It was so hot that day. At the crossroad, all the cars were turning in the same direction. The shade of the forest was pleasant and the air became breathable again. Then, as we quickly gained altitude, the burning sun disappeared behind the dark gray clouds and, to our great surprise, it started to rain. It didn’t last long though and, by the time we reached the alpine pastures, the clouds were already retreating over the sharp mountain ridges.
When we got out of the car, we immediately grabbed and ransacked our backpacks searching for our jackets, which were of course hidden on the bottom. It was incredibly cold and we loved it. We were crossing the Transfăgărășan Road on an ever-changing weather, meaning more than 90 km (55 miles) of spectacular scenery on a steep winding road in the heart of the mountains, the second highest in Romania.
The most spectacular road in Romania
The Transfăgărășan road was officially inaugurated in 1974 and connects Transylvania to southern Romania, crossing the massive Făgăraș Mountains. Also called “the road to the clouds”, it reaches a maximum altitude of 2,042m and passes by a number of monuments and tourist attractions on its way. In the south, at the foot of the mountains, it begins with the impressive Vidraru Lake and dam, one of the largest in Europe. Close to the lake, the ruins of the Poenari Citadel stand on top of a steep hill. The fortification was built as a protection against the Ottoman invasions during the reign of Vlad Tepeș, in the 15th century. In order to get to the citadel, visitors must climb the 1,500 stone steps, thus making the historic site one of the best belle-view points in the area, opening up toward the lake, the Făgăraș Mountains and the Transfăgărășan road.
It all culminates with Bâlea Lake at its highest point. Close to this glacial lake, the Bâlea Tunnel penetrates the mountain. Measuring 887m in length, it is the longest tunnel at the highest elevation in Romania. Bâlea Waterfall is found downstream from the lake, close to where the forest gets lost in the alpine landscape. A cable cart connects Bâlea Waterfall Chalet to Bâlea Lake, passing over the 60 m drop of water. During winter, when the Transfăgărășan in closed, this is the only means of transportation to the small resort above.
The Alps of Transylvania
Once on the top, you are in the middle of the Făgăraș Mountains, also known as the ‘Alps of Transylvania’. They are the largest group of mountains in Romania and the Transfăgărășan passes relatively close to the Moldoveanu Peak, the highest in the country at 2,544 m in. So there’s plenty to do for all you nature lovers and mountaineers. Bâlea Lake is a starting point for many trips in the Făgăraș Mountains, from a few hours to several days long, from easy and accessible to challenging alpine routes on sharp rocky ridges.
The glacial lakes
Bâlea Lake is the largest glacial lake in Romania. At 2,040 m, the Transfăgărășan passes by it at its highest point. The chalet near the lake is over 100 years old, hosts tourists and serves traditional food. Beginning with 2006, an ice hotel is built each winter near the Bâlea Lake. This is the first of its kind in Eastern Europe.
From Bâlea, Capra Lake is just an hour away. A path takes us on the ridge that separates the two lakes, a place with an aerial view over the entire Făgăraș Mountains. From here, Capra Lake is right under our feet and there’s a new perspective on the Transfăgărășan road, both the southern and northern sides. The main ridge gets lost in the distance, a several days route that many mountaineers take on both during summer and winter to test their limits. Far away we can make out the shapes of other glacial lakes, sparkling like wide eyes in the heart of the mountain, mirroring the surrounding rocky slopes and blue skies above.