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Published: November 7th 2011
We had a grand total of one night in Hungary. We had heard a lot about Budapest, but really didn't have enough time to make it. Instead, we simply cut across the top of the country, hunting for a place to camp.
After a day driving past girls on the side of the road selling melons. Or at least they were making an attempt. They seemed far more interested in working on their tans on a summer holiday than making a sale.
We found a campsite, not far from the Romanian border. It was largely full of large Hungarian men and their larger wives on their summer holidays, plus a few busloads of raucous teenagers, but they had room for the Berlingo.
We passed a sleepless night, parked beside the highway, and decided to give this part of Hungary a miss the next time around.
What to say about Romania? Where to start? Well, at the border is as good a place as any. We made the crossing at the Oradea crossing, and it was the first proper border crossing we'd been to in Europe. Finally, a stamp in the passport! Obviously they didn't get many Australians
through, because we had to pull over to the side and wait for a fair while. Still, sitting in the airconditioned Berlingo was a hell of a lot more comfortable than waiting in the dust at a Bolivian checkpoint.
Straight away, too, the driving got manic. We'd been expecting it, but it was still something of a surprise. It appeared that Romania's reputation for having the worst roads and drivers in Europe was entirely accurate.
We headed north east to have a look at the Maramures region. Reputed to be beautiful and somewhat lost in the 17th century, it lived up to the hype.
Green rolling hills, picturesque villages with incredible wooden churches, row after row of haystacks. We drove down tiny rutted road after tiny rutted road in the hope of finding a good place to camp, the steely eyed gaze of peasants with pitchforks forming something of an honour guard along the sides of the ox-cart tracks.
We were entirely too gutless to pull up and camp anywhere, even though free camping is no problem in Romania. We had some vague directions in an antiquated Lonely Planet but, typically, they were no help. We
decided to stay in a guesthouse or a motel.
Easier said than done.
It seemed it was wedding season in Maramures. Italian plated cars clogged every place we tried as Romanian Italians returned to the motherland to celebrate nuptials.
Eventually, on the outskirts of Baia Mare, we found a strange brand new 'hostel' which may or may not have been a love hotel.
We headed south, closer to Transylvania, where we found an excellent campsite in the hills outside the lovely little town of Cisnadioara. The German owners spotted us drive up and proceeded to talk to us in French. A French discussion ensued for quite a while, until both of realised neither could really talk French and switched to English with relief.
We spent a couple of nights there, wandering around the area, and sitting in the campsite watching the locals try to herd the sheep and cattle up the street. They did it well, with shouts of "Ho I te hii hii,....How why ho!" or something. A brief stampede through the rich grass of the camp provided entertainment for all involved.
As it happened we had found ourselves almost at the end
of the Transfargarsan Road – supposed to be one the world's great drives. Ceacescu built the road in between 1970 and 1974, and by some reports he wanted to be better than the other acknowledged brilliant road – the Stelvio Pass in Italy.
The Stelvio would have to incredible to top this road.
The road starts as any other in this country – a sudden turn of a so-called main road onto a bumpy ashphalt goat track. You can see the Fagaras Mountains filling the horizon in front of you, and you head straight for them. Well, your passengers can see the mountains – you will far too busy dodging carts, potholes and drunkards on pushbikes to chance looking at the scenery.
Then, the road changes, gets smoother. You start to climb, but gradually. The bends start to happen, slight at first. A 2 degree left, a 3 degree right, you drop the hammer and the pine trees flash past – the Berlingo begins to feel faster, lighter (actually, it was an excellent handling car, surprisingly so for what was basically a delivery van).
You risk a glance out the side window, and catch your breath
– you are now 1600m up and can see right down an incredible valley. Quickly, after passing under some truly rickety looking avalanche tunnels, you find yourself above the treeline.
Then, the hairpins start. Holy crap, you catch yourself thinking, how awesome would this be on a bike! As you think this you swing wide to avoid a Tour de France wannabe, simultaneously thinking to yourself “Not that kind of bike” and admiring the guts of the bloke. The road surface isn't perfect, but certainly not bad, and you find yourself opening the throttle just that bit more, swinging into the hairpins, dropping gears, nailing the apex, and powering into the next turn.
Then you look to your right. Wow. So you pull over and get out to take a photo. The blacktop snakes its way down the valley, laid out like the black coil thingos on the back of your fridge, as far as you can see. And you turn around and look up the valley – those are more of the same, hanging off the mountainside, and you jump back in the car, keen to get on your way.
Through a dark tunnel at the
pass, and the road continues down the other side - less spectacular, but smoother and faster. At this point you head quickly down the valley, hugging the river and heading back among the trees.
And we learned that Romanians cannot handle corners. Up your arse while the road is straight or going through some small town, but come to a twisty mountain road and they can't drive – braking too late into corners, no power out of them, and nervous as hell. Even those in the Mercs and BMWs.
Incredible, then the road finishes. And when it finishes, it finishes
. The bitumen ends and the potholes take over. You thread your way at less than walking pace, chuckling at the blokes in Ferraris and Porsches bottomed out in the half metres deep canyons that were once a road. For the better part of two hours.
It was interesting, in hindsight, to have driven on the best road I have ever driven on, and the absolute worst, all in the same day. And it was the same road.
But, then, that's Romania.
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