By Eric Plante
Open from July 1 to Oct. 31, the Transfagarasan (highway 7C) snakes its way through the rugged Carpathian Mountains in south-central Romania. Hairpin turns abound on this 71-mile scenic drive, with more road tunnels and viaducts than any other road in Romania, the longest being the Capra/Balea Tunnel at over 2,900 feet. A four-hour drive northwest of Bucharest, the route is bookended by the towns of Cartisoara and Curtea de Arges.
In the early 1970s, Romanian soldiers labored day and night to construct the Transfagarasan. It was built to allow easy passage over the Carpathian Mountains in case of a Soviet-led invasion. Some say this drive is their favorite in all of Europe, others say in the world. With pretty blue lakes, mist-shrouded peaks and castles steeped in history and folklore, it’s difficult to dismiss those opinions.
Lakes, Mountains & Villages
Corbeni is a sparsely populated village off the beaten track where travelers can secure a room for the night. Twenty-first century tech spans the globe, so even a uniquely Romanian guest house offers WiFi and a big screen HD television. If side trips are what you fancy, check out Horezu Monastery, a UNESCO World Heritage site 50 miles west of Curtea de Arges. Founded in 1690 by Prince Constantine Brancovan, the monastic community is known for its decorative paintings, sculptured detail and revered fresco collection. The nearby village of Horezu is where local nuns taught villagers how to create pottery nearly a century ago. Today, people from all over Europe visit the pottery center to admire and purchase Horezu’s ceramics.
At a length of 6.4 miles, Lake Vidraru is hard to miss. Although an artificial lake created by the construction of the Vidraru Dam, the massive body of water is surrounded by forests. Daredevils will want to step off the 545-foot-high bungee jump platform, while the less bold can take a motor or paddle boat ride down below. The Transfagarasan crosses the Fagaras Mountains (part of the southern Carpathians) so there are numerous opportunities to hike into forests and find your private Shangri-La. Farther up the road, just grin and bear the Capra Tunnel until you reach Balea Lake, where mountain serenity shoves sports and recreation aside.
Declared a city in 1366, Sibiu hosts some of Romania’s largest annual festivals, like the Sibiu International Theater Festival (June 12-21, 2020) and ARTmania Festival (July 24-25, 2020). Visitors who explore on foot will be rewarded by the archaic charms of centuries-old structures, narrow passages and the Bridge of Lies, Romania’s first cast-iron bridge. Legend has it that if a lie is told while standing on the bridge, you will hear it creak.
Say the word Transylvania to anyone and they will probably think of that most infamous vampire, Dracula. The Transfagarasan meanders through Transylvania’s dense, dark forests, making it difficult for one not to imagine the ghoulish count roaming the woods seeking a bloody feast.
Count Dracula wasn’t real, but the person who inspired Irish author Bram Stoker to spin such a fascinating tale was. Vlad Dracula, a 15th-century nobleman and ruler of the neighboring region of Wallachia, established law and order by skewering criminals and enemies on long spikes. He quickly earned the nickname Vlad the Impaler. Although Stoker never visited Romania, some say he riddled his iconic novel with descriptions of many real places that can still be explored in present-day Romania, like Poenari Castle.
Transylvania has been described as “the last truly medieval landscape in Europe.” You may see even locals traveling via horse-drawn carts on dirt roads. Villagers spread grass clippings to dry in the sun, while shepherds herd their flocks to fresh pastures.
A Fortress in the Forest
A castle to a ruler is like a sword to a Samurai warrior. Vlad the Impaler was completely enamored by Poenari Castle when he first laid eyes on it in the mid 15th century. It would be his visual identifier. Once home to a royal Wallachian family, the unoccupied fortress lay in ruins, but Vlad ordered it repaired and brought back to its former glory.
After Vlad’s death in 1476, occupation of the castle continued for 100 years and then once again it was abandoned and left to decay. Today, it functions as a tourist attraction administered by the Arges County Museum. To reach the top, 1,462 steps must be climbed — (the equivalence of walking up the Statue of Liberty four times. But plans of building a tram to provide a painless ascent are in action. Unlike the well-known Bran Castle, Vlad Dracula actually lived in Poenari Castle, thus earning the title of “Dracula’s official castle” by the Romania tourism office.
The castle sits in a Transylvania wilderness that attracts the area’s top predator, the brown bear. In fact, the Carpathian mountain range is a stomping ground for some 5,000 brown bears, Europe’s largest population of such creatures. The castle and its surroundings are often closed due to bear activity, so check with Romania tourism before planning a visit. Mysticism permeates this region’s forests and mountains like a fog. Enter if you dare.
Take the road trip of a lifetime in Romania! Call 800-750-5386 or visit AAA.com/Travel to plan your trip today!
(map illustration by James McInvale)