Duster in­Ro­ma­nia

The Carpathian Moun­tains. Home of the un­dead, and sev­eral life-af­firm­ing roads... And you only need a Da­cia Duster to en­joy them

Top Gear (UK) - - CONTENTS - WORDS: TOM FORD / PHO­TOG­RA­PHY: DEN­NIS NOTEN

Want a car to go on an ad­ven­ture in vam­pire coun­try? Bet­ter take the home­grown Da­cia 4x4

Hav­ing just nearly driven off the side of a woe­fully un­der­sign­posted 400ft cliff, I’m not sure whether my el­e­vated heart­beat is down to the view, or the fact that I’ve just nearly ab­sent-mind­edly BASE-jumped a small SUV off a Tran­syl­va­nian moun­tain with­out a parachute. It could be ei­ther, be­cause if there were global rank­ings for views, then this one would be some­where up there in the medal po­si­tions, be­ing qui­etly in­ves­ti­gated for cheat­ing. This is not just a view. This is A View. Ro­ma­nia, as it turns out, gives se­ri­ous vista. Thing is, I’m not sure ex­actly where we are. I know we’re some­where north of Rânca on the Transalpina DN67C, but not life-bet pos­i­tive whether that means the coun­ties of Gorj or Vâl­cea. We fired west out of Bucharest’s sev­enth-cir­cle-of-hell traf­fic for a bit, then grabbed the bot­tom of the 67C some­where around a place called Bengeşti, but at one point we were headed to a place called Vul­can, so any­thing is pos­si­ble. What­ever. De­spite nearly mak­ing a fa­tal tour­ing mis­take, we’ve found a grand spot to pause.

There’s a low mist belted around the waist­lines of the moun­tains, mak­ing them look like they’re float­ing on a sea of cot­ton wool. The craggy tops are raked by fin­gers of fog, and there’s a pal­pa­ble sense of fairy tale to the whole scene – some­thing very def­i­nitely other – in­spi­ra­tion leak­ing out at the edges like an over-filled sand­wich. If a land­scape could be de­scribed as Gothic, then this is it, a slice of the Carpathi­ans that punches up through the soft green palm of the val­ley like a rocky knuck­le­duster. It’s no sur­prise that this is the place where Bram Stoker set part of his novel Drac­ula, based – in part, at least – on lo­cal leg­ends of the strigoi, un­quiet spir­its that live in­side nor­mal peo­ple dur­ing the day and only come out at night to cause mis­chief. It’s beau­ti­ful and spooky at the same time. Spook­i­ful.

It’s cer­tainly a mon­u­men­tal feast for the eyes, and be­low, I can see a loop­ing stretch of black­top that curls ca­su­ally through the for­est like a thrown rope. Like a chal­lenge. The kind of place that has a video where the tune that fades up is Ride of the Valkyries. Ob­vi­ously, to make the most of such an epic land­scape, one re­quires a ve­hi­cle to match it, some­thing to stir the soul and set the senses on fire. Some­thing sporty, rear-wheel-drive and lightly over­pow­ered.

An or­ange Da­cia Duster with a roof­box is not that ve­hi­cle.

Ex­cept that it kind of is. OK, so it might not be the most ex­treme car for a road­trip to some­where with such ob­vi­ous driv­ing po­ten­tial, but there’s method to this mad­ness, be­cause you can have ex­tra­or­di­nary ad­ven­tures in very or­di­nary cars. And we’re here to prove it. The Duster is the per­fect car for this place. One, be­cause we have a qui­etly able 4x4 model and have been pot­ter­ing around off-road (hence the close call with the moun­tain­ous air gap), and two, be­cause it is made here, and his­tor­i­cally epony­mous. In an­cient Ro­ma­nian, ‘Da­cia’ means ‘home’, and home means here, lit­er­ally – Da­cia be­ing the area that stretched from the ‘Black Sea to the Balkan moun­tains and Bo­hemia’ in the 1st cen­tury BC, and later chopped up by the Ro­mans in their orgy of con­quest a few hun­dred years later. The Da­cian tribes called ‘Carpes’ or ‘Carpi’ also sup­pos­edly giv­ing their name to these hunched, grouchy Carpathian moun­tains that lurk as the back­drop to the plains of Tran­syl­va­nia. The ones that are mak­ing my eyes happy.

These days Da­cia-the-car­maker’s main op­er­a­tion is based in Mioveni, to the south east of where we are, and has pro­gressed from belt­ing out out­moded Re­nault 12s in 1966 to of­fi­cially shel­ter­ing un­der the cor­po­rate wing of Re­nault in ’99, churn­ing out cheap, use­ful and slightly un­sexy prod­ucts ever since. And this sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion Duster is prop­erly new,

shar­ing pre­cisely no body pan­els with the pre­vi­ous car, get­ting a raft of im­prove­ments and still man­ag­ing to start at £9,995. In fact, you can get a ba­sic Duster 1.6 SCe Ac­cess for £90 a month with £1,800 de­posit over three years (you’ll pay just un­der eleven grand for it, in the end). Just num­bers, un­til you re­alise that’s £2.90 a day. Or the price of the usual over­priced cap­puc­cino from StarCostaBucks. Ex­cept. Ex­cept the ba­sic Ac­cess Duster comes with front-wheel drive only, no ra­dio and no air­con. So the Duster you ac­tu­ally want is about £13,595. Which is still cheap, but that ver­sion still doesn’t come with a 500bhp V8, so I’ll have to make do with a 1.5-litre diesel with an ad­e­quate 115bhp. Drag rac­ing any­thing is pretty much out of the ques­tion, and down­changes from the sur­pris­ingly sweet six-speed man­ual a reg­u­lar oc­cur­rence. But that’s not to say that you can’t have fun. You just have to com­mit a bit more, and go some­where in­ter­est­ing.

Cur­rently, I think we’re max­ing out on the lat­ter. The Transalpina (the ‘Dru­mul Na­tional’ 67C) that runs the mar­gin be­tween Sibiu and Alba coun­ties is both Ro­ma­nia’s high­est road and its most eas­ily over­looked, given its prox­im­ity to the sec­ond-high­est and ar­guably more pic­turesque Trans­făgărășan (more pro­saically the DN7C) in Cârțișoara. But the Transalpina con­nects No­vaci, south of the Parâng Moun­tains, to Se­beş in the north. And it is wan­tonly spe­cial. We’ve just crossed the Urdele Pass – the high­est point and ver­i­ta­ble stair­case of se­ri­ous hair­pins fol­lowed by a high-wire drive across a ridge­line – and have wormed our way into the darker, un­du­lat­ing to-and-fro of the for­est be­low.

It’s a weird mix of high Alp and Bavar­ian for­est, vir­u­lently green mead­ows dap­pled with chunks of bare rock and shot through with stands of beech and Nor­we­gian spruce, alder and oak, the swathe of great for­est slashed with the Transalpina it­self. It is a place to oc­cupy your senses, one of those slightly odd Euro­pean roads that tran­si­tion non­sen­si­cally from what are osten­si­bly just gravel tracks to mag­nif­i­cent, no­ble stretches of per­fectly sur­faced tar­mac that whip through the trees like an elon­gated Nür­bur­gring. Be warned: there are no crash bar­ri­ers, big trees are re­mark­ably re­silient if you hit them, the traf­fic is two-way, and Ro­ma­nian driv­ing stan­dards are vari­able. But you’d have to be on a milk float not to en­joy this, and the Duster is hi­lar­i­ous. Not in any way fast, but kind of leggy and rhyth­mic. There’s body lean, there’s tyre howl, there’s the knowl­edge that if you lose mo­men­tum you will spend a sub­jec­tive age build­ing it back up, but there’s also a sense of ac­tu­ally driv­ing to the ab­so­lute limit of the car with­out en­dan­ger­ing any­one. Try do­ing that in some­thing even vaguely fast. This is full com­mit­ment with­out ever be­ing re­ally very close to scary, and there’s some­thing deeply sat­is­fy­ing about it.

There are dams and deep-draugh­ted lakes that look a lit­tle like minia­ture Nor­we­gian fjörds, tun­nels and more for­est. The vil­lages are faintly medieval, bizarrely pic­turesque and time-warped, all fea­tur­ing bee­hive haystacks, horse-drawn trac­tor trail­ers and at least five styles of feral dog. There’s also sun­shine, ty­phoon rain, mist, rain­bows and wind. The weather is in­de­ci­pher­able, and it makes the days feel long. The Duster is doughty, rugged and faith­ful, and al­lows us ac­cess to ex­tra bits of moun­tain you’d strug­gle to visit in a sports car. Pho­tog­ra­pher Den­nis glo­ries in the ex­panses of land­scape, and I find us din­ner be­fore we re­tire for the night in Sibiu. This en­tails eat­ing a lan­gos, es­sen­tially a flat­tish dough­nut the size of a small plate and lay­ered with cream cheese, hard cheese, some in­de­ter­mi­nate cheeses and what tastes like three en­tire bulbs of shred­ded fresh gar­lic. De­li­cious though it is, the com­bined calo­ries mean my heart feels like it’s try­ing to pump semi-liq­uid lard though my veins, and if the ru­mours are true about Drac­ula’s al­ler­gies, then he’d be reach­ing for an epipen just from the state of my breath. At one point I swear I sweated out an ac­tual lobe of gar­lic, fully formed, like a se­ba­ceous birth. But even­tu­ally we make our ho­tel, and re­tire for the night, ready for the next day and the main event.

The main event be­ing the Trans­făgărășan, a place best ap­proached be­fore dawn when the tourists start to ar­rive. Hence get­ting up at 4am, and mooching through the weirdly Ger­manic ar­chi­tec­ture of down­town, and then out onto bleak-look­ing flood plains. Wa­ter holds grudges for mil­len­nia, and the ar­gu­ment it’s been hav­ing with the Carpathian moun­tain range has been long, and hard. In fact, the Trans­făgărășan is a faintly in­tim­i­dat­ing place, even if you ig­nore the un­set­tling cir­cum­stances of its birth un­der Ni­co­lae Ceaușescu’s regime in the early Seven­ties. There are ghosts here, and the foothills are strange, dark-forested and vaguely like the fa­mous tōge roads around Fuji in Ja­pan – wide, long hair­pins, wig­gly cut­backs that you can straight-line if you see the way is clear. The pre-dawn murk and mist lends it the now-fa­mil­iar spooky air, and you can see in the dis­tance the grey dawn ap­proach­ing. And then the val­ley opens up, and mo­tor­ing nir­vana is re­vealed. Stelvio Pass? For­get it. Gross­glock­ner? A mere squig­gle. The Trans­făgărășan is an eclec­tic mix of hard hair­pins and del­i­cate kinks, tun­nels and tra­verses. In the pre-dawn, it’s as if the colours have de­sat­u­rated so that ev­ery­thing is strangely muted, the ever-present mist leach­ing sound as well as con­trast. This early, there is no one here, and the road has re­cently been resur­faced. I don’t need much more of an in­vi­ta­tion.

It is at this point that I dis­cover that if you have all of your bags in the roof box, ap­proach a cor­ner with enough com­mit­ment and are will­ing to be gen­er­ous with the Duster’s man­ual hand­brake, this sim­ple lit­tle Da­cia soft roader sud­denly be­comes very amus­ing, howl­ing around cor­ners with more than a bit of op­po­site lock ap­plied. In fact, throw it at a down­hill hair­pin and the car will tip for­ward, un­weight the rear and slide prop­erly, only yank­ing it­self straight sometime later, just as you think that you’re about to make a pretty, splashy mess on the val­ley be­low. There still isn’t much speed, and the thrill is about con­trol rather than ve­loc­ity, but just be­ing here, with this road en­tirely to my­self, feels like an hon­our. If you like driv­ing, I dis­cover, re­ally ac­tu­ally just love driv­ing, you could come here in any­thing.

My point is made a cou­ple of hours later when I no­tice a Tri­umph Her­ald plod­ding its way up the hill on the back­side of the Trans­făgărășan. UK-plated and slightly dod­dery, it looks fab­u­lously out of place. But then we see a tiny, orig­i­nal and Bri­tish-plated Nis­san Mi­cra cov­ered in stick­ers labour­ing up the hill, closely fol­lowed by a tatty-but-game Toy­ota Yaris. Some­thing is ob­vi­ously up, so I run into the road to flag the cars down, and dis­cover the rea­son they’re here is ex­actly the same as us. The Mon­gol Rally: cars un­der 1.0-litre, no more than £500 apiece, driv­ing cross-coun­try to Mon­go­lia and tak­ing in as many sights as pos­si­ble. No pre­tense to ex­pense or speed. The chaps crew­ing these par­tic­u­lar wildly un­suit­able ve­hi­cles are young, a bit daft and ut­terly bril­liant. And they are proper ad­ven­tur­ers: 10,000 miles, un­sup­ported, across Europe and Asia. And not one of them wishes they were in a sports car. We laugh, take pic­tures, they help us get the track­ing shots you see here. And then they dis­ap­pear, leav­ing me ab­so­lutely con­vinced: ad­ven­ture is there for the tak­ing. It doesn’t need huge amounts of cash or time, just joy. In fact, the Duster is ex­actly the kind of car you rent for beans at Bucharest air­port, and we’ve just seen some of the world’s best roads in a scant two-day trip. Flights are about £100 from the UK, hire cars from about £40 a day, lo­cal ho­tels about £50.

The truth is that you don’t need a flash car or loads of prep to have an ad­ven­ture. You be­come a vic­tim of pre­con­cep­tion. You be­lieve a su­per­car will be bril­liant to drive, out­ra­geous, be­cause that’s what you think when you look at it. The Pavlo­vian re­sponse to wings and wide wheels. A Da­cia Duster with steels and roof­box must be au­to­mo­tive Val­ium. And yet… and yet, a su­per­car comes loaded with slight panic, a Duster filled with the sim­ple joy of the ma­chine. You also don’t need weeks of plan­ning and ex­ten­sive itineraries to see amaz­ing things – you just need to have a spare week­end, and turn up. As Stein­beck said: “Peo­ple don’t take trips, trips take peo­ple.” And I’m not sure it was ever more ap­pro­pri­ate.

Ah, it’s like some­thing from Dis­ney­land. If Dis­ney­land were run by Kim Jong-Un

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