Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Nicolae Ceauşescu, Romanian dictator for 25 years, had an affinity for megalomaniac projects that were usually expensive and always catastrophic. Stunning ramifications ranged from environmental disasters (trying to drain the Danube Delta and turn it into an agricultural region) to creating an astonishing two hundred thousand-strong stray dog epidemic in Bucharest (Palace of Parliament). What he was over-compensating for we dare not presume.

That said, of all Nicolae Ceauşescu's brainless, monumental, money pit projects, only one remains useful and, dare I say, admired. I speak of the Transfăgărăşan Road, Romania's highest asphalt road, winding over the Făgăraş Mountains, connecting Transylvania to Wallachia.

Billed by my own LP guide as "an unforgettable experience behind the wheel", the road was born not surprisingly out of one of Ceauşescu's many paranoid episodes, wanting to secure a Carpathian crossing in case of Russian invasion (as had happened in Czechoslovakia in 1968). Ceauşescu sent in the army to tackle job, which they did in just four and a half years (38 fall-down exhausted soldiers reportedly died in mishaps during construction), opening in September 1974.

Weather restricts access to the road to roughly May to October, which is why I didn't make this drive during my LP research trip (March), which, in retrospect, was a blessing as my Dacia's brakes weren't fit for door-stops.

The north (Transylvania) side, where I started early one morning, is indisputably the highlight. Scarfing a running breakfast on our way out of Sibiu before the Caucus of Organized, Devout Non-Atheists could re-take the streets for another day of closed-door cultish dealings, we turned off Highway 1 (E68) after about 40km. We meandered past a few villages and strings of brand new, EU-friendly, ambitiously priced lodges and pensions scattered throughout the countryside, before starting the crawl up a wicked series of zig-zag roads, requiring constant heel-toe action with the clutch and accelerator.

I expected that the dizzying drive would be somewhat sullied by some Romanian asshat driver riding two inches from my fender the whole way (there always is), shrieking curse words, frothing at the mouth and punching the ceiling because my interminable presence was delaying him by vital seconds to get to nowhere in particular. But the mountain was deserted. We only saw one other car during the entire ascent, possibly because everyone else had gotten a load of the morning weather report and prudently gone back to bed.

As the tree-line started to thin and we approached our first objective, Bâlea Cascada (Bâlea Waterfall), our now familiar weather misfortune burned us for the third day in a row. The mountain became enshrouded in a fog so thick and creamy you could've mixed it in parmesan and poured it over pasta. Apart from a few fleeting breaks in the fog, visibility was ridiculously low.

Minutes later we were at Bâlea Cascada. Barely able to discern the lodge/restaurant through the fog from the parking lot 10 meters away, it was evident we would not be viewing the falls on this visit. We retired to the bar for a surprisingly good coffee, vainly lingering in the hopes of this epic fog lifting, but it was useless. This was the kind of interminable fog foretold in the Apocalypse and believe me when I say it was Apocalypse Now.

Back in the car, we chugged up to, and right past, Lake Bâlea at the road's peak (2,034 meters/6,671 feet). That's how bad the fog was. We not only missed a whole lake, but the signs too. After plunging though a nearly one kilometer long tunnel we emerged onto the less striking south side of the mountain and... beauteous sunshine. One tiny tunnel separated a cotton-ball hell from Eden. Unfortunately, Eden was patently lackluster.

That looks like it'd be a lot of fun on a bike!


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