We spent six weeks in Romania (not entirely on purpose, but more on that in a bit). It is a beautiful country with rich culture, strong people with old traditions, beautiful landscapes and mountains (the Carpathians, oh my gawd!), lovely handmade clothing (this has got to be where the embroidered “peasant top” was perfected), lots of meat-centric meals, and an interesting, sometimes sad history. We learned a lot (Scott even learned the language before we got there!*) and got to experience the culture, history, food, clothes, language, and its major cities and many of its smaller villages.
*Scott: Eu am practicat foarte mult folosind Duolingo și am vizionat multe videoclipuri subtitrate în limba română. Dar am pierdut oameni adevărați, așa că în timp ce înțelegerea mea despre citire este destul de bună, discursul meu este foarte rău.
Not many North Americans travel to Romania (which is why, many times, we were asked if we were from England or, oddly enough, Germany), so we’ll tell you about what we experienced. That way, maybe one day you too can travel to Eastern Europe and be mistaken for a German.
Romania, properly called România (ROH-MUHN-ee-ya), is made up of three main regions: Transylvania, Wallachia, and Moldavia. Each region is unique.
- Transylvania (spelled “Transilvania” in Romanian) is known for its medieval towns, mountainous borders, and castles, such as Bran Castle (of Dracula fame). Like much of Europe, this part of the country has been ruled by several different groups over the past 3,000 years. Most recently, until modern times, it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire under the Habsburg Monarchy (which explains why so much of the architecture there looks Hungarian). It was made part of Romania only after World War I. In the northern part of Transylvania, near Ukraine, life for some people remains very old-fashioned and traditional, with horse-drawn carts and hand-plowed fields, and with traditional Romanian garb still worn every day.
- Wallachia was also formerly part of Hungary, but much longer ago than was Transylvania, i.e., in the 14th century. Then it belonged to the Ottoman Empire (along with most of the Balkan region), with a bit of Russian occupation thrown in afterward for good measure. In 1859, it united with Moldavia to form, eventually, the Kingdom of Romania.
- Moldavia (called “Moldova” by Romanians, but not to be confused with the bordering country called the Republic of Moldova) is the easternmost region of Romania and is formerly part of the Principality of Moldova, the country.
Still with me? Keep in mind, this is all super-abridged. In a nutshell, Romania is three different regions that used to be part of different countries/kingdoms/empires and are all joined in the center by the beautiful Carpathian Mountains.
For its most recent history, 1947-89, Romania was a Communist country, and its people were terrorised during those years. There was also a Hitler-esque anti-Semite leader who undertook his own genocide of Romanian Jews, all with Adolf’s blessing of course. Over 200,000 Jews were killed in Romania, and other political enemies and anti-Communist Romanians died due to hunger, violent forced deportations, and imprisonment through forced labor.
If there could possibly be said to be a bright side to all this, the Communist dual-dictators, Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena, were executed by their own military after a student-led coup — and it was filmed (we saw the film). All of this marked a terrible and heart-breaking time in Romanian history, one that its people have thankfully put behind them for the most part.
Side Note: The Package from Hell
So, why exactly were we in Romania for six weeks, unlike the four weeks we intended?
Well, because I trusted a website. A website that said it could ship items from the U.S. in as little as 2-7 days. (Rookie mistake, I know.) It was total and utter bullshit.
My package of three clothing items took six weeks to arrive and, when it did, I had to pay $250 in Romanian taxes before I could collect it. All in all, with the added days and the taxes, the damn package cost us at least three times the price of the items in it.
Ok, so where did we go and what did we do? I’ll (finally) get to it! But we’ll cover just the Transylvania portion for now, for the sake of brevity. Our next “Romania: Part 2” post will address the rest of our time in Romania, including our two visits to Bucharest.
Timișoara is the westernmost city in the country, and we landed there only because it was so close to Serbia. In fact, we arrived in a taxi from Serbia, in which we crossed the border. We found an adorable lively city that is filled with life, gorgeous architecture, young people, music, art, and fun. We instantly fell in love with it.
The city center is made up of four main squares, named after major events in the citys’ past — Plevnei Square, Victoriei Square, Libertatii Square, and Unirii Square — all of which are connected by pedestrian footpaths. We spent most of our time in and around these squares, since that’s sort of the heart of the city.
The big highlights here were as follows:
1) randomly meeting the guys from a California-based band called the Hollywood Undead (who are actually kind of a big deal, it turns out!);
2) seeing our Airbnb host/actress Silvia starring in Girl in the Goldfish Bowl (this well-known Canadian play was written in English, but here, in Romania, it was performed in German…);
3) getting a killer haircut, and Scott getting his first-ever hot towel shave; and
4) the architecture, which is absolutely stunning — like jaw-droppingly, slap-your-mama beautiful. The unfortunate part, though, is that the city and many property owners aren’t investing in keeping up the buildings. Many of them are literally falling apart, which is a terrible shame and is also, we learned, understandably heartbreaking for many of the residents. We hope that, at some point, people are going to rally and demand more restoration. The buildings that have been restored are among the most beautiful architecture we’ve ever seen (with examples of romantic, neoclassical, baroque, art nouveau, and occasionally gothic styles all visible).
Some other fun things we/I did were to go to a coffee shop/Communist museum that contained all kinds of memorabilia from that time, taste and buy some traditional hand-made Romania cheese, have a few cocktails watching the World Cup, stop by the jazz festival for two songs (turns out we don’t enjoy jazz), and really, really enjoyed our Bohemian Airbnb that was in an old building.
Overall, Timișoara was possibly our favorite city in Romania. But really, we fell in love with almost every city we visited in Transylvania, so maybe it’s that region as a whole that is our “favorite.”
Hundora, Alba Iulia, Turda, and Sighisoara
There are different towns and cities, but I’m lumping them together because we saw individual sites at each over the course of just a few days, as opposed to staying in each place for a few days.
In Hundora, we visited Corvin Castle, also known as Hunedoara Castle. It is one of the largest castles in Europe and one of Romania’s “seven wonders.” Built in the mid-14th century, it is where probably the most famous Romanian of all time, Vlad the Impaler (inspiration for Bram Stokers’ character Dracula), was imprisoned for seven years after he was deposed in 1462. Another legend from the castle has it that a 30-meter well in the inner courtyard was dug by three Turkish prisoners who were promised liberty if they reached water; after 15 years, they completed the well, but their captors did not keep their promise: instead, they were all killed. The inscription on a wall of the well, reputedly carved at the dying request of the Turkish prisoners, has been translated to “you have water, but not soul.”
Alba Iulia (AL-bah YOU-lee-ah) is the seat of Transylvania’s Roman Catholic diocese. There is a massive Orthodox cathedral smack-dab in the middle of the old city and a smaller, but also impressive, Roman Catholic cathedral right beside it. We walked around this area of town, and the pictures were so wonderful that I finally joined Instagram so I could share them! My first post was of me with a bronze statue and its finger pointing up my nose. Classy, folks, stay classy.
In Turda (and yes, please don’t think we didn’t have a laugh at the name of this place), we went into an old salt mine that has an amusement park in it!!! It. Was. So. Cool! There were two chambers, the larger one with a ferris wheel, ping pong tables, pool tables, a small amphitheater, and other carnival games. The lower chamber had lounge/seating areas, a little bridge, and a small subterranean lake. They had little row boats, which were super fun, so we rented one and I giggled with excitement the whole time.
Sighisoara (SIG-ee-SHWA-ra) has a well-preserved medieval walled Upper Town, which also happens to be the place where Vlad Țepeș (pronounced TZEH-pesh), a.k.a. Vlad Drăculea or Vlad the Impaler, was born. We spent a day walking around enjoying the buildings, towers, views, cobblestone roads, and the lovely antiquity. That night, in the pastel-lined Lower Town, we found a cool bar/restaurant situated in the basement of an old post office and had some palinka (Romanian moonshine) the traditional way, out of old beakers, while watching the World Cup.
Sibiu is another Hungarian-influenced medieval town with two main squares: the Big Square and the Little Square (thought-provoking names, right!?). Here we were greeted by a very friendly Airbnb host who walked us to the visitors’ center to get a map and show us the highlights. We spent two days walking around the Old Town marveling at the architecture. It’s also famous for its “Liar’s Bridge.”
While Scott worked one day, I went to a park outside of town that had traditional Romanian homes and buildings brought in from various places around the country to show visitors how life was like “back in the day.” I saw old farm houses and buildings, wind and water mills, old churches, schools, fishing houses, etc. The buildings were intricately carved and very well-made. (And we saw for ourselves later on in our trip that, in fact, this is exactly how some people still live, especially in the northern parts of the country near Ukraine.)
Transfăgărășan is an incredibly picturesque winding road leading into the Carpathians, deep in the Transylvanian countryside and famously traversed by motorbikes, cyclists, hikers, and drivers alike. There were incredible views and gorgeous landscapes filled with waterfalls and impressive rock formations. We slowed or stopped several times:
- to take in the sublime natural beauty,
- to pass through droves of sheep on the road,
- to buy local, handmade cheese, dried meats, palinka (moonshine), jams, chocolate, etc., from a little roadside stand to eat for lunch,
- for a boat ride on a stunning lake (Lacul Vidraru) in the middle of a valley, and
- to take pictures of a bear and her cubs by the side of the road!!
Along the way, we also stopped near Poienari Castle, the actual castle of Vlad Drăculea, where Scott was really excited to climb up and visit. Sadly, though, it was closed due to a fire earlier this year. Maybe that’s okay, though, because the long, lonely trek up the stairs to the castle would have taken a few hours at least, and it’s also said to be frequented by bears.
Fundata and Dâmbovicioara
That night, we stayed at a small hotel in the middle of the Romanian countryside, up high in the mountains, in a tiny village called Fundata (fuhn-DAH-ta). To get to it, we had to drive along the bottom of a narrow ravine, which was super cool! After we arrived, we sat outside enjoying some wine and our newly bought palinka and taking in the view of the homes, farms, hills, and horses in the distance, and the cows walking by. We also chatted with a nice Romanian man and his family, who were visiting the area for their son’s karate match (and the youngster practiced goju-ryu, the same style of karate Scott trained in years ago!).
The next day, although we hated to leave such a peaceful, achingly lovely location, we were excited to visit a nearby cave system called Dâmbovicioara (DUM-boh-VEECH-yo-AH-ra) — yeah, quite a mouthful — which turned out to be okay but not mind-blowing. That’s okay, though: I still sure do love me a good cave!
Brașov and Râșnov
Brașov (BRAH-shov) is a very nice town, surrounded by mist-capped mountains and with a thriving social life. The streets were crowded with people at all times of the day and throughout the evening, and there were many cafes and restaurants to be visited. We found an amazing little place actually built into an alley and covered only by hangings and draperies. Very cool! And our little Airbnb apartment there was wonderful too — so much so, in fact, that we talked about what it might be like to live there, since the owner told us it was for sale.
The next day, Scott was excited to visit nearby Bran Castle, even with all the tourists, as it’s said to have been the location that inspired that of the home for Bram Stoker’s titular Dracula character. The approach was very impressive and suitably intimidating, and the inside was beautifully refurbished by a recent queen, Regina Maria. Born into the British royal family, “Maria” was actually Princess Marie of Edinburgh, daughter of Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh (later Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha), and his wife the Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna of Russia. Queen Maria served as a nurse during World War 1 (along with her three daughters) and was the last to live at the castle.
Anyway, there were lots of vampire stories and information too, and Scott actually saw artwork from one of the covers of the old World of Darkness books, published by White Wolf, one of the companies for which he used to do freelance writing! One other thing I found kind of fun: The position of the castellan of Bran Citadel was created by King Ludovic I of Angou by deed issued on my birthday, November 19 (but in the year 1377).
Later that afternoon, we took a funicular up to the castle at Râșnov (ROSH-nov), a medieval fortress used from the 14th to the 17th century. The views of the town from the top were nice… and I got to pet two little kittens! 😊 (Medieval fortresses by this point had started to look more or less the same, so the kitties were a pleasant addition.)
Peleș Castle, near Sinaia (sin-EYE-yah), was a spectacular castle, both inside and out! Just gorgeous!! It is now one of our favorites among all those we’ve seen. Some cheesy Christmas-time prince-falls-in-love-with-an-American-woman films have been shot here, and it’s no wonder. This place is bananas, it’s so beautiful. The exterior has extremely intricate wood carvings in a German/Hungarian style that left us staring up at with our jaws wide open for about 10 minutes.
Inside, its even more stunning, with incredibly intricate woodworking and reliefs covering the whole place. The countless hours that must have been spent creating it all are mind-boggling. I’m not kidding: This place alone is worth a trip to Romania, and we didn’t even get to see the bedrooms! Definitely, in my mind, it was one of the best places, if not the best site we saw in the country.
Also, this castle gives me a good segue into talking for a bit about the Romanian monarchy. Back in the 1870s, the Romanian leaders chose to be governed by a monarchy. They selected Prince Carol of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen from Germany (yes, a German prince to rule Romania), and he thus became King Carol I, ruling from 1866 until his death in 1914. He and his wife, Queen Elisabeth, used Peleș as their summer residence and as a place for important political meetings.
So, anyway, that’s it for now. We’ll post “Romania: Part 2” in another few days, discussing all the rest of the time we spent in this beautiful country, including a couple weeks in the lively capital, Bucharest.
Connie & Scott