Life in the slow lanes

Se­date cy­cling across the land of Drac­ula

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - WILL HIDE

The evening sun casts long shad­ows over Vis­cri’s main street, which slopes up­wards to­wards the grand, white­walled, 13th-cen­tury church. In a scene that has been re­peated ev­ery evening in sum­mer since about 1150, a herd of cows non­cha­lantly blocks the road, hav­ing been guided down from the high mead­ows by a cou­ple of brawny, leather-skinned men and their scruffy dog.

Ev­ery 20m or so, two or three of the cows peel off, as if on au­to­matic pi­lot, and go home to their re­spec­tive barns tucked be­hind a long row of pas­tel-coloured houses and moo good­night to their bovine friends.

The Saxon vil­lage of Vis­cri is in south­ern Tran­syl­va­nia in Ro­ma­nia, but for­get vam­pires and blood­suck­ing counts un­less you want a wooden sou­venir to hang on the back of your loo door. This is just one stop on a new “slow cy­cling” trip dur­ing which I pedal se­dately through pas­tures strewn with an amaz­ing ar­ray of wild­flow­ers, and am­ble along shaded wood­land tracks and down coun­try roads shared only with a horse and cart. I crest hills to find ham­lets un­changed for hun­dreds of years ex­cept for thor­oughly 21st-cen­tury guest­houses con­tain­ing a comfy bed, power shower and Wi-Fi. Food is not so much “farm to fork” as “gar­den to spoon”; one day I pause dur­ing break­fast while the cow is milked a few me­tres away.

My route has been de­vised by Oli Broom, a 36-yearold cricket-mad Bri­ton who cy­cled all the way to the Ashes in Aus­tralia in 2009 and fell in love with Ro­ma­nia en route. He has set up The Slow Cy­clist, of­fer­ing leisurely small-group es­corted bik­ing hol­i­days in Tran­syl­va­nia (and Ge­or­gia and Rwanda) with an em­pha­sis on ex­pe­ri­enc­ing lo­cal food and cul­ture, not madly dash­ing from A to B in a blaze of Ly­cra.

Sax­ons ar­rived in Tran­syl­va­nia from what is now west­ern Ger­many in the mid-12th cen­tury at the re­quest of King Geza II, who wanted to counter the in­flu­ence of tribes press­ing from the east. The Sax­ons pros­pered, guard­ing their tra­di­tions, speak­ing a form of Lux­em­bour­gish, farm­ing and build­ing im­pres­sive for­ti­fied churches, some now with UNESCO World Her­itage listing and much beloved of Prince Charles. When the com­mu­nist Ceaus­escu regime col­lapsed in 1989, about 90 per cent of the Sax­ons fled west to a new life in Ger­many, aban­don­ing whole vil­lages to the Ro­ma­ni­ans and Gyp­sies who now live there.

I start in Cund, about a four-hour drive north­west of Bucharest. On a hot sum­mer morn­ing, the sun glints off the strik­ing Saxon church, which is now con­gre­ga­tion­less, shut up and guarded by geese.

Broom passes me on to lo­cal guide Sergiu Paca, who, like sev­eral peo­ple I meet, speaks flaw­less English that he learnt from Hol­ly­wood movies. An­other such man is the vil­lage cheese-maker who tells me about thwarted plans to ex­pand his fledg­ling em­pire. “I wanted to build some­thing big­ger, but my mother said it would take over her aubergine patch.”

Cy­cling here isn’t that tough, but you’re out most of the day and there are enough up­hill sec­tions to war­rant a de­cent level of fit­ness be­fore you ar­rive. Couch pota­toes need not ap­ply, but on the other hand you don’t need to be a com­pet­i­tive champ ei­ther. The track from Cund climbs gen­tly past fields of sheep with steep, smooth grassy banks off to the left and pock­ets of wind­blown trees on top, sil­hou­et­ted un­der a cloud­less blue sky. It runs down into the small town of Dum­braveni, where lit­tle stirs in the heat of the day ex­cept a lady selling wa­ter­mel­ons in the shade of the grand Ar­me­nian church, high­light­ing an­other mi­nor­ity that has moved on.

Af­ter lunch we pedal about 13km on to Bier­tan, which has one of the most im­pres­sive Saxon churches in the area, pro­tected by three sets of walls. A lo­cal tra­di­tion in- volves mar­ried cou­ples who are go­ing through a rough patch be­ing locked up in one of its tow­ers un­til they have sorted out their dif­fer­ences, even if that takes weeks. It’s said that over three cen­turies there has been only one recorded di­vorce … but no men­tion of mur­ders.

Our rest for the night is in a home con­verted into a lux­u­ri­ous guest­house by its Ital­ian owner in the neigh­bour­ing vil­lage of Copsa Mare. Three old women sit on the main street out­side over­see­ing com­ings and go­ings and ad­mir­ing the new pave­ment. But they won­der if it will ac­tu­ally last a win­ter when tem­per­a­tures plum­met to -30C. No cars drive down the road, just an oc­ca­sional horse and cart. The only sound is that of peo­ple chat­ting and laugh­ing on their doorsteps and swal­lows chirp­ing over­head.

In the evening — af­ter din­ner of smoked aubergines, soup, fried pork and di­vine choco­late cake — we hitch a lift to the top of the rolling hills out­side the vil­lage with views over to the Carpathian Moun­tains. At the sum­mit we stop at the di­lap­i­dated shack of a Hun­gar­ian-speak­ing shep­herd who spends sum­mers look­ing af­ter his flock with a ragged but fierce ar­ray of sheep dogs and a menagerie of pup­pies, pigs and cats. He of­fers us some cheese he’s made that day and talks about the bears and wolves

For­ti­fied church in Bier­tan, top; cy­cling in the Carpathi­ans, cen­tre; Vis­cri, above; Sighisoara, birth­place of the le­gend of Drac­ula, above right

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