traveling in Romania and Bulgaria are unfounded
-- Story by Chris --
Back in May when we began
this journey, the route from Hungary to Greece was uncertain: The Kosovo situation
in Yugoslavia was unclear, Albania's borders were closed, and the warnings of rampant
crime in Romania and Bulgaria put us a bit on edge. Our "failsafe" plan
was to drive down the eastern coast of Italy, then take a ferry to Greece.
Italy is a country we've
visited a few times, and although we have not been to the south, we probably will go there
in the future. Although the Dalmatian coast is said to be beautiful, and the route
would require a short time in western Yugoslavia, the main problem is the 20 miles of
Albania's coast to get around, and the ferries would be expensive. We traded emails
with fellow BMW rider Jim Herne in Bucharest,
Romania, and he assured us that if we were cautious, travel through Romania and Bulgaria
would be fine and very rewarding. We decided that we would probably never otherwise
visit Romania and Bulgaria in the future, so here we are!
Before we left Hungary, we were
called back to do another TV interview, this time for an internet program. The
interview lasted about 20 minutes, and I answered all my questions in Hungarian, which was
a bit challenging for me (the co-anchors translated into Hungarian Erin's answers).
During this week back in Budapest we also met another American, Steve Duz, living there
but is now contemplating "the big trip". Steve decided to come with us
across the border to Romania.
On Sunday morning (Oct 3rd), after saying goodbye to
family and friends, we departed Budapest. Jim had given us a few route suggestions,
and we figured it would take one day to get to Transylvania, one day to Bucharest, and one
day through Bulgaria to the Greek border. This would be a total of 3 days, and we'd
be in Greece by the 6th. Umm, today is Oct 7th, and we're still in Bulgaria.
We got a late start from
Budapest, and only reached the Romanian border in the late afternoon. We don't carry
much cash, and rely on getting local currency from ATM machines (which also give the best
exchange rate and no commission). Steve changed some money at the border, and we
figured we could get cash in the first city, Chisineu-Cris. When we arrived, we
discovered the city was actually a small town, there was no bank, and darkness was rapidly
approaching. The countryside looked impoverished, and we were getting nervous about
our options. Instead of heading into the mountains, we turned south and
headed to the city of Arad, were we found an ATM and a hotel with secure parking (the
major concern). Steve had to work Monday, so we said goodbye to him in Chisineu-Cris
and talked about maybe meeting next year in OZ (a.k.a. Australia).
Monday's plan was to ride to
Bran, visit Dracula's castle, and get to Bucharest in the evening. Boy were we
wrong. The economic problems in Romania are especially apparent in the poor road
condition -- which hasn't been attended to in years. Although the roads were paved,
the surface was covered with bumps and crevices, and felt like riding across ocean waves
made of cement. Add to this the narrow 2 lane roadways (one lane each direction),
comprised of hundreds of horse drawn carts, shabby cars, diesel spewing trucks and
trailers, luxury sedans piloted by competitive drivers, and meandering cattle (including
baby pigs!)-- I guess this is a taste of what India might be like.
After passing multiple police
"stops" without incident, we were finally stopped in the middle of nowhere,
along a shaded roadway and between towns. To make a long story short, we negotiated
a $60 speeding fine down to $9 -- Off the record, of course and paid in cash directly to
the officer. Erin was frustrated by the obvious shakedown, but I looked at it as
good practice for the future. Upon reflection, I probably could have gotten away
with paying only $6.
We arrived in Brasov, north of
Bran, around 5:00pm, and called Jim to tell him not to expect us (He already knew this
from our location at our lunchtime call.) We found a pension, actually a room in a
private home, for $18 including secure parking, and went to town for a nice dinner
($10). The next morning, we got a late start as we had trouble starting Erin's
bike. We went to a gas station and checked the battery, but couldn't find a
problem. We checked the voltage throughout the day, and although it was lower than
usual, it didn't seem to be a major problem. We also didn't have much faith in the
Almost immediately after
starting into the mountains we arrived in Bran, home to Bram Stoker's Dracula character
and the castle where he lived, according to the story. The castle is a somewhat
foreboding structure built atop a rock on the mountain. Locals say, however, that
the story is mostly fiction with a few bits of history thrown in to suit Stoker's tastes.
The Dracula character is based on a guy named Vlad "the impaler" who
lived in the mid-1400's. The locals said this guy never impaled anyone (in fact he
might have actually been a chef!) and was actually a hero who fought against their enemies
with valor. The inside of the castle is really like a comfortable chateau with lots
of fireplaces throughout, big wooden furniture, elegantly carved wood ceilings and doors,
We left the
castle around 2:00pm and headed south through the mountains. Up until this point,
Erin was very unimpressed with Romania -- Bad roads, traffic, lack of scenery, hazy red
sky (from all the field fires), beggars, and that we were constantly overcharged a few
cents here and there for "incidentals". But, entering the mountains was
extremely different. The blue sky opened up to reveal rolling hills, lush with
green grass, large trees, and the mixture of old (gray) wood homes and new
"chalet" style homes in the classic Transylvania style were quite
impressive. We passed many farmers and shepherds along the roads who were dressed in
the old style with felt-like hats and wearing vests which looked like the were made either
of suede or wool.
Lunch was an interesting
experience on the side of the road. Earlier in the day, we stopped in the mountains
at a scenic overview. There was an old man selling 3 different types of Cheese.
We opted for one of the two "Moooo" varieties; the third was a
"Baaaah" (this is how we communicate with the locals most of the time.) Later, we stopped at a small shop with very
few options and bought a loaf of bread and some soda. At about 3:00, we found our
lunch spot across from a stream, in a shaded area full of grass. We had peanut
butter (PB) and some left over chips in our food bag, and added to this our purchases from
earlier in the day. Our first visitor was a stray dog, who we fed old bread, and
bits of cheese and PB. This dog was definitely hungry, because he gobbled everything
up. A small boy wandered by asking for money, we gave him a slice of bread with some
PB and the remainder of the chips. Soon after, a couple of other dogs came by, and
we fed them too -- Keep in mind the dogs never got too close (they were too scared and we
didn't want rabies).
We had just put away our
supplies and started to put on our riding gear when an old man was walking by with his
load of tree branches (We saw a lot of people throughout the day hauling this kindling).
He had a big smile, and we exchanged pleasantries -- we didn't understand each
I decided to offer him a ride,
and he seemed thrilled. We rode about a mile to his village - a small poor
settlement of shacks on the side of the river. The homes were all very small, made
of wood, with small vegetable gardens and there didn't appear to be electricity or indoor
plumbing. The villagers saw us coming, and called out to their friend in amazement
-- He was definitely the man of the hour!
We finally arrived in Bucharest just before dark, after riding only
225kms (135miles) from Brasov. We stayed with Jim and his wife (Irena), and had a
fun evening with them, learning about the issues and concerns in Romania. Before
retiring for the night, we hooked up Jim's battery charger to Erin's bike overnight and
kept our fingers crossed.
Wednesday morning, Jim and
Irena left for work, and we headed south to the Danube River and the Bulgarian border.
Exiting Romania was no trouble, but entering Bulgaria was kind of funny. We
went to passport control and handed the agent our passports. He looked at the blue
United States passports, then at us, then he said, "Ah, Bill and Hillary Clinton,
welcome to my country. Where's Monica?" I guess that sums up his idea of
the good 'ol U.S., eh?
We passed through Passport
Control and Customs without incident, then came to a third official area, which we
couldn't quite figure out. I approached the window and was told this is where we pay
for health care and road taxes. I wasn't sure what this meant, but was soon informed
we were tourists and didn't have to pay (I certainly wasn't going to complain). The
gate was opened and we rode through a deep puddle of watery grease, which left a nice
residue on our riding clothes -- Welcome to Bulgaria! We were later told that the
puddle is for disinfecting the undercarriage of one's vehicle to prevent the
transportation of germs and viruses into the country. Apparently it's been at all of
the Bulgarian border crossings since the 1960's and, although they now know it is a silly
and ineffective thing, it continues to exist today.
In Romania, we were warned to
be extra careful in Bulgaria -- "It's full of thieves." We can now say
that is a vicious rumor. We stopped for money and lunch in Ruse, a very clean and friendly
town. Our plan was to ride the rest of the day to make Sofia (Bulgarian Capital) by
nightfall, as we wanted to find a place to stay with secure parking. Well, the ride
was great. The roads were, surprisingly, in great shape and we made great time
(thanks to the GPS keeping us from getting too lost). We arrived in Sofia with an
hour of daylight remaining. Although we never really got to see the tourist sights
of Sofia it looks like an impressive city.
The problem in Sofia was
finding a hotel -- nothing in our price range anyway. In such a large city, we could
only find 4 and 5 star hotels, at $100+ per night = not on our budget. We had some
addresses of cheap hotels, but couldn't read the Cyrillic road signs. I walked into
the local Harley Davidson shop to see if they had suggestions, and they sent us across the
street to meet the owner (Mark) of an American restaurant. Mark gave us directions
to a small town just outside the city where he lives. It was dark when we left the
city in search of accommodations. We got lost several times, and 20 minutes later
we were stopped by a police patrol (no speeding ticket this time, they were just curious
about us.) They headed us in the right direction, and when we went to leave Erin's
bike wouldn't start. We bump-started the bike, and headed off into the night.
Now we knew Erin's volts were
dropping so she switched to her parking light and followed close behind me. We were
approaching the exit from the very congested highway when Erin's bike died behind
me. That's right, no streetlights, no shoulder, and going up a hill. I quickly
pulled over and rode back to her position (against traffic). We eventually pushed
the bike across the street, bump-started it again, and Erin rode next to me, now with no
lights. We were both nervous, as we didn't know where we were really going, if we
would find a hotel and how soon it would be before the bike would die again.
Climbing the steep little
streets up the mountain we found the first hotel was booked, and we meandered a little
ways, dodging stray dogs and pedestrians, following signs for other hotels -- at this
point we didn't care about the cost. While looking for one hotel, we happened upon
another -- it was more like a pension. I went inside while Erin kept her bike
running. They had a room for $27 and secure parking. While putting the bikes
in the garage, the owner (Ivayo) showed us his Suzuki GS550, but said the battery was
dead. Funny, I said, so's Erin's. "I am moto mechanic!" he
What followed over the next 36
hours was truly unbelievable. It was about 9:30pm, and while Erin unpacked our
clothes, Ivayo and I started to set up the battery charger -- This is the extent of what I
knew to do. Thankfully, Ivayo was a pro, and wanted to find the cause of the
problem. The fluid level was low, which was odd because it was normal 2 weeks
before. Ivayo then tested the acid level in the cells, and determined that it was
no-good. We then siphoned the existing fluid, replaced it with fresh battery acid,
and set up the charger for the night.
It was about 11:00pm, and we
still hadn't eaten. Ivayo and I went into town and picked up a couple of pizzas,
which we brought back to eat. Two hours later we went to sleep.
I awoke around 7:30, and went
to the garage just before 8:00am. Ivayo informed me that the battery acid was
in the "white". "Green"=bad; "White"=OK, but barely;
and "Red"=good/normal. We rode the bike around and then tested
The end result was that he felt
the Voltage Regulator was faulty. This meant that we could drive during the day
without lights, but night driving would leave us stranded. Ivayo had to run some
errands and pick up some car parts. Afterwards, we swung by the BMW dealer, but they
didn't have the part in stock, and it would take 10 days to get it. Since we would
be in Greece in a few days, we decided to have it replaced there. He then took me
up to the mountains where he showed me the mountain he and his brothers used to ski.
In the mid-80's, he was the #1 downhill skier in Bulgaria, and he had a host of trophies,
medals, and certificates to back it up. He also took me to an old monastery in the
hills, which was beautiful.
Ivayo was nervous about us
breaking down on the way to Greece, and wanted to test the regulator to be sure that it
was the sole problem. We agreed to take the bike to a friend's shop later in the
afternoon (around 4pm), as he had a few customer cars to work on. I woke from my nap
around 3:30, and found that Ivayo had already taken the bike to the shop, and he was 100%
certain that if we replaced the regulator in Greece, the problem would be solved.
Still, he was very upset he couldn't fix it himself.
I figure Ivayo spent
about 9 hours working on the bike(s) for us. He also paid for our pizza dinner the
first night (he refused to let me pay), and wouldn't accept any money for his time with
the bikes. He is far from rich, and works about 14 hours every day. Friday
morning when we left, his father claimed he was sleeping and that Ivayo wouldn't get up --
I knew he was avoiding me because I planned to give him money. I left some money on
his bike and told his father it was for a new battery. Ivayo is the kindest
and most selfless person I've ever met, and while we were in the monastery together, I
actually prayed to someday be the same kind of person.
EPILOGUE: Monday, October 11 --
I had called the dealer in Athens before we left Bulgaria to be sure they had a voltage
regulator in stock, which they did. When we arrived at the shop Monday morning, the
mechanics checked the regulator, said it was OK, and so was the battery. We were
dumbfounded! We insisted there was a problem, and we believed it was with the
regulator. The chief mechanic was called over. He rechecked the regulator,
tested some wires the previous guys neglected, and fifteen seconds later he told us the
regulator was shot -- Thanks Nikos. The regulator was replaced with a new one (under
warranty), and the bike is running fine.
Imagine if we had found the hotel in Sofia
(Bulgaria) we were originally looking for!