This September I achieved my dream of traveling through Romania, a country I had long perceived as the most exotic in Europe. I was not disappointed. There is natural wildlife, seemingly undisturbed for centuries, and a great diversity of cultures based on interesting historical migrations. The principal ancestry is Roman, added to which have been Hungarian Magyars, Russians, Ukrainians, Serbs, Slovaks, Bulgarians, Turks and Tatars, all of whom live alongside the roughly one and a half million Rroma (Gypsies), who follow their own unsettled path. The modern Romanian language is based on Latin, with more recent Slavic overlays; to the ear it sounds like a colourful blend of Spanish and a Slavic language such a Polish or Russian.
The cities and towns, graced with magnificent buildings in varying stages of repair or decay, still bear the evidence of a formerly Eastern bloc state. Most have depressing Soviet-era apartment blocks, some have modern ostentatious mansions, and others an enchanting medieval old town and fortified walls.
In the countryside it seems as if time has stood still, where medieval farming techniques exist alongside modern ones: small subsistence plots beside cottages, and vast fields of crops on an industrial scale.
Romania’s true charm lies in the more remote areas, where picturesque red-roofed villages flank narrow tree-lined roads, often with a horse-drawn cart laden with hay, apples or potatoes.
There is some wealth, as can be seen in the beautiful villas and expensive cars, and a great deal of poverty. It is a country rich in resources but appears poorly governed. But things are changing. A member of the European Union since 2007, the people have turned to the West for support and inspiration. Like elsewhere in predominantly agrarian cultures, Romanians are today consumers rather than cow-herds. Sadly the age-group of 25-55 years have left to seek employment abroad, leaving the elderly behind to work the earth. The soil and climate are excellent for agriculture, and the country could be so much more productive – if there were the manpower. Many country people simply cultivate their own fruit and vegetables, sheep and cows. There is logging, some of which is illegal, although there is less demand for timber than before, for construction purposes, due to conflict in the former customer areas such as North Africa and Southern Europe. Of course there are Gypsies everywhere, distinctive by their swarthy complexion and characteristic apparel: the women in colourful skirts and headscarves, the men with natty hats. These folk left northern India during the 10th and 11th centuries and arrived in Europe in the early 15th century, at the same time as the Tatar invasions. Almost immediately they became enslaved, working as servants and farm labourers, as well as being musicians. Eventually slavery broke down, and these nomads migrated, reaching Western Europe during the 1860’s and North America in 1881. The Porajmos (Devouring) saw the Nazi extermination of at least 20,000 gypsies during WW II. By 1966 almost all their children at least attended primary school.
Now there are over 2 million Gypsies in Romania, of the 10 to 12 million in Europe, and they are the continent’s largest minority group (120,000 in Sweden.) They are discriminated against everywhere, with no-one wanting to employ them, which is why they resort to theft and begging.
The scenery in Romania is magnificent, especially in the central province of Transylvania where the majestic Carpathian Mountains still harbour bears, wolves, stags and eagles. The dark mysterious forests, plunging gorges and fairy-tale castles are visible evidence of Irish author Bram Stoker’s (1847-1912) inspiration for his Gothic horror novel Dracula (1897), apart from being a source of considerable touristic income.
There are natural hot mineral spas, and the Black Sea coast has fine beaches and resorts, such as those at the ancient port city of Constanţa. Join me on my journey through this beautiful country, as I share with you my memories, impressions and pictures. And if inspired to follow in my footsteps, and traveling alone, consider a tour, as I did, with a group such as Continental Journeys (information here.)
The guiding was good, if not excellent, and the companionship pleasant. New friends were made, from as far afield as Perth, Brussels and Buenos Aires, and a great deal learned from all. I was not impressed with the food; budget packaged tour fare is seldom appealing (and the waitrons often surly.) The influences on Romanian cuisine are clearly Germanic and Mediterranean, with sheep’s cheese, lamb, pork, chicken, Greek salads with feta, and the universally popular pizzas. The hotels varied from gloomily Soviet-era cavernous, decorated in poor taste, to pleasantly surprising. Wi-Fi was excellent in all but one hotel, and in our lunch restaurants. All meals and both airport transfers were included, as well as transport, covering around 1,500 km, in a comfortable Mercedes coach. Altogether excellent value for money, as was corroborated by my Australian friends.
I flew from Stockholm to Bucharest with LOT Polish Airlines via Warsaw, and was taken by our Romanian guide Alex in a mercifully air-conditioned minibus with a charming Belgian couple and two Norwegian ladies to the Hotel Central in Bucharest. This place has a rather cheerless reception area, rooms and cafeteria, but an excellent location on Regina Elisabeta Bulevard, near the principal sights on one side, and the old town on the other.
I met the group in the hotel that night at supper: a simple affair of Greek salad followed by batter-fried chicken with burny peppers and gherkins, and, as with most of the ensuing meals, an overly sweet cake topped with rich icing.
The next morning, a cool and quiet Sunday (everything closes at noon on Saturdays), we enjoyed a “panoramic sightseeing tour” of Bucharest. This stately old capital of nearly two million people presents a mixture of styles and eras varying from clean and in good condition to shabby, dangerously crumbling and neglected. The latter are partly due to the massive earthquake which reduced large parts of the city to rubble in 1977. Here you will see Baroque and Neo-Classical grandeur on a massive and heavily ornate scale – somewhat reminiscent of Budapest. There is Art Nouveau and Art Deco architecture, some similar in design to those in Paris.
Balconies and palisades with beautiful wrought iron work adorn smart hotels and apartments, in pleasant contrast to the dull grey communist-era edifices suffering from concrete cancer. The streets throughout the country are remarkably clean, although festooned with dangerously drooping wires and cables. There are grand civic buildings, some graced with fountains, a number of large parks, wide Parisian-style boulevards, little old churches tucked between the grand and the grey, and a festive café culture in the Old Town. Rough Guides authors Tim Burford and Norm Longley sum it up well: “While not an easy city to love, Bucharest, with its once-grand fin de siècle buildings crumbling, and the suburbs dominated by grim apartment blocks, its cultural institutions, abundant greenery and lively Old Town nightlife reward patience.”
Adding to the overhead wiring are cables for the trolley buses, one of the modes of transport, along with the Metro, buses, and relatively cheap taxis. On almost every corner stands a florist’s booth brimming with fresh flowers, the heady scents of which mingle with those of summer-ripe drains, and the delicious aroma of new-baked pretzels toasted with sunflower, poppy and sesame seeds.
According to legend, Bucharest was founded by a shepherd called Bucur, who built a settlement in the Vlăsia Forest. It was recorded as a nameless “citadel on the Damboviţa” in 1368, and named Bucharest in an edict from the time of Vlad the Impaler (r 1456-76). It became the capital of the southern province of Wallachia due to its location at the convergence of the trading routes to Istanbul. As the boyars (nobles) moved into the city, they built their palaces and churches on the main streets radiating from the centre. Despite earthquakes and periodic attacks from Turks, Tatars, Austrians and Russians, Bucharest continued to grow and modernise. New boulevards were driven through the city during the 1890’s, after the style of Haussman’s Paris, and are still there today, which gave rise to the city being called the “Paris of the East”.
Our first stop after crossing the Damboviţa River was the colossal Palace of Parliament, Nicolae Ceauşescu’s megalomaniacal project dating from the 1980’s. Dominating the western end of the impressive Bulevard Unirii, which exceeds the Champs Élysées in length and width, it is the second biggest administrative building in the world after the Pentagon. This impressive structure measures 270m by 240m, and 86m in height, with 8 floors, and has 1100 rooms. It is lavishly decorated inside, with gold leaf and marble, and 4500 crystal chandeliers.
Another highlight of the city is the domed Romanian Atheneum, designed by French architect Albert Galleron in 1888 and opened the following year. This magnificent ornate building in the French eclectic style is home to the George Enescu Philharmonic Orchestra, which was named after the famous Romanian composer (1881-1955) and founded in 1868. Both the building and the composer feature on the Romanian five Lei bank note.
This famous composer was also a violinist, pianist, conductor and teacher, and is regarded as Romania’s most significant musician. At the age of only 7 the child prodigy was admitted to the Vienna Conservatoire, and at the age of 10 he performed before the Emperor Franz Josef, and met his idol, Johannes Brahms. He had many illustrious teachers, and in turn taught Yehudi Menuhin.
The most imposing of the buildings surrounding Revolution Square is the Royal Palace, which has housed the National Art Museum since 1950. It consists of three Galleries: Romanian Medieval Art, Romanian Modern Art, and the European Art Gallery. Opposite stands the impressive 13-metre-high equestrian statue of King Carol I (1839-1914), only erected in 2010, and behind him the University Library. His wife was Elisabeth of Wied, popularly known by her pseudonym, Carmen Sylva.
Two buildings representative of Bucharest’s belle epoque style are the National Savings Bank and the National Museum of Romanian History on Calea Victoriei (Avenue of Victory). We left Bucharest via the Aviators’ Boulevard which ends at the Charles de Gaulle Circus, and here, at the highest point in the city, stands the Monument to the Aviators (1930-35), topped with a muscular winged Icarus. It was erected in honour of the pilots who died during the WW I. While heading northwest on the E81 towards Curtea de Arges, Alex briefly filled us in on the history of Romania: Archaeological evidence indicates that the area was inhabited in prehistoric times, but only achieved statehood during the 19th century, and Transylvania, a third of its current territory, was only acquired in 1918. Thus much of the country’s history is that of its disparate parts: Dobrogea, the Banat, Bessarabia, Marmureş and most significantly, Moldavia, Wallachia and Transylvania.
Greek traders established ports along the Black Sea coast during the 7th and 6th centuries BC, but the principal tribe in the area were the Dacians – hence the name of the Romanian car, the Dacia. The Roman Emperor Trajan conquered the Dacians in the 1st century AD, and the province of Dacia grew rich from mining salt, gold and silver. In 271 AD Emperor Aurelian withdrew Rome’s presence as the marauding Asian tribes, Vandals, Goths, Huns, Alans, Slavs and Bulgars swept in, and defense of the colony became too costly.
From the 13th century, the Hungarian kings invited foreign settlers to bolster their control of Transylvania, and groups of Germans – subsequently known as Saxons – built up powerful self-governing market towns such as Hermannstadt (Sibiu) and Kronstadt (Braşov). These colonists had to withstand frequent invasions by the Tatars (or Mongols), who devastated much of Eastern Europe during the 12th century, and continued to wreak havoc for another five centuries. The Hungarians and Saxons dominated the feudal system there.
Beyond the Carpathians the first record of Wallachia dates from 1247, and its foundation is attributed to either Negru Vodă (the Black Prince) in 1290, or his son Radu Negru during the early 14th century.
From the mid-14th century the Ottoman Empire of the Seljuk Turks spread inexorably northwards, briefly halted by Mircea the Old (Vlad Ţepeş “the Impaler”’s grandfather.) Wallachia, Moldavia and Transylvania became Christendom’s front line of resistance, but several remarkable military leaders, including Vlad Tepeş, managed to resist suzerainty and payments to the Turks. The provinces were briefly united in 1600-01, and in 1687 the Habsburgs took control of Transylvania. As mentioned earlier, it was only returned to Romania in 1918.
Romania joined Germany in the Nazi invasion of Russia in 1941, and in 1947 King Mihai was forced to abdicate, and Romania declared a People’s Republic. In 1969 Nicolai Ceauşescu outmanoeuvred his rivals and established undisputed power. At first he was popular, allowing a cultural thaw and putting consumer goods into the shops. But his Systematization programme for rural development, and then economic collapse, led to his downfall, and in 1989 a revolution ensued, and he and his wife Elena were executed on Christmas Day.
From 1997 King Mihai (1921-2017) was an active ambassador for Romania’s entry into NATO, but royalism has faded in recent decades, though his daughter Princess Margareta is popular, and known as “Crown Custodian”.
Romania is a significant oil-producer, with its own refineries and the manufacture of equipment necessary for this process. The Dacia car has been manufactured here since 1966, (named after the historic region now Romania), and has been a subsidiary of Renault since 1999. The bustling seaport of Constanţa is significant for the export of products such as wine, timber, textiles and leather, industrial machinery, electrical and electronic equipment, cars and pharmaceuticals, and for ship-building – as has been the case since ancient times.
Romania is 85% Romanian Orthodox, which has been the case since the Great East-West Schism of 1054, but officially proclaimed such during the 16th century due to fears of Catholic domination through the foreign spouses of the Romanian kings. Romanians are tolerant regarding religion, and Catholics, Lutheran Protestants, Jews and Unitarians live peacefully side by side. Out in the countryside we passed fields of ripened sunflowers and corn, orchards laden with yellow peaches apples and pears, and the odd well-kept roadside shrine.
Like other Balkan countries, Romania has countless stray dogs, usually wandering the countryside in pairs, like friends. There are old-fashioned haystacks, stalls selling fruit and onions, sawmills, some opulent double-storeyed farm villas with pagoda-like turrets, and churches with twin-domed bell-towers.
In the villages each property has a well, housed within a picturesque structure for the safety of children.
Each front garden was ablaze with summer flowers: zinnias, calendulas, marigolds, roses and giant-headed dahlias. Plump aproned peasant women could be seen visiting a neighbour, and toothless crones with head-scarves, long skirts and aprons, leaning on a stick. At one pitstop Gypsies tried selling us bunches of bedraggled wild flowers. Many backyards are filled with junk, scrap metal and piles of rusting cars, suggesting a lack of adequate recycling, along with the plastic bottles seen lining the rivers. At several points on our journey the coach was drawn to a halt by a flock of goats or sheep, or a herd of cows. Curtea de Argeş, meaning “the Court on the [River] Arges”, was once the capital of Wallachia, and boasts some of the country’s most significant religious buildings. Much of the city has beautiful architecture: several Parisian-style villas, some with quaint turrets, and attractive red-tiled houses with dark wooden balconies (as we saw in Macedonia.) All have a pergola with vines, laden at this time of year with an abundant early-autumn harvest.
As elsewhere, I noticed many Second Hand shops, and, like in Bucharest, boutiques displaying gorgeous colourful shoes and dresses.
It was 29˚ that day, so we were grateful to have lunch inside the cool dining room of a restaurant also bedecked with vines: a crumbed round of baked soft cheese rather like mozzarella, beef with vegetables, and impossibly rich chocolate cake infused with sweet liquor.
Our main objective here was the beautiful Episcopal Church, the approach of which is lined with over-priced souvenir stalls selling everything from “Dracula” mugs to frig magnets, and especially the pretty embroidered blouses. The church is very ornate, decorated with whorls, rosettes, and fancy trimmings topped with four twisted belfries each topped with a small sphere and the three-armed cross of the Orthodox faith. In the park nearby stands Manole’s Well, said to have been created by the death of Manole, the Master Builder of Curtea de Argeş in 1512-17. Legend tells of Manole being trapped on the rooftop of his church when the prince who commissioned it ordered the scaffolding to be removed, to prevent the builder from repeating his masterpiece for anyone else. His attempt to escape failed, and where he fell to his death a spring immediately gushed forth.
The present building dates from 1875-85, and is where the Romanian Kings are buried: King Carol I (1866-1914) and his wife Elisabeta, and King Ferdinand (1914-27) and his wife Marie.
Following the deep twisting gorge of the Olt River Valley, which harbours several monasteries, we left behind the flat farming plains and began winding through the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains. This formidable range extends from Slovakia and Poland in the west to Romania in the east, forming an eastward continuation of the Alps. The Olt River flows into the Danube, where Romania has a nuclear power plant with five reactors, two of which have been bought by the Chinese.
Slowed by Sunday afternoon traffic, I was able to take in the surrounding beauty: the quietly flowing river, made yellow by clay runoff from the mountains, some sections fringed with reeds harbouring the occasional white egret, waiting patiently, for a catch. Elsewhere shabby settlements line the banks, or large concrete communist-era riverside resorts owned by syndicates.
We stopped at the Cozia Monastery, built in 1388 by Serb architects under the auspices of Vlad Tepeş’ s grandfather, Mircea the Old, whose tomb lies within.
It is the earliest example of Byzantine architecture in Wallachia, and includes alternating bands of red brick and pale stone, filigree latticework and fluted, false columns. This was our last stop in Wallachia before crossing into Transylvania and reaching our night stop in Sibiu.
Founded by the Saxon colonists in 1191, and formerly known as Hermannstadt, Sibiu is one of the oldest towns in Transylvania.
In the evening Alex took us around the medieval old town centre, stopping in the Large Square to admire the elegant architecture: merchants’ residences renovated during the 16th and 17th centuries now housing cafes and hotels, the Roman Catholic Church (1726-33) and the City Hall (1900, originally a bank, then the Communist Party’s headquarters.) The Square was lively with locals and visitors that evening because of the potters’ fair that was serendipitously taking place that first weekend in September. Most arresting are the brightly-painted houses, with “eye” windows, created to ventilate their attic grain stores. These give one the uncanny feeling of being “watched”.
The Evangelical Church, built in three phases between 1320 and 1520, dominates the next square. The interest here is that the crypt houses the tomb of Dracula’s son Mihnea the Bad, who was voivode of Wallachia for just three years before being exiled here. He was stabbed to death in 1510 as he was leaving the cathedral.
The beautiful cast-iron pedestrian Liar’s Bridge (1859) has spawned many legends, one of which dates from medieval times when the bridge was made of wood: if someone stood on this bridge and failed to tell the truth, it began to shake and creak revealing the teller’s untruths.
Our walk back to the hotel took us past a large stage where gypsy music and dancing was being performed for the tourists, and down a submerged stone pathway, once the moat surrounding the city walls, the remains of which include two towers.
In the morning we drove into the heart of Transylvania and the secret retreats of the European royal families. Prince Charles bought properties here to encourage tourism: His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales’s private nature retreat lies nestled amongst the meadows and hills of Zalán Valley (Zalánpatak, Valea Zălanului) in Transylvania, Romania. The property has kept its Transylvanian authenticity by having been carefully restored with traditional methods and materials. It is now open to accommodate and entertain individual travellers from around the world – How you can stay at royal’s £122-a-night Transylvanian farmhouses in the forests of his ancestor Count Dracula.
No less surprising are the ostentatious pagoda-like villas evidently owned by wealthy Gypsies, especially in the town of Brateiu. Our destination was the fortified churches at Valeavilor and Biertan, the latter built in 1493-1522 and now a UNESCO World Heritage site. This was the seat of the Lutheran bishops from 1572-1867.
A small museum displays garments and pictures.
There is a replica of a room where couples wishing to divorce were allegedly locked up together for three weeks with just one bed, one plate and one knife, fork and spoon. These seems to have had the desired effect , for there was apparently only one divorce here in the centuries leading up to WW II.
Traveling towards Sighisoara we passed through old-world villages with fish-scale tiled roofs mottled with lichen, smoke curling out of their crooked chimneys, a church at the centre of each. These Saxon villages display a remarkable unspoiled harmony between people and landscape, and passing through them was like stepping back to a time long ago.
There were barns filled with hay, ready for the winter, brown-and-white cows, and a derelict natural gas plant, once used for the manufacture of rubber, but closed due to pollution issues in order to protect the environment. We saw churches with “witch’s hat” spires and cemeteries with decorative headstones, double storey chalet-style houses, and many a pair of antlers gracing a doorway. The woods in this area are a paradise for hunters: rabbits, deer, stags and wild boar. And for bees. Beekeeping is an ancient tradition in Romania, and we were interested to see not only individual blue-painted hives on our journey, but truckloads of portable hives as well. Nearby there were always roadside stalls selling honey and honeycomb.
I asked Alex to play us George Enescu’s Romanian Rhapsody, and so we passed through the green hills and forests of Transylvania to the strains of this glorious folksy music, alternately energetically rhythmical, and wistfully nostalgic. Alex then played traditional songs from Transylvania, while we passed plots with cabbages and corn, plum and apples orchards, some ramshackle abodes, and churches with fabulous gleaming onion domes. We saw the “town of roses” – Daneş, towns with both German and Romanian name signs, and German motorbikers in shiny black leathers.
Sighişoara was the accidental birthplace of Vlad the Impaler, which occurred while his family was travelling from Wallachia in 1431, and tarried briefly in the town. Much is made of the house where for a Euro you can see the room in which he was supposedly born; anything to seduce the gullible tourists.
“Dracul” – meaning The Devil – derives from his father, Vlad Dracul, who was made a knight of the Order of the Dragon in 1431, and who secured the throne of Wallachia in 1436, and moved his family to Tărgovişte (then the capital). The order of the Dragon was dedicated to halt the advance of the Ottomans into Europe. This was where Vlad’s privileged childhood came to an end, for his father sent him and his brother as hostages to the Turkish Sultan to secure their father’s loyalty to the Ottomans. Living daily in fear of abuse and execution, Vlad observed the Turks’ use of terror, which he in turn later used against them.
After leaving our luggage at the lovely Hotel Korona, we made our way up a steep hill to the medieval citadel (Upper Town), overlooked by an imposing 14th century Clock Tower. Sighişoara became a free town at the time of its construction, controlled by craft guilds which had to finance its own eponymous bastion and defend it during times of war: the Shoemakers’ Tower, the Tailors’, the Tin-makers’, and the Furriers’ Tower.
The Church on the Hill, reached via a steep covered wooden staircase, was built between 1345 and 1525 and has been beautifully restored and has three Gothic altars.
Here, among the faded murals and memorial stones, our cheerful young guide shared with us a few medieval Saxon jokes, including a dictum carved into the wooden choir stalls translated as “He who does not speak Latin should not sit here, or he shall have the lice beaten out of his hair with a stick”. And a Latin inscription upon a headstone, “Today red [and healthy], tomorrow dead.” So much the medieval view of life expectancy.
Supper back at the hotel, after a welcome swim in the pool, was a watery but delicious chicken soup, a large piece of pork with the usual potatoes and fresh cabbage salad, and crepes with berry sauce.
Read PART II here