According to some Romania is home to one of the most beautiful roads in the world: the Transfagarasan Highway. Keen to find out if this is true we set out on a Romanian road trip with Mercedes-Benz dubbed #ChasingStars.
Our journey through Romania starts at the town of Arad near the border with Hungary. Arad is only 2.5 hours away from the Hungarian capital of Budapest and has access to the brand new A1 motorway. Arad itself is a small provincial town with a 18th century fortress overlooking the Mures river. But as much as we would like to stay in Arad we are on road trip business so have to get in our Mercedes-Benz GLC Coupe and go.
Our first stop after Arad is the beautiful Corvin Castle. Located in Hunedoara, an industrial town a short detour away from the motorway. Initially laid out in 1444 it is a stunning Gothic castle with a small bridge over the little river surrounding the castle. Dracula’s Bran Castle might be more famous but this one is certainly more impressive as a castle.
Our vehicle of choice for this road trip is a Mercedes-Benz GLC Coupe. Finished in stunning dark blue it shines away in the Romanian sun. It comes with most things we appreciate on a road trip: comfortable seats (with seat cooling, yeah!), adaptive suspension, full infotainment system and last but not least a very cool co-driver from Madrid!
But back to our road trip! A bride is taking wedding photos as the sun sets over over Transylvania and the Corvin Castle. Time for us to hit the road again. From Corvin Castle we follow road 687 towards Calan and by surprise pass another type of castle – or should I say palace.
On the South side of Hunedoara you can find a gypsy town with huge gypsy palaces and villas that were built in recent years. The houses are extravagantly decorated and often more than 4 storeys high. It is a matter of pride and prestige to have the largest or most decorated palace of them all. The result is a valley full of colorful ‘palaces’ as far as the eye can see.
Our first overnight stop is in Alba Iulia at the four star Hotel Transylvania. A very good hotel to use as a base to explore Transylvania and drive the two mountain passes on our agenda. But before we continue our road trip we explore Alba Iulia. At the center of the town you can find the 18th century fortress which is in pristine condition thanks to extensive restorations. Alba Iulia has had a strong strategic, social and political importance since Greek and Roman times and you can still see some of that in the fortress today.
Inside the fortress are The Union Hall with the National Honour Gallery, The National History Museum of Unification, the Princely Palace, the Orthodox cathedral, the Roman Catholic cathedral, the Batthyaneum Library, the Roman Catholic bishop’s palace, the Apor Palace, and the University of Alba Iulia. Enough reason to take an hour off and explore Alba Iulia. There are also several bars and restaurants in- and around the fortress.
The next morning we wake up early as we have a long day to go! Today we have two mountain passes on the program: The Transalpina pass and the Transfagarasan Pass. The last one is tipped to be one of the most beautiful driving roads in the world.
From Alba Iulia we follow road 67C all the way up to Transalpina. The first bit of the road runs along a river through the valley until we get to a large dam and artificial lake. From here the road opens up a bit more and beautiful mountain vistas arise. The quality of the road ranges from brand new tarmac to dirt road – it might be a problem for many sportscars but our GLC Coupe copes with it quite well.
Do be warned that in Romania a surprise can wait for you behind every corner – be it a herd of sheep or a broken down car. Right at the intersection with road 7A we pass a gypsy village, not the kind we saw in Hunedoara but one with tents and caravans. They herd sheep, cows and donkeys in the highlands of the Transalpina.
We climb higher and higher and soon reach 2,000 meters with beautiful views over the surrounding mountains of the Carpathian mountain range. If we wouldn’t know any better we would also believe we were in the Scottish Highlands. The highest point of the pass is 2,145 meter making it the highest mountain pass in Romania.
Not far from the top we are greeted by a group of donkeys casually waiting in the middle of the road for anyone that can give them some food. Some funny donkey pictures later we get back in the car and continue our journey. On the other side of the pass is a small ski resort that marks the Southern end of the road in Winter. Both the Transalpina and the Transfagarasan are closed between November and May depending on the amount of snow.
Coming down the Transalpina it looks like this is also a popular hillclimb or rally road with skidmarks decorating every corner. After the town of Ciocadia we turn left onto road 67 and traverse along the foot of the Carpathian Mountains towards the Transfagarasan. On the way we pass through typical Romanian villages. Romania has a pretty good network of petrol stations but in less populated areas and along remote roads like the Transalpina and Transfagarasan there are no petrol stations so we fill up in Ramnicu Valcea. From here we start climbing again and soon reach the reach road 7C or the Transfagarasan Highway as its also called.
On the way up we pass yet another castle; Poenari Castle. Once part of Vlad III’s empire you can visit the ruins by climbing 1,480 steps. We decided to leave that out this time but continue North to Vidraru Dam. This dam was built in the 1960s to produce hydroelectricity and created a nearly 15 kilometer long lake Vidraru. Story has it that the surrounding mountains are rigged with dynamite that if something was ever to happen to the dam the explosions could create a natural dam to protect the lower lying towns and cities.
Along the lake you can find several hotels, which are not the most luxurious but they do offer the benefit that you can drive up the Transfagarasan highway first thing in the morning without any traffic.
The road winds endlessly along the shores of Lake Vidraru until we can finally see the mountain peaks in front of us. The Transfagarasan road surface is pretty worn and not as smooth as some of the stretches of the Transalpina. Following a few tunnels and hairpins we get above the treeline and this is where the Transfagarasan earned its name. Stunning vistas show the road as it winds up through the landscape. Tourists stop at one of the few waterfalls that comes down right next to the road.
At the top of the pass is a short tunnel that connects the North and South sides. When we come out the other side it feels like we are in another world – cars and people everywhere. We ignore the stalls selling souvenirs and prezels and continue down towards the most famous vistas of the Transfagarasan. A few hundred meters down from the 2,034 meter high pass we find the ideal location for a few photos. From here you can see the road as it winds it way up to where we are standing.
We continue down the Transfagarasan on the North side. The decent is much steeper than on the Transalpina and is more like many of the passes in the Alps. Half way down you can stop to admire a spectacular waterfall that drops a few hundred meters into the valley below.
On North end of the Transfagarasan highway at the intersection with road 1 you have a few options: Turn left to return to Alba Iulia, turn right to head to Brasov and visit Dracula’s castle and spot wild bears or do what we did and turn around and drive the Transfagarasan again on the way to Bucharest.
Transfagarasan vs Transalpina
I won’t say the Transfagarasan is the most beautiful pass road in the world as the landscape is crossed by electricity cables, the roads are not in great condition and the rest areas are littered with trash. The Transalpina is a better drive and it offers nicer scenery as the Transfagarasan. The same goes for the Corvin Castle vs Bran Castle, most famous road or castle doesn’t mean it is the best.
The end point of our Romanian road trip is in Bucharest at the Romanian Parliament Palace built by former ruler Nicolae Ceaușescu after the earthquake that hit Bucharest in 1977. It is the second largest administrative building in the world with 365,000 m2 of floor surface, it is so big that it can be seen from the moon.
Bucharest is not the prettiest city in Eastern Europe but the extensive reconstruction in the 70s and 80s make it very ‘unique’. There is a large contrast between this city of 2 million people and the poor Romanian countryside. The driving in Bucharest is among the craziest in Europe with cars using every available bit of road to get forward. People are quite friendly although few of them speak English. In Bucharest there is a car museum with a very nice and unexpected collection of cars: the Tiriac Collection.
Our Mercedes-Benz GLC Coupe was excellent with a good balance between cornering and comfort. The four-cylinder GLC 250 diesel and turbocharged GLC 300 petrol engine are perfectly suited for long journeys like this one and in blue it looks great as well! Read our Mercedes-Benz GLC Coupe review for more about the car.
Romania is a very beautiful country with lots of nature to explore. The highway infrastrucure is still in development so it takes some time to get from A to B and some roads are in pretty rough shape. But when you take the time and trouble of overcoming that you will be rewarded with a very unique experience.
Special thanks to Mercedes-Benz and all participants of this Chasing Stars road trip for the amazing journey and great times!