Our first European road trip together was one that did not disappoint. Although the perception in much of western Europe (and elsewhere) is of a backwater country, Romania has a charm and intrigue on par with any other European nation. The country that is synonymous with Dracula (for better or worse) is now beginning to capture the imagination of adventure-travellers. Indeed, our own yearning to visit this (hitherto) overlooked destination was inspired, at least in part, by its mysterious aura — as a place both with a rich Roma culture/history and as the birthplace of Dracula.
On a whim and an extended holiday in Dubai (where we are based), we hopped on a low-cost flight to Bucharest and embarked on a most-memorable trip exploring a small south-north slither of the country. The first few days were spent orientating ourselves in the capital city, then for the next six days we took our rental Mini Cooper — which ironically is the same make as the car we had in New York and for which we made several road trips in North America — and logged over 1,500 km taking in the rustic beauty of the land. (Dominika got her rally driver cravings out for the next year or so!) From the comfortable perch of our rental vehicle, we were able to take in the bucolic panoramas as we shared country roads with the ubiquitous horses and carts. Along the way, we made stops in towns large and small, including the obligatory visit of “Dracula’s Castle” (Bran), but also to less-known gems such as the Happy Cemetery and everything in between. But the adage that “getting there is half the fun” could not be more appropriate as the winding ess-roads of Romania were a pleasure to drive and adventures in their own right. At the northern terminus of our trip (at the Ukraine border) — before we veered around to retrace our path back to Bucharest (airport) — we also managed to temporarily leave our car and join a band of labourers to ride a narrow-gauge train hugging the northern frontier of the country.
Ours was an eight-day journey spanning Friday to Friday in the autumn of 2014. It was a road-trip anchored around Bucharest, with 6 days spent on the road. We were left with great impressions of a picturesque country and friendly people who were probably just as curious about us as we were of them. Our concern about difficulty in communicating with the locals was without merit, as it turned out that most of the people we interacted with spoke English fairly well; moreover, the Romanian language itself is no stranger to those with a background in Italian or other Romance languages (e.g. French). Indeed, we also noted that learning a few local words (e.g. “multimesc” = “thank you”), as in most other cultures, endears you to the locals. But even before we had a chance to learn the local vernacular of good manners, Kai was dancing with locals at a Bucharest street parade that we happened upon by chance just a few hours after we arrived! (See, we really were as amusing to the locals as they were to us.)
Our impression is that Bucharest might be to tourism what Prague was 25 years ago and Budapest 15 years ago; i.e. an historic European city formerly veiled behind the Iron Curtain offering culture and energetic city vibes at an attractive price for off-beat travellers. This up-and-coming capital has a wonderful Old Town and lively places for nightlife seekers. We found much thrill in exploring and experiencing the many eateries, museums, theatres, etc. the city has to offer. And a real joy for Kai was discovering (by way of a friend’s recommendation) a traditional restaurant in the Old Town reminiscent of a place (The Organ Grinder, Toronto) that he had worked as a waiter in the halcyon days of his youth.
October is a special month for road travellers (in the northern hemisphere). It is in this month that many northern countries explode into a dazzling myriad of autumn colours as leaves turn gold, orange and red. Fall is also the season that farmers make bale and stack hay into neat bundles and lay them on their fields. These haystacks were just as common on the landscape as were sweet grandmothers hitch-hiking on the highways from town to town (but not nearly as common as was horse poop on the roadways). We also lucked out as we were treated to an Indian Summer, with clouds and rain only hitting us on the last day, as we drove to the airport to drop off the car.
Our experience in Romania also taught us a few tricks and niceties. For example, it is a good idea to bring little gifts (candies, chocolates, cigarettes, perfumes, etc.) with you in case you need to interact with the locals and ask small favours of them (e.g. opening churches for you to take a tour). Also, most bars, cafes, restaurants and other public places will have free WiFi (and it is a good idea to load Google Maps onto your smartphone when at those places). Drivers are also generally very courteous and horses and carts always have the right of way on the road. Food was also another pleasant surprise for us. Quite frankly, neither of us were really aware of what Romanian cuisine consists of before our trip, but we did learn that the local dishes are often generous in portion and tasty — especially for meat lovers. Most of all, our experience dispelled many of the negative stereotypes that are unfortunately prevalent in western society.
Romania: October 2014
Romania is so well documented and mapped that it needs no explanation. However, a great website for planning a trip there is: RomaniaTourism.com. Below was our itinerary; we hope you find it informative and interesting:
Friday-Saturday (Oct 3-4)
– Late afternoon arrival in Bucharest
– Check in at Hostel Miorita
– Sightseeing of Old Town with a happenstance encounter of a street-theatre parade
– City tour on “hop-on-hop-off” red bus
– Carnivore’s delight (bone marrow) and sampling of local beer at City Grill
– Shopping at URBN for local fashion inspired from city architecture
– Traditional meal at Caru’ cu bere in the Old Town
Sunday (Oct 5)
– After breakfast head to the town of Bran (~180km; 2h50) via the Sphinx of Bucegi
– Detour to hike to the Sphinx of Bucegi
– Continue to Bran to visit the “Dracula Castle”
– First of many adventures buying local cured meats and enjoying with local wines
– Dinner at Galeria Bran restaurant with a view of the Bran Castle
– Spend the night in Hanul Bran Motel
Monday (Oct 6)
– Take “detour” onto the infamous winding roads of the Transfăgărășan Highway (~315 km; 4h30)
– Drive to town of Sibiu (of note for many UNESCO sites) and pit stop to enjoy the town (~90km; 1h55)
– Arrive at night in the city of Cluj Napoca with pleasant surprise of hotel upgrade (~170km; 2h25)
– Dinner and mini tour of downtown Cluj
Tuesday (Oct 7)
– Head to Baia Mare (~150 km; 2h15) for an early lunch
– Pit stops in the region to admire traditional villages with wooden churches and beautifully decorated gates
– Visit the Merry Cemetery in Sapanta (~88km; 1h30)
– Head to Vișeu de Sus (~80 km; 1h20)
– Spend the night in an old converted sleeper train at a “rail yard hotel” with dinner and service provided
Wednesday (Oct 8)
– Take day-long (6AM-6PM) journey on the CFF Viseu De Sus Steam Train with local labourers
– Pit stop at sawmill/lumber yard to watch the labourers work on the wood
– Finish train tour and drive to Sighisoara for the night (~240 km; 3h50)
Thursday (Oct 9)
– Head to Sinaia (~170 km; 2h40) via Brasov
– Stopover at Rupea Fortress (UNESCO heritage site)
– Visit Peleş Castle in Sinaia
– Gourmet dinner with local spirits at Taverna Sârbului
– Spend the night at Bastion Hotel
Friday (Oct 10)
– Drive to the Henri Coandă International Airport (~100 km; 1h30)
– Photo opportunity in airport parking lot with the infamous Dacia (Romania’s answer to the Yugo)
Unfortunately, although we covered over 1,500 km in our travels and saw many great places, our trip also glossed over or entirely missed many of the jewels of the country. For the next trip — and there will be another one! — we have our sights set on the Transalpina Road, Turda salt mines, the mud volcanoes of Berca, the Danube Delta, the wineries of Moldavia (it is the name of a region of Romania, as well as the name of a sovereign neighbour) and, of course, trekking in the Karpatia Mountains.
Zapraszamy do lektury!