The Transylvanian countryside is a harmonious blend of rolling hills lined with grazing sheep and livestock, and little villages clustered around fortified churches and medieval fortress ruins. The country’s capital Bucharest is at least a few-hours’ drive away, and Cluj-Napoca, the unofficial capital of Transylvania, is the country’s 2nd largest city with a population of fewer than 350,000 people. If you arrive in Romania by way of Bucharest, it doesn’t take long for the big city feel to fall by the wayside as you make your way over the hills and into the heart of the country.
Given that the landscape in Transylvania is virtually untouched, it’s not surprising that it would attract the interest of large-scale developers who are more interested in financial gain than they are in preserving the traditional way of life of the area. While exploring the tiny village of Buensti during my recent visit to Romania I was introduced to Stanciu Cornel, owner of the Bike Check Inn guesthouse.
While Cornel was in the planning stages of his guesthouse he stumbled upon the plans for a number of projects that were being pitched for development in the area. There were a total of 17 projects, including 10 large-scale tourism developments and 5 pig farms. The types of projects that would have permanently tarnished the face of the landscape and detracted the locals from a way of life that has been intact for centuries.
After researching the various proposals Cornel discovered that they were to be funded by illegally-obtained EU funds and without support from the local community. The developers were setting up fake companies under false names in order to gain access to funding. A local news team picked up the story and aired a broadcast on national television which exposed the various parties involved in the projects. (See the program here, in Romanian) With the combined exposure on the news and the rallying support of the local community, the projects were successfully stymied.
Fortunately there was still funding being doled out to help develop tourism in the area, some of which went towards the creation of Bike Check Inn. Bike Check Inn is based on a model of providing an authentic, local experience, and this is achieved on every level, ranging from the sourcing of the materials used to build the guesthouse, to the ingredients used to prepare the meals, to the activities that make up the days during an average stay.
The bones of the guesthouse were built from reclaimed beams from old barns and bricks from nearby Sighisoara. The beds are made from pine and come from a factory 18km away. Each room is adorned with a rug made from sheep’s wool procured from the south of the country, and the linens and drapes are stitched by local ladies from a combination of cotton and hemp. The clay tiles in the shower stalls are made and painted by a local craftsmen and the sinks are made from copper by the local Roma population.
During your stay at the guesthouse all of your meals are provided for you. Beef and pork come from farms within a 15km radius. Sheep, cows and buffalo provide the milk and cheese that are used in the meals, and the wheat and barley for flour and edible grains are farmed in the vicinity. The onsite garden grows everything from tomatoes, onions and bell peppers to blackcurrant, raspberries and aromatic plants.
As the name would imply, a big part of the experience at Bike Check Inn is biking. Along with the support of the community, Cornell created a network consisting of 100km of marked bike trails – the first officially marked bike trail system in the country. The trails were constructed and continue to be maintained entirely through volunteer efforts. They stretch from the UNESCO-recognized medieval show-stopper Sighisoara to charming Viscri village, where Prince Charles of England is known to occasionally come and unwind.
Whether the purpose of your visit is to ride a bike through the countryside or you simply want to get a feel for what life is like here, there are a handful of authentic, rural experiences that can be arranged. This part of Transylvania is known for its fortified churches, and two of the most impressive ones can be found in Viscri and Saschiz. You can either bike to them, or if you prefer a more relaxed style of touring, hop in a vehicle or a horse and buggy.
Rather than visit an ethnographic museum you can pop in on actual craftsmen such as a blacksmith, brick maker or weaver. You can be there when fresh bread is being pulled out of clay ovens, sample fresh honey or jams, and have lunch with a local shepherd. If your visit is in the autumn you might fancy a few hours in the forest hunting for truffles with the resident dog. Back at the guesthouse, cooking lessons can be arranged. You even have the possibility to stay overnight in a neighboring village, continuing back to Bunesti by bike the following day.
Bunesti is over 250km from Bucharest and after only a few hours in this rustic environment you couldn’t feel more removed from the pressures of daily life. There are no street lights, no billboards, and no outdoor adverts. You won’t see any cellphone towers, and you’re hard-pressed to find a gas station. I’ve already highlighted the wonders of Transylvania on a previous post. A couple of nights in a rural guest house like Bike Check Inn would be the perfect complement to an off-the-beaten track exploration of this culturally rich and breathtakingly beautiful country.