The man said : "If you’re a fan of television’s British Top Gear series, you’ll probably have heard of this road. It’s called the Transfăgăraşan and it was rated by the Top Gear trio as the best driving road in the world.
It is a very difficult point to argue, other than to say that it’s also probably one of the best roads for two wheelers on the planet."
It's the opinion of a motorbiker. I've climbed this road (the national road DN 7c) 5 times already, as a two-wheeler, but only under my own burned calories - that is to say, as a cyclist only. Never alone, always with friends of my sort. So it's time to tell a story about this road.
It links Wallachia (the southern historical province of Romania) with Transylvania (located centrally, within the Carpathian arch). At it's southern tip, it begins in Piteşti, passes through Curtea de Argeş, climbs to barrage lake Vidraru (built on Argeş river) and then ascends to Bâlea Lake (2040 m), through a tunnel boared in the mountain's top (not through a regular pass).
At it's northern tip, it detaches from main road DN1 (Sibiu-Brasov) near the village of Cârtişoara and ascends to Bâlea waterfall and then, on a highly spectacular course, to Bâlea Lake. This is the section that earned it's reputation inside and outside Romania. Due to heavy snow in the winter, the road is open usually between July 1st and October 31st.
The Southern Side
As I live in Bucharest, this was the first side that I climbed. It happened in 2010, together with some of my friends cyclists, while en route to the annual cyclists' meeting in Cârtişoara. There were 3 adventurous days which I will not ever forget. In the morning of July 30th I took a train from Bucharest to Curtea de Argeş, together with about 15 fellows cyclists. The Curtea de Arges railwaystation building is some piece of architecture
In Curtea de Argeş, former capital of Wallachia, we stopped a moment at the most well known historical monument, the Monastery, built between 1512-1517 under the rule of Neagoe Basarab (mural picture finished 1526).
It serves as a royal necropolis, as the following Romanian monarchs have been buried here : King Charles I and Queen Elisabeth of Romania, King Ferdinand and Queen Mary of Romania, King Charles II. It is also a symbol of Romanian orthodoxism, receiving over 100.000 pilgrims and tourists a year.
Then off we got on our way to Arefu, the last commune before steep climb to Vidraru lake begun. If one looks upwards to north-west, the Poenari citadel can be seen, marking the beginning of the slope. The remains of this citadel are today a museum, to be reached after climbing 1480 stairs. It was first documented at 1500, but the builder remains unknown. We only know that it was later used by Vlad the Impaler, ruler of Wallachia, for military purposes (not permanent habitation).
The road was paved with poor quality asphalt at the time, full of potholes, before and along the lake. Now, as of 2012, the situation has improved much and you feel comfortable while riding even a race bike.
At Vidraru dam we decided to take left on an unpaved road, leading us to Cumpăna chalet, where I had accomodation booked overnight. As I came on my hybrid bike, meant mostly for the road, it was a bit harder, but I managed to arrive safely at the chalet.
The others slept in their tents, on the lake's shore.
It's there where I came to meet them again the next morning. The landscape at sunset and sunrise did worth all efforts taken until now.
It was the Big Day, when we were supposed to do the Great Climb and meet with fellow cyclists from all over the country at the base camp in Cârtişoara, on the northern side. After escaping the forest road, I met the real deal and hurried up to catch up with the people. It happened near the Black Peak chalet ("Piscul Negru"), where we stopped a bit for a beer and chat.
Then up we rode again. The real ascension begins 15 km before Bâlea Lake, after a bridge above the Capra ("goat") rivulet.
The scenery is breathtaking, and this gets amplified by the fact that I am here for the first time ever. I am climbing, stopping to take pictures and then up in the saddle.
8 km from Bâlea Lake chalet we stopped for lunch at Capra chalet. Having the internal batteries recharged, the Ride continued.
Quick stop at the Capra waterfall.
A mild fog was embracing us as we were beyond 1700 m altitude. At 2000 m I got down and looked back. Jesus, I couldnt imagine I would get here on 2 human-powered wheels! It felt great.
But then this enthusiasm got a bit tempered by the unlit tunnel linking the southern and northern side. Thanks God, it is now lit, as local authorities worked on electrification here. But had it been lit then, I would have not entered a deep pothole in the ground and fell off the bike. It was ok for me, but not for the front tire.
Having reached the Bâlea Lake chalet, a hot tea and Romanian sour soup were needed (temperature was as low as 10 degrees Celsius).
Be aware the traffic in weekends is very high. Therefore I could see that everyone was parked everywhere. Cyclists continue to be an exotic appearance in Romania but their number is constantly increasing. The atitude of the public is also slowly getting better. At that moment only the significant amount (around 400) told the motorists that we are having a special event here. The road and mountain is ours too and we will gladly share it and protect it together.
The Northern Side
It took me another 2 years to reach the top again on the northern side. This time I came on my mountainbike, as the hybrid was in bad shape.
Wednesday, July 27th, I got up on a train from Bucharest to Ucea. From Ucea I rode (together with 5 or 6 fellows) to the base camp in Cârtişoara. I slept in one of the many tourist pensions that this village is hosting, waiting for tourists all summer.
The next morning we met at the camp (again 4-500 people, including families with kids) and triumphantly began the climb.
There are 22 steep kilometers until the top, with extraordinary sights along the way. You first navigate your way through a forest. The road leads you to the Bâlea Waterfall chalet.
You can take lunch or, if you get here by car, you can take the cable car to the top. We did none of those things, just took a break and bought a few souvenirs for my family back home, then began the climb again.
The forest ends at some point and you end up in the upper alpine section, along the winding road, with it's curves, hairpins, bridges and that unique scenery that would make almost every hiker, trekker, cyclist, motorbiker and driver to dream of it.
I stopped and took pictures of all these and talked about it with unknown fellow cyclists that I met along the Great Road.
Bear in mind that the northern side will undergo complete road restauration during the 2013 summer, so it will be closed for car traffic. Nevertheless you can still reach the Bâlea Lake chalet ascending from the south, as shown above.
All along, with all breaks taken for pictures and rehydration (the weather was great, maybe even too warm) it took me 3 and 1/2 hours to reach the top and enjoy a well deserved beer and lunch.
An unannounced rain took us by surprise, so we had to stay inside for an hour or two, chattering about everything. But afterwards the sun appeared again and a beautiful sunset guided us on the descent back to Cârtişoara.
Take care when descending, you need to have good brakes and nerves of steel. Having a functional bike, you will however succeed, even if you are a beginner in this cycling bussiness .