May 30, 2009 GMT
Moldova & Romania

After typing up my last blog entry, I returned to the old part of Kamyanets-Podilsky and attempted a walk round the "island" it sits on between two rivers. As I climbed back up after failing to find a routs, I noticed a thick pall of smoke over the town. No-one seemed unduly concerned, but closer to I could see flames leaping out of an old building. A quick bit of local geography and I realised the building in question was round the back of my hotel! I hurried back, and spent a couple of hours with all my valuables in a bag ready to go, watching the Ukrainian fire service at work through the window. Luckily the fire never crossed the hotel car park, but the next morning the bike coughed out several clouds of black smoke before starting properly!

Crossing into Moldova was even quicker and more straightforward than Ukraine, and initially I made good progress on fast roads. I even found a money changer open on a Sunday to change my Ukrainian cash! In Balti, however, I took a wrong turn, and ended up on the wrong road out of town.Foolishly I decided to take a shortcut. The road turned to gravel quite quickly, but remained fairly solid Then it turned to dirt, and got smaller and smaller. The compass said I was going in the right direction, but by now I was on a track leading into fields. At the first wider section I decided to turn round - and promptly ended up fighting acorss deep ruts, with the bike going over and complete luggage removal required! Eventually I got going again. I gave up on the shortcut idea, returned to the gravel and kept on that, making for the main road into the nearest town. At one point I had to ask directions - and was sent down a tiny dirt track through fields for miles! Next time I'll trust the compass - I reckon if I'd kept going on the first track I would have ended up right where I wanted to be!

The aim for the day was to head to Orheiul Vechi, where there is a monastery on a ridge. It closed at five, but Lonely Planet said I could stay there, in rooms with stunning views. I made it at 4.45. There was a hotel, but it had no views, took cash only, and wanted the equivalent of 3 more than I had! But I was there, so I walked up the ridge anyway.

I may have missed something. People in Moldova don't come across as friendly, and asking if they speak any other language is met with a flat, conversation-ending "no", so I didn't try too hard to get information. But what I saw was a small yellow church, on a ridge, surrounded by a building site. Quite cool, but certainly not worth crossing into an entire new country for!

So I headed off to Orhei, a town about 15km away, in search of accommodation and/or a cash machine. Orhei is a reasonable sized town. But it does not have cash machines, hotels, usable roads, or indeed anything much except a very dodgy-looking bus station. On the way there I had passed a sign for a campsite, and a glance through the gate suggested wooden huts, and a generally presentable ambiance, so I decided to try that. Camping after all should be well within the range of cash I had, and I was keen not to carry on the 30km to Chisinau if I didn't have to.

It turned out not be a campsite, but a sort of complex with a kids' playpark, a restaurant, a sign banning guns, and a ludicrously expensive thatched cottage thing with no real sheets and a strong smell of damp. But they took cards, and it was getting late, so I had little choice but to settle into the most expensive accommodation so far in the poorest country so far.

The next day I got up early and left. I found more smiles as I neared Romania, but it's safe to say that Moldova is the only country so far that I have disliked. I never felt unsafe, but I did feel ill-at-ease and unwelcome. In Ukraine the looks people gave me said "Who are you? Where have you come from? Where are you going?" In Moldova they simply said "What are you doing here?"

At the border with Romania I met Nico & Leon, two French cousins who are cycling round Europe for six months on a tandem complete with trailer. They were halfway through their trip and had already been to Istanbul, before heading up towards Scandinavia. Once in Romania we shared a picnic by the river and compared the relative merits of our respective modes of transport.

All of which took time, so I didn't get as far as planned on my first day in Romania. I had a campsite marked on my map, so stopped for directions to that. In Romania however "camping" seems to refer to wooden huts, so I was sent to a restaurant with a few of those out the back. I managed to explain what I really wanted, at which point they found me a patch of grass and offered me full use of it!

The next day I headed off to Bucovina, an are of Romania full of painted monasteries. The paintings are inside and outside, hundreds of individual scenes, many of which feature bored-looking saints being martyred in a variety of ways. In one I met a tiny old nun, well into her eighties, who asked me with gestures and a mixture of languages where I was from. I managed to explain what I was doing, at which point her face lit up with excitement and she offered me her blessing. I'm sure if I'd offered she would have perched herself on the back and come with me!

That night I was again greeted with fantastic Romanian hospitality. I'd found a sign for what looked like a huge campsite, but missed the last turn-off. In the process of turning round, I spotted a small sign advertising hotel rooms and camping. It looked far friendlier than the other, so I followed it up a small gravel back street, and ended up at a pensuinnea. The owner came out and greeted me. The common language this time was French, and she chatted to me a little as I pitched the tent in the garden. I asked if they did food and was told no, so prepared to get the stove out, when she came over again and asked if I would like some soup! She took me inside and placed huge vat of excellent home-made chicken soup in front of me, and plied me with afinata, a liqueur made from berries, also home-made. Her husband arrived not long after, and I ended up there till bedtime, chatting, eating and drinking. I was even given a signed copy of her poetry book! Next morning was the same, with a huge breakfast, and I had to insist to pay any money at all! I left with suggestions of where to go, and headed off to find some wooden churches.

The roads in Maramures are scenic but slow, and it took a while for me to reach my final destination, the Merry Cemetery in Sepanta. It's right on the Ukrainian border, and although it was frustrating to have to effectively retrace my steps, there was something quite exciting about being able to look at the line of trees to my right and think "I know what's on the other side of that"! The Merry Cemetery is a small graveyard where the headstones feature scenes from the dead person's life. It paints a picture of a community as well as individuals; most of the women are spinning or weaving, while the men work the fields. The original sculptor died in 2005, and the work was taken up by one of his students, and I felt quite pleased to find what was obviously his grave: a picture on a headstone of a man carving a headstone.

The plan after that was to head as far south as possible towards Deva, where I would be able to stay with a friend of my father's. I set off optimistically, and in spite of rain was making good progress towards a town called Dej, which I thought would make a reasonable stopping point. There were plenty of signs for hotels, many of which also offered camping, so I wasn't worried. Then a sign announced that the road ahead was being rebuilt, and suggested an alternative route. A quick glance at the map showed that to be a better way for me, so I took it - and didn't see a single accommodation sign for two and a half hours! I ended up on the main road into a city I wanted to avoid, in the rain, as it got dark. Eventually I stopped at a fuel station, and was directed to a small hotel right next door.

Again, I was greeted like royalty. Mihaela was simply staying there with her husband and young son, but she called the owner, sorted out a room for me, and then invited me to join them for a barbecue! So we sat outside, at 10.30 at night, eating excellent Romanian sausage-like things and discussing the state of our lives. Excellent end to a very hard evening!

My plan for the next day was simple: visit a couple of caves in the Apuseni mountains, then ride to Deva. From the outset the road was bad, and combined with foul weather it was 12.30 by the time I saw the first sign to the first cave. I was slightly surprised when the road turned to a gravel track, as I had the impression that this was one of Romania's major sights, and supposedly I still had 10km to go. I was even more surprised to find another sign about a kilometre down the track pointing straight up side of the mountain! I pulled over to figure out what to do, and in the process slipped in the mud and ended up on the ground.

A couple of minutes later, as I was slipping around trying to get the bike upright again, a car pulled up, and two young guys got out. They helped me pick the bike up, and introduced themselves as Vlad and Nico. Vlad had recently graduated from art school, and Nico was in the final stages of a master's degree. They offered me a lift up the mountain in their car, so I secured the bike, removed the valuables and the muddy waterproofs, and off we went.

I was very glad I hadn't attempted it on the bike! The road was rocky and muddy, twisting up very steep hairpins. We passed a car coming the other way, and the driver told us we were only a couple of kilometres away from the cave. The car was a fairly low BMW, so we decided to turn it round and park it up as soon as possible, and walk the rest of the way. We'd been going for about 15 minutes, when we passed a farmer, who told us we were still a good 4 km away from the cave! We pressed on, but were soon passed by a yellow 4x4 school bus, and managed to hitch a lift up to the top - which was indeed a very long way!

To reach the cave you have to walk down a set of very rickety metal steps set into the side of the limestone sinkhole, and the only part you can access is the very entrance. You walk along a wooden walkway, with only one handrail, to a small cavern. The ice formations are not hugely impressive I have to say, other than in their complete alienness. They were formed without people, and exist without us. I found it impossible to ignore the fact that this environment was not mine, and that here I could not survive.

Just as we left the cave, the rain started. Luckily there was a sheltered picnic table, so we sat and waited for it to stop. And waited some more. And some more. Eventually we were forced to conclude that we were going to get very wet, and headed back down. No lucky lifts this time, only a small caravan-shop that sold us some plastic bags to use as ponchos! It was a long, wet walk, but when the rain finally stopped not far from the car, we were rewarded with views out over the valley, wreaths of mist rising from the trees and moving like living things with the breeze.

Following the unplanned adventure I decided not to bother with the second cave, and headed straight to Deva - a very cold and wet 2 hours' riding! But I was greeted with a washing machine, a bed, hot food and a bath. After a good night's sleep Kevin took me on another adventure, this time sneaking round the back of Deva castle, which is officially closed for renovations. We also visited Hunedora castle, just in time to run into a freemasons' convention - they're not very discreet about the secret handshake it has to be said!

Today the bike has received a bath, and with clean clothes, fresh food supplies and a couple of days' rest I'm ready to head off again for my last couple of days in Romania, before heading into Serbia and the unknown once again.

Posted by Laura Bennitt at May 30, 2009 05:02 PM GMT

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