‘The Best Road In The World’ – Jeremy Clarkson
We had received little encouragement about driving over the Transfăgărășan, the second highest mountain pass in Romania, with the caravan.
Besides telling us that we would drive straight into a blizzard on the summit, the miserable Brits on the campsite had no confidence that Big Blue was even capable of getting Kismet up there. They piled on the pressure by asking, “Do you have extra coolant and a spare belt?”
I tried to console myself that the Transfăgărășan had been built for military vehicles. The maximum gradient was 11 per cent for a short stretch; the Vršič pass in Slovenia was 14 per cent which gave me a reference. Ever the optimist, Mark made a promise:
“It’ll be a piece of cake.”
Nevertheless, I can’t say that I departed our campsite in Cârţa without trepidation. A band of German bikers with big beards had camped next to us. They competed annually in the Isle of Man T.T. race. They seemed dubious about our chances of hauling Kismet over the Transfăgărășan.
“We rode it yesterday. The surface is not good. It is very steep and very narrow. You will have to watch that you don’t, how you say? Catch the back. Ground out.”
This from perennial risk-takers, who put their lives on the line by hurling themselves around the Manx circuit at 150mph in ‘the most dangerous race in the world’.
“We’re planning to drive over the Transfăgărășan,” I told the lady owner as I paid her for the campsite.
I scanned her face for any flicker of reaction or doubt. There was none. I suspect that she had long since lost interest in the hair-brained schemes of tourists.
Our stop at Lidl in Făgăras on the way back yesterday had highlighted that Sunday night was not the best time to seek full supermarket shelves. We had no onions. In addition, we had forgotten to get cash, fill up with fuel and check our tyres, water and oil. After all, we had 56 miles to do, 6,699ft to climb and a few twists and turns to navigate.
Rather than wasting valuable time by making a sensible trip back to Făgăras with nothing in tow, we hit the road. I kept a lookout for somewhere promising to stop for money and supplies. In Victoria, we circled the town centre before finding a supermarket car park large enough to accommodate a caravan. There is nothing like a view of cancerous communist concrete opposite a Lidl to start a scary day. As I waited for Mark, I thoroughly enjoyed the irony of seeing a horse and cart trot past the now crumbling image of Ceaușescu’s ‘modern’ Romania.
Big Blue and Kismet climbed through the beautiful Transylvanian forests towards mountain peaks topped by cloud. Looks of open-mouthed wonder as we passed did nothing to reassure us that we had made the right decision.
As we emerged above the tree line, we were faced by a huge waterfall, crashing hundreds of feet down the immense, solid, rock wall at the head of the valley.
“We’re going up there?” Mark asked in disbelief.
It looked like it. Literally, the only way was up.
The road snaked around the mountainside and did indeed, come out at the top of the cascade. We halted on a precipice to take photos. Our views back to the sparkling plain of Transylvania, far below, twinkled with a glimmer of magic.
Above the tree line, we could see the road winding upwards through bleak mountain scenery. Now, we were entering an uncompromising world of rocks, mist and cloud.
I have mentioned Romanian driving habits before, but on the Transfăgărășan, they abandoned all the rules of Romania Mania. Even though the road was narrow, uphill and had a steep drop to the side (with no barriers), not one person overtook on a blind bend with a lorry coming the other way. Not once were we forced to brake sharply to ensure that no-one died. The Transfăgărășan is evidently a road that commands respect – and reverential adherence to the 40km speed limit, even among Romanians.
We pulled over to get photographic evidence of Big Blue and Kismet on the hairpins. This was just below Bâlea Lake, the high point of the Transfăgărășan. Bâlea is a glacial lake; one of Romania’s ‘must-see’ natural wonders. There are cafés. It was mobbed. We didn’t stop
The Transfăgărășan was commercial, with plenty of eateries along the route. However, this was still Romania. At no point was I confident that I would not cross the Carpathians starving as well as scared.
At Conacul Ursului, we stopped for a coffee and cake. It was a large café with plenty of seating outside. It was charmingly Romanian.
“Please can we order some food and coffee?”
“We have a group in. We can’t do food.” (The group was already tucking in to a pre-prepared buffet.)
“Well, could we have just a coffee?”
“Sigh. I suppose.”
“And a cake?”
Coffee was grudgingly produced with a tiny plastic carton of milk.
We had no stopover planned for the night, but had noticed a campsite next door. There were also appealing signs for potential doggie-walks along the river in the dark-green forest.
“What’s the situation with the campsite next door?”
“I don’t know. This is just the hotel. My neighbour runs the campsite.”
“There is nobody there. Do you know who I ask?”
I was just glad that Mark had been sensible enough to bank two emergency pasties in Lidl, Victoria. Otherwise, even on this trip – with its seemingly plentiful refreshment stops – I would have been subjected to the shakes from low blood sugar, never mind the sheer drops.
We pushed on and decided to miss out a few of our planned stops to make more headway. The road twisted for miles along the crenellated edge of the Vidraru lake, whose azure waters winked and glistened in the sun between the trees. Of course, there was no way down and no footpaths along the shoreline. At the Vidraru Dam, there was a car park, so we stopped to give the dogs a leg-stretch.
The dam on the Argeş River was built in the mid-1960s to create Lake Vidraru. To give passers-by a clue to its purpose, an immense, silver sculpture of Prometheus, holding aloft a bolt of lightning, was perched on a rocky crag above the dam, looking for all the world like a Marvel Superhero.
It’s hydroelectricity. In case you didn’t guess. In Greek Mythology, Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to us mortals.
As we continued, we passed a flock of sheep being driven by six tall, rangy dogs. Of course, a 6 vs 5 bark-off quickly developed. I put the camera out of the van window and tried, but failed, to get the money shot: a photograph of the caravan being chased up the road by six monstrous and moderately outraged Romanian shepherd dogs.
What goes up must come down – and down… The descent from Transylvania into Walachia was spectacular. We dropped into deep gorges, where we could look back up to the road that we had driven, to see soaring viaducts, spanning steep chasms. There are 830 bridges and 27 viaducts on the Transfăgărașan, although I didn’t count.
All of a sudden, a fantastic hilltop castle hove into view – and a sign which announced ‘Dracula Camping’. Poienari castle had been on our list of sights to see, but we had given up on it. Our web-research had been definitive – there were absolutely no campsites anywhere nearby. We drew quickly into a layby opposite the very real and existing campsite, which was located directly under the castle. The campsite reception housed the castle’s entrance kiosk.
Poienari was a castle where Vlad definitely woz ’ere. At Bran, of course, ’e wozn’t at all; not that the tourist industry would let historical accuracy inhibit a Dracula goldmine.
Two or three mangy strays wandered around the campsite. Dr Doolittle struck again; Mark provided a beef and salmon dinner for everybody plus a bandaged paw for one poor little pooch, who was limping badly.
We were wary of our neighbours. The campsite had a high perimeter fence, bearing abundant portraits of the locals. We christened it ‘The Bear Grills.’ Head-shots of snarling grizzlies led us to place the small can of bear spray that Jake had given us strategically inside the caravan. We also emptied the bin on the inside of our Alu-tech caravan door, which now looked far too flimsy to be bear-proof.
Mark had promised that towing the Transfăgărășan would be a piece of cake. It had not been, but that was only due to the quirks of Romanian cafés.
Aside from a slightly smelly clutch and a further addition to the grimy fan of oil droplets sprayed down Kismet’s side, it was conclusively Caravan 1, Carpathians 0.
Clarkson would be proud!
This is an excerpt from my latest book, Dogs ‘n’ Dracula – A Road Trip Through Romania
Dogs ‘n’ Dracula has received five star reviews and was a finalist in the 2019 Romania Insider Awards for ‘The Most Effective Promotion of Romania Abroad.’
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