Driving the Transfagarasan Road

Driving the Transfagarasan Road

Transfagarasan Road, Romania

Whilst researching places to visit in Romania, I came across photos of a spectacular winding road, snaking its way high up to a pass over the mighty Carpathian Mountains. It looked amazing and a blast to drive, so I put the Transfagarasan Road on the must-do list.

After a couple of days in Romania’s capital Bucharest, I picked up a hire car to explore the Transfagarasan. I planned to start the drive from the northern side of the Carpathian Mountain range, so step one was to drive north to Brasov, then head west to start the climb.

The navigation app told me the 185km trip was going to take just over three hours. Three hours! Now Europe is full of towns, and the roads can be a little twisty in parts, but I couldn’t believe I was going to only average 60 km/h from the capital all the way to a major regional centre. Well it turns out I did. I joined a massive line of cars and crawled along for big stretches of the journey. I figured there must be some major roadworks going on, but strangely enough, I never came across them. At one point a lane was closed so three old blokes could do some line marking, and in another spot a minor bridge repair was being done. But there just didn’t seem to be enough roadwork happening to justify the miles of banked up cars and accompanying delays.

After finally reaching Brasov I bought a topographic map of the area traversed by the Transfagarasan, as I was hoping to do a little hiking whilst up in the Carpathians. In the late afternoon I struck out west to the town of Fagaras, and my accommodation for the night.

Next morning I drove another half an hour west, before turning south onto the famous 90 kilometre-long Transfagarasan Road. I was heading across the plain and straight towards the Carpathians, and although I was in bright sunshine at the bottom of the range, a heavy band of cloud sat atop of the mountains. Before too long I started to climb, winding upwards through the heavy forest of the lower slopes. In several spots, maintenance crews with heavy machinery were hard at work reinforcing the upslope side of the road. Considering how steep the country is, I imagine the blokes just finish getting one part secured when another bloody-well collapses.

Suddenly I broke through the tree line and onto the alpine grasslands. I had reached the most famous section of the Transfagarasan Road, which snakes its way up the Balii Valley to a height of 2024 metres.

Transfagarasan Road, Romania
The red and white painted Armco barriers on the corners made it feel even more like a racetrack

There are a few reasons why the Transfagarasan Road is so famous. For starters, it has an interesting history. Back in the mid-1960s, Romanian leader Nicolae Ceausescu started to distance his country from the influence of Russia. Although a Stalinist, Ceausescu wanted a future for communist Romania independent of the Soviet Union. Now, as Hungary and Czechoslovakia will attest, the Russians didn’t take too kindly to countries deciding to turn their backs on the motherland, so Nicolae was little nervous that the Red Army might turn up and try and change his mind. Concerned about military access over the Carpathians in case of an invasion, he decided to commission a new road to cross the mountains. The army built the road in just under five years, at the cost of at least 40 lives.

Transfagarasan Road, Romania
Nicolae’s slot car set was the envy of every kid in the neighbourhood

As well as the history behind the Transfagarasan Road, it is also well known for traversing some absolutely spectacular country. The views across the steep and rugged terrain, dotted with glacial lakes, is jaw-dropping. The other claim to fame that brings visitors to the Road, especially in more recent times, is that it’s a hoot to drive. For those who are more interested in a car’s performance than whether is has a cup holder and proximity alarm, sections of the Transfagarasan look exactly like a racetrack.

Wanting to enjoy the full Transfagarasan driving experience, I decided to head for the top of the mountain without stopping, enjoying the seemingly endless hairpins as I followed the switchback road to the summit.

Transfagarasan Road, Romania

The Transfagarasan has 27 viaducts and bridges

I was giggling like a kid, and as the corners were so tight I found myself using the side windows as much as the windscreen. I’d heard that weekends can see the Road jammed bumper to bumper with traffic, so I was pleased to be able to enjoy the drive mid-week with not too many other cars. Motorcyclists also enjoy the Transfagarasan for obvious reasons, but the bikes’ superior performance and handling generally sees them scoot by the cars without dramas for rider or driver.

Transfagarasan Road, Romania
The impressive Balii Valley

Grinning like an idiot, I reached the top of the valley at Balea Lake, then promptly turned around and drove back down again. It was as much fun heading down as it was up, and upon reaching the treeline at the bottom of the valley, I wheeled around once again. On my next ascent, I stopped at the numerous pull-over bays to enjoy the views and take some photos.

Back up at Balea Lake, I found a place to park the car. Despite not being a particularly busy day on the Road, parking spots were a little hard to come by. The area around Balea Lake is very touristy, with the Road and walking tracks lined with small timber huts sporting open front stalls. If you wanted a fridge magnet, or a locally made cheese round, or a fridge magnet in the shape of a locally made cheese round, you’d be spoilt for choice.

I had planned an overnight hike, so as showers swept across the range I had a snack and organised the last of my gear. After locking up the car, I headed off to the walking track that would take me away from the tourist bustle and deep into the mountains.

Carpathian Mountains
Did I just hear someone start singing ‘Danny Boy’?

If I thought the views from the road were speccy, I had run out of adjectives by the time I’d finished my two days on the hoof.

Carpathian Mountains

The Carpathians are dotted with glacial lakes, which add another level of spectacular-ness.

Yeah you heard me. Spectacular-ness

During my hike I was also lucky enough to see a fox and a chamois, and to not be randomly eaten by a bear.

Camping overnight in the cool mountain air was fantastic, and on day two the showers cleared and I was treated to long sunny spells.

Carpathian Mountains
The drop off either side of this saddle was something to behold
Carpathian Mountains

The track was pretty bloody steep in parts, and chains had been installed to lessen your chance of involuntarily ending up at the bottom of the mountain.

Early Romanian prisons lacked some of the basics that we take for granted these days

After my hike I was back on the Transfagarasan Road, heading south and driving through the Capra Tunnel, which at 890-odd metres, is Romania’s longest. Apparently it took six million kilograms of explosive to create the Transfagarasan, and I reckon a few of these would have been spent on the Capra. Popping out the other side, it was more breath-taking views and corners of joy as I started the descent.

Transfagarasan Road, Romania
‘Anyone just see a glacier slide by here?’

At many of the pull-over bays you find packs of fluffy mountain dogs, lying around in fluffy packs warming their fluffy backsides packside in the sun.

Mountain dog, Romania
Transfagarasan Road, Romania

Before I knew it I was swallowed up by the dark forest, having left the alpine grasslands, and the most famous stretch of the Transfagarasan, behind. But the Road still had another highlight in store for me. Winding my way past Lake Vidraru, a massive reservoir created by the damming of the Arges River, I came upon a couple of cars that had pulled up with their hazard lights on.

Yeah that’s one hairpin you don’t want to overshoot…

As I slowed down, I saw why they had stopped: there was a bear, a bear, hanging over the armco barrier like a kid who couldn’t afford a ticket to the footy and was hanging over the fence to watch the game.

Brown bear, Romania
‘Blues are up by 10’

Andrei the Romanian Road Safety Bear says ‘Look to the right, look to the left, then if the road is clear of traffic, walk straight across the road’

And not only did I see this little bloke, but a few k’s further down the road, I saw this big bloke too, scratching around on the road verge.

The Romanian Carpathians are home to Europe’s largest population of bears, so I expect for local people seeing one is a bit of a yawn. But for me it was a huge buzz, and really put the icing on my Transfagarasan cake.

As far as the Russians invading Romania back in those turbulent years…well…thankfully that never happened. But even if ‘Ceausescu’s Folly’ was never needed to resist the Red Army, it has become a hugely popular tourist attraction for both Romanians and international visitors alike. If amazing scenery, hiking, wildlife spotting or barrelling around endless choice corners is your thing, then you should definitely plan a trip along the Transfagarasan Road.

Transfagarasan Road, Romania

Read more about the Transfagarasan Road here

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