Sunday, 10 March 2013

Day 290 – Transfăgărășan. (Romania)

Transfăgărășan is a real contender for the title “Best Road in the World”. In fact a lot would argue with me that it is a contender at all and not just the downright winner. Originally built in the 1970’s as a strategic military route to protect Romania against invasion from the Soviet Union, the 90km stretch of road was made famous by Top Gear’s episode in Series 14 where it was presented as an attractive and daring challenge for drivers. Connecting the two highest peaks in the country, winding its way in a series of narrow hair-pin turns, sweeping S-bends, sharp corners and steep ascents and descents, the road crosses the Făgărășan mountains in the Carpathian mountain range and is now a popular destination for dare devils of any sort whether it be drivers, cyclists, hikers, photographers, or anyone else.

Driving on this road was one of the activities that we had been most excited about since before we set off from Melbourne, but as we got closer and had our schedule a bit more clearly planned out, the devastating realisation that the road would be closed when we got there began dawning on us. At over 2,000m in altitude, the mountains are of course covered in metres of snow for the entirety of winter, usually spanning from late October to late June, sometimes longer. This was far from conducive to our January arrival. Still though, we were determined to see as much as we could, even if it was only the “closed for winter” sign at the turn off to the road. It was only a small detour from our actual route between Sigishoara and Sibiu so there was no question of whether or not we would give it a go anyway.

As we drove along the edge of the mountain range, the rugged landscape which we were hoping to cross on this infamous road was visible out of the side windows, and as we drew ever closer to the turn off where we would find out how badly shot our hopes and dreams of making this incredible drive were, our hearts began pounding and we all became excessively giggly and excited, and then silent with awe. We passed a sign indicating that we should turn left in a few kilometres for Transfăgărășan. Another sign told us that we were less than a kilometre away, and finally an arrow pointed us down a surprisingly wide road that led to the base of the mountains. We made the turn and were slightly confused when we passed an open boom gate. Why was the boom gate open? Surely the purpose of it is to close it in winter when the road’s snowed in. Is it possible...? No it can’t be possible. We didn’t dare to allow ourselves to hope that the road, or even part of the road, may for some flukey reason be open in the middle of January.

We reached a small town just as the road began its ascent (well actually it was more along the lines of a few sparsely dotted houses and a handful of hotels), and although the place wasn’t overly lively things were still obviously open for business and there was still no indication of the road being closed. As we came out the other end of the “town” we passed a “closed” sign, except it read “open”, so wondering whether maybe part of the road really was in fact open, we stopped at the last hotel to ask for some information. I was most impressed when the husband and wife owner who had been watching television in the restaurant and didn’t have a word of English used their common sense to help me, and communicating with a pen and paper and a series of arm gestures we established that the road was open for 15km, and from then on it was snowed in.

All too aware of the fact that the first 15km wasn’t exactly going to do the 90km long “Best Road in the World” justice, there was still no question in our minds about turning back now. We were determined to see as much of the road as possible, and 15km was further than we had dared to hope for, so grateful that we had the opportunity to see any of it at all, we began the ascent. We divided up the 30km round trip so we could all have a chance to drive the Transfăgărășan, even if only for a couple of kilometres each. Even though it was now dusk so the lighting wasn’t great, and the weather had been a bit drab all day, and we were only witnessing a very small section of the road, it was still a truly incredible drive. The tree covered valleys were so relentlessly steep, the rock formations on the sides of the cliffs were brazen and beautiful and the narrow road wound expertly around the sheer walls. Two or three cars passed us on their way down the mountain and we wondered what they were up there for – I can’t imagine too many tourists just rock up in the middle of winter and decide to drive the first stretch. Perhaps there was still some sort of outdoor facility, or maybe an accommodation place, that runs throughout winter. As we rounded a gentle corner and came out through a small tunnel we came face to face with the hotel, mounted on the edge of the mountain with what I can only imagine to be one of the most impressive views of any hotel anywhere in the world. And just around to our left, past an impossibly steep hair-pin bend which required us to do a 3-point turn to get around, we found the end of the 15km stretch, marked not only by the fluorescent “road closed” sign, but more impressively by the wall of fresh white powder that had collected on the road over several months, marking the point at which the clearing stopped and the closing started.

It might seem like a disappointment, the fact that we were so close yet missed out on driving the entire length of Transfăgărășan, but in actual fact it was such an amazing place anyway that we couldn’t possibly be disappointed. Of course we wish we’d been able to plan our trip to allow us to be in Romania in that small window between June and October when we might have been able to complete the drive, but that’s the nature of a trip like this: you can’t see everything everywhere, all we do is see as much as we can of each place and be pleased about what we did see as opposed to regretful about what we missed out on. This is definitely somewhere we all hope to return to.

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