Friday, June 12, 2015

Money-Monasteries and roads from hell

The beautiful landscapes from yesterday continued. The plan was a 300 odd km trip to the north east of Romania over roads which were all labelled as tourist roads on our paper map. Great, we thought, and sure enough it started good. The roads we took were the smaller, local roads and beauties. We took an unplanned turnoff to a monastery, wondering what that would be like. We had seen monasteries in the UK, but this was Romania. We could hardly believe our eyes when we, finally, got there...

The road to the monastery was narrow, winding and was pretty much damaged everywhere. Flower stalls lined the road and enhanced it with bright colours. The first sign of what was to come were two full size tour buses lined up by the side of the road. As we came closer to the monastery itself we found 20 odd souvenir shops on both sides of the road, neatly aligned like market stalls. To my utter surprise they were operated by monks... The tourists were also guided in and out of the buses by monks... parking was to be done on pay and display parking areas operated by monks... Here I was thinking that monasteries are all about religion and faith, leaving the worldly goods behind and that sort of thing. Well, not here. These monks love money and are as commercial as Walt Disney. Having an intercom meant we could talk about what to do. This isn't a monastery I said but a Money-stery, a commercial tourist trap, the only thing worshipped here is money. Mike fully agreed and we thus turned around and left.

On our way to Romania we had been warned about insane driving and bad roads. Even the Romanians themselves agree that Romanian drivers are the worst in Europe. Having been in Latvia and Lithuania, we disagree. Yes the driving here takes a bit of getting used to and yes the usual idiots in fast saloons are here too (usually in black Mercedes, BMW, Audi, VW Passat and Skoda Octavia). But are they worse than Lithuania? No, absolutely not! The aggression we saw in Lithuania is worse. Just like in Mexico and Central America, Romanian drivers do show some unusual behaviour. To name a few: double lines do not mean you can't overtake, they will also overtake while there is no space and vehicles coming from the opposite direction are required to move over to avoid collision. The older people stop and park their car wherever they have to be, including in the middle of the road, just like they used to do with their horses. Most of the truck drivers are quite ok and in general we had no problems with them. The problem in Romania is a road network that was never designed with the current volume of traffic in mind. The roads can't handle it, get clogged up and thus people get impatient. 

The results of that kept us busy for the rest of the day. Right at the turnoff to tourist route 74, we ran into road works. Roadworks that went on for 30 km... Dust, rocks, potholes, cracks, gravel... it was all there. Plus a series of one-lane sections with traffic lights. It was literally the road from hell. To put it in perspective: we have been on the Dalton and Denali highways in Alaska, quite a few dirt roads in the USA, Mexico, Belize and we went into the highlands of Guatemala which was mostly mud, rocks and holes. But this main road in Romania topped them all! Our maximum speed was 40-45 and the average at best 30 km/hr. Yet we were the faster vehicles out there. 

There were sections where riding next to the road was actually better than on it. The roadworks lasted indeed for 30 km, and then the next section started which was 74 km... followed by a road that was just as bad of another 85 km... All in all 189 km of 'road' took us more than 6 hours. It battered our bikes and suspension, was tricky in places as missing one pothole meant going down or upside down; and there were thousands of them. Cars were zig-zagging around it trying to overtake trucks, who made the situation even worse by kicking up enough dust to start a sandstorm. Mix this with a smokey diesel flavour and you probably get the drift. We don't have a problem with roads like this but had expected to find them in Kazakhstan, not here and certainly not with this much traffic.

And yet the ride was beautiful! We saw little villages, people working the land like they had done thousands of years and the surroundings were breath taking. At the end of the day, with not a campground for another 300 km, we settled for a guesthouse. Casa Apuseana was signposted but walking in my first thought was 'oh, oh... this is expensive'. Marble on the floor, luxurious rooms and quite a fancy entourage. The girl who had showed me the room, said we could also have dinner in the restaurant. I had seen the restaurant with all it's silverware and crystal everywhere and thought we'd better give that a miss... She then quoted 70 Lei for the room... That's not even 18 Euro... ok, we'll take it! It also made me wonder about the restaurant... 13 Lei for a pizza, a delicious home made pizza for just 3 Euro... so guess what we did? The bikes could be parked inside the gates and we didn't have to put up a tent either. What more could we ask for?

The next day I made one huge mistake... no it wasn't getting up late or skipping breakfast. It was simply forgetting to put my kidney belt on before I left... We weren't riding off-road, dirt tracks or anything like that, we were following a main road, the 75, in Romania. Just 15 minutes later, having been thrown out of my seat several times, my pancreas and kidneys were very painful. In my defence, yesterday the last part of the road we were on had been much better but, as I found out this morning, that was only temporary... You could wonder why we would do all that instead of riding on better roads. Because we just love it here! Yes the roads are bad in places and yes the drivers are mental at times. But when I look past that I see beautiful people and a way of life that I haven't seen anywhere else in Europe. That keeps us riding here and that keeps us wanting to see more of this country. We really love Romania!