неделя, 18 октомври 2015 г.

Transfagarasan when it rains??? Only if you are a fan of the hard driving routes! part 3

Welcome again!

Since the last post became rather longish I had to divide it into two parts. Here is the last bit from my journey into the Transgarasan highway. 
IN case you have missed the first two parts, here are they again:

I am posting the video as well, in case you missed it in the previous posts. It shows only part of the road, the full video is too long for even me to process. Besides, I have included only the most interesting parts of the road. Anyway, here it is:

Back to the story, then. So we got to the serpentine part. They start when the pine forest ends. It's an alpine landscape - you wait for the cow from the Milka commercial to appear with a bar of chocolate at each turn. It's really picturesque. Balea lake - some 34 kilometers away. 

One of the views when the landscape starts to change.

The Transfagarasan - around 1 pm. 

By the time the scenic curves start, it's raining cats and dogs. I start grumbling and the driver smirks - it's what he had been dreaming about. The last 30 km of the road to Balea lake - the part with the serpentines and the alpine landscapes is closed from November to May (see the Transfagarasan website for more info.) because of avalanche danger. 

The Transfagarasan in winter - image taken from www.gandul.info

If you want to visit Balea lake in winter, you still can - there is a cable line between the hotels and chalets at Balea lake and the ones at the Balea waterfalls 30 kilometers below.  The waterfalls are very beautiful, or so I've heard. As you may rightly guess, we didn't go there because of... TA DA-A-A - the rain. 

However, there is a little compensation - at this point of the journey you'll see some waterfalls by the very road - you'll see some on the video as well. Here is one of them - not the biggest but the one closest to the road I managed to take picture of:

One of the waterfalls

At almost each curve you'll feel the urge to take a picture. Even bad weather couldn't hide that. 

View from the second (or third) viewpoint

If you don't want to shoot while the car is moving, there are plenty of places where you can pull over and enjoy the scenery. The only problem is that they are (most of the time) 15 to 25 centimeters below the level of the road. This is done to keep the water/snow away from it - to help it get down the slope and not stay on the road. 

What I saw from the first viewpoint 
In this part of the road you'll rarely encounter a car with a foreign registration plate - Romanians do love that road but to foreigners it is either unknown, or they skip it because it takes a long time to go through all the curves. 

In 2009 when the Top Gear presenters Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May named it 'The best road for driving in the world' - I've posted the whole episode in the previous post about the Transfagarasan - see it here - it became more popular. Many people, like me, saw the beauty of the pass on screen and decided to see it live :)

If you have a free hand (I mean, nit occupied with a camera already) or just don't want to miss a second of the journey, do make a video clip. To me, the video is the best result from the journey. I posted it above, but here it is one more time, in case you didn't notice:

The Transfagarasan - around 2 pm. 

Next stop along the road is Balea lake. It is the highest point of the pass - a beautiful glacier lake with depth of only 11 meters. The landscape is amazing - as if you are transformed to the Alps. On the video or photos, however, you'll see little of that. I even joked that I have seen not Balea lake, but Magla (the Bulgarian word meaning 'fog') lake. You'll see for yourself why.

What I saw from Balea lake

What other people see from Balea lake -  image taken from sfatuitoarea.blogspot.com

There are a few chalets along it that (as far as I have heard) are open all year round. The Romanians have done a great job in organizing the area - there is a big parking (costs 5 lei for a day to stay there) and there is a person who watches over the cars while you enjoy yourself. From the parking (which is directly next to the lake itself) you can see the spendour of the place. There are even paths that allow you to go around it and have a closer look. If you have time and the weather is better than the one I was in - definitely go and take a look at the place. 

The chalet that was closest to the parking

On the opposite side of the road there are a lot of souvenir stalls - I really mean A LOT. They sell almost anything there - so take a look of what's on display. There is some space next to the stalls where you can take a look at the twisting curves of the road below. 

For a better experience you can sleep in one of the chalets at Balea lake and have the opportunity to see the sunset there. Speaking of sunsets - the road is closed from sunset to sunrise. 

Courtesy to Tony Goran - here is a link to the picture in 500px -

Back to the story - after the lake there are a lot of viewpoints - I really mean A LOT of them. Do pull over there because at each curve the landscape changes. We had nothing to see there - you'll see why if you watch the video but from those viewpoints you'll see an amazing panorama of both the lake and the road. See the picture below (not mine, unfortunately)
Image taken from romaniadacia.wordpress.com

The next landmark on the milestones says Sibiu - the next big town down in the valley. At that point I got the impression that the more we get to the lake and then up towards Sibiu, the more the weather got worse. Somewhere at that point the focusing motor of the lens just gave up. I have no idea what happened but that is something I see for the first time in my life - and I have shot in blizzard and in torrential rain. It just gave up on the rain and the fog. So I just stopped taking pictures and - well, I haven't really stopped grumbling but resumed doing so with more commitment. 

After a few minutes - they don't seem that long because you know what to expect - you get back into the pine wood. In the video you'll notice that there are a few bikers - I don't know what kind of motivation you need to climb the Transfagarasan in this particular weather but they seemed to have it. Speaking of two-wheel vehicles I have heard that climbing the pass with a motorcycle is amazing. 

More information (and pictures) about Transylvania and the Transfagarasan you can find here:

As for driving a motorcycle there - check out this site:

Those who speak Bulgarian can  check out these websites:

As you get closer to Sibiu, you'll probably encounter more and more cars. After all, Sibiu is the biggest town in the area. The lower you descend the more the landscape ceases to be an alpine one. Back to the pines, then ordinary trees and then of, course - to the picture postcard villages. 

All in all, the whole journey took us 4 hours (would have been 5 if the weather allowed me to take pictures at every viewpoint.) So I'd advise you to head for it early in the morning in order to be able to enjoy the scenery. The best time to take picture with no shadows is midday (see, there are a lot of high mountains around). As I mentioned above - the pass is closed when it gets dark - because of the danger of falling 1 kilometer down - so you should plan your trip in such a way that you are either able to get to a hotel in the pass (mind you, Romanians have dinner quite early so if you go to eat at 9 the kitchen is very likely to be closed) or to get out of it before it is closed. The average recommended speed limit is 40 kilometers per hour so even if you want to drive very fast - you cannot. 

The road - especially the serpentine part (top 60 kilometers out of 152) is in perfect condition. It is wide with proper signs and markings but no safety fences at most places. If you drive carefully, you'll have no problems. 

If you get hungry or you are desperate to find a toilet (you should prepare for roughly 5 to 6 hours WITHOUT going to the toilet, just in case) there are plenty of places to eat in - big and small, for each taste and pocket. 

So we continued our journey to Hunedoara - what lies there you'll see in another post. 

понеделник, 12 октомври 2015 г.

Transfagarasan when it rains??? Only if you are a fan of the hard driving routes! part 2

Here we come to the real story of my journey through the Transfagarasan highway. As a true story I will start from the beginning...

If you have missed the first post on the matter - here it is: 
Transfagarasan when it rains??? Only if you are a fan of the hard driving routes! part 1

If you want to see the ending go there:

Part 3

Here is the video I promised:

Why the Transfagarasan? 

In 2009 Top Gear team were sent to Romania to drive along the Transfagarasan highway. It was named THE BEST ROAD FOR DRIVING IN EUROPE. The episode was aired in Bulgaria a few months ago and I got inspired to take some amazing pictures there. It is quite a hilarious episode. If you have watched it - you know what I mean. 
In case you haven't watched that episode - here it is: 
If you don't wanna watch the full episode - go to the last 15 minutes to see the splendor of the Transfagarasan.


Another motif was that Transfagarasan is considered one of the most difficult and dangerous routes in Europe and i happen to have a driver around who would give everything to test his skills. So off we went to explore the wonders of Romania...

The journey

Curtea de Arges 8.00 am

To my annoyance, it's raining cats and dogs outside. Screw you, weather forecast! We have slept in Curtea de Arges this time only to see the Transfagarasan and to do that we need (at least I do, the driver is delighted to drive in the rain) NO RAIN. So we wait with the hope that it would stop eventually...

Curtea de Arges around 11.00 am

It turns out that there is no point in waiting and since the Transfagarasan is the shortest route to our next destination - Hunedoara (which I'll describe in another post) off we go down the road and say Goodbye to Curtea de Arges. It is a nice tourist town at the foot of the Transfagarasan, full of tourists and places to eat and sleep. Also it is a few kilometers away from Poenary Castle (or Cetatea Poenary in Romanian) - the fortress of Vlad Tepes, commonly known as Vlad The Impaler (or Vlad Dracula if you have read Bram Stoker). 
Here is what I saw that day of Poenary Fortress - don't wonder if the image quality is poor - it was REALLY a very  rainy day!
It is a wonderful place to visit and even though you have to climb a lot of stairs, it's worth it. I will tell you all about the splendor of the place in another post, though. For warm-up here is a picture of how it looks like when you get up there:
So welcoming, don't you think? 

But we've seen that already. So we head for Sibiu and the moment we exit Curtea de Arges (Arges is the name of the river that flows through the town, by the way) we see a road sign:

In plain language that says that the length of the pass is 152 kilometers and it is open (no need to know Romanian to get it - the sign is green and not red and that is enough.)

The Transfagarasan highway  
around 12.00 am

The first 50 kilometers of the road are not very good -  there are no holes in the asphalt or something, by Bulgarian standards it is rather uneven. The driver already starts making remarks of how easy the drive has been so far. I try to take a few pictures of the surroundings because the rain has lessened. 
Here it almost doesn't rain. That is one of the villages you'll see along the road
There are a few really picturesque villages along the way from Curtea de Arges - you just expect to see Cinderella walking out of some of them. 

We have passed through several small villages and now head for the real mountain pass and the nice views. The road somewhat decreases in quality - gets more uneven but nothing difficult. The driver starts thinking of why on Earth Top Gear team said it was a difficult ride. I tell him to wait and see. After all, it is a mountain pass and one cannot expect perfect asphalt as on a motorway. As for the difficulty, we were about to see... 

By Bulgarian standards (no offence to the people in the ministry of transport but quality standards for a road in Bulgaria differ significantly - and better than in our neighbouring countries) the road is actually PERFECT -  wide lanes - I mean wide two buses can freely drive past each other - the road markings are good and new, there is even safety fencing here and there (as in the picture below - normally on each steep curve or viaduct). 

See the dots - you guessed right - that is rain! 

And, I almost forgot, a lot of milestones - due to the rain I couldn't take a picture of any of them but they are there and they are many. 

The s curves start getting tighter - here is one of the many viaducts. The spots you see on the picture are rain drops. By the time we got to that point - it started raining more. 

If you come from Curtea de Arges, as we did, the milestones will show you the distance to the nearest landmark which, paradoxically, is not a town but a lake - Balea lake ( Balea lac - read like 'latch' in Romanian). The lake marks the highest point (2,034 m of altitude) of the pass. Distance to it from Curtea de Arges is around 80 km but don't worry - the scenic curves start around 30 km before the lake itself. 

But before that is the pine wood. There are a lot of curves, of course but they are not as difficult ( or scenic, for that matter) as those up the pass. Speaking of the pine wood, there are a few very nice hotels along the way - I mean they really look nice from the outside and are in the woods - ideal place to relax. If you'd like that yourselves - book in advance (see why in the previous post

The Transfagarasan highway  around 12.30 am

When the milestones start telling you that Balea lake is some 50 kilometers away, you'll pass a few viaducts above the Arges river - like the ones on the pictures above - and a tunnel and then you'll see the road widen. many cars just pull over even before you can identify the reason why. Then you'll see the reason with capital R - you have reached one of the landmarks on the road and one of the most famous in Romania - Vidraru dam. 

Lake Vidraru from the parking

The lake it creates is (I think) the biggest dam in Romania and probably the most scenic one. The total surface of the lake is 3,930,000 sq m, 10.3 km in length, with a maximum width of 2.2 km. It was originally built as a hydroelectric power plant but in order to ensure that if the wall cracks for some reason it would not flood the cities downriver, dynamite was installed in the rocks around it so that if necessary it could be detonated and the natural lake would keep the water in. 
The wall of the dam

It is a beautiful place - especially when it is NOT raining - so I ask the driver to pull over. Even with the rain, I head out to take some pictures because the view is breathtaking. In fact some parts of one of the James Bond films was shot here.  
The parking space is very big - maybe because many buses get there - and it is FREE OF CHARGE. There are many souvenirs around  and I think there is a toilet somewhere but I am not sure...

Anyway, do take a souvenir or two and definitely take a picture of yourself standing on the 166 m high wall. It doesn't sound like a lot but I couldn't take a picture of the whole of it even with a wide angle lens. That leads me to another thing I wanted to tell you BEFORE  we continue...

Camera gear?

Since it is a photographic blog it is only right that I tell you what to bring, don't you think?OK, so...

- Whatever camera you are using - you'll need the wide angle part of the lens (that means the one you are using when you shoot landscapes - if it is a compact camera - set it to Landscape mode). 
I. as a highly motivated photographer, took a DSLR and a 10-18 mm wide angle lens. Trust me, 10 mm (the wides wide I had) was what I was using 99% of the time. The landscape is so breathtaking that you just want to capture as much of it as possible in one pic. 

- Clean the windscreen and all other car windows because you have a 99% chance of wanting to take a picture of something while in motion. I got away with that by simply opening the window but I had no other choice because of the rain - all windows were in water droplets. 

- If you want to - like me - take pictures despite the rain, definitely take some DRY paper wipes (NOT wet wipes or a cloth - they'll be unusable after several minutes) and a lens pen (you'll be using the brush part, not the smudge cleaner part - mainly to brush away the particles left by the paper cloth). 

- Warm clothes - no matter what the temperature outside the pass is, up in the Transfagarasan is always chilly if not cold. When we were at the dam the outside temperature was around 10 -12 degrees Celsius (in September). 

OK, back to the story then. 
The road passes on the wall of the dam itself but there are pavements for those who want to walk around it. It is a BUSY  road so look both ways BEFORE  you cross. 

If you have enough time I definitely recommend walking around. In my case,  even though I had an umbrella, it took 5 minutes to get the lens and myself soaking wet so we drove along.

After you cross the dam wall, you'll be able to pull over at several places - we didn't because we couldn't see anything anyway but if the weather is good (I'll keep repeating that) you'll be able to enjoy an amazing view of the dam so don't miss it. 
After the dam there is one more hotel with great view of the dam and the pine wood and then off we go to the real serpentines. 

Since the post is getting longish - I'll write about the real stuff in the next one. 

събота, 3 октомври 2015 г.

Transfagarasan when it rains??? Only if you are a fan of the hard driving routes! part 1

This particular post would describe a disappointment of mine. I watched the Top Gear episode about the Transfagarasan highway and nagged to go there. So we went but we had missed something - the weather was not in our favor. It rained all the way and to make matters worse - there was a 'nice' fog that combined with the torrential rain made taking decent pictures impossible... You'll see what I mean later on. 

But first things first.

In case you want to skip ahead to the story: 
Part 2

Part 3

Here is the video I made - just to give you an impression of what I am talking about:

What is Transfagarasan?

You, especially if you are not Romanian, probably have no idea that the place exists. So the logical question is - what on Earth is this place??? Ok, it is in the Carpathian mountains and obviously is a mountain pass. Nothing comes to mind? Ok, let me show you a map:

Image taken from mitteleuropa.x10.mx

 In case you don't know where Romania is - I'll have to ask you to consult with Wikipedia. If you din't get much of the map - here we go - the big brown thing in the middle is the Carpathian mountains - the longest mountain in Romania (I think it is the highest as well). The red rectangle shows what I am talking about - where is the Transgarasan highway.

Here is a road map of Romania to get an impression of their road system: 
Image taken from mitteleuropa.x10.mx

 To be even more precise - here is a map of the mountain pass itself: 
Image taken from https://guideandtravel.wordpress.com/tag/dn7c/

The road is known in Romania as National Road 7C - that means it is a wide road in good condition that is the shortcut from Curtea de Arges (down on the map) and Sibiu (up left). The name comes from the mountain of  Fagaras and means "through Fagaras". There is also a town with the same name (up right on the map). 

Here is a quote from Wikipedia explaining things in short: 
The Transfăgărășan (trans (over, across) + Făgăraș) or DN7C is a mountain paved road crossing the southern section of the Carpathian Mountains. It has national-road ranking and it is the second-highest paved road in Romania after Transalpina. The road starts near the village of Bascov, located near the city of Pitesti, ending on the crossroad between DN1 and Sibiu. Also known as Ceaușescu's Folly, it was built as a strategic military route that stretches 90 km with twists and turns that run north to south across the tallest sections of the Southern Carpathians, between the highest peaks in the country, Moldoveanu, and the second highest, Negoiu. The road connects the historic regions of Transylvania and Wallachia, and the cities of Sibiu and Pitești.


I'll try to be short here - the road is called Ceaușescu's Folly with a good reason. See, the dictator decided that he should have a quick access between Transylvania and Wallachia which is not along a river valley (so more difficult to attack - don't ask - military strategy and it's too long to explain) AND  he decided to do something grander than the longer and higher Transalpina (see map below). 

Image taken from https://guideandtravel.wordpress.com/tag/dn7c/
So in 1970 the guy ordered the army to build his masterpiece. Problem 1 - they were on a schedule (quite tight one, mind you). Problem 2 - the terrain was very difficult to civilize and there were a lot of rocks to be blown up in order for the road to be built. Problem 3 -  Ceaușescu, as any other dictator, for that matter, was paranoid against Soviet invasion in Romania so safety measures were not a big concern, neither were casualties. Wikipedia will give us the details: 
Built mainly by military forces, the road had both a high financial and human cost. Work was carried out in an alpine climate, at an elevation of 2000 meters, using junior military personnel who were untrained in blasting techniques. Many non-commissioned officers (NCOs), foremen, and soldiers died due to hazardous working conditions. Roughly six million kilograms of dynamite were used on the northern face, and official records state that about 40 soldiers lost their lives in building accidents. These numbers are likely to be under–estimations due to Communist propaganda touting "greatest care for men."The government could not admit the loss of so many lives caused by the disregard for labor protection rules.To this day, the exact number of lives lost is not known, yet survivors estimate the number to be in the hundreds.
As you can see for yourself,  Ceaușescu was not a very likable guy - probably one of the reasons he didn't die of old age in his bed (which, however, is not the topic of my post). 

The Transfăgărășan highway

OK, here we come to the real thing - the highway itself. There are a few things to sort out first. 

The name - I will keep spelling it without the diacritics (you know, those strange looking things above and below the letters in the name) because Romanian is full of them and I can't spell them all right. The actual pronunciation of the name is 'Transfagarashan' with a 'sh' sound even though throughout the post you will see it written (for convenience's sake) as Transfagarasan (with an s letter). 

The length - Wikipedia keeps saying that it is only 90 kilometers long but according to a road sign I took picture of while we were there - it is 152 kilometers. Don't get hysterical - only 50 or so of those are like the picture in the heading - serpentines and one curve ending in another. About that I'll talk later. Here is a picture of the road sign itself:
Here the road sign says that the pass is open

The speed limit - in the video clip I have posted below you'll get the impression that it is an easy and quick drive. Truth is that the advisable AVERAGE speed should NOT EXCEED 40 kilometers per hour. If you think you can drive at a higher speed - you can - the road is a wide one and in a quite good condition in most places. But I think the views and the curves as well as the elevation on more than 2000 meters will quickly discourage you if common sense doesn't. 

The duration of the journey - average duration is 4 to 5 hours depending on traffic, weather conditions and well, how long you will be staying at the viewpoints. It is a busy road and Romanians do use it. To the natives of Sibiu it is the shortest way to get to Pitesti (another big city on the other side of the mountain). Romanians tend to drive dangerously so be on the alert. 

The weather - on most pictures of the Transfagarasan you'll see nice warm sun and fluffy white clouds and/or blue sky. Don't get fooled by that - it is COLD and by saying cold, I mean cold. Unless you are a polar bear, temperatures between 5 and 10 degrees Celsius in September would be cold or at least, chilly. 

What to do BEFORE you go there? 

- Check the weather forecast - if you don't want to see what I saw (you'll see the pictures and the clip later in the post) check and double check the forecast for Curtea de Arges (on the one side of the mountain) and Sibiu (on the other). You'll thank me for that, trust me. If it shows rain/showers/ thunderstorm in ANY OF THE TWO just DO NOT go. Chances are that if it rains on either side of the mountain, it would rain in it, too.  It showed showers and we were rewarded by a torrential rain up there. Go in the rain ONLY if you have a long driving career and considerable amount of skills! 

- Check if the pass is open - since it is a popular tourist attraction in Romania, Transfagarasan has its own website and there you can see whether it is open or no. Here is the website: 
Transfagarasan is generally closed between October/November and April/May the next year. However they close the serpentines (the top 50 kilometers with the scenic curves) when the weather is bad and the moment the first snow falls because of avalanche danger. Each year the period varies, so do your homework.  

- Check the car systems AND THE BRAKES!!! - DON'T EVEN THINK OF GOING THERE IF THERE IS SOMETHING WRONG WITH THE CAR. Transfagarasan is one of the most dangerous roads in Europe and the most common cause for death is a problem in the brakes of the car or somewhere else. Most of the high curves are not fenced so there is nothing that would stop your fall down the 1000 meter abyss. It is a beautiful place but caution first. GO ONLY IF YOUR CAR IS 100% WORKING! 

- Think twice if your car is fit to do it - If you drive a sports car, even though Romanian roads are amazingly good, you should think twice before using it on the Transfagarasan highway - it will perform well but for that journey (personal opinion) you'll need something higher (such as an SUV or a high hedge-back) because the viewpoints are 20 to even 30 centimeters BELOW the level of the road. So if your car is flat on the road imagine what would happen if you try to pull over and enjoy the landscape. The level difference is due to the abundance of water up there - they did it as a drainage of some sort.

- Find a decent hotel -  There are a few very nice places along the road which are in the lower parts of the pass and have amazing view but since Romanians love them too, you should book a hotel first. Don't count on coming and finding something on the spur of the moment! Also BEWARE OF WEDDINGS! if you happen to be in the area on a Saturday you have a very high chance of encountering a wedding. That in itself is not a problem and even seeing the bride brings good luck but that also means that you'll be an intruder in the restaurant - it is their day so they don't want tourists around. Also weddings on the Balkans mean a lot (I really mean A LOT ) of noise - generally local music blasting your eardrums out up till 4 or 5 AM. So if there is a wedding in your hotel (which unfortunately, you can't know in advance), you'll probably have to eat somewhere else. 

Since it is quite a lengthy post - I'll tell you the story and show you the pictures in a follow-up :) 

петък, 2 октомври 2015 г.

When do you know you have photography under your skin?

1. When you see the place you have been to through the camera lens and subsequently through the pictures you have made and you wonder if you actually took the photos because you don't actually remember the place.
2. When you plan your next vacation according to the places you want to take pictures of and not whether you'll be able to relax there.
3. When you see someone's picture on Facebook, Instagram (you name it) you start thinking about lighting and focus instead of how they actually look.
4. When you start grumbling the moment you see someone walking towards the thing you want to take picture of or when someone takes the camera away (normally to take a picture of you).
5. When you realize that the cloth you use to clean your lenses is way cleaner than the actual cloth meant to clean your glasses. 

Image taken from www.photography-cameras.org
6. When you have nothing against going somewhere in 37 degrees Celsius at noon just to get the right light.
7. When you take 2000 pictures and you yourself appear in no more than 30 of them.
8. When rainy clouds start meaning amazing pics for you. 
9. When you get annoyed by the lame pictures you see on the postcards in the bookstore. 
10. When you start getting more tan on the beach with camera in hand than actually sunbathing.
Image taken from www.brunch.co.kr
11. When all your hand luggage limit gets filled by camera gear. 
12. When you are able to spend more than 3 hours photographing a single strawberry and less than 5 minutes talking about anything that is not photography. 
13. When you start spending more time reading and/or practicing photography than actually talking to your family/ friends.
14. When you make your loved ones visit a place twice because you couldn't take the picture you wanted the first time.
15. When you feel the urge to photograph ANYTHING (from rocks to flowers and garbage)
17. That one is for girls only :When you don't have a lipstick but you have 5 filters and a remote trigger in your purse.
18. When you don't care about the way you actually look - how sweaty, baggy or dirty you look at the moment as long as you take the shot you want. 
Image taken from www.tofurious.com
19. When you normally can't climb a two-meter ladder to change the light bulb but you willingly hang out of a rickety 50-meter metal bridge just for the sake of taking that iconic picture. 
20.  When the first thing you cover when it rains is not your head but the lens.
21. When your definition of an informative conversation includes at least 5 photo techniques and as much camera gear specs. 
22. You were so immersed in reading this that you didn't even notice that the number 16 is missing.