Bear Hunting, Human Impalement And The Best Road In The World

Bear Hunting, Human Impalement And The Best Road In The World

I arrived in Brasov three hours behind the scheduled time – immensely puzzling given that the train had picked us up on time and hadn’t lingered at any point along the way. But that’s Balkan transportation for you. In any case, I got to my hostel without a hitch at about 10pm where-upon a group of people let me know that they were going out to look for beers and that I should join them. Beer always sounds good to me so I asked how far away the bar or store was. No, no, not beersbears, was the response.

Oh yeah, Romania is home to a quarter of Europe’s bear population and the forests which encroach within Brasov itself are among their happiest hunting grounds. What was being proposed is that we creep along the outskirts of the forest and try to find some. It seemed like madness to me but as or little group also included a morbidly obese woman, I figured I wouldn’t be the first one out-gunned should a bear decide to engage in some bear-like activity with us.

We didn’t see any bears though.  A local even pointed out to us that we were wasting our time since most were probably hibernating by now. But along the way, some of us started talking about doing a slightly more exciting excursion the next day. Namely, hiring a car and taking the Transfăgărășan highway which begins at Vlad the Impalers Fortress, lines the Balea lake, across the Transylvanian Alps, and ends in the scenic town of Sibiu. Five of us decided to give it a go.  The guys from Top Gear had already tried it out and called it the best road in the world.

The Transylvanian Alps
The Transylvanian Alps

More on that in a bit, but I’d like to take a little time out to clarify some details about Vlad the Impaler – the man who inspired Dracula. To begin with, his horrific cognomen and reputation were thoroughly deserved. Vlad Tepes spent his formative years as an Ottoman hostage, where he allegedly suffered frequent raping’s at the hands of his captors. Some time later when he was released and restored to the King of Wallachia by his Hungarian brother in law, his festering resentment devised a poetic retribution. The mid 15th century was a time of constant war with the Ottoman empire, and captured Turkish soldiers would be impaled rectally on stakes and out through the mouth or collar bone. Contemporary human impalement connoisseurs even refined their technique so that they would avoid striking major organs, and thus keep the poor skewered bastard alive for days before he expired.

One account from 1462 recalls the Sultan Memhmed II invading with a significant army, only for him to half outside Vlads capital Targoviste upon seeing 20,000 impaled and rotting corpses. His royal highness promptly shit himself and about-faced his army back to Istanbul.

Vlad didn’t stop with Turks though. At the time of his ascension, Wallachia was a thoroughly lawless place – a sort of medieval gangsters paradise. But that all changed when Vlad started handing out impalements like they were parking violations. Within a few years it was said that you could leave a coin anywhere in any town in Wallachia and no one would dare touch it. Personal and political enemies also got the short end of the stick.

Today, the real Vlads castle, known as Poenari Castle sits some 100km west of Brasov, and is only accessible by private transportation over roads that can best be described as rustic. Upon reaching it’s foothills, one must ascend up 1,500 stairs to the castles precipice. For this effort you are rewarded with a close up view of  – what is now  – a pile of largely featureless rubble, along with some dummies impaled on spikes. But at least you can see you’ve been to the real place. Additionally, the view is nice and there are basically no tourists.  They’re all busy checking out the false one known as ‘Bram’s Castle’, which is more pleasing from both an aesthetic and accessibility point of view. We passed it on the way to Poenari in our rented Dacia 4×4.

The Best Road in the World
The Best Road in the World

 

The whole road trip lasted a good 10 hours or so and the surrounding countryside is truly magnificent, especially in the autumn.  The most spectacular part was easily the Transylvanian alpine pass. Having reached 2,500 meters above sea level, one suddenly goes from a temperate 15 degrees on one side of the tunnel, to a winter wonderland on the other. It is from this point that you are treated to the most famous segment of the road; a descending, and formula-one style track. It is as bizarre as it is awesome.  Having completed this segment of the trip, we pulled into Sibiu for dinner and ordered the best-stuffed cabbages I’ve yet to have in Eastern Europe, before returning back to Brasov.

All that is not to make almost no mention of Brasov itself, which is a classic chocolate box medieval city, and arguably the prettiest in Romania. But I’d already seen an excess of these across Europe. For me, a DIY road tour and getting up close to one of histories craziest characters was far more entertaining.

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