Fagaras and Beyond Day 3 – Sambata Monastery

I was really hoping to hike to the Sambata Valley Cabin during the second part of the third day. Unfortunately, we did not start our day early enough in the morning for the three to four hour hike. We did however visit the Sambata Monastery on the way back towards Fagaras. In Sambata de Jos (Lower Sambata village) we headed from the main DN1 road back towards the mountains, passing the Sambata de Sus (Lower Sambata village) and arriving at the Sambat de Sus Complex. This is where we took a right turn and parked in front of the monastery.

The Sambata Monastery was founded in the 17th century by Constantin Brancoveanu, ruler of Wallachia (what is now southern Romania) from 1688 to 1714. He was a great cultural leader as well, developing what is now known as the Brancovenesc architectural style. One building of such architecture is the Hurezu Monastery, now a UNESCO Heritage Site. Brancoveanu was captured, tortured and beheaded by the Ottomans along with his sons. They were all canonized in 1992.

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The gate to the monastery grounds

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The alley, surrounded by flowers, leading to the main entrance

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The inner courtyard and church

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Columns frame the inner yard of the monastery

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Bust and mosaic of Constantin Brancoveanu, founder of the monastery and important figure in Romanian history

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The Monastery’s backdrop: the foothills of the Fagaras Mountains

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Up these steps is the church where most masses are held

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Looking out from the inner courtyard

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There are several things to visit in this region beside the monastery. Behind the monastery you can find the spring of Arsenie Boca, an important religious figure in Romania, whose water is believed to have healing powers. A bit further up the road that leads into the mountains, there is also a trout farm (pastravarie) where you can buy fresh fish. Continuing into the mountains, you can hike up (with the option of taking your car quite some distance up the road) to the Sambata Valley Cabin (about a two hour hike up, this is a place where you can find food and shelter, as well as, basic overnight accommodations). This is a pit-stop for many hikers continuing up to the Fagaras Mountain crest. Also, from the Cabin, there is a trail that takes you to Arsenie Boca’s cave where he lived as a hermit. On your way back to the DN1 road, you can stop at Herghelia Sambata de Jos, a thoroughbred horse farm in Lower Sambata village.

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Fagaras and Beyond Day 3 – Transfagarasan Highway

I already mentioned the Fagaras Mountains: I grew up with them looming in the distance, they are just south of the town of Fagaras, we drove parallel to them on our way to Sibiu and Alba Iulia. Now it’s time to take a closer look. We’ve come to my favourite day of our trip Fagaras and Beyond: Day 3 – the day we took to the mountains. Not by foot, but by car, climbing the Transfagarasan Highway, which, as the name implies, crosses the Fagaras Mountains – North/South for a distance of 90km (60 miles). It reaches the altitude of 2,034 meters (almost 6,700 feet), being the second highest road in Romania (Transalpina is the first) but arguably the most impressive.

The Transfagarasan Highway has gotten some international publicity. For example, Top Gear filmed there, racing some of the world’s best cars on one of the world’s best roads. There are also cycling and motorsport festivals that take place here throughout the summer.

To get to the Transfagarasan from Fagaras, we headed west towards Sibiu and after about 33km, an indicator at a roundabout directed us to the left, towards the mountains. After we turned, we soon reached the village Cartisoara, a traditional Saxon mountain village. The road starts to climb after the village and we passed through lush green forests. The first stop was Complexul Balea Cascada – The Balea Waterfall Complex. You can’t miss it, it’s milling with tourists. Just park on the side of the road.

For most of the year, about November to June (always check the opening dates before going!), the highway is only open to cars until this area. If you want to continue to the top of the Transfagarasan there are cable cars that take you to Lake Balea.

From the road, if you walk past the souvenir and food stands, and past the hotel, you will find a marked trail that takes you to the Balea Waterfall. If you have an hour or two to spare, are equipped with hiking equipment (at least running shoes and comfy pants) and are in descent shape, I highly recommend taking the time to visit the waterfall. It’s about 30 minutes to hike to the falls and the last 10 minutes are somewhat steep. It’s definitely worth the effort. I’ll let these pictures speak for themselves. And as you can imagine, the real thing it even more amazing.

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Upon Arrival

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The moss of the rocks give it a fairy-tale look

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The water absolutely sparkles in the sunlight. It’s worth waiting around a bit for the clouds to part.

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This is what you look like to the waterfall

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Next, we got back in our cars and kept climbing the famousĀ  highway. This is where it got exciting. Hairpin turns, steep valley below, tunnels and viaducts. The views are stunning.

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Our final destination on the Transfagarasan Highway: Lake Balea. Here you can find a few hotels and cabins, including the Balea mountain cabin which has been here since the beginning of the 20th century. There are also many tourists, food stands and cheap souvenirs. We tried to ignore all that and enjoy the nature.

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This is me being silly

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Lake and Cabin Balea

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The Fagaras Mountain Crest – can be reached by foot in about 2 hours from Lake Balea

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Our furry friend enjoying a much-needed break

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From Lake Balea, the highway crosses through the longest tunnel in Romania and starts its descent on the southern and less steep part of the Fagaras mountains. The southern part of the highway is longer, more lean, mostly surrounded by forest. It does offer three tourist destinations worth visiting: Vidraru Dam, Poienari Fortress (Vlad Tepes’ – Dracula’s residence) and the town and monastery of Curtea de Arges. This is the most beautiful, albeit very long, way to cross from Transylvania into Southern Romania, or vice verso.

(Romania is observing national mourning of the many victims of a fire which happened in a crowded club in Bucharest on Friday night. I’d like to take a moment here to remember those victims and offer my condolences to their families.)

The Fagaras Mountains

After fifteen years of living in Canada, I return to my home country, ready to discover it. Where to start? My native Fagaras mountains. As a young child, growing up in Fagaras, I was always fascinated by the mysterious chain of mountains visible on the horizon. Now I was ready to explore them up close.

What was awaiting

What did I have in mind? A four day hiking trip, climbing up to over 2000m, following the crest of the chain, to stand on the highest peak in the country before descending to the Sambata Monastery. We climbed up as a group of seven, which wouldn’t be how we would descend, but that’s a story for later. We started off at the village Porumbacu de Sus, just off the National Road 1, half way between Fagaras and Sibiu. The first part of the trail is a forester’s rocky road. About an hour into our walk, came our first surprise. We were offered a ride in a pick-up truck up to the end of the road. It was the ride of a life time, bouncing around in the back of the truck trying to keep our loaded backpacks from flying out.

A ride to remember

A ride to remember

After we got dropped off, the real climb began, first through shady trees onĀ  a steep hill, then following the river through a lush forest. We reached the Negoiu Cabin in time for lunch, eating what we had brought from home, while consulting a map.

At the Negoiu Cabin

At the Negoiu Cabin

We would have liked to rest longer, but we continue for we are pressed for time. On this first day, the most strenuous, we still had a long way to go. Surpassing the tree line, we start climbing rock. The valley below is mesmerizing, while the cliffs we are approaching loom over us.

The view below

The view below

The view above

The view above

At this point, most of us feel our legs wobbly and take breaks often. We are not used to carrying such weights: tents, sleeping bags, food for four days, cooking utensils, water to last until we find the next spring… It is not easy but at this point, we can’t turn around. We concentrate on taking small, calculated steps, walking in zigzags to minimize the strain on our legs.

Frequent breaks are necessary

Frequent breaks

As we near the peaks, we are engulfed by thick fog. When we finally reach the second highest peak in the country, the Negoiu peak, we are treated to the typical view of the surrounding area. We recognize it from the myriad of photos we had seen online. Here is one of those typical pictures.

Negoiu Peak - 2535m

Negoiu Peak – 2535m

The most exciting part of the day follows, climbing down through “Strunga Dracului” or the Devil’s gorge. We have three options for descending to Lake Caltun, where we will camp that night: the Devil’s gorge, the Lady’s gorge and the Sheppard’s gorge. We choose the most difficult and exciting, climbing down a rocky gorge using metal chains. We go slowly, taking care of how we place each step. We forget our exhaustion, our sped up heart beat taking over.

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We make it to the bottom safely and get to a wide, open area. We have just over half an hour to go, but it’s already getting dark. Some of us can barely stand on our own two feet, but we continue on. When we finally reach Lake Caltun, we set up our tents among the others, who had been more timely, a few of us falling asleep before dinner is ready. Tomorrow’s a new day, a day when we’ll be passing above the famous Transfagarasan Highway.