The next part of Romania had me super excited like a kid at Christmas and it certainly didn’t disappoint.We were heading directly for the mighty Transfagarasan pass, quite possibly the greatest cycling road climb in the world!
The road east from Sibiu to the Transfagarasan was seriously busy so we took some random back roads, all marked as decent roads on the map, but we still hadn’t learnt that in Romania this means nothing. The road we followed turned into a muddy track, in sections it was flooded in mud almost up to the panniers.
At one particularly bad stretch a horse and cart rolled up, the portly bald man at the reigns resembled friar tuck and he kindly pointed out a useful detour through a field. There were some interesting little villages not quiet as traditional as further north in the Apuseni area, but still with horse and carts busy hay collecting.
Finally we reached a large reservoir where a section of the track was on the raised levees, then the way forward just stopped in a field. Frustratingly we had to retrace the route to cross a dam back onto the main road anyway. It was sketchy riding with angry big lorries, it was a definite relief when we reached the turn off for the Transfagarasan road.
The locals laughed at us for being English as apparently the road is getting super popular with the English after Top Gear named it the best road to drive in the world. Just after the turn off three dutch vans were sorting out a motorbike and full filming equipment, showing its fame is spreading fast.
It is a hugely impressive route, the second highest road in Romania at 2040m and was built in the 1970s to provide a new military route in the Soviet era in case of invasion. It is a serious feat of engineering with plenty of bridges, avalanche ducts, tunnels and too many switch backs to count.
We started at about 400m and rose to the tunnel at 2040m so a huge non stop climb of 1600m. We stopped for pictures, delaying the inevitable start, the first few hairpins were fine except the smell of hot brakes of the over heated cars passing us.
Then it’s just a question of finding your spinning rhythm and creating distracting thoughts to occupy the mind! We soon gained height, achieve small benchmark achievements on the GPS, first the 800m mark, then 1000m etc. We stopped at the Balea waterfalls for a sugar coated bread dough spiral and some water. Here a rickety cable car takes people 4km to the top over the falls. Maybe they take bikes, we didn’t actually check!
We were finally out of the forest and only then could appreciate our vast distance above the plains we rode just a few hours ago. At the top of the Balea waterfall is a plateau but the road continues going up to begin the hugely photographic epic hairpin section.
The gradient is pretty reasonable here so it’s not as daunting as it looked. With energy reserves getting low we stopped at a nice spot by a river to cook dinner and wild camp just below lake Balea and the summit tunnel. A nice enough spot that was also very quiet, until lots of sheep, two shepherds and four dogs passed by. One of the angry dogs came close and one shepherd just stared at us for ages, we became unsure about camping.
We got back on the bikes up the final hairpins and reached Lake Balea and the tunnel entrance at 2040m! The sun was just setting and the view was inspired, a truly magical time to arrive. We even found a cool camp spot on the left side of the lake.
I really think this road lives up to its reputation, it has the complete package of epic vertical, great views and it will surely grow in reputation among cyclists, next time there will probably be more than one other rider! At the top it was a clear starry night with great views of the road meandering way back down, and no sheep!
Next day we had a pretty late start after I hiked to the ridge above the tunnel, typically the cloud closed in on me, but I still had good views of the lake nestled below the jagged rocky ridge line.
We had some mountain cheese melted inside a ball of polenta and homemade chocolate for brunch, from a food stall, that was surprisingly tasty.
The tunnel Marion had dreaded was actually fine; narrow, dark and very wet but the cars were slow and it felt safe.
The other side was cloudier but still amazingly rugged and wild in the high mountains. We then rode down the dramatic but less hairpinned south side.
Here are some horses high up in the mountains on the south side – one is pulling a funny face for the camera:
It went on for a long time; finally we reached Vidraru reservoir where the road went up and down too much for our tired legs.
It is also home to Vlad the Impaler (AKA Count Dracula)’s, Poienari Castle: an impressive, but ruined, birds-nest castle. A great spot for vampires, but too many stairs up for us lazy cycle tourers. Here is Marion the vampire in front of the castle on the hill!
We passed through villages as we headed south; one had an interesting monastery at Albesti Pamantelii. A very ornately decorated interior in a chapel, with every surface covered in fantastic colourful murals and detailed mosaics of the saints. Next to the chapel was a fancy and quite impressive modern white building that looked a bit like the decks of a cruise ship jutting from the hill side.
We stocked up with holy water, under the watchful eye of a distinctly un-monk like chap talking on a mobile phone on an upper deck/balcony. The thought crossed my mind, that this was the secret home of a mob family, the two blacked out SUVs by the large gates did little to dissuade me from my theory.
We finally arrived at Curtea de Arges – a real surprise of a town. The only campsite by castle ruins may now be a hotel, but we stayed in a incredibly friendly guest house and explored the wealth of fascinating buildings dating from Roman times to the first kings residence in the 13th century. Here is a monastery chapel in the town:
Here is another church in Curtea de Arges:
The next morning after free home made ice cream and then cake and coffee, we chatted to some Americans, an unusual sight in Romania, before setting off into the south. This was the friendly guesthouse owner with my bike:
It was a long and tedious day trying to make headway towards Bulgaria and the Danube border crossing. After being befriended by a local who spoke no English, but was on his way to meet his son, we rode with him for 40km to Pitesti where we stopped for lunch.
Further south there were simply no sleeping options, no campsites or hotels and the villages were very poor, every inch of land was grazed. The continuous unfriendly and suspicious staring in response to smiles and waves, unsettled us against wild camping. We were shouted at for money by more than one old man, which is pretty unusual in the villages.
We considered catching a train, but even they ran the wrong way. It was a tough day but not entirely without interest. The villages at 6pm were full of lines of people with whips, ropes and chains setting off to retrieve their cows and goats. The common grazing patches were a flurry of activity as the cows were sorted and walked off home.
Finally we rolled into Rosiorii de Vede, where we found the only hotel available. The centre was surprisingly lively and pleasant, the grand old hotel we stayed at was empty bar us, but an intriguing building to run about in.
The epic previous days riding of almost 100 miles left the border just 30km away at Turnu Maguele, where there is very little of interest but the Danube ferry, and at least one hotel for stuck cyclists.
The ferry runs 4 to 5 times daily we missed the one at 12am and waited around until 4pm to be the sole passengers on a very big boat. €3 each made it a cheap charter!
That was it goodbye Romania after 9 days, the first country that despite weaving across the highlights, it felt like we had unfinished business and should return. It was incredibly cheap to eat and stay but rich in tradition and charm. It has a rural way of life that is probably unique and should be experienced before it appears only in museums or becomes a twee photo op in tourist hotspots. The Transfagarasan must be on all cyclists bucket list, it was a real highlight of the trip. Apuseni park is another great spot one could explore more, especially if on mountain bikes!
We are getting pretty tired out after the last few long days, we are averaging 100km a day including the three rest days so far. After zig zagging and spending more time in Romania we must push on across Bulgaria and get to Istanbul for our first rest days in quite a while!