Dances with Wolves: A Surprising Cycling Trip Across Transylvania

Dances with Wolves: A Surprising Cycling Trip Across Transylvania

This article appears in Volume 24:
The Slow Issue

don’t like group holidays, I haven’t ridden a bike since I was
15 and padded Lycra shorts are not something I ever thought I’d
own. I’d nonchalantly keyed “Is Transylvania hilly?” into Google a
couple of days before our departure and the almost goading response
– “Transylvania
is hilly, sometimes very hilly” – had left me anything but
nonchalant about my five-day Romanian escapade with The Slow Cyclist.

Touching down on the tarmac at Cluj-Napoca, Mark and I are
greeted by the intimidating mass of the Carpathian Mountains on the
horizon. I berate myself for having preferred sauvignon to spinning
as a heatwave engulfed London in the previous weeks and inwardly
curse my mother for drilling an enthusiastic “can-do” attitude into
me, hoping that “slow” refers to the cycling speed rather than the
wholesome nature of the trip. The phrase “all the gear, no idea”
barges into my head with increasing frequency and I stifle an
involuntary gulp. This is the story of the reluctant cyclist.


Our starting point is Richis, a minute Saxon village three
hours’ drive from the nearest airport in deepest, darkest Romania.
We’re staying in a former priest’s house attached to a fortified
church. It sounds deliciously ghoulish, and I’m expecting a
tumbledown residence with damp bed linen where spiders scuttle into
gossamer-strung corners and a sour mustiness clings to the air. The
kind of place I might just stumble across an antiquated velvet cape
and blood-stained stake forgotten at the back of a Narnia-esque
wardrobe. Instead, a golden labrador puppy falls over its own feet
as it dashes out of a welcoming terracotta-roofed house, while a
mammoth stove awaits beside a kitchen table groaning under fresh
produce that will later become steaming bowls of paprika-piqued
goulash, aubergines slick with olive oil and oozing cheese, and
baskets of fresh bread. I do spy a wardrobe, but alas, it’s

We meander into the village for “a quick drink” which turns out
to mean tasting a local family’s wine in a rustic barn as the sun
sets. We can practically see the vineyard from our perch and the
rosé is as dry and pale as any from Provence. As the week goes on,
I will come to recognise that a casual “Oh, we’re just popping out
to do this… ” from our brilliant guides Marco, Sabbi and Bree
usually means we’re in for something pretty special. I’m already
feeling more inclined towards organised fun.


We’ve slept a solid ten hours but it’s not enough to shake the
grogginess induced by the two we’d had the previous night due to
our early flight. My eyelids are heavy and I can’t stop worrying
about being the slowest; my breakfast small talk borders on
pitiful. It’s also pouring with rain. Mark is remarkably perky and
“helpfully” points out that at least my sluggishness is in line
with the magazine’s theme, before spotting the unsightly bulge
produced by my padded shorts and collapsing onto the bed, cackling
with mirth.


Our bikes are of the hard-tail, front-suspension mountain
variety (basically, very good ones) and the plan is to get used to
them on some scenic tarmacked back roads. However, Transylvania has
had three months’ worth of rain in three days. Instead of cruising
along whistling like a jolly Enid Blyton troupe, we’re faced with
torrents of mud so thick that it stops us in our tracks and the air
around me is most certainly blue. Glutes already beginning to burn
(did you know Transylvania is sometimes very hilly?) and rain
running off the end of my nose, I notice a giant snail serenely
inching its way across the sludge. It looks so unperturbed by the
tempest raging around us that I can’t help but laugh. No one is
rushing today.

By 1pm we’ve completed a not-too-shabby 27km, the rain has
stopped and we’re rewarded with a garden feast that begins with a
shot of pálinka (an eye-wateringly poignant home-distilled brandy
made from fruit such as plums, cherries or apricots), continues
with shots of pálinka (punctuated by rich pork stew and sweet
ricotta pancakes) and ends with a shot of pálinka.

It turns out to be absolute rocket fuel – how else do the

get through the harsh winters?
By the time we arrive at Apafi Manor just as golden hour casts its
spell, I’ve nearly wobbled off my now not-so-slow bike several
times and the backs of my legs look like they’ve gone through a
blender, following repeated stand-offs with both bramble bushes and
my own pedals. A restored 15th-century Hungarian mansion in powder
pink, Apafi is an ode to humble grandeur. The evening light streams
through large bay windows and softly illuminates the duck-egg-blue
walls. Plump chairs are upholstered in jewel-toned silks,
well-stocked bookcases smell like stories of virtue and immorality,
and I wonder how many hands have caressed the keys on the grand
piano. After dinner we retreat to the drawing room to play
charades. I feel like I’ve stepped into the pages of a Jane Austen
novel and keep my fingers crossed that no one suggests we take it
in turns to provide the entertainment.


My legs feel suspiciously normal as our 28km morning excursion
snakes along beside sunflower fields and below cornflower skies,
the occasional madcap driver keeping us on our toes. Feeling
content following a breakfast banquet, during which I forgo the
liver sausage and slabs of pork fat, it occurs to me that so far I
have been preoccupied with “getting there” instead of realising
that this is it. The adage “it’s about the journey, not the
destination” suddenly seems more relevant and (a bit) less mawkish.
It dawns on me that I spend most of my life looking forward,
whether to something nice like a holiday or worrying about things
that haven’t yet happened. A bit late to the party, I think I’m
having some sort of cycling-induced epiphany about mindfulness and
being present – though that might just be the lingering

I spend the rest of the day looking around as much as my
steering permits. In the forest, cep and chanterelle mushrooms the
size of dinner plates cover the floor and I can’t help but imagine
tiny woodland creatures using them like beach parasols. Emerging
from the trees, we spot a stork swooping overhead with what I
assume is a stick in its mouth – it’s not until Marco points
skyward and shouts “Snake!” that I notice it wriggle and writhe,
understanding why another bird is hot on its tail. I’ve left
gentrified Georgian England and stepped into a scene from a David
Attenborough documentary.

We arrive in the
citadel of Sighisoara, the birthplace of Vlad the
Impaler, who was the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s novel. Instagram
may have made pastel-coloured houses seem commonplace, but walking
around this fabled city is like plunging headfirst into a
kaleidoscope. We resist buying Dracula souvenirs – I’m bewitched
enough by the antique spinning wheels decorating my bedroom –
before heading for dinner at yet another local residence. The level
of curation that has gone into the trip means we’re yet to eat in a
restaurant and only rarely see tourists. It’s a nod to English
founder Oli Broom’s integration into the community having spent six
months living in a nearby 18th-century Saxon cottage. Following
cured meat, pickled eggs, baba ganoush, fried polenta, sweet
pancakes, pork pâté and sheep’s cheese finished with lavender
chocolate, I fall into a slumber worthy of Sleeping Beauty.


I wince as I climb onto the saddle. You know when you hammer a
steak to tenderise it? That. I consider wearing both pairs of
cycling shorts (it was two for £20), but worry that I’ll cut off
the blood supply to my legs. It’s also that special time of the
month and I worry that I’m going to attract bears as we cut through
the dense trees. I decide it’s probably not appropriate group
conversation and discreetly ask Bree, who laughs and assures me
that bears are fine but male kangaroos would be a wholly different

We follow narrow, undulating forest trails and the whole group
pants, sweats and digs deep, not helped when those on electric
bikes glide past with a telltale hum. But there’s no denying the
feeling of sweaty triumph when we emerge blinking in the sunlight
and are met with views akin to a Constable painting. I’m starting
to understand the people you see zipping around country lanes in
full fluoro Lycra on a Saturday morning.

At lunch, heady garlic soup so delicious that I slurp three
bowlfuls is followed by home-made dulce de leche generously stirred
through yoghurt. For good measure, I knock back several thimbles of
thick, black coffee sprawled out under a bountiful green-apple tree
in the garden. The subsequent energy-induced burst of speed means I
zoom along, fields a smear of avocado green in my peripheral
vision. I forget any aches and pains. This is it: I am not only a
slow cyclist, I’m a fast cyclist! It’s then that I hear territorial
growls that quickly develop into bloodthirsty barks as five or so
dogs hurtle themselves in my direction with alarming ferocity. We’d
been warned that they roam the countryside protecting flocks from
bears (the Carpathian population is the highest in Europe) and lynx
– in line with protocol (but contradictory to instinct) I jump off
my bike and stand behind it quaking. A few well-chosen Romany
chastisements bellowed by Sabbi see the dogs beat a hasty retreat,
as I notice Mark has already done, now but a black speck in the


An orchard barbeque the night before had seen us huddle around
log fires until only the embers glowed and it’s a jaded shuffle
around the breakfast table this morning with the exception of our
guides, who seem to possess a perpetual joie de vivre. Slathered in
sun cream (the mercury is nearing 30˚C), it’s a relief that the
first half of the day is devoted to walking. We traverse meadows so
full of wildflowers they look like they’ve been daubed by Monet,
the grass vibrating with the happy hum of crickets as they dance
between clover, thyme and orchids. Clouds of butterflies flutter so
close that I feel like Snow White, and when I get back to my room
that evening I am enchanted to discover the nicknames of some of
the flora: devil’s paintbrush, dwarf elder, tansy ragwort, hairy

As the trip draws to a close there’s one more “we’re just going
to pop into the village… ” moment and two horse-drawn gypsy carts
pull up outside our lodgings to take us up a grassy knoll
overlooking Viscri and its fairy-tale Saxon church. We sit on rugs
strewn across the grass and sip yet more icy rosé as we watch
hundreds of cows and horses migrate from the planes down into the
for the night, bells tinkling as they go. We make our own music at
our last supper, when we’re surprised by a traditional
Transylvanian band made up of what looks like four generations of
the same family playing everything from an accordion to a double
bass as they sing and dance. I’m persuaded to join in and as I
twirl about the room, head spinning, I think: I like group
holidays, I’ve cycled over 150km aged 27, and I own two pairs of
padded Lycra shorts.

Discover More
Riders on the Storm: A Horseback Journey across Jordan