Vampires And Motorcycles

Gino Rondelli takes his Norton on a round trip to Romania

The real seeds of this trip were sown back in 2007 at the Norton International Rally in the Isle of Man. There was a screening in the bar of I Bought a Vampire Motorcycle, starring Neil Morrissey and an 850 Commando. I thought it would be a good idea to try and get a picture of my Commando next to Dracula’s Castle. A bit of internet research revealed several castles allegedly occupied by Dracula, or rather Vlad the Impaler, on whom Dracula was loosely based. The best-known of these is Bran Castle in the Transylvanian part of Romania, so I made this my destination.

A few friends showed interest when they heard of my Dracula trip, including David Templeman who reckoned his 750 Commando would be perfect for job, and Fiona Stewart as backup on her ER6 Kawasaki (if superstars can have fixers and 4x4s, we reckoned a modern bike as support wasn’t cheating!).

Taking a 35-year-old classic bike on such a trip involves some preparation. My old Commando underwent an engine rebuild, a full service and was fitted with a new chain and Avon Roadrider tyres before departure. The tyres were a bit of a worry; in normal use, a Commando can knock out a back tyre in 3,500 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 was running a bit rich. The single Mikuni fitted around 60,000 miles ago was showing signs of wear, so I fitted a new needle and needle jet, and crossed my fingers. I had older-style Krauser hard luggage fitted while David kitted his Commando out with more modern Krausers. Our spares kit 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 utensils and included a clutch tool and an exhaust spanner (useful also as a hammer and as a weapon for fighting off vampires).

David left the day before us on the Rosyth-to-Zeebrugge ferry. We planned to catch the Newcastle-to-Ijmuiden crossing and meet him in Slovenia. David enjoyed a glorious two-day 1,000-mile run down to Slovenia; we, on the other hand, had the run from hell! Torrential rain and an electrical storm greeted us off the ferry and it was as dark as night. Despite this, the Commando relentlessly ploughed on until lunchtime when we found ourselves around 120 miles north of Frankfurt. We’d arranged to stay with friends near there that night; as we turned off the slip road, a hesitation by me led to Fiona crashing into the back of my bike, tearing off a pannier 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 help, which was refreshing as this practice seems to be dying out in the UK. We patched the bike up and rode on to our friend’s house where we were able to repair the panniers and weld the silencer.

We were on the road for 10.30 the following day. Our destination was Klagenfurt but the combination of a late start and poor weather forced us to stop 130 miles short of there. Camping wasn’t an option as we were soaked through so we found a nice guesthouse or pension in a small place called Jageredt. David agreed to hang on for us at the campsite he’d found in Luce just inside Slovenia.

The following day, we set off again in the pouring rain. As I started the bike I noticed a ring of soot around the weld on the exhaust, but being the eternal optimist, I ignored it. Just as we turned onto the motorway the weld gave out and the silencer flapped off, held on by the two rubber bushes. A quick repair with duct tape lasted all of 500 yards. Luckily the TomTom was telling me that the Austrian equivalent of the AA was very nearby. The young mechanic there was excellent and in no time we had the silencer off, repaired and refitted.

We turned off the motorway at St Michael and headed on the secondary road towards Klagenfur. As soon as we turned off, the weather improved. The sun came out, the roads were dry, and the Commando seemed happy. We skirted round Klagenfurt and headed to the Slovenian border near Eisenkappel. The last 30 miles were superb, with hairpin after hairpin; all the local guys were going up and down in droves on their trick supermotos, enjoying the Saturday night fun. We eventually arrived at the campsite to find David having a beer. After putting up the tents and servicing the bikes, we joined him. I used the site’s free internet to scout out our next campsite 200 miles away in a national park south of Zagreb.

Sunday dawned sunny. We enjoyed some excellent roads and more hairpins heading towards Celtje and then on to the Croatian border. By this time the mercury was up in the mid 30s and we were hot and sweaty in our leathers. We turned off the back roads to Sisak then along the river into the national park, arriving at the campsite around 5.30. After pitching the tents, we spent the next hour and a half fixing David’s throttle cable, which had been troublesome all day. We stretched the spring in his Mikuni and gave the carb a good clean out to try and rectify the throttle-sticking problem. Then, of course, it was time for a well-deserved beer and meal at the campsite café.

After a late start the following morning, we decided to stay another night in the park and explore the area. Setting off down the picturesque road, we passed through villages which looked like they were from a bygone age. It took all our concentration just to stay upright on the bikes. There were potholes everywhere and parts of the road were rubble. The Commando coped admirably, though. At a railway bridge at Jasenovac, we came across a burned-out tank and a memorial to the soldiers who’d died there; a reminder of the recent con_ ict. Many houses still bore evidence of shell fire and I wondered if I should really be there.

After leaving Jasenovac, we hit the A3 motorway, which hastened our progress. Stopping at the Serbian border, the guard barked, “papers, green card!” I explained I had no green card for Serbia. The guard threw my passport onto the desk in disgust and gestured towards some portacabins, “In there. When you have a green card, come back for your passport.” Our green cards cost us €85 each, which was steep, especially as we’d be in and out of Serbia that night. We had no choice but to pay it, though – welcome to Serbia indeed! After stopping for fuel and food, we turned off onto a minor road towards Novi Sad before heading for Zrenjanin and up to Jimbolia, to cross the border into Romania.

Almost immediately the roads deteriorated, there were pot holes everywhere and we saw the first of many horse-drawn carts. Stopping at a railway crossing, we were amazed when an old Soviet Engine rumbled passed. It was pulling carriages that looked like something out of a John Wayne Western, with youths clinging precariously to rails outside having a cigarette.

We stayed the night in Timosora and were lucky enough to find an excellent pension with en suite rooms worthy of a fourstar hotel for €30 each. We did, however, make an emergency trip to the bank the following morning to pick up some Romanian Lei; although euros are accepted the black market exchange rate isn’t favourable!

Back on the road to Lugoj and by 10am it was already too hot. The ride was hard going, with potholes the size of small towns, constant roadworks and suicidal drivers to contend with. When we arrived in Lugoj we were diverted down some cobbled back streets which had suffered the ravages of time and heavy traffic; the shaking the bikes got was unbelievable! Onwards into Deva and David suffered a puncture. Pulling off onto a large lay-by, we set about changing the tube. The 40-degree heat turned what should have been a 30-minute job into a two-hour slog.

We eventually got going again and found a spot to camp outside the rustic village of Sebes. Excellent facilities, good food and cold beer – just what we needed! We’d decided over our beer to take route 7C, the Transfagarasan Highway, down to Pitesti and then ride back up to Bran and ‘Dracula’s castle’. But by the time we’d reached the summit of the road the following day, I realised it was going to be a tough one. The road deteriorated terribly and the highways agency’s attempts to fill potholes had left a surface like that of the moon. I was very worried as the Commando rattled along, fully expecting bits to fall off at any time.

We carried on (despite the mental driving and poor roads) to the town of Pitesti before taking the 73C back towards Bran. As we entered the small town of Mihaesti, we passed a half-mile tailback of cars queuing to go through a level crossing. Riding confidently to the front, I was rather pleased with myself until the barrier lifted and the Commando spluttered to a halt. I sheepishly pushed it across the junction and into a path at the side of the road.

It took three hours to get the bike going again. The main problem was it was running far too rich due to the wear on the Mikuni. I’d also been blowing fuses all over the place and had used all my spares. After checking all connections and taping up potential problem wires, I hardwired the fuse holder. I was scared to put my lights on, though, in case the wiring fault came back and set the loom on fire. As darkness fell, I was forced to set off without any lights, through the town of Campulung and into the black mountains towards Bran.

David was riding in front of me, leading the way, and Fiona was behind, to protect my back. We managed to travel over 20 miles like this on the mountain road, dodging the mad truck drivers. I couldn’t see the potholes, however, and it began to feel like a suicide mission. When a bar loomed out of the darkness, we stopped. There we found a pension and booked ourselves in; it was 9.30pm. We’d covered 210 miles in the last 11 hours on the bikes. The landlady made us a cold meat platter and provided Transylvanian wine to wash it down with; we all slept soundly that night.

The following day we had a great run down the twisty road into Bran and took some fantastic photos of the castle and the bikes (mission accomplished!) and booked into Vampire Camping, to set up the tents and carry out some proactive bike maintenance before the next day’s ride.

Saturday morning started hot again. On the way past Brasov we noticed the roads improving greatly. Passing Sighisoara, we stopped for fuel, 64mpg – the carb overhaul seemed to be working! On then past Turda and then through Cluj Napoca, which summed up all Romanian’s crazy driving habits within one city. That day’s riding was probably the most satisfying of the trip. The roads, scenery and village life in the places we passed were probably the best we’d experienced in Romania. We camped for the night near Gilau and the following day we passed the border at Oradea and 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.

Soon we arrived in Budapest and the most crowded campsite I’ve ever stayed in. The field was reminicent of a music festival, only without the mud. Tents were pitched almost on top of one other and the ground was virtually dust. My first impression of Budapest was of a down-at-heel scruffy town. Sightseeing the following day, we walked up to the castle on the other side of the river. Budapest became a single city occupying both banks of the river Danube in 1873. Buda and Obuda (Old Buda) are on the west bank while Pest can be found on the east bank. We were camping on the Pest side and it became obvious as we crossed the river that the Buda side is nicer and more affluent.

The Red Bull Air race was taking place in Budapest, so we got to see a fantastic display of flying in the afternoon. There was also a Hungarian folk festival on at the castle, which we watched with the accompanyment of traditional folk music and a few beers. Back on the road again, we headed past Vienna. We stopped at a campsite in Oma, near Passau on the Austrian side of the border before carrying on the next day into Germany. We covered another 270 miles on the Autobahn and finally stopped for the night in a place called Lauda.

We rode on through Germany the following day and then into Belgium, stopping at Liege for the night before going to the Begonia rally, the British bike Rally organised by the Flanders NOC every August. Once again it was being held at Viffwagen near Staden. The Begonia is an excellent rally, well organised, friendly and the bar and food are good and cheap. It’s also a great opportunity to catch up with friends I’ve made there over the years.

The next day, one of my Belgian friends invited us to a Brazilian-type carnival in Kortjick. We saw some very interesting sights there and I would certainly recommend a visit if the carnival coincides with your visit! After a meal at Ypres we rode to the Menin gate, to witness the last post being played.

Monday dawned and we reluctantly bordered the ferry at Zebrugge to Rosyth. We’d done just under 4,000 miles on the Commandos and both David and I agreed that we were glad we’d made the trip. Sure, we’d had some problems with the bikes but nothing we couldn’t fix. Next time you take a big trip, go by Norton, a real adventure motorcycle!

How to Ride Dracula Country…

Romania’s now a democracy and part of the EU, but it’s still struggling to drag itself into the 21st century following the 1989 uprising against the former Nicolae Ceausescu’s communist dictatorship. There’s virtually no motorway network as yet, so the roads are badly rutted and maintained. The driving is poor, with trucks and modern cars sharing the roads with horse-drawn carts and old soviet-inspired vans. Be aware that people will overtake coming towards you and that you may have to take evasive action. We were warned that the driving gets worse in the afternoon after some drivers have had a few drinks with lunch, and that definitely appeared to be the case! On the smaller roads and North of Brasov, conditions are generally better and quieter. The best times of year for riding Romania are from the end of April to the beginning of July and from end of August to the end of October when the weather’s mild and pleasant.

My Romania: Beyond the Forest

ABR reader Dave Gilligan shares his experiences of riding Romania…

By now our group of four, two R100RTs, a 1200 GS and my Tiger, had lost the clean polished image of three weeks previously and taken on that patina that comes from a combination of rain, sun, dust and mud, not to mention perspiration. Trip meters were registering some 2,000 miles with over 3,000 more before we’d be back in the UK.

The initial route had been fairly tame but picturesque. Meeting up in France, we rode through the Ardennes, into Luxemburg then to the lakeside campsite at Schluchsee in southern Germany. Crossing Austria, we stopped for two nights in Vienna before eventually reaching Bratislava. The scenery changed immediately; there were trams and poor roads, smokey Trabants and very cheap lunches The city was left behind as we headed to our rural campsite at Nitrianski Rudno in Slovakia and the foothills of the western rim of the Carpathian Mountains.

A good night’s sleep and some 100- plus miles later we were crossing yet another border, this time into southern Poland. We were heading towards the winter ski resort of Zakopane. Like the UK, Poland has not yet adopted the euro and still uses its own currency – the zloty. I’d forgotten this, and when I approached the till at a rural delicatessen furnished only with euros, I felt the donkey ears rapidly appearing! Payment by plastic meant adding a bottle of the finest Finnish vodka to the basket, to top up the bill. Oh well, needs must.

There are numerous border crossings into the Ukraine but after discovering most are for the locals only, we made a 6am start under a grey sky in damp conditions to one at Kroscienko in south eastern Poland. I would put my entire repertoire of off-road riding skills into use by the end of the day. Our chosen route was rural in the extreme; no cafes or restaurants, so by mid afternoon we were more than ready for a roadside brew. Pressing on with our journey over the potholes, we were passed at speed by three German bikers also travelling south, complete with obligatory aluminium panniers and knobblies.

We reached the Romanian border at Cidreag as the sun was setting. By now it was pitch black; we had no idea where the nearest campsite was. Just then, a Romanian motorcyclist on an old single-cylinder four-stroke Jawa appeared as if by magic and offered to direct us to a nearby motel at Satu Mare. After a challenging day, the Romanian beer went down well.

The following day, we loaded the bikes for another 200-mile ride to Borsa in the Maramures. There we traversed rutted mountain roads, passing crystal clear rivers and wooded hillsides, dodging smoky articulated logging trucks and mad 4×4 drivers. Engulfed in the high mountains, by late afternoon we were settled in at the Vampire Campsite in Bran – genuine Dracula country! South of Carta is the Trans Fagarasan Highway, a must for any serious biker. Several days later, we were on a ferry crossing Lake Balaton and with our backs to the Carpathian Mountains, we headed towards Slovenia…

I bought a Vampire Motorcycle (1990)

This 90s B-movie horror flick is a must-see for Norton fans. The plot goes like this: a rogue motorbike gang kills an occultist, so the evil spirit he was summoning possesses a written-o_ 750cc Norton Commando. The bike is then bought by heroic motorcycle courier Noddie (Neil Morrissey) and restored to its former glory. The bike’s malevolence is revealed, however, when it tries to exact its bloody revenge on the gang, and anyone who gets in its way. As ridiculous as it sounds, but very good fun.

Must-ride Romania

1 The Transfagarasan highway between Sibiu and Pitesti

2 Poenari Castle, allegedly one of the most haunted places in the world (over 1,400 steps to get to it, though)

3 Bran Castle, Brasov, the best-known of Vlad’s castles

4 The road from Brasov to Turda, fairytale villages and better surfaced roads

5 Look out for the ‘gypsy palaces’ in all the towns, built not to live in but as a status symbol

The Bikes

73 Norton Commando 850 Interstate

The MVD veteran of 150,000 travel miles and roughly 26 countries. Her mods include a single Mikuni carb, belt drive, electronic ignition and a 23-tooth gearbox sprocket for relaxed long-distance touring. The world’s best adventure tourer! (if I do say so myself ). She’s an extremely satisfying bike to ride long distances, just don’t forget the tools!

1971 Norton Commando 750

‘Smoky Joe’ is sometimes a Roadster, Fastback or Interstate! Her mods include a single Mikuni, electronic ignition and last year, on the road back from Austria, an air-cooled crank courtesy of a conrod letting go while riding passed a truck outside Munich. Now repaired and much improved.

2006 Kawasaki ER6f

Having covered over 25 countries and 40,000 miles, this is an excellent tourer; comfortable and economical (over 65mpg) with fairly reasonable tank range. Her only real issues are the exhaust downpipes, which break every 18,000 miles or so, and the alternator, which packed in at 30,000. Superb bike, though, and very underrated.

Who’s riding?

Gino Rondelli

Over 21 years old (!), Gino’s a former road racer who’s now enjoying a slower look at life. Presently on a career break and making the most of it on his motorcycle, Gino likes Nortons and Moto Guzzis, travelling and whisky; he dislikes fish! His ambition is to travel the South America-to-Alaska route, soon!

David Templeton

A Norton and Ducati owner, David likes a challenge and riding bikes in all weathers. Most weekends he can be seen chasing around the (mostly wet) roads near his base in Argyll, Scotland. David’s toured in Canada and recently New Zealand. He’s now got his sights set on Alaska.

Fiona Stewart

Twenty-eight-year-old Fiona likes motorcycling and travelling and occasionally ‘girly’ things. She dislikes the constant smell of petrol and oil from Norton exhausts. Fiona’s been riding bikes for seven years and averages over 10,000 miles a year for pleasure. She’s toured most of Europe since passing her test and has ambitions to do South America-to-Alaska.