Currency: Lei (approximately 4 lei = $1.00)
This overview of Romania travel information is from my trip on 6/29/18 – 7/17/18, where I arranged to meet some friends from London. We rented a car and drove through the country, focused on Transylvania.
Arrival in Bucharest and First Impressions
I landed in Romania after flying through threatening storms clouds, worried that I would be subjected to more rain, weary from weeks of it in the U.S. However, the rain held off for our landing and I went through an easy passport review, grabbed my bags, and headed for the taxi ticket machine. I had read about the machines that offered English in addition to Romanian, and punched at the buttons to generate a ticket for a taxi ride into the city. The sky was growing darker and I wanted to beat the rain but the machine was only giving bad news – no taxis available. I wasn’t the only one in line and I kept punching until the machine spit a ticket. Ecstatic, I grabbed it from the bin but had forgotten to request English and was staring at incomprehensible jibberish. Feeling encouraged by having generated a ticket, I tried again, remembering to make my request in English. As other people were also waiting for taxis, I offered my ticket to another woman who could read the Romanian as I was sure another ticket, in English, would be forthcoming. She thanked me and I turned my attention back to the machine. But my give-away seemed to be my last hope until I noticed another woman speaking some English. We started to talk and soon I was joining her and her niece and husband after the generous offer of a ride to drop me in the city. The rain had started but I now had three new friends, happy to help a fellow traveler. These are the memorable moments of travel, meeting new people, talking current politics, and receiving recommendations for my upcoming exploration of a new country.
My first impressions were of the friendly people, eager to talk to an American, including the waiter at the restaurant that night where I had a late dinner of sushi, telling me how much he LOVED America and wanted to visit California (the dominant representative of all that is American in the eyes of many). He expressed some disgust with his country but also hope for a better future and informing me about the upcoming protest later that month.
The small hotel across the street was clean, fresh, and modern, located at the northern end of the city and the proprietor was friendly and helpful, as neat and pristine as the venue. I unpacked my small bag and crawled into the white sheets, grateful to lay my head on a real pillow after more than 24 hours of travel, starting with a neighbor’s lift to the airport train, followed by a flight to Boston, then Heathrow, then Bucharest, and the final ride to the hotel.
The next morning, I headed for the city center, a bit challenging without English to smooth the path. It was easy enough to order a taxi from the hotel, as the owner used an App on his phone, but once I reached the center, I doubted I’d be able to find a driver who spoke English to take me back. I made sure to take a guide book with a map as there were no maps at the hotel. I had asked for a map, but he said, “But everyone just uses their phone.” Well, not if you don’t have service in Europe.
I joined a free Bucharest walking tour (always a good idea to see key sights; “payment” is a tip for the guide) attracting a group of about 30 people, and we were led through the old town area, the guide sharing background on the communist leader who disrupted the country to reduce debt, made everyone miserable, and eventually was executed. Are things better today? Yes, but still not where people want them. I thought about the implications of some of the harsh sanctions enforced by Nicolae Ceaușescu– two hours a day of electricity and heat, and restricted food. Without constant electricity, you can’t even keep food in the refrigerator! How do you keep warm in the winter? How do you work if you need to line up every day for food rations? How do you have light in the winter to study or clean or cook? How do people or your country thrive in any way?
I wandered a bit after the tour, walking back in the direction of my hotel, buying lunch at a street-side sandwich shop. As I looked around, I saw the Natural History Museum was across the street, a refuge from the heat. It was filled with stuffed or fake animals to show the diversity across continents and biological spheres. Not everything was to scale, with a polar bear being the size of a large overfed white dog. And there were some interesting interpretations such as a stuffed wolf nursing what seemed to be repurposed stuffed weasels posing as pups. Hmmm… Overall, it was a busy place on that day and I found that it was full of information, a good way to spend the last part of the afternoon.
My friends, Helene and Anthony, would arrive the next morning and then the true adventure would begin. Our agenda was packed for the next two weeks – we intended to drive around Transylvania stopping at historic sights, make our way over to the Black Sea to explore the Danube River Delta, and fit in some hiking through the mountains.
Fortified Churches: My friend Helene had developed an itinerary focused on the Fortified Churches. I knew nothing about these historic places until I picked up a guide book and began reading. As dry as it might sound to drive from church to church, it was an amazing way to see the country, stopping in small villages and picturesque cities, eating the local cuisine, and experiencing the beauty of these old relics, havens for conflict in the past and a haven from the July sun in the present.
All numbers listed below correspond to a map issued with our Transilvania Card, a special card allowing us to gain access to 50 churches for a fee of 50 lei, which is about $12. Since most churches charged anywhere from 5 – 15 lei for entry, it was a thrifty investment. Almost every church we visited was included on the card.
Our stops included: (* designates a UNESCO World Heritage Fortified Church)
Poenari Citadel - We climbed 1480 steps up a wooded hill to reach the castle of Vlad Tepes, aka Dracula’s Castle. Lonely stuffed dolls representing victims of Tepes’ violence, were skewered on long poles adjacent to the castle entrance. Tepes, or Dracula, was famous for impaling those who threatened his land, hence the name, Vlad the Impaler. Although it seems like an evil deed, who incited who in those ancient times?
TransfăgărășanRoad – A drive along the famous road, through the hills and gentle mountains, taking in the scenery of green summer grasses grazed by sheep and guarded by shepherds with protective dogs. The air grew chill as we climbed, looking back or ahead to see the twists and turns of pavement circling the mountains and leading us to Sibiu. We stopped at a roadside stand to buy a snack of ham, bread, and small jars of local honey. As we reached the summit of the drive we stopped at glacial Balea Lake and found food in a nearby tent filled with people sitting at long tables, a lunch of ribs, ham, pickles, and bread. Back into our little car, a Dacia, for our descent to Sibiu.
Sibiu - A lovely little town with brightly painted houses of yellow, orange, blue, and green topped in terra cotta tiles, where we met a welcoming hostess named Ela, the sunny courtyard of her small pension full of bright red geraniums. We had dinner at Max, a short walk down the block, where the very professional staff seemed happy to see and serve us. The next day we explored St. Mary’s Evangelical Church which started as a Catholic church and became reformed when according to a local guide, “they decided they didn’t want to pray to saints.” We climbed to the top of the tower to overlook the city and the tile roof displaying a vivid yellow and green geometric design. We then visited the Roman Catholic Cathedral just across the square, the inside full of frescoes depicting biblical scenes and figures, gleaming with gold. And not to be missed, we took photos of the famous Bridge of Lies, a wrought-iron work of art surrounded by legends depicting imminent collapse if a lie is told while on the bridge.
Hunedoara’s Corvin Castle- A “proper” castle sporting the expected moat and drawbridge and restored to much of its glory. A wander through the rooms, revealed displays of clothing, weapons, tools, furniture and other appropriate items to convey a sense of the history and environment. The castle even had its own bear pit, a long drop into a small grassy space with brick walls to prevent escape. It begs the question, were they keeping bears as pets or as exterminators?
Alba Iulia Citadel– The Citadel was a bona fide tourist attraction, the largest citadel in Romania, dating back to Roman times and full of school groups bustling about the complex and buildings. As we began to exit, we encountered a ceremony of mounted soldiers in formal attire trotting their horses under the large arches and into the Citadel while everyone stood to the side viewing a picture from the past.
La Curtea Richvini Guesthouse in Richis–Addresses are tricky in the country and as we looked for the little home stay, adjacent to a church, we parked alongside a horse cart, looking for the house and the owner. A woman led us into an old home with the rich smell of dinner cooking in the kitchen. We followed her through a large open living/dining area and down the hallway to a big bedroom with four beds adorned with thick comforters for the cool night and draped with fluffy robes for the shared bathrooms.
We were the only guests that night and enjoyed the quiet comfort of a home cooked meal of matzo ball soup (aka Romanian chicken soup), followed by beef goulash and potatoes, a salad of cucumbers, tomatoes, and scallions and a carafe of local wine. Stuffed to the gills, we still managed to add Neapolitan ice cream to the pile in our stomachs.
The next morning started with a quick tour of the historic church at La Curtea Richvini led by a young girl who spoke some German, translated by Helene. She gestured at a statue of a little green man but we were left in mystery as to his story and significance. We ended our visit by helping to rescue a small kitten stuck in a tree - sleepy, hungry, and chilled from his overnight excursion and happy to be reunited with his owner.
Cross Country Farm (http://www.cross-country.ro)– We arrived at this farm stay in time for evening turnout (the horses trotting eagerly to the fields) and another home-cooked dinner, this time with several young girls staying for a week of riding camp. Our dinner included steak, a luscious eggplant dip, grilled zucchini, fresh sliced tomatoes, pasta, and watermelon for dessert. After dinner, a chance to relax in the living room, sitting in a high-backed chair with the quote, “My kingdom for a horse.” Well said.
The modern looking home had a two-story glass wall on one end overlooking the fields and hills beyond with grazing horses in the foreground. The wood floors were white-washed, and the living area had exposed beams giving the feeling of openness mirrored by the scenery outside. I walked through the barn and was introduced to a new foal, clearly the favorite of an older man, who gestured to me, smiling, and talking in Romanian. The smile on his face said everything about his delight in the mare and her new baby.
The night’s stay was complemented by a guided morning ride through the surrounding country on healthy, beautiful horses christened Barbados, Lucky, Malga, and Tornado. A brisk canter, (flat out gallop!) through woods and fields allowed us to see acres and acres of open land. My horse, Lucky, was only five (and still in training) and strong and eager to keep up with the lead horse but ultimately he yielded to my requests. We finished our ride and had breakfast, watching the young girls saddle up with excitement for their morning ride. I enjoyed a chance to talk with the owner, Mihnea Virgolici, about running his guesthouse as he was an avid and responsible horseman, prioritizing the health and safety of his horses and his guests. It was apparent to me that everyone who entered his farm was well cared for - dogs, horses, and humans included.
Sighisoara– We started by walking around the citadel to tour the two key churches – the Church of the Dominican Monastery and the Church on the Hill accessed by the covered walkway. It was a sunny warm day so we enjoyed an aperitif on the square, watching the other tourists wander by, taking photos in the historic area. That night we were determined to have an authentic Romanian meal of cabbage rolls. Unfortunately, the place we picked, although cited by the guide book to have great cuisine, was a bit disappointing. Ah well, more places to try…
Viscri and Cetatea Rupea – We continued to the small village, hunting for Viscri125, a local bed and breakfast and were excited to find that the “house” was available, with 2 bedrooms and a bathroom, our own private refuge. It was Anthony’s birthday and we were treated to a delicious home cooked meal, enjoyed outside on the porch and supplemented by local wine we had purchased that day. I gifted Anthony some spoons as he had a habit of buying yogurt at the local groceries and was always looking for silverware to enjoy it. Curious cats sat alongside us while we ate and enjoyed the evening.
Viscri earned its place on the map by having a fortified church, which we visited the next morning. It was a surprisingly small church considering how it looked from outside the wall. The small village had colorful houses, many in a rich cornflower blue, and several storks had found the village to be an ideal nesting site, building their nests atop chimneys and clacking their beaks as we walked from place to place.
From there we drove to see Cetatea Rupea, a historic fortress set high upon a hill (and easily seen from a distance) but bothered by busloads of tourists. After the peaceful visit to the Viscri church, we regretted having to share the historic site. There is something about wandering an old fortress with only the wind for company, it’s a way to see it as it stood hundreds of years ago, when a fortress was a refuge from threats to life itself.
Brasov – The sunny weather abandoned us and the storm clouds moved in. We headed for Brasovin the pouring rain, hounded by impatient (and risky) drivers. We selected a hotel in the city center, surrounded by shops and a short walk to Council Square (Piata Sfatului), with plenty of restaurants, markets and shops, anchored by the Black Church. It was a massive cathedral compared to the small fortified churches, and filled with tourists, everyone streaming inside to escape the rain.
Danube River Delta- We decided to embark on the long day drive to Tulcea, a city tucked into the Danube River Delta region. We wanted to explore the Delta region and arranged for a boat tour out into the delta (about 1300 square miles in Romania per Wikepedia), driving deep into the area and approaching the Black Sea and the city of Sulina. Birds were everyone, our driver slowing to point out rare eagles and other birds, talking excitedly in Romanian while another young man translated for us, until we finally reached a colony of pelicans. We stopped for an authentic lunch of fish soup and other Romanian dishes (everything delicious!).
Later, we learned our translator was a cardiologist visiting from Paris. His mother was also part of our tour group and she spoke of how he had become the subject of a book after saving an actress’s life. After we returned to our hotel (a building that reminded me of a communist structure with its stark simplicity), we invited another couple from the boat, visiting from Italy, to join us for dinner. Everyone laughed and talked about their travel adventures, finishing the night with shots of absinthe.
Piatra Craiului National Park, Southern Carpathians- Back to the interior of Romania for a couple of days stay in the mountains and a hike through the countryside. Going up the curving dirt road to the top of the small mountain was not so bad – down was another story. We stayed at the Pensiunea Mosorel, Magura, inside the park, a small alpine lodge with home cooked meals (chicken noodle soup with homemade noodles) and comfy rooms run by a young friendly woman. Like many places I’ve traveled to, the night was filled with the sound of dogs barking and barking and barking.
After a big breakfast, we started our hike descending from our lodge, following a narrow path through the woods, over a stream, and onto a dirt road, where we were joined by others also hiking to the remote cabana, high on the mountain. We walked through a valley etched between high cliffs, looking for a trail marked by a yellow blaze to start the ascent to the cabana. It was a bit of a rugged hike but we found our way, keeping an eye out for the yellow marks. Finally, we walked out of the woods into a large field where a small horse whinnied to greet us and a local man must have thought we were bonkers to walk across his field, straying off the yellow course. As we approached his house, which Helene thought was the cabana from afar, his donkey pulled on his rope to come and inspect us, knocking a log down the hill which everyone watched roll and roll and roll down the large grassy field until we lost sight of it in the trees. Some hand signals confirmed that the cabana was further up the mountain (as I suggested). I sighted the lost trail at the bottom of the hill and were on our way.
We met more hikers on our last bit and finally reached the cabana. Some avid mountain bikers were already seated at the picnic tables, bikes resting against the walls of the cabana and the wall around the patio. I envisioned biking up the mountain and decided it was probably easier to hike. We found an open table and set our bags down to have lunch with an enthusiastic dog named Mooky for company, some sort of Cujo/Newfoundland cross with a hearty appetite for my funky dill-laden cheesecake, a “treat” I was happy to share.
On our way back down the mountain, we choose an alternate route, still feeling small under the open sky and towering hills around us. Our little walk to the cabana logged us over ten miles and after two long driving days, it felt good to walk for hours. The only mishap – Anthony slipped on the rocks crossing a small stream, landing backpack first in the water. Ah, at least it was warm weather!
The guest house was situated so that we enjoyed evening walks before dinner, traversing the deserted dirt roads, wandering among friendly horses curious enough to walk over and check out the travelers, rescuing a donkey who had wrapped his chain around a tree, and wading through a small herd of sheep, the sheepdogs keeping a wary eye on us as we said “hello” to the shepherd.
Bran Castle- This is the structure that attracts tourists from around the world and around Romania – the stand in for Dracula’s castle, and an immersion into a hellish thick of tourists. It was an impressive fortress sitting high on a hill and filled with interesting information on Dracula and his legend as well as authentic period pieces to demonstrate how the castle was used by its more recent inhabitants. We stayed for lunch at a restaurant on the castle grounds, dining in the shadow of the legend whose crowds continued into the afternoon.
Rasnov Fortress– On our drive back to Bucharest, we stopped in Rasnov to take the funicular to the top of the hill to tour the fortress, an area filled with many tourists as well as vendors selling souvenirs and other goods.
Libearty Sanctuary– Many people want to see bears while in Romania, a country known by the past exploitation of the animals. But be careful how you approach this – some companies guarantee sightings but attract bears by baiting them with food. Using food to attract bears is never a good idea as they can become aggressive and dangerous. I would suggest the Sanctuary – even though the bears are behind fences, they have all been rescued from a captive life of abuse and can live their lives in a more peaceful and natural way. Many of these bears are not able to be released back into the wild so this refuge is the answer.
Bucharest– We spent little time in the city, preferring to explore the countryside and enjoy the outdoors. On our last day, before our flight back to London, we drove into the old city area, walking from church to church on a Sunday morning, peering through the crowds for a final look at the religious structures of Romania. In one church, I talked to a friendly priest who was eager to explain why the angels are small in these churches rather than towering figures – it is to make people feel they are not distanced from these heavenly beings and can lead the same holy life. An interesting thought.
Sites we visited:
For more information on Romania, read this article from Conde Nast Traveler, May/June 2018:
Harvesting hay in Magura
Eagle, Danube River Delta
The Princely Court, Curtea de Arges
Lone horse on country road
New St. George's Church, Bucharest
Cross Country Farm
Alba Iulia Citadel
Sheep in Magura
Bridge of Lies, Sibiu
Pelicans, Danube River Delta