Feature: The Transfăgărăşan Road
The Transfăgărăşan Rd (the 7C) is Romania’s highest asphalted road. Driving its hairpin bends is a white-knuckle adventure: along some stretches, you're hemmed in by sharp cliffs and forest. After a few twists and turns, these abruptly give way to breathtaking mountain views. The two-lane 'road to the clouds' sometimes has the narrowest of shoulders separating it from the edge of a cliff. Voted by TV's Top Gear as the world's best road, it provides an unforgettable experience behind the wheel.
Ceauşescu’s most celebrated project was built in the 1970s over the course of 4½ short years – 6 million kg of dynamite was used to blast out 3.8 million cu metres of rock, and at least 38 overworked soldiers died in accidents during its hasty construction. Though other routes east and west of here cut an easier north–south route, Ceauşescu thought it wise to secure the Carpathian crossing at the traditional border between Wallachia and Transylvania, in case of invasion.
How to tackle it: The Transfăgărăşan Rd is most commonly accessed from the northern end, where a 35km drive will take you south from Hwy 1 to the haunting glacial Lake Bâlea (2034m). No public transport follows this route, parts of which are closed from October to May (roughly). Driving here isn't permitted at night.
Starting from Hwy 1 in the north, the drive gets interesting at Km12, when the road begins a series of jagged turns through forest. As you keep climbing, the trees start to thin, their veil replaced by unfolding views of sheer rock face. By Km20, your ears are popping. At Km22, you arrive at the cascadă (waterfalls). The 360-degree views here are stunning: walls of mountains surround the area, and the distant waterfalls’ slash of white appears like a lightning bolt in a grey sky. There are souvenir stands, a restaurant and the Cabana Bâlea Cascadă as well as the Telecabina Bâlea, a cable car that whisks you up to Lake Bâlea. Alternatively, follow the scenic blue-flecked trail (2½ to three hours). The remaining 13km up to Lake Bâlea is a maze of razor-sharp zigzags hanging over precipices framing breathtaking views.
The crowning glory: Lake Bâlea hovers like a mirror among the rocks, sometimes totally enshrouded by clouds that come billowing over the peak above it. Cabana Bâlea Lac is here, a chalet and restaurant with seasonal cuisine from soups and cheese plates to mushroom stews. To get here during snow, you’ll have to park at Cabana Bâlea Cascada and take the cable car the rest of the way. And remember, temperatures here can be very cold even if it’s boiling at the foot of the mountain, so wrap up.
Dedicated road trippers can continue an additional 118km south to Piteşti, via Curtea de Argeş. After an 887m-long tunnel through rock under the Palţinu ridge, the road descends the less impressive south side along the Argeş Valley. After re-entering forest, just when you think the fun is over, the road suddenly hugs the shores of the picturesque Lake Vidraru and crosses a 165m-high arched dam (1968). Beyond the lake, just off the road, is the Poienari Citadel, the real Dracula’s castle (where Vlad Ţepeş ruled).
Sâmbăta has plenty of guesthouses, and there are some charming options around Lake Bâlea, the finish point of the Transfăgărăşan Rd. Overnight in Făgăraş town if you must (after all, it has most of the region's amenities and public transport) but its humdrum pensiunes aren't likely to prolong your stay.
Feature: Hotel of Ice
As if Lake Bâlea framed by pillowy snow wasn't magical enough, there is another reason to visit in winter. The Hotel of Ice (www.hotelofice.ro) is a luxurious igloo, replete with snowy sculptures, ice walls that sparkle under fairy lights, and plenty of sheepskin blankets to keep you warm at night. Every winter since 2005 it has been built, welcoming guests from late December until the thaw. Each room, costing between 440 and 660 lei, is sculpted according to a theme chosen for that year. Needless to say, you'll need all your thermal layers and ski gear to dine at ice tables, visit the ice chapel, drink from ice shot glasses, and sleep on an ice bed (really). Book months ahead through the website. In winter, you can only access it going south from the E68 (the Transfăgărăşan Rd running north of Curtea de Argeș to Bâlea will close in winter).
Făgăraș town has the biggest choice of cafes and fast food, followed by Sâmbăta. In general, dining choices are unreliable (especially outside summer) so stock up, especially for road trips or hikes.