Panoramic view over Bran Castle (commonly known as Dracula's Castle). Photo: Adobe Stock
Panoramic view over Bran Castle (commonly known as Dracula's Castle). Photo: Adobe Stock

Road Trippin’ through Romania

The fall of communism in 1989 opened Eastern European countries to adventurous travelers. Under capitalism, slow but steady infrastructure expansion made it possible for growing numbers of tourists to experience Prague in the Czech Republic and Hungary’s Budapest. Romania lagged, however, until recently. But now, the capital city of Bucharest and regional Transylvania look poised to become Europe’s next must-see destinations. 

Bucharest lies near the northern border of Bulgaria and the Danube River and is often referred to as the Paris of the Balkans. Millennials drive its chaotic, thriving nightlife from an abundance of clubs, bistros, and bars. Many Danube cruises start or end in the somewhat gritty capital. If you visit Romania, however, be sure to leave time to explore the vibrant villages and cultural heritage of Transylvania, the hilly northern towns near the Ukrainian border, and the wetlands of the Danube Delta, a must for bird lovers.

 

Maramures. Photo: Adobe Stock
The famed wooden churches of Maramures. Photo: Adobe Stock

A hodgepodge of architectural styles spills from just about every street, but the Palace of Parliament in Bucharest stands out—in a big way. The House of the People began as the dream of Communist dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu, who ruled from 1965 to 1989. To impress visiting dignitaries, he built the second-largest administrative building in the world, topped only by the Pentagon. The “alabaster albatross,” with 3,000 rooms and 2,500 chandeliers, sprawls across nearly four million square feet. An army of workers in the service of the state carved out an entire mountain of marble to adorn halls, meeting and reception rooms, floors, columns, and the exterior. Interior tours expose only a small portion of the site but provide a glimpse of the pompous show of wealth the small country could little afford. Robert Mircea, a professional guide and resident of the city who lived through the era, claims most Romanians were aghast at the gargantuan construction.

The communist regime also razed the surrounding district, moving churches and communities and costing thousands their homes. The transformed Boulevard Unirii resembles the Champs-Elysees with a tree-lined median, luxury shopping, and elaborate fountains. 

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To understand more about Ceauşescu and his family, scurry, if traffic permits, to the other side of the city, past parks and an arch resembling the Arc De Triomphe. The 53,000-square-foot Ceauşescu villa feels like a time capsule of the 1970s and ’80s. Tours reveal a dazzling mosaic-lined indoor swimming pool, 14-karat gold bath, Flemish tapestries, and trendy outfits worn by the former first lady. She and her husband eventually paid heavily for their excesses, with their execution at the start of the revolution that brought down the old regime. 

Merry Cemetery Photo: Adobe Stock
The Merry Cemetery in Sapanta. Photo: Adobe Stock

The open-air National Village Museum in Bucharest shows the opposite view. The disassembly and rebuilding of regional houses and churches lets today’s visitors experience an authentic rural, homespun peasant life. 

The best way to see and travel around Romania is to hire a private driver/guide. (I used, and highly recommend, Tours-of-Romania.com, which created a personalized itinerary for me.) Once you leave the small length of the interstate around Bucharest, expect only two-lane winding roads for the rest of the trip. You can conquer both the city and rural Romania in a week. 

Head west to Hunedoara (also known as Corvin Castle), a well-preserved, 1440 medieval fortress whose photo could grace a guidebook cover. Standing in the interior courtyard, you’ll feel the strength of its six-foot-thick walls. A surrounding moat, dungeons, and an elevated fairytale-like bridge convey the vulnerability of life in those days. The castle’s legends tell of the raven and the ring of a young prince who became the beloved Hungarian King Matthias. 

Sibiu architecture. Photo: Adobe Stock
Sibiu architecture. Photo: Adobe Stock

Proceeding north brings you to Romania’s least-developed region, Maramureș. Here, the whiff of sawdust and manure act as a reminder of bygone centuries. Move over and share the road with hay-filled horse-driven carts or perhaps pick up some homemade fruit brandy from a roadside seller. 

The rural region’s distinctive architecture centers on wooden churches and unpretentious farmhouses fronted by massive, carved wooden gates. Barn doors double as works of art. Women in babushkas wait as antiquated water-powered mills grind grain. Others wash rugs in a stream. 

Needle-nosed steeples on the famed Wooden Churches of Maramureș spike toward the heavens like rockets on liftoff. Most of these houses of worship date back to the 17th and 18th centuries; the oldest, the Church on the Hill, is from 1364. The tallest ever remains under construction. 

A street in Sighisoara. Photo: Adobe Stock
A street in Sighisoara, Europe’s best-preserved medieval town. Photo: Adobe Stock

The Merry Cemetery in Sapanta shows the dark humor of a Romanian personality. Brightly painted wooden tomb markers inscribed with witty epitaphs capture both the good and the slightly odd side of the villagers who rest below. Even without the benefit of translation, visitors understand the jokes in the handiwork begun in 1935. 

A new cathedral going up at the Merry Cemetery is part of a post-Communist-era church-building boom. Romania remains one of the most religious countries in Europe, and churches stand everywhere—big, small, medieval, brand-new, tin-roofed, wooden, painted.

A stop in Sighet brings sadness, but also a better understanding of the communist’s control in recent times. The Memorial of the Victims of Communism and of the Resistance, referred to as the Anti Communist Memorial, is a former political prison. It housed major figures of the Romanian political and cultural elite, many of whom died while incarcerated there. Each prison cell acts a poignant museum room, presenting the chronology of the totalitarian regime. Other Jewish heritage sites such as Grand Synagogues and cemeteries lie scattered across the country and can be seen on customized tours.

Bucharest’s Unirii Square. Photo: Adobe Stock
Sunset over Bucharest’s Unirii Square. Photo: Adobe Stock

Moving toward Moldavia and the Ukraine border, you’ll see the Painted Monasteries of Bucovina, showstoppers that deservedly earned UNESCO World Heritage status. Biblical scenes, similar to primitive folk art, cover nearly every inch of the exterior and interior of these 15thand 16thcentury churches. At a time when most people did not read, each scene tells a story. The Ladder of Virtues at Sucevita Monastery features the pathetic-looking sinful falling head over heels into hell. The churches remain in use and lucky visitors who happen upon a mass bask in their colorful, peaceful glow. 

You can’t go to Romania without seeing Roma (gypsies) in their colorful dress. Guides will point out their heavily adorned houses with tin accents. Prearrange a stop to meet some Roma artisans at work and peek into their flamboyantly festooned homes. 

The road through the forested Carpathian Mountains leads toward Bicaz Gorge, which is cut between thousand-foot-high limestone cliffs. Americans will be reminded of Yosemite, Moab, or some Colorado parks. The Carpathians are home to 60 percent of Europe’s brown bear population. An invigorating way to connect with locals is to join hikes or go foraging for mushrooms, both of which are popular Romanian activities. Restaurants in the area feature those buttery fungi and freshly caught trout from the nearby lakes. Soups and stews are menu mainstays as are stuffed cabbage and sausage.

Hiking in the Carpathian Mountains. Photo: Adobe Stock
Hiking in the Carpathian Mountains. Photo: Adobe Stock

In the 12thcentury, Saxon settlers founded the city of Sibiu, formerly one of the most powerful and prosperous strongholds in Europe. A stroll past the remains of the medieval walled town and its guild towers hint at its earlier importance. If you feel someone is spying on you, look up. Many homes employ dormers that resemble eyelids. Numerous renovated historic structures intermingle in this highly livable city, which features concerts and arts festivals in an old plaza.

You don’t need bat wings to fly in Transylvania. Its Alps draw car enthusiasts gunning to throttle their way through hairpin bends on the white-knuckle Transfăgărașan. Another of Ceauşescu’s overzealous projects, the pass took four and a half years to build during the 1970s and cost the lives of 38 workers. TV’s Top Gearnamed the 56-mile “road to the clouds” the best road trip ever. However, read between the lines if you have any sense of caution: the stretch closes from October to May and always at night. 

The mere mention of Transylvania conjures images of Dracula and bats darting over a spooky castle hidden on a dark hill. Author Bram Stoker’s vampire may be fictional, but Transylvania is real, a region filled with craggy mountains, bucolic countryside, medieval villages, colorful characters, hearty dining and, yes, castles on hills. 

Maramures. Photo: Adobe Stock
Maramures, the country’s least developed region. Photo: Adobe Stock

Sighisoara sounds like a dinosaur but is instead the best-preserved medieval town in Europe, yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site. The intact 16thcentury village contains nine towers, pastel-colored burgher houses, narrow cobbled streets, sumptuous churches, and an eerie graveyard. The Clock Tower and its two-sided timepiece dominate. The carved figurines move at certain hours as they have since the Middle Ages. The school children still climb the 175-step Scholar’s Staircase, built in 1642, which is reminiscent of scenes from Harry Potter movies. 

Sighisoara is the birthplace of Vlad Tepes, ruler of the province of Walachia from 1456 to 1462. He became known as Vlad the Impaler because he skewered captured enemies on sharpened posts. 

Dracula fans are not the only ones drawn to Transylvania. Prince Charles visits every year and owns a historic retreat in a remote village that is open to guests. He donates time and many resources to the area. For a taste of Romanian rural life, consider a stay at his farm, Zalanpatak, or in the town of Viscri. 

While Romania has profited from promoting the famous bloodsucker, everyone seems to love the myth. Bran Castle near Brasov, often called Dracula’s Castle, draws many tourists. It won’t disappoint. The fortress rests high above the town on the edge of a rocky precipice with fanciful turrets and towers jabbing at the sky. A throng of souvenir hawkers below the entrance sell Drac the way Disney does Mickey Mouse: you can choose from fanged beer steins, gory t-shirts, and bottles of blood wine. 

Corvin Castle. Photo: Adobe Stock
Corvin Castle, a well-preserved fortress built in 1440, features six-foot-thick walls, dungeons, and a moat. Photo: Adobe Stock

King Carol I, Romania’s first king, commissioned the royal Peleș Castle in Sinaia in the 1880s as the aristocratic family’s summer residence. Tours emphasize exquisite examples of European art, Murano crystal chandeliers, German stained-glass windows, heavily carved woodwork and Cordoba leather-covered walls. You won’t see all 160 rooms, but the woodland grounds make an enticing picnic area. Peleș ranks as one of the most stunning of all European castles. 
If you fancy medieval architecture, castles, and walled cities, then Romania should be on your shortlist of places to visit. And if it is, you should go soon, before the Old World ways disappear and more tourists discover this gem. Right now, prices are a steal. Maybe I was bitten on the neck, but I have an irresistible urge to return.

Bucharest’s Old Town. Photo: Adobe Stock
Bucharest’s Old Town. Photo: Adobe Stock


Traveler Fast Facts

What it is: Romania, in Eastern Europe, is a former communist country of 20 million, about the size of Michigan. It borders on the Black Sea and with Ukraine, Hungary, Serbia, and Bulgaria. 

Climate: Temperate, with hot summers and long, cold winters. 

Language: Romanian, a Romance language originating from Latin. 

Money: Although Romania belongs to the European Union, its currency remains the Romanian leu. Credit cards are widely accepted.

Getting there: No visa is required. There are no direct flights from the U.S., but air and rail connections from European cities are readily available. Bucharest International Airport maintains two runways, each 11,484 feet. Central Romania’s Cluj International Airport offers one 6,693-foot runway. 

The Royal Peles Castle in Sinaia. Photo: Adobe Stock
The Royal Peles Castle in Sinaia. Photo: Adobe Stock

Traveler Report Card

Accommodations (B+): Bucharest offers the best. Consider the historic Grand Hotel Continental, boutique Hotel Époque, or the modern, upscale Radisson Blu. In Transylvania, stay in Zalanpatak, Prince Charles’s all-inclusive retreat. In Brasov, Casa Rozelor, an upscale boutique hotel, offers five rooms. In Sighisoara, choose historical Casa Savri.

Dining: Expect homestyle, hearty meat, sausage, and potato dishes, stuffed cabbage, and fruit brandy. Don’t miss Caru’ cu Bere (A), the oldest beer house in Bucharest (which, these days, attracts mostly tourists). In Sibiu, Crama Sibiul Vechi (A) serves excellent traditional fare and offers a fun atmosphere, with live music. Other well-regarded restaurants include Bella Muzica and Sergiana, in the Old Town section of Brasov, and Tirolese at Hotel International in Sinaia.

Activities: Many Danube River cruises begin near Bucharest, a modern city with over 20 museums, classical music, and thriving nightlife. Find relaxation, hiking, and skiing in the mountains or follow the Dracula Trail. 


Editor's note: Debi Lander's recent trip to Romania was entirely self-funded.

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