triumph or tragedy?

Buna Ziua from Transylvania in Romania,

It’s a bit hard to know in which column the Transfăgărăşan road belongs: a total waste of resources or a stupendous tourist attraction? There’s compelling evidence for both. Just as in a court of law, one case considered in isolation to the other may lead to erroneous conclusions.

During the communist era, Romania was independent of the Soviet bloc. Nicolai Ceauşescu was concerned that the USSR might invade a la Crzechoslovakia 1968 so he ordered an escape route be built across the Carpathians, north of the capital. It didn’t matter that two passes already existed. A third one was seen to be necessary.

The road was built mainly by the military between 1970 and September 1974. Official figures for the number of workers who died is 40 but those who worked on the mountain say that’s an underestimate. It’s a great engineering feat but it was a terrible waste. There never was a Soviet invasion.

On the other hand, today the road – and Lake Balea near the summit – are huge draw cards for picnickers, sightseers and road trippers. There’s a big contingent from Romania but there are thousands from elsewhere. And many of them – like me – are in Romania principally because of this road. Our presence brings precious foreign investment cash to the country’s economy. Marina, my BnB host in Piteşti vouchsafes that I am the third Australian in three days to stay in her humble abode – all headed for the Transfăgărăşan: one on a motorcycle, one on a bicycle and one in a car.

It’s a bit hard to guess whether a majority of visitors to the road approach from the north or the south, or even if they actually cross from one side to the other, as opposed to turning around at the top.

Either way, the views are spectacular up and down the valley(s). The hairpin bends don’t require any great driving prowess but the snaking road is clearly visible from above due to the absence of forests on the steep slopes.

Brown Bears on the mountain

In the lower slopes – closer to the slightly older dam – brown bears are still numerous. They are often close to the road – even resting pensively on roadside guide fences, as though they are selecting a juicy motorist from the passing traffic.

The Romanians take to the road in family groups, intent on picnicking at some picturesque spot on the side of the road. They want to get close to something Romanian with world renown. At the top, the road penetrates the mountain in a two-kilometre tunnel. The carpark on the misty Lake Balea side can be overflowing on weekends, with the necessity of cops on duty to guide the traffic through.

The road trippers love it for the ability to tick off one of the great road trips of the world. Bicyclists love it for the challenge of the up matched with the exhilaration of the down. Sightseers love it for the views on both sides of the ridge. There is no doubt that the road brings a tangible economic boost to the whole country.

What to think about the Transfăgărăşan: it’s up to you dear reader.

La revedere from Transylvania


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