Motorcycling through Romania and Bulgaria

In September, 2021, with Covid-19 pandemic control restrictions still making it hard to travel to most places, we made a (somewhat) last minute trip to Eastern Europe and spent nearly 2 weeks riding motorcycles through the beautiful landscapes and fascinating towns of Romania and Bulgaria.

TL:DR

We rented motorcycles from Romania Motorcycle Tours and spent 13 days riding around Romania and Bulgaria. We saw and did ALL the cool things (ok, that’s an exaggeration) including castles, medieval towns, high alpine twisty roads, gorgeous black sea beaches, the Danube river (over and over again), charming guesthouses, delicious local foods, mountain passes, and more. A brief “highlight” video is below, jump to the bottom for the complete adventure documentary.

The idea started to take shape after a few of our acquaintances started posting pictures of their trips to Europe on social media. Going to Europe had never been high on my list of continents to visit (with so many other wild and exciting places to still visit), but with the past year of self-enforced quarantine making us more than a little bit stir crazy, the idea quickly bloomed from ‘what if’ to ‘why not’. And with the help of an awesome motorcycle tour company (Romania Motorcycle Tours) to help us put all the logistics together, that mid-August whim became an early September reality.

We selected to do a ‘self-guided’ motorcycle tour because we wanted the ability to go at our own pace and customize our adventure to our specific needs. But that doesn’t mean we were necessarily ‘on our own.’ The excellent folks at Romania Motorcycle Tours provided our motorcycle rental, organized our custom itinerary, and booked our nightly accommodation. They checked in with us regularly over the course of our trip and when things didn’t go as planned (more on that later), were quick to make adjustments – leaving us to enjoy the travel without getting bogged down in logistics. We couldn’t have put together such an amazing and fun trip without them.

Pre-Trip Planning

Our original plan was to ride all over Eastern Europe – doing something like “9 countries in 13″ days!” really captured our adventurous imaginations. And for a second, it really looked like all that was going to happen. Then the Covid-19 Delta Variant really started taking off, and just a few days before we left, new restrictions came out. Specifically, challenging Covid testing requirements in Serbia and severely limited travel into Bulgaria from several of the bordering countries (but luckily not Romania – more on that later).

(Above) Our ambitious original plan - compared to what we actually ended up riding. Though significantly less miles and fewer countries, exploring Romania and Bulgaria by motorcycle was absolutely epic.

We knew we had an issue with the route before we left, but for whatever reason decided to suspend that reality for a few more days and adopted a ‘show-up-and-see’ attitude.

Packing for a big motorcycle trip is quite challenging and flying with all of our motorcycle gear was a new experience for us. For on thing, helmets take up A LOT of space. And then there are boots, riding gear, tools, and toiletries – bags filled up quickly. Its not surprising how much space all the gear we typically wear while riding takes up, but it is hard to accommodate that when you don’t want to wear all that gear on the plane. Fortunately for this trip we were staying in guesthouses and hotels the whole time – so didn’t need to bring the camping gear – that would have been – a too much. We spend a good amount of time packing. And repacking. And prioritizing. And optimizing our carry-on (we used our Mosko Moto Backcountry and Scout Duffel bags) and personal items (we used our Mosko Moto Nomax tank bags) In the end, we settled on this list: Our definitive and affective “2 Weeks in Eastern Europe Motorcycle Adventure Packing List”.

We left the Pacific Northwest USA in early September and flew to Bucharest Romania, with only a short stopover in Amsterdam. Flying in Covid times is a little bit hectic, let alone international travel. As mentioned before, several EU countries decided to change their Covid travel restrictions just days before we left. In addition to complicating our route planning, it also caused quite a bit of confusion at the airports on what the exact policies were, what forms you had to fill out, and what certificates you needed to have. Fortunately we had prepared ourselves with quick access to our immunization records as well as a recent negative Covid 19 test – we were ready for whatever new restrictions they threw at us (short of banning tourist travel all together) .

Day 1: Bucharest, Romania

After our overnight flight we arrived in Romania, a bit groggy but excited to get moving on our adventure. We were met at the airport by Maria from Romania Motorcycle Tours and her partner Mikael. They whisked us away to downtown Bucharest where we were immediately enveloped in the deep history and culture of Eastern Europe.

Maria and Mikael treated us to a somewhat whirlwind tour of the tourist district of Bucharest. It was an excellent first day in country (or afternoon, really), but a bit daunting, given our many may hours of traveling and being exhausted. Still Bucharest was a fun and lively city to see and it was great to have local guides show us around.

Day 2: Bucharest to Brasov (via Bran Castle)

Our accommodation in downtown Bucharest was excellent, but jetlag wasn’t kind to us, and less kind to me (Austin). Still we were excited to get underway. Romania Motorcycle Tours brought our motorcycles right to us (parked just outside of the hotel) so we were able to get loaded up fairly easily. We stashed our large bags at the Bucharest hotel (since we knew we’d be staying there on the tail end of the trip as well) and fit everything into the panniers (side cases) and top boxes on the bikes. We also fit up our Mosko moto tank bags. We were ready to go.

So with that, we headed out into Bucharest big city traffic. This being our first big international motorcycle adventure, navigating Bucharest traffic was totally crazy. So many round abouts and cars going every which direction. But after only a few hiccups we were on the road and headed into the mountains towards Brasov.

On our way north we stopped at Castle Bran. The supposed home of Dracula. I am not sure what I was expecting, but the castle itself was somewhat underwhelming. Perched on the top of a hill with steep stone walls made it hard to comprehend the scale of the structure. And the hallways and rooms were cramped and narrow. As my first European castle, I had nothing to compare it to. But in retrospect, I feel Castle Bran was the least spectacular of the Eastern Europe castles and fortifications that we saw, despite being one of the most popular tourist destinations.

From Bran Castle to Brasov we rode up through the Carpathian mountains on a spectacular winding road that allowed us to drop down into Brasov, giving us great views of the town from above. We stayed in a fantastic and historic hotel right in the center of Brasov, right near the main Council Square and the Black Church. It was incredible being immersed in so much history. We had fantastic outdoor dinner right in the square and had a great time wandering around the amazing Transylvanian medieval town.

Day 3: Brasov to Curtea De Arges (via the Transfagarasan Road)

With a big day of riding ahead of us, up and over the Fagaras mountains we headed out early from Brasov and headed towards the Transfagarasan Road. Known as one of the best roads to ride in all of Eastern Europe, the road winds its way up into the high alpine, where trees disappear to alpine heather and scrub. Near the highest pass, Balea Lake provides breathtaking views.

While the road was certainly spectacular, with great views and excellent motorcycle riding, the amount of traffic, including giant tour buses made the whole experience a little arduous. We actually found that the Transalpina road was more our style (more on that later). Still the scenery was amazing and it was well worth the trip. From the highway summit and Balea Lake we made our way down to the town of Curtea De Arges.

On the way down out of the mountains we had several encounters with bears. This is apparently a big problem in the region, where bears have become very habituated to the human activity and come right up to cars. Probably less unnerving when you are inside the steel cage of a vehicle, but on a motorcycle , these close encounters with large brown bears were a bit scary.

By this time we were acutely aware of the complications that lay before us for the next part of our journey. We had been closely following the latest Covid-19 restrictions on our embassy’s websites for the various countries we were planning on visiting in our original plan and things weren’t looking good. Our fears were confirmed by fellow traveler posts on ADV rider that indicated some significant complications in border crossings. We had two three main concerns:

  • Serbia required proof of a negative Covid test within 48 hours of crossing the border and apparently they were being serious and strict about a footnote requirement that the documentation be an original, directly from the testing agency, no digital copies.
  • Bulgaria banned all non-essential travel from countries they designated as yellow or red zones. Those countries included North Macedonia and Serbia. Fortunately, Romania remained a green zone, but that wasn’t the direction we were planning on coming from.
  • The U.S. State Department and Center for Disease Control continued to list Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Albania as ‘Level 4 – DO NOT TRAVEL’ destinations. Though this isn’t a binding directive, it doesn’t necessarily make you feel good about ignoring it.

To add to that, we were exhausted (at least I was – Beth is much more of a trooper than I am). Jet lag really took its toll on me for the first several days of our trip. It was at this point that we really realized that our original route was perhaps a bit too ambitious and logistically too challenging (with covid restrictions) to maintain.

Day 4: Curtea de Arges to Dubova (and the Danube River)

The morning we woke in Curtea de Arges we made the clutch decision to reroute our trip and stick to Romania and Bulgaria rather than piling on the miles and travel/quarantine risks to get to Croatia. With our pride a little bit wounded, we asked Maria (Romania Motorcycle Tours) to re-route our trip to stay between Romania and Bulgaria only and head east towards the Black Sea rather than continue west into Serbia. Maria was super accommodating and had us continue our trip as planned for the next day, while she planned our new lodgings and rerouted our trip. So we headed west for one more day, towards the Danube River.

On our way to Dubova we took a route through the Baile Herculane and the Cerna river valley. This was some beautiful riding through a preserved natural area that dropped us down to the shores of the Danube, along the border of Serbia. Like so many sights on this trip, the Danube was incredible to see, as we rode along the river bank from Orsova to Dubova. We overnighted at a lodge along the river in Dubova.

Day 5: Dubova to Hunedoara (and Corvin’s Castle)

From Dubova we started our re-routed trip and rather than continuing west to Serbia, we went north to Hunedora. The riding was fairly straightforward (lacking some of the spectacular natural highlights of previous days) but we did see some fantastic historical stuff, including Ulpia Traiana Sarmizegetusa, one of the oldest historical attractions in Romania. The exact period when the city was built is not known. Some say the first settlement was erected between 106-107, others say it was between 108-110. Sarmizegutusa was the capital and the largest city of Roman Dacia, later named Ulpia Traiana Sarmizegetusa after the former Dacian capital, located some 40 km away. Built on the ground of a camp of the Fifth Macedonian Legion, the city was settled by veterans of the Dacian wars.

It was incredibly cool to wander about these ancient ruins and think about the people that inhabited this area and built these fortifications so many years ago.

However, the true highlight of Day 5 was Corvin’s Castle in Hunedoara. While the castle had been through many renovations and several iterations it fit the story book version of what a castle should look like. It was so cool.

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Day 6: Hunedoara to Sibiu: (via the Transalpina Road)

From Hunedoara we headed east to Sibiu. To make things more interesting for riding, we decided to take the longer route and go up and over the Carpathian mountains once again, this time via the Transalpina road.

Despite being less popular than the Transfagarasan highway, the Transalpina was definitely our favorite road of the trip. The lower popularity led to less crowds on the road and less giant busses vying for our lane. While the original road actually pre-dates the Transfagarasan, new pavement in the last 10 years meant that the swoopy turns and switchbacks were just perfect for riding. And having perfect weather helped as well. We had lunch in a high alpine meadow with spectacular 360 degree views of the surrounding mountains. It was a truly incredible experience.

After a fantastic time in the mountains it was an almost magical experience decending down into the colorful gorgeous medieval city of Sibiu.

Day 7: rest day in Sibiu old town

After several days of continuous riding it was great to take a rest day in Sibiu and soak up all the history of the medieval city. We enjoyed checking out all the cool architecture surrounding the grand square (and surrounding areas) and eating excellent food at the outdoor cafes. We also took a couple hours to do laundry and clean up our act for the second part of our trip.

Day 8 and 9 : Sibiu to Dalnic (and Fagaras Citadel) and Dalnic to Cetatuia

Over the next two days we rode steadily east towards the Black Sea. These days were mostly utilitarian getting us from one edge of Romania to the other, but there were some cool things to see on the way, including the Fagaras Citadel. The 12th century citadel was in the process of being rehabilitated and was quite impressive with its mote and massive entrance gates.

On our way we were treated to a night at the Gaal Kuria (mansion) a 150 year old guest house a ways off the beaten path that had incredible architecture and scenery. We were treated to an excellent meal and a very relaxing evening.

Day 10: Cetatuia to Vama Veche (via the Calarasi-Ostrov Ferry)

As we approached the Black Sea we made our way through endless farmland and rolling hills surrounding the Danube river. The highlight of the motorcycle ride on this day was taking our bikes on the ferry across the Danube. I had never ridden a motorcycle onto a ferry before, so this was a novel and fun experience. It also allowed us to cut out a lot of very boring highway miles and instead stick to country roads as we made our way to the beach city of Vama Veche.

Our experience in Vama Veche was a bit odd and perhaps not the norm. We were clearly there as the off-season was beginning and many of the beach party areas were in the process of closing down for the winter. As such, it felt like the entire town was in transition – busying itself with the close of the season and us, as tourists, felt like we were interfering in their annual ritual. Still it was awesome to swim in the Black Sea and wander along the sandy beaches.

Day 11: Vama Veche to Balchik (Bulgarian Black Sea Coast!)

From Vama Veche we headed south along the Black Sea coast and into Bulgaria. Getting into Bulgaria with the bikes was easy and straightforward. We had all the necessary paperwork (passports and the like for us and ownership and insurance papers for the bikes, from Romania Motorcycle Tours). After a few minutes with customs and imigration we were off again.

Along the way there were several cool sights to check out, including the fascinating Cape Kaliakra and the exceptionally beautiful Tyulenovo cliffs. Cape Kaliakra was teaming with history, dating all the way back to the BC era.

We were also very fortunate to stay at a hotel right on the Black Sea and next to the Balchik Palace. Constructed between 1926 and 1937, during the Romanian control of the region, for Queen Marie of Romania the palace is a beautiful complex of buildings and gardens. The gardens are absolutely spectacular and with the Black Sea backdrop its all just really quite enchanting.

After touring the palace we had an excellent dinner at one of the beautiful outdoor restaurants along the Black Sea.

Day 12: Balchik to Silistra

As the end of our trip drew near, we started heading back towards Bucharest. Our route took as on country roads back through farmland and to the Bulgarian town of Silistra. Located on the Danube river, right near where we had been previously dropped off by the ferry, I wasn’t expecting too much from Silistra, just a stop on the way home. But I was actually quite impressed with the sights and history of the area.

We checked out the Fortress Medzhittabia (Fortress Medjidi Tabia), which was built in 1840s and wandered through the ancient city of Durostorum (founded in 106 AD), which is located right in the center of Silistra. These amazing places to check out were a pleasant surprise on our otherwise perfunctory trip home.

Day 13: Silistra to Bucharest (via the Calarasi-Ostrov Ferry, again)

On our last day on the motorcycles we made the trek back to Bucharest. We crossed the border back into Romania with only a little bit of complication (they weren’t impressed with our Covid vaccination cards) and once on the other side caught the ferry back across the Danube River. From there it was a fairly straightforward an uneventful ride back into Bucharest TRAFFIC.

Akkk! Traffic in Bucharest was once again very harry and I was glad we only had to deal with it on the first and last day of the trip. Part of the complication was that we needed to get negative Covid tests at the Bucharest airport in order to return to the US. But we navigated traffic, the airport, and our Covid tests successfully and made it back to our downtown hotel.

We unloaded the bikes, had an excellent dinner (with Maria and Mikael from Romania Motorcycle Tours), and slept our last night in Eastern Europe.

Conclusions

What else is there to say? We had an incredible adventure and a great time touring Eastern Europe by motorcycle. We saw so many amazing things! My only regret is not having enough time to really soak it all in (but isn’t that always the case? There is never enough time!!).

As our first big international motorcycle trip, we did a lot of learning along the way. Here are a few of our lessons learned that will hopefully guide us on our future trips:

  • Jet lag is legit. Plan on a few extra days at the beginning of the trip to cope with it, rather than diving right in.
  • Although we absolutely love riding motorcycles, we also like sight seeing and immersing
  • ourselves in the culture and architecture of the places we visit. It wouldn’t have been a fun trip for us if every day from sun-up to sun-down was on the road. Instead, we found that the perfect day was 3 to 4 hours of riding (120 to 150 miles of pavement) and the rest of the day spent exploring the cool places we got to.
  • Similarly, we aren’t that fast. We like to stop. We like to take pictures. Sure we could have powered through and pounded out more miles each day but then it just feels like a forced march. Finding the right pace is perhaps the biggest challenge of route planning.
  • It’s really hard to know what to see and where to go with out some inside knowledge and local help. Yeah, we could have done this trip more economically completely on our own. But having the guidance of a local was priceless.
  • While we really enjoyed the local guidance, we also really enjoyed being self-guided and able to make our own daily schedule, stopping where we wanted, eating where we wanted, etc. Not being part of a fully guided group.
  • Armored jackets take up a lot of space in luggage. Helmets take up a to of space. I’m not sure how to do a trip like this and still “pack light”. Something to work on for future trips,

Overall it was an excellent trip and we are looking forward to our next international motorcycle adventure and hopefully future trips to Eastern Europe. The complete, action packed, trip documentary is below. Grab some popcorn and check it out!

You’ll note that this post is different than other Points Unknown articles, where we usually provide more details, maps, and specifics. In this case, we relied so heavily on Maria and her team from Romania Motorcycle Tours it doesn’t feel right to share all the details of what they created for us. Instead, I would highly recommend their services for either a guided or self-guided tour. Maria’s guidance, patience, and flexibility making our trip absolutely spectacular and perfect was very much appreciated.

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