Romania is just how you imagine it to be, but somehow better.
Rolling hills, quaint farms, historic villages AND world class food and wine and block parties.
I’ve been obsessed with Romania for as long as I can remember. Don’t ask me why because I don’t really know. A past life, maybe? My obsession was furthered by a college French professor who told our class about her time in Romania…how beautiful it was, how nice the people were, how tasty the food was…
And it’s all true. The country is beautiful. It’s full of kind people who appreciate your broken attempts at speaking Romanian and who can answer back in perfect English. Street vendors told us we were pretty. We had a waiter in Timişoara with a sense of humor who kept responding to us in different languages…Romanian one time, then French, then Italian. (Joke is on him though. You can’t fool a Romance Languages major. Hand to God, I have a a degree in Romance Languages).
Romanians even seemingly like Americans as documented by the exhibit at the art museum in Timişoara on the friendship between the two countries. (I mostly like my fellow Americans too, but we are sometimes badly behaved travelers.)
What struck me most about the Romanian people was their desire to just BE. The country has been invaded and taken over time and time again, against the wishes of the Romanian people and the Romanian people just want to BE.
During our trip we visited Timişoara, Sibiu, Brasov, Sigişoara, Bran, Sinaia, and Bucharest. It felt like every village or town we stopped in was more charming than the last.
The US Dollar has a very favorable exchange with the Romanian Lei and your money will stretch a long way in Romania (not quite as long as it did in Serbia or Bulgaria). As always, be aware, but I found Romania to be incredibly safe. Even at night, we felt comfortable to wander the pedestrian centers and walk back to our hotels.
Romania is in some ways an island unto itself. It is the only country that speaks a Latin based language in The Balkans. It is the only country using the Latin alphabet in The Balkans. (Which was a site for sore eyes after days of trying to force my brain to comprehend the Cyrillic alphabet). Romanian is most like Italian with a heavy influx of borrowed Slavic words.
Romania grows enough food to provide for almost all of Europe. Pork is popular as are hearty soups. Desserts are abundant (hooray) and you’d be doing yourself a real injustice if you don’t try papanaşi, the Romanian donut, served with sour cream and fruit.
Our first stop was the city of Timişoara. Timişoara is a university town and it is the town where the Revolution began. Romania, like most of the other countries in this area of the world was once under Soviet control and then under Communist dictator control. More on Nicolae Ceausescu later. The first whispers of revolution began in the Timişoara Orthodox Cathedral when a Hungarian priest began preaching against Ceausescu. (The Revolution would end in Bucharest with the execution of the dictator and his wife).
You can still visit the Orthodox Cathedral. It’s still an active church. The plaza upon which it sits showcases a good example of the old Soviet style block buildings.
One of the traditions I found interesting in the Orthodox churches is that the candles lit for the living and for the dead are separated. Akin to other Orthodox churches, the interior of this church is a stunning show of gold and bold colors.
The rest of the city is filled with appealingly colorful buildings and pristine plazas and the occasional ruin of an old building, adorned with graffiti.
We didn’t have much time in Timişoara, but let me put in a plug for the Upside Restaurant. The chef’s creation on our first night in Romania was one of the most delicious things I’ve ever tasted. And you should try Romanian wine. Really, you should.
Day 2, Stop 2: Sibiu. Again, if it’s possible, even more quaint and charming. The historic center of this town is a UNESCO heritage site. Sibiu lies within the Transylvania region of Romania and it has a very unique architectural feature: the eyes of Sibiu.
Once you see the “eyes” on the buildings, you cannot unsee them. It’s as if every house in the city is watching your every move. The eyes were actually added as a feature to provide ventilation to the attics of homes and buildings in the area.
As expected as a UNESCO site, the historic town center is absolutely delightful. Colorful buildings with eyes abound.
The standout church in the center of Sibiu is, surprisingly, a Lutheran church. The Lutheran Cathedral of Saint Mary is a gothic stunner.
Walking the old town gives you a good look at the old fortified walls of the city, too.
A short ride from Sibiu, is the village of Axente Sever. The village has a fantastic example of a fortified church. The Biertan Fortified Church is worth a visit.
Much more austere in decoration than the Orthodox cathedrals we’d seen, this church was still beautiful in a much simpler way. The church features the most complex lock you’ve ever seen on the door to the sacristy. (PS: there are no bathroom facilities at the church. You can find toilets in the restaurants in town but you’ll need to either buy something from the restaurant or pay a fee).
Now, contain your excitement, but the next day of our road trip across Romania was the day where we had lunch at a Romanian truck stop. It was surprisingly good! I highly recommend the salami and cheese sandwich. Ask at the counter to have it warmed up. If you happen to be driving across the country, there are several gas (or petrol) stations with clean restrooms, a variety of quick bite sandwiches, souvenirs, and our favorite, a variety of potato chips to try. (Potato chips in other countries are always a good time! Italy had ketchup and mustard flavored chips. Kinda tasted like eating a hot dog. Romania had Tzatziki flavored and a mushroom and cheese flavored chip!)
Much to the delight of our friend Amy, our resident Dracula afficionado, the next stop was the town of Sighişoara, the birthplace of Vlad the Impaler (aka Dracula).
Sighişoara? Beautiful. The streets in Sighişoara? A real life nightmare for anyone who has anything wrong with their feet. If you’ve been to Europe, you know good, sturdy walking shoes are a good thing to have. In Sighişoara they are a downright necessity. You’ve got the cobblestone roads like many European towns and then you’ve got the roads made out of damned stones. A twisted ankle or worse is a real possibility if you’re wearing anything other than sensible shoes.
Stone roads are forgiven however, because look at this place.
This yellow house is the birthplace of Vlad the Impaler. Inside you’ll find a really excellent restaurant where you can try all kinds of Romanian foods (including the donuts I mentioned!), a great giftshop with all things made by Romanian artisans, an old fresco of Vlad himself, clean bathrooms, and an adorable cat waiting for you to drop something at the table.
We were so lucky that the weather on our October trip had been so nice. The fog and rain caught up to us in Brasov.
Because the weather was less than great and because we were all tired and needed a quiet evening, we didn’t see as much as Brasov as we’d hoped. It’s delightfully charming as well. We wandered the main square and did stop to see the Black Church, so named because of its smoke blackened walls.
The most fascinating things in this church were its tombs where people were buried standing up to save space.
After the rain in Brasov, we were headed out into another rainy and foggy day. The rain and the fog, however, were the perfect backdrop for the next stop on our itinerary.
Bran Castle is probably what most people picture when they think about Romania. Bran Castle has become know as Dracula’s Castle even though Dracula is not at all related to Bran Castle. We have Bram Stoker to thank for the confusion.
Bran Castle is located in the village of Bran, not terribly far from Brasov. Romania thus far hadn’t been touristy at all. That all changes when you approach Bran Castle. Souvenir shops and stands abound. You can purchase whatever Dracula paraphernalia you’d like here.
The castle itself is interesting. Cold, drafty and bare it was a medieval fortress and then a royal residence. Decorated in October, the castle definitely plays up the Dracula theme to appeal to tourists. Make your money, Bran Castle. The views from the balconies are breathtaking.
After walking the drafty Bran Castle, you may wish to detour to Sinaia to see a real castle. Peles Castle was much more my speed.
Peles Castle was built at the request of King Carol I. Let’s just say, King Carol knew how to build a castle! Set in the Carpathian Mountains, the castle is a superb example of stunning wood and glass work with beautifully kept grounds.
Sinaia is a place I’d visit again. Full of the huge homes of the wealthy, it’s in a really lovely part of Romania. Alas, time is short, vacation doesn’t last forever, and we were off to our last stop: Bucharest.
The capital city of Romania, Bucharest, is large and cosmopolitan. There was no way we were going to see even a fraction of what the city had to offer in our short time here, but we tried.
The historic part of the city is walkable. It’s filled with old buildings being used as shops, apartments, restaurants. And, in reality, it’s just as charming as some of the smaller towns and villages.
Modern and historic, Bucharest’s Revolution Square is the spot where the country’s Revolution reached its peak. It was in this square that Ceausescu regularly made speeches. In December 1989, his last speech, erupted into violence. Ceausescu and his wife fled by helicopter, but were captured and executed days later.
Ceausescu and his wife never got to take up residence in their matching mansions. His, just slightly smaller than the Pentagon, is now The Palace of Parliament. Neighborhoods were wiped out to make space for this building. History and people’s generational homes were lost to make way for this show of wealth and power. Walking through the humongous and ornate structure was surreal. No one person could possibly need such a space. Nor need a space so ornate. (One might see echoes of Ceausescu in Trump’s gold leaf apartments).
After much debate about what to do with the monstrosity of a building, it was turned into the people’s building. It now houses Parliament and is rented out for conferences and the like.
The inside is filled with ornamentation, some of it quite beautiful, like the glass in the parliamentary chambers, modeled after those found in Paris.
There are many other things to see in Bucharest. Don’t miss the Romanian Orthodox Patriarchal Cathedral. (Another church where you’re likely to visit during a service).
Bucharest is a lovely city and one I hope to spend more time in. If you happen to visit in the warmer months, make sure to check out Bucharest’s block parties. The city closes off the streets through the historic district so people can stroll, shop, enjoy music and dance. It was a fun time and a great send off on our last night in Romania.
Want more photos? Visit my Romania album on Flickr!