Experience the Transfagarasan Road Trip in Romania!
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Transylvania and the countryside of Romania called to us, and the road we’d take there was the Transfagarasan Highway (Transfăgărășan in Romanian). A drive on this road isn’t your average road trip; it’s often listed as one of the top road trips in the world, and considered the best one in the world by the BBC’s Top Gear. We knew, even before we arrived in Europe, that a trip to Romania would need to include a drive on this road. Well, after a month of living in Bucharest, the time had come...
What's the Transfagarasan Highway
The Transfagarasan Highway is a 90 kilometer (56 mile) road that connects Transylvania with Muntenia. The Transfagarasan traverses the Fagaras Mountains, hence the name ‘Trans-fagarasan’, or ‘trans [over, across] the Fagaras’. The highway, also known as DN7C (‘DN’ stands for ‘Drum Național’ which means ‘national road’ in Romanian), starts near the town of Pitecti, the city where Dacia cars are made. Following the Argea River, the highway ascends the Transylvanian Alps and reaches its highest point at 2,042 meters (6,699 feet), making it the second highest mountain pass in Romania (the first place honor goes to Transalpina). The road then descends to the town of Cartisoara and ends in the Olt Valley.
Interesting facts to ponder as you drive on the Transfagarasan Highway:
The highway has five tunnels, more than any other road in Romania.
Mainly military personnel were used to build the highway.
Roughly 6,600 tons of dynamite were used in the building of the highway.
Official records state that 40 soldiers lost their lives during construction of the highway. However, estimates by workers are much higher, possibly in the hundreds.
How to Pronounce Transfagarasan (Transfăgărăşan)
If you’re wondering how to pronounce Transfagarasan, you’re not alone. We were wondering the same thing! We find the best way is to hear someone local say it, so Forvo is a great tool. Here are a couple of Romanians pronouncing it, be sure to have your speakers on when you play the audio.
How Long is the Transfagarasan Highway?
It’s a mere 56 miles, and looks like a very short distance on a map. Although, if you zoom into the map you’ll quickly see the road is about as complicated in turns and switchbacks as the pronunciation of its name!
When Does the Transfagarasan Highway Open and Close for the Year?
As you may imagine, the Transfagarasan Highway is a steep, dangerous pass through the Fagaras Mountains. At the roads highest point, it can be covered in snow, and storms can bring in dangerous winds and rain. The switch backs that ascend and descend the mountain are often without railings and barriers, and drops that are hundreds of feet high can be just mere feet from the edge of the road. So, even in fantastic weather, the road is dangerous, and precaution should always be taken. During bad weather the road is impassible and closed. It usually opens for the season in June and closes for the winter in October. However, it can sometimes snow until August, keeping it closed longer than usual, but weather can also be favorable and it can stay open until November. Additionally, the road can be closed for short periods during the summer if weather is poor. We recommend checking the weather ahead of time and the Romanian Tourism website for any possible closures on the DNC7/Transfagarasan Highway. Furthermore, if the road is closed, signs will be posted in the towns at the base of the mountain (for example Curtea de Arges).
The History of the Transfagarasan Highway
The story goes that the communist leader of Romania, Nicolae Ceaușescu, wanted to build a passage through the Fagaras Mountains to protect the country from a Soviet invasion. It would be a way to quickly activate and move the military through the mountain range for battle, should the need arise. At first glance this explanations seems to make sense; however, at the time the road was built (between 1970 and 1974) there was already a road in use that was easier and quicker to traverse, the E81. The E81 is more direct and has fewer sharp turns and switchbacks. Besides, how beneficial could a road be that’s passable only four to five months out of the year? Therefore, many have speculated that the purpose of the road was less of a practical and strategical artery, and more of a show of grandeur. This explanation seems plausible when we consider some of the sights we saw in Bucharest; like the Parliament building that’s the second largest administrative building in the world (only second to The Pentagon, in the United States), but some estimate that about 70% isn’t in use anymore. The building certainly commands attention, and it takes only a little bit of imagination to see the glory it must have had in its heyday. Unfortunately, as you no doubt will marvel at its architecture, you too will notice the building is clearly deteriorating. We noticed similarities with the parks and fountains in the city, as they’d been built in size and with features to impress, but sadly not maintained, and some had portions no longer in use. Mind you, we were just tourists to the country, and don’t have the full picture. So, we most certainly may have impressions that at best are inaccurate and at worst, completely misinformed.
On the other hand, another possible explanation is that Nicolae Ceaușescu felt the Soviets would easily be able to blockade the other mountain passes, while the Transfagarasan Highway would be more defensible. Whatever the reason for the road being built, it’s a spectacular road that begs to be driven; for its beauty by admirers and for its excitement by thrill seekers!
Ways to See the Transfagarasan Highway
We rented an economical car, a small Dacia to make do on this road trip, and we passed many similar vehicles along the way. However, there are many other ways to see this famous road. We saw a ton of people on motorcycles, most in groups of two to six bikes. There were several sports cars, although we never saw the Aston Martin DBS Volante, Ferrari California, or the Lamborghini Gallardo LP 560-4 Spyder that Top Gear drove. Rare for Europe, we saw a few sport utility vehicles (SUVs) driving the route, and surprisingly we even saw tour buses making the steep, winding, narrow trip! However, for the most adventurous of you out there, we saw many people on bicycles! Apparently, the northern section of the road is used for cycling competitions, as it’s considered to have similar difficulty to the ‘hors catégorie’ climbs in the Tour de France. We must give the biggest kudos there are to every cyclist we saw, pushing themselves up the steep route on the narrow roads, with such steep drops and cars passing them closely!
Whatever your intended mode of travel on the Transfagarasan Highway is, be sure to bring warm clothes. It was a sunny and warm July day (over 80º Fahrenheit) when we started the trip, but at the summit of the mountain, there was so much cloud cover that visibility was under 100 feet. We went from having the air conditioner on in the car at the start of the drive, to turning on the heat because it was so cold. The wind and cold were manageable when getting out of the car for a couple of pictures, but it became uncomfortable quickly. If you plan to spend a significant amount of time outside of the car, be sure to bring a jacket or layer up!
How to Get to the Transfagarasan Highway: Directions
It’s a road that’s known around the world, but apparently not one that Google Maps wants you to take without a bit of negotiation. We were starting our journey in Bucharest, Romania, and stopping that evening in Sibiu, Romania. We put these coordinates into the Google Maps app for driving directions and, not surprisingly, we were instructed to take Highway E81. Whether we dropped a pin at the furthest point of the Transfagarasan Highway or midway on it, Google Maps would give us directions on an alternative highway instead. It was as if Google Maps was saying, ‘you must have made a mistake, you’re not seriously choosing to drive the Transfagarasan Highway, are you?! Our solution was to drop a pin at a small town, Curtea de Arges, just near the beginning of the highway. Once on the road, there aren’t many turn offs, and the highway is easy to follow. To ensure we stayed on track, once we reached the pin we’d dropped on the map, we’d drop a new pin further up the road (we only had to do this a couple of times). Once you near the end of the Transfagarasan (you’ll recognize it because the road starts to straightened out and you’ve descended the mountains), you can put in your actual destination to get directions for the remainder of the trip.
Lucky for you though, after the fact, we found a way to get Google to show driving directions on the highway. We put in our starting point (in our case it was Bucharest) and the destination of 'Transfăgărășan, DN7C, Sibiu 500500, Romania' and were thrilled to finally get Google to direct us on the Transfagarasan Highway. We sure wish we'd had this on our road trip adventure, but we're happy to share it, so you'll have it on yours!
Tips for Driving the Transfagarasan Highway
Allow plenty of time to complete this road trip. While the distance on the map looks like a short trip, the twists, turns, and unpredictable weather conditions of the region require a slower passage. The average speed limit on the highway is 40 km/h (25 mph). Plan at least a full day-trip to go one way.
Hotels and eateries are a plenty along the way.
Check your brakes before making the trip. The road is steep and brake failure is a real concern.
The road is generally open June through October. However, it will close for bad weather at any time of the year. Again, we recommend checking the weather ahead of time and the Romanian Tourism website for any possible closures on the DNC7/Transfagarasan Highway before your road trip. Additionally, check Transfagarason.info's Facebook page for photos and updates on the highway conditions.
The road is surprisingly well maintained, however signage and barriers aren’t consistent. It’s wise to always use caution and always assume the next turn is a sharp one.
Bring layers or a jacket (we're very happy with our Talusphere jackets from REI!). The top of the mountain can get windy and cold.
Once you’re on the Transfagarasan Highway, directions are easy, just follow the road. However, on your way to and from the highway, you’ll want driving directions. It’s a day-long road trip, so be sure to have a battery pack for charging and/or a USB car charger. Since we never know what connections we’ll have in a rental car, we carry a cigarette lighter to USB adapter.
Our Transfagarasan Road Trip Experience
Bucharest to Sibiu: Through the Fagaras Mountains
We rented a car from the Bucharest airport (that was an experience all its own!), and made our way north west. The full trip to Sibiu is about 350 kilometers (220 miles) but the Transfagarasan stretch is only 90 kilometers (56 miles). However, due to the steep, winding switchbacks through the Fagaras Mountains, unpredictable weather conditions, stopping for taking pictures, and any other unknowns, we set aside a full nine hours to complete it. It may seem excessive to some, but after all, we weren't in a race and we really wanted to enjoy every mile of this once-in-a-lifetime road trip. We sat through a bit of traffic in Bucharest, but soon had clear roads ahead as we made it to the highway. As the buildings of city center disappeared behind us, the land opened to endless fields of sunflowers and corn. It’s a very cool sight to see rows and rows of thousands of large, bright flowers all faced to the sun in the same direction!
It took a couple of hours to get from Bucharest to the start of the Transfagarasan Highway. The drive wasn’t difficult, since it’s mainly a two lane, well trafficked highway. Although, it was odd to be driving a car, as it was our first time at the wheel in almost eight months! We’d rented a car shortly after landing in Dublin, but since our preferred method of transportation has been trains, planes, and local public transportation, we hadn’t driven since. Driving adds so many additional variables, that often times it doesn’t seem worth the effort. In this case though, it was necessary; and honestly, it felt kind of nice to have the flexibility a car offers.
When we made the turn off for the Transfagarasan Highway, we soon left the large expansive plains of farmland and industrial factories. The highway became a single lane in each direction and we passed through several small, rural towns. The fields of corn and sunflowers continued, but they were smaller plots grown around individual homes. There were plenty of places to stop and get a snack or meal, but if you know us at all, you won’t be surprised to know that we had our meals packed (in true backpacker style!) and water bottles filled before we departed. As we approached the Fagaras Mountains, we weren’t sure how many gas (‘benzine’ in Romanian) stations we’d have in front of us, so we topped off the tank and cleaned the windshield. Upon finishing, ee exited the gas station, and in great anticipation, continued the drive towards the mountains.
Before Reaching Fagaras Mountains
We enjoyed the drive along the highway while we were still passing through small towns. The homes, farms, and city centers were just what we were expecting of the Transylvanian countryside. There were a few farms with livestock, but most were fields of corn and sunflowers. Many fields seemed to have one large haystack or even a dozen or more, but upon looking closer, were they perhaps hay structures? We had no idea what these were, so we looked them up, turns out they’re haystacks, but they’re not just any haystack, they’re traditional and unique to Romania. They’re made over several months with a great deal of precision and care. Another thing we noticed while on the road, was that occasionally we’d pass horse drawn wagons that carried lumber, food, supplies, or people. We also noticed small open buildings on the side of the road every so often. They were only big enough to fit one or two people side-by-side, and we could see, by looking inside the archway, that they housed small religious alters. Each one was decorated differently and some were unfinished wood structures, while others were finished with cement or white plaster. We're not certain, but we believe they're memorials of people who've died on the road, similar to crosses placed on the roadside in the United States. (If we're mistaken, correct us in the comments!)
The charm of being in the Romanian countryside was topped off with roadside stands selling treats. Since we were traveling in mid-summer, they were selling traditional treats like cheese, pastries, breads, and fruit. We’ve never seen so many watermelons in one place before! We witnessed, full size cargo vans parked on the side of the road filled to the brim (literally to the roof) with watermelons! (Shannon here! This is a seriously mouthwatering sight to see, as I love watermelons so much that I could go days only eating watermelon - and I have!)
Where the Transfagarasan Highway Meets the Trees
As we approached the Fagaras Mountains, we left behind the small towns and entered the dark-green, densely forested area at the base of the mountains. The highway began to twist and turn as we began the ascent. The mountains rose to great heights around us, and in certain areas we could look up and see the road we would soon be on that was several hundred feet above us. The rock cliffs were sheer, steep, and a bit daunting, but at the base of the valley a rocky stream flowed next to the road. There were plenty of places to stop and picnic or hike, but we had too many miles ahead of us to stop.
Vidraru Dam on the Transfagarasan Highway
We drove through a tunnel that passed through part of the mountain, and came out the other side to a view that we didn’t expect. Suddenly, in front of us was a massive dam. Vidraru Dam stands 541 feet tall, spans 1,000 feet, and holds 465 million cubic meters of water. It was built in 1966 and sadly, over 60 lives were lost during its construction. The road runs across the top of the dam, and there are places to pull over at either end, so we pulled over on the nearside, parked the car, and got out to take pictures. There are great views in both directions, one direction is of Lake Vidraru (actually a man-made reservoir) and the other of the tree covered valley and mountains. If you’re a fan of the BBC’s Top Gear, look over and down on the dry side of the dam. This is where the cast of the show ‘woke-up’ after having pulled off the road the night before to get some sleep. Hopefully we’re not spoiling anything for you since we linked to the video at the beginning, but it became painfully apparent that there was no way they just happened to pull off the road for some sleep at what was the base of Vidraru Dam!
As you arrive at the dam there are two options for continuing your road trip. You can either make a turn off, where the snack and souvenir tented shops are, and go through the tunnel, or continue driving across the dam and take the more direct route to the famous switchbacks of the Transfagarasan Highway. If you turn left and take the turn off you’ll add a significant amount of time to your trip, as the road is longer and not as well maintained, but you'll be rewarded with views of the lake. Regardless of what roadway you choose to drive before leaving the lake, look up at the peak of Plesa Mountain (which is on the far side of the dam). You’ll see a massive sculpture of Prometheus, the Greek God who stole fire from Mt. Olympus and gave it to humanity. In the sculpture, Prometheus’ holding a lightning bolt that’s meant to symbolizes electricity.
Ascending the Fagaras Mountains
If you decided to stay straight and go over the dam (as we did), the drive will be very enjoyable, and although the road isn’t as treacherous as it’ll be near the top, the turns and ascent really become noticeable. The trees are dense and there are waterfalls and streams all around, so it's nice that there are occasional turn offs, as well as areas to picnic to enjoy the views of the lake, and go hiking. As you drive, be careful because the road is narrow and the turns can be surprisingly sharp. Remember, take your time and drive at your personal comfort level. If cars line up behind you, simply pull over at the next possible place and let them pass.
When the trees clear, there are open fields along the mountainsides. In places you’ll be able to see cable car lines running hundreds of feet above, and if your timing is right, bright red cable cars! Be careful though and be sure to keep your attention on the road, vehicles aren’t the only ones who share the roads. Sheepherders can be seen, with hundreds of sheep in their flock, moving along the mountainsides as well as the roads. Be patient, as it can take some time for the entire flock to cross; if you’re impatient and try to pass using your horn, you’ll like only pass a few dozen before you realize it’s pointless and nearly impossible to pass the sea of sheep. Maybe it’s because we’re ‘city folk’, but we found it incredibly fun and interesting to watch the sheepherders along with their sheep-dogs manage and move their flock along!
As we neared the top of the pass, the clouds started to roll in. The fog was dense and the cold wind gained strength. We knew we were getting close to the top when we looked up and saw the winding road ahead of us reach past the tree line and approach the final tunnel. We passed countless small and large waterfalls, as well as the Balea Waterfall, with some attracting many visitors who parked their cars along the side of the road. Be sure to use caution when passing, as the parked cars take up a lane of the highway and people are walking to and from the waterfalls. As we approached the top, we couldn't help but pull over to take in the view of the road and the valley beneath us, it was breathtaking!
Reaching the top of the Transfagarasan Pass
You’ll know you’re near the highest part of the pass when you reach the tunnel at the top. It’s the Balea Tunnel and it’s the longest road tunnel in Romania, measuring 884 meters (2,900 feet). Once we made our way through the mountain (yes, literally from one side of the mountain to the other!), we emerged at what seemed to be a small village next to a glacier lake, Balea Lake (Bâlea Lac in Romanian). When we passed through, the area was covered in such dense fog, that we couldn’t see more than 100 feet in front of us. Sadly, we didn’t get to see the beautiful, crystal clear views of the lake. On a side note, we later met a couple who did the same drive the day before us, that had fantastic and clear weather at the top. If, during your road trip, you’re graced with better weather, this is a great place to stop and have a break. There are plenty of places to get a snack or sit down at a nice restaurant next to the lake. You can also stay the night at an ice hotel, take a ride on the cable car, or stay at the Balea Lake Chalet. More information can be found at the Balea Lac website.
Descending the Transfagarasan Highway
Before we began our descent, we started to get a bit worried. We thought we’d missed the spectacular view of the hairpin switchbacks that wind down the mountain because of the dense fog at the top of the mountain peak. However, once we began our descent, the best view was waiting for us. As we turned the corner, past Belea Lake, the fog started to clear and we could see down the mountain and into the valley. Below us was the section of the road that’s famous, the one that Jeremy Clarkson remarked that it’s “every great corner, from every great race track, lined up one after the other” (Top Gear, season 14, episode 1). Fortunately, there were several places to pull off and take pictures of the view.
This is where you’ll want to be extremely cautious taking the turns, as the road is only feet from the edge of the mountainside and barriers around the cliff drops are meager, if there are any at all. Sadly, it’s not unheard of for visitors to lose control or to have break problems and drive off the side of the mountain. Just be careful and enjoy the road trip, and although we've commented on being careful several times, in our experience the drive wasn’t as dangerous as we anticipated it to be.
If you want the postcard picture, be sure to stop near the top of the mountain. However, you’ll want to make sure and pull over in a place that has enough space and visibility, so that passing traffic will see your vehicle and be able to safely pass. Also, the terrain is wet and slippery, so be careful near edges, especially when taking photographs. No picture is worth risking your safety!
We were sure to switch drivers at the point when we were driving down the mountain, since we both wanted the glory of being able to say we’d driven the Transfagarasan Highway! True to form, just as we’d experienced on the way up, there were waterfalls around what seemed to be every turn. The sights are magnificent; the green hills, water, and the stone work placed by the builders of the Transfagarasan Highway are beautiful all the way down the mountain and into the valley. Sheepherders, with hundreds of sheep were on the sides of the hills as we drove. Lower into the valley we passed what seemed to be the homes of the sheepherders and the land was spotted with cows, hogs, and pigs. If you’re lucky, along the drive you may even spot a fox or two!
The Transfagarasan Highway ends as you exit the Fagarsa Mountains and enter Olt Valley. The turns become fewer and fewer and you’ll soon enter the town of Cartisoara. Here you can visit the Badea Cartan Museum and then continue until you make it to the E68/DN1. From here, make a right to venture on towards Brasov, Romania (Brașov), or turn left to go back to Bucharest (south on the E81/DN64) or to continue onto Sibiu (north on the E81/DN64).
Our Final Thoughts on the Transfagarasan Highway
The Transfagarasan Highway, on our way to Sibiu, was a road trip that was well worth the day it took to complete. The views were spectacular and the road is a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ adventure that we highly recommend! In our humble opinion, it boldly lives up to its well-deserved and heralded notoriety. For us, the Transfagarasan Highway didn’t disappoint and we hope you enjoy it as much as we did when your adventures take you to Romania!