Romania Part 5: The bit where we nearly die on the Transfagarasan Highway…
If there’s a ranking list of ‘worst things to hear on a hairpin bend by a vertical drop an hour up a mountain’, I’m placing “I’ve lost brakes and steering” near the top.
We’d planned to go to Vlad the Impaler’s actual castle- the one where he was supposed to have done all the impaling, but then we got sidetracked when Nicola realised that with a detour we could drive the Transfagarasan Highway. It’s the world’s second-highest paved road and made of tight bends, sheer drops and vertigo. Top Gear called it the world’s best driving road a few years ago. It didn’t take much persuasion for us to decide it would be a very worthwhile thing to do. I’m from a mountainous country (Scotland) and never pass up a chance to see mountains on my travels- I love the changes in weather and climate, and it’s a landscape I miss. We pulled into a gas station for emergency pretzel and smoothie rations (and a croissant for me because it said ‘Boromir’ on the packet), took in this view below, remarked on an odd whiff of burning rubber and began the winding ascent. An hour later, our fan belt shredded itself. We didn’t have time to consider how fortunate we were that it happened opposite a hotel- our lives flashing before our eyes took up most of our concentration.
It was our fourth day and I’d seen the country in fits and starts; glimpses from the road and frozen moments inside our filming locations. Villages of little painted houses that clashed wonderfully with their neighbours. An empty entrance hall with a window shaped like a nautilus and corridors echoing with the calls of a hundred pigeons. Chicken coops, roadside shrines and packed-to-bursting tiny markets. Empty rooms with damp walls and long rusted nails embedded in splintered wooden doors. Wizened fruit trees, faded fields and lovable nomadic dogs. History so entangled with the bricks and make-up of a building it coloured every sense. It was a disconcerting mix- and now, a near-silent mountain full of pines, snow, the grind of cablecars a couple of peaks away and relieved-to-be-alive but horrified cursing in four different voices.
Some cultures with a lot of snow have words for the sound it makes as it falls but to me falling snow is an absence of sound- like black and white are technically absences of colour. Sound or not, snow was beginning to fall as we made our way toward the hotel.
We mimed our predicament to the owner and she kindly phoned mechanics (or dentists- we still aren’t certain she understood us- or my terrible German). Our fan belt looked like a Cheesestring and we waited in limbo for an hour or two. When no mechanic- or anybody else- was forthcoming, we were towed to the nearest town at about 60 miles per hour by a neighbour with no experience at all but an incredible amount of ‘can-do’ and balls. (Did I mention 60mph? Down a mountain? With no brakes or steering?)
We skidded into a mechanics twenty five minutes before closing time where we were told that there was nothing that could be done without an appointment but after our friend with the tow rope took the staff away for a discussion in Romanian with a lot of emphatic arm waving, the situation changed. Half an hour in the waiting room (which had Top Gear playing just to rub it in, but also had an Irish coffee machine……. and colouring books) and we had a new fan belt, ready to go and attempt the ascent again at dusk. Because of course!
My efforts with a black pencil that was more grey.
An hour later, we passed the hotel as dusk fell and just around the next bend we were greeted by a massive concrete roadblock. A speedy internet search later and it turns out that the road is too dangerous to tackle before June!!! After an hours silent descent, our lights reflecting off snow, we set our course for a road that would actually lead somewhere. (Somewhere that wasn’t Sibiu- it seems that all roads lead to Sibiu.)
It wasn’t a particularly action packed day- except for the many internal dilemmas we had and half-formed plans for alternative scenarios, but we learned that although sometimes the mountain wins, at least we saw the mountain.
I don’t have many photos from that day for obvious reasons but here’s the beautiful little village “Sighisoara” we woke up in that morning. Next time, I’m going to see it for more than ten minutes!
Next Romania blog: Last chapter, in which I have my eyes taken from me, in a prison within a prison…
p.s. This was not our vehicle, but I’ll be introducing you soon, oh readers…. 😉