Transfăgărășan Highway

A Drive along Romania’s Stunning Transfăgărășan Highway

“Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life”.   Jack Kerouac

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.

Romanian countryside

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Rasnov Fortress Romania

A Visit to the Rasnov Fortress

After our visit to the Bran Castle, we headed to see the neighboring Rasnov Fortress. Both places make an easy day trip from Brasov and are well worth the visit if you are interested in Romanian history and culture.

We set off to Rasnov, missed our turn and didn’t realize that we had passed the fortress until we saw it off in the distance from the top of road weaving through the Carpathians mountains. We had gone at least a half an hour out of our way and were closer to our base in Brasov than to Rasnov at that point. Annoyed with our continued misdirection (we always seemed to be lost in Romania!), we decided to turn around and go back. I’m glad we did as I liked Rasnov Fortress even better than the Bran Castle. The views from the fortress were sensational and it had a great deal of charm and mystique.

Rural Romania

Driving through the Romanian countryside is always a treat in my book

Rural Romania

The Rasnov Fortress is perched on a rocky hilltop overlooking the town of Rasnov below and was built in the 13th century by Teutonic Knights as protection against invaders. The fabulous Romanian Tourism website provides the following history on the fortress in this excerpt below (for full version, click here).

Rasnov Fortress Romania

The Rasnov Fortress

Strategically located on the commercial route linking the provinces of Transylvania and Walachia, Rasnov differs from other Saxon fortresses in that it was designed as a place of refuge over extended periods of time. As such, it had at least 30 houses, a school, a chapel and other buildings more commonly associated with a village.

The defensive system included nine towers, two bastions and a drawbridge. Surrounded by 500-foot-slopes on the north, south and west sides, the fortress was obliged to surrender only once, in the year 1612 when invaders managed to find the secret route that supplied the people inside the fortress with water. With the location of their water supply no longer a secret, the need for a well inside the fortress became a must.

The last siege of Rasnov Fortress took place in 1690 during the final Ottoman invasion of Transylvania. Damaged by fire in 1718, it was rebuilt the following year. The next major damage occurred as the result of an earthquake in 1802. The fortress was last used as a place of refuge during the revolution of 1848 and was abandoned after that.

Recently, the old fortress has been restored to its former glory and today, you can visit the impressive remains. There is also a museum here, hidden behind the ancient walls, where you can find a skeleton buried beneath a glass floor, as well as some other interesting artifacts. The inner rooms are maze-like, with several wooden ladders linking them and a few so-called secret passages which should keep you busy for quite awhile. 

Source: Romanian Tourism

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We walked up the short distance to the hilltop and checked out the ruins inside. There is not much left behind however it was still quite fascinating to see. It felt very magical and despite the tourists, it did not feel as touristy as the Bran Castle. There were no Dracula souvenir shops lining the outskirts of the castle. If there were even any Dracula trinkets for sale, I thankfully missed them. Instead, the only real thing to see here is the ruins and the view. If you want more, you have to drive down to the village of Rasnov.

Rasnov Fortress Romania

The entrance into the fortress

Rasnov Fortress Romania

Wouldn’t want to get stuck inside the gate when it is closing!

 

Rasnov Fortress Romania

Rasnov Fortress Romania

Rasnov Fortress Romania

Rasnov Fortress RomaniaRasnov Fortress Romania

And the stunning view below makes it worth your visit.

Rasnov Fortress Romania

Rasnov Fortress Romania

Rasnov Fortress Romania

Rasnov Fortress Romania

Rasnov Fortress Romania

If you go:

It is about a fifteen minute walk up to the fortress. There are plenty of nice little Romanian restaurants below as well as a children’s theme park on the way up the hill to the ruins. For more information, click here.

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Bran Castle Romania

Stepping Back in Time at Romania’s Bran Castle

“What comes to your mind when you think of the word Transylvania, if you ponder it at all? What comes to my mind are mountains of savage beauty, ancient castles, werewolves, and witches – a land of magical obscurity. How, in short, am I to believe I will still be in Europe, on entering such a realm? I shall let you know if it’s Europe or fairyland, when I get there. First, Snagov – I set out tomorrow.” ― Elizabeth Kostova

When you think about Transylvania, there is no doubt your head is filled with childhood fantasies of Romania’s medieval castles, lush green mountains and of course the myth of the famous bloodsucking vampire, Count Dracula. Thanks to Irish writer Bram Stoker’s legendary book “Dracula” – which was published in 1897 and loosely based on the medieval ruler Vlad Țepeș or “Vlad the Impaler” –  the lore of Transylvania has been captivating people ever since.

One place that has certainly received its fair share of Dracula-induced hype is the Bran Castle, located only 30 kilometers from Brasov in the heart of Transylvania. The Bran Castle has a long history given the fact that Transylvania was ruled for thousands of years by the Hungarians and also constantly had to ward off invaders. The location of the castle was ideal given its strategic perch up on a rocky bluff affording a panoramic view of the neighboring hills and valley. Furthermore, its multitude of turrets, lookout windows and dramatic stone facade enabled its residents to protect themselves against Ottoman expansion into Transylvania.

The first fortress was built on the impressive site in 1211 by Teutonic Knights who were driven away by invaders in 1226. It wasn’t until 1377 that the plans for the future Bran Castle were made as a gift to the people of Brasov from the Hungarian King Louis the Great. Construction of the Bran Castle was completed in 1388.

Ironically enough despite the Dracula tourism shops lining the outskirts of the Bran Castle and the myth that Bran Castle was once Dracula’s castle, it remains simply a clever marketing tool. Vlad the Impaler never lived in the Bran Castle nor did Dracula exist. Yet the town of Bran still relishes in this notoriety and is filled with kitschy vampire trinkets and souvenirs such as the vampire beer mugs, Dracula’s Red Wine, and tons of gory Dracula t-shirts, hats and dolls. For some it adds to the mystique of the place.

From Brasov, it is about a half an hour drive through Romania’s lush countryside to reach the town of Bran where the legendary Bran Castle stands. Leaving the cities and getting out into the countryside is always my favorite part about traveling, and the Romanian countryside is breathtakingly lovely.

Rural Romania

Rural Romania

We passed through a few towns before reaching the turn off to Bran. I loved seeing the farmer with his traditional horse and carriage being pulled through the streets of town. This is a common sight throughout rural Romania along with the sheep and shepherds.

rural Romania

Rural Romania

 

For many centuries Romania’s economy was based on agriculture, producing so much wheat and corn that it became known as the bread basket of Europe. The focus of Romania’s economy dramatically changed after WWII and the advent of Communism which introduced heavy industry in the 1950s. Factories began to pop up all throughout the outskirts of the villages throughout Romania and you can see several of them on the way to Brasov. Agriculture still employs about one-third of Romania’s economy so rural Romania offers nostalgic views of pastures, sunflower fields and maize.

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Stavropoleos church

24 hours in Bucharest

“Stroll through more than 500 years of history from the times of Vlad the Impaler aka Dracula to the “golden era” of communism and the ’89 Revolution and unravel the stories of old and new Bucharest”. – Walkabout Tours, Bucharest

I must confess. I’ve had a hard time grasping how I would write about Bucharest. This  fascinating yet often conflicting city has left me utterly dumbfounded on how to best present it. With its tiny treasure trove of charming streets, churches and parks tucked away from huge swaths of historic neighborhoods that were depressingly torn down under Communist rule, I found Bucharest intriguing in its own right as long as I forgot what was once there. An eclectic mix of historic charm, Parisian flair juxtaposed with block after block of notoriously ugly, characterless and stark 80s-style Communist concrete apartments contributed to Bucharest’s confusing feel.

Although Bucharest pales in comparison to the beauty and magic of Prague and some of her eastern neighbors, this city of two million inhabitants has its own unique charm and character particularly if you do not spend a lot of time in the city’s unattractive and somewhat grimy remnants of Communism’s past.  However, if you skip this part of town and try to view Bucharest with rose-colored glasses, you will miss a big part of what makes this city so incredibly interesting and will also not understand a big part of Communist Bucharest’s past. A full day or two in Bucharest is enough to give you a sense of the city before heading off to Romania’s beautiful, magical countryside of spectacular villages, castles and of course the mountains.

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We arrived in Bucharest early evening after traveling for over 24 hours from the US. We  left home on a Saturday morning and didn’t check into our hotel until half past seven on Sunday night. We instantly realized that we would not have a lot of time to explore Bucharest before setting off into the countryside. Given the long distance to get to Romania, we would only have five full days on the ground and we both preferred to spend it in the countryside.

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Seven Ladders Canyon Brasov Romania

Brasov, Romania: Hike to the Seven Ladders Canyon

One of the main reasons I wanted to go to Romania was to hike. When my dad and I originally picked the location for our next trip, it was simply because we had never been to Romania before and it had mountains. Romania is dominated by the gorgeous tree-covered Carpathian mountains that cover over 600 miles of terrain in the shape of an arch through the heart of Romania. In fact, over 30% of Romania is mountainous affording tons of opportunities to hike, bike, ski, climb, cave, horseback ride or simply just enjoy the beauty and peace of one’s surroundings.

Oddly enough, I had first learned about Romania’s impressive landscape as well as it rich culture and history from the Romanian summer staff at a resort I used to go to in Northern Minnesota. I remember asking them where they were from and when they said Romania, I instantly asked if there were mountains. When they told me, “Yes, of course there are mountains! The Carpathians!” I was instantly intrigued and Romania was moved up on my travel wish list.

Several years later the opportunity to go to Romania became a reality. We would go for a week in July. Unfortunately our time in country would be too short to do a week-long hike journeying hut to hut over the high peaks of the Carpathian Mountains. Instead, we would have to settle on a one-day hike because sadly that was all that we would have time for. I was disappointed but in my opinion it was better than nothing.

The Carpathian Mountains cover the orangish-brown boomerang shape throughout the heart of Romania as seen in this map. Photo Credit: www.ezilon.com

The Carpathian Mountains cover the orangish-brown boomerang shape throughout the heart of Romania as seen in this map. Photo Credit: www.ezilon.com

We had only five full days on the ground in Romania and a lot of things to see. We had spent a day in Bucharest and then headed south to the charming town of Brasov for the remainder of our trip. It was an excellent choice because it is beautiful and centrally located to numerous hiking trails as well as castles and towns to visit.

Figuring out what hike to do was extremely challenging. I read the Lonely Planet and searched online before we left for the trip but soon became completely overwhelmed. There were way too many amazing hikes and most of the good ones were multi-day treks. We decided to wing it and just ask at the local tourist office in town when we reached Brasov.

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Looking down on Brasov from atop of Mount Tampa

It is no surprise that the charming town of Brasov is often referred to as “the city at the foot of Mount Tampa”. Beautifully nestled within the natural protection and confines of the Carpathian mountains, the medieval town of Brasov was able to ward off invaders for centuries with its impressive fortification systems of walls, towers and gates. Today, Mount Tampa is an important landmark in Brasov whose lush forested peak can be seen from literally ever street within the old part of town.

The main reason why people visit the top of Mount Tampa is to see the spectacular panoramic view of Brasov. You can literally see where the old medieval town ends and the newer, Communist-era buildings begin. Mount Tampa is also a wonderful place to hike since most of the mountain is a nature reserve containing an abundant amount of wildlife and plants. Getting to the top of Mount Tampa was high on our list for our five days in Brasov and we were finally able to fit it in on our last day in town.

Brasov, Romania

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Brasov Romania

Brasov: The heart of Romania

Tucked majestically beneath the verdant hills of the Southern Carpathian Mountains in Central Romania lies the historic charming city of Brasov, one of Romania’s most visited cities. Awash with gothic, barque and renaissance architecture, this once walled city is one of the loveliest cities in all of Transylvania.

Brasov was founded on an ancient Dacian site in the 13th century at the crossroads of trade routes linking the Ottoman Empire and the rest of Europe. A thriving German mercantile community of skilled craftsmen enabled Brasov to dominate the economical life  and importance of the region during medieval times. Beautiful churches and colorful buildings were built along with fortifications to protect the city against invaders. Parts of the 15th century wall still exist as well as a couple of lookout towers.

Today, Brasov remains a charming city to wander and explore, enjoying its stunning architecture, its delightful bohemian walking streets and mass of fabulous outdoor restaurants and cafes. It is also an excellent launching off point to many hiking trails and day trips to medieval castles in Transylvania. I found Brasov delightful and the perfect place to base ourselves for the majority of our stay in Romania.

Brasov Romania

Brasov Romania

We arrived around mid-afternoon after a relatively straightforward three-hour drive south from Bucharest. Quite frankly, getting out of Bucharest took the longest and was the most difficult part of the drive given its swath of roundabouts and signs in Romanian. Thankfully we had GPS in our rental car or else we certainly would have gotten even more lost than we did.

As you leave Bucharest, you pass through the surrounding Romanian countryside a place of tranquility and beauty. In the Middle Ages, Romania was made up of three principalities: Wallachia, Moldavia and Transylvania with Transylvania inspiring the most legends and mystique. For it was here in Transylvania that the lore of Dracula began and it is easy to see why given the number of castles, fortifications and medieval towns.

Brasov, Romania

Approaching the city of Brasov which is located down in the valley surrounded by mountains.

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We based ourselves at the lovely Hotel Kolping located about a ten minute walk up above the city, in the mountains. It served as the perfect place to stay as long as your wore ear plugs at night or are a sound sleeper. (There is a bit of noise at night from the  barking dogs trying to ward off the bears coming down from the mountains for a midnight treat). But despite the noise, the hotel is lovely with an incredible view of Brasov, a wonderful friendly staff and excellent food.

When we first arrived in Brasov, it was overcast, gray and gloomy yet I still found it quite lovely nevertheless. There would be a day or two of rain followed by perfect, cloudless days. In my option, the grayness captured the romantic mood and sense of mystery of Brasov. It was also great weather for doing a do-it-yourself walking tour which takes only a couple of hours.

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We first went to the Council Square (Piata Sfatului) which is the heart and soul of Brasov, and one of the most beautiful squares in all of Romania. The street is lined with stunning red-roofed merchant homes which once belonged to the Saxons who built these homes in medieval times. The most notable sight to see in the square is the famous Biserica Neagra or “Black Church”.

The Black Church was built from 1383 to 1480 and is the largest Gothic church in all of Romania. It received its name due to the effects on its appearance after a fire damaged it in 1689. The inside of the Black Church can be toured however no photographs are allowed. The church can be seen from miles away and is especially magical viewed from above on Mount Tampa.

After touring the church, the winds came in and swept away the rain clouds. The sun appeared and shined down on the square illuminating its buildings and bringing Brasov  to life. Families were out playing with their kids by the fountain. Couples were walking hand in hand. People were enjoying a cool drink at one of the many lovely outdoor cafes in the square. Meanwhile I was taking pictures of the lively, colorful buildings that lined the square and were even more brilliant with the afternoon sun.

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What I loved most about Brasov was its bohemian, laid-back feel. For a town of its size, I was amazed by how many excellent outdoor restaurants and cafes there are in Brasov.  We found several that we thoroughly enjoyed. The only difficult decision was deciding where to eat! Also compared to other European countries, the prices in Romania are extremely good. We were able to have a three-course home-cooked meal with a bottle of Romania wine for under $25.
Brasov, Romania

Brasov, Romania

One of several main walking streets

Brasov, Romania Brasov, Romani Brasov, Romania

Brasov, Romania

Brasov, Romania

Brasov, Romani

Brasov, Romania

Brasov is a great city to spend time just wandering its cobblestone streets and soaking in the character and charm of the city through its elaborate buildings and facades. Some were beautifully restored and immaculate while others were in need of renovation yet still had a story to tell through its layers of peeling paint.

You can also hike or take the tram up to the top of Mount Tampa (where the Hollywood-like Brasov sign is above) for a bird’s eye view of the town. We opted to take the 1960s Communist tram up and hike down. The views were absolutely spectacular and worthy of a post all in itself.

Brasov, Romania

Brasov, Romania

Brasov, Romania

Brasov, Romania

As I often do when traveling is make sure to look up. I thought about all the history that I’d witnessed in just a short time in Brasov and without the crowds that are common in so many other parts of Eastern Europe. It was lovely!

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We spent five days in Brasov using it as our base for exploring Transylvania. Within that short amount of time, I easily fell in love with Brasov’s unique beauty, charm and liveliness. I would go all the way back to Romania just to spend more time in this lovely town with its friendly people, beautiful architecture and relaxing feel.

This article is also available for download on the iTunes app GPSmyCity. You can download by clicking this link. GPSmyCity provides a GPS-assisted downloadable version of this blog post. 

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Strada Sforii Brasov

The Narrowest Street in Eastern Europe: Strada Sforii in Brasov

Nestled majestically below the peaks of the lush Southern Carpathian Mountains in Central Romania lies the historic, medieval city of Brasov, one of Romania’s most visited cities. Awash with gothic, barque and renaissance architecture, this once walled city is home to many beautiful historic buildings and churches dating back to the 12th century.

Brasov was founded on an ancient Dacian site by Teutonic Knights in 1211 at the crossroads of trade routes linking the Ottoman Empire and the rest of Europe. Beautiful churches and buildings were built along with fortifications (a wall and three lookout towers)  to protect the city against enemies in medieval times. Today, it remains a charming city to wander and explore, enjoying its stunning architecture, its delightful walking streets and mass of fabulous outdoor restaurants and cafes. It is also an excellent launching off point to many hiking trails and medieval castles.

One of the most famous streets in Brasov is Strada Sforii also known as “Rope” and “Skinny” Street as it is the narrowest street in Eastern Europe. Dating back to the 13th century, Strada Sforii is approximately four feet wide and it links Cerbului Street with Poarta Schei Street. The street was originally used as an access route by firefighters but today is one of the most interesting and fun tourist attractions in Brasov as visitors and locals alike wander its narrow, winding path.

Strada Sforri

The entrance to Strada Sforri

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Brasov, Romania

The Romance of Romania

“After decades, centuries in some cases, of an unseen hand leaning on Romania’s pause button, breathtaking change and development are under way. Not too long ago, this late-adopting, former communist dictatorship was considered an idiosyncratic, challenging destination, meant only for the hardiest of ex-Eastern Bloc travel aficionados. Well, Romania’s social, political and economic moons have finally aligned and the resulting tidal shift promises to wash away the old traveller stigmas and surge the country to the forefront of top-value European tourism.”  – Leif Pettersen, author Lonely Planet Romania 2009 edition

Brasov, Romania

 

Although I was there for a little less than a week, Romania succeeded in seducing my senses and awakening my imagination. A fairytale land covered in forested mountains, castles and fortresses, sheep and shepherds and the highest population of bears in all of Europe, the romance of Romania is hard to resist and easy to fall in love.

While the famous lore of Dracula remains strong there is so much more to Romania to discover.  Located in the southeastern half of Central Europe and bordered by Hungary, Serbia, Bulgaria, Ukraine, the Republic of Moldova and the Black Sea, Romania’s history is long and dramatic. The Romania we know today – which includes about 20 million people and spans the size of Oregon – derives from a complicated past beginning with the Dacians in 650 BC who lived in the area known as Transylvania. This mountainous country (over a third of Romania is covered in mountains) has witnessed the waves of migration from the Middle Ages to the sometimes violent expansion of the Ottoman Empire to the first formal formation of modern Romania in 1859.  With two World Wars, the industrialization and hardship of the Communist era and the 1989 Revolution which would bring communism to its final end, Romania has certainly experienced her share of drama. Today, she remains a peaceful, relatively homogenous country roughly the size of Oregon, awash in culture, history and promise for the future. Quite frankly, Romania is one of the most fascinating places I have ever visited in Europe. There is simply no place quite like it.

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