The last time that Tour de Europe visited Romania it was 10 years ago. We didn’t really expect that much would have changed, but boy how wrong we were. 10 years ago, Romania had the look and feel of a failed Stalinist state. Bucharest came complete with boarded up buildings and packs of wild dogs roaming around. It appeared at that time that Romania’s biggest export was abandoned chemical factories and aggressive Roma beggars. Move on 10 years and things have changed in a big way for the better.
Our motivation this time was to drive on the Transfagarasan Highway, touted by Top Gear as the best driving road in the world. The Transfagarasan was built in the early 60’s as a way of getting the Romanian Army quickly north to repel an anticipated Russian invasion. 4000 tons of TNT was used on the job and 4000 soldiers lost their lives (mainly in avalanches). The road has over 800 bridges, mostly only a couple of meters long to bridge gaps in the hillside. The good thing about the road is as it was designed for 1960’s military vehicles, the grade is not too steep.
Our access to Romania was over the Danube at Russe (Bulgaria) using the Freedom Bridge. Immigration checks on the Romanian side took a while due to the volume of cars but no problem. You need to pick up a vignette for the vehicle at the border; the price was 350 Lei (about $10AUD). Bucharest is about 60 kms north of the border and the southern suburbs had me thinking that things hadn’t changed much. The centre of the city was very different though.
We used the Hilton Athenee Palace as our base in Bucharest. It is an excellent hotel, with friendly staff, good service and value for money; you don’t even need a password for the WiFi. It has a British Pub style bar in the back that has excellent Fish & Chips and good cheap Champagne. It’s the second time I’ve had a long night in that bar.
As always, the Red bus is the best way to get a feel for the city. This is where it became apparent that a lot had been done to clean the place up. I’d read that the city council had addressed the wild dog problem and the public buildings had been cleaned up and the grass in the parks had been mown (it’s my observation the Eastern European countries don’t place a great priority on tidy public parks and the mowers only come out as a last resort). Bucharest is known for one thing and that is the Romanian parliament building, the second largest building in the world. Six suburbs were bulldozed to make it, and the dictator Cesescu was starting on the 11th floor (to make it bigger than the Pentagon) when the revolution swept him away. You can do a tour of the building when parliament is not in session, but some people report that the guides can be surly and unhelpful at times. In addition, in front of the viewing balcony, there is a magnificent boulevard with gardens and fountains that is 3 metres longer than the Champs D’Elysee. It’s here that you can appreciate why Bucharest was known as the ‘Paris of the East’ back in the 20’s and 30’s as there is some great architecture here giving it a look of an elegant French boulevard.
There is an ‘old city’ area that has been transformed into a restaurant and tourist area and on the north side of the centre is an extensive park area with an interesting ‘village’ museum. The museum is a collection of rural buildings, some as old as three or four hundred years.
Our departure the next morning was uneventful, taking the main freeway west out of Bucharest. It’s about 130 kms to the town of Pitesti, where you turn off to the D7NC and the town of Curtea de Arges. There are plenty of signs to say whether the road is open (if you can read Romanian) as at 2500 metres it can snow unexpectedly. Because of this, the road is only open between June and October. The road proper starts about 30 kms north of Curtea and it was also noticeable that there was lots of new farm machinery in the fields. The road itself is not too hard as there were lots of tourist cars preventing you from overcooking it. Some of the scenery is spectacular and there are viewing spots at certain locations such as the hydroelectric dam at Lake Vidraru.
As we approached the top of the highway at Lake Balea we had to slow to 20 km/h as we were being blocked by two Mercedes with Bulgarian plates taking selfies while sitting out of the window. Once you get through the tunnel at the top a fantastic vista opens up. There is a parking area up there with lots of trinket vendors and some of the best smoked ham anywhere. Beyond the parking area you can look over the edge (photo below) to see the highway descend the mountain and head off in the direction of Sibiu.
Sibiu itself betrays its Germanic heritage by having well planned housing with the same red roof tiles and a well kempt look about it. Our hotel here was the Golden Tulip ANA tower, a relatively new hotel furnished out of the IKEA catalogue. Again, the hotel was good value with an excellent roof top restaurant. It was about 10 minutes walk from the old part of town, which has been converted to an attractive pedestrian area. We were there at the same time as the European Off Road Motorcycle Championship and caught up with a couple of Aussie riders for a few cold ones. On leaving Sibiu, new road works (and many poorly marked detours) on the Euro funded main highway proved difficult for our GPS’s but we managed to emerge at the border with Hungary without losing too much sanity. The main issue causing frustration is the sheer volume of trucks going through the small villages where the highway is yet to be completed.
One place we didn’t visit but is worth mentioning is Brasov and specifically Bran Castle. It’s rumoured that Bram Stokers ‘Dracula’ was housed in Bran Castle, though he apparently was not aware that Bran Castle existed when he wrote the book. The castle itself is smaller than you imagine it should be, and the internal passages are perfectly made for the Hunchback of Notre Dame. The car park at the base is filled with trinket sellers selling everything you may or may not need to remember your visit to the home of Lord of the Vampires including bottles of ‘Vampire’s Blood’, spare set of Vampires Teeth etc. One could well imagine Bela Lugosi, or Vincent Price looming over you and saying ‘I want to drink your blood’ in one of the dark passages in the castle.
Tripadvisor gave Romania a rap for being the big destination for 2017 and I wouldn’t dispute that. The Transylvanian countryside is picturesque; Bucharest is now equal to anywhere and smaller towns like Sibiu and Brasov have a lot to offer.