Novice hiker takes 5 hours to get a beer – Backpacking Romania

Novice hiker takes 5 hours to get a beer – Backpacking Romania

My main reason to go to Sibiu was its proximity to the Transfagarasan Highway, the Făgăraș Mountains and Bâlea Lake.

Top Gear described the Transfagarasan Highway as “the world’s best road”. It runs through the Făgăraș Mountains and is closed from October to June as there’s snow blocking the road. I went in July and it was open. 

The Făgăraș Mountains offer superb hiking and Bâlea Lake is a famous glacier lake there at 2000 metres high. 

Sibiu Centre
Sibiu Centre

Sibiu, like Brasov, has a historical centre but if you’ve been to Brasov and especially is you’ve been to Sighișoara, then there’s not much more Sibiu can offer you.

Getting to Bâlea Lake

No public transport runs to Bâlea Lake but there are other options which all go via the Transfagarasan Highway:

  • Take an organised day tour. There are many big tour groups selling organised coach trips for tourists.
  • Hire a car and have the thrill of driving the Transfagarasan Highway yourself. I was quoted, for 3 days car hire – picking it up in Sibiu and dropping it off in Brasov, with the cheapest car and insurance = 120 euros. I recommend this to only confident drivers as I saw 2 major crashes on the Highway.
  • Take a taxi. This works well if you can speak Romanian or have pre-arranged taxis. My friends (one male, two females) took a taxi from Sibiu to Bâlea Lake for 25 euros. They planned to hitchhike back as hitchhiking is very common in Romania. Unfortunately, no one picked them up, probably as they were in a group of three which can be harder to fit in a car. In the end a shop at the lake had to call them a taxi: it cost 75 euros and they had to wait an hour and a half as the taxi came all the way from Sibiu.
  • Hire a personal guide to drive you for the day and show you the area.

Hiring a Guide

As I was with two other people who had been recommended a guide, we went for the last option and hired a personal guide. This was the first time I’ve done this. I usually don’t hire guides because I like to have the freedom to do my own thing.

The price was 35 euros each and they provided us with hiking boots and picked us up from Sibiu at midday. The guide was a local woman with many years of hiking experience and her boyfriend also came along. They both spoke perfect English which was really helpful.

Apart from the shoes I wasn’t given much advice on what to bring. If you intend to hike then I recommend taking:

Backpack
Large water bottle
Snacks
Torch
External battery

Transfagarasan Highway

It takes an hour and a half to drive from Sibiu to Bâlea Lake. Except we had a long delay as the guide stopped to help a motorcyclist who had been in a road accident. We waited over an hour and a half for the ambulance to arrive on the scene, which I found shocking as we weren’t even an hour’s drive from Sibiu.

The Transfagarasan is insane – it’s full of bends and cliff edges. Luckily it’s well maintained. It was built in the 70’s during the rule of Nicolae Ceausescu, as a strategic military route connecting Transylvania to Wallachia regions, in case the Soviets invaded.

The start of the Transfagarasan Highway. Carpathians mountains ahead.
The start of the Transfagarasan Highway. Carpathians mountains ahead.
The winding road ahead
The winding road ahead
Bridges of the Transfagarasan
Bridges of the Transfagarasan

After driving past the lower chalet, about half a mile away from it, a big bear and its cub walked across the road and into the trees on the other side. I didn’t get a good photo because the guide driving freaked out and sped up, I was concerned she was going to hit it. Below is the best photo I have.

Big bear
Big bear

Bâlea Waterfall

We also stopped off at Bâlea Waterfall. It’s the highest step-waterfall in Romania at more than 60 metres tall. It can be reached by hiking from Bâlea Lake cable car station. It takes about an hour and there’s a well-marked hiking route.

Bâlea Waterfall
Bâlea Waterfall

Note about the cable car:

As the roads are closed in the winter, Bâlea Lake can only be reached by a cable car. WARNING – when I was there in July 2017, the cable car was closed as there had been an accident causing people injuries when the cable car’s brakes didn’t work and it collided with the platform at the bottom. 

Cable car station
Cable car station – crash site

Bâlea Lake

At Bâlea Lake there is car parking for a fee. It’s very busy and there’s a nice bar and restaurant (Cabana Bâlea) over-looking the lake. It’s very cold even in July so I recommend you take a jumper and don’t wear shorts. 

Bâlea Lake
Bâlea Lake

As the mist was rolling in the guide hurried us to start our hike. This was the downside of being part of a group. I was quite happy to enjoy the lake for a while, have some lunch and take photos. But when you have a guide and other people, you’re forced into doing what the majority wants. Consider this when you choose how you want to visit here.

Hiking Saua Caprei Mountain

In order to get the best views of Bâlea Lake and Transfagarasan you can climb Saua Caprei Mountain. The route is well sign posted and you have to follow the blue triangles with a white outline. The hike up to the best viewing point takes 45 minutes. It’s a fairly demanding hike in some parts and requires proper shoes (good tread trainers at the very least). The mist began to roll in while we climbed up.

Blue triangle route signs
Blue triangle route signs
Steep hiking path
Steep hiking path
Mist rolling in
Mist rolling in

View of Bâlea Lake and Transfagarasan

The views were beautiful up there and I took some photos before the mist came in.

Bâlea Lake
Bâlea Lake
Transfagarasan
Transfagarasan
Bâlea Lake and Transfagarasan
Bâlea Lake and Transfagarasan
Mist covering the Transfagarasan
Mist covering the Transfagarasan

When you get to the sign in the photo below you have three choices:

  • Carry on the same route following the blue triangles to the peak of Saua Caprei mountain.
  • Take photos of the Bâlea Lake and Transfagarasan and head back down the mountain.
  • Follow the red band route and complete a further 7 km route.

We took the first option – to continue to the peak of Saua Caprei mountain. 

Sign post showing the different hiking routes
Sign post showing the different hiking routes – blue or red?

Saua Caprei mountain saddle

Continuing up the mountain it becomes more challenging but over the top, just past the monument to hikers, you see a beautiful view of Goat Lake (or Lacul Capra in Romanian). 

Monument to hikers
Monument to hikers
Goat lake
Walking down to Goat lake
Goat Lake
Goat Lake
Me at goat lake
Me at Goat Lake

There are water springs here to re-fill water bottles. I drank from the spring and didn’t get ill but I wouldn’t recommend this. I would’ve taken extra water with me if I’d know how long the hike would be.

Mountain spring
Mountain spring

Here I saw some people camping. Given that I spotted a bear earlier and the mist that kept rolling in and out, I wouldn’t recommend this a good place to spend the night.

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Finding a little bit of peace.

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Blue band route

I’m not a huge fan of hiking. I think it’s just a fancy name for a long walk. I would have been happy to finish the blue triangle route there at the saddle and head back, a total of 2 hours of hiking and time to explore Bâlea Lake and have a beer.

Instead, from Saua Caprei saddle we went onto the blue band route. This map from http://www.balea-turism.ro/en/trails shows the different routes you can take. 

Map of hiking routes from http://www.balea-turism.ro/en/trails
Map of hiking routes from http://www.balea-turism.ro/en/trails
Hiking routes and monument to hikers
Hiking routes and monument to hikers

Following on past Goat Lake you have to stay left to cross over the mountain. We gained some height and it started to hail but it passed quickly and the sun reappeared. From here you begin to descend on the other side of the mountain. It’s challenging as it’s really steep, the rocks are slippery and there are waterfalls. This route is for confident hikers. 

Continue the route around and over the mountains
Continue the route around and over the mountains
Blue band route
Blue band route
Watch out when passing the slippery waterfalls
Watch out when passing the slippery waterfalls

There was even a glacier that we had to pass under (it was July).

Climbing over glaciers
Climbing over glaciers

After a few hours of descending you reach the Transfagarasan Highway. 

The other side of the Transfagarasan Highway
The other side of the Transfagarasan Highway

We saw a super car driving around the highway. Top Gear must have encouraged them.

Once at the Highway you follow the road (watch out for the cars!) and stay on the left side path under the tunnel. You need a torch for this part as inside the tunnel it’s pitch black. The walk through the tunnel takes 10 minutes and when you exit you continue to follow the road and return to Bâlea Lake.

Follow the highway to the tunnel
Follow the Highway to the tunnel
Stay to the left of the tunnel
Stay to the left of the tunnel
Take a torch for the tunnel
Take a torch for the tunnel

5 hours later, I finally got my beer by the lake.

Beer!
Beer!

Overall

The Transfagarasan Highway is an amazing road and to believe it you need to take a drive on it. Bâlea Lake is stunning and so is Goat Lake. They’re both very peaceful and look like mirrors. The views from Saua Caprei Mountain are breathtaking.

In hindsight hiring a guide who is so passionate about hiking wasn’t the best thing for me. However, for this trip, 35 euros was very cheap for the service they provided. The biggest problem with Bâlea Lake is the lack of public transport to reach it. Given the crashes I saw on the Transfagarasan Highway, I wouldn’t be confident enough to drive. I’m also from the UK and we drive on the other side of the road to Romania.

While we were walking up the blue triangle route, the guide spoke about how dangerous it was. The mist was rolling in but it passed quickly and you could sit and wait it out. I think the blue triangle route is suitable as long as there are at least two of you.

The blue band route is more challenging and you would need a guide to complete the route in good time. There is a mountain rescue station at Bâlea Lake so take down their number in case you need them.

I would definitely visit here again. But I would take a more laid back approach and follow the blue triangle route to Goat Lake, take photos from high up and then head back down to relax at Bâlea Lake with a beer.

 

 

2 Replies to “Novice hiker takes 5 hours to get a beer – Backpacking Romania”

  1. Only for the young, fit and adventurous I think. Exhilarating if you can manage it and the legacy of the past is everywhere. I certainly would not fancy camping or walking alone with bears on the prowl.But again such an insight into a different way of life and well worth doing .Drinking the local beer is always good and a fitting reward for your efforts.

    1. I couldn’t believe it when I saw people camping by Goat Lake, so many bears around – I wouldn’t chance camping!

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