Interested in a Transylvania cycling tour? Go! It’s a fantastic way to immerse yourself in the region. Here’s what you can expect…
As we cycle down a dirt road through a small ramshackle village in Transylvania, a little boy runs out to greet us. He raises his hand for a high-five and we all comply – slap, slap, slap – as we roll slowly by. That little boy’s grin just about breaks my heart.
On our world cycling tour, high-fiving local kids was an everyday occurrence. But that cycling tour ended almost two years ago. Now, we travel mostly by bus and train — I miss the freedom of cycle touring so much it makes my heart ache.
Luckily, even though their tour season hadn’t really started yet, Mihai at Transylvania Cycling agreed to come show us around the villages of Biertan on our very first Transylvania cycling adventure.
Here’s what you can expect from a…
One-Day Transylvania Cycling Tour
Our Transylvania cycling adventure starts with a car ride, from Sighisoara, where Mihai picks us up at a reasonable hour (no sunrise start necessary!) to take us to the Saxon villages of Biertan.
The Biertan Fortified Church
In Biertan village, much has been done to preserve and restore the Lutheran fortified church, which was built in the late 1400s. As we climb the covered staircase leading up the church grounds, I can’t help but thinking it’s the perfect place for vampires to lurk – and me without my silver cross or a stake!
No vampires encountered, we emerge onto the hilltop where ethnic German Transylvanian Saxons have worshipped for more than 500 years. The Biertan region has been named a UNESCO World Heritage site on the strength of its fortified churches – there are 7 villages on the list.
The Biertan church was the last fortified church built in the area. It is open to visitors year-round and in the summer months you can visit for pipe-organ concerts.
The sacristy features a multi-tumblered locking mechanism that can only be opened by a key and a crank. Methinks they were hiding something extra-special here.
At this time of year, it is chilly inside and I wonder what it felt like for the medieval people who worshipped here. No doubt they weren’t nearly as pampered as we are and could stand a bit of cold — especially if it meant escaping eternal damnation!
The Transylvanian Roads Less Travelled
After our church visit, we finally get to cycle!
The last bike I rode was on a heavy public bike in London, along narrow winding streets packed with double-decker busses and trucks spewing god-knows-what into the cold winter air. The time before that, I was riding around the UNESCO World Heritage site of Hoi An, Vietnam, on a bike that was held together by a few rusty screws and some chewing gum.
Adventure Cycling’s bikes, perfectly fitted and well-tuned hybrid mountain bikes, make such a contrast to the rust-buckets I’ve grown used to riding.
As we zip off down a narrow paved road with no traffic, everything feels right with the world.
A short spin brings us to our next village: Copșa Mare.
Brightly coloured houses line the rough road and kids and stray dogs paus their roadside play to lazily watch us cycle by. Elderly ladies wrapped up tightly in overcoats and headscarves watch us warily as we pass. When I smile and greet them with a simple “buna” I am rewarded by giant grins in return.
A Bird’s-Eye View
At the home of a local honey-merchant / icon-painter, Bica, we abandon our bikes so we can walk up for a hilltop view of the village.
At this time of year, the earth is dark brown, or coal-black in spots where farmers have recently burned away the grass in preparation for planting season. Mihai tells us we have to come back in summer when everything is green and alive. I would love to see it then, though there is an other-worldly beauty in the wintery hills just waking up for spring.
From above, we can see how the land of the village is divided into narrow strips that run up the hillside at the back of each house.
The people here survive through subsistence farming, growing just what they need to eat. By necessity, their farming is organic, mixed-crop, and done by hand. Though the European Union purports to support exactly that kind of earth-friendly farming, the farms in Transylvania are too small to be given any subsidies. Instead, EU money goes to larger operations that use modern, destructive techniques.
There aren’t many jobs available, so with luck, one person in a household has an income, which allows them to pay for electricity and other necessities of modern life.
Back at the Bica’s home, we are treated to a honey tasting. He offers us a sample of each honey in turn, explaining where it was made, what plants the bees fed on, and describing the qualities and characteristics of each golden jar. It’s just like a wine-tasting, but much sweeter. We’re even a little buzzed by the time we’re done!
Honey-making used to be a major source of income for villagers in Transylvania. Now, the honey bees are in trouble, just as they are around the world. Antibiotics are not allowed in honey production but, Bica tells us, without them, it is impossible to keep enough bees alive for a profitable honey yield.
At the same time, imported honey from China is flooding the European market at a fraction of the price, so even with a good yield, prices are too low to earn much.
We’ve been to rural China… the idea of eating honey farmed in the industrial landscapes we cycled is not an appealing one. If you’re going to eat honey, buy small-batch and local!
Back on the Bikes
As the road rolls out before us, we finally start to find our rhythm. Stephen and I have cycled thousands of miles together, so we understand each others’ pace, how we like to ride, and who gives way to whom if a car comes. Adding a third person is always a challenge — and it always feels great when we start to click on the road.
Though the landscape is perfect and the roads are beyond quiet (we saw more bikes and horse carts than cars) the weather doesn’t want to cooperate. It starts to spit a little as we meander to our next destination. With the rain and a decent-sized hill looming in the distance, I almost decide to call it a day.
But then I realize this is exactly what we came out here for. On any bicycle tour, whether it’s for one day or one year, there will be challenges to face. You can’t turn back at the first hill, or you’ll never get anywhere!
As I climb the switchbacks of the small hill, struggling far more than either of the boys, I remember what it is I love about cycle touring so much. Just like life, bicycle touring is all about struggle and reward.
My body kicks into action, knowing exactly what to do in order to surmount this latest challenge. The hill turns out to be no big deal: it’s much easier to climb on a light mountain bike than on our fully loaded steel Long-Haul Truckers!
Farm Village in the Hills
The final village of our day, Zlagna, is down a tiny dirt road just at the top of the hill.
There’s nothing here but a small cluster of houses and another old Saxon church. This one, like most in the region, was abandoned in 1990 when Ceaușescu fell and Romania’s borders opened, allowing Saxons to flee back to their home countries.
Unused and unrestored, this crumbling church has a beauty all its own.
Most of the houses in the area are crumbling, too.
This is partly because there is not enough money to spare on renovations. But also, as examples of traditional Saxon architecture, the houses must be maintained and repaired according to traditional building techniques. There are public information signs in each village about what to do and not to do to your home. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough people who know how to properly restore these home. This leaves only one choice: let the house fall down around you.
A Picture-Perfect Finish
Though we haven’t covered the entire route Mihai planned for us, I’ve had enough cycling for one day – all this plane, train, and bus travel has led to some out-of-shape cycling muscles!
As soon as we decide it’s time to head back home, the sun pops out from behind the clouds as if to entice us to stay.
At the same time, our earlier hill climb pays off with a 7 or 8 km downhill run all the way back to the car. As I listen to the silence, broken only by the whirr of my tires on asphalt and the occasional bleat from a new-born lamb, I realize just how perfect Transylvania is for cycling.
Whether it’s for one day or for weeks on end, I highly recommend a Transylvania cycling adventure!
About Transylvania Cycling
Mihai and Radu started Transylvania Cycling after realizing that they weren’t suited to sitting in a cubicle for the next 40 years. They love cycling, mountain hiking, and camping and they are truly passionate about helping preserve the small village communities in Transylvania.
If you want to really get to the heart of Transylvania’s culture and visit the villages that you’d normally just get to glimpse out the train window, get in touch with Transylvania Cycling. We will definitely do another of their tours next time we’re in Transylvania!
Transylvania Cycling’s 2017 Bicycle Tours
- 2 or 4 day Transylvania cycling tours
- Start from Sibiu, Cluj-Napoca or Sighișoara
- Explore ethnographic regions, mountains, or medieval villages
- Stay in accommodation arranged by Transylvania Cycling
Guided multi-day tours
This would be my first choice! You can join a scheduled tour or get in touch with the guys to create a personalized itinerary.
Cycling tours to Transylvania events
Want to visit a Sheep Milking Festival, a Full Moon Festival, or a Transylvanian Folk Festival? Getting there by bike is a great way to join in the fun on a local level. Here’s the schedule of events.
♥ Happy Transylvania cycling adventures! Stephen & Jane