As you finally clear the grinding congestion that passes for traffic in Bucharest and venture onto the highway to Pitesti, your spirits are already rising and it almost feels like you can fly. Hitting the start of the highway is the real start to the journey to drive across the Transfagarasan pass. So why bother??
Put very simply, the Transfagarasan road (DN 7C) is just the road that passes through Fagaras Mountains (the highest mountains in Romania – Moldoveanu peak – 2544 meters) and that connects Walachia and Transylvania.
The Transfagarasan road is, however, much more than that. It is the road that climbs to the highest altitude in Romania, 2042 meters, in the Glacial Hollow Balea. It has two traffic lanes of 92 kilometers long. Because of the countless turns (and in many places the poor condition of the road surface), the average speed is maximum 40 km per hour. Along this route there are 27 viaducts and bridges, and the longest road tunnel in Romania – 887 meters, that passes through Paltin Mountains, from Capra to Balea Lake. The traffic lane inside the unlighted tunnel is only 6 meters wide and there is a one metre broad pavement. Using your lights is essential in the tunnel as the road surface is worse than Iancu Nicolae and you do not want to damage your vehicle unnecessarily.
Tourists who would like attempt the Transfagarasan challenge are advised to climb it from South to the North. Romania’s most famous road runs from Arefu village (at km 61 of DN7C) in the county of Arges, to the county of Sibiu, somewhere near Cartisoara village (at the crossroad with DN1). The easiest way to get there from Bucharest is to take the highway to Pitesti until it ends then follow the signs for Curtea de Arges. You will pass through a series of villages to Curtea de Arges, then pass through the town following signs for Lac Balea. Keep following these signs and you are on the way up to the top.
The road surface going up is badly worn in places so be prepared to take a slightly indirect route in places, and there was one large hole that managed a remarkable impression of a well due to it’s size and depth. The driver also needs to be prepared for regular distractions as the landscape is a fantastic mix of peaks, lakes and the occasional waterfall. There is a more to be prepared for as the differences of altitude and the frequent and often tight curves represent a challenge for both cars and drivers. The final hazard is the somewhat erratic driving pattern of some of your fellow motorists, but this must be due to the aforementioned hazards to progress.
Unfortunately, because of the weather conditions, Transfagarasan Road is opened for only a few months every year, usually from July until October. The most important tourist attractions are Vidraru Lake and Vidraru Dam, which is one of the greatest in Europe, then Poenari Fortress (built in the time of Vlad Tepes), Balea Glacial Lake and Balea Waterfall.
As well as being a very entertaining drive, the road has an interesting history. The Transfagarasan pass was built between 1970 and 1974, which means that it took less time to complete than the ongoing project to widen Sos. Iancu Nicolae. This is a short summary of some of the (approximate, naturally) background numbers.
For the pass itself:
- 3 million tons of hard rocks were shifted
- 830 transverse works and 290,000 cubic meters of masonry were made for the 92 km of road
For the Capra – Balea Tunnel there were excavated over 41,000 cubic meters of rocks and they used:
- 20 tones of dynamite
- 3 573 tones of cement
- 89 tones of concrete steel
- 24,000 anchors
- 129 tones of brazed nets
- 14,200 square meters of encasements
- 1,750 meters of concrete tubes, 4,100 meters of pipes
- 50 tones of metal composites
- 6,900 cubic meters of grit
- 6,000 cubic meters of gravel
- 3,000 tones of crushed rocks
- 740 lighting lamps.
Many sacrifices were made to build the road that leads to the sky. Before its construction, it was impossible to cross these mountains, not even on horseback. But it is said that once, before becoming president, Nicolae Ceausescu stopped by Arefu village and the idea of a road that passed through the mountains crossed his mind, possibly a strategic pass from a military perspective to allow the movement of troops etc. in case of war. Whatever the reason for the start of the project, many men lost their lives during the construction process. There are, unsurprisingly, no official records of the total of fatalities but the survivors estimate that more than 100 lives were sacrificed to construct the pass.
If you are driving south to north, once you reach the top the view unfolds before you. The vista stretches out down the mountain and onto the plains beyond. The road looks like someone has shaken a ribbon and dropped it onto the terrain below it has so many twists and turns. There are many places to stop throughout the journey. You can choose to just admire the spectacular views and take photos or you can really immerse yourself in the day and purchase some of the fine souvenirs that are available and maybe try a local delicacy such as mici from the grill (with the obligatory beer if you are not the designated driver). If you are intent on enjoying some food then remember that the onward route is likely to be somewhat twisty so if you have a delicate stomach plan accordingly.
If you are at a loose end having completed the Transfagarasan adventure, Sibiu is not too far to drive and it is well worth a visit and an overnight stay if possible. It is a beautiful city with a well ordered city centre as befits a European Capital of Culture. Bucharest will never seem quite the same again….
Bucharest Expat Contributing Author