Tackling the Transalpina

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With his dream of exploring the famous Transfăgărășan mountain road in tatters, JOSH HUDSON pushes on and experiences the ride of his life.

The Carpathian Mountains may be overshadowed as a motorcycle touring destination by the likes of the Alps and the Pyrenees, but for those willing to explore further east in Europe, the rewards are rich and abundant. Romania in particular, which includes much of the Carpathians, is a country crying out to be discovered by more bikers. It’s a land bursting with natural beauty and culture, but more importantly for two-wheeled travellers, it is home to two of the greatest motorcycle roads on Earth, the Transfăgărășan and Transalpina mountain passes. Romania also happens to be my girlfriend Alice’s homeland and the destination for our latest motorcycle trip. We met three years ago over a mutual love of motorcycles and adventure. We both have careers that keep us indoors, Alice in a laboratory and me on a trading floor, so as summer approached, we were itching to get away and enjoy a motorcycle holiday together.

Parked-up-on-a-bridge

We decided to explore the famous Transfăgărășan and Transalpina mountain roads as neither of us had ridden them before. Being precious with our annual leave allowances, we decided to fly to Romania and hire bikes rather than ride all the way from the UK. As time ticked by, holiday requests were approved, route plans conjured, and flight bookings and motorcycle hire reservations clicked into place. We flew to the city of Cluj-Napoca where we picked up the bikes, a BMW R1200 GS for me and a BMW G650 GS for Alice. With our panniers loaded up and SatNavs programmed, we made our way south to Sibiu about 100 miles away. This picturesque medieval city in Transylvania was once designated the European Capital of Culture. After a traditional lunch of sarmale (cooked cabbage leaves wrapped around minced meat), we headed for the mountains.

Our plan was to ride the legendary Transfăgărășan Highway, then travel east across country to ride a section of the Transalpina, the highest road in Romania. It isn’t uncommon to find both roads closed due to bad weather, so we’d been closely watching the forecast prior to leaving the UK. The news wasn’t encouraging. Snow had been falling despite the fact it was summer, and worryingly, videos circulated online of snowploughs struggling to clear the passes. However, armed with a sense of adventure, and with our accommodation already booked, we decided to press on. Soon enough we turned onto the start of Transfăgărășan, also known as the DN7C.

We could see the mountains protruding from the horizon in front of us as we approached from the north. The fabled mountain pass was within our reach. As we began to climb and the roads became twistier, I noticed the R 1200 GS felt lighter than my own Triumph Tiger Explorer at home. Peering into my mirrors, I could see Alice right on my tail enjoying the comfort of being sat behind a windscreen, a luxury she doesn’t enjoy on her usual bike, a Ducati Scrambler. We were loving every moment of the ride, but little did we know, our plans were about to be thrown into disarray.

Blocked-Path

As we reached the first of a series of tunnels that dot the Transfăgărășan, we saw the entrance was blocked by concrete slabs. The reports of heavy snow and ice at higher altitudes proved to be correct and the authorities had closed the pass. Much to our considerable jealousy, we spotted cyclists lifting their bicycles over the barriers and carrying on up to the pass. Given the weight of our BMWs, and the fact there were presumably many more blocked tunnels ahead, we decided against doing the same. We were gutted to miss out on the Transfăgărășan after coming so far to ride it but we had no choice. One can plan trips in meticulous detail, but when the s**t hits the fan, you’ve simply got to let go of what’s outside of your control and adjust your plans. After spending time capturing drone footage of the spectacular alpine landscape, including the Balea Waterfall, we rode back down to our accommodation for the night in Cârțișoara at the northern end of the Transfăgărășan.

Over dinner, we studied our map. While mulling over a new route for the next day, we made the acquaintance of two German gentlemen. One of the reasons I love biking is that, no matter one’s age or background, there’s always a common bond that brings people together. The German gents explained that their wives “release the shackles” for two weeks of every year, allowing them to explore Europe together. One of the men was a goose farmer who rode a Honda Africa Twin, while the other was on a BMW G 650 GS. The goose farmer took great pleasure in explaining to his friend that he rode the same bike as Alice. Fortuitously, they had both ridden the Transalpina in the days before meeting us and they gushed about how fantastic it was. We took their advice and decided to ride the whole length of the Transalpina ourselves, rather than just a section as we’d originally planned. This would turn out to be an excellent decision.

Bikes-by-water

The next morning, we got up nice and early and hit the road to Valcea. Our plan was to reach our hotel in Novaci some 135 miles away, via Bradisor Dam and Vidra Lake. As we crossed the dam, I was suspicious of the darkening clouds that predictably delivered what is best described as a better-call-Noah downpour. It was here we promised ourselves we would invest in waterproof textile suits as soon as we returned home.

We were completely soaked but undeterred, and with smiles still on our faces, we shrugged off the bad weather and rode on. Fixated on the promise of a truly epic ride, we continued on until we joined the Transalpina, also known as the DN67C. We planned to ride a section to our hotel and then slightly backtrack the next day to ride its length in full.

Transalpina-Map

By Jove, our new German friends had been right. We could hardly believe our eyes. Never before had we seen such a beautiful landscape and winding roads converging together like this. The views were so far-reaching I claimed I could see the curvature of the earth. We climbed to 2,145m above sea level, the scenery provoking a wide range of emotions within me. This was without doubt the most stunning place either of us had ever ridden. The bike below me felt perfectly at home navigating the snow-capped, mountainous roads. Unlike its appearance suggests (to non-adventure bike riders at least), the big GS isn’t a cumbersome beast, quite the opposite in fact.

The bike felt weightless as I flicked it between turns despite the fact it was fully loaded with panniers. I also got great pleasure from hearing the deep tone the exhaust produced, surpassing my Tiger Explorer’s exhaust note. I now understood perfectly why the GS has topped motorcycles sales figures for so many years. I’d highly recommend taking one for a test ride to see for yourself.

transalpina-bikes

We tore ourselves away from the sublime riding to stop for lunch where we climbed up some craggy rocks and marvelled at the landscape. Unbeknown to us, we were being stalked by a pack of three alarmingly burly dogs. They were a far cry from Andrex puppies and looked more like wolf and bear hybrids, which I briefly considered given the fact both can be found roaming wild in Romania. Noticing the three of them working together to deliberately box us in, we hastily cancelled lunch, climbed down the rocks, and rode off. We enjoyed one hairpin bend after another as we headed to Novaci, a town essentially serving as the gateway to the Transalpina.

Arriving at our hotel, the owner kindly prepared us a meal, summoning the chef by phone just for us. He showed us into our room and I was surprised at how modern and luxurious it was. It wouldn’t have looked out of place inside a hotel in Davos, Switzerland. Yet here we were in Romania staying overnight for a fraction of the cost. The bed was possibly the largest I’d ever seen. We could have laid the two bikes down next to us and still leave space. Knackered from a full day of riding, we enjoyed a couple of Romanian pale lagers before calling it a night. Well, that was after we went through the usual bedtime routine of plugging in all the camera and drone batteries to charge overnight. Despite our tiredness, we were both brimming with excitement for what tomorrow would bring.

The next morning, we set off to ride the entire length of the Transalpina to the city of Sebeș, the final overnight stop of our trip around 90 glorious miles away. The sun beat down on us as we carved up the mountainside and over the top of the Transalpina. The views were sensational, especially the sight of the road snaking its way upwards. It was incredible to think of the effort it would have taken to blast through this landscape to build the road.

Transalpina-snow-and-clif

A gaggle of BMW riders passed us in the opposite direction, nodding approvingly at our choice of motorcycles. I broke cover from the formal English nod and engaged in progressively enthusiastic waves as an endless stream of bikes passed us. From Ducati Panigales to Honda Hornets, everyone was enjoying the generous offerings of the Transalpina. One chap was repeatedly riding up and down the same section, screaming past us on his Honda Fireblade and pulling wheelies in each direction. I counted the cars we saw that day on one hand. We were a world away from the riding we do back home in London and Hertfordshire. The roads were surprisingly well surfaced too, although at the top of Transalpina we couldn’t resist riding a section of off-piste path, testing our off-road capabilities.

Snow-on-transalpina

Back on the tarmac, the roads were still lined with snowbanks that hadn’t melted despite it being the peak of summer. But, as we started to descend down the northern side of the pass, the scenery changed to lush, green, alpine forest. I was forever scanning the trees to catch a glimpse of a bear or a wolf. Alas, the only animals devouring us today were the hordes of mosquitoes near water sources. As I peered down at my SatNav, all I could see were spaghetti-like roads crawling across the screens. Had we found the Holy Grail of motorcycling? As we rode, I couldn’t help but think about the history of the Transfăgărășan and the Transalpina.

The Transfăgărășan was built in the early ‘70s under the orders of Romania’s communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu. He feared invasion from the Soviet Union and wanted to create a strategic route through the mountains. The Transfăgărășan was completed in 1974 and sadly many lives were lost during its construction.
In contrast, the Transalpina is one of the oldest roads over the Carpathians, having been created in the second century by the Romans, again for strategic military reasons. It was paved in the ‘30s by King Carol II and later underwent further improvements by Nazi German troops.

As we left the mountains behind, we found ourselves falling into a relaxed pace after an exhilarating day of riding. Soon enough we rode into Sebeș and found our hotel. We reflected on our journey and the country we had been riding through over dinner. Alice and I had found the people of Romania to be very friendly. Non-bikers even stopped their cars to ask us if we were okay when we’d simply paused to take pictures. And, with plenty of motorcyclists on the roads and in hotels, I doubt you’d ever be lonely if you were on a solo trip.

Cluj-Napoca-Dinner

The next morning, we rode along the motorway to Cluj-Na-poca, the start and endpoint of our little adventure and our fourth day in the saddle. It represented one final chance to open up the GS, and at motorway speeds, it was as well balanced and enjoyable to ride as it had been everywhere else. In fact, both bikes had performed brilliantly and were perfectly suited to the type of riding we’d been doing. I’d thoroughly enjoyed riding the BMW on one of the best roads in the world during an incredible motorcycle trip, although I haven’t traded my Triumph Tiger Explorer in for a GS… yet.

The Bikes

Having flown to Romania with all our gear, even wearing our leather jackets on the plane, we hired two motorcycles upon arrival. A BMW R 1200 GS for me and a BMW G 650 GS for Alice. Both were equipped with aluminium panniers, SatNavs, and a sparkling cleanliness that wouldn’t last long. They were the ideal machines for our trip, flawlessly lapping up the Romanian asphalt with ease, including occasional off-piste tracks. Both motorcycles delivered that special adventure bike combination of reliability, power, and comfort.

Rest-stop-waterfall

Want to ride in Romania?

We plotted our own route on this trip. We wanted to take our time to enjoy the stunning landscapes and riding, so we stayed away from motorways and set aside four days to complete the journey. If you are tight on time, the loop we rode could be done in two days. Flights are regular and relatively cheap from the UK to Cluj-Napoca airport, which was about three hours ride from the start of the Transfăgărășan Highway. Accommodation, food and drink is cheap in Romania by UK standards. Four-star hotels range from £50-100 per night. Expect to pay for meals, petrol and hotels in Romanian LEI, as establishments may not have card machines or an internet signal to process card transactions.

The-Route-map