Romania’s stunning countryside, fairytale-like castles and fascinating recent history were among the main reasons we wanted to visit the country. However, there was yet another one. We desperately wanted to drive along one of the world’s most scenic routes: the Transfagarasan Highway. So, in an Inception-like kind of way, we decided to plan a short Transfagarasan road trip as part of our longer Romania road trip. Planning our Transfagarasan experience, though, was not the easiest of tasks. This is why we decided to put together this useful guide. This way you can keep everything you need to know in one place.
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Transfagarasan Highway: Past and present
Apart from its undeniable beauty, the Transfagarasan Road is of great historical significance as well. Constructed between 1970 and 1974, the Transfagarasan Highway was Ceausescu’s way of ensuring a safe passage through the Fagaras Mountains in case of an invasion by the Soviets. Six million kilos of dynamite and at least 40 dead workers later, Romania’s leader had his very own secret passageway.
Nowadays, deprived of its military importance, the Transfagarasan Road is among Romania’s main attractions. It offers a unique driving experience through scenery of unsurpassed, almost unreal, beauty. The scenic route reached its height of popularity in 2009, when the British TV show Top Gear proclaimed that the Transfagarasan is the best road in the world. Ever since then, road trip enthusiasts and nature lovers from all over the world alike pay tribute to the Transfagarasan Highway.
List of top things to see along the Transfagarasan Road
It goes without saying that the top attraction along this scenic route is the road itself. We are talking about a high altitude road which winds its way through scenery of unsurpassed beauty. However, there are also some essential stops along the way. Therefore, you need to make sure you’ll have plenty of time to check them all out. Here’s a list of the absolutely necessary stops, either long or short, you should make during your Transfagarasan road trip:
- Balea Waterfall
- Balea Lake
- Capra Tunnel
- Vidraru Dam
- Poenari Citadel
How to plan your Transfagarasan road trip: Top tips
So, you decided to drive this amazing route yourselves. That’s great! Before you jump into the car and start driving though, there are a few things you should know that will help you plan the perfect Transfagarasan road trip of your own. Assuming that you already have the basics covered, renting a car for instance and all, it’s time to cut to the chase.
- The Transfagarasan Road (National Road DN 7C) begins in Cartisoara and ends in Bascov. It covers a total length of about 150 km (3,5-4h without stops). However, the interesting part is roughly between Cartisoara and Curtea de Arges (120 km/3h).
- The most spectacular part of the road, which is between Balea Waterfall and an area called Piscu Negru, is closed from November 1st to June 30th each year due to dangerous weather conditions. Sometimes, dates can change slightly so make sure to check out the Transfagarasan Road status on this website before planning your Transfagarasan road trip.
- Although the actual driving time is between 3 and 4 hours, it will take you at least 6 to 7 hours to drive the Transfagarasan Road from start to end. This is because you will be making many stops along the way in order to admire the beauty surrounding you or get a refreshment at one of the numerous kiosks on the route. Therefore, make sure to plan a full day trip so as to leisurely take in the beauty of this scenic route. Better still, if your schedule allows it, overnight somewhere along the way and spend two days on the Transfagarasan Road.
- It doesn’t matter whether you choose to drive the Transfagarasan from North to South or vice versa. However, from our experience, perhaps it’s slightly better to start from the North. You see, Balea Waterfall and Balea Lake, which are closer to the northern end of the road, can get extremely foggy. So, it’s better to encounter this bummer in the beginning and then enjoy the rest of the route rather than let this disappointment await you at the end of your trip. More on the fog fail further down.
- Either you start from the North or the South, make sure you spend the previous night somewhere near your starting point so as to hit the road as early in the morning as possible. Remember, the full length of the Transfagarasan Road is open for just four months each year. Therefore, it tends to get pretty crowded, especially at weekends.
- We’re pretty sure you’ve read online that it is a challenging driving experience, suitable for only the most confident of drivers. Well, don’t get discouraged. Sure, you need to be extra careful because there are continuous S-curves and hairpin turns. However, the road is in excellent condition and there are many areas to pull over. Also, keep in mind, that it is a road suited for slow driving (40 km/h on average). Therefore, (usually and ideally) there are no trucks or hasty drivers. That said, if you’ve never driven on a mountain, rather narrow, road before in your life, probably you should be even more careful. Moreover, we’d like to point out that probably the route’s biggest problem is the fog. It can get inconceivably thick. But, generally, there is nothing to be afraid of. Trust us, we have seen way scarier roads on the Greek Islands and the Greek countryside in general.
- Even if you plan to drive the Transfagarasan Road in the heart of the summer or there is a heatwave in Bucharest, don’t be fooled. You need to pack a light jacket, preferably a waterproof one, as the entire route is on very high altitude. Combine this with the ever-present fog and you can imagine how chilly it can get.
- Once you are certain that you are on the DN 7C National Road, there is no way to get lost. So, don’t listen to neither your GPS nor Google Maps. They will both urge you to turn back and follow a different route towards your destination. As long as you have checked that the Transfagarasan Road is open, ignore the navigation sirens and drive on.
Driving the Transfagarasan: Our itinerary (Sibiu to Bucharest via Transfagarasan)
Sibiu to Balea Waterfall
We had planned to stay in Sibiu the night before driving the Transfagarasan so as to enter the road from its northern end near Cartisoara. We can’t even begin to describe how much we were looking forward to the day we would finally set off for our Transfagarasan road trip. However, we had woken up to a grey and super cloudy day and we didn’t like it one bit. As soon as we entered the DN 7C, we could see the high mountains ahead in the distance covered in fog. This was bad news. Really bad. Anyway, soon we were driving along the part of the Transfagarasan Highway that is covered by tall trees and the stunning scenery around us wouldn’t let us sulk. For a while.
Traditionally, the first top for those who begin their Transfagarasan road trip from the North is the area around Balea Waterfall. It’s also the point as far as which you can drive all year long as the road closes from that point onwards. You will know you’ve reached Balea Waterfall when you see many cars parked and various stalls selling from snacks and souvenirs to raincoats and hot drinks.
The cable car that connects Balea Waterfall to Balea Lake (an alternative way to get to the highest point on the Transfagarasan Road all year long) starts from somewhere there too. We say somewhere because there was no way of knowing where exactly. The fog had thickened so much by that point that we couldn’t see a thing. Similarly, we could hear the waterfall but we don’t know if we would actually see it had the weather been better. To make matters worse, this was just the beginning of one of the biggest epic fails we have experienced during our travels.
Not yet entirely disheartened (as we could hardly imagine the degree to which the fog would affect our trip) and with two brand new raincoats in our possession, we jumped in the car and resumed our drive. Our next stop would be Balea Lake. This is a spectacular glacier lake situated at the highest point along the Transfagarasan Highway at an altitude of 2042 metres.
At this point you would expect us to describe the route from the waterfall to the lake. Sadly, we are unable to do so. We have no idea if the road was scary, stunning or whatever. The reason is that we couldn’t see a bloody thing. Katerina heroically drove all the way to Balea Lake seeing no farther than a mere 100 cm ahead.
It was only when the waterfalls were literally by the side of the road that we could spot them. Then we would pull over for a couple of shots. However, this only made matters worse as we imagined how much beauty lay around us and there we were, unable to see beyond our noses. Literally.
When we parked the car to walk to Balea Lake, the cruel reality hit us hard. We wouldn’t get to see the glacier lake after all. We started walking towards the lake instinctively rather than knowing for sure that we were headed the right way. Never in our lives had we experienced such thick fog before. To be honest, we didn’t even know it can get SO thick. At some point, we were so close to the lake we could have easily fallen inside. Only then did we get a glimpse of the water. The part that was right below our noses, that is. I silently cried at that moment. Having planned our Transfagarasan road trip to perfection only to miss out on its, reputedly, top highlight got the better of me.
Disappointed beyond words, we stepped inside the lake café. That means that we were ON the lake but STILL couldn’t see it. Apparently, the café had neither tea nor chocolate, just plain coffee, which neither of us drinks. Grumpy as hell, we left the café without ordering and headed back to the car. We had a long drive ahead of us and, as we thought, the fog would make it a challenging and dull one.
Capra Tunnel to Vidraru Dam & Poenari Citadel
In order to proceed from Balea Lake to the southern part of the Transfagarasan road, one needs to cross Capra Tunnel. The latter is often referred to as Balea Tunnel. However, it actually gets its name from nearby Capra Lake, yet another glacier lake in the area (which we didn’t see either of course). The longest tunnel in Romania (887 m) is utterly impressive. It goes without saying that it was also covered in fog. That said, driving along its rocky walls was an unforgettable, surreal experience in a spooky kind of way.
We had read somewhere online that, once you cross Capra Tunnel, the weather suddenly changes and there is no more fog. Yet, at that point, it would be easier for us to believe that a family of Yetis were spending their summer vacation in the Romanian mountains than to let ourselves get carried away by the unrealistic hope that 1km down the road the sky would be clear again. Yet it was. It actually was. Dear friends, it’s true. Capra Tunnel must be a time travel machine of sorts. It took our eyes a couple of seconds to adjust to actually seeing again. When they did, oh God, the beauty they beheld!
The Transfagarasan Highway was spreading to our right in all its glory. Every two hundred metres or so we would get off the car, cameras in hand, laughing and jumping like crazy. Our Transfagarasan road trip was not entirely ruined after all. Officially, our next stop would be Vidraru Dam. Yet we made several stops along the way to admire one of the most remarkable natural landscapes we have seen to this day. Magnificent waterfalls, sheep grazing on almost vertical green slopes and, of course, the road itself composed a dreamlike picture that is hard to put into words.
Vidraru Dam & Lake
Eventually we arrived at the impressive Vidraru Dam. The latter was completed in 1966 in order to produce hydroelectricity. It is an engineering masterpiece with a fascinating secret. The surrounding mountains are home to a great deal of explosives which have been placed there as a safety precaution. If the dam cracks, the explosion from the hidden dynamite around it will cause rocks to fall off. This will create a substitute dam of sorts which will prevent nearby towns from flooding.
We walked from one end of the dam to the other so as to see the views from both sides. We also climbed a nearby viewing platform and caught some breathtaking views of the dam and the lake. Equally impressive is the statue of Prometheus, the Greek mythology hero who stole fire from the gods so as to hand it over to people. The statue overlooking the dam resembles a Marvel superhero and it’s totally amazing. Other than walking around the dam, one can also go on a boat ride on the artificial Vidraru Lake during summer months.
Poenari Citadel rather than Bran is the actual Dracula Castle. Mostly in ruins, Poenari Castle is built atop a high hill and can be seen from the Transfagarasan Road. You can only visit the castle in the summer. Keep in mind that a visit is possible only in the presence of local forest rangers and it involves climbing 1462 to get to the top. As far as we are concerned, we only admired it from a distance while driving along the Transfagarasan Highway.
Overnight at Bucsenesti and exiting the DN 7C
Although fantastic, our day was also an exhausting one. We’d thought it would be so. Therefore, we had made arrangements to spend the night at a guesthouse in Bucsenesti rather than drive an additional 2,5h to get to Bucharest. We would advise you to do the same. Just pick one of many guesthouses in the area and resume your drive the following day. We stayed at Heaven Guesthouse and we loved it. For just 35€/night we stayed at a modern, super comfortable and spotlessly clean room in a guesthouse with garden and amazing staff.
We had dinner at nearby Casa Lazaroiu. The latter features a restaurant and rooms in a serene scenery complete with a private lake and a pool. We couldn’t have ended our day in a more relaxed and peaceful way.
The following day we drove from Bucsenesti to Bascov, the town where the Transfagarasan Highway ends. There is nothing extraordinary about this final part of the route though. If we did it again, perhaps we would skip this final part and go all the way back just to marvel at all that beauty once more. After all, this would be the only way to make sure that we weren’t dreaming the first time round.
Our ultimate tip regarding your Transfagarasan road trip (or any other trip)
There is one final point we would like to make. No matter how well you plan your Transfagarasan road trip, there is one unpredictable factor that can mess things up. The weather. So, even if you plan your trip down to the last detail, be prepared that you may not be able to enjoy it to the fullest in the end. In our case, fog was the party crasher but this was a risk we were willing to take. That said, under no circumstances do we regret planning this road trip just because it wasn’t exactly as perfect as we expected it to be.
Travelling part-time has made us accept all the restrictions that come with it. In this case, since we had planned our Transfagarasan road trip for a very specific day, fog or not, there was no way we could change our plans. If you have enough time that allows you to change your plans and drive the Transfagarasan on a clear day, by all means do so. But if you don’t, like we didn’t, do not worry much. Clear skies will literally be waiting for you at the other side of the tunnel.
At the end of the day, this is the biggest advice we could ever give you. Do not postpone a trip because the time doesn’t feel right or for any other excuses you may come up with. Just go for it. Even if it’s not what you had always dreamt of, it will definitely be better than not taking the trip at all. And who knows? Maybe you’ll be back some day to live it to the fullest. We know we will.
Până ne vom întâlni din nou, Transfăgărășan!
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