Unless you’re really into Dracula, Vlad the Impaler or Count Duckula, it’s probably fair to say Romania isn’t top of the travel list for most people (excluding of course those weird millennials who buy the “scratch maps” so they can tick off every country in the world – and yes, apparently airports count as countries). For me the draw of Romania was a combination of factors: 1) a bias towards Eastern Europe (and Romania counts as East right?) 2) we were working with a couple of Romanians here in EG so it only seemed natural that we eventually visit their home country, and 3) blatant curiosity. The kind of curiosity which is inherent in many Aussies having grown up stranded on that big old island down under. Isolation often brings with it a thirst for adventure, to see other lands, marvel at different terrains and talk to people with unusual accents. In case you were wondering that curiosity still has not left me.
I convinced Hubby to embark upon a brief exploration of Romania on the basis that we could do so by revisiting our backpacking roots. No, this did not mean camping out in shitty youth hostels for 3 months, but rather, instead of hiring a car like the responsible adults we supposedly were, we would tackle the country’s public transport system (PT also means – backpacks only, no suitcases). In hindsight, this was probably not the easiest way to see the country, and if we ever go back (which I hope some day we will) I will definitely be insisting that we go “full grown-up” and just hire the bloody car to get around – at the very least so we can drive that scary road made famous by Top Gear.
Now, I’m not saying public transport can’t be done (we did it), the train system is functional, but if you’re expecting TSV or a Shinkansen, well… let’s just say you’re going to be a tad disappointed. Don’t get me wrong, the trains will get you there, they do connect the main tourist areas, it’s just that they’re a little old. And therefore, a little slow. We even braved the bus all the way to Budapest – which took a full day, not because of the distance, but because the bus stopped at pretty much every town in Romania from where we picked it up in Sibiu, until we finally crossed the border into Hungary. Oh, and then there was that unexplained 1.5 hour layover in Timișoara where we had to hang out at the bus station because… Well, we’re still not really sure why that was. Announcements were made. It’s just they were made in Romanian in which neither of us is even partially fluent.
Don’t expect Romania to be like Germany or Belgium or Austria where everyone speaks English. And don’t be mistaken in thinking it’s like France either, where everyone speaks English but won’t talk to you unless you have a crack at massacring a few basic words in French first. In some parts of Romania, you will truly find there to be a lack of English and therefore be reduced to trying to pronounce Romanian city names, pointing, and handing over what you hope isn’t an exorbitant amount of Leu (Note – Romania, although part of the EU, does not take Euro). If you do however, happen to speak some basic German, this may actually help in some parts. Hubby and I are often mistaken for Germans when travelling (perhaps it’s the matching Birkenstocks, perhaps the fair hair, or possibly the fact that I am in fact part German…). So that’s how we found ourselves speaking broken German with the Romanian bakery lady at the Timisoara bus station. She was friendly, but we still ended up buying four more sweet cheese puffs than we really wanted.
Like Australians, the Germans tend to get everywhere, and Romania was no exception, which probably in part explains the reason for it being a popular second language choice. Even the guesthouse we stayed at in small village Măgura was owned by a German couple. We selected Măgura for its hiking opportunities – Romania has a tonne of hiking – not necessarily the toughest hikes in the world, but decent, lengthier hikes which take you meandering through meadows and scrambling over boulders for views of valleys and startlingly green hills. We only just had a taste of the Carpathian Mountains, and it will definitely be on my list for a follow-up trip. Getting to Măgura was not the most straightforward – it involved taking a local train to a nearby town and then getting a local taxi to take us up the hill to the village. Would’ve been fine, but for the fact that there were road works happening on the only gravel road leading up the hill. Our taxi driver not having much of a handle on English had to resort to pulling right up to the trench which had been dug right across our path, gesturing and shrugging at us with wide open hands. The message was clear, there was no way we were getting through by vehicle. Strangely, if we had hired a car I’m not sure what we would have done confronted with that scenario anyway…. Lucky for us having chosen the backpacker way – we were able to walk the 40 minutes switchbacks up to our guesthouse. Would not have been so easy had we been hauling rolly suitcases! The way down was much easier – road works had been completed by the time we came to leave, and we managed to get a ride from a friendly Dutch couple who had (wisely) rented a car for their trip.
Although a key draw for us in visiting Romania was the hiking, one can’t visit without getting a bit of a vampire fix too. Our friendly new Dutch friends gave us a ride to the home of Vlad the Impaler (Dracula?) – Bran Castle. We had finally found the international tourists. Apparently Bran Castle is the key attraction on all Baby Boomer package tours of the Balkans. The inside of the castle is relatively small as far as castles go – and you can’t just wander into the rooms and soak it in, no – you have to follow the roped pathway single file, shuffling along, waiting your turn, no overtaking allowed. Needless to say as soon as we had the chance, we found the “Give Up Gate” and ejected ourselves, much to the chagrin of the castle guide – his advice “if you don’t want it to be crowded, come back in January.” Unless you’re into history and are one of those patient souls, I suggest admiring it from the outside and conserve your energy for finding a nice bar instead.
We were in Romania in summer, and like the rest of Europe, Romanians embrace the warmer weather and the chance to soak up the sun. Picnics are everywhere – and I literally mean everywhere – any grassy spot along the road is free game as long as the sun is out. Families make a day out of it, pulling up in their cars and settling in with picnic rugs, food, and of course, wine. A popular drink is the “spritz” concept – ordering wine at lunch during a small group tour in Sighișoara we also ordered a bottle of sparkling water in an attempt to stay hydrated. Our tour guide seemed surprised and asked if we were going to spritz – and I’m not talking about the tourist’s drink du jour the Aperol Spritz. No – the old-fashioned wine spritzer is alive and well in Romania – in an attempt to continue drinking for longer, the preferred method is to mix one’s wine with some sparkling water – and this works for rose and red wine too. Not a bad concept for a hot summer’s day!
Romania is surprisingly green, lush, and simple. You will come across villages where horse and carts are still in use, people grow their own vegetables and make their own wine. You’ll spot gypsies, the trains will go at 20 miles an hour. At some points you may feel like you’ve stepped back in time.
- Hikers – mountains, valleys, meadows. Day hikes aplenty! Do you research before you go.
- Consider renting a car. Though the driving may be hairy at times, you’ll be able to get further than if relying on public transport.
- Get your “hello” and “thank you” memorized in Romanian. And while you’re at it maybe brush up on your high school German.
- Embrace the places without tourists – keep your eye out for those villages still using horse and carts.
- Get your spritz on!
We were in Romania for just under two weeks and we haven’t really scratched the surface beyond Transylvania. The Carpathians, the Black Sea, Transfăgărășan – the country is surprisingly big, and there’s so much more to it than Dracula. Check it out while the tourists are still stuck in Slovenia!