Is Romania’s Transfagarasan Highway really the best driver’s road in the world? We find out with a little help from the world’s best-selling sports cars.
It’s late evening and I’m stuck in a small, unresponsive lift on the ground floor of a largely deserted hotel on the outskirts of Sibiu, Romania. At least I think I’m stuck, which is worse. How I’ve come to be apparently trapped – frazzled, sweaty and desperate for a wee – in a lift that apparently doesn’t is something I wouldn’t normally mention. But if driving the Transfagarasan Highway is on your to-do list – and it should be – the natural inclination to stay in Transylvania’s pretty and historic capital, in theory an hour away, conceals a trap that could un-make your day.
A few miles out of town, already meagre route options funnel down to one road that, in the evening on the run back to Sibiu, clogs so completely that the sense of hopelessness and frustration doesn’t just deflate the highs experienced on the Transfagarasan but sucks the will to live out through your eyeballs. At journey’s end, the 75km trip has been so wearisome that jogging listlessly across an eerily silent and empty foyer and into a lift going nowhere isn’t such an odd thing to do – just the perverse mischief of a protracted day refusing to lie down.
I’m not sure how long I’m going to be confined to this carpeted box, so let’s rewind to when it all started, at 5am, with bleary eyes and photographer Aston Parrott’s hope to bathe our MX-5’s glossy maroon paint job in first light just as the Transfagarasan starts to bend and buck through the foothills of the Fagaras range at the southern end of Romania’s Carpathian Mountains.
It was down to Top Gear and Jeremy Clarkson in 2009 to pique already healthy tourist interest in the Transfagarasan. With the elasticated intonation of an MC introducing a heavyweight bout, Clarkson pronounced it the best road in the world. Not even a ‘probably’. Which is one of the reasons it’s so busy, even if it doesn’t go anywhere very interesting.
The 151km of route DN7C were laid between 1970 and 1974 on the orders of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, supposedly as a strategic response to the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet Union in 1968. It seems the idea was to build a road to transport troops rapidly north should the USSR make a move on Romania. Some contend that given its extravagant, possibly gratuitous curviness, it was actually more likely a vanity project in disguise. Whatever the reason, the Transfagarasan Highway is quite something and, from some elevated vantage points, looks like God’s Scalextric.
As anyone would, I boned up on a few stats and warnings, unavoidably stumbling over some events from a rather unsettling past that, despite the locale, didn’t involve the popular key-ring figurine Count Dracula. Reaching an altitude of 2042 metres, the road is very cold and snowy through the winter months and deemed by the authorities too treacherous to traverse at its highest point, where the short, dark and damp Capra Tunnel links the northern and southern sides while also overlooking a ridiculously blue and tranquil expanse of water called Lake Balea. The trip towards and away from the plateaued summit features several barrier-free cliff-edge drops that could sneak up on the unsuspecting and make them part of the scenery, additions only identifiable from the cable cars swaying gently in the breeze overhead. Considerably greater dangers faced the teams of junior military personnel who built the road. Untrained in blasting techniques, they were nevertheless put to work with six million kilograms of dynamite. Official records state that 40 soldiers lost their lives in the process, but unofficial estimates by workers put the figure in the hundreds.
Dawn is beaming through the mountains’ craggy corridors as the Transfagarasan starts to climb and sway its way south, and, with a little coercion from me, the ever-malleable Mazda syncs into its nascent rhythms, turn-rate tempo increasing with altitude. Achieving such a flow necessitates the early start, before the sightseers, day trippers, hikers, badly parked motorhomes and kamikaze Kawasakis roll up and join the swarms of sleepy sheep so large their boundaries are shrouded in mist and the odd toothsome, car sniffing donkey. But as the road curls and slithers its way up and around the mountains, the potential for unreconstructed fun is as vast as the scenery. Never mind this updated MX-5’s punchier motor – lifted by 17kW to 135kW – or its further tweaked chassis. Mining the potential for fun has been the small Japanese roadster’s stock-in-trade for decades.
By 6am we’re near the top, roof down, heater on, chat muted by the chill air and beauty of day breakingover the jagged backbone of the mountains. For the next hour or so, as the sun arcs over the high horizons, the Transfagarasan is still all but deserted, an opportunity to ‘learn’ the tastier sections either side of the Capra Tunnel, which, to be honest, are as good as it gets if you’re into hairpins, transitions, long sweepers and furious heel-and-toe downshifts. To the north, rocky canyons, tarmac that looks as if it’s been convulsed by a high-voltage cattle prod, and the spectacular Balea Waterfall and Lake. To the south, looser, faster turns that tumble through a densely wooded gorge with meadows, a river and, some way farther on, beyond the impressive Vidraru Dam and the vast, man-made Lake Vidraru, the ruins of the castle that was home to Vlad the Impaler for a time. Stick a pin in Vlad’s pad as a destination by all means, but be prepared to slog up more than 1500 very steep steps if you want to make a house call, as it’s perched high on a granite outcrop beside the southern section of the road. Aston and I turn around long before that and head back to the extraordinary 890-metre Capra Tunnel – which looks as if it’s been chiselled through by hand – and grab a coffee from the restaurant beyond the tunnel’s exit.
By midday, it’s effectively game over for spirited motoring until the hoards that have descended on Balea Lake’s facilities (including a colourful but rather tacky street market) finally disperse as the heat of the sun begins to fade. Actually, there’s a huge traffic jam that backs up into the tunnel and sprawls out in all directions as soon as light again hits the Mazda’s windscreen, decanting more multi-hued humanity than seems possible as it goes. Amid much horn parping and fist waving, dogs and children zig-zag excitedly between the cars and a mostly good-natured chaos ensues.
It isn’t so much that fun behind the wheel checks out for the rest of the day, more that it becomes a fascinating pursuit, with occasional moments of pure joy as yet one more first-generation Dacia Logan – exhaust smoking, scorched brake pads trailing a distinctive odour despite its pedestrian progress – is despatched to the rear-view mirror and the Transfagarasan’s treasures are accessible once more. For a few hundred metres at least.
At sunset, thankfully most of the tourists have left and we pick a corner on which to go a little bit sideways. No MX-5 shoot would be complete without one slide shot, and I doubt an appropriate corner has ever been easier to find. Is the Transfagarasan Highway the greatest road in the world? No. It lacks the compressions, yumps and truly buttock-clenching high-speed bends that make a driving road complete. Is it the most relentlessly twisting? Quite possibly, and it has some of the best scenery, too.
I’ll remember that and try to forget the end-game journey back to Sibiu that has reduced me to solitary confinement in a small lift that doesn’t seem to work, hopping from one foot to the other. After raising the alarm, leaving a message on Aston’s mobile for him to come spring me from the outside (he doesn’t) and pressing every floor button and door open/close symbol, I finally hit one marked ‘P’ for no other reason than it’s there. The doors open. Should have guessed.
by DAVID VIVIAN
Photography by ASTON PARROTt
Mazda MX-5 2.0
Engine In-line 4-cyl, 1998cc
Power 135kW @ 7000rpm
Torque 205Nm @ 4000rpm
Top speed 220km/h
Basic price $41,960