This past weekend was a 5 day weekend in Spain so Claire, Jaime and I were looking to go somewhere really different. I’ve recently discovered Google Flights which shows you a map covered in airline prices. Basically it’s a way to find the cheapest places to fly for the dates you want to go. So we chose Romania. At the time I knew nothing about it except for some bad stereotypes. After a few quick Google searches, I learned it’s where you can find Transylvania and Dracula’s Castle. Add in some Christmas markets and relatively low prices for food and drinks, and we were instantly interested and simultaneously had no idea what to expect. What awaited us is difficult to explain in a thoughtful way. If I had to describe it in one sentence I would call it a country in a strong battle of old and new. This is my best attempt to articulate my wide range of observations and feelings about what we saw. This is not to say I didn’t enjoy my time there. I actually loved our trip and learned a lot. It was one of the most bizarre cultural experiences I’ve had thus far in my travels, and that is both really rewarding and challenging to describe.
Romania has only been a unified country since 1918 (previously Transylvania and other regions were not recognized as part of the country), and they seem very proud of it based on how many Romanian flags we saw. Before that, regions were split and borders were controversial for centuries. You may have heard of Vlad the Impaler, the vicious 15th century ruler after whom the tale of Dracula was written. Vlad impaled over 23,000 people during his 6 year rule. I won’t repeat the gruesome details here, but basically he found pleasure in killing his victims and sometimes drank their blood. Hence the vampire theme. According to some local guides we talked to however, vampires don’t exist in Romanian folklore. In fact the story was written by a man from England who had never even visited Transylvania. But the world loved his story and so people started searching for Dracula’s Transylvanian lair. They chose Bran Castle for its creepy hilltop location, and because it was the most in-tact 14th century castle they could find. And so began the tacky tourism in Transylvania. I’m glad to say that we saw so much more than just Dracula things, as fun as it was to eat dinner in his birthplace and drink vampire beer.
So we rented a car and began our road trip through this beautiful region of Romania. Leaving the capital of Bucharest, we were pretty shocked when we had to quickly change lanes on the highway to accommodate the horse-drawn wagons carrying farmers and things like hay or wood. This was a really common occurrence throughout the weekend. About 30 minutes later we saw the largest nuclear power plant I’ve ever seen and not long after that, the highway changed to country roads spotted with roadside markets selling honey, fruit, plum moonshine, fur hats and much more. Immediately I was thinking how old and new were colliding.
We saw some really rural towns with the amazingly beautiful snow-covered Carpathian Mountains as their backdrop. Our first stop was Peleș Castle in Sinaia, a summer home built for King Carol in the early 1900s. Once parked at the bottom, it’s a 1km walk up a cobblestone road to the castle. Along the road we saw a group of men hard at work redoing the road. All the stones were lined along the sides and men were picking away with little axes, puzzle-piecing new ones together, and sweeping in dirt around the already placed stones. It looked like incredibly hard work and I am still wondering how often it needs to be done. They seemed confused to see English speakers and we were confused why their construction site wasn’t closed off to passers-by. Anyway, the castle is incredible. King Carol had his architects include Florentine, Turkish, Moorish, French, and Imperial styles, making it really unique. It was truly stunning.
From there we made our way to the quaint city of Brașov where we had our first traditional Romanian meal and even tried Palinca – plum brandy typically sipped before a meal. Wow was it strong! We learned lots of history on a tour of the city (shout out to Walkabout, free walking tours offered in many places throughout Europe!). We visited an Eastern Orthodox church and learned that a large majority of the country is Orthodox and most consider themselves practicing. The church was a bit of a sensory overload with its ornate but darkly lit interior, strong smells of incense, and melodic hymns sung by worshippers. In contrast, the outside was misleadingly plain and you’d never know they were so detailed if you didn’t go in.
Brașov also has something along the lines of the famous Hollywood sign; six huge white letters on a hill overlooking the city. As our tour guide said, these letters are tacky but much better than the trees planted many years ago spelling the name Stalin (the former temporary name of Brașov as a sign of solidarity to Russia during the years of Romania’s communist dictator). So you can be standing next to a building that appears to have needed repairs for the last 50 years and if you look up, you can see this huge Hollywood-esque reminder of where you are. Old vs. new.
Our next stop was Sighișoara, a super cute hilltop town and also a UNESCO World Heritage site. All the buildings along the cobblestone streets are very colorfully painted a mix of greens, blues, and pinks, and inside the old city walls you’d think you were on the set of a movie. To be honest there really wasn’t much going on there despite being Vlad’s birthplace (now a restaurant). On a Saturday night at 8pm we were 1 of 2 groups eating. After dinner we went to a moderately busy bar where we witnessed a visit from the anti-fraud police. I’m not sure how routine this is, but every establishment we visited had identical large signs saying it was the law to be given a receipt for your purchases. Although Romania has been part of the European Union since 2007, they still have their own currency. We gathered that in order to use the euro they probably have to present a lot of financial information, and after a little research later that night, we learned that Romania tops the EU rankings in anti-fraud investigations. It was a confusing scene in the bar with distracted staff, seemingly unimpressed officials, and lots of cash and receipts laid out on the bar. Needless to say we didn’t stick around for too long.
On our way to Sibiu on Sunday, we stopped in a few preserved Saxon villages. Unfortunately we couldn’t enter the fortified churches that are there because it was Sunday and they were closed. Instead we walked around these very small towns getting a lot of funny looks as to why we were there. These people seem to live on very little. We read that many homes in this area don’t have running water and we saw people using communal wells. We also had to share the roads with herds of cows and a lot of stray dogs. However we also saw a bunch of people using their smartphones and satellite dishes on some roofs. It was a confusing contrast that I’m still pretty baffled by.
Sibiu was quite similar to Brașov, a quaint city with a really impressive Christmas market. We enjoyed some mulled wine at the market (which they interestingly refer to by its German name, Glühwein). Our stay here was short and very cold! It was also hard to see because of some intense fog which apparently is really common there. We left early the next morning and drove through more of really rural Transylvania (at times on dirt roads through the woods…Google maps kept telling us it was the best route) on our way to one last fortress that Vlad had built to ward off his Ottoman enemies. This place was in the middle of nowhere and you have to climb 1,480 steps to get to the top. A few stray dogs were hanging around the parking area and one decided to join us for the trip. The guy at the top said they sometimes make the trek, but our new friend really seemed to be giving us a tour. She walked us through the whole fortress and would wait when we stopped to take pictures. I said thanks at the bottom with a few crackers and felt like we were special. As we got into our car however, she trotted over to the next group getting out of theirs. I suppose our private tour wasn’t so uncommon after all.
So we made our way back to Bucharest and spent a night in the city. We ate a fantastic meal at the oldest beer hall in the city complete with live traditional music. I have to say I was really impressed with all the great food we ate.
The next morning we took another city tour where we learned a lot more about the country’s more recent history. The end of the 20th century was a very dark period for Romania. Lead by a communist dictator until 1989, this Eastern bloc country still seems to be struggling to modernize. I don’t know as much as I would like to about communism having now visited two countries formerly under this type of government (more on Lithuania later…it’s been a busy fall), but what I can gather is that life in these places was scary and people were not treated well. Particularly disturbing to me were the tactics at raising the population of Romania despite the poverty level at the time. Our guide explained that there was very little education about contraception leading to a lot of unwanted pregnancies for families that didn’t have the means to feed their children. Doctors were forbidden to intervene and those who did went to prison. So women often took matters into their own hands in very dangerous circumstances. The number of abandoned children during this time was very high and they were sent to institutions that provided shelter but very little more. Later when the dictator was killed on Christmas Day in 1989, the United Nations stepped in and many of these abandoned children were adopted and now live abroad.
After their dictator was found guilty of genocide against his own people, he was sentenced to death which was aired on live TV. Romania then held its first democratic election where the former right hand man to the dictator “won.” I put won in quotations because that’s exactly what our guide did. I’m not in a place to form opinions about the legal and political matters of the country, but from what we were told it didn’t sound fair. Anyway, there is a happy ending and what seems to be a new beginning for this country. Two years ago, Romanians elected their first independent president into office and things are looking up.
I am well aware that Romania is certainly not even close to the most culturally challenging place in the world. I know that the further my adventures take me, the more I will see and experience, and it’s not always exciting and awesome. But it’s experiences like this that keep my love for travel so strong. I travel to learn because I am curious about the world. It’s humbling to see things that you don’t understand, and empowering to be educated about other places so different from what you are accustomed to. I highly recommend checking out Romania the next time you find yourself in the neighborhood.