I had wanted to visit Transylvania in Romania ever since I had seen a programme on TV about an English guy how moved out there to live in a cabin in the woods. He had a pet wolf and talked about how wild the county is.
I had convinced Dave that Transylvania would be an adventure by showing him a documentary on YouTube about the work Price Charles has been doing over there to support sustainable tourism. The lush green pastures, snow-capped mountains and old-fashioned way of life appealed to me. Romania is described as a country that is ‘stuck in time’ with the majority of the land still being farmed using traditional tools and animals herded by shepherds and their dogs.
Many people travelled by horse and cart in the villages.
We had also seen an article in the Independent about the ‘Transylvanian Wolf’ who runs bear, wolf and bird watching tours in the Făgăraș Mountains; the highest mountain peaks in the Carpathian mountain range that run through the country. Romania has the largest population of brown bears in the EU with the majority living in the Carpathian mountain range and their foothills. The Făgăraș are known for their excellent hiking and skiing terrain and even more so for the Transfăgărășan Pass, dubbed ‘the world’s best road’ by Top Gear. Transylvania sounded like something from my dreams, and we wanted to visit the famous road.
Driving a car comes second nature after you have been doing it for so long. Driving on ‘the other side’ though seemed a daunting prospect when planning our two-week road trip to Transylvania. Due to the lack of public transport in the country, the best option is to hire a car. It’s my preferred choice of transportation when travelling as it means I have the freedom to go at my pace and make my route up as I go. When I backpacked around Croatia with my friend in 2009, we travelled everywhere by coach as the services were extent and we could reach all our destinations easily. However, being stuck on a coach prevents any spontaneous stop-offs and diversions.
Our car was dropped off at the hotel in Bucharest where we spent our first night. With the aid of a map and print out with some directions, we headed out of the capital city towards the home of ‘Transylvanian Wolf’ in Zărnești. Dave had previous experience of left-hand driving, so he took to the wheel first, and I’m so glad he did! Navigating the roads in the city was challenging; the lack of signs and erratic driving of the locals on top of the road layouts were somewhat reminiscent of my time in Morocco, but not quite as manic.
Once out of the city, our nerves calmed but were quickly raised once again when we turned off the main road. The next road was our first experience of the potholed roads we read so much about when planning the trip. It was also my first experience of driving ‘on the other side’. Unfortunately, I wasn’t aware of the poor state of the road until I had already set off in the driving seat! 2 hours later and feeling exhausted from concentrating so hard, we arrived at our first destination, the house of the ‘Transylvanian Wolf’, where we stayed for a couple of nights.
The road to Viscri – a Saxon village known for its fortified church which is part of UNESCO World Heritage and where Prince Charles owns a house- was, according to the locals, tarmacked for the Prince in 2006 (I think) but quickly fell into disrepair. The road was terrible to drive on. We must have topped 10mph as we tried to avoid as many potholes have possible. There were more potholes than tarmac. While we carefully meandered around the holes, the locals just go through them! We considered the same approach but then remembered we had a deposit down with the car rental company.
The road to the Transfăgărășan Pass was much better, probably because it brings a wealth of tourism to the area. Even though it was May, the pass itself was still closed due to snow. It was hard to believe from the foot of the mountain but came very apparent as we travelled to the top in the cable car. The snow drifts covered the sharp bends in the road and the sheds at the top which must have been used as pop-up stalls filled with tourist memorabilia, had collapsed under the weight if the snow and possibly from avalanche crashing into them. It was disappointing we couldn’t drive the route, but we did walk down it (a whole blog post in itself for another day).
Leaving the mountains behind, we took our time to explore the villages in the foothills on our way back to the capital city. Turning off the main route, we found ourselves on what could only be referred to as tracks. The tracks were made mostly of gravel and were covered in potholes which could only be travelled on at low speeds. In fact, we topped just 5mph for several hours. Although frustrating at times, it meant we saw more of the tiny villages than we would have normally done.
Hiring a car for our adventure meant we could get anywhere we wanted and travel out our own pace. I’m not a beach holiday person and love nothing more than packing my holidays with activities and adventures. Now that I have driven on challenging terrain, in a left-hand drive car in a country where I can’t speak the language or read any road signs, I feel confident that I can drive in pretty much any country. I think the only routes that will stop me are those hairpin bends up mountains with deathly drops and no barriers. I have travelled on such road in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, but thankfully I wasn’t the one at the wheel.
My tips for planning a road trip aboard:
- Arrange your hire car before you travel. You will have more time to compare deals and read the terms set out by each hire company. I will also hallow you to make decisions in your own time rather than when you are excited or overwhelmed when you have reached your destination.
- Research the Highway Code and read forums to understand the rules for driving in the country you are visiting before you go away. We failed to realise that headlights must always be switched on when driving in Romania until we were half way through the holidays!
- Research the cost of fuel in the country you are visiting so that you can calculate how much money you will need to spend to get to the places you wish to visit.
- Use a site such as Go Car Hire to compare prices from several hire car companies.
- Always read the terms from each company in detail to make sure you understand what their terms are before booking. Each car hire company will have different rules.
- Take photocopies of your driving licence as well as your original licence with you. Some car hire companies will ask for a photocopy when you collect your car.
- If you can, share the driving with someone else. It’s truly exhausting driving in a new country, especially if the language and the road rules are different to your native country.
- Only sign documents that are written in a language you can read.
- Make sure you understand what to do if you break down or have an accident in the car you are hiring.
- Before accepting the car you are given, check the care for signs of damage. Take photographs of any imperfections you see and discuss them with the representative handing over the car. They should record any damage on a document as part of the process. Do the same when you hand the car back and keep the photos in case issues arise after you return home.
Written in partnership with Go Car Hire. All words and ideas are my own.