There is no other road in the world that I am as excited as about the Transfăgărășan (DN7C in the national road classification) going through the Southern Carpathians, called also the Transylvanian Alps, in Romania. Well, maybe apart from the Pamir Highway (M41) where I am going in a year or two. Getting back to the Transfăgărășan, the road itself goes through a smaller mountain range called the Făgăraş Mountains - thus the name Trans-fagaras-an. This legendary road was deemed by Jeremy Clarkson of Top Gear as the world’s most beautiful road. I heard a lot about this route, it’s striking views and wanted to see it for few years now. Finaly, I decided to fly to Romania and felt it was a journey I would never forget…
As in many similar, bold, projects the need for making such a road come true could be because there was no other way to move or transport goods, out of passion or due to... ego. In this case it was the first and the last combined. Nicolae Ceaușescu (read more in my previous post), president of Romania at the time, wanted to ensure quick military access across the mountains in case of a Soviet invasion. He wanted to do it in a way that the Soviets could not easily block or attack the road. Some sources say that Nicolae wanted to make a better and more beautiful road to surpass the already existing Transalpina (DN67C). The Transalpina was (and still is) the highest based road in Romania - reaching 2,145m above sea level compared to 2,042 metres in terms of Transfăgărășan.
The road’s policy is that it’s usually closed from late October until late June due to snow and safety reasons. Nevertheless, depending on the weather, it can be open even until late November (check current conditions here). During the day traffic is prohibited outside of 7 a.m. till 9 p.m. There are numerous places though to spend the night like few camping fields or several mountain shelters. The road spreads between the cities of Cartisoara and Curtea de Arges and has 90 km in length. The temperature difference can be around 15 degrees Celsius between what you experienced in Bucharest. That being said…
Clutch, checked. Breaks, checked. Let’s go.
There are two major ways to start your journey. Starting either from Bucharest (South), Sibiu (North-West) or Brașov (North-East) - in any case you will need several hours to drive from start to finish. Going from the South is longer and gives you some extra sights along the way (see the “down the hill” section below). The one from the North makes you ascend much quicker and gives you the views that, most often, you can see in media. When you plan to drive through the whole route it does not matter much where you start.
That being said, trying to setup your navigation (via Google Maps for instance) you might fail at first. Whether you’re going North or South Google will choose one of two other routes going in parallel to DN7C as they are around an hour faster. Not that steep and the speed limit is higher. Although Transfăgărășan has only around 90 km you can drive with a maximum speed of 40 km/h due to the numerous serpentines and the altitude. The easiest way is to type “Balea lake” (ro. Bâlea Lac) to get directed to the highest point of the road that is a “pitstop” for many travellers. Afterwards, it’s down the hill from there. Look out for sheep as you drive as shepherds pasture their herds on the steep hills surrounding the road. It’s a local custom so be patient, they’re doing their best for you to pass rather smoothly.
“It is a moment full of emotion when they start their journey. The shepherds gather the sheep, the dogs, the donkeys and the luggage. They place themselves strategically in front and behind the flock and start the journey. The sheep fill up the street blocking the traffic. The cars must make their way through the multitude of animals. In the spring and in the autumn are days when you can find four or even five flocks on the road especially after Vidraru Dam. Many of the villages on Arges River have pastures in Făgăraș and send their sheep there for the summer.” - Pure Romania
If you’re driving from the North you will notice a cable car (ro. Telecabina) on the side of the road which goes from Balea Waterfall to Balea Lake. It does not go a long way but if you’re interested you can check the accessibility and rates here.
Few historical facts as we’re en route to the top. The DN7C was constructed between 1970 and 1974 at high financial and human cost. Mainly military personnel was engaged as this was a road of high military importance which I mentioned at the beginning. A total of six million kilograms of dynamite was used with many junior personnel that was taking part in the works and was not enough trained. The government provides information about 40 people loosing their life. The unofficial data indicated that the numbers go in hundreds... Although the works finished after four years the road was being paved up till 1980 so for six more years. Today the condition is still really good for a smooth ride. No wonder some automotive companies use it to film their video commercials here as did Jaguar in partnership with EVO.
This road wouldn’t be as compelling if it wasn’t the raw nature surrounding it. It gives the impression of being in a magical place where there is only you and the road. If you undertake this journey in the morning you are most likely to feel that way. Additionally, there are few camping sites next to this route. You can use them and watch the road in it’s less crowded time, watching single cars drive through the serpentines, village lights blinking in far distance and the bonfire keeping you warm in a cold night. If you like hiking there are many routes to keep you occupied for days.
Reaching the top means driving next to Balea Lake. You will notice around 5 mountain shelters here and there, quite a few stalls and a parking for a number of cars. This is a typical tourist oriented point. It does take away the vibe for a bit which is probably restored during the evening and night. Still, you can hike the mountains or have a tea in one of the shelters. Both options provide a fantastic view on the road - especially in the evening. In terms of trekking there is Vânătarea lui Buteanu peak not that far away - the 8th highest in Romania and the 5th highest in Fagaras from which you can expect fantastic picturesque vistas. Along the road to the tunnel crossing the mountain are various stalls with local cuisine and… rocks like amethyst.
When you get out of the car you’ll notice the cold. A proper windproof jacket and long trousers seem to be of the essence. People stroll or sit a bit higher up the mountains and admire the views on the lake and road. This is the time to unwind, meditate, be mindful of the moment. Be here and now.
DN7C has a total of 5 tunnels and countless viaducts. The most of any other road in the country. In terms of the tunnels, the Balea Tunnel is the longest road tunnel in Romania being 884 meters long. It has 4.4 m in height, 6 m in width and… a 1m wide sidewalk. After crossing it a different adventure awaits.
After driving out of the tunnel you will experience many more spectacular views but of a different kind. The road seems to be longer and have no end. As in the North section, same here, are the numerous, small side parkings placed where the best views are. There are so many of them that you won’t have problems with stopping for a moment. You will see the viaducts securing the road from rocks and snow, huge beautiful Vidraru Dam creating a beautiful lake under the same name. Additionally, there is the Poenari Citadel (one of the residences of Vlad III the Impaler) on a sharp hill. The road itself is a treat with some passages going right next to high rock formations, few people on bikes - both tourists and locals. Many bridges, short tunnels. Ah, there is so much to see to what the eye already experienced!
Serpentines continued although were steadily declining in numbers and being less steep. From the thicket of trees and bushes one can see-through and notice a lake. Soon after few other turns there it was: The Vidraru Dam. It was constructed in 1966 with the primary purpose to produce hydroelectricity. It is 166 meters high and 305 meters wide and creates the lake under the same name.
“This amazing structure is also built with a lot of safety features. For example, if the dam cracked, got bombed or broke all of the water would flood a lot of cities. Therefore, for safety reasons dynamite has been placed in the mountains so if something happens to the dam and it breaks, the workers detonate the dynamite and make a natural dam out of the rocks in the mountains holding the water back.” - Wikipedia
Standing over the dam one might notice the statue of Promotheus that holds lightning symbolising electricity. It was created in 1965 by the sculptor Constantin Popovici. You can walk near it by using the tall staircase that is visible as you drive. There is also some space to stop before and after the dam (but prior to the tunnel) and walk along the construction.
The lake itself is not shy of being picturesque with surrounding hills, mountains and cruising boats going to and forth destinations that they solely know.
You continue to be intrigued by the sights and ideas put in place. The surroundings slowly showing the coming end of summer and start of fall give some additional taste to the view. In a sudden, one can notice something in the far distance. The remains of a castle with Romanian flag waving on the wind. The Poenari Citadel (owned once by Vlad the Impaler) shows itself on a almost pointed hill. It’s former resident was the Prince of Wallachia with a original hobby of impaling his enemies. He was also dubbed by people of Romania and Bulgaria as a folk hero for his protection of both nations north and south of the Danube. His cruelty was well known even in the Western Europe. The road does not end there but continues through the woods and local villages from which people are gazing on the masses of cars stacking up on the traffic lights. They are slowly ending their journey with the legendary route and getting back to their cities.
The Transfăgărășan surprises and astonishes. After every curve a new perspective arises. Cars go one by one complemented by motorbikes as the route is considered “a dream come true” for the latter. Although this was a lethal dream (for many) of a mad leader few decades ago, it expresses the endless possibilities that we as human beings have. That being said we must also respect the nature and local customs in order for the products of our imagination not to stand it conflict with them. I will surely be back on this road again to explore it once again and let the enchantment continue…
PS. Remember Jeremy Clarskson from Top Gear who I mentioned in the beginning? I wanted to leave you with some smell of petrol, supercars and... an unexpected minor car collision. In other words - the best glimpses from Top Gear (from 2009) journey through the Fagaras Mountains below.