Whenever someone asks me what I do for a living, I get a bunny rabbit-in-the-headlights look. You see, there's no easy way to put it — I drive fun roads for a living to see how fun they are.
I figure three TV presenters from a certain programme have the best job, but this one's an easy 2nd best.
My speciality is European roads at the moment, but I'll be expanding on US roads in the coming year, US Immigration willing.
We run motoring events, and part of the job entails me driving all over the Europe and more recently north Africa just to see how much fun a road is. It's a tough job, but someone has to do it!
My most recent assignment was the Transfagarasan Highway in Romania. A certain tv programme found it, and I've been asked continually for months if I would go and drive it and report back.
First of all, where is the Transfagarasan Highway? Romania somewhere, so thats roughly 1500 miles from home (which happens to be outside London – the one in England). 1500 miles there, 1500 miles back = lots of fuel. And at European prices that's a fair bit of cash.
So, I tagged the journey onto the end of one of our events. The event would get me 800 miles closer to Romania.
Now before any North American reader tuts and thinks "800 miles is nothing" this is Europe we're talking about, and Romania doesn't have any motorways. And no motorway goes directly to Romania anyway.
A very long day took us from Prague to the Romanian border, and after a small delay as the Romanian Hungarian border has border controls, we were into Romania. Lets just say that after 50km in the dark with no lights other than the local maniacs we gave up and found a hotel.
A quick check on the Rough Guide confirmed Romanian drivers are the worst in Europe, somewhere around 10 times more dangerous than UK roads, but only 5-6 times worse than the US (did you know US drivers are more spirited (read crash prone) than Italian drivers? News to us as well).
Dragging yourself through Romania means that you have to get in touch with yourself. Your inner self. You also learn texting real fast as at each stop you frantically text your parents your last will and testament.
Romanian drivers are absolute nutters. And not nutters in a fun way. Nutters in a way that makes you question nothing more philosophical than why on earth you even came to the country.
I can drive with the best of the nutters around the world. I can drive in Casablanca and Tangier without even a sweat, I can make 5 lanes where there were 4, I can cross the Atlas mountains at night with Moroccans. I can drive Bangkok and menace the best of the Thais on the road, you wanna play chicken with me – I DON'T BLINK. (Even won a school contest 28 years ago for not blinking – over 3 minutes).
But Romania was a ball game. And I was a mere bit part player. I was the fodder to their cannon.
After reaching our campsite, gaining many grey hairs, we were finally in place to drive the Transfagarasan Highway.
Remember the times where you are totally psyched for something, you don't know what's ahead, but you are preying it'll be good, you have a significant investment in the project, it has to be good.
And remember the feeling when you were absolutely spot on!
That was the Transfagarasan Highway for me. The road surface was a bit rubbish in places, but the curves were flowing, the incline was good, the road was technical, the drive – despite the low cloud – was brilliant.
And when you reach the top, you discover the very best is still to come. The first part of the northern side is merely getting you up to a high valley. The real part of the Transfagarasan was still in front of you, laid out like a race track.
Sweeping bends, amazing scenery, empty roads, and Romanian drivers whose skills had long since evaporated (probably the thin air and their engine power), you just powered past. Turn after turn, lining everything up perfectly.
On roads like these, you can make your driving shine. You don't have to drive fast, just get your gear change right, get your turn in right, straighten out the bends where possible.
This is what you passed your driving test for.
Many people wonder what we drive when we drive these roads, unfortunately it's nothing more than a diesel Fiat van called Goat. It's called Goat because it scampers up mountain passes, and not much can catch it. Sure a high powered Porsche will catch and pass easily, but most of us live in the real world; it's not what you drive, it's how you drive it!
As someone in the motoring trade described the Fiat Doblo when asked why it was so good, his answer was simple (drive's like the original Mini). And he's absolutely spot on, despite the high ground clearance, and the high driving position, and the fact it's a van, and diesel, you have to remember, it's an Italian van, it's a nuttier at heart. When it crosses the Italian border it's programmed to have 20bhp more. (I haven't told it that it was built in Turkey though).
But driving up the Transfagarasan in Goat has to be one of my all time best drives, so if you happen to be passing that way, give it a try! ;) (But only the northern side)