This is a continuation of my Romania trip report. See also: Part 1, which established general expectations of Transylvania.
The highlight of this trip is Balea Lake, a glacial lake on the famed Transfaragasan Road. This fairy tale sits 2,000 meters high, surrounded by the Fagaras Mountain. As with any high altitude location, the weather is temperamental. When we arrived, it was sunny and hot. 4 hours later, it was raining, and temperature dropped at least 20 degrees F. One TripAdvisor reviewer hardly saw anything the first 5 times they came, finally the 6th time was the charm. Pray for visibility.
I took Balea Bus from Sibiu, which as of writing runs Mon, Wed, and Fri. It takes 1.5-2 hours to reach the lake via Transfagarasan Road. Do note the last few miles (which has the most elevation change) have a short season of operation each year – roughly July to September only. It’s closed otherwise due to harsh weather, though you can still take the cable car from Balea Waterfall, which I believe is the end of the drivable road Oct – June. If you come from Brasov, the drive is about 5 hours. We arrived around 11am and had until 5pm to enjoy activities on our own. It was the perfect amount of time for me.
There’s not much scenery until we got close to the lake. Suddenly, the famous winding roads of the Transfagarasan revealed. The mountain transformed into a green paradise, fed no doubt by the ever-present precipitation. Flocks of sheep grazed on the pastures to the side of the road. It was a great lead up to the climax.
The beauty of the lake is highly dependent on weather. It was sparkling green in the sun, and dull when cloudy. Again, visibility could be severely limited by the commonly occurring fog. It’s not a swimming lake due to the freezing water temperature.
The lake is completely surrounded by mountains, save the part blown up to create the Transfagarasan. There are numerous hiking opportunities. I say opportunities, not trails, because while marked trails exist, I didn’t limit myself to those. Most hikers seem to take the steep trail to the top, which offers extraordinary panoramic view (provided weather cooperates).
However, I couldn’t resist the hundreds of sheep grazing on the other side of the mountain. At first they were only small white dots in a sea of green vegetation. As I got closer, I saw a potential way up. The path wasn’t marked, but it seemed walkable. So I did.
I got to a comfortable distance with the domesticated animals, their horns a reminder to keep some distance. A few were curious about their visitor, but no one seemed to mind, including the shepherd. So I stayed. I followed them as they moved across the mountain. It was a huge herd and took a good 20 minutes for the entire herd to move each time. I sat in the middle of their route, facing the lake below, relishing the experience of hundreds of sheep passing by. It was a magical fairy tale. 99.9% of the visitors were concentrated on the other/main side of the lake; the whole time with the sheep (which was an hour or two) I saw less than 10 people.
At this point, I converged with a marked trail in the middle of the mountain circling the lake. Rain was on the horizon, so I skipped the hike to the top. I finished the middle trail, admiring the mountain greenery (contrasting the desert I live in now), ending at a lakeside restaurant. That’s when the rain started. There were still many hikers on the steep trail, thankfully the rain wasn’t too bad. As with everywhere in Romania, restaurant service is extremely slow and detached. Don’t expect anyone to come to you; you have to flag down busy waiters who are trained to ignore your existence for anything you need. Romanian customers have perhaps a slight advantage, but they were enduring similar test of patience. Luckily the lamb chop was quite good. Not cheap, but good. I thought of the sheep I encountered earlier.
Balea Bus (which is actually a minivan) dropped us back at the same location in Sibiu as the pickup – in the parking lot next to the Thalia Hall and Museum of Natural History. On the way back, I talked to the new friends I made in the vehicle, as well as to the driver to get a better understanding of the country. Then, onto more exploration of the historic center of Sibiu.
In a Nutshell
Balea Lake and the mountains that surround it are spectacular. I followed my instinct instead of marked trails and was rewarded with a piece of fairy tale all to myself. It was well worth sacrificing the top hike for. The base was busy by Romanian standards, much less so compared to popular sites around the world, and less crowded in the afternoon. The 6-7 hours of independent exploration allowed by Balea Bus were perfect for me. That said, there’s much more along the Transfagarasan; a full day tour could see more by spending significantly less time at Balea Lake (maybe 1hr), or you can drive yourself and see them at your own pace. Just beware of the short season of the road, and that visibility is far from guaranteed. When there is, WOW.