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When I first heard about the Transfagarasan road it was described with a sense of awe, as “the higest road in Europe”, as an engineering miracle commanded by Ceausescu who ordered it as part of his military strategy. A quick look on the internet shows that it isn’t the highest road in Europe, but neither is the Col de la Bonette, the French claim which is challenged by the Brits from the Hidden Europe magazine who say: “There are tarmac roads in the Alps which are higher, and if you are prepared to take gravel roads into account, then many are much higher.” But at an altitude of 2000m the Transfag is no slouch and I reckon it is about the 5th highest road in Europe.
More impressive than the road is the Fagaras mountain range, which is the highest part of the Carpathian mountain chain. The Fagaras stretch between Brasov and Sibiu and when looked at from the northern side seems like an impenetrable wall, like a backdrop in Lord of the Rings. When looking at this wall of rock you can understand why the Austro-Hungarians treated it as their natural frontier with the Turk, why this marked the border between those two great empires for centuries.
I certainly didn’t feel impressive as I looked up at this impenetrable wall of rock and I asked myself what made me think I could do it on a bike. Just getting to the bottom of the road was bad enough; already I felt burned out after 17km on the flat when I stopped at a cafe for a late, greasy breakfast. In order to put off the inevitable climb I made calls, killed time, procrastinated. I called a cyclist friend who said they can usually do it in 3 hours but “with all your luggage it could take you 5 hours”. I then called my friend Laurentiu Calciu and he quoted Brancusi as saying “doing things isn’t hard, it’s getting into the mood to do things that is hard.”
Motivated by my cyclist friend’s claim that I couldn’t possibly do it in 3 hours (of course I could) I set off with determination and energy. My pre-breakfast sloth had been dispelled. The first 10km is flat and effortless, and then the road climbs steadily over a distance of 24 kilometres, to a height of 2000 metres (from a start of about 500m). The road lulls you into a sense of false confidence and I charged up the lower reaches like a champion cyclist, cruising past the tourists who crowded round the guesthouses in the foothills, past the odd campsite by the river, past happy looking hikers, and there wasn’t a lot of traffic to ruin things. I must have climbed for about two hours, through endless forest, continual bends as the road switched back and forth up the mountain, all the time sheltered from the sun by the high beech trees. It was idyllic. Easy. Exhilirating.
I only stopped once in the lower forested section of the climb, to drink from a roadside fountains and get some energy from a Lion bar. These roadside fountains seem to attract people like flies to a honeypot; there was nobody there when I arrived but within minutes cars from different parts of Moldova stopped and families trooped out to fill their water bottles and admire the view. You can see cars from every county in Romania on this road, and there was an interesting 3 vehicle convoy from the nearby Dacia factory: two speeding Dacia’s escorting their new 4 x 4, which was wrapped up in black plastic. But they gave the game away by writing “probe” (i.e. test) on all their number plates.
By now I had assumed I had broken the back of the climb, as I had done about 2 hours and had been going pretty quick, so surely the end was nigh. But when I emerged from the forest I realised that the high trees had been hiding the true extent of the climb, and I was faced with a massive wall of rock ahead, as big as it had seemed from the bottom. I knew there was a tunnel that took the road under the peak but the question was where is the tunnel? I was hoping it would be any moment now but I had a horrible sinking feeling that I would have to climb the Matterhorn-like wall ahead, and soon enough I could see a line of roads and bridges weaving their way up it. At this point I lost all my energy, lay down by the side of the road and seriously considered giving up. These false summits are killers; you ration your energy to arrive at the top with style, with some reserve energy so you can enjoy the view; but the false summit denies you of this and says “aha, I’ve tricked you! You believed your own stupid illusion. You burned up your energy too early. Serves you right!”
But the idea of going back was too humiliating, and it was too cold to stay where I was, so there was only one option: stagger on. An auto-pilot takes over at this stage, enabling one to switch off most thought processes and just shuffle along the road like some exhausted refugee; sometimes riding, sometimes walking, making painfully slow progress. The thing that really drove me up the last section was actually the German cyclists I had cruised past earlier, feeling very pleased with myself as I left them in my wake. Now that I was staggering up like a drunk I wasn’t feeling so proud, but I was wondering “where are the Germans?” They seemed so well equipped and fit that surely they would power past me in a matter of minutes. But no, they too were struggling with the ride, and to my surprise they didn’t overtake me when I was lying in the ditch. The idea that there were others who were as weak and pathetic as me gave me a desperate form of energy and I managed to stay ahead of them all the way to the top.
All day there had been ominous black clouds hovering over the crags and the occasional grumble of thunder could be heard. But the Fagaras is so vast that these storms seemed to spend themselves in other places, leaving me in peace. Or so I thought. Just 2km from the top, when I had victory in sight, when my pain was almost over, the heavens opened and a violent downpour of hail started. I already had on my supposedly bomb proof waterproofs but such was the wildness of this storm that the water got under everything, soaking me to the skin. When I arrived at Cabana Bilea Lac (which seemed like a 5 star luxury hotel at the time, where I ate like a Lord) I walked in dripping as if I’d been in a shower with all my clothes. A guy at the door said “I’ve never seen such a violent storm in all my life” and inside they gave me funny looks as I peeled off wet clothes and hung them up to dry.
Although I had arrived in the restaurant on my last legs, a good meal of Bilea Lac trout (and mamaliga) with plenty of unhealthy coke, soon restored me. Within an hour all that pain and agony on the way up had been forgotten and I was eager for more. My initial plan was to spend the night at Cabana Bilea Lac, but it is a bleak and cold location and I was missing the warmth of the Romanian lowlands. I sent a message to my biking friends to report on my lame progress, about four and half hours from bottom to top, and went through the 800 metre tunnel that took me from Sibiu county into Arges.
If climbing a 2000 metre mountain pass is hell, and it is, going down is like a dream that should never end. But the first thing you must do is put on warm clothes under the waterproofs as it is surprisingly cold up there, and there was plenty of snow lying around (in June). As you build up speed on the way down you need to protect yourself. But what a joy it was to reach speeds of 70kmh and overtake the vans that seem to be crawling down, to lean into the corners as a motorbike rider would. And I couldn’t help thinking about the contrast between my snail like progress getting up the other side and this exhilarating speed going down.
But the joyride is soon over and the road enters another endless forest, this one made up of pinewood. As on the northern side there are no villages, only a few hotels. Maybe this whole vast areas has always been uninhabited. On and on I rode, still fuelled by the energy I got from my delicious lunch. But as the day stretched into evening and I started wondering where I should stay. There were too many bears around to risk camping. My energy started dissipating and soon enough I was too burned out to climb up the smallest rise in this endless road. But there was nowhere to stop, no sign of human habitation, and I had to go on, eventually reaching the huge hydro electric dam at Lake Vidaru. From there it was an easy downhill ride into Arefu, the village made famous by its association with Vlad Tepes, and by midnight I was able to find somewhere to stay. The next day my legs didn’t work and I took a day off to explore this beautiful area of traditional cottages and woods. But now I know that you can ride from Avrig (my starting point just south of Sibiu) to Arefu in just one day. And from there it is an easy ride to Curtea de Arges where you can get a two hour train connection to Bucharest.