“From above, it looks like every great corner from every great race track in the world has been knitted together to form one unbroken grey ribbon of automotive perfection”
These words were stated with sincere passion by Jeremy Clarkson, host of the renowned British television series, Top Gear, as he marveled over what he claimed to be the best road in the world. In a 2009 episode, Jeremy, with his co-presenters Richard Hammond and James May, embarked on a journey through the Transylvanian Alps in search of this country road that cut through the Fagaras mountains, but what they encountered was something completely unexpected. In a geographically large country with only 644 km of motorway and otherwise poorly maintained country roads, not only is this 90 km stretch of roadway in incredibly pristine condition, the bends and curves that climb the mountainside and twist through a seemingly endless forest of evergreens present pure driving bliss. Cruising along the Romanian countryside in an Aston Martin, a Ferrari and a Lamborghini, they eventually found this glorious trail of concrete…the Transfăgărășan.
Sitting in a hostel in the medieval Transylvanian town of Sibiu, I had just extended my stay for one more night, in hopes that I would actually be able to wake up the following morning and catch the only train to Sighişoara. Another day in this small town was not so bad. Despite there being very few people around, there was still so much more to discover along the antiquated cobblestone streets that spiraled out of the town center. Further, the weekend marked the beginning of a rally and film festival, part of a practically weekly tradition of hosting organized events upheld since Sibiu’s nomination as the European Cultural Capital in 2007.
As I was deciding which movie to watch later that evening, the front door of the hostel opened and in walked Aaron. Before he entered the room, a soft-toned California accent reverberated through the corridor. A few seconds later, a tall, slender body turned the corner, donning a medium-sized pack, light-weather quasi-hiking attire, and an impressive beard that frizzed outwards from under a head of light brown, shoulder-length hair. Having been on the road for ten months, Aaron was now working his way to Turkey after seven months of hitchhiking through Southeast Asia. Something told me we were going to get along.
While chatting in the lounge with Aaron and two young travelers from New Zealand who I had met in Timişoara, the conversation evolved just like most others on the backpacking circuit:
“Where are you from?”
“How long have you been on the road?”
“Where have you been?”
“How much longer do you have?”
“Did you stay at (insert name of memorable hostel)?”
And so on…
Once we hedged through the automated responses and reached a point where the conversation usually either ended or took off on an interesting tangent, someone mentioned the Transfăgărășan. The peculiar name sounded strangely familiar, and when my mind processed the subsequent words, “Top Gear,” vague memories of watching those beautifully powerful cars gliding down the steep, winding road suddenly materialized in my mind. After some more chatting and a quick consultation with Youtube, Aaron and I were making plans to hitchhike the route the following morning.
Hitchhiking in Romania is a unique undertaking in the sense that more times than naught, there will be competition with the locals. On-ramps, roundabouts and other circuits of slow moving traffic near the city limits will usually be teeming with groups of locals trying to get to the next town, and in a country where owning a car is considered a luxury, these hitchhiking hotspots will have people from all walks of life. School children might be trying to catch a ride back home while an elderly woman will be waiting with bags of groceries. Since this mode of transport is fairly common, drivers will usually expect (at least from the locals) compensation in the form of a few lei, posing a greater challenge for backpackers with empty pockets and tight budgets.
After getting dropped off on the outskirts of town by a local bus, this was the exact scene we encountered.
Apart from the heavy hitchhiking traffic, the fact that we were two bearded, fairly rugged looking foreigners with backpacks would surely make getting a ride a bit of a challenge. But, optimistic and determined, we positioned ourselves further down the road just past a major roundabout and held up our impressively scripted cardboard sign.
Seven minutes later, our bags were in the trunk of a Chevy sedan and we were on our way. Geanny (pronounced like the American ‘Johnny’), despite being barely able to make out the small letters on our sign while slowly passing by, stopped for us just to check if he had read the sign correctly. From a town just past the beginning of the Transfăgărășan route, he agreed to drop us off at the perfect spot for catching our next ride. With his decent English that he had developed over many frequent trips to Scandinavia, he explained that he was a traveling tatoo artist. Surprisingly enough, however, he didn’t have any tatoos himself, which is rare in the profession. But, as he explained over the 40 km drive, he had many ‘semi-willing’ volunteers, such as his brother and best friend, who had donated a limb to his cause.
After a quick drive, we had arrived. The Transfăgărășan laid ahead of us, extending into the distance and disappearing into a sea of evergreens at the base of the mountain. A deep silence followed Geanny’s departure, disturbed occasionally by a few stray dogs who kept us company along the empty road.
The intersection we found ourselves at wasn’t incredibly busy. The closest village was a dozen kilometers away, and about one car would pass through the nearby roundabout each minute, none of which would turn onto the mountain road. It took about five minutes for a car to actually enter the Transfăgărășan. Dismayed by the situation, our hopes of getting a ride in a nice sports car, or any vehicle any time soon, quickly began to fade.
It took about 10 minutes for a second car to enter the road, and this one rolled to a stop right in front of us. Today seemed to be our lucky day. Snuggling into the back seat with Luc, a beautiful, hyperactive retriever, and meeting Micko and Andreea, we began our ascent of the Transfăgărășan.
While enjoying the scenic drive, we learned that the Transfăgărășan would have normally been closed this time of year, shutting down after the first snowfall due to dangerous driving conditions. However, the weather was unusually warm this year, giving the road a few additional weeks of activity. As a result, we had come at a very rare time where this mountain pass was bereft of the typical, heavy summer tourist traffic, and the mountainside was blanketed in a beautiful canvas of late autumn colors. Halfway up the 2,000 meter ascent, we took a break for some photos.
Andrea had an impressively extensive knowledge of the area, which she was very happy to share with us for the rest of the ride. Following the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in the late 1960’s, Nicolae Ceaușescu, the leader of Romania at the time, had his military forces build this mountain pass as a strategic precaution against any similar potential attempt on Romania. In the process, thousands of tons of dynamite were used to clear the way, and 40 lives were lost to the cause. It was a strange feeling to be one of the hundred or so people that would be on the pass that day.
Micko and Andreea were heading to a lake at the top of the pass, a trip they would take with Luc every few weeks to get away from the hectic energy of Braşov. So our ride would end at the highest point of the drive, just past the most famous stretch of the road on the Northern side of the mountain. And soon we were on that stretch. Climbing a slope of only a few hundred meters, the road zigzagged for several kilometers in a long, serpentine path that seemed to cover every square meter of the mountainside. Regardless of how long we drove and how many turns we took at each sharply banked hairpin turn, the peak remained just as high and distant. But maybe this was why Jeremy praised the Transfăgărășan..the smooth drive seemed to be endless, not only lining up an impressive series of engaging manoeuvres along the long curves and sharp inclines, but also displaying a new and breathtaking view of the mountain at each turn. As much as I wanted to drive the route myself, the view from my open window was more than I could ask for.
But the best panorama was from the top.
Aaron and I spent a few hours exploring the area, enjoying the incredible scenery, and indulging in this unexpected delicacy..
But soon, it was time to go, and we walked through the longest tunnel in Romania (884 m) to surface on the Southern side of the mountain.
Not in a rush to hitch a ride, we spent some time walking and admiring our surroundings. However, perpetuating our lucky streak, the seventh or so car to pass our way offered to take us all the way to Curtea de Argeş. With a few hours of sunlight left and a decent distance to go, we hopped in to the Dacia hatchback and buckled up for the drive.
Although it wasn’t a Porsche, we had stumbled upon an expert driver, obviously familiar with this route and very experienced. From the second we got in, he began racing down the side of the mountain, accelerating through turns, flying over small bumps, and at times tripling the speed limit as the greens, oranges, reds and yellows outside merged into a continuous blur all around us. There were practically no cars to worry about, and when a large truck appeared in front of us on one of the more windy parts of the road, our driver radioed the truck and got confirmation for a clear pass. This was just the type of ride this road was made for. For some reason, both Aaron and I felt pretty secure during the ride, maybe trusting the confidence with which this Romanian man focused on the road and handled the car, or drawing comfort from his incredibly calm wife who sat undisturbed in the passenger seat. Whatever the reason, the ensuing 90 minutes kept our hearts racing.
Here is a video from our drive..
What started as an adventure through one of the most beautiful and elaborate roads in Romania evolved into a 20 hour journey. As the sun set over the tiny town of Curtea de Argeş right as we hopped out of our ride, Aaron and I realized that we didn’t have the gear to camp in the very cold late autumn nights, there was nowhere (affordable) to stay in town, the next city over, Piteşti, was roughly 37 km away and we had just missed the last bus. With no other options, we started walking towards Piteşti, attempting to hitch a ride on the country road in what very quickly became a pitch-black darkness. About 6 km outside of the city, a pair of headlights flashed as they approached us from behind.
The interior of the old, beat-up car was consumed by a thick cloud of cigarette smoke. Morin, a middle-aged Piteşti local who was heading back home after a late night of work, spiritedly chatted with Aaron over blasting Romanian folk music. He seemed to be a jolly fellow, and with his 20-word English lexicon, managed to convey a great deal about his life. As we approached Piteşti, Morin turned and asked “Piteşti hotel?” After we tried to explain that we would be looking for affordable accommodation, Morin’s face lit up and he exclaimed “Free hotel! I take..” and proceeded to make a long phone call in Romanian. Despite seeming like a well-intentioned guy, this offer seemed a bit suspicious, and after a quick glance at Aaron, I told Morin we would get off at the next intersection. Confused, he kept insisting, but we eventually got out of the car with no problem. Two hours of walking later, we were at the Piteşti train station with a 4 a.m. ticket to Bucharest.
Although unable to comment to its global standing, this ‘unbroken grey ribbon of automotive perfection’ was certainly the best road I have had the luxury of traveling on. Cutting through a stunning landscape, the Transfăgărășan presented much more than exhilarating descents and sharp turns. The sheer vastness of the the mountain range was overwhelming, and this limitless road that delved into the expanse was an adventure in itself waiting to be uncovered. I hope one day to be able to come back, equipped with a powerful engine and sturdy tent, to get lost in the drive and the ubiquitous, exquisite nature.