by the pharmacist in Bulgarian.

Feeling much better the next day, we set off for Romania.

Macedonia

Macedonia

Date: September 2012
Duration: 3 days

Over the border from Kosovo and its our first chance to use our green cards, saving us a reported €50 each. Ohrid (Охрид) in the south-west corner of the country, is our destination.

The roads are the best since we left Hungary and traffic is reasonably light. Macedonia managing to peacefully breakaway from Yugoslavia early on, has few war scars.

Ohrid from the pier

Ohrid from the pier

We left Kosovo using the mountain road and head to Tetobo on the back road. Tetobo is busy and pretty damn hot, we missed the bypass and end up riding through the city. The highway from Tetobo to Ohrid is fast and pretty straight with little of interest along the route.

Stopping off in a petrol station to refuel on coffee and for Rory to adjust his clothing for the heat, our foreign currency is readily accepted. Our route runs roughly parallel to the border with Albania 20-30km away, and the guy working in the petrol station appears to have the TV set to an Albanian channel. I understand that parts of Macedonia have large ethnic Albanian populations.

Ohrid Alleyway

Ohrid Alleyway

The ancient city of Ohrid is Macedonia’s most famed relic and UNESCO site, and shares its lake with Albania a short distance away. The city is a mecca for tourism which has resulted in an abundance of amenities for visitors.

Dotted throughout the large old town area are numerous Orthodox churches, small alleyways, an ampitheatre and many other old buildings. Outside of the old town are the communist era low-rise tower blocks, where we are staying. Although the streets of the old town are technically open to traffic, navigation is hard and riding even harder along shiny cobbles of a steep inclination.

Church of St. Sophia, a Mosque during Ottoman rule

Church of St. Sophia, a Mosque during Ottoman rule

Famed for the local trout from the lake, so popular and polluted that the fish is endangered, we resist the offering. After some salad we climb one of the hills of the old-town in the heat, to see the old roman ampitheatre – which still appears to be in active use for entertainment purposes.

Church of St. John at Kaneo, Ohrid

Church of St. John at Kaneo, Ohrid

We are 1½ weeks into our 3 week trip around the Balkans, starting in Budapest and ending in Budapest. So far we have been heading in a southerly direction, it is time to turn around.

West would take us in to Albania and then journey back up the Adriatic coast. East takes us into Bulgaria and on to Romania.

After a day off the bikes in Ohrid, we ride east. Straight across Macedonia, through the mostly flat central plains of the country and up into the mountains which line the border with Bulgaria.

There are a few towns on our route across the country, inbetween these towns there is nothing. The roads are usually wide with an overtaking lane down the centre, yet it still takes us all day to traverse the country crusing along at 110km/h.

The emptiness of the country is shocking, coming from Ireland where there are people living practically everywhere. With the exception of bogland, it is hard to travel more than a couple of kilometres without seeing peoples homes in Ireland.

Through Macedonia we would frequently be travelling for 30km without seeing anything but the road. Our petrol guages required careful monitoring as the only refueling opportunities were in the few towns we passed.

Eventually we reach the mountains in the east and the border crossing into Bulgaria and back into the EU. At the exit crossing from Macedonia we are asked for our green card – no other exit border demanded this. I suspect the guard was getting ready to issue a fine.

We return to the European Union and lose an hour as we cross into another timezone.