With the Paramotor above the Churches of Transylvania
It was already late in the afternoon, but we did not stop after our trip to Medias. We refuelled, ate something and off we went to visit Sighisoara (DE: Schäßburg, HU: Segesvár), another major attraction of this region.
It was a magic flight with the setting sun flooding every building of Sighisoara with orange light, but it did not end there.
On the way back we made a small detour and flew over Noiștat (DE: Neustadt, HU: Újváros). Check how the roof on the building next to the church has collapsed.
We were after another hidden gem, however, the small village of Movile (DE: Hundertbüchlen, HU: Százhalom). They didn’t even have an asphalted road leading to the village, just some gravel full of potholes. The village is misnamed even on google maps/earth (it is called Iacobeni, which around 10 km from here).
But the church in the village has two towers spaced exactly like pilons in a paramotor competition. On the approach to the village, we came up with the brilliant idea to fly figure 8-s around the two church towers just like at a competition. Barni did not shy away from the task.
At the end we moved our camp from this lovely field to Sighisoara and stayed overnight simply in his van in a parking lot. Plain and simple.
With the Paramotor above the Churches of Transylvania
Medias city centre.
The takeoff from the patch of grass surrounded by everything you don’t want to crash into was anything but normal. There was no wind to help us. With his competition-pilot skills, Barni managed to cruise around in tight circles to avoid all obstacles and still get enough lift to climb out and above the cityscape. No filming, sorry for that, I was terrified enough not to care about the camera.
As we checked out in Medias while having a coffee, there were enough empty spaces without overhanging cables to land in the city center, so we went back to visit it again, this time in the air.
On the ride back we could fly low and get personal with a few villages with an outstanding architecture. These are still in the mainstream, with tourists visiting the fortified churches and generating income to the villages. Biertan (Birthälm, Berethalom) was the first with its castle-like church, which is the most elaborate and poetic rural fortified church in the region.
At Biertan we got down and close to the church tower again, so after visiting the village, we had to climb up again with the paramotor. We were quite heavy and the motor had a hard time pushing us, so to climb out from the valleys we needed to hitch a ride on thermals too to help us get high.
Above picture: getting some height in thermals after Biertan. Next stop: Malancrav (DE: Malmkrog, HU: Almakerék). At Malancrav they have an almost Spartan church, the complete opposite of the romanticism of Biertan (Ok, I did it, I used this word in the non-historic meaning). There is also a manor house of the Apafi family (then owned by the Bethlen family, then by the communists, then by the Evagngelical church and now by the Mihai Eminescu Trust, which renovated it properly).
Our track at Malancrav. By this time we had a pattern to our visit: arriving high, burning some altitude in spirals and wingovers, next the tour of honour around the church tower and leaving low, almost scratching the roofs.
On the way back we visited Iacobeni again. I enjoyed this low-level approach so much, that I need to share the video here too. I have a feeling that there are too many churches and towers in this post already, but hey, that was our focus here on this trip.
Landed at our base camp. That’s me, signing the picture in the lower right corner with my shadow.
With the Paramotor above the Churches of Transylvania
It all started with a chance encounter in the parking lot. I was heading home on my home-built recumbent bicycle, Barni was working on one of his businesses or hobbies. These two overlap for him most of the time, and one of them included building a paramotor trike to take passengers with him in tandem flights. I love the company of passionate people with sufficiently crazy ideas, and he needed someone with creative welding skills. We knew each other remotely from the paragliding scene, but a partnership and friendship quickly evolved of these mutual interests.
Excitement in the garage when the trike started to take shape.
We built the trike in less than a month using his design ideas and my technical skills. It all happened in a small garage, the way other great ideas are born. The maiden voyage in a foggy October morning was an adrenaline rush. We both knew that it would work, but taking off on something we have just built with the weld seams still warm definitely gave me the strongest combination of thrilling attention and joy. The trike quickly became a taxi for many, but we had some more ideas with it for sharing another adventure.
Before the first takeoff.
We started discussing about going on a paramotor trip of several days. We would take up in the morning, fly for several hours, get down, refuel and fly some more. The theory was simple. We chose to explore a region in Transylvania once inhabited by German (Saxon) people who fled in the Communist period of Romania and in the chaos that followed immediately after the regime change. The Saxons left behind a beautiful network of tidy villages with precisely crafted houses and fortified churches.
Except for a few touristy areas like Sighisoara or Biertan, most villages in this region are frozen in time. They are located in side valleys with the access road in a very bad shape, very few tourists reaching them and the Romanian and Rroma population left behind living off subsistence farming.
Fortified church in Biertan (DE: Birthälm, HU: Berethalom)
Note: All place names are given in three languages: Romanian first because we live in the present, then German, because they built these villages, and then Hungarian, because this region was under Hungarian administration for most of the time when the Saxons lived there.
The fortified churches in the village centres are beautiful combinations of a fortress and a church. Each of them is different. They are obviously the result of the effort and ideas of a closed community without a central authority directing them using force, taxes or subsidies. There are similarities, especially in neighboring villages, but each of them is very unique.
So we set off to explore this historic area. On Google Earth I created a kml file with all the sites worth visiting and the petrol stations in the area. This was all the information we used for planning our day trips each morning. As Barni had some tandems to fly on the day we were supposed to start our expedition, we arrived late in the afternoon to Agnita (DE: Agnetheln, HU: Szentágota) in the middle of our target zone. It was just right to do a one hour of flight before sunset. We visited the village of Iacobeni (DE: Jakobsdorf , HU: Jakabfalva) and Agnita.
At Iacobeni we got low in the calm evening air, and made rounds around the church tower. It was exhilarating, like flying around 800 year-old pilons in a paramotor competition. People in the village were cheering and waving at us. Visiting these untouched and innocent places with a paramotor trike and getting low above the villages felt very intense. To keep the intensity of the experience, we decided to sleep in Barni’s van instead of looking for a motel/hostel.
Having an open fire and barbecuing in the dark felt intense indeed. Even more, the sub-zero temperatures that made our beers freeze. The next morning we waited for the sun to melt and burn off the frost and off we went to visit Medias (DE: Mediasch, HU: Meggyes), some 50 km away.
I had to add this pic below, because it was imprinted in my mind when getting to sleep in the car (whenever I was not focused on keeping the cold out of my sleeping bag.)
Many people have asked me how I take off and land with the bicycle harness. Obviously not on wheels but on foot. Taking off in cycling mode would be impossible because the wing would knock me off immediately when I try to lift it. Landing on wheels is theoretically possible, but I never tried it. I do care about my safety, even though this project might suggest otherwise.
The trick in this entire project, why this all works is, that I simply pivot back the front part of the bicycle and my legs reach the ground comfortably without the bicycle getting in the way. So I can easily do ground handling and take off as I do with a regular harness, and land in the same way.
To show how I do it, I posted a small video of ground handling in pretty strong conditions. My wing handling is probably not the best, but the video still shows how ground handling and takeoff is possible with the bicycle.
Showing off takeoff skills (if any) in turbulent air
Topola, Bulgaria is a great site for soaring in the sea breeze. It needs winds between 12 and 25 kmh between SE and SW. The best in my opinion is 15-20 kmh South, because it gives enough lift and it is still not too strong to be able to cruise from one direction to the next. The maximum flyable coastline is approx. 13 km long when conditions are ideal.
While on holiday there, I took my flying bicycle and climbed up to the takeoff. I did not check where the official takeoff was, so I just cycled along the ridge to find a takeoff place. The track uploaded to xcontest contains both the cycling and the flying sections, because they are part of the same adventure.
Cycling on country roads in search for a suitable takeoff:
It was a beautiful flight so I made up plans to do a bike and fly trip covering the entire Bulgarian Black Sea coast next year.
The Black Sea coastline in Bulgaria is a very wild region with around 80-90% of it completely undeveloped. The coastline is generally rugged, there are only narrow strips of sandy beaches and long sections of cliff faces where you cannot get off the water. In the summer of 2017 three friends: Pali, Barni and Tiha set off to explore as much of it as possible by kayak.
Two of us were in our late thirties, and we had quite fast inflatable hybrid kayaks with an aluminum keel (Air Fusion by Advances Elements). Barni has never kayaked before, I was at my third sea-trip. Pali is a 67-year old retired adventurer with a 20-year-old 3-meter long whitewater kayak with a rudder fitted to it. It was a mixed team, but we got along extremely well. We went by car to Krapets, the first village right next to the sea; left the car there at a restaurant 10 m from the water and set off by kayak.
Pali hauling his kayak to the shore.
Barni with his banana right before their maiden voyage.
We were incredibly lucky. The sea was flat and motionless. There was just some very light wind. It helped us a lot because the other two were at their first sea trip so they badly needed a generous accommodation period. But we were cruising in a big motionless pool. Confidence levels rose.
The large-scale meteo wind pattern was from west to east (from the shore), so it effectively canceled out the sea breeze from sea to land (from east to west). I am still a beginner in sea weather, but it seems that meteo wind opposite to the direction of sea breeze can result in calm air and sea. Please comment below if you are more knowledgeable about these issues.
For the first few kilometers the shore was rather flat and dull. We cruised by Shabla, the first village along our journey.
Shabla seen from the water.
The terrain started to get higher after Shabla. First there was a 10-20 m high clay wall, then there was an 2 km section north of Tyulenovo with a 10-20 m high vertical limestone wall facing the sea. This section was full of caves cut by the sea into the limestone face. Some were narrower, that you could not turn around with the boat in them and went as deep as 15 meters in the cliff, some were much wider, up to 10 meters high and wide.
The big caves were full of cormorants and pigeons nesting in them and plunging and diving deep or shooting out in the open when we arrived. They had obviously very few visitors before us. The caves were the best natural shelters because they were completely inaccessible from land and only accessible by kayak or canoe when the sea is calm. We were extremely lucky to have reached there exactly when conditions were perfect.
It was the most beautiful experience I’ve had on the water. Check out Pinocchio above on the third picture from behind. The caves were located in a pretty small section of the shore, 2 km north and 500 m south of Tyulenovo harbor. Tyulenovo harbor is squeezed into a small (approx. 50 m wide) crevasse in the rocks without any sandy beach, just a steep drop to the water with slides for the boats of local fishermen. There is a hotel, restaurant, and terrace overlooking this small bay. Great place for snorkeling, scuba diving, kayaking, but definitely not a place for a family vacation.
My track around Tyulenovo. There are caves where the tracks gets close to the shore and there is a sharp turn.
There are still some 500 m of rock formations south of Tyulenovo even with an arc or bridge you cross under by kayak.
Next to Tyulenovo in the south.
From there on the cliff face got higher up to 50 m, but without the spectacular rock formations. The composition of the rock changes too. There is still some limestone but mixed with sedimentary rock and maybe travertine. It is very scenic but no place to get out of the water for around 8 km.
By the end of Day 1 we reached the first sandy beach to finish the day and set up camp near Rusalka. We covered 27.2 km in almost 5 hours with an average speed of 5.6 kmh. Not bad for the first day.
Day 1 was epic, so we just passed out in our tents at 9 in the evening with aching muscles. The next morning was similar. Everything was damp, we had a wet kayak, sore and stiff muscles, we were shivering in B minor. But as soon as we got ready, broke camp and set out on water, all was shiny again. This pattern actually repeated itself every day: getting up, getting ready and setting out on water was difficult and chilly. But no later than ten minutes of paddling, and our upper bodies were working like clockwork and spirits were high again.
This morning we had strong north wind pushing us from behind. The wind was at around 25-30 kmh at ground (water) level already at 9 in the morning. It gave us a constant 2 kmh extra speed, but 1 m high waves in the same package. We had to adjust the direction of the kayak constantly with the paddle to keep the direction. We headed towards Kaliakra Cape, the tip of a narrow stretch of land with 70 m high vertical cliffs. The plan was to reach Kaliakra, make a sharp right turn, and paddle along and close to the coast in calm water protected from the wind by the high cliffs.
Pali heading towards Kaliakra in the distance.
But things did not go according to plan. We were already paddling for about 40 minutes with Kaliakra in the cross-hairs when Pali capsized. There was no time for pictures or video because we had our hands and mind busy trying to keep our kayak straight and us out of the water. We could not afford yet another one of us getting in trouble.
At first Pali was at 5 m distance from us, we were holding his kayak and kept still downwind of him, but the wind was blowing us faster than he could swim to reach us. We regrouped after a while, bu he could not get into his kayak. After some deliberations, I grabbed his kayak full of water, kept it close to mine and paddled with one hand on one side towards the shore. Pali was hanging on the stern of Barni’s kayak as he tried to paddle and tow him to the shore. It did not help that Pali was holding his paddle in the water. Barni was advancing some 10 cm with each stroke of the paddle while towing.
We finally reached Bolata bay after almost an hour of struggling with the sea. Fortunately both of our kayaks were stabilized with the load we had, but advancing and reaching the shore was extremely difficult and tiring. Once on the ground again, Pali dried all his gear and decided that he would push on and not quit.
Bolata Bay with Cape Kaliakra in the distance.
There is a clear freshwater stream running down a valley and into the Black Sea in Bolata Bay. It is extremely clear and cold. I will have to explore the springs feeding it in my next trip there.
After a few hours of firm ground, we regrouped and set off again. There was a 40-45 kmh wind now coming from the side, but we only had to endure it for 2.5 km until we reached the Cape, got around it and we were on the calm water again.
Hiding from the wind behind Kaliakra.
There is a huge cave 30-50 m high on the southern side of Kaliakra with bus-sized boulders in it.
As we passed the narrow section of the cape, springs started running down the cliff face every now and then with beautiful clear freshwater.
There were no more unexpected events this day. We were paddling in calm waters, relaxed and in high spirits. Some even tried out new paddling styles.
The next highlight was Dalboka mussels farm and restaurant. They grow their mussels at a huge farm at 500 m out on the sea and deliver it straight to a restaurant wedged in the rock face. It cannot get any fresher than that. We had the best seafood you can ever have.
Dalboka mussel farm and restaurant. They even have the menu in Romanian with sections entitled: Why we are here, For those who are not sure why there are here (non-seafood items) and similar. They are honest people with some honest food. We made another discovery on this day: two beers are more than enough for paddling. They make you feel rather liquid, which is not really productive if you try to get ahead in the water.
On the last leg of this day’s trip, we passed along golf courses next to the sea. Very weird to see perfectly trimmed grass besides the wild beaches. So we decided to desecrate one patch of green grass and set up camp on a golf course.
The idea was revolutionary, even Bolshevik, but the capitalist system retorted with the help of a sprinkler system installed in these patches of nice green turf. The sprinkler heads just come up and start sprinkling during the night, we found out. We had to settle for the rocky beach and spend the night next to our kayaks.
On this day we went from Rusalka to the Thracian Cliffs Golf Resort, covering a total of 24.8 km with an average moving speed of 5.8 kmh.
We slept in the open air on the rocks so we were awake at 6 in the morning fresh as a sea cucumber. It was cloudy and damp; we could not dry the damp sleeping bags and clothes. Even if it did not rain, there was a heavy dew in the evening and even more at dawn. We were however fully compensated for he lack of sunshine by the calm sea. The sea felt like oil, the kayaks were gliding smoothly in it.
I could even take pictures underwater.
After a few hours of effortless paddling, we reached Balchik, a scenic historic town. It felt good to see something more historic than the hotels built in the communism or the period after that. The scene was peppered with Bulgaria’s current small entrepreneurs selling everything from ice cream, inflatable puppies, some private toilet time, shade of umbrellas in the sandy beach to sandwiches.
In Balchik there is a palace built in the 1930ies for Queen Marie of Romania, when this region was part of Romania. It draws huge crowds so we just checked it out from the water (see the palace above).
A side note on camping out in Bulgaria: you can set up camp practically anywhere, even on a golf course (we were spotted on the golf course, but nobody told us to move on). You can also go practically anywhere, nobody really cares. It is the freedom of a post-communist country not yet over-regulated and split up into parcels of guarded private property. It feels like freedom.
After Balchik we reached Albena, the first real resort in Bulgaria. It felt very touristy with the huge hotels, and the animator shouting in Bulgarian for some corporate event. Barni told me that kayaking here feels like a cowboy approaching a town on his horse in the wild west. Are we going in and grab’em by the…? Or just move on?
We headed for the last restaurant on this stretch of beach to be out of reach of the animator and his megaphone, and to meet people more down-to-earth or grounded as Barni put it. It was our strategy throughout the trip to search for places on the peripheries. It feels less formal and more adventurous.
We found out again that two beers are too much for efficient paddling, but it did not really matter. It started to rain anyway as we pushed closer to Varna, the first big city on the way with a lot of activity on the water. Huge hotels started popping up like the giant in the picture above. It felt like paddling in Dubai.
We did not check in here, but asked the workers renovating a small pub at the beach next to this one if they could give us some shelter against the rain. No problem, so we stayed overnight in a small shed.
We paddled for 35 km on this day at an average speed of 5.5 kmh. The result:
Sunday in the waters of Varna was crowded. It was great. There was the occasional grumpy husband fishing in a small rubber inflatable, who just ran away from the wife, jovial fishermen doing their job and pulling in a net, two kitesurfers zipping around like crazy dragonflies and a majestic sailing boat competition. We were not the only weirdos on waves at last.
Varna has a large bay and ocean liners dock in its harbor too. I was afraid of crossing the waterways of the big girls, but we only had to give way to the Louise Marie, a smallish but classy yacht on our way across Varna Bay.
The scenery changed completely once we crossed the harbor. It was wild again and right across Varna bay, there was a very good-looking restaurant right next to the sea. We just had our cappuccinos on the beach on the other side, so did not bother to stop again, but this place is definitely worth a visit
HINT: Look for Cape Galateja or Galata, Romantika restaurant across Varna.
We were in the wild again with lush vegetation and a narrow stretch of sandy beach almost without interruption for the next 20 km.
North of Varna wherever we stopped, they were used to and expected tourists to flood them, they even had the menu in Romanian at most restaurants and bars. South of Varna there was pristine nature and a rural atmosphere. There were a few fishing huts scattered on the coast and some bistros and restaurants but tending only to the locals. They knew little English, let alone any other language besides Bulgarian, but it felt great to interact with these “grounded” people again.
In the woods, we saw lots of small huts obviously built and used by locals as weekend or summer getaways. Some were more sloppy, others showing off their wealth more, but all very local and likable.
At the day’s end, we reached the village of Kamchya and stopped 1 km short of their main beach to take hold of our own and private beach. On this day we covered 30.5 km at a moving speed of 5.8 kmh.
Day 5 turned out to be our last day on this trip, but we didn’t know that at 8 in the morning when we broke camp and started paddling. The sea was quite agitated, 1-2 m high waves, with white crests even pretty far from the shore. Then the events of day 2 repeated again. Pali capsized after covering 3 km right in front of Kamchya beach, watched by 5 lifeguards keeping the empty beach in control. We were close to land so he just swam to the beach. We received some scolding because swimming was prohibited and we had no life vests.
As a side note: the life vest makes me heat up while paddling to the point where I get sick, and it is just in the way if I fall in the water because it makes it more difficult to swim or get back into the kayak. Life vests are for people who fall in the water and wait until they are saved. We did not have this luxury of simply waiting to be saved, we had to save ourselves and the other one if we had an issue. The life vest would not really help with that.
Pali did not want to continue on the sea, and we agreed with his decision even if we had to cut our trip short. To our luck, we hit land 200 m from the mouth of Kamchya River. To finish our trip in style, we decided to paddle upstream to the main road leading back to Varna and finish our trip there. It was a very good decision.
Kamchya River emptying into the Black Sea.
There were some boats and huts for the first kilometer, but we were paddling in a wild forest from there on. There seemed to be no human activity on the river whatsoever, because there were trees leaning low over the water or even fallen into it, lots of branches and debris building up into banks.
It was gorgeous so we thanked Pali for capsizing and showing us the way into this green wilderness. After 4 km we met a guy on the shore all alone with his touring bicycle and playing his mandolin. He was Irish and was heading for India. He reached Bulgaria in close to two years because he was not in a hurry at all.
We had had a short intermezzo here because I found out that my drybag has fallen off my kayak from my back, so we raced back and found it already being washed by the waves. I kept the car keys, my ID card and everything of value in it, so I was pretty happy to find it.
The most honest moment of this trip was one of the last ones for me. When we heard the noise of the highway and got a glimpse of the bridge crossing the river all three of us stopped and we just sat there for a while in our yaks. There was no regret or anything else, we just enjoyed the last moment of our trip before getting back to roads-cars-deadlines and civilization.
We only covered 18 km on this day, but it was gorgeous.