The car tires squealed through every corner. After exiting one hairpin and accelerating, another corner was quickly upon us. I peered out my window and could see the entire valley, a mix of rock and undulating green grass, quickly giving way to vast flatlands below. We were at over 2000m in elevation, but within a short period of time, and after what seemed like a million twists and turns, we would reach the bottom. The bottom of the greatest road on the planet.
Welcome to the Transfagarasan Highway in Romania.
I became obsessed with driving the Transfagarasan after watching the now famous episode of the BBC car show, Top Gear. They went searching for the best driving road on Earth and gave the Transfagarasan the title. Once Julie and I booked our trip to Romania, I knew that we had to make it part of our holiday.
Built in the early 1970s by crazy Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, the road was constructed for the transport of military troops should Romania ever be invaded by the USSR. Of course, like many things with Ceausescu, the road made no sense, since it was only passable five months out of the year and other routes already existed that were more suited for military purposes.
It quickly became renamed “Ceausescu’s Folly”, though I doubt anyone called it that to his face. Dictators don’t tend to take those types of comments well.
The highway begins in the town of Pitesti, about an hour northwest of Bucharest. We entered dense, dark forests as we departed Pitesti, which gave way eventually to the pristine Lake Vidraru, and we clung to its shore for most of the first hour. Every corner provided an even more clear look at the sandy shores of the lake and the mountains beyond.
As we passed through the small town of Curtea de Arges, the Transfagarasan officially started. The forests thinned, and we navigated hairpin after hairpin, slowly beginning our ascent up the mountain. The valley eventually opened up, and we found ourselves on a small, two lane road with sheer drops on one side and postcard views all around.
Who knew Romania was this pretty?
At the peak of the mountain, we reached Balea Lac, an oasis at the top of the mountain, if you exclude all of the touristy stalls set up along the road (though the grilled corn was a nice touch!). We parked our car and headed over the to the lake, with crystal clear water and craggy, rocky backdrop. As we made our through a short tunnel to begin the journey down, the sight that was revealed was breathtaking.
While our climb up the mountain was gradually, the descent was clearly the opposite. This was going to be fun!
The drop was swift, as the road angled downward severely, the corners becoming tighter and tighter as we dropped altitude. We passed cyclists making their way up the road, pain and suffering on their faces, riding at speeds more akin to walking than cycling. It looked like the worst possible way to spend an afternoon.
I, on the other hand, was having the time of my life. Accelerating our little shitbox rental car hard on the straights, braking as late as possible, then downshifting as we entered what seemed like our millionth corner, then accelerating as we exited the bend, beginning the process all over again. Julie was not as thrilled, since few of the corners at the top had guard rails. After a few death stares from the passenger seat, I slowed down.
Why hadn’t I rented a Ferrari, or a Porsche, or an Aston Martin instead of our small, hatchback Hyundai i10 with 90,000km on its odometer and just slightly more horsepower than a lawnmower?
The sweeping roads running down the backside of the mountain lasted for almost 25km. The landscape flattened out again, the road become straighter and more predictable and as we entered the town of Cartisoara, the Transfagarasan came to its end, literally dead-ending at the next small highway. We made a right hand turn, continuing on our way.
All told, we spent almost seven hours driving, from Bucharest to Brasov, via the Transfagarasan, including lunch and pit stops. Driving the Transfagarasan totaled almost four hours of automotive bliss. It truly is a road like no other. There are other sights to see along the way, including the real “Dracula’s” castle, Poienari and Vidraru Dam, one of the largest in Europe. But I was not on this road for tourist attractions. I was here to drive, and while attraction of driving on a certain road might be lost on most people, for some, it’s an experience worth seeking out.
If you want to have the time of your life behind the wheel, do yourself a favor. Book a trip to Romania and drive on the greatest road on the planet. You won’t find anywhere better.