Nicolae Ceau??escu, Romanian dictator for 25 years, was a clown at best and a cruel, brutal sonofabitch at worst. His homely wife Elena was just the same, with the additional failing of being dumber than goose ca-ca. When the two were executed by firing squad on Christmas day 1989, it was a mercy killing. Had I been in charge – Wow, I utter that phrase a lot! – the two, perpetually in shackles, muzzles and dunce caps, would have been forced to travel the country, yoked to giant carts from which they would personally distribute their belongings and wealth to the people of Romania, particularly to the tens of thousands victims and their families who were imprisoned, tortured and murdered over the years.
Having completed that, they’d be dispatched to clean the bathrooms in Bucharest’s Gara Nord train station (still yoked for form’s sake) for the rest of eternity and live in a glass barn, complete with gastro-intestinally prolific livestock, placed smack in Bucharest’s Pia?a Victorei so the public could view their wretchedness 24 hours a day and freely bombard the walls with rotten fruit and vegetables. Ah, sweet vengeance.
Ceauşescu 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, but if there was any woman in modern history that would have fallen for the “No really, you have to see it in the right light – I swear it’s nine inches” shtick, it was Elena Ceauşescu.
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 the Little Vampire and 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. So low that I didn’t see a flock of 400-500 galloping, wild-eyed sheep until an instant before they’d surrounded the car.
The Little Vampire screamed. I groped for the camera and courageously jumped out of the car for pictures when it seemed safe. The hoard continued for a minute or so, finally trailed by a few dogs and some shepherds that looked like they’d been up the mountain all summer equipped with more ţuică than soap. As they trotted by, one beseeched me for a cigarette, showing patent skepticism when I indicated that I don’t smoke, before they continued the chase down the mountain, tormenting the flock’s stragglers. I watched them disappear into the fog. Suddenly alone, I looked down and saw that I was standing on a carpet of raisin-sized sheep turds. The car floor was never the same again.
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.
Leif Pettersen, originally from Minneapolis, Minnesota, co-authored the current edition of Lonely Planet’s Romania and Moldova. Visit his personal blog, Killing Batteries, for additional tips on creative vengeance and how a non-existent God somehow manages to biblically screw him so often.