Touring Romania on a BMW Motorcycle | On the Trail of Dracula

Touring Romania With Vlad On the Mind

By Peter Starr, Photography by Peter Starr, Zed Zawada

The real history of Count Dracula can be gleaned from the records housed in Sighisoara. But although he was born here, much of Dracula’s cause célèbre was earned in other cities. So after a restful stay at the delightfully unique Fronius Residence, we headed southwest to Sibiu with a planned stop at Biertan to find another of Romania’s fine fortified churches. The interesting thing is that although there are many tourists seeking to delve into this medieval history, those on motorcycles always attract the attention of the local children. Biertan’s inquisitive urchins were no exception.

There are no freeways in this part of the country, which means motorcycle riding the way I like it, with all of its rural challenges. The roads are generally good as long as you stick with the ones more traveled. From Biertan we rode the less traveled road and found a dusty, dirt-only track that climbed from the valley back to the main road to Sibiu.

There are many aspects of Transylvania that make it a popular motorcycle tourist destination; the challenge of constantly twisting roads and sparse traffic being two. Another is the availability of local motorcycle tour guides like Claudia Palfi, who also has a stock of the latest BMWs. Claudia rode the two hours down from Turda to meet us and presented us with her special “I survived Transylvania” certificate. Claudia knows south-eastern Europe very well.

As interesting as towns and architecture can be, it is the people I met who provided me with the variety of character that brings it all to life. Across from the Imparatul Romanilor hotel, Zed spotted a purple Harley parked in front of the Transylvania Tattoo Parlor. Curiosity, not being the sole domain of cats, led us to introduce ourselves and that led to more tales of motorcycle culture in Transylvania courtesy of Ovidiu, master tattoo artist and Harley partisan.

A one-day round trip from Sibiu to Hunedoara proved to be the hardest single-day ride of our trip. But it rewarded us with a visit to a known Dracula castle: the picturesque, Gothic-style Corvinilor Castle built in the 14th century, where Dracula was imprisoned for crimes against the Turks. Legend has it that it was here Dracula designed the punishment that made him the scourge of the Turks, honing the bizarre rituals of blood and torture, extending them to rodents but making friends with the bats. He continued to eat rare meat that still had blood remaining in it.

By now the heat was having its effect, and it felt much better to ride. So ride we did, south to Petrosani and then east along a very narrow, twisty, mountainous road to join up with the northbound Transalpina highway back toward Sibiu. The altitude gave us a much cooler ride. Although the Transalpina highway was declared open, it is far from finished. It is not so much of a problem for cars, but the unpaved, crossroad culverts can come as a surprise to a motorcyclist, particularly if one is appreciating the wonderful scenery when you should be looking forward. Quite exhausted, we got back to Sibiu for our second night at the elegant Imparatul Romanilor hotel.

Our final day of riding was the 56-mile Transfagarasan pass that links Transylvania to Walachia and climbs to almost 7000 feet before passing under the mountain peak through a half-mile tunnel and down the other side. The BBC television show Top Gear called it the best road in the world, and the featured section on the north side of the pass is quite wonderful and exciting by any standard. I have no idea if Dracula ever made it over this pass. But I am glad to say that I did, and I enjoyed every rising foot of it. The down side of the pass is longer and travels along the Arges River and the 6.5-mile-long Vidraru Lake through forests, and as such lacks the sheer vistas of the north slope. But it is an engaging road that will keep you amused and, depending on skill level, challenged.

Just as I was wishing for somewhere to stop, we arrived at a watering hole without which I might have ridden right past the last of Dracula’s castles and the one that firmly established Vlad the Impaler as Eastern Europe’s most feared leader. Poenari Castle, considered to be the authentic Dracula’s Castle, sits on top of a peak that is impossible to see if you are traveling south. The parking lot at the base leads to a 1480-step staircase to the castle. This wasn’t something we wanted to do in 100 degree heat and full riding gear, but perhaps something we might have done at the beginning of the ride.

Poenari is where Vlad III put into practice the punishment of impaling, which he had learned from the Turks during captivity in his youth. After marching the boyars 50 miles without rest, he ordered them to build a new fortress on the ruins of the original Poenari Castle. Those who were old and weak he impaled for any advancing army to see. It was a great deterrent to potential invading forces and his own citizens. Almost any crime could be punished by impalement, yet Vlad III was looked upon as a hero by his people because crime and corruption ceased while commerce and culture thrived.

There is much known history yet much speculation about the life of Vlad Dracula. After six days, almost 900 miles, plenty of memories and Poenari behind us, our six-day quest was almost over. All that was left was the 100-mile ride to return to Bucharest to spend one more day enjoying the remarkable city that is spearheading Romania’s transition from repression to freedom. So many roads to ride and so many reasons to put riding Romania on your bucket list.

By Peter Starr
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