Day 26 - Farewell Transfăgărășan

Monday 21st July 2014

We set off early, keen to explore more of the Transfăgărășan. The road winds down the Capra River valley as twisty as a snake. We drop below the treeline and into dark shade dappled with blinding stretches of sunshine. There is hardly any traffic this early.

first coffee stop

The road surface is a mixture of patched tarmac with quite a few undulations but thankfully very few potholes. It's fast sweepers, blind corners and occasional hairpins.
We are soon riding high above the eastern shore of a huge lake glimpsed fleetingly through the trees. It stretches on for miles. There is a coffee shack half way along and we stop for cappuccinos and a better view of the lake through the pines. It's getting rather warm now.

Lake Vidraru

Riding round a sharp left handler we suddenly find the end of the lake and a huge dam across the steep valley beyond. Here the road crosses the top of the dam and dives into a tunnel. There are gift shops and lots of tourists milling around, so we don't stay long.
The next section of the road is a stunning feat of engineering. The narrow road emerges from the tunnel at the head off a vertically sided valley and a descent over a series of bridges and carved through-ways between the sheer rock sides, the road clinging impossibly to the sides of the cliffs. There are another three short tunnels as we glide on down the valley.

Dam and tunnel

Remarkable engineering (zoom in)

We emerge into a wider valley and the end of the spectacular sections. We have ridden about 50 miles from the northern entry and although the highway continues on down to the town of Curtea we have completed the Transfagarasan.

We need fuel so continue on for another 20km to the first gas station on the south side. It is decision time. Our original itinerary calls for us to continue south and swing round to the east to the town of Bran, home of Bran Castle and the Dracula industry.

But we have travelled a long way to ride the Transfăgărășan. and we have a few spare days built into the schedule. Wwhat better use to make of them than to experience this road all over again?

So we turn back north and go for it. It's always good to ride the great roads in both directions. You get an entirely different set of vistas and technical challenges when you reverse the inclines. This time we know (more or less) what we can expect. We know there are no spine-shattering potholes, and while the surface is not as silky smooth as, say, the Grossglockner, it can be ridden fast. And it's a Monday so not as much traffic chaos as some parts were yesterday.

I remember from my research that Poenari castle, the birthplace of Vlad the Impaler, is nearby just off the highway near the village of Arefu. I spot the signpost for Arefu and we ride up to the village. No sign of the castle though. The tarmac ends at a dusty crossroads and a ford across a stream.

We will have to turn back and ask for directions. But first the ford. Anything that Ewan and Charly can do.....

After a bit of fun videoing the fording of the mighty river at Arefu we stop and ask a local farmer where is the castle. Complete bafflement, he has no idea what I am on about. I try French then German then sign language. Eventually he catches "Vlad". "Vlad Tepes, Vlad Tepes" he shouts excitedly and all becomes clear. He points us in the direction we have come and off we go back to the highway.

Poenari Fortress high in the distance
A mile or so further there it is. In fact there is a pair of bloody big signs, in Romanian and English, pointing it out. I did say you see an entirely different aspect when you reverse the direction of your ride didn't I?

The ruined fortress is on a rocky peak hundreds of metres above the road. The only access is via a steep path with over 400 steps. In full biking gear and unsecured luggage on the bikes down below that ain't gonna happen.

So we make do with a few snaps and then we crack on through the tunnels and into the craggy valley. How they built this section of road is hard to figure. Surely a tunnel would have been easier. From this direction, looking up, the sheer scale of the project is even more astonishing.

We emerge onto the dam and have a fast ride up through the sweepers and along the lake side. Personally I always prefer riding up hairpins rather than down. It's very exhilarating.

Eventually we pass the Capra hotel where we stayed last night and tackle the spectacular climb above the tree line and over the highest pass on the road. The carriageway is broad, the drops on either side are a bit scary.

We traverse the pass and see again the unbelievable ribbon of road that winds down to the plains below. This is the most photogenic part of the highway, where all the tourist shots are taken. It looks like a ribbon of tarmac has been thrown into the air and settled where it may on the valley sides below.

From a distance the tarmac looks perfect, but it is grooved most of the way down, shallow rills following the direction of the road, less than an inch deep and in stripes an inch or so apart. Not dangerous, but your front tyre locks in and can force your line around each hairpin. Not a road for racing on a bike unless you are a nutter.

So it's an exhilarating mind-blowing bimble down and down and down again to the tree line below. Here the tarmac improves and a long series of fast sweepers carry us down into the green shade.

Evening is drawing on and we are looking for tonight's accommodation. I spot the Vila Flora. It looks lovely and so it proves to be.

The old boy running the place has no foreign language at all but a series of signs, nods and head shakes is good enough. In short order we have a garage for the bikes, a suite of rooms and plates of meat and tomatoes, with beer to wash it down. Another find.
The Vila Flora

The next morning when chatting to a young Romanian couple with good English, we find out that the Vila Flora is a new enterprise and the restaurant is not yet open. The old boy has given us some of the staff's own food because we indicated that we were hungry. Yet another example of the wonderful friendliness and hospitality we have found everywhere in this country.
Staff supper at Vila Flora

There's satellite TV so for a first time in a fortnight we catch up with BBC and CNN news. All doom and gloom, we shouldn't have bothered. And for the first time since leaving Germany there is no wifi, so this tale will have to wait until the next cafe or gas station along the route.

  Next Dracula Land. 


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