Best road in the world or communist tyrant’s power trip? Only one way to find out! It was on a bus tour in the early 1970s that I discovered Romania. I remember little but the awful food and how our nervous guide evaded political questions, pointing instead to distant smokestacks and telling us, “Here is chemistry factory!” Much of the country seemed unremarkable until we got to Transylvania. That’s where I fell in love with Romania’s historic Saxon towns; graceful Sibiu, mysterious Brasov, and the ancient citadel of Sighisoara. I vowed to return in more enlightened times—and without a guide!
Since then, communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu met a gruesome end in 1989, and Romania has joined the European Union. Entering from Hungary should be hassle free. So Jim Bush, Steve Gurry, Matt Bush, and I fly into Munich in September, rent four motorcycles (two BMW R 1200 GSs, a BMW F 800 GS, and a Ducati Multistrada) from Allround Vermietung, and follow the Danube to Budapest—destination Transylvania and the famed Transfagarasan Highway—Ceausescu’s “Road to Nowhere.”
Our first impression of border city Oradea is uninspiring with its drab, crumbling communist-era apartment buildings. Joining Romania’s E60 Highway, we slot into a procession of semis out of the city and into a rolling landscape of grassy fields through a succession of shambling villages.
The two-laner and an endless stream of traffic make passing almost impossible. Each village is posted at 18 mph and has a uniformed cop standing by his marked car. That doesn’t stop drivers from making suicidal passes into the oncoming lane. Not surprisingly, up ahead is the aftermath of a side-swipe.
But there are echoes of a primitive collective agricultural past as we rattle along: horse carts, a shepherd leaning on his crook, and a horse-drawn plough. We pass through a Roma town and see extravagant, yet incomplete, dwellings with gaudy silver domes and bright paint.
I’ve booked basic, yet adequate, rooms at the Hotel Centrum in the town of Turda. The local Ciuc (say: chook) beer is refreshing, and the goulash soup is savory and filling with more than a dash of paprika!
The Transylvanian Alps run east to west across central Romania. Their towering peaks and sheer rock faces provide a perfect natural boundary. The region has changed ownership many times, and it was in the 12th Century that Franconian settlers applied German names to the towns. Sibiu was known as Hermannstadt, Brasov as Kronstadt, and Sighisoara as Schaessburg.
The most famous highway through the mountains, the Transfagarasan, is known as “Ceausescu’s Folly” for its frontal assault on the mountains and its questionable utility. Completed in 1974 in response to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, and costing the lives of more than 40 construction workers, the highway was actually intended to aid troop movements in the summer. The Transfagarasan is snowed in nine months of the year!