Life in the slow lanes
Sedate cycling across the land of Dracula
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