I used to think that I was not easily influenced by popular culture or the media. I now know this is not the case. I booked a holiday based entirely on the antics of three idiots. Yes, I went to Romania because of Top Gear.
It all started when my best mate, Vicci-Marie sent me the Top Gear Romania Special with a note saying 'we should do this'. In this episode, Jeremey and co. drive the Transfagarasan Highway, which Clarkson describes as: "the most amazing road I've ever seen". As soon as the episode was over I rang Vicci - "let's do it".
The Top Gear guys took a Ferrari, Lamborghini and Aston Martin on their road trip. I was dreaming of something equally super and sporty. I asked our Editor to hook me up with a car; I know he is on good terms with Porsche and Aston and I had never been in a Porsche or Aston so this would be a great way to pop that cherry.
I broke the news to Vicci and she was delighted we got a car. She had never heard of Dacia. But she couldn't believe we had been given a car to drive around Romania, for free. I took her positivity on board and looked at this as a wonderful perk of my job and thought it was the most perfect car seeing as how it is actually made in Romania. We were keeping this real.
July came and I met Vicci in Bucharest airport and we hopped in a cab, which was a battered old Dacia, and we chilled out in the hotel for the day.
The next morning, whilst Vicci packed our luggage into the huge boot, I check out the Dacia's driver aids. I was told by the CompleteCar.ie guys that this is the cheapest SUV you can buy in Ireland and it comes with no frills, not even a radio, so not to set my expectations too high. To my delight and the shock of the guys, the car had all the option boxes ticked. It had a radio, USB port, 12V and aux-in connections, Bluetooth, a full colour touchscreen with satnav, heated seats, reach and rake steering wheel adjustment and most importantly of all, air conditioning.
We hit the road praising our Dacia and after a while I relaxed into the driving; the left-hand drive car on the right-hand side of the road was a lot easier than I had thought it would be, but it was the crazy layouts of the roads that scared the crap out of me. The roads had weird turning points and guide lines, I never knew where a car was going to come from and where they were turning off. Even at the end of the week I was still confused by the road layouts.
Navigating out of Bucharest was terrifying for me. I tried to be cool in front of Vicci, but I was convinced we were going to get hit by another car. We weren't, and as soon as we left the chaos of the city behind we were on fairly decent tarmac roads until we reached our first stop some two hours later.
In Curtea de Argeș we did a lot of sightseeing before heading to the ruins of Poenari Citadel, one of the main fortresses of Vlad III the Impaler. We climbed the 1,480 steps to the ruins and were greeted with gruesome figures impaled on stakes - a gory homage to Vlad. The ruins themselves were pretty uninteresting, but the views from the top of the hill were sensational.
We had already started driving on the Transfăgărășan Highway, even though we had passed no road marker or sign that said so. However, once we hit the road again, almost immediately the road started to weave and bend until it opened out at Lake Vidraru and we drove across the Vidraru Dam, which, when it was completed in 1966, was the ninth largest dam in the world, though now it just doesn't compare to modern mega dams.
The roads from here on in started to relentlessly wind and curve around the mountains, and the Dacia's low gears were really getting a work out. I was constantly shifting and wishing I had an automatic. It was exhausting. I was pretending I was a real driving enthusiast, listening to the engine and changing when the engine directed me, but after a while I left the car in third and worked the throttle more. Both Vicci and I remarked how forgiving the Dacia was that way; it worked well and didn't cry out or sputter for a gear change. Perhaps it was tired too.
The road also started to deteriorate and become much more narrow and bumpy and spotted with rocks and stones. I was worried about damaging the paint work and chipping the windscreen. So it was slow going. Each time I went up a gear another uphill bend would appear and I'd have to down shift and slow down to a crawl. After 232km and 9.5 hours on the road we collapsed into our rustic cabin in the woods.
The next day, Vicci took over the driving. Within five minutes we had stopped to pose for photos beside a roadside waterfall. Then the road finally began to open out. The bends were again relentless, but this time they were fluid and wide and the tarmac, for the most, was nice and smooth.
As we neared the top of the mountain we entered Romania's longest road tunnel, the 890-metre long Capra tunnel, which lead us out to the recreational area of Balea Lac. We were so high up that people were sunbathing beside huge banks of snow. We walked to the edge of the road and looked down and the full wonder of the Transfăgărășan Highway was revealed. We were both a bit lost for words.
Equally as impressive as the road itself is the history behind it. In 1968, Czechoslovakia was invaded by the USSR and, fearing that his country might suffer the same fate, Nicolae Ceaușescu, Romania's megalomaniac ruler, built the Transfăgărășan Highway, aka Ceaușescu's Folly, to enable his people flee into the mountains should the Russians ever invade. It took four years to build and 6,000 tonnes of dynamite to blast away the forest covered mountains.
As I took in the road's surroundings I just couldn't believe they built a road here. Romania has the largest surface of virgin forests in Europe (excluding Russia), and this part of the Southern Carpathians constitutes Europe's largest un-fragmented forested area. And when you see this grey ribbon of road winding its way through the dense forest it is just so hard to comprehend how anyone could have built such a wondrous road in such deep wilderness. It just looks a little surreal, fake even, and the cars, motorbikes and pushbikes enjoying the fruit of Ceaușescu's madness look like tiny ants against the vast swathes of road.
The road down from here was pure driving fun. I was delighted that Vicci was driving this part as it meant I could enjoy the ride and take in all the wonders the road had to offer. But after 15 minutes I was a little jealous that she got to drive the easy and fun part so we swapped seats. However, just 10km later the road levelled off and the Transfăgărășan Highway ended as unceremoniously as it had begun.
We had driven the full 103km of the Transfăgărășan Highway and it took, in total, just over three hours. I was gutted when the road ended. I wanted to go back and do it all again, in the opposite direction. But we didn't. We just kept on driving. The road deserved a second run.
Thinking back, I realise that the Dacia Duster was the most perfect car for this trip and not a Ferrari, Lambo or Aston. You see, the Top Gear guys had the privilege of a closed road. They raced down the road at speed without worrying about other road users. We didn't have that luxury. We had lots of other traffic (mostly Dacias) on the road to contend with and there were very few places on the road to overtake.
Could you imagine being stuck behind a Dacia for significant periods of time whilst on the world's greatest road in a supercar? It would be painful and emotionally draining.
What's more, the Top Gear guys were able to swerve and slide all over the closed road, but it's actually too narrow and dangerous to do this with other traffic on the road. However, the four-wheel drive system of the Dacia Duster meant it was always composed on the road and steady no matter how loose the road coverings, how steep the incline and how tight the curves. The Dacia just held its own brilliantly. We didn't have to worry about going wide into the other lane; something oncoming traffic seemed to do a lot.
Furthermore, as we were in a Romanian car with Romanian plates we could park the car anywhere without drawing attention to ourselves and our unattended valuables. We abandoned the Dacia on the side of the road for two hours, whist we went off hiking. Would you do that with a Ferrari? No, and that is probably why the Top Gear guys didn't get to see the ruins of Vlad's castle, unlike us. So ha, take that Jeremey and your flash car.
At the end of the Romania Top Gear episode Clarkson says of the Transfăgărășan: "we were wrong, this is better than the Stelvio, this is the best road in the world". Do I agree with him? Well, I've never driven the Stelvio Pass, so in the name of research I guess I should go so I can report back to you guys.
I wonder what car Shane will get me for that road trip...