An ill-informed history of… the Transfagarasan Highway

[two_third][/two_third] [last_third][/last_third] [two_third][/two_third] [last_third][/last_third]I have just gone through the same set of corners for what must be the fifteenth time – slight dip, 270-degrees left, gentle downwards incline, 90-degrees right. I spot identical two-foot-tall concrete blocks on the inside of the bend, the pines rising on either side, and Lake Vidraru to my left, its blue waters flitting into view between trunks and foliage. Both my passengers are sleeping, either a result of the sweeping bends or our early start.

We’re winding gently up the side of the lake, some 6.5 miles end-to-end. There are no bridges over the shallows or the jagged edges of this body of water – just a road that sticks resolutely to the sides. The corners all blur into one in my mind. Sixteen. Left 270. Right 90. My co-drivers are fast asleep.

Transfagarasan Highway

The DN7C road – or the Transfagarasan Highway, its better-known moniker – is the second-highest paved road in Romania. It’s other name, ‘Ceausescu’s Folly’, marks it out as the creation of Nicolae Ceausescu, the autocratic head of Romania from 1965, until he was overthrown, tried, and executed in 1989.

Ceausescu, like most mad dictators, was rather a paranoid man. So the legend goes, he was concerned by the potential for military invasion from the USSR in the north. The Russians had seized Czechoslovakia in 1968. In 1970, work commenced on route DN7C, a new road from Wallachia in the south to Transylvania in the north.

Slicing through the Southern Carpathians, the new route would allow Ceausescu to move troops and tanks easily over the Fagaras Mountains in the event of an invasion. Other routes were deemed too easy for Soviet troops to capture and block.

Fiat Punto badge

We’re past the lake now, and the road is beginning to straighten slightly. The mountains are looking taller and more foreboding in the cold morning light.

We still can’t see the road for the trees. Every corner is blind. We round one bend and hit the brake pedal, as a large yellow sign appears, warning of ‘Pericol de accidente’. Beneath it are four symbols – narrow road, roadworks, danger of rock fall, bumpy surface. What this actually translates into is a collapse of a 10-metre-long section of half of the road. A tributary feeding Lake Vidraru has eroded the earth beneath, turning the road surface to rubble, piled some two or three metres below where it ought to be.

We wait patiently as three cars – a local Dacia Logan, a new-ish BMW X5 on Hungarian plates, and a silver Volkswagen Golf – have their turn on the one-lane road.

Road works on the Transfagarasan Highway

The Transfagarasan Highway was completed, in a fashion, in 1974, and opened on 20 September, though final construction work and paving would continue for another six years thereafter.

Official figures from Ceausescu’s government state that 38 workers died throughout the road’s construction. A very conservative estimate, apparently. It’s more likely that hundreds died realising old Nico’s folly, building a road all-year-round in an alpine region.

The many thousands of workers creating the DN7C road – soldiers untrained in the use of explosives – blasted whole sections of the mountainside away, using more than six million kilos of dynamite to eliminate 3.8 million cubic metres of rock and earth.

History of the Transfagarasan Highway

We’ve changed drivers, allowing me to sit back and watch the Highway rise. The trees are beginning to thin out, getting smaller and sparser. The bare twin peaks of Moldoveanu and Negoiu are looming ahead – they’re the tallest mountains in the whole country, respectively 2,544 and 2,535 metres in height.

After a time, the trees vanish almost entirely, the road opening out ahead of us. We can see perfect hairpin bends ahead as the road rises, climbing with alarming pace up the side of the mountain.

We’ve found that the turbo in our 100,000-mile Fiat Punto diesel cuts out between 3,000 and 3,200 rpm, sending the car into limp home mode with a ‘clunk’. My cousin, whose car it is, short shifts, keeping his right foot light on the masochistic throttle.

The camber means we’re never in danger of falling off the side of the road, but with bare rock and sheep – dozens of sheep – on our right, and a sheer drop with no barriers to our left… Let’s say we’re taking it relatively carefully. It’s all the car will allow, after all. The hairpins are magnificent, though, and sight lines and traffic levels such that it’s possible to pick an approximate racing line through almost every corner, using the width of the road in total safety. Mind the sheep, though.

Tunnels on the Transfagarasan Highway

The Transfagarasan Highway is 56 miles (90 kilometres), end-to-end, and has more tunnels than any other road in Romania (five). One of these is Balea Tunnel, the longest road tunnel in the country, an 884-metre-long (2,900 ft) hole in the mountainside. Depending on the weather, the temperature can vary by up to 15°C from one end of the tunnel to the other, as it climbs south-to-north through Negoiu, onto the other side of the Fagaras Mountains. At its peak, the road hits 2,042 metres above sea level, some 700 metres taller than the UK’s highest point, Ben Nevis.

Ceausescu’s Convenience

I’d like to say the Punto is enjoying the cooler, heavier air that helps its turbocharger work more effectively, but even though the temperature has dropped 10°C from when we skirted Lake Vidraru earlier, we’re still forced to travel slowly. The views to our left are stunning, though, the mountain peaks far below us and to the south silhouetted against the patched cloudy sky in varying shades of blue. The drop to our left must be about 900 feet down, but here at least is a thin strip of Armco.

There are a series of concrete structures jutting out of the mountain, covering the road from the fall of rock and water from above and supported by squared-off concrete pillars perched precariously on the edge of the road. They look like downscaled communist Acropolises.

Towards the top, there’s a pre-fab concrete building on the left, with ‘W.C.’ daubed on its side in vast black letters. Ceausescu’s Convenience.

We drive towards a chasm in the mountain ahead of us, and we’re plunged into near total darkness. The tunnel is unlit, save for the lights of oncoming vehicles. A couple of hundred yards ahead, a new, LED-lit Volkswagen Passat slows down, and we hear the whoops and laughs of two young children echoing back up the tunnel, reverberating pell-mell against the jagged rock walls. Ever refined, where the Passat lacks a snarling, booming exhaust note, it makes up for it with loud, gleeful passengers.

The road surface is bumpy and cracked – like nobody has been down here in years – and passing cars kick up huge amounts of spray from the stream of water flowing downhill to the south. There is no air circulation. A thin pavement runs near-invisible down the length of the tunnel, but we don’t see anyone using it.

Bends on the Transfagarasan Highway

The USSR never got round to invading Romania, as it invaded and seized Czechoslovakia in 1968. If they had, then Ceausescu’s brightest military men would almost certainly have advocated using a different route through the mountains, the Valea Oltului, an existing road that carved an easier, quicker course through the Carpathians. The higher-altitude Transfagarasan Highway would have been – still is – pointless, closed for two-thirds of the year for impenetrable alpine weather.

Motorbikes on the Transfagarasan Highway

As abruptly as the tunnel throws you into darkness, it disgorges passengers into bright daylight, the road taking you past the scores of cars parked at the top for the inevitable café and restaurant tourist traps. It’s a long drive to get this far.

But my, isn’t it worth it? The valley opens out beneath us, and we’re compelled to stop in the first available layby. The view renders me speechless, in a very literal sense. I’m peering over the edge of the mountain, and all I can do is mouth ‘wow’ noiselessly to myself.

The spaghetti road is draped over the side of the mountain, hairpins carved into the rock-face that slingshot drivers – in Dacias, Fiats, Ferraris – onto long, sweeping bends. The road arcs gently, perfectly, pin-prick red lights – brakes – appearing as drivers approach the next corner. Braver drivers – or the slower ones – leave their braking later, but it’s impossible to gauge their speed from so high up. I can only imagine what this place would look like filled with Ceausescu’s armies. Apparently that’s all Nicolae ever did, too. Imagined.

The road lurches from one corner to the next, and continues on forever. The far end of it disappears behind trees a couple of miles away, as the crow flies, and many hundreds of feet below. It’s impossible not to take photos. Everyone’s at it. Phone snaps, high-resolution DSLR wallpapers for their laptops, selfies, panoramas.

Tom Richards on the Transfagarasan Highway

Objectively, it’s a very, very good road. Driving downhill, the sight lines through each corner are largely unhindered. There are plenty of other cars, but never enough to constitute ‘heavy traffic’. There are overtaking opportunities, an activity the Romanian drivers are more than happy to engage in (and mostly safely, too). The road surface isn’t 100% smooth, but it’s not broken or bumpy either. On the sharper, steeper corners, red and white Armco flashes past like so many race circuits, a slight positive camber helping drivers around. Objectively, good.

Subjectively, it’s the most astonishing piece of road I have ever had the pleasure of driving.

The best ever, that is, unless you’re a brake pad. Our broken, unhappy Punto starts to make a noise from its brakes that I’ve never come across before, and hope never to hear again. It’s not a squeak. It’s the dragging of a wetted finger around the rim of a wine glass, but more discordant, sharp. It’s later I find out that deaths on the Transfagarasan Highway are almost inevitably a result of brake failure. The lack of barriers at certain points merely compounds this problem.

We have to start engine braking more, hating the sonorous whine from the front discs. The revs climb, engine groaning, over our self-imposed 3,000 rpm limit, but it’s okay, as long as we don’t touch the accelerator. The road plunges down the mountain, zigzagging and winding around rocky outcrops, pine forest growing all around. The views are magnificent all the way down, a vast valley to the left of the road that opens out into the plains of Sibiu County, Transylvania.

From the top, without stopping, it’s a 45-minute drive. We swap seats again in the village of Cartisoara. The north part of the route, the Transylvanian half, is much shorter, and more entertaining than the southern, Wallachian side, packing twice the fun into half the distance. Even in a tired Punto, with a 1.3-litre diesel engine, it’s the most entertaining, exhilarating drive of my life. I hope I remember it as long as I live.

We turn right at the roundabout onto the arrow-straight east-bound E68. We’re tired – it’s an eight-hour round trip from Brasov, where we’re staying.

An ill-informed history of… the Transfagarasan Highway

The construction of the Transfagarasan Highway represents a waste of human life and money on a catastrophic scale – Ceausescu felt he had a lot of the former to give away, though he had very little of the latter, having systematically bankrupted Romania throughout the course of his reign. Driving the route in 2005, it’s hardly surprising that The Guardian newspaper’s travel writer called it ‘a spectacular monument to earth-moving megalomania’.

That description is still fitting today. It’s a white elephant, a strategic military write-off, and a gargantuan vanity project. ‘Ceausescu’s Folly’. They got that right.

As pointless then as it is now, though? It may have been the brainchild of a paranoid dictator, one mad with image and power. There really are better, quicker routes available if you’re in a rush to get through the Southern Carpathians. Far too many people died to make it happen, and they’re unlikely to be remembered with their own memorial any time soon.

But it’s no longer Ceausescu’s Folly. It’s ours now. And, my: what a folly.

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ABOUT AUTHOR
Tom Richards
Tom's day job is working as a motor industry PR for a ‘leading agency’. which obviously means he drinks a lot of skinny lattes and enjoys very long lunches. His main interests in life are cars, motorsport, food and scotch, but thankfully he doesn’t mix the four very often. As PetrolBlog’s youngest blogger, he’s often sent out for some multi-coloured paint and Dodo eggs.

5 comments

  1. August 9, 2016
    Ben

    Amazing read. Thanks for sharing.

    Reply
  2. August 10, 2016
    andy

    certainly one of the best articles i’ve ever read about transfagarasan. you are a bit overly unkind to ceausescu though. mad, paranoid dictator certainly but his downfall came about because of the cruel austerity he imposed to pay back american loans (used to partially rebuild Bucharest). what finished him off was that he continued the austerity after those loans had been fully repaid (for which the romanian people deserve full credit). meanwhile, you underestimate the sheer chutzpah of building transfagarasan in the first place. romania was a communist bloc country after all, and building the road to escape a very possible invasion was a direct challenge to the russians. no fan of ceausescu – at all – but it’s a more complex story than your average plundering tyrant.

    Reply
  3. August 10, 2016
    Tom Richards

    Hi Andy, thanks for explaining that. I fear I’ve rather simplified things for the sake of this write-up, though perhaps only to focus more on the remarkable drive the route now represents. An ‘ill-informed history’, certainly!

    Reply
  4. August 11, 2016
    andy

    Tom: awesome – like i said, one of the best transfagarasan articles i’ve read, for the entirely accurate atmosphere you conjure, cheers

    Reply
  5. August 15, 2016
    Mick

    Great article. Not sure about perching on that W.C. though!

    Reply

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