I fortunately (or unfortunately depending on how you look at it) tend to be that traveler who has to try to see it all no matter what. I think half of my obsession with seeing and doing it all is that I normally don’t have a lot of time in a given place. Usually my trips last under ten days and in the case of Romania, I was literally on the ground for only five full days before I had to begin the long day and a half journey back home.
Despite only having five short days in Romania, I felt that I truly got to see quite a bit of this magical place. I had a full day in Bucharest, several days in Brasov, saw the Bran Castle and the Rasnov Fortress, went hiking in the Carparthians and on the last day took a crazy adventurous drive back from Brasov to Bucharest via the world famous Transfăgărășan Highway.
It may have been a little bit crazy but deciding to take the Transfăgărășan Highway on our last day in Romania ended up being the highlight of our trip. This says a lot for someone who hates car trips and gets carsick on windy roads. But the drive along the Transfăgărășan Highway was one of the most stunning drives I’ve taken in years and it gave me a wonderful glimpse into Romania’s majestic countryside. A place of sheep herders, men in horse drawn wagons, and women clothed in traditional long dresses. Old churches, stone walls and terra cotta rooftops awash in greenery and flowers were just as I had imagined it would be in the nostalgic Romanian countryside.
“Also labeled “the Road to the Sky”, “the Road to the Clouds”, “the Best Driving Road in the World” and even “A spectacular Monument to Earth-Moving Megalomania” the Transfăgărășan climbs, twists and descends right through Moldoveanu and Negoiu – the highest peaks in Fagaras Mountains and in Romania. This is no pass through a gap but a frontal assault, a stark and spectacular reminder of unchecked power stamping itself on an obstreperous landscape”. – Romanian Tourism
The Transfăgărășan Highway (DN7C) is the second highest paved road in Romania, after the Transalpina further west, which travels for 56 miles/90 km through the southern section of the Carpathian Mountain across the Făgăraş Mountains. The road twists and turns up to the altitude of 2,042 metres (6,699 ft) with enough hairpin curves to make your stomach leap and adrenalin rush with excitement.
Constructed from 1970-1974 during Ceaușescu’s iron-fist rule for presumably military reasons, this amazing feat of engineering required lots of money, manpower and dynamite making people question the true reasoning behind its very existence. At the time, there were plenty of other high mountain passes that could be used for strategic reasons yet Ceaușescu instead that the Transfăgărășan Highway be built.
Today the Transfăgărășan Highway is one of the most touristic drives in Romania and driving enthusiasts, bikers, hikers, tourists and locals alike flock to this spectacular road making it one of the top scenic drives in the country.
I had seen pictures in my guidebook of the drive and knew I had to see for myself what it was all about. The short two and a half hour drive from Bucharest to Brasov along the freeway was quite frankly pretty boring so why not try a more exciting way back? All I had to do was convince my dad who was driving.
I asked the staff at the hotel in Brasov how long the drive would take and no one really knew. They guessed about 4-5 hours, and further research online couldn’t tell me either. With only one day left in Romania, we figured there was nothing to lose. We packed our suitcases, took our Romanian map and ancient GPS and were on our way. Little did we know we would spend a bit of time being lost and instead of 4-5 hours it would take us nine hours to get back to Bucharest.
“If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there”. – Lewis Carroll
We drove along Highway 1 towards Sibiu enjoying the gorgeous scenery. I had to pinch myself it was so incredibly lovely. We didn’t honestly have very good directions. All we knew was that Highway 1 would drop us off into the village of Curtea de Arges where we would easily find the turnoff sign for DN7C, The Transfăgărășan Highway. We should have known by now that finding your way around a foreign country is not always as easy as it seems. We turned too early, didn’t find the sign and ended up lost in a tiny little town.
The wonderful news is that Romanians are extremely friendly and helpful, even if they do not know English. We pulled over at a little market and used sign language to point at the map and show them where we were trying to go. A kind man inside the shop jumped on his motorcycle and indicated for us to follow him. We followed along for ten minutes until he frantically pointed which way to go. We were all set.
I love these travel stories because I honestly don’t know many Americans who would do the same thing. We were grateful that he took this time out of his life to help strangers, and it left us with yet another warm memory of the country and its people.
Once we found the The Transfăgărășan Highway, it was obvious what we had done wrong. We turned off Highway 1 too early. The highway is well marked and we joined in a long line of other cars going up for a beautiful scenic drive.
The start of the Transfăgărășan Highway is relatively tame until you reach the a series of steep, hairpin turns and S-curves climbing up all the way to the top. We could see sheep herders, cattle, and hikers along the way and I was absolutely amazed to see how the weather changed as we approached the top. It went from t-shirt and shorts to freezing cold, cloudy and gray all within a matter of minutes.
The road is usually closed from late October until late June because of snow. Depending on the weather, it may remain open until as late as November, or may close even in the summer so it is best to check before you go.
The highest point is at Bâlea Lake (Balea Lac) where you can stop and camp for the night. The road passes through Bâlea Tunnel, the longest road tunnel in Romania at 884 m (2,900 ft). We didn’t have time to stop at the lake but I did see its gorgeous blue waters sparkle through the trees.
“Focus on the journey, not the destination. Joy is found not in finishing an activity but in doing it”. – Greg Anderson