Romania Road Trip

Romania Road Trip – Part 2: Underground & Way Up High

Derek Romania 33 Comments

Romania Road Trip

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Remember the chestnut festival I talked about that really didn’t have many chestnuts? That was where the first half of this Romania road trip came to an end.

And while the second half of this Romania road trip also didn’t involve many chestnuts – none in fact – that was alright with me. What it did involve – going deep underground, a stay in a remote mountain village, a beautiful castle with barely any visitors and the 117th highest paved road in Europe that, despite it’s unimpressive-sounding ranking, just might be one of the most spectacular – was more than enough to once again convince me that Romania is one of the most underrated travel destinations on that planet.

Shall we?

Turda (better than it sounds)

Have you heard of Turda? Probably not.

I know, the name isn’t so attractive in English. The name is downright dirty in fact. However, in this town of Turda, we came upon the Turda Salt Mine, which was actually quite attractive and perhaps the most surprising experience of this trip.

This old salt mine, dating back hundreds of years, eventually closed but was re-opened in 1992. It has now been renovated and turned into what has been labeled as one of the “25 Unbelievable Travel Destinations You Never Knew Existed“, which I just learned while doing some research. Not bad for an old salt mine.

Here’s how it goes.

Turda Salt Mine entrance

You descend into the deep tunnel and you walk along the main corridor for some distance. You then enter a room that leads you towards the main cavern. You now have a choice – an elevator or what looked like 6 million steps – to get from this level all the way down to the bottom, where, immediately upon arrival you will find yourself standing in awe in the heart of this massive ‘room’. The awe not only comes from the stalactites hanging from the ceiling and the sheer size of the place but also from the architectural design of the renovated interior.

View of main cavern - Turda Salt Mine

Main cavern - Turda Salt Mine

Oh, the awe might also have to do with the huge ferris wheel you can ride or the ping-pong tables or bowling alley or mini-golf course or billiards tables that you can enjoy while down there as well.

Sound a bit silly and touristy? It does. But when you’re actually there, it’s quite, pardon my American, awesome. The design of the main cavern is simply spectacular and the activities offer a chance to have a very cool (literally, it’s cold down there) and very unique experience. We chose to play ping-pong for about an hour, wearing our jackets due to the crisp air, and getting into quite an intense competition. Some taunting, name-calling and paddle-slamming might have been involved.

Turda Salt Mine ping pong tournament

Ping-pong at the Turda Salt Mine

Turda Salt Mine ferris wheel

Lake inside Turda Salt Mine

We spent about 3.5 hours in this salt mine, wandering all over the place, and could have easily spent more. Next time I could make a weekend out of it, if only there was a hotel inside that thing.

Bulzesti (absolute middle of nowhere)

From Turda, we drove out of town (as I sang my ping-pong victory song of course, much to the disapproval of my friends) towards a destination that you absolutely won’t find in any guidebook or any travel website.

It’s remote. It’s hard to reach. It’s the village of Bulzesti.

And unless you have a friend who is renovating an old house way up here on the mountaintop, in this village of 12 people that can only be reached by 4WD truck along a narrow, seldom-used, muddy track, the start of which is located some 2 hours away from the closest town (called Brad), and which winds up the mountain for 30 minutes, the chances of making it here are slim.

Among a collection of four or five wooden homes, where these villagers live, as if time hasn’t changed in decades, completely isolated from the world below, sits my friend’s house. It was a work-in-progress when we arrived but I could immediately see the appeal – the pure beauty, quiet and simplicity of the real Romanian countryside.

Bulzesti - house

Hiking in Bulzesti

We spent two days up here, cooking meals over a camp fire, enjoying the views across the valley, staying warm with vin fiert and an old wood-burning heater and just having a great time among friends. We hiked up the mountain a bit and picked some fresh blackberries, we drank homemade tuica, we talked about all kinds of topics and we used the outhouse when needed, separately of course.

Bulzesti dinner

And then, before I knew it, we were back in my friend’s truck, heading down that muddy track, back to civilization, sort of. It actually took a couple of hours of driving until we were anywhere with more than just an occasional house along a pot-holed, lonely road.

Eventually, a larger village and then a town. And then we were moving along a well-paved road towards our next destination…

Hunedoara & a Fairy-Tale Castle

Let’s go with this.

Here’s the Corvin Castle (aka Hunedoara Castle):
Corvin Castle - Hunedoara

Here’s how many other visitors we saw: 8

This castle sums up exactly what blows me away about Romania. A 15th century, unbelievably impressive Gothic-Renassaince castle, just sitting there in the middle of the country, such an amazing destination. Yet so few visitors.

We basically had this castle to ourselves. Where else can you have such a castle to yourself? Nuts.

Sibiu

Our castle visit helped break up the journey to Sibiu that day, where we arrived just after sunset. We threw our bags down in a hostel, went for a wander, ate a good dinner at a restaurant located in an old underground wine cellar and then we had a good night’s sleep after our lengthy day. Besides, all of us had already been to Sibiu before, so on this trip, it was just a rest stop before we tackled what was perhaps the most anticipated day of the journey.

Transfagarasan (Just WOW!)

At 10am the following morning, we loaded up the car and we set off for the Transfagarasan.

What is this Transfagara-thingy?

It’s a road. One road. It goes up the mountains. It goes down the mountains. It traverses the highest peaks of the Southern Carpathians.

And it looks like this…

Transfagarasan view facing north

Wait, there’s more.

At the top of the mountains, just before you enter Romania’s longest tunnel, you find a great location to eat lunch, not so much because of the food, but because of the surroundings.

Transfagarasan  lunch stop

Also, at several points during the drive, you can stop at tiny roadside communities where you can buy homemade wine, cheese and other local foods to try. And you can always stop…actually, you’ll want to stop….every twenty meters so that you can admire one surreal view after another.

Transfagarasan view facing south

Stop along the Transfagarasan

What is actually a mere 90 km (54 mile) journey, took us 6 hours to reach the end due to all of the stops we made.

Poenari Castle (complete with impaled people)

Right before the end of the Transfagarasan, we reached the last destination we had wanted to visit, the actual castle where Vlad the Impaler had resided for some time. Vlad is the Wallachian Prince that the Dracula character was based on and while everyone thinks of Bran Castle, a very well-known and preserved castle near Brasov, as his castle, that’s just a tourism stunt and he never really spent any time there. The Poenari Castle, on the other hand, was one of his real residences during the 15th century.

The castle sits atop a cliff, perched in a most improbable location high above the valley. To reach it, you must walk up 1500 steps that wind up the mountain. Here’s four words. Well worth the climb.

Poenari Castle

While the castle itself is mostly in ruins and there’s not much left of its structure to explore, the location, with views out over the valley in both directions, is quite spectacular. The sheer drop on all sides of the castle walls, straight down 1000 meters, is sobering. The silence apart from an occasional gust of wind, the lack of visitors, and yes, the impaled people that greeted us, was even a bit spooky. (He wasn’t called Vlad the Impaler for no reason.)

Poenari Castle - impaled people

Hmmm….I don’t think I should end this post with a photo of impaled humans.

I’ll end it with photos of those of us who partook in this Romania road trip, giving you a glimpse of each of our roles…

1. Me. I drove. And I wore my new favorite hat.Driving to Sibiu

2. Irina. She burned herself while making hot wine in Bulzesti.
Irina - Road Trip Romania

3. Brian. He sat in the back of the car, eating.
Brian - Romania road trip

That completes the overview of this 2-week road trip. Hope you enjoyed the experience!

Have you heard of any of these destinations above? Anyone want to join my next road trip around Romania?

(My Wander Across Romania tour that I’ll be offering next June will actually follow the route we took on this 2 week adventure. Details here: Romania Tour – and more)

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Comments 33

  1. Adam

    Romania has just the right mix of an epic landscape and medieval structures. I wonder when they’ll get discovered by the crowds finally!

  2. Uptourist

    I have to admit that my hair has stood up upon seeing your pictures. I want to go to that place. The salt mine is so beautiful and that road – Ahh! Simply breathtaking. Such a beautiful place.

  3. Lorraine Thomson

    Hi Earl,
    Yes I’ve been to Turda. We went with a friend who organises a motorbike race around the streets of Turda every July. About 20 people rode from UK to take part plus many locals. Unfortunately, the year we went (I think it was 2010) a lot of the streets were undergoing roadworks/replacing underground pipes etc, so the race was held just out of town. Although Adrian has organised this trip for many years, I don’t think he has in the last 2 years. We drove from Bulgaria across the transvagarren, and yes it was amazing. We also visited the salt mines, again it was a complete surprise and absolutely fantastic! I didn’t like hearing about the ponies that worked down there and had to be taken up every 3 weeks otherwise they would go blind, and some did…. I never dreamed a salt mine could be like that! We had a day trip out on the bikes (don’t know where, somewhere outside Turda, and up in the hills. Stunningly beautiful. I loved the shepherd’s huts with the long thatched roofs – did you see them? Need to go back and see more of Romania…

  4. Elaine

    The salt mine looks like the lair of a James Bond villain … for this and the other attractions you listed here, Romania is definitely on my list of places to hit when I get to Eastern Europe!

  5. Madalina

    hello Earl, if you wish to witness something majestic you must try TRANSALPINA Road.It is similar to Transfagarasan Road only that it reaches higher heights, 2145m.
    it’s simply amazing.You’ll love it. <3

  6. ovi

    Hey Earl.

    Thank you very much for the kind words that you have for our country.

    Have you heard about Transalpina? Some say it is more beautiful than Transfăgărășean.

  7. Ben

    Great post! The only place I’ve heard of is Transfagara, thanks to my favorite show – Top Gear (UK). I can’t wait to drive it and check out these other places myself!

  8. Ray

    That’s a salt mine?!?! Looks like the movie set for Austin Powers!! I’m sure if you could look around hard enough you could find Dr. Evil’s “lazer.” 😉

  9. Renuka

    You discovered some amazing places on your road trip! But my favorite was the Romanian countryside – staying in a wooden house and cooking a meal around a campfire must have been so much fun and interesting! What else do you need when you have such picturesque views and quiet around… Bliss.

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Renuka – Well said…there is something so valuable in being so remote and isolated from the rest of the world from time to time.

  10. Matthew Cheyne

    Hi Earl. Thank you for yet again another awesome post. I’ve heard of the mines in Turda already and even though I’ve seen some pictures already, I think it may just have to go on my bucket list of things to be done.

    That highway that runs through the Carpathian mountains looks really familiar. It reminds me of Jamiroquai’s Cosmic Girl video but not quite. I must have seen it someplace else too.

    Anyways, I am looking for to part 3 if there is indeed a part 3 to this adventure 🙂

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Matthew – That’s cool that you’ve heard of Turda. I only found out about it a couple of weeks before my road trip. As for part 3, well, this adventure came to an end above but it won’t be the last adventure of the year I’m sure!

  11. Andy

    Great post Earl, thank you.

    Interesting that your friend chose to live in such a remote spot. Must be hard to access resources? So many wonderful spots you visited on this trip and it was great to experience them vicariously from my garage/office in Australia, where I’m chipping away, planning my own overseas trip very soon. I must get to Romania one day!

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Andy – His plan is to actually rebuild the house and then offer it as a remote guesthouse for those who want to truly experience the remote Romanian countryside. It’s a cool idea and I’m sure it will work given the beauty of that location. I’m sure you’ll be out of that garage/office soon enough and on your own adventure. Let me know if I can help with any planning!

  12. steve

    hey earl,,
    im having a hard time figuring the dates on these trips,, or dates of the photos,, I see the dates posted – but mabe a few actual dates on the travel would be good to,,, just a thought…………….keep truckin! – steve

  13. Ilinca

    Hey Earl! I’ve been following your blog for years now and actually posted a comment right before you first came to Romania. A few days ago I saw you walking down the street here in Bucharest. I was so amazed (also I was eating a muffin) that I couldn’t say anything 🙂 Anyways, just wanted to say thanks and let you know your blog is really inspiring and appreciated!

    1. Wandering Earl

      Salut Ilinca – Ha, that’s funny…small world 🙂 I’m leaving Romania for a few weeks but when I get back in December, we can meet up if you want. Let me know!

  14. Dennis Kopp

    Earl, thanks for reminding me that I wanted to set out on a road trip through Romania as well this summer. I would have loved to see the countryside of this underrated destination and especially the village, the castle and the mountain road would have been right up my alley. Well, due to our democratic decision making process we ended up driving with our self-made campervan through France, Italy and Croatia instead. So Romania still remains on my to-drive-through list for another summer… 🙂

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Dennis – You’ll get here at some point…and when you do, you’ll understand exactly what I was talking about with this post. You’ll have a blast! Let me know when Romania finally ends up on your radar.

  15. Stacey

    Hi earl, been reading your blog for ages now, its one of my favourite blogs 🙂 As a longer term traveller its good to know that its possible to live the life we want.

    I tried to enter the competition, but the fineprint reads that its only for people who live in the United States. So maybe you want to change that in your post, that not just anyone can enter.

    Cheers

  16. Marta

    Hi Earl,
    Thanks for trying to get our beautiful country off from the list of the underrated travel destinations through your ‘wanderful’ posts :P. We love traveling outside Romania but we are never tired of visiting our own country. Even for us, there is still so much more to see! We lived in Timisoara for the past 16 years and just moved to Constanta, quite a distance and quite a change! We can say we had a cultural shock in our own country! 🙂 The Dobruja area is so different but worth visiting, (if only for the Danube Delta) if you haven’t been here already! And just across the border, our Bulgarian friends have a lot of cool places to see (still in the Dobruja region – Kaliakra, the Balchik Gardens). If you ever get to this part of Romania, it would be great to meet and show you around! Pa! 🙂

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Marta – The Danube Delta is actually the last place on my list of things to do in Romania…for some reason I just haven’t made it there yet. But I will at some point I’m sure! And I’ll let you know when I do head to Constanta…never been to that city either 🙂

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