September 14 – 29, 2019
Our hostess had reassured me that her dog would not bark during the night, as I had made an observation about the number of barking dogs in Romania. And she might have been right, but that didn’t mean that every other dog in the neighborhood would be quiet. It was not a very restful night, although through no fault of our hostess.
Today we would leave Romania. Having reached the apex of our circular tour, our return was becoming more obvious now that we were leaving our most distant country. From now on, it was just a matter of balancing the “number of kilometers” and the “number of days left”.
And back out into the openness
Unique wooden church
I had scoped out today’s route and put another unique landmark on our list: “Băile Herculane”. The town was known for its healing mineral waters and spas as far back as the Paleolithic Era! Well, there were at least settlements in that area then, but who knows how much they enjoyed the hot springs. The Romans also settled here but then again, they settled just about everywhere so this doesn’t come as a great surprise. However, the Romans liked the area well enough to create stories about gods coming through and enjoying the healing thermal waters. “Aqua Herculis” – the Roman name of Băile Herculane – is so named because Hercules is said to have bathed in its thermal waters. An inscription “Ad Aquas Herculis Sacras” from 153 AD adds to the region’s long history of occupation. But enough history lessons – let’s get there!
Roadside clothing market?
We had left the plains behind and entered the wilderness of Parcul Național Domogled-Valea Cernei – another delightful series of mountain roads and tree covered hills. There were periodic villages which were slow-going, but with the smattering of rain at the top, it was just as well that we kept the speeds down. We saw one car along this route – and it was in front of us. Dan and I discussed if it was worth passing the car, but its pace was decent and it didn’t seem to be worth the effort on our part. It just meant that I had more time to ogle the scenery.
We followed this car for miles
There are some corners coming up!
Typical village in the park
Road hazard – or lunch. Which will it be?
At first I didn’t notice the lead and thought the horse was free-roaming – yikes!
Route 67D was worth detouring for
At some point the road surface degraded considerably. Not as bad as the southern end of the Transalpina, but still bad enough to notice – and to rattle out the nail in my GPS. I guess my tape job was subpar. The car in front of us had to slow down to avoid the potholes and we finally took the opportunity to pass him. We could go much faster on these roads than he could.
I was in love with the haystacks on this trip
Aerial view of Băile Herculane (by R Robroek)
The above view gives you a good idea of how the town is wedged into the (Cerna) valley. In looking up more information on the area, I stumbled upon a PDF that focused on the geology of the region. But in reading it, I found a section that gave a really good overview of some of the history. I “borrowed” a little bit of it to put here for your own edification. I also edited it to take out some of the rocky fluff.
THE GEOECOLOGICAL STRUCTURE TYPICAL FOR THE DEPRESSION BASIN OF THE BĂILE HERCULANE RESORT, ROMANIA
“The Cerna Basin…has been inhabited since ancient times. The Romans, who valued the therapeutic effect of thermal waters, established a resort known as “Ad aquas Herculi sacres.” Starting with the years 105-107, the town began developing, and went through an era of prosperity that lasted over 170 years. Once the Roman administration was no longer in place, it is unknown what happened to the resort. Later on, after 15 centuries (around 1728), during the Austrian occupation, the spa activity was resumed and Băile Herculane became well-known all over Europe. But the recently-revived resort was again seriously affected by the Austro-Russo-Turkish wars. However, the local waters’ therapeutic effectiveness ensured the resort’s restoration. It was rebuilt gradually, for the most part in the form that can be seen today, through the effective contribution of the Romanian rural population. Up to 1913, facilities were put into place and buildings were constructed, and the small resort became international. In the 60s, 70s and 80s, several hotels, restaurants and treatment spas were built.
Băile Herculane, with a total of 6,000 inhabitants, thoroughly illustrates the tourist potential of the Cerna Valley. Romania’s oldest resort, and also one of Europe’s most famous spa establishments, celebrated in 2013 its 1,860th documented year of existence.”
That’s a lot of history!
You can’t ride directly into the town from the north, as the road there is one way in the wrong direction. Instead, one must ride parallel to the river, all views obscured by trees, until the far end of the town is reached and the road drops down to the valley floor. From here, you are directly in the “new” section of Băile Herculane, where, during Communist rule, mass tourism facilities such as high rise concrete hotels were built. It was especially popular with employees and retirees who would spend their state-allotted vacation vouchers there, hoping to improve their health. Today, in addition to the out-of-place looking hotels, there are shops full of sweatshirts and trinkets vying for the attention of passers-by.
Modern Băile Herculane
We passed through the southern end of town and then turned around and rode north until I spied the building that had drawn me here: the Neptune Baths. The Empress of Austria, Elizabeth (Sisi), was passionate about nature, rest and treatment establishments. She loved the Băile Herculane spa, and she visited it five times between 1884 and 1896. She visited it so often, in fact, she had her own residence within the Neptune Baths, and her husband Josef had his own bathing cabin. The level of luxury had reached a point never to be seen in Băile Herculane since. Today, many of the structures from the 1800s are derelict and verging on unsalvageable ruins. The Neptune Baths are the icon of the town though, and also the most neglected. There are groups who want to salvage it, but the politics and red tape are cumbersome and prohibitive.
Parking our bikes for a closer look
This building is what drew me here: the Neptune Baths
Bridge over the Cerna River
Dan takes a peek inside
So much elegance, rotting away
For more pictures – and a local’s personal observations – check out this blog entry on the town.
Many structures within the town have been sold to private investors, including another bath house, casino, the library, and a couple of hotels, but the Neptune Baths has yet to find a saviour. It is suffering from the ravages of nature, and unless something is done soon, it may pass the point of no return.
Sold and salvaged!
The Apollo Hotel, under wraps and under repair
A lot of love has to go into saving one of these buildings
Dan and I walked up to the statue of Hercules, an area where most of the buildings had been sold to private entities and were being lovingly restored. It was incredible to imagine the amount of work and money that it would take to bring these buildings back to life. I can only hope that the region can support their endeavors, and the fame of the thermal baths comes to life once again.
A bronze casting of one of the six Roman statues of Hercules found in the area; tourists for scale
Bathing in the Cerna River
Even the modern buildings need some TLC
Without any intention of going into any of the buildings that were actually habitable, we made our way back to the bikes and prepared to leave. We had quite a few miles to cover and we didn’t want to spend all day on the road. The weather was clearing up slightly and the roads were dry – it was still a great day for riding.
And look! More tree covered hills!
And more traffic!
It wasn’t long before we spied water. The Danube!
The GPS took us directly to the Danube and then abruptly turned east. We followed the shore for a surprisingly short period of time. It was a fast road: wide lanes, decent surface and plenty of places to pass.
I kept looking across the water: we were heading for the other side and I was curious how we’d get there. And then I saw how: a lock across the Danube doubled as the road – and the border crossing into our next country: Serbia!
Hidroelektrana (Hydroelectric dam) Đerdap in the distance
Farewell, Romania. It was fun!
There wasn’t any other traffic crossing into Serbia while we were there, and I got the impression that this particular crossing was used primarily for trucks and commercial vehicles. I pulled up next to the border guard booth window, my passport at the ready. Dan pulled up next to me and readied his passport as well. We found that it was easier to cross together, and since I was the one with the “foreign” passport, it was easier when I was closer to the booth. And just to clarify: “foreign” in this instance means “not in the Schengen Zone” like Dan’s Swiss passport.
The border guard took our documents (including the bike paperwork, of course) and read over them quickly. He leafed through mine and seemed surprised that an American was passing through his country. He then saw Dan’s Swiss passport and suddenly it all made sense to him: of course I’d be with someone “local”. Well, whatever the case, he was extremely pleasant, asked what we were planning and then apologized that it was forecasted to rain all day. I appreciated his concern and suggested that the rain could bring a different kind of beauty. He stamped some ink into my passport, handed back our documents and wished us a pleasant trip. Thank you, Sir!
Serbian border crossing
Looking back across the Danube at Romania and the road we had taken
We were riding along the southern edge of the Danube through what I thought was a large park, but I can’t find any information online about the region. Early afternoon on a cloudy Tuesday at the end of September meant that the roads were fairly empty. And the rain that the border guard had warned us about? It started up shortly after we had crossed into Serbia. It was a pleasant rain, and not too cold – it was the first real rain of the trip and for that I was grateful.
Over 14 tunnels along this road!
I noticed a surprising number of bicycle tourers along this road. Mind you, I think I saw three of them, but that was three more than I expected, hence the surprise. One of the cyclists I noticed was clearly not a serious touring cyclist. Instead, he appeared to be woefully drunk and doing his best to stay upright on two wheels. As if riding a bicycle in the rain, on a main road, wasn’t bad enough. I’m just glad that he didn’t swerve into us as we zipped by.
We followed the Danube for over 100 kilometer, enjoying ourselves immensely
Our hostess back in Runcu had recommended this road and I was very appreciative of it. Of course, I had already planned our route through here before she said anything, but the confirmation was nice to have. She had also mentioned an archeology museum along the way, saying that it had an incredible glass roof and was an interesting place to stop and visit. Unfortunately, I didn’t even notice that we had ridden by until I saw the signs from the far side. It is called Lepenski Vir and now that I am home and had a chance to look it up, I must say that it looks pretty cool. Check out the link to TripAdvisor reviews and photos (the official website requires Adobe Flash – who has Adobe Flash?)
Cyrillic text makes an appearance!
The irony of tunnelling the road under a fortress on a hill was not lost on me
Our fun came to an end: we’d leave the river behind for a while and travel across inland roadways. We crossed many flat plains and orchards along the way, as well as passed through the periodic small town. It was not a terribly interesting region, except for the fact that we were in SERBIA!
An interesting cultural thing I noticed along here was the act of decorating the front gates along the road with ribbons, bows and other cheerful items. When I saw the first one, I assumed that someone recently had a wedding, or a birthday party. But then I saw a second one. And a third. And then I realized that this was a much bigger, broader thing. And I still don’t know what it means.
And then more fields
It had been difficult to find a place to stay tonight. A lot of the options I found online sounded…questionable. I kept second-guessing the “quality” of the places advertised, or where they were in relation to road noise/restaurants/our route. I finally chose a place with good reviews, a couple of restaurant options within walking distance and… well, the road noise was a wild card.
We dodged the “big” city of Smederevo and aimed our bikes directly for Villa Graf, an apartment on the far west end of town. So far west, in fact, that it was actually outside of the city. But it was directly on the Danube, and it looked like a good find.
Our bikes parked at Villa Graf
A grey day on the river’s edge
The main building and apartments
Our host and hostess were incredibly warm and welcoming. It turned out that German was the most common language among us, so I had a great time exercising my brain trying to follow along in their colorful descriptions of the weddings that took place here, or how they were the “midway point” for families traveling from Czech to Greece (for example), and how reservations would be made a year in advance to ensure that a place would be ready for them. The owners obviously enjoyed themselves and this enthusiasm carried over to their guests.
With the loss of the GPS nail, I resorted to using a screw I had found. It worked great!
With the rain and the dirty roads, our bikes were now anything but clean
After Dan’s brief (and cold) swim, we took a short walk down the road to an upscale restaurant called Vila Jugovo S. We had a window seat overlooking the Danube and enjoyed a quiet and satisfactory meal. Afterwards we walked back to our room and I tried to figure out just where we wanted to land the next night. It would be another difficult hunt for the Perfect Place.