The Transfagarasan Road

Among the many, many, so very many brainless, monumental, money pit projects hatched by former Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, only one remains useful and even admired. I speak of the Transfagarasan Road, Romania’s highest asphalt road, winding over the Fagaras Mountains, connecting Transylvania to Wallachia.

The road was born, not surprisingly, out of one of Ceausescu’s many paranoid episodes, wanting to secure a Carpathian crossing in case of Russian invasion (as had happened in Czechoslovakia in 1968). Ceausescu sent in the army to tackle job, which they did in just four and a half years (38 fall-down exhausted soldiers reportedly died in mishaps during construction), opening in September 1974.

Due to the high altitude weather, the road is only open (roughly) from June through October. The north (Transylvania) side is indisputably the highlight, cinematically twisting and climbing, passing little waterfalls and remote lodges while providing stupefying views. Soon after the tree-line starts to thin, Bâlea Cascada (Bâlea Waterfall) appears – or not, as it is often enshrouded in a fog so thick and creamy you could mix in parmesan and poured it over pasta.

At the road’s peak is Lake Bâlea (2,034 meters/6,671 feet) which is also often lost in fog. Keep an eye out for (pathetic) signage signaling your arrival or just pull over when you see a lot of parked cars and roadside vendors selling corn on the cob. The walk from the road to the lake is about 15 minutes. Or drive it, though with all the people wandering around driving is about as slow as walking and you run the risk of finding nowhere to park once you reach the busy lakeside chalet/restaurant. Lake Bâlea is also the site of the Ice Hotel.

An instant after passing the Lake Bâlea turnoff, you’ll plunge into a nearly one kilometer long tunnel, emerging on the south side of the mountain, which is less striking to look at, but the upshot is that it’s rarely foggy on this side. The drive down the mountain and through the twisting, deteriorating forest road at the bottom takes about 90 minutes all told, before you suddenly come upon Lake Vidraru Dam and Poienari Citadel (the real Dracula’s castle) soon after.

This is such an unforgettable experience behind the wheel that it was declared “the best road in the world” by the Top Gear boys when they visited in 2009, tearing up and down the mountain in an Aston Marton, a Ferrari and a Lamborghini. (I’ve driven it four times, each behind the wheel of a Daewoo Matiz – not quite the same thrill.)

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