An invitation to discover what Top Gear calls ‘the greatest driving road in the world’? And this in a Mazda MX-5, the car that in 2000 set the Guiness World Record of ‘Bestselling two-seater sports car”? Needless to say, that the available seats were quickly taken.
Text Anja Van Der Borght – Photos Anja Van Der Borght and Jeffrey Vandervaart from Vandervaartphotography.com
There is a lot of enthusiasm amongst the invitees as Romania is a country few of us have ever visited. Apart from that the foresight of discovering the greatest driving road in the world with the new updated 4th generation of the Mazda MX-5 is thrilling for any car enthusiast.
After a two-hour flight from Brusssels (departure time 9:50) with Austrian Airlines we arrive in Vienna where we get into a smaller Bombardier propeller plane that takes us in 1,5 hours straight to Sibiu, a small town in Transylvania about 215 kilometers northwest from Bucharest. From the plane we get a fantastic view over the Carpathian Mountains that are forming a semi-circle around Transylvania.
During our twenty-minute drive to our hotel – the Hilton – we discover that the outskirts of Sibiu are everything but cozy with lots of shopping malls, car dealers and apartment buildings. Some of the neighborhoods and definitely the old center are very charming with beautiful orthodox churches and bright colored houses with roofs reminiscent of the gingerbread house from the Hansel and Gretel fairytale.
Roofs reminiscent of the gingerbread house from the Hansel and Gretel fairytale in Sibiu.
The Hilton hotel in Sibiu is a bit old, decorated in Rumanian style and lacking nice views but it’s without any doubt one of the best hotels in the area. After our check-in we head straight for the English bar, as we haven’t had lunch yet. “A César salad, please”, Pieter, one of the invitees, orders. “Which one you want?”, the Rumanian waitress replies: “With chicken, with tuna or the classic one”. Pieter looks at us as if he just saw a big Rumanian bear passing by. We look at one another, chuckle until Pieter firmly Replies: “The classic one, please”. We ourselves try the beef burger while other invitees try the mozzarella sticks and club sandwich but we would only recommend the chicken legs on the menu. They taste heavenly.
After some time in the luxurious spa of the hotel we meet up for dinner in Camara Boierului, that is the Rumanian restaurant of the hotel. Here we get served typical Rumanian food. As a starter we get platters with sausages, cold meat and cheese, salads, pickles, … and as main dish platters with warm meat and sausages – chicken and veal – polenta, rice and grilled vegetables. The dessert platters are very varied with cream filled dumplings, pastry filled with plum, apfelstrudel, … We discover that apart from the desserts we are not really a fan of the Rumanian kitchen, the good thing about this platter formula is that on any of the platters you will at least find one thing you like to eat.
During dinner we get a briefing about what next day will bring and what you have to pay attention to when driving the Transfagarasan Highway.
– Pay attention to the speed limits as speeding might cause you trouble with the police.
– Pay also attention to the fact that many unexpected circumstances can occur: dogs, sheep or deer crossing the roads, rocks falling down, people crossing, …
– Be aware that the further you approach the turning point of the route near Dracula’s castle, the worse road conditions get. All things we feel very okay to deal with…
Today is THE driving day in our Transfagarasan adventure. We decide to leave the hotel quite early to make sure we have enough time to take all the pictures we want to and to be back on time for dinner.
It’s 7:45 when we leave the Hilton from Sibiu in a beautiful updated 2.0 liter Mazda MX-5 RF. It’s about 16°C but we decide to open the roof already. In contrast to the regular Mazda MX-5 in which you open the roof still manually, in the RF a simple push on a button will do. We experience only little wind in the cabin even at higher speeds of 120 km/h and more. Exactly as a convertible should be.
The roadbook directs us through some streets out of the city center straight onto the highway. We pass a lot of French retail chains and supermarkets which make us reflect about the Romanian language. If you can speak a few European languages like French or Spanish you can understand the basics of Romanian language or at least the headlines in the newspaper, we think. We have to try that later on.
‘De Vânzare’ we read regularly on a signboard on a house. Ah, ‘For Sale’, we conclude and as the road continues our Romanian gets better and better.
Traffic is normal in the beginning but after 20 minutes of driving it all of a sudden gets very dense at a big roundabout. We are clearly on one of the main axes here. Straight at this point where traffic starts to get annoying we luckily take a left turn into the misty mountains.
We were hoping for some mist in order to capture pictures with atmosphere and, yes indeed, the ceramic white MX-5 RF combines beautifully with the green landscapes. But in some moments, we hardly can see a hand in front of our eyes. We wonder whether we should have postponed the picture taking session as the higher we get the less we see and after half an hour driving we don’t see anything but what looks like white walls. We can only guess what the landscape on our left and right side really looks like. Knowing that we will take the same route back later that day, comforts us a bit. We will find out about the landscape later on…
Looking for some atmosphere from the locals we decide to stop at Des. Porumbacu de Jos Jud. Sibiu where we interact with some local families. Seeing the beautiful convertible with German license plate some of them are intrigued by the price of this facelifted car. As we reply that in euros it is only 30.990 Euros for the RF with manual gearbox and 32.490 Euros for the one with automatic gear box they are even more intrigued.
The weather forecast predicted 25°C for the day and therefore we were dressed in a light organza long sleeved dress and open sandals but the higher we go the colder it gets. The more we rise to the top height of 2,050 metres the more the temperature drops. It’s getting colder and colder and when we arrive at Cabana Paltinu (79 kilometers after our departure) for a coffee stop the digital display in the MX-5 RF shows 8° Celsius. It’s like freezing when we get out of the car. Surprising because we have been driving open till now. And that felt very comfortable. The Mazda MX-5 is one of those convertibles you can drive open almost the whole year around, we conclude.
Luckily, it’s just a short walk to the cabin for the coffee stop and even though it’s cold we take the time to have a look at the local stalls with souvenirs and food.
We talk to the manager of the coffee place about the misty weather. ‘Oh, that’s normal”, she replies. “But once you head through the tunnel next door you will find totally different weather. Just don’t wait too long to pass because the sun is shining now on the other side of the tunnel and once it makes its way to this side, the weather on the other side will change as well.” Mmmh, it’s a good thing to inform oneself regularly with the locals about weather conditions as they appear to change all the time while your trail progresses and a whole trip in misty weather with no view at all of any landscapes would be a big bummer.
Even though the Transfagarasan road was built in the 70’ies road conditions till now are very good. We wonder what they will look like on the other side of the tunnel.
It’s like magic. For hours we have been driving in misty weather on one side of the mountain… hardly being able to see anything but what looks like white walls. Then we drive through the Balea tunnel and it’s like we evolve from one climate into another. From cold misty weather into a sunny warm climate with clear views. Needless to say that all of the sudden we feel back in the real world where there is so much to experience.
The scenery is just beautiful. Green hills, crystal clear rivers, waterfalls, … lots of (wild?) dogs and some photogenic and curious donkeys.
As the minutes pass by we notice the temperature climbing from 8°C to 21°C. We enjoy the warmer weather… the smell of grass, of trees, … of nature in general – that’s another advantage of driving a convertible – and then there it is. That unforgettable view we have been awaiting for the past few days.
A panorama from the top of the hill on the Transfagarasan road that winds through the landscape like an artful serpentine. It just looks a perfect landscape painting of Vincent van Gogh. The Splugenpas may be impressive with its repetitive pattern of similar hairpin bends, but this Transfagarasan road through the Carpates at the foot of the Transylvanian Alps shows much more variation in its curves. Our heart pounces faster as we know that very soon we will be driving that part of the road.
It’s the irregularity in the pattern of curves which make the Transfagarasan more fun and challenging to drive. This road simply is the best circuit in the world! What a thrill to be able to drive it in a sporty and agile two-seater as the Mazda MX-5. Contrary to what we expected and were told, the road conditions till here were quite ok.
During our day trip we had the chance to drive four different cars – all with 2.0 liter (184 hp) engine and all manual gearbox, and one RF. The new Mazda MX-5 is from now on available with a new 2.0 liter engine and this Mazda wanted to promote. According to the manufacturer the average fuel consumption is 6.9 liter/100 km. Our consumption average fuel consumption was 7.1 liter/100 km with the RF and 7.4 liter/100 km with the roadster. Which car we preferred? Well, for this road the RF. That is the MX-5 with metal roof as we did experience less wind in the cabin than with the regular Mazda MX-5. However we think a 1.5 liter engine would have been even a more challenging drive. More fun to play!
From Valea Cu Pesti where we have lunch we drive about ten minutes more downwards to the Ceti dam at Vidraru lake.
It’s from here onwards driving further down to the Cet. Poenari castle ruin that road conditions get so bad that we really have to slow down and drive around holes in the asphalt concrete.
But it’s worth the trip as you will be able to have a look at or visit Cet. Poenari also known as Poenari Citadel, a ruined castle, notable for its connection to Vlad the Impaler and therefore also called ‘the real Dracula castle’.
Claims that the Poenari Castle would be the “real” Castle Dracula as featured in Bram Stoker’s famous Dracula novel have no basis in Stoker’s book. Stoker never heard of the Poenari Castle. It is ca. 200 km away from the novel’s place of action in the north-east corner of Transylvania.
Poenari Castle was apically constructed around the beginning of the 13th century by Wallachians. Around the 14th century, Poenari was the main citadel of the Basarab rulers. In the next few decades, the name and the residents changed a few times but eventually the castle was abandoned and left in ruins. In the 15th century, realizing the potential for a castle perched high on a steep precipice of rock, Vlad III the Impaler repaired and consolidated the structure, making it one of his main fortresses. Although the castle was used for many years after Vlad’s death in 1476, it eventually was abandoned again in the first half of the 16th century and was in ruins by the 17th century. The size and location of the castle made it difficult to conquer. In 1888, a landslide caused by an earthquake brought down parts of the castle which crashed into the river far below. It was slightly repaired and the walls and its towers still stand today. Like a visit? Be aware that you must climb 1,480 concrete stairs to get anywhere near the ruin.
On our way back we have a short stop at the cemetery. We hear some rustling and when we take a look a deer sprints away. A great end of our adventure and also time for us to fly back to Belgium the next day.
Prices new MX-5:
28.490 € for the 2.0 liter Roadster (184 hp)
30.990 Euros for the RF with manual gearbox and 32.490 Euros for the one with automatic gearbox.
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