Romanian roadtrip – The Transfăgărășan Highway

Day 6 – The Transfăgărășan Highway to Sibiu

Before leaving Curtea de Arges, I wanted to see the two main attractions, the cathedral, and the ‘Princely Court.

I’d mostly chosen Curtea de Arges as a stopping point for its geographical convenience at the start to the Transfăgărășan Highway so we wouldn’t have to do too much driving before we hit the twists and turns of the mountain pass. So everything we saw there would be a complete bonus on the trip.

Curtea de Argeș Cathedral

Curtea de Argeș Cathedral

The Cathedral is a rather odd building for an Orthodox church, built in the Moorish style with many architectural elements that seem in keeping more with a mosque than a church.

Curtea de Argeș Cathedral

Curtea de Argeș Cathedral

Detail of Curtea de Argeș Cathedral

Detail of Curtea de Argeș Cathedral

The turrets on the top have a twisting design and the pale limestone facing is punctuated by only the tiniest of windows.

Interior of Curtea de Argeș Cathedral

Interior of Curtea de Argeș Cathedral

Inside is a complete surprise after the pale and light exterior, exceedingly dark and every inch covered with richly adorned paintings all gleaming with gold. The church dates from the early 16th century originally but was restored from a ruin in the late 19th century and given the facade it has now.

Interior of Curtea de Argeș Cathedral

Interior of Curtea de Argeș Cathedral

Decoration inside Curtea de Argeș Cathedral

Decoration inside Curtea de Argeș Cathedral

After this we walked back to the Princely court (they’re walking distance from each other so stay somewhere in between the two and you’ve got it made) to see the 13th and 14th century ruins of the court of Curtea de Arges back when it was the capital of Wallachia. The 14th century St Nicholas' Church, Princely Court, Curea de Arges

The chief attraction is St Nicholas’ Church, which dates from the time of Basarab I (1310–52). Most of the frescoes inside are contemporaneous with the building of the church and include some rare compositions.

Interior of Biserica Domnească Sfântul Nicolae, Curtea de Arges, Romania

Interior of Biserica Domnească Sfântul Nicolae

I’m always so awestruck by churches which are completely painted inside, especially since the English Reformation reduced all our extant churches and cathedrals to empty white washed shells.

Frescoes in Biserica Domnească Sfântul Nicolae

Frescoes in Biserica Domnească Sfântul Nicolae, Dormition of the Virgin

Frescoes in Biserica Domnească Sfântul Nicolae

Frescoes in Biserica Domnească Sfântul Nicolae

Half on hour later of staring open mouthed at this elaborate decorative scheme I conceded that I finally had enough photos and turned my attention to the road ahead.

The Transfăgărășan Highway was built as a strategic military route in the 1970s and also goes by the name of ‘Ceaușescu’s Folly’. It crosses the southern Carpathians climbing to an elevation of 2,000m. It was also apparently voted the ‘world’s best roadtrip’ by Top Gear, and when you drive it, it’s easy to see why.

Looking back down the Transfăgărășan Highway

Looking back down the Transfăgărășan Highway

I had seen from Google Maps, as well as searching online for information that the Transfăgărășan Highway (the 7C road) was not open all the way through yet, typically opening in June (we were just a couple of days into the month). A tired wooden notice board duly notified us that it was closed at km 79 (it runs from 1km up from the north to the south).

It seems that the road is generally open during July, August, September and October and then closes again when it gets blocked by snow. Still, we remained in hope that by some miracle it would be open, thus saving us a spectacular drive which would culminate in having to drive all the way back and round another route to Sibiu, adding 4 hours to our journey.

On the way to this famous road, we would pass Poenari Castle, the only one that actual does seem to have something to do with Dracula. This fortress sits atop a ridge (Mount Cetatea) at the start to the Transfăgărășan pass, up concrete 1,480 steps.

DSC09972

It was first built around the beginning of the 13th century but later abandoned until Vlad the Impaler took it over and repaired it in the 15th century. Alas, viewing the castle was not to be as a mother bear had seen fit to raise young somewhere near the path to the castle and so it was closed until the bears could be safely relocated to somewhere they couldn’t scare tourists.

Castle closed due to very orderly line of bears

Castle closed due to very orderly line of bears

So it was back in the car and time to finally sample the Transfăgărășan Highway. You don’t need to wait long for the ‘ooohs’ and ‘ahhhs’ with the road winding tightly around the sheer cliff faces towering each side and darting in and out of tunnels cut through the rock. You soon come to the dammed Lacul Vidraru with its beautifully green colour. DSC00010

The road beyond the lake settles down into sweeping alpine vistas with some tight bends but nowhere near the treacherous conditions we had become used to in Romania. The road was oddly well maintained with few pot holes (except the ones they were currently filling) and fairly easy going corners. Although, in common with the rest of the country, you never quite know what will be in the road when you come round the corner.

Transfăgărășan rush hour

Transfăgărășan rush hour

The next 30km or so were plain sailing until we became aware of the change in scenery as the altitude increased. Lush forest gave way to rock, gravel and barren grassy slopes. Grey cloud clung to the top of the pass and we could see seams of snow still on the rocks despite the 18 degree heat.

Snow on the Transfăgărășan pass, Romania

Deep snow lines the roads even in June

Higher we went until we were met with huge snow drifts across half the world, busily melting but still some weeks away from disappearing. We finally reached a queue of parked cars at the entrance to the tunnel through the mountains – that was the end of the line, our gamble hadn’t paid off. But we’d managed to get further than we thought and enjoyed amazing views over the mountains. After a tricky three point turn it was back the way we came.

Entrance to Bâlea Tunnel on the Transfăgărășan Highway

Entrance to 884m long Bâlea Tunnel on the Transfăgărășan Highway

The drive back to Curtea de Arges to start our route to Sibiu was uneventful and far from a boring repeat of the same journey in reverse, was a great opportunity to take in the spectacular scenery once more.DSC00084

We headed off towards Sibiu on another cute local road which round gently through small villages, all characteristically lined with hay stacks.

Soon, however, the paving disappeared and we found ourselves on a gravel road. No biggy, we’d done a few of those already. But not like this. The road quickly deteriorated into what I can only describe as a motor cross track. We bumped along in first gear, the car making ever stranger noises. Somehow a white van was speeding ahead of us – we never did catch him up – but we at least knew it would be possible to drive the road, despite the quizzical look from the cow herder we passed.

Unpaved Romanian road

The road quality had improved significantly by the time I dared to take this picture

We eventually made it back onto a ‘proper’ road which was paved but resembled more the kind of road leading to a country estate than a main thoroughfare. I wish I’d taken photos to prove how bad that road was, because no one will ever believe me, but unfortunately I was too eagerly scanning the road ahead for pot holes and hanging on for dear life!

Moral of the story: check your routes ahead of time- if the little yellow Google man hasn’t been there, think twice. We earned that ‘no new damage’ verdict on our car rental return slip- I’ve even kept it as a souvenir!

Finally we arrived in Sibiu, a beautiful city and important cultural centre, holding the European Capital of Culture title  in 2007. We watched the sunset from the main square and ate a traditional Romania meal of Sarmale – minced beef, pork and rice wrapped in cabbage leaves and served with sour cream.

Sibiu central square, Romania

Sibiu central square at sunset

Day 7 – the last day in Sibiu

Sibiu is a really attractive city with lots going on; plenty of shops, restaurants, churches and museums. Quite aside from that it’s just a really pretty and pleasant place to stroll around.

Sibiu central square

Sibiu central square

Houses in the Lower Town, Sibiu

Houses in the Lower Town, Sibiu

After a busy week travelling around I was in the market for a good stroll and decided to have an easy day wandering around before my flight home, rather than attempting to sight-see too much. There are plenty of museums in Sibiu, however, and you could easily spend a few days there.

In Sibiu the roofs have eyes- apparently this is totally unique to this town. It’s a bit of a strange sight but highly photogenic!

Sibiu central square, Romania

Sibiu central square with characteristic ‘eyelid’ windows in the roofs

We also took a stroll around the old walls in the shade, stopping to look at the various remaining towers.

Tower in the fortified walls which surrounded the medieval city of Sibiu

Tower in the fortified walls which surrounded the medieval city

All too soon it was time to head to the airport and end our week of driving in Romania. Such an amazingly beautiful country- I will definitely be back.

 

 

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