Sunday, August 13, 2017

Transbucegi drive : Romania road trip day 8

We packed up early in the morning and had a relaxed breakfast at Brasov. The idea was to cover Peles castle as soon as possible before heading to the third famous route that we had decided to drive - the Transbucegi. It cuts through an amazing national park by the same name - Bucegi national park. We quickly did Peles from outside - thankfully the long queue to enter and get tickets helped with a quick decision of not even trying to see the interiors. Quickly had a bit of pizza and cake from a restaurant overlooking the beautiful castle before getting into the drive to Transbucegi.

On GPS we put the coordinates of Bucegi entrance and got started by around 12.30 p.m . Soon we would cover a route which was brilliant and at some stretches even the better than the two other more famous cousins of Bucegi route, the Transalpina and Transfagarasan. The drivers and bikers in the country and surrounding areas are indeed lucky to have three routes each of which could easily be in the top 15 top routes of the world. The images do not do justice to Bucegi either but the dappled sunlight, cloud cover in parts, grazing cows, green plains stretching to infinity, hundreds of sheeps guarded by sheep dogs  - all put together made it a memorable drive that we wouldn't forget for a long time to come.

At the end of the route, we went up a hiking trail for half an hour to get some more amazing shots of the panorama and enjoyed the thrilling sounds of a group of 10-15 bikers below with the throttle booming in the cool mountain air. The altitude was around 2000m and weather decidedly chilly at the top. Since we did not take warm cloths up, we decided to go down and get back to the warmth of the car.
Tranbucegi, Bucegi nationalpark

We drove the same route back before merging with main roads onwards to Bucharest. In a few hours we hit the A3 motorway and cranked the engine up to run it at a constant 140-150 kmph. The route is again an amazing one albeit a bit boring after the mountain routes. The straights passes through sunflower fields on both sides so one almost feels as if one is cutting through a large yellow ocean in a fast steamer with waves upon waves of yellow still left to sail.

Got heavy traffic as we neared Bucharest and finally reached back in Sheraton at around 630pm with couple of short stops for stretching the back which was now hurting after 8 days on the road constantly. As I returned the Fiesta back to Avis, I wondered how well she did duty. I had heard rave reviews about her from various quarters and had even got reccommended by another driver friend as the best hatchback for mountains this side of the Mini/ Germans. I was glad I went with it. It was worth it as a fun, cheap ride - good balance between not burning a huge hole in the pocket and not being Logan Dacia-ish boring. The sportz mode though was not quite as entertaining as I thought and hence I drove almost 75% of the time in normal mode. Other than hitting higher RPMs quicker, the mode did not change any drive charecteristics materially.

Decided to skip dinner and just have fruits while wife cooked some MTR dishes we had picked from Dubai for her and kiddo.

We had one more day left before catching the evening flight but for all practical purposes our driving holiday had come to an end. Next day we revisited the palace of parliament for couple of pictures, had a nice break fast in front of it and walked around Bucharest for a bit before heading back home. 

Brasov : Bear watching in Carpathian, Romania roadtrip Day 7

After last evening's bear watching, I decided it was not dangerous even for wife and my 4.5 years old son to join. He had trekked up Peonari and Fagaras so the 20 minute walk in forest should not be much.
So we booked another group tour for the evening. In the morning, we decided to take the cable car up the Tampa mountains to have a bird eye view of Brasov city. The mountain top has Brasov written in pretty Hollywood style and we climbed up there for some time lapse shooting with the clouds climbing up higher the pine trees forests. Amazing views from the top of Tampa and also did couple of forest trails in dense mist. Saw a cool Landy doing some offroading up there for some research purposes and it looked so at home in those surroundings.

We did couple of short trails, had some nice local brew at the top and saw the city as the cloud cleared for a bit. Soon the clouds were back and fully engulfed the forest and the mountain top and we decided to go back in the cable car down to city centre to have lunch.

Our bookings for evening were not confirmed yet and hence we decided to go back to Bran castle to see if we could get better images. However, on the way the bear tour got confirmed so we turned around and drove back to Brasov via Zanesti to be in time for the agreed departure at around 430 from the Black Church outside of our hotel. The route the group took was same as the previous day. However, it was raining and the forest was slightly more difficult to trek - esp for kid. Hence the going was a bit slower and we reached the hide in time to see a big male languidly moving about the roseberry fields. Soon a mama bear and two cubs came into clearing but seeing the ominous male the two cubs ran up a pine tree. Surprisingly, the big mother also lifted her weight up the tree almost till its middle - they would remain there for the rest of the evening, away from our view and from the males below.

Pine forest in Brasov
Trekking in Carpathian in search of Brown bears
Unlike yesterday, we did not see the 3 cubs either who remained in the thick forests away from sight - their mommy did come out couple of times to chase away a young male. The sounds of groans and mock fights filled the air but they were running so fast through the bushes, there was no way to shoot any images or even see clearly what was happening. We did see most of the male bears from the previous evening with mothers keeping to themselves far in the forests.

We came back to Brasov and took a small walk around the main square with all lit.

After that we decided to try an Indian restaurant pretty close to the town centre - probably the worst Indian food in our lives. That being the only sad point of an otherwise brilliant day in one of the cutest small towns we have been to. The kind of town you can get lost for a week immune to the happenings in the big bad world outside ! Was also the first day where we did not drive !

Monday, August 07, 2017

Curtea De Arges to Brasov : Romanian road trip Day 6

Started from Curtea de Arges to Brasov, our base for the next two days  - situated at the base of the mighty Carpathians surrounded by amazing forests. These were the days we had planned to go into the forest to look for European brown bears.

Instead of taking 7C again to Pitesti and circling back, we decided to drive a slower and less famous 73 C to Bran. Got quite a lot of traffic.

On the way to Brasov was the famous Bran Castle. Bram Stoker had chosen it as the place for his Dracula to live and let loose his reign of terror. Its said Vlad was also imprisoned here. It was full of tourists and lacked the particular feel that one would expect given the gory associations it has. I'm pretty sure Bram Stoker single handedly contributes quite a lot to the tourism income of Romania.
Once inside the castle, the only people who would get uncomfortable would be people who are claustrophobic - winding narrow pathways and secret stairways shows how it could be quite disquieting on a lonely night as thunder and lighting shower upon the Carpathians surrounding the Bran. But for the day, it was just an unpleasant tour jostled by tens of tourists out to find out more about the blood drinking Count. There were even shops selling Dracula mask, artificial blood, T-shirts making it more like a jamboree - I had dreams of walking the castle alone, with a swelling darkness encircling me and giving the heebiie-jeebies and here we were in the midst of a charade !

We were getting a bit delayed since I was to go with my forest guide at 5 pm into the Carpathians. Leaving Bran at 315 we felt we could easily make the appointment from both GPS coords and google maps - however, multiple delays on the road due to construction work made it a touch and go.

Anyways, after dropping wife and son at Bella Muzica (an amazing little hotel - our only luxury on the trip - right in the centre of Brasov next to Main Square), I went off to find my guide. At 530 we met up and drove in her Pajero into the forests crossing a small stream. We parked at a pre decided place, met up with 7 others and the group started a short, easy trek into the hide.

We were there by 6 and waited as more and more bears came into view - including a mom with 3 cubs and another one with 2 cubs. The moms were wary of the big males around and would come out in clearing and then run back into the thickets at the slightest reason. Soon two red foxes also joined the party off and on - thieving bites of food from the larger predators.

Overall it was a very productive evening where in we saw around 6-7 males, 3 females and 5 cubs across two mothers. Though photography was terrible given the extremely low light conditions due to overcast sky and dense pine forests, it was fun watching so many large predators moving about their daily life in a natural habitat.

Driving the Transfagarasan : Day 5 : Romania roadtrip, 2017

Today was the D-Day in some ways - we would be hitting the Transfagarasan. Months of planning and dreaming of driving the famous road !

We started from Sibiu at around 830 after a decent break fast at the hotel. We decided to drive up all the way to Cartisoara - which is the starting point of Transfagarasan. With that excitement we hit the E81 with some nice breeze, cool weather and clear skies. Filled up the tank from a Petrom station. And soon hit E68 which merges with 7C at Cartisoara to become the famous Transfagarasan circuit which cuts through Fagaras ranges. Google map tried to send us in another route since 7C is not open year around and we figured it out after detour of around 30 minutes. My able navigator-cum-wife got us back into 7C quickly and off we went in search of driving paradise.

We hit the Transfagarasan route proper before 10 am. Beautiful free road for a long time given the week day. Soon we knew why Top Gear rated it the best road in the world. Its phenomenal. Climbing up till around 5000ft we were cloistered by huge pine trees on either sides, accompanied by pristine water falls and gurgling streams.

But its truly post 5000 ft when the road opens up to endless vistas of curvy roads, carpathian ranges (Fagarasan mountains to be specific), monstrous herds of grazing sheeps, steep water falls, wild flowers - punctuated by dash of bikers and screeches of four wheelers enjoying the brilliant drive.

We went up all the way to Balea lake, saw the Balea water fall, trekked up a bit. Its a very interesting glacial lake which is as if a magician suddenly conjured it up from nowhere hidden within the fagarasan ranges. It is a tourist favorite and hence expect to find school kids, families, drivers and everyone else around.

Continued drive after lunch at the lake on towards the Vidraru lake and dam. Nothing much to write home about here other than it being an interesting engineering marvel.
We did not spend much time and hit the road towards Poenari castle the home of Vlad the Impaler on whom the tale of blood sucking Dracula is loosely based. Vlad was infamous for cruelty and was also potentially imprisoned for a bit in Bran castle where Bram Stoker positioned his mythical count in. There is no records of him ever drinking blood though. The castle itself is an interesting place, difficult to get to since one has to climb around 1500 steps. Any one reasonably fit can do including kids - so not a showstopper. There are couple of impaled human sculptures, purportedly to add a bit of scary feel to an otherwise beautiful, pleasurable surrounding. One cannot fathom the cruelty and monstrosity that had occured in the midst of these walls but for the stories. Now it is more or less in full ruins and one doesn't feel anything creepy.

After a good exercise, we climbed back down to a nice drizzle. Thankfully, we were all covered in rain jackets and got in time into a small coffee shop for some hot chocolate as the temperature plummeted.

After the rain subsided and we had fill of the hot chocolate, we hit the road (7C) again towards Curtea de Agres reaching our base at 630.
Straight to dinner and since we did not wish to take the car again for any other drive today, hit the bed happy and no dreams of any blood suckers !

Driving Transalpina again and E81 : Romania road trip Day 4

Today's original plan was to do some castles, churches, hitorical monuments in Sibiu. However, I negotiated with my Wife for another Transalpina drive. She reluctantly agreed albeit with one condition that we would visit Corvin castle which was a long detour. This made this a pretty long and tiring day with almost 8 hours on the road.

After having a nice breakfast, we drove from Sibiu all the way to Corvin castle. We reached early for a 1030 opening. Since we had a long day ahead, decided it was not worth just waiting around for it to open. Walked around the castle and shot some images though light was pretty bad already. It was interesting with a nice bridge over rivulet - I could see how it would have been tough to penetrate the castle in olden times. But other than that we did not find it super appealing. Wifey thankfully agreed that she is OK giving interiors a skip thus saving almost an hour.

An hour into the drive from Corvin, we hit slight drizzle. By the time we hit Transalpina, DN67C and started the many hairpins up, the visibility started deteriorating. It took a long and careful drive of over 3 hours in deteriorating weather to reach the top. By the time we reached top, we could literally see only a few feet ahead of our headlights. Decided to turn back and climb down a bit till we could see the curvy roads ahead. Trekked a few trails, climbed a few small hills for some gorgeous pictures.

On the way back took another (this time avoiding parts of Trans Alpina) - 106E merging into E81 after Saliste and onwards to Sibiu. Less well maintained but more adventurous route through pine forests.

The second trip to Transalpina was well worth it since we did bit of trail walking, enjoyed different weather and better photography conditions - especially some great timelapse videos given the cloudy atmosphere and also a nice drive through E81 rather than the faster but boring A1.

Reached back in Sibiu by about 830 (we had booked two nights here), had some dinner and I conked off the moment my head hit the pillow. 

First drive on Transalpina : Day 3 Romania roadtrip

Day 3 - Novaci to Sibiu via Transalpina

Today was the second longest day of the trip from a driving point of view. Idea was to cut across carpathian using the famous Transalpine circuit - the highest road in Romania going up above 7000 feet at its peak.

We woke up to the sounds of cow bells and looked out to see a group of cows grazing blissfully on a hill nearby as the early morning rays spread its golden glow. It was a scene from a rustic past that we all yearn for at times.

Given we had to hurry, we quickly got some break fast sorted from amongst our own food items. (The place we stayed had a nice kitchen for some quick cooking).

We started Novaci at 9, filled up full tank and hit the roads. Given two road options with non-Transalpina being faster for some reason, Google picked it up and we were on it for a few kms before we found the discrepancy between the GPS and Gmaps. Hence had to switch back to the other route through some interior connections which were not fully paved. Lost about 30-45 minutes but also saw some nice streams with ice cold water. Wish I had a 4x4 rather than the puny Fiesta.

Soon we hit the famous Transalpina and the going was buttery smooth. Fantastic view of the mountains, brilliant cruves, dead drops, longish stretches to floor the pedal, then brake hard for the next hairpin. It turned out to be a good practice for Transafagarasan.


All the while enjoying nice summer weather. Couldn't ask for more. AC was not needed for most of first half. We hit the top before noon and it got hotter as we got down into lower altitudes Stopped on the roadside for some self made lunch. (We always travel with a small travel cooker to ensure we supplement restaurants with some spicy Indian food from time to time).

The drive from then on was nice at around 90kmph limit but the highest I ever hit was around 85 given the steep curves and lack of clear sight of oncoming traffic. The drive was beautiful and exciting but the views were less so since now we were fully enclosed in pine forests unlike the huge vistas at the top of Transalpina. After a 2-3 hour concentrated drive, I took a break to stretch and massage my neck which had for some reason become sore. Typically I have a bit of back ache and no issue with neck even when I drive days on together, so this was a bit surprising.

Anyhow, we soon hit A1 motorway (the same we took from Bucharest to Pitesti) and could hit 140-150 for some speed pill. Reached Sibiu in evening.

Checked in and had to carry our luggage to 3rd floor through narrow stairways - weight training for the day done !
Post that we freshened up and took a short drive to the historical centre of Sibiu - parking was tight but the walk was worth it. There is a certain old world charm about Sibiu, with low tourist numbers and normal Romanians going about their lives. A certain old European charm something I sorely miss in Western parts of the continent these days.

Bucharest to Novaci : Day 1 and 2 Romania roadtrip

Romania - a country we chose to drive purely based on the Top Gear's now famous and according to some a bit over hyped rating of Transfagarasan as the best drivers road in the world. That and the fact that we had missed out photographing well enough European brown bears while we were on the roads in Norway and Sweden the last summer. I definitely wanted to give bears a shot and what better place than the Carpathian mountains of Romania which now harbours almost 40% of all European brown bears today. It is almost a year since Romania fully banned hunting of bears and I heard sighting them have become easier.

We quickly booked hotels and decided to zig zag the Carpathians multiple times to drive all the three roads that we wanted to drive - in some cases, both ways (These were, apart from the formidable Transfagarasan, Transalpine and Transbucegi). Most non-driving fanatics would have called us mad Don Quixotes since our itinerary was probably the least efficient way of seeing the country. But our windmills were the roads and there was no way we were going to sacrifice driving experience for efficiency. Ofcourse, our son would ask, as is his wont every one of our vacations, why we never reach anywhere during our vacations and why we sleep in a different room every night (Unlike his friends). Well, when the road is the destination, what is the hurry to reach anywhere.

I booked car through Avis - checked some of the more interesting ones especially  the Beemers and found them to be way over our budget. Hence finally zeroed in on Ford Fiesta which I knew being a ford would do its job on the mountains from a handling point of view. Looking back, it was a great decision and she never let us down, either on curves or on the straights.

Day 1

The day arrived and we went off excited to Dubai Terminal 2 to take our Fly Dubai to Bucharest. A non stop 5 hour one thankfully. Landed at 3 pm local time (1 hour behind Dubai, so no jet lag either) and got through the efficient passport control and was met by our pre-booked driver. Smooth transition to Sheraton at 18 euros. Roads looked fine and traffic okayish - lot of my European friends had warned me about driving in Bucharest and I realised its couple of notches better than India. So I should not be too bothered as long as I keep my wits about me.

Checked in at around 430, freshened up and took a taxi to parliament palace - second largest building in the world after the Pentagon. We did not want to go inside and spend the money and more importantly the many hours needed to complete the tour.

Hence decided to walk over to the old city. The main plan was to visit the Stavropoleos monastery - oldest greek one in Bucharest and then have dinner at carul cu bere (again one of the oldest and most famous of restaurants in the old historical city parts).

It was a grand start to the vacations - sitting in the middle of an amazing historical city, overlooking pretty old structures and having good meal. Pretty fantastic vegetarian stuff also - including rice dishes for sides.

Took a taxi to Sheraton which should ideally cost around 10 Lei. Taxis, I knew, are the biggest scam in Bucharest. But even then I was shocked when the idiot asked for 45 Lei. He had told before entering that its night and he would charge double. But unknowingly to us he had started the meter beforehand and hid it from us. We of course fought with him after reaching Sheraton and finally threw two Tens at him and asked him to scoot. He abused us in Romanian and we abused him in Hindi and everything was well and square. What a great start for an adventurous vacation.

Day 2

2nd day : Bucharest Pitesti Novaci

Had break fast from Sheraton and went out to the Cismigiu gardens close to Sheraton. We realised best way to get Taxi was to take a token from hotel - no hassles, no haggling, and no cheating - but we soon realised Uber was even better.  Weather was kind at sub 30, so walking outdoors was not super hot or draining.

The park was small with an artificial lake in the middle for boating. Walked, drank plenty of fuids, took Aarav in a pedal boat whose rudder did not work - so left was left, right was left and you had to plan strategically to reach point B from A !! Probably the most difficult driving I did in the entire trip, looking like an idiot to all others who were zooming away in their little boats.

After grappling with fluid dynamics and non-existant steering control of the boat, we decided enough was enough. We came once too close to the fountains and escaped getting fully drenched banging into them which prompted the decision though my son was not super happy with that.

I decided to go get my pre booked Ford fiesta and get back to the kind of steering I crave for.

Took the car from Avis at Intercontinental hotel - waited half an hour for the child seat to get back from another car. Checked the GPS - normal Garmin which Im used to around the world without too many bells and whistles. Ford was decent  - nice Gray colour with a sports mode, automatic (though I'd have preferred manual, my UAE license being Auto and unsure if they would accept my Indian one since IDP was on UAE one) stuck to auto.

Took it back to Sheraton to load the luggage, food, water, wife and kid - not necessarily in that order. Bought around 20 l of drinking water, some more food and snack for the road, SIM for google maps as back up and off we were to Pitesti.

After leaving Bucharest, we immediately got onto the A1 motorway. Fantastic road with possibility of easy mid-triples (130 is official speed limit) to which the Ford did not complain much and was broadly steady barring some instances of overtaking huge trucks where it would be a little unsteady but nothing to be worried about. It was a feeling of being light on the feet after having driven my old Ford truck for ages.

Reached Pitesti quicker than anticipated. Hence decided to move on to Novaci without a relaxation break - did take couple of short breaks at various nice views especially one over the Carpathians under a setting sun while clouds were bursting at far end on a lovely stormy evening. How can stormy evening be lovely, you ask ? Anything associated with rains is pleasant for someone coming from 45 degrees of Dubai desert. Drive onwards from Pitesti to Novaci was a strain - hitting villages and 50Km speed breaks often slowing down the average considerably.

Finally reached Novaci at 530 - after which we freshened up in our little lodge next to a hill with a stream flowing next to it.
Went to Mario cafe as suggested by lodge owner for some dinner. Came back and went off to bed at 10 as the sun was setting down.