Detroit of Europe or Romanian Soelden?

Seriously? You are going to Romania? Where? Why? What are you going to do there? Just a few of the most often questions we got when announcing we are going for a MTB enduro holidays in Romania. Dana Bates, American who lives in Romania for almost 20 years, invited us to explore a MTB potential of former leading mining region of the Jiu Valley and the Retezat National Park.

Straja Ski Resort above Romania's former largest coal mining area

Romanian mountain biking is more developed in the surroundings of bigger cities like Brasov and Timisoara, but we wanted to explore less known MTB area (but today I can say with a really amazing potential) of one of the biggest European mining area - the Jiu Valley between the Retezat and the Parang mountains (more familiar names to historians and environmentalists). Often called a Detroit of Europe due to the decrease of coal mining industry. It used to be one of the richest areas in Romania since the beginning of 90's. At that time the Jiu Valley had 15 mines, today just 4. The New York Times says that EU will allow Romania to keep just 2 of them.

Since the mining industry started to decline many people have been emigrating and the country decided to focus more on tourism in the Jiu Valley. Currently winter season is really strong and as our host Rebeca said she works from morning to morning in the winter time. Ski lifts & gondolas infrastructure is partly like in Austria and the other half are used ski lifts from the Dolomites. But there is a catch :) where the ski lift is almost ancient, there is a trail that will convince you to use that old ski lift more and more!

Our accommodation - Cabana Montana - is located in the middle of Straja Ski Resort, 15 minutes away from the Lupeni City, one of 6 cities in the Jiu Valley. Gondolas, ski lifts and man-made enduro trails are also in Vulcan City and Petrosani City (ski area Parang). From Slovenia (Ljubljana) we drove for 10 hours (and plus 2 hours for coffee breaks) - all together the travel lasted 12 hours. The roads in Romania are above expectations, the Romanian driving pool is similar to ours (many times the cars are without plastic parts and we assimilated very quickly with ripping of a plastic slat on the side).

The Jiu Valley used to be one of the richest regions in communism, but today the situation is a total opposite. People emigrate and there is a high unemployment due to mines closing. But they have a high expectations from tourism development and regarding the landscape they should have!

The Parang Mountains

Dana started with a MTB tourism development 3 years ago and with the help of local riders and cabana owners they have built nice trails that (also with the number of berms) reminds to Austrian Soelden. Further more, both mountain ridges - the Parang and the Retezat - have so much more to explore from mountain huts to high mountains. We wish we could have more time for that.

First day we rode about a year old enduro Vulcan Trail. In the afternoon we went to explore the Parang mountains trail which was a combination of XC and enduro trail. Vulcan Trail is a flow and about 4 km long. It can be quite fast in some parts, but they have a plan to build additional sections in short-term future.

Second day we paddle up from our accommodation for about 1 km and then with a ski lift to the Mutu mountain. First we rode a totally new trail for beginners, about 2 km long. Then we went for a round-trip with a combination of XC and enduro trails. The views of endless ridges were so amazing that nobody complained about many uphills in-between. The last part was a technical trail and the finish next to gondola station in Lupeni.

The last summer day in autumn we went to explore the Parang Ski Area near Petrosani (the biggest city in the Jiu Valley). First look of the ski lift was a little bit scary, but not for long. When we rode the first quarter of the Fox Trail, we were shouting for joy. Until that moment we have seen two nice trails, but this enduro foxy trail has that special thing which is hard to describe: 4 km of the trail is a little bit more technical just in lower part, but the trail demands your attention and thinking all the way. When we came back to the ski lift we were like little kids asking for more chocolate. We wanted the third ride as well, but we couldn't make it due to the presentation we had latter in the afternoon for tourist accommodations in Lupeni. And once again guys from Parang (we haven't met you, but we are your big fans!): please, do more trails! :)

Only three days before we left the Jiu Valley we tried the trails that start just next to our accommodations. The Baloo and the Lupilor trails both have 500 m of altitude and are about 4 km long. Baloo trail is mostly flow, the Lupilor trail has a few technical parts which are not too hard. Although it was snowing outside and the winter weather started, the trails were mostly dry. Even autumn leaves (a lot of it in this part of the year) was mostly used for the scenery for really nice photos.

The Retezat National Park

From the ridges of the Parang we were observing the other side - the Retezat mountains which is also a national park. The Retezat National Park is the oldest national park in Romania (established in 1935) and part of the UNESCO program Man and Biosphere since 1979.

Our mission was to reach the Scorota mountain pasture due to winter conditions (otherwise you can go further to the saddle and ride a combination of enduro and XC trail to the other side of the saddle). From the Straja to the starting point of our tour we drove for 45 minutes. The description said we will need 2 hours to the top (mostly we were pushing our bikes, not paddling). The trail is similar to our mulatiera roads and mostly rocky. The mountain pasture was a dream place - we were bathing in the sun, the trees were covered with snow which melted in the sun and it looked like it is snowing in the sun. Although our fingers were cold this tour was a cherry on pie of our 9-days trip in Romania.

Daria & Mihail - the future of the Jiu Valley mountain biking

The weather forecast for our last day in Romania was cloudy, but regarding previous days we knew that we will complain just to the start of the trails next to our accommodations (officially named Straja Extreme Park). For more motivation we got a company of two young enduro riders from Lupeni - Daria and Mihail. They are 14 and 15 years old, they go to secondary school and they dream and think just about mountain biking. After first berms riding with them we found out that "we are really tired" or more exactly "Daria and Mihail are amazing riders". With them we finally got a translator to buy pancakes at the fast food shop in Lupeni (there are really big signs for pancakes and at the end we found out it is a classic bakery shop without pancakes, but with delicious croissants (more Slovenian style than French one) and a Romanian version of cottage cheese "burek" made with a donut dough - yep, it sounds weird but it is crazy good).

After the break the youngsters were still motivated to ride and we did our best for them :) after two more rides we were totally dead and dreaming just about Rebeca's dinner.

Rebeca and her magic cooking

Out MTB mum Rebeca spoiled us with breakfasts and dinners, she also insisted that we need to eat soup for lunch (because we were riding all days we usually had snacks with us and a few times we went to Mama Mia restaurant for pizzas, burgers and papanasi desserts). First evening Rebeca cooked a typical Romanian dish: stuffed peppers (which is also a Slovenian dish and we all love it!). When she saw that we were excited about home-made dishes, she cooked for us a lot of Romanian traditional dishes and even more: she spoiled us with pancakes almost every day! The only problem we had was how to eat all that big portions!

When are you going next time?

The most common question since we got home. Regarding what we saw, rode and ate the Jiu Valley is that kind of MTB destination which totally describe Trans Julius philosophy of MTB enduro adventure: a wild nature, the friendliness of the local people, good food and fast development of MTB trails. We just need to set the date for our come back!

Photo credits: Peter Markič & Urša Horvat

Find more photos on Facebook page Trans Julius.