At the end of a ski touring trip organized by Iulian Cozma in Bucegi in 2009, Mario promised he would soon return to the Carpathians. He kept his word – together with four other friends from Switzerland and Italy, they packed their mountain bikes, hopped on a plane and came to Romania for five days of mountain biking. Iulian arranged their entire stay in Romania (accommodation, transport etc.) and I was left with the fun part of the whole thing – planning the rides and doing the guiding.
We got together on the 12th of June, at the hotel in Predeal, a good occasion to get to know each other better, as well as re-assemble the bikes after the plane ride. Even though Iulian has been organizing mountain holidays in Romania for the last ten years, this was the first mountain biking tour we’d ever done, and I was a little apprehensive.
Day 1 – Sunday, 13th of June 2010, 49 km
Baiului ridge, from Posada to Azuga. A strenuous ride from the very beginning, but the group had asked just for that. Judging by their bikes (three had Shimano XTR and one had Deore LX, all of them fairly light, given the full suspension), their request seemed completely justified. And so it was, they did really well – better then the guys I had taken on the same ride a month ago. It’s true that we had bad weather then and Iulian who was a beginner brought down the group average. But now, on the other hand, it was extremely warm, and two of the bikers were girls who also did really well through the entire week.
We started with a 7 km warm up, on a dirt road that trails along the railway from Sinana to Posada – this time it was deserted, because it was a Sunday. From the Posada train station (elevation 640m) the real ascent starts and keeps on going and going for 22 km on end ‘till you reach about 1800m. Surprisingly, the most annoying part was not the heat, or the excessive humidity, and not even the inclination. It was the flies! Hundreds upon hundreds of obnoxious flies swarming around us from when we got out of the woods and until we reached 1800m. At least they weren’t biting. There were times when if I kept my hand on the handle bar for more then one minute, they would cover the entire glove – probably looking for the sweat I kept wiping from my forehead – even at 1800m, it was still very warm. We finally got rid of them during the descent, on the Sorica ridge and all the way down to the national road.
Even if it was a Sunday, we only met two cyclists, coming from Azuga, who had probably taken the cable car and were doing the ridge from north to south. This seems to be quite popular, people prefer to be take the easy way up and then keep on going down. I myself prefer the south – north way, especially now when you can go on the bike the entire way. It’s harder, but it just seems more fair. To really enjoy the descent on Sorica, first you need to sweat it all the way up.
If during the last part of the ascent my Italo-Swiss were already thinking of an easier second day, at the end of the descent, and of the ride as well, they were feeling much better and were eagerly anticipating the next day trip.
Day 2 – Monday, 14th of June 2010, 18 km
Our initial plan was to climb to the Bugeci plateau through Saua Dichiului till we reached Babele and then ride down to Sinaia, through Piatra Arsa. But the forecast announced a lighting storm for that day, so we had to devise another plan. Wandering about the Bucegi plateau through bolts of lighting was not everyone’s idea of adventure tourism, so instead we squeezed in a day of visiting the Bran Castle and the Rhein Cellars in Azuga. It was there we found out about the differences between fizzy wine and sparkling wine, and that if you don’t want a hangover, you should drink the dry stuff (meaning with no added sugar). And that the famous Romanian Zarea sparkling wine was made in a factory built by a German (Rhein) before 1900. If you pay 5 Euro a piece, you get a very informative visit and the tastings. Trust me, your next glass of champagne will taste differently. Iulian say that for those who want, the Rhein Cellars in Azuga can also arrange accommodation.
We got back to Predeal around 4 PM and while my group was preparing to doze off a little, I tricked them into getting on their feet and going for an easy ride to Susai. So we took the dirt road to the new touristic complex there. Not so long ago, Susai was only a small mountain hut. Now it’s a big heap of windows and parking space which occupies more and more of the pretty site. We descended mostly on the single trail, with a little detour towards Garbova. It was nice, with some mud, but nothing too bad. That is until we reached the final part, where the road is ruined by some tractor trails engulfing both man and bike. So at the end of the day we had to stop at the car cash to unglue the mud from our bikes. Still we got to our hotel happy that we now fully disserved our delicious meal and the accompanying beer.
Day 3 – Tuesday, 15th of June 2010, 47 km
From Predeal to Poarta, near Bran. Our route passed by Forban, near Poiana Izvoarelor, then Diham, Glajariei Valley, underneath the Bucegi Mountains to Sohodol and the final descent into Poarta village. The weather was on our side, despite the forecast. From Forban / Poiana Izoarelor the scenery towards Bucegi is stunning – because the area is accessible by car, many commercials were shot here. We only ran into a bunch a kids playing around Forban. Other then that, the cows were everywhere, enjoying the green and giving the place a Heidi like idyllic air. Diham was almost empty, not even the dogs bothered to bark at us when we arrived.
This tour from Predeal to Poarta is quite special because of how the scenery changes on you. You start by cycling up with the north eastern wall of the Bucegi hovering above you. Then, after some cycling on a dirt road through the woods without really seeing much, you emerge into a completely new world, with rolling hills dotted with cottages and hey stacks, surrounded on one side by the Bucegi Mountains and on the other by Piatra Craiului mountains. This is the stunning view of Bran about which a Swede from a hiking group I once took there in 2009 told me that it was the most beautiful landscape he’d ever seen in this life. And he had seen a lot of places. My bikers were also enchanted and while June is not the best month because the humidity cripples the visibility, it does compensate through the many shades of fresh green spreading before your eyes.
The evening at Mrs. Jebac’s guesthouse was the cherry on the cake. Meat ball soup, veal stew, home made cakes – we had a slow and fulfilling Romanian feast.
Day 4 – Wednesday, 16th of June 2010, 45 km
The new day started the same as the previous had ended, with some eating. Accustomed to the more frugal Italian style breakfast (toast and coffee, maybe some jam and butter), my tourists were looking in awe at the many plates heavy with boiled eggs, cold cuts and cheeses that Mrs. Jebac was expertly laying under our noses. I was taking the eating very seriously, as was Mario, an Italian mountain guide who wandered the most important mountains of our world and who knew you must fill up the tank before you start the day. The power bars, protein gels and such do work. But a thick piece of lardy bacon is still a piece of lardy bacon, no matter how you look at it.
We took the bikes on the ridges that are on each side of Simon and descended on the Balaban ridge. Tough ascent, beautiful downhill, gorgeous landscape. Before you realize it, 17 km are over and you find yourself on the national road going to Campulung. During the second part of the day we passed to the villages underneath Piatra Craiului, through Pestera and Magura. Works are being done on the road to Pestera, and just then they were widening the turns at the begging of the ascent. The workers were saying that the plan was to asphalt the entire road to the top, where the school in Pestera is. On one hand you’re kind of sorry, on the other, if you lived there, you’d probably by sick of the mud by now. It’s a lose win situation.
We were really glad we finished the day before a heavy summer rain started, and went for another one of Mrs Jebac’s famous dinners. I will not tell you what we ate again, so you don’t drool and ruin your keyboard. The Swiss victory over the Spaniards at the World Cup rounded an already perfect day.
Day 5 – Thursday, 17th of June 2010, 24 km
The next morning the sky was half blue (towards Rucar), and half black (towards Barsei region). The forecast was at its best grim. Still, where we wanted to go things looked promising and so we hopped on the van and went to Gura Raului, near the Zarnesti Keys. This is the starting point for the classic tour through Piatra Craiului – the first time I did it was ten years ago. It takes you through the keys, then the villages on the other side and back to where you started. Unfortunately we only enjoyed half of it, because in the end the bad weather caught with us. So we called the van back and went to Brasov.
Even with half the tour, we were still very pleased. The keys and their surroundings have a beauty of their own which I enjoy every times as if the first. It was very peaceful when we were there. A couple of angry dogs at the shepherds’, but other then that not one tourist, let alone cyclists.
I was only sorry we didn’t get to see the second part of the tour which is very pretty and also very different then the first. Maybe some other time.
Day 6 – Friday, 18th of June, 36 km
A sunny morning in Brasov, why wasn’t yesterday like that too? Anyways… We started on the winding streets of Brasov, then got on the dirt road to Poiana Brasov, crossed the sky slopes, got to the center of Poiana from where we got back to Brasov with a short detour towards Rasnov.
It was a wonderful week – and these are not my words, but those of the three Swiss and two Italians who formed the group. What they noticed was that in a relatively small area (Baiului, Bucegi, Piatra Craiului, Postavaru), you can do so many different tours. It’s like each day you are in a new place, from the dinosaur back of the Baiului ridge to the Susai forests, from the opening under the north eastern wall of Bugeci to the Sohodol hills, from the pretty villages to the rocky sites of Zarnest: more then 500 km of dirt roads and trails (less then 10 km of asphalt), going up almost 6000m and then down the same. I was a bit nervous about the ascents, but the group was beyond my expectations. Especially Claudio, who at 60 is an impressive climber. It’s true, he had the lightest bike. I can’t begin to imagine how much he paid for it, made entirely out of carbon fiber and Shimano XTR, but he was all lean muscle too. They weren’t into cross country marathons, but I think they would have done really well at any Romanian contest.
Oh che bello, oh che bello! Grazie mille Barbara, Claudio, Sergio, Kalina, Mario!
Update: more photos from our rides here
And the story of the week, in Italian, on Mario’s website: