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Rough Days in Romania (Malcolm Hill) PDF Printable Version E-mail

Rough Days on Rough Roads in Romania

Malcolm Hill
September 2014

We met Malcolm several times during the winter of 2007/8. He was staying in his Volkswagen camper at Camping Thines, near Finikunda in Messinia, the southwest corner of the Greek Peloponnese. We were staying nearby at Camping Finikes. He had travelled down from the Baltic Republics via Romania, among other adventures.

We kept in touch and met again on the south coast of Sicily during the winter of 2013-14. He was still travelling in the VW and his latest project had been following the Roman frontier - the Limes - throughout Europe.

Here he writes about two rough days on the road in Romania, aiming to visit two Sarmizegetusa archaeological sites and a couple of neighbouring museums, while basing himself at the Dutch-managed Aurel Vlaicu campsite between Deva and Sebes. He encapsulates the highs and the lows, the challenges and the rewards, of travel in the Balkans. We cycled behind the Iron Curtain in the 1980's and it's good to learn that much remains unspoilt!

See also Malcolm's new information on campsites in Romania, Bulgaria and Lithuania.

Malcolm wrote to us

I note that you are on your way to Greece for the winter and doing an extended Eastern European tour. You might find these two pieces of interest, the first an account of a road best avoided, and the second about a place you might like to add to your itinerary.

Aurel Vaiclu – 23 September 2014

I have now reached Aurel Vlaicu, a minuscule Romanian village in the broad valley between the two Carpathian mountain ranges, where I am based for a day or two at a Dutch campsite. after two rather hazardous and adventurous days.

I stayed on at Bucharest for a well-earned two days off having been driving almost continuously for nigh on ten days and also partly for strategic reasons, ie, museums close on Mondays in this part of the world. So yesterday, Monday, I drove some 200 miles to Dobreta Turnu-Severin with the intention of visiting the Iron Gates Museum with its wonderful model of Trajan's Danube bridge that once upon a time spanned the Danube at this location to the far Serbian shore, whose southern end I passed by when in Serbia, intending to camp nearby for the Tuesday visit. However, as so often happens in this part of Europe, upon arrival in Dobreta I found out that the museum was closed permanently for renovations, so staying nearby was now superfluous. What to do?

Next stop on my itinerary was to be in the mountains to the north, the two Sarmizegetusa archaeological sites and a couple of neighbouring museums, and to base myself at the Aurel Vlaicu campsite, some 150 miles away. It being now 13.00 hours could I make it to the campsite before nightfall? Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Great reasonably fast roads got me to the vicinity of the Carpathian Meridionali foothills at Targu Jui by 17.00 when the roads suddenly turned nasty as is their not unusual wont in Romania, until I was eventually summarily halted at the back of a thirty-odd vehicle queue leading into the Defileul Juliul through the mountain chain to Petrosani. Oh well, a ten minute delay wont hurt methinks, but after twenty I decided to make inquiries as to the reason for the hold-up. Road closed for reconstruction until 19.30 I was informed by an English-speaking person. And it would be closed from 7.00 until 12.00 the following day also. What! This will not do! I am not driving these horrendous roads after dark. No way. I want to live a few more years and also keep the van intact.

Although the place where we were all stuck was pretty well in the middle of the howling wilderness, nevertheless there presented itself a possible solution. On one side of the road was a large ornate, wooden Romanian style restaurant cum motel, advertising rooms at 50 Lei a night (£9.55). Ok, but I would have to leave the vehicle outside to the mercy of any would-be passing robbers to make off with or vandalize. On the other side of the road was a petrol station with attached restaurant. Negotiations with the friendly, fortunately English-speaking petrol attendant, resulted in me parking on the station forecourt for the night and enjoying a fairly decent, dirt-cheap, meal and a beer in the restaurant.

After a rather restless, cold night, the restaurant toilets being closed and so having to venture into the fearsome darkness a couple of times for a widdle, I was all ready for the off at first light by 6.30 next morning. At 6.15 I couldn't wait any longer so set off into the inky black wilderness.

Oh the horror, the horror! (to quote Conrad). It took one hour and 25 minutes to drive the 19 miles to the other end of the road works just short of Petrosani on grindingly awful road surfaces! Every two to three miles one entered a single file section governed by automatic traffic lights – blithely ignored by most of the Romanian car drivers who would simply just keep driving straight on; the giant articulated trucks prudently obeyed. And the road was indescribable – potholed, winding, twisting, narrow, with frequent sheer drops into the raging river below, bumpy bridges. Most of the way I headed a queue of some dozen vehicles or more as I had no intention of wrecking my van's suspension at the speeds Romanians risk driving on these sort of roads. Anyway, I survived.

And the amazing thing was the next part of my day was 40 miles on an absolutely flawless, brand new road with all the trimmings of the best British surfaced carriageway, white lines, and immaculate verges, etc. So I paid a visit to the first Sarmizegetusa site, the Ulpia, before heading, on a beautific motorway nonetheless, to the Aurel Vlaicu campsite.

Aurel Vaiclu – 25 September 2014

Another tough day at the office.

Of the two Sarmizegetusa archaeological sites, only the Ulpia, named in honour of the city founder Trajan's extended family name, should strictly be on my Roman itinerary, as it is the site of a former Roman town with attendant museum, wherein I gathered some two dozen excellent epigraphic samples on Tuesday. However, Philip Parker, whose book The Empire Stops Here I am assiduously following, devotes three whole pages to a description of the Dacian king's capital, Sarmizegetusa Regia, overrun and destroyed almost in its entirety when Trajan conquered Decebalus' kingdom in the early years of the second century AD. Besides, it sounded like a fun place to attempt visiting.

“The citadel lies at about 1,200 metres altitude,” writes Parker, “the first 1,000 metres just about accessible along a very rough road with a four-wheel drive and a determined driver.” Now how could I resist that?

Parker's book was written about six or seven years ago, so I kinda figured that the progressive Romania road building programme of recent years, especially to high profile touristy spots, would have resulted in a half decent tarmac road being built since. Aurel Vaiclu's campsite owner, Dutch, and thus presumably reliable, upon my enquiring about the road assured me that only the last kilometre was any problem, being a “bit rough”. So off I blithely drove this morning on the mere 30 mile jaunt into the southern Carpathian mountains.

After serenely covering 18 miles of relatively smooth rural tarmac roads, passing through several attractive villages with their characteristic Romanian conical haystacks, I pulled up at a signboard on the edge of the heavily forested mountains which read “Sarmizegetusa Regia 18 km” – beyond which was an unmistakeably very rough looking dirt and gravel road indeed. Hmm!

Yikes! Damn it – I've come this far so there's no turning back now.

For the next hour, and twelve miles, my van took one of the most brutal poundings I've subjected it to for many a year, since last time in Romania probably, crawling along, continuously dodging the worst of the potholes, zig-zagging from side to side of the road to do so. The last kilometre, far from being simply a kilometre of rough road, proved to be three and a half miles of grinding, first gear, uphill, sharp pointed rock surface, with one dogleg switch-back that took two efforts to get round, having to back up to do so. Needless to say traffic was not overwhelming – only me – and I finally debouched onto a wooded glade parking lot with a couple of tiny log cabin huts signifying the Sarmizegetusa Regia site's entrance point.

Worth it? Of course. The site setting was absolutely wondrous. Parker says it is “one of Romania's most hidden secrets” with “an air of mystery that . . . shrouds its wood-clad slopes.” I whole-heartedly concurred. There's not a lot to see; the remains of several temple complexes within a forest bowl which upon entering the site one overlooks from a high wooded mound. Nevertheless, I spent a pleasant hour and a half meandering hither and thither among Trajan's ruins, making the occasional photograph of the several temples' foundations and other curiosities. You can see what's what by looking it up on a website.

Driving back was fairly easy, downhill 1st, 2nd, 3rd gear floating most of the way to the tarmac again.

A splendid, if somewhat wearing, day's outing.

Re possibly visiting Sarmizegetusa Regia which I think you would enjoy. On no account should one take any size motorhome larger than my Volkswagen T5 – getting round the hairpin bend as mentioned above would be extremely difficult. However, knowing your penchant for adventuresome bicycle rides, I think it might well be possible to leave your van safely at the 18k mark where the dirt road commences in a large parking lot which, if memory serves right, sports sign boards and notices which have something to do with the tourist board responsible for the Sarmizegetusa Regia site. The last extremely rough uphill 3k part could be walked with the bikes in extremity.

Good luck.