We’re not Ukrainian, we are Romanian!” The three men had stopped us on the road, some 20 kilometres from the border, and invited us for a coffee inside their building material dealership/convenience store. Within seconds of finishing the small strong black java a bottle of samagon appears. Walnuts from a near-by tree are cracked, kielbasa and an onion are sliced and bread is laid to go along with the homebrew vodka. We all raise our glasses and down the fire water to our health.

-Thank you! We’ll keep going now.

-Oh! No! We always drink in threes, you have to drink two more!

-Really? Can we put the tent up in your yard then?

-Not possible, we lock the fence and let a mean dog roam at night.

-Let’s drink quickly then, because night is falling and we still need to find a place to camp. Bottoms up!

Sur la rue principale de Teresva, la route H09, remontant la Tisza. Région administrative (oblast) de Transcarpatie
On our way from Khust to the border with Romania. Teresva, Ukraine.
Nos hôtes de Hrushovo entament leur samedi soir avec des invités venus de loin! Région administrative (oblast) de Transcarpatie, UKraine.
Invited for a coffee we end up swigging vodka in plastic cups and leaving with a bag full of walnuts at the end of a long Saturday. Hrushov, Ukraine.

The next day, we spend our last Ukranian hryvnias in Solotvyne, cross the Tisa River and enter Romania. We ride into Sighetu Marmatiei and have to stop at a gas station to screw our heads back on. The city has beautiful old buildings, nice cafés, bookstores, supermarkets and is pothole free! The Cyrillic alphabet has gone and the familiar Latin alphabet is back, plus the Romanian language is of the Romance family, just like French and Spanish, and we can understand most of what is displayed on the store fronts. One stop at the food store confirms that we are back in the EU and we get some Spanish olives, German Emmenthal cheese, Italian grana padano, sun dried tomatoes, and French dijon mustard.

Au "cimetière joyeux" de Săpânƫa, l'épitaphe de l'un des villageois qui nous a quittés à vélo. Comté (judeƫul) de Maramureş.
Twelve kilometres west of Sighetu Marmatiei is Cimitirul Vesel (Merry Cemetery) famous for its colourful tombstones and poetic inscriptions describing the person buried or the way they died. Lots of them are shown with a bottle of liquor in hand, we can only guess this guy was killed on his bike. Gulp! Sapanta, Maramures County, Romania.

We quickly leave the fast pace of Highway #18 for the relaxed Iza River Valley, its quiet villages, big churches and stunning monasteries. It is fedora hats for the gents, head scarfs, black skirts, wool tights and rubber shoes for the ladies. The vehicle of choice is the horse-drawn cart. Up valley people are sitting by the road selling bottles of palinca, the double-distilled plum brandy Maramures county is famous for, but Maria is by the road distilling some! Her right hand is turning her red-hot alembic while her left hand is motioning for us to come closer and have a drink. Swigging hard liquor by the roadside again…in threes too!

En revenant du marché de bétail de "Sighet"? Comté (judeƫ) de Maramureş, Roumanie.
After entering the European Union 2007, the horse-drawn cart was banned from main roads but it still prevails on small country roads. Iza Valley, Maramures County, Romania.
Église orthodoxe de La Présentation de la Vierge au Temple, à Bârsana, estampée de l'UNESCO, dans la vallée de l'Iza. Comté (judeƫ) de Maramureş, Roumanie.
Eight of the wooden churches of Maramures are a UNESCO World Heritage Site like the Barsana church built in 1720. Iza Valley, Maramures County, Romania.
"Le foin, c'est la vie!" Comté (judeƫ) de Maramureş, Roumanie.
Hay is everything, here, in Maramures: fuel, food and money! Romania.
Il n'y a pas que le foin dont raffolent les vaches, les betteraves a sucre aussi! Comté (judeƫ) de Maramureş, Roumanie.
Sugar beet harvest time. Pigs will be happy. Iza Valley, Maramures County, Romania.
Cheminant dans la vallée de l'Iza. Comté (judeƫ) de Maramureş, Roumanie.
The art of the Romanian haystack! Iza River, Maramures County, Romania.
L'alambic de Maria et Liliana, à Moisei. Comté (judeƫ) de Maramureş, Roumanie.
Maria and her alembic. Romania is the world’s biggest plum producer—75% of it is turned into alcohol! Moisei, Maramures County, Romania.

After connecting back with Highway #18 we are on our way up Prislop Pass (1416m) and Suceava county. Camped on the front lawn of the Victoria Hotel we meet Theo from Kitchener. “You guys are heading to the worst stretch of road in all of Romania”, he announces without knowing this is great news—little traffic, no trucks. Theo left his native Romania to emigrate to Canada in 1993 and is back as a tour guide. “These Carpathian Mountains have been a fortress and a crossroad over the millennia, many tribes wanted a part of it: Bulgarians, Goths, Huns, Slavs, Hungarians, Turks and the list goes on. Lots of conflicts.”

Faire le plein au col Prislop (1416 mètres). Comté (judeƫ) de Maramureş, Roumanie.
Lunch time at Prislop Pass (1416m). Maramures County, Romania.

The downhill from Prislop is a bit anticlimactic when we hit the Bistrita River valley’s bottom just 200 metres below the high pass. From there, the road and river flow lazily through the emerald and gold mountains. Cows and piles of firewood dot the yards behind ornate small houses with remarkable metal roofs. Vatra Dornei is a spa and ski resort and is our home for 3 nights while Janick writes a feature story for Pedal magazine and Pierre a short column for the Suunto website.

Road #17B continues down along the Bistrita River but we head for the hills through farming villages to the Paltinis Pass (1355m) and its monastery. The way down to Bostreni is a narrow slimy logging valley. It is also a giant cow toilet and setting up a tent is tricky! The upside is that we wake up to massive pink tongues licking and polishing our panniers! The harem of ruminating gentle giants is intrigued by our morning choreography of moving our soaked tent to a patch of sun to dry—the dew is drenching—, cooking and eating a pot of polenta, cleaning and packing. We have tried different combinations of sleeping out and eating breakfast at a restaurant, or sleeping in a pensiunea and preparing our morning meal in the room, but with the thick morning fog we have not started riding before 11am once since entering Romania. With the sun dipping fast behind mountains at day’s end, we have to make the most of about 7 hours of daily travelling time.

Entre le col Pătinis (1355 mètres) et la rivière Bistrita. Comté (judeƫ) de Neamt, Roumanie.
Logging road in the Neagra river valley. Suceava County, Romania.

The Bicaz Dam was built in the 1950s on the Bistrita River and the road climbs a mountain side to get around the resulting Izvorul Montelui Lake reservoir. In Hangu our hopes to cycle over Doamnei Pass are shattered: the road to the Cracau River valley over the Muuntii Stanisoarei does not exist anymore. We keep going to Bicaz from where we have a journey to the Moldovian lowlands planned.

Sur la route 15, le long du réservoir Izorul Montelui. Comté (judeƫ) de Neamt, Roumanie.
Skirting Lake Bicaz on the high road. Neamt County, Romania.
Lac Izorul Montelui et monts Cealhău. Comté (judeƫ) de Neamt, Roumanie.
Lake Bicaz and the changing foliage of octobre. Neamt County, Romania.

The second nomads of our ongoing trip are the Romani people. Of the 22 different groups we have envisaged learning from and about on this journey, they are the most well-known…and judged. In Europe, every time we have mentioned the Roma, people have warned us to stay away, as if we were talking about street gangs. Maybe all this paranoia has been holding us back, or is it the travelling Roma’s standoffish attitude and the language barrier that has kept us from connecting? We have decided to forget about the nomadic angle for a minute and wander to a Roma village.

Transit bref dans la ville de Piatra Neamt. Comté (judeƫ) de Neamt, Roumanie.
A quick transit through Piatra Neamt on our way out of the mountains. Neamt County, Romania.

Zece Prajini is not any village since all its inhabitants are brass players! Romani have historically taken up niche jobs in society and Zece Prajini is a village of musicians, hired for weddings and baptisms. The remote village is East of Roman on a rough dirt road through golden corn fields. We ask two customers sitting at the Cafe/Bar (2 picnic tables set in front of a store selling basic products, plus beer and espresso) if there is a guesthouse near-by. Dragos switches quickly to French—so far in Romania we have used French or Spanish almost daily. “Chez-moi, venez”. We follow the yellow van to the last house on main street where his parents, Ciprian and Gina, are opening the gate for our caravan to ride in—certainly a SMS was sent from the wheel.

Dragos, à la maison familiale au village de Zece Prăjini. Comté (judeƫ) de Iasi, Roumanie.
Dragos sending us back on the road with a tune. La revedere! Zece Prajini, Iasi County, Romania.
En compagnie de nos hôtes à Zece Prăjini. De gauche à droite: papa, fiston, maman, la nomade à vélo, le frère de papa et le frère de maman. Comté (judeƫ) de Iasi, Roumanie.
Five musicians and a cyclist in this picture! Unforgettable evening spent in Zece Prajini. Iasi County, Romania.

Soon we are in the kitchen enjoying a coffee and a hearty soup made by Gina and learn that although sedentary the men of this village are still travellers. Dragos lives in Bordeaux, France where he plays alto saxophone in a band. He is in Romania since yesterday, visiting and recording an album. His ambition is to become an international act, maybe as famous as Fanfare Ciocarla, Zece Prajini’s local pride. Ciprian sports a t-shirt advertising a clown festival he has played his own saxophone at in France. This Sunday he is heading to play at a big wedding in Brasov and he answers his phone a few times to smooth out the details of transport and lodging for the 11-men brass ensemble. After a few glasses of Ciprian’s homemade wine, his younger brother arrives to pick Dragos up and hit the “town”. The young sax player—it runs in the family—used to live in Valencia, Spain where he was part of a fancy restaurant’s gitano house band. We are among nomads after all!

Sortie de Zece Prăjini et retour vers Roman, Bicaz et les Carpates. Comté (judeƫ) de Iasi, Roumanie.
Get out of the way geese and ducks! We are going back to the mountains! Dagita, Iasi County, Romania.

The hot and dusty road has made us sleepy and a bed is prepared for us. It would take 2 or 3 days to backtrack to the Carpathian Mountains and in the morning the decision is taken to bike to Roman, from there we’ll ride the train back to Bicaz, the fresh air and clean rivers. We thank our warm hosts for putting us up while Dragos gets his copper instrument and sends us back to the corrugated road with a joyous sax solo. Drum Bun!

"Drum bun!" Comté (judeƫ) de Iasi, Roumanie.
“Drum bun!” Dagita, Iasi County, Romania.

Threesome in Transylvania! (Târgu Jiu, Romania - km 5,850)
In the green pearl of Ukraine ! (Khust, Ukraine – KM 4,510)

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