We’ve been on some fantastic road trips and driven some really exciting roads over the years. The Pacific Coast Highway in Northern California, or the 99 from Whistler to Lilloett in British Colombia for example. In Australia, the Great Ocean Road, and the desolate expanses of the Nullarbor rank as two of our favourites. Even the long, winding, cliff-side roads overlooking the Mediterranean in places like Sardinia and Mallorca stand out. But no drive has ever been more stunning, more awesome and intimidating, than doing a Transfagarasan Highway Road trip in Romania.
Dubbed by Top Gear as the best driving road in the world, back in 2009, the Transfagarasan lives up to the title. While there are a ton of reasons to rent a car in Romania, having the opportunity to drive this epic highway is at the top of the list.
Roughly half-way through our Transylvania road trip, we hurry to reach the mountain pass in time. Due to heavy snow and harsh winter conditions, the steep mountain pass closes at the end of October. It had closed, though only temporarily, on several occasions during the weeks leading to our arrival. Thankfully, the unseasonably warm autumn temperatures returned for our journey.
Village Life in Corbeni
Before venturing over the Carpathian Mountains, we spend two nights in the village of Corbeni – the last of several small towns on the South leg of the Transfagarasan. Pensiunea Dandu (a Pensiunea is a Romanian guest house) is where we base ourselves while exploring the area and its surrounding valleys. Much like what we experienced in the villages of Maramures, daily life in Corbeni appears to flow as it must have for centuries.
Short old women, with round, wrinkled faces enveloped in headscarves, gather fallen plums from the ground. Their backs are permanently hunched from decades of toilsome work on the farm. Beneath our bedroom window, a man — who could easily pass as Amish — cuts his grass with a long scythe. Late in the afternoon on that first day, we stroll along the river. A young shepherd is bringing his flock down the mountainside as smoke from the town’s many wood-burning stoves begins to fill the air. Even though there are several cities less than an hour away, it feels as if we’re hundreds of miles away from anything.
Autumn in Transylvania
The next morning we drive north on the Transfagarasan, to the Vidraru dam and lake of the same name. The dam itself is an impressive sight, though at over 160 metres high, I’m not too keen on peering over the edge. But I still take the obligatory “looking down” shot – legs shaking and nearly soiling myself in the process.
From here we drive a few kilometres farther north, with no destination in mind. Although we’ll be coming back this way the following morning, we just can’t get enough of the scenery. Transylvania is a magnificent part of the world, it has some of the most stunning views I’ve ever seen. And while they would amaze at all months of the year, I couldn’t imagine a more beautiful time than autumn, when the entire landscape is on fire with hues of orange and yellow.
We stop for lunch in a small park at the bottom of a deep valley. Aside from another family at the far end, we have the entire place to ourselves — another bonus to visiting later in the year. We eat chicken sandwiches near a quiet stream. They’re our go-to road trip snack. We’ll often pick up a roasted half-chicken from a supermarket and it’ll last us a few days. Throw in some cranberry preserves and pickled horseradish that we picked up at a market in Sibiu, and we eat pretty well. A stray dog joins us at the table, lying in the sun, waiting patiently for any leftover scraps. He’s pretty haggard, but friendly, so we throw him some chicken.
Visiting Vlad’s Old Crib
Before heading back to Corbeni we stop at Poenari Castle. Perched high above the valley on the top of a ridge, these ruins were once a castle controlled by none other than Vlad the Impaler. The gates are only open twice per day, so we’re forced to wait some time for access with several other travellers. Once inside the gate, we pass signs warning of the resident bears and begin the gruelling 1500-step climb to the top of the ridge. There is little remaining of the fortress itself, but the views over the valley are spectacular. As a bonus, we befriend an English-Italian couple while making our ascent, and will eventually meet up with them several weeks later in Bristol.
Transfagarasan Road Trip
The following morning we pack up and head out shortly after breakfast. We breeze past the castle and the dam and speed along as the road winds along the forest-lined reservoir. I try to drive as calm as possible to avoid Kylee getting motion sickness, but I can’t help pushing it a little. The road is so smooth and fun to drive, and there is almost no other traffic. After about an hour of relatively flat driving, the road slowly begins to climb and the trees start to thin out. Eventually, the trees open up entirely and ahead of us is a massive rock wall, rising into the clouds. The road becomes a thin band in the distance, arbitrarily snaking its way up the steep mountain face. Seemingly out of nowhere, the towering Carpathian Mountains are suddenly right in front of us.
Things slow down significantly from here. On some of the straight sections, we might hit 60 km/h before slamming on the brakes for the next razor-sharp turn. This only happens when driving into the rock face. Any time a bend sees our momentum heading away from the mountain, we take things nice and easy. Guard rails are non-existent, and we’re neither Thelma nor Louise.
We pull over several times, whenever we can, and try hopelessly to capture the scene. The valley below is so vast and incredible, it’s impossible to capture its magnitude with a photo. Moving on, the climb continues for another twenty minutes or so as the top of the mountain gets closer. Eventually, the earth becomes too steep even for switchbacks and the road enters a long, dark tunnel through the summit ridge.
This entire engineering marvel was originally constructed during the 1970s. Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu had the road built in response to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. The highway would be used to send troops over the Carpathians to defend the country against a possible Soviet invasion. Although the invasion never came, we’re left with one magnificent drive.
Reaching the Transfagarasan Summit and Balea Lake
As we exit the tunnel, we’re greeted with a line of wooden shacks along the highway; we park the car in the small lot behind them. Several larger buildings across the road surround the indigo-blue Balea Lake. This is the side of the Transfagarasan most visitors experience. Even when the highway closes during the winter months, a cable car brings locals and tourists to the year-round hotel on the lake.
We stop by one of the wooden shacks expecting to find the typical assortment of made-in-China souvenirs. To our surprise, the stalls are selling all things meat and cheese. Dozens of different cured and dried sausages hang from the ceiling, while local Romanian cheese is displayed on makeshift countertops. Gas stoves heat simmering pots of water filled with cobs of corn, which are then grilled over charcoal. Did I mention how much we love Romania?
Grabbing a few small snacks, we follow the path around the back side of the lake to begin our hike over the ridge. Although the drive is the main attraction, hiking in Romania, through the Fagaras range of the Southern Carpathians is a fantastic bonus. There are several routes one can take, ranging from two hours to full day or even multi-day treks. We, however, are just interested in hiking to Lac Capra, the small glacial lake on the other side of the mountain ridge.
Climbing the Carpathian Mountains
The climb itself is easy enough, considering how steep it gets at some points. Patches of snow and ice occasionally make things a little tricky, but for the most part, the hike is smooth. The most surreal moment of the climb is when dense clouds begin forming in the valley below us. The wind intensifies, blowing the clouds up the mountainside, engulfing us in a thick, swirling fog.
Upon reaching the crest of the ridge, we turn around and stand in awe at the view. It is absolutely breathtaking…
…The altitude I mean, and the fact that neither of us are physically conditioned for this. We’re both quite literally out of breath.
We follow the rough path down the opposite side of the mountain a short distance and spend some time relaxing by the bright green glacial water of Lac Capra. Following a quick snack and a few photos, we slowly make our descent – which is much trickier than the climb.
Views of the Transfagarasan Highway
Before hopping back into our trusty Dacia Logan and completing our Transfagarasan journey, we have to get the obligatory photo of the legendary highway. The South leg of the highway, behind us, is an impressive sight. Though due to its arbitrary meandering, it can be difficult to capture its scope in a single shot. On the North side, however, the entirety of the thin grey road zig-zags through the valley, disappearing into the horizon. This makes for the perfect photo, capturing the chaotic essence of this fantastic highway.
That is if the weather cooperates.
We sit waiting for over half an hour in the thick, damp fog. The only reason we leave when we do is that I’m becoming concerned about my camera gear in the moist air. One of the many lessons I’ve learned while travelling is that sometimes you just aren’t going to get the shot. As we return to the car and slowly make our way down the hairpin switchbacks, the clouds suddenly began to thin out. We pull over as soon as we find a wide enough spot on the steep shoulder.
The view is astonishing. And though we only have a short break in the clouds, we manage to grab a few shots.
Satisfied, we climb back into the car. For the next 30 minutes, we’re flying down the side of the mountain, tires squealing around every corner. Our vehicle might be the furthest thing from a sports car, but that isn’t stopping me from driving it like one. Once below the tree line, the colours are different than on the South face. The leaves are deeper shades of orange and vibrant red as if days or weeks had passed since our morning departure.
And soon, just as abruptly as the mountain appeared to us hours earlier, the road is once again flat. A little farther along, the trees part and we were suddenly on the Romanian prairies. Behind us stands a tall, ominous wall of stone, and the greatest driving road in the world.
Visit the Transfagarasan Yourself
If you don’t have your own wheels, you’ve still got options for visiting this incredible place. Getting around Romania is fairly simple and tours in popular spots like this are plentiful. Book a Transfagarasan Tour from Sibiu and Bucharest, they range from single day trips to multi-day excursions.