Huniazilor Castle, Romania
It is not always clear why we get the urge to go a certain somewhere. It could be an advertisement we walk by every day, or hearing a travel story from a friend. We can imagine ourselves there, swimming in crystal-clear waters or summiting a mountain peak or holding shopping bags on a busy avenue. Those images stay with us and grow our desire until we’re ready to act on them.
I had no such innate compulsion to go to Romania. The country was mostly a blank slate for me. Like many people, the only vision I had of the place was from Bram Stoker’s Dracula – a rather gloomy and eerie portrait that does not inspire one to pack their bags and visit. Romania’s troubled history with communism, particularly under the Ceausescu regime, has also clouded matters, conjuring thoughts of repression and poverty.
So my trip to Romania was decided on a whim – a point-at-the-map-and-go kind of trip that I hoped would surprise me in a good way. It did. I never like to arrive in a country without at least reading a general history, a few restaurant reviews and maybe listening to some of the music, but my arrival in Bucharest was so last-minute I had no time to delve into any of that. I had no choice but to discover the land, people and history totally on the fly. And in doing so, I gained appreciation not only for Romania, but a way of travelling.
University Square, Bucharest Romania
My arrival in Bucharest was inauspicious. A turbulent flight, a taxi that ripped me off and eventually dropped me at night at the North railway station – a less-than-savoury part of town – had me shaking my fist in anger. But it’s important to never let bad first impressions shake the rest of a trip, and indeed, all was quickly forgiven after a meal at Caru’ cu Bere, a kitschy but wonderful restaurant that serves up traditional Romanian dishes such as ciorba de burta, a kind of sweet-and-sour tripe soup that tastes better than it sounds.
By light of day, I discovered that Bucharest is not an easy city to walk around. Communist planning favoured massive streets, less density and huge distances relative to other, more compact European capitals. Stray dogs and sparse street lighting can also make being a pedestrian hazardous. That said, Bucharest is a fascinating blend of the Balkans, Middle East and Europe. Though the historic centre has been recently reconstructed to suit modern tastes – with sidewalk cafés and classy restaurants on cobblestone streets – arguably, the city’s most interesting feature is its monuments to the grandiose dreams of the former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. The Palace of the Parliament may be the most epic example of communist dictatorship on the planet. It’s said to be the second-largest building in the world at nearly 350,000 square metres. My government-issued/required tour guide was less than impressive, but paying for a look inside was worth it.
Nightlife centres on the Lipscani neighbourhood, Bucharest’s freshly renovated old town. Despite being the most palatable and interesting part of the city, the neighbourhood still bears the scars of being a slum for the impoverished Roma people – though it is quickly being patched up. Pleasant during the day, Lipscani really shines at night, when swarms of partygoers dance until daylight. So many bars and clubs are packed side by side, choosing one really depends on what the crowd looks like that night. I must have tried a half-dozen before settling into the Old City bar, one of the area’s staple watering holes.
That fortunate pick resulted in a conversation with a group of young English travellers over drinks, which led to me hopping a train a few days later to the tranquil and picturesque Transylvanian town of Brasov on their recommendation. Surrounded by high walls with turrets and made up of a maze of cobblestone streets, Brasov is easily one of Europe’s most picturesque towns. Despite its tiny size, the restaurant scene is surprisingly diverse, with Jamaican, Mexican and everything in between. Though I’m skeptical about dining underground, I made an exception for Bella Muzica, a hotel whose restaurant is located in the wine cellar (it came highly recommended by locals). Don’t be put off by the bizarre combination of Mexican and Hungarian food: Both cuisines are treated with care.
The tour of the surrounding castles is a must during a visit to Brasov. I had only heard of Bran Castle before visiting Romania (after a quick Google search to look for Dracula’s castle – I wasn’t going to miss that), but guides on the tour are quick to warn tourists that Bran Castle was probably not Castle Dracula. In fact, there is no one “Castle Dracula,” but a series of temporary residences – some more intact than others – where Vlad the Impaler may have stayed but were not visited by Bram Stoker. In any case, the Bran, Peles and Rasnov fortresses are some of the most imposing castles in Europe, their intimidating grandiosity leaving visitors – and, at one point, invaders, probably – in awe.
Not knowing where to head next, I asked the waitress at Brasov’s Times Pub where I should go. Sibiu, for sure, she said. Though I had never heard of the place, her insistence was reassuring, and the next day I was on a bus heading west. Sibiu is a more majestic version of Brasov, with a Germanic feel. Like Brasov, it is considered one of seven fortified towns that were colonized by Saxons and built to head off the Mongol and Ottoman armies. The invading armies are long gone, but the incredible architecture left by the city’s ancestors is enchanting, particularly at night when couples and families linger around the city’s many squares.
Not knowing much about Romanian history I mostly avoided museums for fear of milling around reading snippets I could not put in any wider context. In an attempt to remedy at least some of my ignorance I visited the Brukenthal National Museum to get a grasp on how the region and country developed. The complex of six different museums has everything from paintings to medieval weapons to a centuries-old pharmacy, giving visitors a clearer picture of what life was like in Transylvania before Romania itself had been formed. The Hapsburg-built museum is the oldest and Romania, opening in the early 19th century, and chances are you’ll have the place mostly to yourself.
My other side-trip was slightly more premeditated. Though little visited and way off the tourist track, the painted monasteries of Bucovina are possibly Romania’s most unique and rewarding sites. I had heard of them from reading journalist Robert Kaplan’s Balkan Ghosts, a grim portrait of ethnic and religious tensions in the Balkans during the late 1980s. His admiration for the beauty of the churches and the region had stuck with me for a decade.
Sucevita Monastery in Romania.
Getting to the Bucovina region on the eastern slopes of the Carpathian Mountains was not easy, however: I’d be lying if I said the bus route from Sibiu was not circuitous. (I later figured that I should have headed straight there from Bucharest first – one definite drawback of not planning in advance.) And though the town of Iasi is prettier, smaller Suceava makes a more convenient base to explore the intensely colourful 15th-century monasteries. Built primarily during the reign of Stephen the Great, the Byzantine monasteries are now protected UNESCO World Heritage sites. Dotted around the countryside, the eight isolated monasteries offer a picture of life on the edge of European Christendom just before the Ottoman conquest – life constantly punctuated by hardship and warfare.
Though I had never thought of visiting Romania, the country turned out to be a magnificent blend of great food, landscapes and a much needed history lesson. It also taught me one important lesson in travel: Challenge yourself to visit places far off your mental map. You’ll likely be pleasantly surprised.
Sighisoara, Mures County, Romania
HOW TO GET LOST
1. Explore without a map: Instead of walking around with your eyes glued to a digital or paper map, try looking at the map once quickly and then letting your instinct guide you wherever it may. That’s the easiest way to find great things that you weren’t looking for.
2. Ask everyone questions: Quiz both locals and other travellers at every turn about the best spots to eat, drink and visit. Ask enough people and patterns begin to emerge about what places are worth exploring.
3. Walk: It may be tempting to take taxis or public transportation everywhere but walking is the best way to explore any city. Walking opens up an unknown city and quickly makes it more familiar.
4. Linger: Tourists that are running from one site to another are not doing it right. Sit down a few times a day at a café and read a local newspaper, history book or start up a conversation with the person next to you. A quick read about the place you’re in or a conversation with a local helps to unlock a city and makes you appreciate its complexity.
Inside the Voronet Monastary (The Last Judgement).
IF YOU GO
There are no direct flights from Canada to Romania. British Airways, KLM and LOT offer the cheapest and shortest connections from major Canadian cities. Bucharest is not served by Europe’s low-cost carriers, which also makes it difficult to reach.
WHERE TO STAY
Accommodation in Bucharest is diverse but limited. The best hotel is the Rembrandt, which puts you at the centre of the action in a tastefully decorated quiet boutique hotel. From $120 per night. rembrandt.ro
Down the street is the more slick and modern Z Executive Boutique Hotel. The rooms are big and the staff is friendly and accommodating. From $124 per night. zhotels.ro
In Brasov, Hotel Casa Wagner is a comfortable, friendly and inexpensive place to stay in the town centre. From $70 per night. casa-wagner.com/ro
Also in Brasov, Bella Musica is not only an excellent restaurant, but also a charming hotel on the main square of the old city. From $170 per night. bellamuzica.ro
There are a few large hotels in Sibiu but you’re better off staying in one of the city’s many bed and breakfasts. Try the Huet residence in the centre of the old town. From $80 per night. huet-residence.ro
A 15-minute walk from the city centre is the newly opened Pensiunea Transilvania, with fresh rooms and a very pleasant staff eager to show you a great time in the city.
In Suceava, the lavish Hotel Sonnenhof is where you’ll want to stay during visits to the Painted Monasteries. The hotel is a bargain for the quality and size of the rooms. From $65 per night. hotelsonnenhof.ro
WHAT TO DO
There are not a lot of must-see monuments and museums in Bucharest, so don’t feel guilty drinking a pint of beer for hours on a busy square. That said, visiting the Palace of the Parliament (Palatul Poporului) is fascinating and a good lesson about political life in Romania under communism. The Lipscani neighbourhood is also a good place to begin your exploration of Bucharest. The area is dotted with old Orthodox churches, such as the beautiful painted Stavropoleos Church built in the 18th century.
The castles around Brasov are essential for any visitor. Also, just outside the city walls are numerous hikes that either begin from the bottom of Tampa mountain or the top, which is reached by funicular. In winter, some of the best skiing in Eastern Europe is just a few kilometres from Brasov.
In Sibiu, Brukenthal National Museum is a good bet (brukenthalmuseum.ro) but just admiring the city’s architecture and pedestrianized cobbled streets is enough to enjoy the visit.
The Painted Monasteries of Bucovina in the country’s northeast either require a car or a pre-booked tour. The most known and reputable day tour is run by AXA Travel and must be booked in advance (axatravel.ro/tours).
WHERE TO EAT
Caru’ cu Bere is one of the country’s best restaurants for traditional Romanian cuisine set in a rather grandiose mansion in the heart of Bucharest. carucubere.ro/ro
For reasons I have yet to understand, Romania does excellent Italian food at reasonable prices. Zabaione Ristorante in Bucharest stands out for seafood and desserts. zabaione.ro
Brasov has a surprising number of decent restaurants from the Mexican-Romanian themed Bella Musica (bellamuzica.ro) to the reasonably priced and reliable Keller Steakhouse (kellersteakhouse.ro). Sibiu has an equal number of good choices but seemingly less international variety. Atmospheric and romantic Weinkeller serves traditional German dishes (weinkeller.ro) while Crama Sibiul Vechi remains the city’s most popular restaurant for Romanian food (sibiulvechi.ro).