Taking on the Transfagarasan Highway: Transylvania, Romania

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Story by BEEJ.
Photos by STAX.

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Dictator Nicolae Ceausescu pushed through construction of the Transfagarasan Highway in 1970.  By all accounts the construction was hellishly difficult and brutal. Legend said he was spooked by the Soviet invasion of the former Czechoslovakia and wanted to build a military route to head off any similar invasion by his “comrades” in Russia.

But more likely, Ceausescu wanted to add the conquering of an incredibly rugged mountain range in the independent region of Transylvania – an area often resistant to his 20-year autocracy – to his list of “achievements”.

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The country can point to the road as a success in at least one way: it brings thousands of motorheads from all around the world every year to Transilvania to race along the its wacky curves and hair-raising cliffside tunnels.

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The road calls adventure freaks like the Sirens called Odysseus (Stax and Beej would jointly be Odysseus in this scenario. And Carla and Megs, two adventurous Australian girls from the hostel in Sibiu, would be our trusty crewmates. Don’t worry, no one drowned. But at one point Beej did have be lashed to the hood.)

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This wasn ‘t the first time Megs and Carla tried to get away.

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They got pretty far, but we caught them every time.

We took a driving break for Megs and Carla to say hello to a wandering Romanian sheepdog on the side of the road, probably on a break from guarding his flock. These sheepdogs are massive and resemble small bears (I thought it was a Romanian brown bear from a distance).

 

Our ascent of the Fagaras pass ended at the summit of the road, Lake Balea (2046 meters or 6712 feet).

 

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Chilly Lake Balea

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At the lakeside we froze in high winds tinged with ice and just to warm our hands up,  scarfed down hot -off-the-fire balmos or mamaliga (not really sure which – there are tons of iterations of these traditional corn cakes in Romania).

The balmos were crazy filling – thick flame-roasted corn cakes, much like gooey polenta, with mountains of sour pasty sheep cheese pooled inside. The cheese was so strong, I could barely finish the thing.

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Roadside stands selling all things sheep-y across from Lake Balea

Along the way down we spied the towers of Poenari Citadel clinging to a rocky cliff high above the road. In this citadel in the 16th century, the real-life inspiration for Dracula (Prince Vlad Tepes, who ruled the South) actually lived for a time.

Now it’s a spectacularly crumbling ruin you can climb up to. Unfortunately due to time and being cold and one of our car-mates being sick with a migraine, we couldn’t hike to the top.  Next time, Vlad Dracul. Next time!

After a windy descent through autumn forests and across glacial streams, we reluctantly parted ways with the Transfagarasan Highway at the massive dam on Lake Vidraru – an appropriately scenic send-off to one of the most transcendent stretches of road I’ve ever driven.

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Beej investigates a waterfall by the side of the road.

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Lake Vidraru, where we parted ways with the Transfagarasan Highway.