More than 150 kilometres in length the Transfagarasan Highway is Romania’s most spectacular and best known road and, thanks to an appearance on BBC Top Gear in 2009, now one of the country’s most popular tourist attractions. Fully open only from June to October, the road’s highest point is at 2042 metres: the tunnel which links the northern and southern sides at Lake Balea (Balea Lac).
A Little HistoryThe Transfagarasan - as with everything else in Romania at the time, it would seem - was built from 1970-1974 on the personal orders of Nicolae Ceausescu, who, legend has it, wanted to create a strategic route across the Fagaras Mountains to ferry troops north should Romania be invaded by the USSR (as Czechoslovakia had been in 1968). This legend of course ignores the fact that a perfectly good and far quicker route around the mountains (the Valea Oltului) already existed, and that any strategic impact of a road open for only a few months each year would have been minimal. Still, who are we to question a good urban myth?
A far more likely explanation for the construction of the road was the simple fact that the mountains were there, and that the road across the very top would serve as a proud example of just what socialist Romania - with Ceausescu as its leader - could achieve. Much like the Danube-Black Sea Canal project of the 1980s the Transfagarasan was therefore built as a status symbol with little regard for cost or usefulness. (Indeed - whisper it - but the Transfagarasan is fundamentally useless).
Yet whereas the Danube-Black Sea Canal is today the biggest white elephant in the country (it carries very little marine traffic), the Transfagarasan has never been more popular. Always a favoured weekend trip for Romanian drivers, its international fame now means that motoring enthusiasts from all over Europe (particularly Poland, in our experience) beat a path here each summer. While the you can just about do the Transfagarasan in a (long) day trip from Bucharest, we recommend taking a couple of days: besides the Transfagarasan itself there is plenty to see along the way.
Getting ThereTo get to the Transfagarasan from Bucharest, the best way is to take the A1 motorway to the industrial town of Pitesti (best known as being the place where Dacia cars are made). There is little to recommend a stop in the town itself, except perhaps the memorial north of the city centre marking the site of Pitesti Prison. This – along with Sighet in the very north of Romania – was the most notorious of the communist prisons where countless intellectuals and members of the old ruling class were executed from 1948-1954.
A much better choice for your first pit stop is in fact Curtea de Arges, a small town 38 kilometers north of Pitesti. It is home to the ruins of the Princely Court (Curtea Domneasca, Open 10:00-17:00) built by Basarab I in the 14th century. While there is not really very much left of the Court building itself, the well-kept church (Biserica Domneasca) is in excellent condition - it was entirely renovated from 2003-4 and open to the public. Basarab I is buried near the church’s altar. A short distance north of the city (and on the way to the Transfagarasan) is the even more impressive Biserica Episcopala Curtea de Arges, part of the Curtea de Arges Monastery. A superb example of Byzantine design, the cathedral was built between 1514 and 1526 using materials brought almost entirely from Constantinople, on the orders of Neagoe Basarab, the son of Basarab I.