Transfăgărășan: Winding Through Romania's Mountains

The Transfăgărășan is a 151-kilometer (94-mile) alpine highway connecting the provinces of Muntenia and Transylvania via the Făgăraș mountains. It's essentially Romania's Going-to-the-Sun Road, with more twists, turns, and bears, but also fewer tourists and amenities (unless you count the roadside sausage & cheese vendors). My girlfriend's parents live in Bucharest, so they offered to show us this part of the Old Country before dropping us off at our Airbnb in Brașov. We got hit with some inclement weather, but I thought that made for a quintessential Eastern-European setting, especially for crossing through such a verdant range and into Dracula's territory. 

The winding mountainous road of the Transfăgărășan
The winding mountainous road of the Transfăgărășan. Photo: Shutter Stock

Irina and I have used Romania as a base camp throughout the second-half of our 2022 travels. We flew there from Mexico at the start of the summer, returned after a six-week stint in Bulgaria, and then again jetted back after our adventure on the Camino de Santiago. This time, we planned to set up a shop in Brașov to enjoy the fall mountain air and the city's laid-back layout. To bridge the gap from Bucharest, Irina's parents (who reside in the capital) suggested we all take the scenic route along the Transfăgărășan. So, strap on your vicarious seatbelt and come along for the ride. 

Leaving Bucharest

We jumped in the car at 7 am in a futile attempt to beat the big-city traffic. The roughly 1.8 million Bucharestians head in and out of the downtown core every weekday, seemingly at all hours. Navigating the bare crossroads can be a bit of a sport, but somehow, everyone gets where they need to go. For us, this involved clearing the city and cruising roughly 150 kilometers (93 miles) to the town of Curtea de Argeș, which is just shy of where the Transfăgărășan takes off (if heading North). 

The formal designation for the Transfăgărășan is DN7C (Drumul Național 7C). Though this road splits off from highway E81 at Bascov (not to be confused with Brașov), the acclaimed mountain road reveals itself gradually. There is no clear banner, ticket booth, or fireworks to kick off the first mile. Instead, I knew we had changed gears when we found ourselves in the first of two bear-related traffic jams. This occurs because tourists simply cannot resist the opportunity to stop and observe these furry hitchhikers (a phenomenon I've also witnessed around Banff, Canada). Romania is home to Europe's largest brown bear population (about 6,000 in total), so sightings are pretty common.  

Female, adult brown bear next to the road, close to a car, Transfagarasan Highway, Romania
Female, adult brown bear next to the road, close to a car, Transfagarasan Highway, Romania. Photo: Shutter Stock 

Bear Etiquette 

As a bear lover, I'm torn in regards to these encounters. I think the key is to strike a balance between momentary appreciation and overall respect for the animal. Maybe snap a quick picture (from inside the car!) and reduce your speed, but don't stop entirely. These jams are dangerous for two reasons: other cars come quickly around the bend, and the panicked carnivore might make a move. Unfortunately, this first bear was pinned against a steep wall and overstimulated by the people hanging out of their cars (and even approaching on foot!). Thankfully, the second encounter involved two younger bears who had a clear exit and seemed more curious than spooked. 

A spooked brown bear on the side of the Transfăgărășan, Romania
A spooked brown bear on the side of the Transfăgărășan, Romania. Photo: Andrew Douglas

The Highlights

Shortly after leaving the hefty bear behind, we reached the Vidraru Dam – an impressive, Soviet-era construction, which nowadays makes for a great stretch-break stop. The water levels of Vidraru Lake were low, but it was still a lovely mix of a partially organic, partially manipulated environment. There were no bungee jumpers on this drizzly Thursday, but I can see why it would be a popular spot for those adrenaline junkies. 

Aerial shot of the Vidraru dam along the Transfăgărășan, Romania
Aerial shot of the Vidraru dam along the Transfăgărășan, Romania. Photo: Shutter Stock

We were met with hundreds of sheep coming up the narrow road a few bends down the line. Once again, this led to a near-full-stop, a picture or two, and a couple of friendly hellos from the window. 

A sheep-related traffic jam along the Transfăgărășan, Romania
A sheep-related traffic jam along the Transfăgărășan, Romania. Photo: Andrew Douglas

After clearing this unusual traffic, we continued to the high point of the day, and the literal high point of the drive: Bâlea Lake (2,042 meters/6,700 feet). During the switchback ascent, the heavier clouds were nice enough to part, revealing misty mountains and expansive valley views that teased my off-road wanderlust (I made mental notes for next time). At the top of the pass, we crossed through the 887-meter (2,910-foot) Capra Tunnel, which brought us to the glacial lake/established tourist turnout. I might have dared to swim if it was just a few degrees warmer. Instead, we casually enjoyed the area while our chauffeurs reflected on how much had changed since they last made this drive, 27 years prior. Eventually, we brought day one to a close by backtracking to the bottom of the hill and spending the night in a modest but cozy hotel. 

Balea Lake, Transfăgărășan, Romania
Balea Lake, Transfăgărășan, Romania. Photo: Andrew Douglas

Onwards to Brașov

In the morning, a thick wall of fog greeted us on what would have been a familiar climb back up to the lake. However, visibility was precisely zero by the time we reached the tunnel. For the second day in a row, this made for a cool, slightly ominous ambiance. But it was all the more enjoyable because we had already got to enjoy the epic views the previous afternoon. Our main stop that morning was the 60-meter-tall (197-feet) Bâlea Waterfall. The parking lot is right off the road, but a half-hour hike is required to reach the base. The continued rain and our sub-optimal footwear kept us from venturing there. Nonetheless, the sounds of the cascading waters resonated through the lush valley, and the top of the falls peeked through the low-hanging clouds to offer a little teaser. 

Glamping at Dragonfly Gardens in Brasov, Romania
Glamping at Dragonfly Gardens in Brasov, Romania. Photo: Andrew Douglas

After the Transfăgărășan descends into Transylvania, a junction is reached at highway E68. We headed East (rather than West towards Sibiu) for another hour and a half, bringing us into Brașov by early afternoon. Irina's parents graciously dropped us off at our temporary lodging before zipping back to Bucharest. The possession date for our new apartment was still a day away, but we were lucky enough to snag a lot at Dragonfly Gardens for the night — an unexpected urban glamping acreage. The host was friendly, the tents were comfy, and even though we were back in a sizable city, we were still surrounded by nature.

One of the main strips in the Old Town of Brașov, Romania. Photo: Andrew Douglas

This was our second stopover in Brașov in just a few months. I can't help being drawn to the mixture of Carpathian scenery and the walkable Old Town. One block will be lined with boutique shops and restaurant patios, the next with charmingly-grubby residential complexes. Gothic churches also punctuate the meandering grid, and all the while, the Hollywood-style, white-block-lettered Brașov sign peers down from the centralized Tâmpa mountain. There is a lot to love about this place. 

La revedere! 

Brasov, Romania Old Town square
Brașov's Old Town square, Romania. Photo: Andrew Douglas
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