Biker’s Bucket List: Transfăgărăşan, Romania
Ed Hallett rides what was once one of the biking world’s best-kept secrets: The Transfăgărăşan. Since Jeremy Clarkson told the whole world about it, the road can often be a tourist trap – but the Carpathian Mountains it crosses are still a biker’s dream destination.
Romania’s Carpathian Mountains are home to one of the world’s most famous roads; so enjoyable that Jeremy Clarkson announced in a 2009 episode of Top Gear that it was the best in the world.
The Transfăgărăşan (or less romantically named DN7C) is renowned for its hairpin bends, spectacular views and nigh-on-impossible pronunciation. Hewn into rock by the liberal application of dynamite, this mountain passage weaves for 100km from Albeștii de Argeș in the south to Cârţişoara in the north. A long weekend exploring Romania’s peaks can offer the full alpine experience without a French price-tag.
The Transfăgărăşan offers winding roads at elevations up to 6,600 feet, but the less well known Transalpina slightly further west boasts heights above 7,000 with comparable riding to boot. A trip here is much more than one road but admittedly does not warrant much more than a long weekend. Those looking to extend their trip could consider traversing the Trans-European Trail (TET) east past Brasov and north to the Ukrainian border, or west through the Domogled-Valea Cernei National Park to Serbia. For myself, both routes are being held on to for future trips.
WHERE TO GO?
In a move that was more budget-conscious than it was comfortable, our journey began with an early morning Ryanair flight from Stansted. While this meant we arrived in Bucharest somewhat bleary-eyed, it also gave us plenty of time to coordinate our equipment rental and fortify ourselves with hearty fare from one of Bucharest’s best-known restaurants: Caru’ cu bere.
We tucked into loaded plates of sărmăluțe (pork-stuffed cabbage with polenta), ciolan cu varză (pork knuckle with cabbage and polenta), and cârnați afumați (smoked sausages with cabbage and – you guessed it – polenta). Despite a certain uniformity to the menu, the food was tasty, plentiful and very reasonably priced for a tourist hotspot: the bill came to about a tenner each.
Our following itinerary consisted of 4-5h in the saddle a day, with plenty of time for little side excursions, hikes, coffee stops and photo taking. While distances seem short, some roads had 30-40 downhill hairpins that kept speeds and gears low.
Day 1, 280km: Bucharest – Curtea de Argeș – Oeştii Pământeni – Balea Lac – Sibiu
Day 2, 200km: Sibiu – Poiana Sibiului – Dobra – Transalpina – Ranca – Novaci – Horezu
Day 3, 220km: Horezu – Ramnicu Valcea – Curtea de Arges – Capulung – Bran – Brasov
Day 4, 200km: Brasov – Sacele – Cheia – Valenii de Munte – Bucharest
Leaving Bucharest we took the A1 motorway for just over an hour to Pitesti and continued to the Lukoil petrol station in Curtea de Argeș. Fill up. To the best of my knowledge, this is the last petrol station before the end of the Transfăgărăşan. Be under no illusions: up to this point it is quite dull but we took the opportunity of a warmer than expected day to dip under the bridge in Oeştii Pământeni for a quick paddle in the Argeş.
Here begins the Transfăgărăşan. Our track climbed steadily as the vista grew waves of pine trees clinging to harsh stone faces. The roads at this stage, perched equally precariously on the mountainside, are quite fast rolling with long drawn out corners. This is the last time for another 60km or so that you can really open up the throttle.
After passing through Capatenii Pamantului (translated literally as “The Ends of the Earth”) the road skirts around the Poienari Citadel, the true residence of Vlad the Impaler and inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula. For a ruin with such a storied gothic history, it’s a discouragingly practical fortification, without a gargoyle or flying buttress in sight. It perches atop a mountain ridge commanding views of the surrounding valley, but its squat profile is easy to miss from the road. To see it up close requires a climb of around 1,500 steps – making it is a destination for the most resolute devotees of vampires and tyrants.
From this point on began unrelenting hairpin corners. Beautiful landscapes are only interrupted by hydroelectric dams and long, imposing tunnels (there are five in total along this route). If you are a fan of riding with sunglasses beware: these tunnels are very dark and took me by surprise a few times causing manic visor fumblings to take mine off before I misjudged a murky corner. One of the larger, the Capra Tunnel, eventually brings you to the peak and into tourist central. I found myself muttering inside my helmet, ‘Where did all these cars come from?’, the roads leading there seemed comparably barren.
While the view is spectacular, you will have to arrive either at the crack of dawn or on an end-of-season weekday to have road space. If you want a taster, take a look on Google Maps’ Street View. Ironically, the day the Google van drove the Transfăgărăşan, low cloud obscured most of the view. This can apparently happen quite frequently so worth considering to avoid miss-set expectations.
Soon after, this touristic cluster begins the picture-postcard descent. If there is traffic, it will be a long, slow and wrist-pain-inducing ride down to the valley below. Pick your time better than I did and you could truly have a blast. Clear roads would open up the opportunity to have a couple of runs while you’re there!
The final warning I will make is to watch your petrol. Did you remember to top up in Curtea de Argeș? Because we did not, and my compatriot succeeded in running his bike dry beside Balea Lac. His moment of panic was thankfully short-lived. True to motorcycle touring stereotypes a pair of shiny silver BMW 1200GS’ stopped for us. The two riders in matching shiny silver BMW leathers dismounted and removed their matching shiny silver helmets to come to our rescue. The lovely couple (relationship goals) unbuckled a jerry can from their shiny silver panniers and brought life back to our 650. It was 40km of steep hairpin bends until the next petrol station.
Balea Lac, with its classic postcard photo of the region, has become the pitstop for many groups not drawn here by the thrill of riding these roads. It was a section of our journey that for me somewhat disappointed, given the joys of getting there. Maybe your experience will be different but I fancied getting out of Balea Lac as soon as I could. The journey to follow provided an undeclared beauty, resulting in a more cherishable and personally satisfying experience.
We continued serpentining down the mountain, flanked constantly by towering alpine forest to Sibiu for our first night’s sleep and a surprise medieval festival for some evening entertainment.
The next day would yield equally stunning roads with low traffic and photogenic views as well as the odd encounter with gypsy encampments selling honey. For brief moments, particularly on the Transalpina, you could be forgiven for worrying that you had strayed too far from the safety net of civilisation were something to go mechanically awry.
There were plenty of bikers streaming past throughout the weekend, and on our second night in Horezu serendipity brought us to a motorcyclist bonfire and BBQ at Trei Stejari campgrounds. Here we ate a selection of dishes our hosts nor we could translate. At £1-2 a dish however we were happy to taste whatever they decided to produce. We stayed at the Hotel Alex a few yards down the street, our balcony overlooking the hotel forecourt where a Romanian wedding was in full swing. For most of the night waves of women in cocktail dresses and men in swamping suits arrived, exclusively driving a Mercedes or BMW.
The third day brought faster roads with plentiful but fewer hairpins. Towards the end of the day we explored Bran, the home of Bran Castle. While this location was a royal residence and is steeped in Count Dracula memorabilia, Vlad the Impaler never actually lived here (making his actual residence mentioned earlier, Poienari Citadel, worth the climb).
Arriving in Brasov we were fortunate again and found ourselves rolling in during the beginning of their Octoberfest celebrations. After a few beers and a good night’s kip it was back south to Bucharest and the end of our long weekend.
Mr Clarkson’s admiration for the Transfăgărăşan was not misplaced. By proclaiming its charm he may, however, have contributed to changing the nature of its desirability. No matter which route you take, the Carpathian Mountains offer great riding and stunning views. My suggestion would be to tick the Transfăgărăşan off your biker bucket list, and then search out a corner of this mountain to really call your own.
When to go
The route is undoubtedly popular with tourists and locals alike, who flock to fill the roads at weekends in the summer months. I would recommend heading to the Transfăgărăşan bright and early on a weekday to avoid inexperienced drivers and plain-mad campervanners attempting the mountain hairpins at speeds that would make your grandmother boil with impatience.
Opting to travel outside the peak season should reduce the traffic you encounter: my troupe decided to go in September. Just remember to pack appropriate gear for the cooler temperatures. Mornings frequently start at a chilly 10 degrees celsius, but afternoons can become much warmer, reaching up to 20 degrees.
Make sure that you don’t leave it too late in the year, however. Because of the altitude (they ski here during winter) some of these routes are closed from late October until late June due to snow. At times they have remained open until November, but don’t bank on it.
How to get there
If you want to ride your own bike on the Transfăgărăşan, you’ll need at least three days of eight-hour mostly motorway riding to make the 2,400km trip from Calais. The alternative would be to avoid the highways and tolls and take a more leisurely five days. If you have more time to spare, add extra days to explore prime biking areas like the Ardennes, Vosges Mountains, Black Forest and more on the way to the Transfăgărăşan.
With limited time, we instead flew with Ryanair from Stansted to Bucharest for roughly £150pp (including baggage costs) for a flight departing at 06.40. British Airways offer a flight to Bucharest from Heathrow with more civilized departure times, but can cost more depending on when you book.
We arranged our bikes with www.rent4ride.ro who had two F800GS’ and one G650GS for four days, at €280 pp (€70 a day). Additionally, for top cases, side panniers, helmets and gloves it was €50 pp. The deposit was €500 each. Depending on a person’s desires and price range they have a collection of BMWs ranging from a G310GS up to the 2019 R1250GS.
Where to stay?
If you are travelling alone or as a pair, Airbnb has plenty of options from as little as £23 per person, per night. Booking.com has apartments in Sibiu from £30 and hotel rooms from £45 pppn.
We were a group of 20-something blokes happy to share rooms. For that kind of trip I have shared where we stayed below.
Sibiu: Smart Hostel (£10 each in six-person dorm). Situated in a back-alley courtyard in the centre of town, the facilities are basic but clean and the room cozy. The best things about this hostel were the warm greeting when we arrived and the central location.
Horezu: Hotel Alex (£30 for four-person room). A basic hotel with restaurant, bar, gym and games room. Given we dropped our things and piled across the road to a bonfire BBQ, it suited us perfectly. The insight into a Romanian wedding also provided great entertainment.
Brasov: Elvis’ Villa (£8 each in six-person dorm). An edgy hostel catering to backpackers and euro-trippers. A playful atmosphere makes it easy to meet people and become sidetracked into a social event. Trying to retrace my steps, however, it looks to be shut down.
How much will I spend?
Petrol prices are around £1 a litre at time of writing.
Dinner in cities like Bucharest is approximately £10 a head. In smaller towns like Horezu it is closer to £5.
Beer is around £1 a pint, except in city centres and tourist areas where it is closer to £2. Our last night in Bucharest we relaxed in the Ramana Garden shisha bar. Beer was 7.50lei (£1.35) and shisha was 10lei (£1.80).
The roads, driving standards and speeding
Road conditions were a mixture of jaw-droppingly immaculate and bare rubble. Thankfully the bare rubble conditions were very noticeable from a distance and few and far between. Riders on stiff suspension road bikes will have no issues with the generally silky smooth tarmac.
The speed limit for the Transfăgărăşan is officially a paltry 40 km/h (25 mph). Towns and cities are 50 km/h (30 mph), open roads are 90 km/h (55 mph) and motorways are 120 km/h (75mph). While all road rules should be adhered to (especially in towns and cities) I did not see a single speed camera or police car outside of major cities. For the more speed conscious among us be alert that fellow mountain explorers tended not to stick to speed limits and great roads attract fast drivers. Keep mindful of the content of your wing mirrors, however drivers were courteous and there were no issues of “the biggest car has the right of way”.
What about organised Transfăgărăşan tours?
If you don’t want to organise your own trip, there are plenty of companies running motorcycle tours to the Transfăgărăşan and wider Romania, with both guided and self-guided options available. They will look after all of the details, including booking accommodation.
Guided motorcycle tours to the Transfăgărăşan
Romanian Motorcycle Tours
Romanian Motorcycle Tours, run by Maria Danescu, offer a five-day tour that also takes in old Bucharest before setting off on the tour, which also includes a visit to the world’s largest salt mine and Brand Castle. Prices start at €960 including bike hire and hotel accommodation with breakfast (€680 if you are on your own motorcycle). For more details click here.
For a different option, Transylvania Live offer day-long guided rides starting at €183 including the hire of a BMW G650GS (€99 on your own motorcycle). For more details click here.
Self-guided motorcycle tours of the Transfăgărăşan
A number of companies will look after booking accommodation, supplying a bike, GPS Sat Nav and route maps, but without a ride guide, if you don’t want to ride as part of a group.
Motorcyclebooking.com have a number of self-guided tours in Romania which include the Transfăgărăşan, starting at €1024 including a BMW 650GS (€505 on your own motorcycle) for the ‘Famous Dracula Tour’. You can see details on all of their Romanian tours here.
Romania Motorcycle Tours
Romania Motorcycle Tours also offer self-guided packages, including bike hire. The prices are the same as the guided tour, so €960 with a hire bike or €680 if you take your own bike. The advantage is you can travel when you want, outside of the guided tour dates (subject the bike availability). For full details of the itinerary and what’s included, click here.
All prices correct at the time of publication.