As many of the StreetSafari regulars know, after CzechWrecks 2010 we did a recce to Romania and the Transfagarasan Highway.
It's a road that was shown on Top Gear back in early 2009 and we have been asked repeatedly to go drive it for StreetSafari and maybe to include it on an event. You may think I have the best job in the world. Maybe. Definitely top three.
First problem is “you need to go and drive the Transfagarasan Highway”, erm, yeah. Anyone know where it is? Romania. And where exactly is Romania? Anywhere near where we already go? No. Romania is the other end of Europe.
Pictures are further down the article, as is a video. However, if you read the article, the parts of the video will make more sense.
After running StreetSafari for the last seven years, we are quite familiar with Europe, but it's only when you look at Eastern Europe do you realise just how big Europe really is – and the Transfagarasan is the far end of Europe. It's no where near to anywhere we go. Ever.
To give you an idea of distance, Prague is obviously the most easterly point we reach on our calendar. Is the Transfagarasan a single day from Prague? A day would is an acceptable definition of “dropping past” as in “we were just dropping past”. A day out, a day back. No big deal.
But when you look at a map, it's two days. And a good two days at that. Motorways seem to disappear on the far end of Hungary, and for some strange reason the big roads in Romania aren't showing as motorways. That's not good.
So if this isn't clear by now, the Transfagarasan Highway is not close. Remind yourself this repeatedly in 2011 when you are in a crappy old car on a StreetSafari event. Remind yourself constantly.
Night 0 ended with us in the StreetSafari van (Goat) heading sedately into Prague. We had just sheered fifth gear and we're now limping into Prague on fourth at 50mph. My mood was not great. Goat was recovered to a Fiat main dealer who diagnosed about £800 of damage to the gearbox and clutch. They gave us a courtesy car and wished us well. They'd call in 4 days.
... tick tock tick tock....
Picked up Goat from Fiat, went back to our campsite and promptly got riotously drunk with a Belgium. I drank him under the table, and all his vodka, and then nearly chatted up his girlfriend. Must to the amusement of a certain wife of mine.
Of course, my memory was hazy about that evening. Probably best. Although I'm sure I'd be reminded of things best forgotten... many, many times.
I felt so much better after the drinking session.
So we packed up and headed east. Picked up a motorway after 50 miles and started to put in the miles on possibly the roughest motorway I have ever been down. Imagine 120 miles of driving over a washer board and you get the idea. Never experienced anything like it, but then there would be a bit of that on this trip.
After the Czech Republic is Slovakia.
Problem number one. A motorway vignette, yet no one takes credit cards and we rarely carry cash. Strangely enough, after just crossing into Slovakia we don't carry Slovakian Dingos either. But there is an exchange desk – we can draw cash from there with our cards surely. Nope.
Let's just say we winged this bit as we only had 30 miles to do in the country.
Problem number two. A motorway vignette, yet no one takes a credit card. Strangely enough, after just crossing into Hungary we don't carry Hungarian Dingos either. But there is an exchange desk – we can draw cash with our cards surely. Nope.
Ever get that deja vu feeling? We did.
We solved the vignette problem a few service stations later, and instead of getting something you stick to the screen you get a printed receipt with your registration plate on it. Weird.
A couple of hundred miles later and we are on the Romanian border. And joy of joys, it's a proper border.
And I mean a proper border. One where you show passports and everything. We like Shengan (the EU agreement to allow people to cross borders without showing passports) but it is an anti-climax when you do cross a border “We're leaving France and entering Italy, and that's the border back there”. There is no theatre in crossing a border any more.
A good border crossing is humourless and should leave you in fear of being allowed into the country. No fear, no fun.
So here we are, a proper old style ex-Soviet border crossing.
Of course we got busted straight away, the UK passport getting through effortlessly but the American passport causing problems. No visa is needed for either, but the American passport does need stamping. And some poor sucker at the Romanian border had to walk (very slowly) back to Hungary to get them to stamp the passport, and then come back to stamp it again.
It was brilliant. Proper theatre at a border for once.
By now the sun was going down and we were into Romania.
Problem number three. A road vignette, yet no one takes credit card. Strangely enough, after just crossing into Romania we don't carry Romanian Dingos either. But there is an exchange desk – we can draw cash with our cards surely. Nope.
This was getting tiresome.
We found a cash machine eventually and got our crappy paper vignette.
Although we had gotten movinng again it was gone 8pm, sun was down, and driving was no longer much fun; we had just met Romanian drivers. And Romania is dark at night. Very, very dark.
We found the first wide spot in the road, Arad, and found a very nice hotel for the evening. Romania was closer to Morocco than anything we've ever seen in Europe.
Cross country day today. I say cross country but it's actually the main road from the west of the country to Brasov and Bucharest.
Remember, Budapest is Hungary, Bucharest is Romania.
Arad in the daylight wasn't much better than it was night, but it is a place that I would love to see again in the future. The place lies at a cross road in history as an important city in the past with wonderful architecture, cross with the ruins of it's ex-Soviet/Communist modern past. The problem is that you need to see Arad, and place like it soon if you want to see these old Communist cities because they are changing every day.
For instance, Arad had a large industrial complex on the western side of city – this will be gone in 10-20 years no doubt about it.
The idea for the day was to head for Brasov. Around 350 miles away, so shouldn't be too difficult.
That possibly was the understatement of the day. The main roads are decent quality for the most part, but occasionally they become patchy where they've dug them up for fun, but the biggest problem is that these roads are jammed full of traffic. Your pace is dictated by the lorry in front.
There are precious few places to overtake, and the overtaking that is done is done by madmen.
Let us discuss the finer points of Romanian roads.
They are a death trap.
Romania is one of the most dangerous places in Europe to drive. It's currently duking out top place with Latvia and Estonia to claim Europes title of “Most Likely Place to Die on the road”. It genuinely is dangerous.
Many StreetSafari people reading this had driven in Italy, so you already know how maniacs drive. The difference between Italian and Romanian driving is vast. Italian drivers look good in comparison. Romanian drivers are nutters.
And they aren't happy, fun nutters like the Italians either. Romanians aren't happy fun loving nutjobs from Morocco either. No, Romanian drivers are much worse.
See a blind crest – that's an overtaking opportunity. See a blind corner – that's an overtaking opportunity. See a sign that says “no overtaking”, that too is an opportunity.
I can drive with the best of them in the world, and many people on StreetSafari can attest to that. I can make progress when I need to, and it takes a lot to intimidate me on the road. I've driven around the world, and I can certainly hold my own when I need. I can also teach locals a thing or two.
But not in Romania. There are times when you consider that it's just far too dangerous to mess around. Quite simply, you are dancing with Hep C sufferers, and that just ain't fun.
Even when you are trying to stay out of trouble, that doesn't mean you won't get into trouble.
For instance, we're going down a fairly straight road and the oncoming traffic is taking their overtaking opportunity moments, relatively safely. The 4th car pulled out, and you figure you'll have a 1-2 second margin of safety once he's completed the manouvure.
Imagine the 5th car pulling out to overtake 4 seconds after the 4th car. At this point you have to dive for the brakes, and dive for the right hand side of the lane, whilst the truck he's overtaking is doing likewise on his side of the road.
Heart stopping isn't the description I'd use.
And that was only one of many many close calls.
StreetSafari will be doing an event next year to the Transfagarasan, but there will be certain rules.
The first rule will be that no one is to drive at night in Romania. Once the sun goes down, start looking to get off the roads as Romanian drivers don't get better at night, they get a whole lot worse.
Remember that you are in Transylvania. At night. With moronic Romanian drivers.
Although there is zero drink drive policy in Romania, from what we can tell many Romanians drivers are drunk. Want to chance your luck with people who are overtaking in the dark whilst over the UK limit? I don't.
Also at night, the big problem is horse and carts. None of them have lights. And the driver is also probably drunk. If you hit a horse and cart at any speed then you are simply dead. The cart will go up over your bonnet and through the windscreen.
And then there are the drunk scooters with no lights.
Romania is a death trap at night, so when we go there next year, there will be a no driving at night rule in Romania. Simple as that.
Right, back to the journey across Romania. The slow journey.
I have to admit that we never actually reach Brasov that day. After around 300 miles. I was tired, had had enough of Romanian drivers and Romanian “dodge the pothole” roads. I wasn't having fun and I wasn't enjoying the roads.
So, we found a campsite (the only campsite for many miles!) at a place called Carta, which is also at the top of the Transfaragasan Highway, so it was quite well placed for the next few days.
The interesting thing about the day was that we continually played cat and mouse with a English biker on a big BMW endurance bike. We had seen him 200 miles back from Carta, and had got past him the first time, and then he overtook us later.
Whenever we seemed to have lost him, we'd suddenly pass him, or he'd pass us. In the city of Sibiu he went one direction, we went another, and 20 miles later he passes us again. 10 miles later we pass him in a petrol station.
“Isn't that the biker again?” was a common comment in Goat's cabin.
Before we went to the campsite in Carta, we actually blew straight past the turning and continued to Brasov. But after 2 miles I thought less of that idea, and did a U turn, and came back for the campsite in Carta.
When we took the turning, there was the biker again! We followed him down into Carta where we lost him, but found the campsite.
We lucked out with Carta and the campsite. The campsite was brilliant. Run by a Romanian/Dutch couple, and it was so good. A true gem to find.
And whilst we were setting up, the English biker arrived as well. Chap called Gordon, and he missed the campsite sign in Carta. How he missed the sign because it was at least 2 inches high about 50m up in a tree, but he did.
Lo'n'behold there was another British couple camping at the site as well. A decidely British affair on a Romanian campsite in the middle of nowhere, off the beaten track, totally made up of Brits. And then zee Germans turned up. Brits and Germans in Europe. Always good for a party.