Andrew Eames takes a bike ride through the northern Romanian region of Maramures
There aren’t many parts of the world where a bicycle is one of the speedier forms of transport, but on a downhill stretch of road between the villages of Breb and Hoteni I overtook a two-horsepower ‘family convertible’ carrying mum, dad, two teenagers and granddad. Even I, something of a mechanical dunce, could identify the drive unit on this vehicle, given that it was, err, two horses. We exchanged greetings and a wave as we jingled down the road, side by side.
This region, Maramures – part of Transylvania, northern Romania – is preserved in aspic both by history and by geography; a mosaic of self-sufficient communities where horse and cart is still the default mode of transport, and where there’s still little use for money. A region with magnificent carved gateways and no-nails wooden churches, hundreds of years old, eight of which are UNESCO World Heritage sites. Life here was – and still is – about as sustainable as it’s possible for mankind to be. Happily, local tourism initiatives are pretty sustainable, too, which is why I was out and about on a bike.
While modern houses are starting to appear on the village streets, locals have learned to appreciate that visitors like me prefer to stay in traditional old wooden houses, so they’ve stopped pulling them down and are turning them into guest houses instead.
They’ve also come to realise we don’t necessarily want burgers and fries, washed down with Coke, for dinner; so at these guesthouses I was served home-grown food with the ubiquitous homemade double-distilled plum brandy that everyone seems to have in copious quantities, for free. It’s enough to make a man fall off his bike.
Happily, I managed to stay on mine, although I had a couple of close shaves. I was trying out a new cycle-routes initiative on a bike I’d hired in Breb, thanks to the local tourism office. I’d chosen a marked route that travelled partly along the (barely used) roads, and partly along the trackbed of disused railways once used for carrying salt and timber. It took me through a landscape of haystacks and wildflower meadows, past cheesemakers and churchgoers, many of them curious about a man on a bike.
The beauty of being on two wheels is being able to move at your own pace, to peer over hedgerows, to hear, smell and savour. And frankly, there’s nowhere better to do that than here. Besides which you have the additional benefit of being able to out-accelerate the local traffic, however many horsepower it may be.