Transylvania by Norton 2008

The seed of this road-trip was sown at the Norton International Rally after a viewing of 'I Bought A Vampire Motorcycle' which starred Neil Morrissey and an 850 Commando. I thought it would be a good idea to get a picture of my own Norton Commando next to Dracula's Castle. A bit of research revealed several castles allegedly occupied by 'Dracula' or rather Vlad the Impaler upon whom Dracula was loosely based. The best known of the tourist trail Dracula castles is Bran Castle in the Transylvanian part of Romania so I had a destination to aim for.
Of course it would be rude to visit only Romania and the countries in between so a roughly circular route was devised. Some people when they heard about the plan showed interest. David Templeman was sure his 750 Commando would be perfect and Fiona Stewart was our back-up on her ER6 Kawasaki, while Fraser and Tracey Currie came along on their modern Triumphs but went their own way for a 'proper holiday'…
Taking a 35 year old classic bike on such a trip involves some preparation, it would be foolish to think you can just jump on your bike and go. My old Commando had given long and sterling service and was in need of an engine rebuild which took place over the winter. It was checked over thoroughly and serviced just before departure and had new tyres (Avon Roadriders) and chain fitted. Tyres were a bit of a worry as in normal use a Commando can knock out a back tyre in 3500 miles; David fitted an older style Avon Roadrunner to the back of his 750 Commando in an effort to get some longevity.
Just before the off my bike appeared to be running a bit on the rich side. The single Mikuni carb fitted around 60,000 miles ago was showing signs of wear so I fitted a new needle and needle jet, hoping it would be fine. I had older style Krauser hard luggage fitted whilst David kitted his Commando out with the newer style Krausers. Spares included a complete Boyer ignition setup, coil, rectifier, zener, spare belt for belt drive, clutch cable, inner tube and an assortment of gaskets and electrical connectors. As always I went overboard on the tools and included a clutch tool and exhaust spanner (useful also as a hammer and a useful weapon for fighting off unfriendly natives)
The Trip
David left the day before us using the Rosyth to Zeebrugge ferry whilst we left on the Wednesday from Newcastle to Ijmuiden intending to catch up with David somewhere in Slovenia. David had a two day, 1000 mile run down to Slovenia in hot weather with not a hint of rain. We on the other hand had the run from hell! Torrential rain greeted us as we emerged from the ferry, it was almost as dark as night and an electrical storm danced above our heads. The Policeman on immigration smiled when I handed him my passport and wished me a 'great holiday'. He was obviously amused with the floods running down the roads. I wasn't!
Despite the conditions the Commando ploughed on relentlessly until lunchtime when we found ourselves around 120 miles north of Frankfurt with a short respite from the rain. We had arranged to stay with German friends near Frankfurt that night and charged on. As we turned off the slip road a hesitation by me at a junction led to Fiona crashing into the back of me, tearing a pannier off and bending my right silencer. The ER6 had a small crack in the fairing and a problem with the headlight, plus the top box mount was broken. Other motorcyclists stopped to offer help which was refreshing as this practice appears to be dying out in the UK.
We patched up the bike and rode to Tomas and Andrea's house and set about more permanent repairs. Tomas took my silencer away and came back with it welded, the pannier was beaten back into shape by Fraser and Fiona (Fiona quite obviously enjoyed her new panel beating career) and the ER6 was fixed up including a new topbox mount ingeniously fabricated by Tomas
Repairs to the topbox

Day one over. What a start to the holiday. This was supposed to be the easy part!
We were on the road for 10.30 the following day and we all rode together until Tomas and Andrea took their leave. We decided that Fraser and Tracey should charge on ahead; they were on faster bikes but needed more stops so it made sense. If you are travelling as a group it's something you need to understand and agree on otherwise stops become more common and you never get anywhere if you are limited to a (self imposed) 75-80mph cruising speed.
The combination of a late start and poor weather forced us to stop 130 miles short of our target. Camping was out as we were soaked through so we found a nice guesthouse in a small place called Jageredt ( ). The owner let us put our bikes in the nearby barn overnight, they deserved some dry time too. David had agreed to hang on for us at the campsite he'd found in Luce just inside Slovenia and in the spectacular mountainous region bordering Austria and Slovenia.
The following day we set off again in the pouring rain. I noticed a ring of soot round the weld on the exhaust, of course being the eternal optimist I ignored it… but just as we turned onto the motorway the weld gave way. The silencer flapped about wildly, only held on by the two rubber bushes. A quick repair with duct tape lasted all off 500 yards! I stopped and asked Tom Tom (until now it had been mainly lying in the tank bag) for directions to the nearest car repair garage and amazingly it took me to the Austrian equivalent of the AA. The young mechanic was excellent and in no time we had the silencer off repaired and refitted. He asked for €10 I happily gave him €20 and asked for a guarantee, he reckoned it would last no problem till we got home!
We turned off the motorway and the weather improved. The sun came out, the roads were dry and the Commando seemed happy also. We headed for the Slovenian border near Eisenkappel. The last 30 miles were superb, hairpin after hairpin, all the local guys were going up and down in droves on their trick supermotos, enjoying the Saturday night fun.

Supermoto heaven for the locals and the scenery was quite spectacular also
Of course we missed our turning and carried on unaware into Slovenia for about 10 miles before realising and turning back. Even with an overloaded Commando I wasn't bothered, this was fun! We eventually arrived to find David having an evening brew. After the tents were up and servicing done we treated ourselves to a few beers and used the site's free Internet to find a camp site around 200 miles away in a National Park south of Zagreb.
The Sunday consisted of sunshine and excellent roads, more hairpins, on towards the Croatian border. Dave was having carb sticking problems with his Mikuni so we stopped just after the border control to fix it. By this time the mercury was up in the mid-30s and we were hot and sweaty in the leathers.

Campsite in Slovenia, David doing "stuff"

Croatia Border
And some maintenance required
South of Zagreb, Dave's throttle started coming off the handlebar so we stopped again. At the previous maintenance stop one of the screws holding the throttle on the handlebar had stripped so we spent about an hour trying to effect a temporary repair. Leaving the services I noticed David's bag containing his money, passport and documents (normally firmly attached to his waist) slipping off the back of the bike. A lucky save: that could have been a disaster!
We turned onto the back roads to Sisak then along the river into the national park. Cows were being grazed at the side of the road and storks made their nests in the overhead telegraph poles. We arrived at the campsite and spent the next hour and a half on maintenance including a more permanent fix to David's throttle cable. We stretched the spring in his Mikuni and gave the carb a good clean out to try to improve the throttle sticking problem, using one of the longer screws holding the points cover on to overcome the stripped thread problem.

Relaxing in "the swamp"
During the night I was bitten by an insect on my face and woke up looking like I'd gone ten rounds with Mike Tyson. Then I thought I'd lost my passport so followed a call to the British embassy in Zagreb… and then I discovered it in my pocket! Who put it there?

We stayed another night here, exploring Bosnia for the day. We set off down the picturesque road which passed through small villages looking like they were from a bygone age. It took our full concentration; there were potholes everywhere and parts where the road turned to hard compacted rubble. The Commando coped admirably though. We came across a burned out tank and a memorial to the soldiers who'd died there, a reminder of the recent conflict. Many houses still bore evidence of shell fire and I wondered if I should really be there at all.
A reminder of how raw the conflict still was
After refreshments we set off for the crossing, then after around 20 miles we realised we were going the wrong way and turned back. We found the border crossing just 80 yards from the café we had been in -- unbelievable. Neither country seems to acknowledge the presence of the other so on these roads there are no signs to towns in the neighbouring country or even to the border itself.
At the Bosnian border control we were asked for our documents. It became apparent that we had no insurance for Bosnia and would have to buy temporary insurance at the border post -- but not before the guards fully understood why we were there, where we were going and what route we intended taking. It didn't help that David had the wrong documents, he'd inadvertently brought the documents for his Ducati Monster! After much tutting and debate amongst the border guards they finally allowed us in, charging €13 for our temporary Insurance.
From there the road signs were in Cyrillic so we didn't have a clue what was going on. Our original plan was to do a loop around a national park before heading back to our original crossing point, but luckily we decided to just head back on the same road we had come in on.

Ok of course I know what it says

Petrol was the cheapest yet at under £1 a litre and we had three burgers and drinks for under €7. We returned to the same crossing point and then made our way back to the campsite. An interesting day, all told.
The next day we set off for Serbia before 07.30. The heavily laden bikes made the rough stretches of road more interesting. At the Serbian border the guard barked 'papers, green card'. I had no green card for Serbia (so if going on a European trip outside the 'normal boundaries' you should insist on a green card from your insurers even though they will try to tell you it's not necessary). The guard threw my passport with disgust into the corner of the table and said, 'over there' pointing at some portacabins. 'When you have a green card come back for your passport.'
There was no discussion about turning back offered. A green card cost us €85 each, which was steep, yet we really had no choice but to pay it. Welcome to Serbia indeed! Shortly after the border we stopped for fuel and food at a service station. The food was excellent and the toilets spotless. This was the major finding of the trip, always head for a large petrol station if you wanted reasonable food and a clean toilet. The worrying thing was that the security guard on the premises was tooled up with a revolver! It's bad enough the police having guns but the guy who is there to stop shoplifters was taking it too far...
As we left Serbian soil the border guard barked the same 'Papers, Insurance' questions at us and he was clearly disappointed when we produced the insurance documents we bought six hours earlier.
The Romanian border guard gave our passports a quick look and then told us to wait for customs clearance. After about 10 minutes it was obvious the customs man had gone missing so we were waved in to Romania without any further hindrance.

Romania just past the border

Almost as soon as we rode across the border in Romania the roads deteriorated. There were potholes everywhere and we saw the first of many horses and carts; still transport for many of the people here. We stopped at a railway crossing and were amazed when the train rumbled past. It was an old Soviet engine pulling carriages that looked like something out of a John Wayne western, with youths clinging precariously to rails outside having a cigarette and watching the world go by.

We arrived in Timosora as it started to get dark, Timosora is a reasonably big town and was where the uprising against the Ceaucescu dictatorship in 1989 started. We opted to stay in a 'pensione'; excellent en-suite rooms worthy of a 4-star hotel in the UK for €30 each. Euros are accepted but we learned in the local café that the black market exchange rate isn't favourable!
Fuel for the rider needed in this heat also
The road to Lugoj was terrible with potholes the size of small towns, constant roadworks and suicidal driving. The back streets were not only cobbled but had suffered the ravages of years of heavy traffic. The shaking the bike got was unbelievable and David's speedo cable fell apart due to the shaking it got. Onwards into Deva where David suffered a puncture. We set about changing the tube but the 40-degree heat made what should have been a 30 minute job turn into a two hour job.

A bit too hot for this nonsense

We later found a campsite run by a Dutchman, excellent facilities, good food and cold beer: just what was required after a hard day. We also met up with Lesley a girl from Alnwick exploring on her own on a GS650 BMW. Respect was due!
The usual routine of checking the bikes over was followed. It doesn't matter how tired you are after a day in the saddle, the evening checks can save so much stress on the road. Over our beer we decided we should take the Transfagarasan Highway down to Pitesti and back up to Bran, home of the touristy version of Dracula's castle. Lesley advised us that this was possibly a bit much for the day, she had gone as far as Curtea de Arges and back in a day and that had been hard enough
'It's OK, we're on Norton Commandos, the finest bike known to man', we answered. By the time we reached the summit of the road I realised it was going to be a hard day and wished we'd listened to Lesley. The road deteriorated terribly and the surface was not unlike the surface of the moon. I was very worried as the Commando rattled along, fully expecting bits to fall off at any time.

After six hours and only 100 miles Fiona had enough and demanded we stop for lunch. We were all getting a bit grumpy with the constant hard work the road was providing and with the heat approaching the high 30s.
We carried on despite the suicidal driving and poor roads to the town of Pitesti before heading back towards Bran. At one point the traffic was tailed back for about half a mile, waiting for a train to go through a level crossing. We rode to the front of the queue. I was feeling rather pleased with myself and thinking we would have a clear road ahead. Then as the barrier raised I accelerated away and -- horror of horrors -- the Commando spluttered to a halt!
I pushed it across the junction and into a two-foot wide path at the side of the road. The lorries were leaving just inches to spare as they passed us, it was quite scary. After the traffic died down I set about finding the problem and it took three hours to get the bike going again. The main problem was the bike running far too rich due to the wear on the Mikuni. We got going just as the sun set.
I'd also been blowing fuses and used all my spares. After checking everything out and taping up potential problem wires, I hard-wired the fuse holder but was scared to put my lights on in case the wiring fault came back and set the wiring loom on fire. So I set off with no lights. Darkness fell as we headed into the mountains towards Bran with David in the front leading the way and Fiona behind protecting my back. We rode like this for over 20 miles on the mountain road, still avoiding the mad truck drivers. I couldn't see the potholes so that was starting to get to me. It began to feel like a suicide attempt so when a bar loomed out of the darkness I stopped -- across the road there was a pensione and luckily they had rooms so we booked in. It was 9.30 at night, we had ridden 11 hours in the saddle and done 210 miles.
The following day, things all looked better and we had a great run down the twisty road into Bran. We took photos of the castle and booked into Vampire Camping to set up camp and do some proactive rather than reactive maintenance!

Add caption
Dracula's Castle
Saturday morning started hot again. Past Brasov the roads improving greatly, and at the first stop I recorded 64mpg, so the carb overhaul seemed to be working. That day's riding was probably the best of the trip. The roads and the scenery plus watching village life in the places we passed were probably the best we'd experienced in Romania.
The following day we passed into Hungary. As soon as we crossed the border you could see the difference, the tarmac was smooth and the surroundings seemed more affluent, although this particular road did seem to be lined with hookers! As the roads became smoother and less stressful the hookers made for some roadside interest…
We arrived in Budapest and headed for the town centre and we were soon camped up in possibly the most crowded campsite I've stayed in. The site was like a scene from a music festival but without the mud. Tents were literally almost on top of each other and the ground was almost grass free. My first impression of Budapest was of a down-at-heel scruffy town. Budapest became a single city occupying both banks of the river Danube with the unification on 17 November 1873, of right-bank (west) Buda and Óbuda (Old Buda) together with Pest on the left (east) bank.
We were camping in the Pest side and it was obvious that the Buda side was nicer and more affluent as we walked across. We came across some statues one of which we christened the 'Keeper of the Commando Gearbox Sprocket.'
We had a stroke of luck as the Red Bull air race was on in Budapest that day so as well as getting a head full of culture at the castle and museum, we also watched a fantastic display of flying. This made up for the poor campsite and our initial impressions of the place.
The keeper of the gearbox sprocket


On Tuesday we were back on the road again, heading past Vienna. Yes, the Ultravox lyric 'This means nothing to me…Oh, Vienna' was repeated a few times that day! Our Austrian motorway tax vignettes had run out so we all felt like criminals for the day. My Commando started to misfire so we had an unplanned maintenance stop at lunchtime. A spark plug change got it going again but the carb was misbehaving again.
The following day we awoke to find it wet and cloudy and discovered that our tents had been hijacked by giant slugs overnight so some time was spent evicting them before carrying on to Germany. Another 270 miles on the Autobahn and then another campsite.

David relaxing after another hard "Commando day"

Onwards the following day through Germany and then into Belgium stopping at Liege for the night. Our destination was the Begonia rally, the British bike rally organised by the Flanders NOC every August. We stopped at the services at Nazareth so another song started in our heads; 'pulled into Nazareth I was feeling half past dead.'
The rally once again was held at Viffwagen near Staden. I like the Begonia Rally, over the years the people there have become friends and it's always good to see them again. The Begonia is an excellent rally, well organised, friendly and the bar and food is good and cheap. The organisers work very hard and deserve credit for putting on the event.
On the Sunday we attended a Brazilian-type carnival in Kortjick. I would certainly recommend a visit if it coincides next year!

Finally we took the ferry back from Zebrugge to Rosyth. A great night on the boat to finish off a superb trip. We had done just under 4000 miles and both David and I agreed that we were glad we'd done it on the Nortons. Sure we had some problems but we managed to fix them on the move and make it home again.
Next time you take a big trip, go by Norton. It's a real adventure motorcycle!

1 comment: