The words “road trip,” can elicit a vision of wild adventures as irresponsible youths gallivant in convertibles along backroads, creating havoc in their wake. That is the movie version and that is not my story. My story is somewhat more civilized (and possibly less exciting – but that was BEFORE we had a gallop through a Transylvanian forest on horseback!) as I met two friends from London in Bucharest where we rented a car and set off on our road trip, two weeks of exploring Romania. In our case, the words “road trip” conjured a journey more reminiscent of travel before planes, a way to move from place to place, and a glorious way to experience another country, driving two-lane roads through small towns and villages.
As we drove through Romania, it felt like plunging into the heart, the local roads acting as the arteries and veins moving people to and from Bucharest, revealing the daily life in the rural areas – unleashed dogs trotting about their daily business; a grey-haired man biking along the road in slacks, a sweater, and a cap; children running from the blue house to the pink house, calling to each other in the games of youth; and women walking to the market, scarves wrapped over their heads and tied under their chins, skirts bustling through the dust.
Our road trip was built on the desire to explore life on the inside. But we still wanted to tackle one mainstream treasure, driving the sexy curves of the Transfăgărășan road… with endless views of the Carpathian mountains stretching their feet into deep valleys, greened by summer rains, and dotted with sheep. A road of twists and turns, we began at the south end, ironically next to Poenari castle holding a twisted history as a fortress of Vlad the Impaler who skewered his victims onto long poles staked into the ground as a threat and a warning to invaders. Before commencing our drive, we started our day walking up the 1480 steps to see the historic castle, now just a deserted ruin, with impaled dummies limp in the morning heat, strategically set to greet visitors.
Ceaușescu built the road as a strategic military route, running from the Wallachia region through Transylvania and up to Sibiu through the Fagaras Mountains, a southern section of the Carpathians. Balea Lake marks the mid-point before descending to the northern (or southern) point, depending on your direction of travel. Some of the longest tunnels in the country punctuate the road, torn through the ancient mountain stone.
We made roadside stops with other tourists, a helter-skelter assemblage of cars gathered on a barely visible shoulder, often inches from a drop into the valleys, everyone snapping views with cell phones and cameras. The cool change in temperature was a surprise on a July day after the warmth of the car. Roadside stands greeted us with sliced pork derivatives, and jars and jars of honey, a recurring theme in the region. We selected ham, sausage, and fresh bread to assemble a quick snack as we continued our ascent.
Motorcycles and their flimsy cousins, the bicyclists, chased our little car as we wound our way up and across the passes. We climbed and climbed to reach the snow sitting on the high hills, now just a walk away instead of a view in the distance. A waterfall crashed alongside the road, the summer melt from snow fields even higher along the rocky hills.
We stopped at the glacial Balea Lake at the top of the mountain, surprisingly small and tucked among hotels, restaurants, and the usual entourage of tourist-enticing stands and restaurants. Wandering into a large canopied tent, we found a lunch of roasted pork offerings – chunks of ham and racks of ribs served with pickles. After a quick lunch, we climbed back into the Dacia, shelter from the cool and windy height, to begin our descent. I held my breath as we seemed to hurtle down through the forests, our little car hugging the curves. I felt the nagging sense of ancient stories, buried deep in the mountains but carried as legacy through the ghost stories of the region. I reconsidered the story of Vlad, repackaged as Dracula; was he a hero or a devil?
At last, we entered the town of Sibiu, the late afternoon sun warming the brightly painted houses adorned in oranges, yellows, greens, and blues. A few blocks from our small inn, a large town square invited us to wander about under the shadow of the requisite old church and bell tower, wrapped in its own story of ancient graves and a diversion in faith. Another stop to investigate history on our journey through Romania.
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