Driving the Transfagarasan

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.

Driving the Transfagarasan

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.

Driving the Transfagarasan

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?

Driving the Transfagarasan

Driving the Transfagarasan

Driving the Transfagarasan

Driving the Transfagarasan

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!

Driving the Transfagarasan

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?

Driving the Transfagarasan

Driving the Transfagarasan

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.

Ever driven on a spectacular road? Share your stories or thoughts below!

Transfagarasan Highway, Romania

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  • August 11, 2015

    I had no idea Romania looked like this! I have to make sure Tony doesn’t see this post, or next thing I know, he’ll be researching flights to Romania and motorcycle rentals…

    Speaking of which, we are big fans of great road trips & were similarly inspired by Top Gear while we were in Vietnam. We watched their special episode where they attempted to drive from the HCMC to Hanoi in a single week and decided we wanted to do the same… albeit with a much longer timeframe. We wound up buying a bike later that week and then spent a month driving around the north (all the way up to the Chinese border) and then made our way 3000km all the way down to HCMC during month two. Still can’t believe we did that and not all moments were great (the time we broke down and it started to rain and we had to push the bike for about a km comes to mind…), but what an adventure!
    Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) recently posted…Three Years Later: Reinventing Travel & Rediscovering our TribeMy Profile

    • August 11, 2015

      We had no idea Romania was that pretty either. Granted, a lot of what we saw was flat farmland, but Transylvania was truly stunning, with rocky mountains and beautifully lush valleys for miles.
      Your Vietnam experience sounds intense! We did the south to north route, but mostly by train, which also made for some interesting moments. Love Vietnam though and still one of our favorite countries. The food especially is so amazing. I could eat pho everyday!

  • August 11, 2015

    This looks like an amazing drive – I love that episode of Top Gear, too! Really neat that you were able to get shots that show the entire route coming up. It reminds me a bit of some of the roads on the South Island of New Zealand, which are probably the most spectacular drives I’ve ever done. I’ll have to add this to the list though – I’d love to see the “real” Dracula castle!
    Julie @ A Life Exotic recently posted…Beer & Bison in Golden, ColoradoMy Profile

    • August 12, 2015
      Julie

      Thanks Julie! The drive is amazing and the views are very, very visible from just certain areas of the road. It was about a 4 hours drive in total, and for the last hour or so, we had those amazing switchbacks. We drove from south to north, and the top of the ‘mountain’ is towards the top, hence the extra hours! Stay tuned for more about castles – currently sifting through the photos, and we should post something about that on Monday!

  • August 14, 2015

    Amazing! I remember that episode of Top Gear and it’s one of my favorites. I’ve wanted to visit Romania for the better part of a decade, and that driving road sealed the deal for me that I have to go. Love this post- thanks for sharing!
    Kate recently posted…FigsMy Profile

    • August 15, 2015

      Glad you enjoyed it. Romania is full of surprises. The hills and mountains of Transylvania are stunning, with the Transfagarasan cutting through them. We would highly recommend including Romania on your next trip. Plus, it’s one of the cheapest countries in Europe, so your money goes further!

  • August 14, 2015

    Okay, who needs the Austrian, Swiss, Italian or French Alps? (Okay, I do). But this road looks incredible! I can completly imagine why you liked to drive here, it must feel amazing to do all these curvy roads.
    Maaike – travellousworld.com recently posted…Favorite London Places in QuotesMy Profile

    • August 15, 2015

      The worst road in the world if you get car sick! Luckily, not an issue with us. The scenery was beautiful and gave us a newfound fondness for Romania countryside. A hidden gem that more people need to visit.

  • August 21, 2015

    “like the worst possible way to spend an afternoon” – LOL, pretty much what I think any time I see cyclists in Colorado!

    Did you get to drive Independence Pass while you were visiting Aspen? Not quite as long as this one, but definitely a much more exciting route than the Interstate!

    • August 22, 2015

      Those poor cyclists. They looked so sad and defeated.

      We did drive Independence Pass. That was a truly impressive road. It was crazy to see so much snow at the top in June. Definitely the most interesting way to get to Denver.

  • August 26, 2015

    My favourite drive was the Virginia stretch of the Blue Ridge Parkway last summer. The weather was gorgeous, the views stretched for miles, and the road was mostly empty. The day I spent on that highway remains one of my absolute favourite days.
    veena recently posted…book number eighteen of 2015 + booker prize winner 1984: hotel du lac [anita brookner].My Profile

    • August 28, 2015

      I have done that drive before too. It is one of the best driving roads on the East Coast for sure. Great vistas the whole drive!

  • October 21, 2015

    How lovely! If you guys ever decide to come back to Romania, don’t hesitate to contact me. I’d love to take you on a hike for you guys to see some even more spectacular mountain scenery 🙂
    Adri T. recently posted…UNESCO: Durmitor National Park & Piva Region, a visual guideMy Profile

    • October 21, 2015

      we did a failed attempt at hiking in the Carpathians. Got lost on a trail, so our leisurely hike turned into a 4 hour, almost vertical climb. Would be nice to go with someone more familiar with the area!

  • March 17, 2016

    What gorgeous landscapes, isn’t that so? Vidraru lake is stunning, but the Trasfagarasan in general is worth to be seen at least once in a lifetime by any person.

    • March 17, 2016
      Julie

      Thanks Luminita – is Vidraru Lake the one at the top of the Transfagarasan? It was so unexpected so jump out of the car up there and be at a lake!

      • March 23, 2016
        Teo

        That lake is called BALEA LAKE !
        Try TRANSALPINA highway another amazing Road Trip in Romania!

        • March 23, 2016
          Julie

          Thanks for the tip! We now are officially Romania road trip converts!