Compared to the slow pace of Bulgaria, Romania is very busy. As soon as we crossed the border, there were suddenly cars and people everywhere, spilling out of shops, bars and restaurants, loud music playing, sirens blaring, roundabouts, traffic lights and constant traffic jams. Romanians drive like very fast lunatics. We had to dramatically increase our personal operating speed to keep up.
I’ve always wanted to explore Romania for its fascinating folklore, fairytale castles, and dark forests with wolves and bears. Especially Transylvania, the home of vampires. So, we skirted around Bucharest and drove directly north, to Transylvania. My inner Goth was filled with glee when the apartment we rented in the small medieval city of Brașov had a balcony overlooking the cemetery.
Brașov is everything I imagined a Transylvanian city should be. It’s nestled in amongst the forested Carpathian Mountains with steep streets, pretty squares, dramatic buildings, brooding gothic churches and an abundance of turrets, spikes and spires. It looks like the kind of place where magic happens.
The area surrounding Brașov has more than its fair share of magnificent castles, perched on top of pointy hills. The most famous one is Bran Castle built in 1377, and known as ‘Dracula’s Castle’. The link to Dracula is tenuous at most. Vlad the Impaler (aka Vlad Dracula) may have stayed there once. It’s set up like a tourist theme park but it looks exactly as a vampire’s castle should, so it’s still an amazing castle to see.
While staying in Brașov, I got an emergency alert on my phone warning not to go outside because there’s a dangerous bear out there. Since Romania has more than half of the European Brown Bears in the wild (about 7000), you’d think it would be easy enough to see them. Not so, for us anyway. Bear attacks seem to be surprisingly common and although the bears are protected, a certain number of ‘troublesome’ bears are allowed to be shot each year. As happens everywhere, horrible people are willing to pay lots of money for the ‘honour’ of murdering one of these magnificent creatures for fun. Earlier this year an Austrian Prince killed Arthur, Romania’s biggest and oldest bear as a ‘trophy’.
Although we didn’t see any bears in the wild, we saw lots of rescued ones at the Libearty Bear Sanctuary. These wonderful people do great work. Most of the bears they rescued initially were from circuses and other ‘entertainment’ type situations. They believe there are now no more bears left in captivity in Romania. Current rescues are either orphaned cubs when their mother is killed by a car or bears that are harassing people and would otherwise be shot. The bears are huge! Almost as big as grizzlies and with really long sharp claws. They look like giant fluffy dogs but would be pretty damn scary if they weren’t happy to see you.
One region of Transylvania is made up almost entirely of Saxon villages established by German colonists in the 12th century. It’s like stepping back into Germany in the Middle Ages and life doesn’t seem to have changed all that much. After almost 1000 years they still speak German! These farming communities use mainly manual labour, and horses and carts. They have community water wells and use traditional methods of food preservation, arts and crafts. I’ve been fascinated by the haystacks throughout Romania. They are adorable, with individual personalities.
We stayed in the Saxon village of Mălâncrav. I thought I’d booked a private apartment (I’m antisocial like that) but it turned out to be much more communal. In fact, the whole village is like one big vibrant, very noisy family. The people we stayed with were lovely and constantly plied us with food from the garden, homemade whiskey, and traditional cakes. The layout of each village is similar, with distinctively shaped, brightly painted cottages and a fortified church. As the biggest and most important building in the village, the churches were ‘fortified’ as a defensive stronghold where the whole village could gather to protect themselves from raiders.
Perhaps my favourite city in Transylvania so far is Sighișoara. It’s smaller than Brașov but has even more gorgeous buildings, domes and spires and feels even more medieval. It has excellent restaurants, bars and cafes too, with that particular European vibe of cool background music playing everywhere and people out late, eating, drinking and strolling the streets.
The whole time we were in Transylvania, there was a heatwave all across Europe and it was too hot for comfort. We decided to head further north into the Carpathian Mountains to escape the heat and explore the Maramureş region. I think this area of mountains and rolling green valleys is the most beautiful I’ve seen in Romania. Around eighty percent of Maramureş is still forest, so it’s much cooler and there are many more trees than people or cars. While much of Romania is modern Europe, Maramureş is ‘old Romania’ where traditional dress is common and there’s a continuous tradition of folk culture, and crafts such as wood carving.
We made the town of Sighetu Marmatiei our base in Maramureş. It’s right on the Ukraine border and has a different flavour to other places further south. Evidence of the Soviet years has mostly disappeared from much of Romania, but Sighetu still has that Soviet feeling. Disturbingly, one of the main prisons for political dissidents during the Soviet era was here and there is a Monument to the Victims of Communism. This otherwise lovely town is looking a bit shabby at the moment but I think it must once have been grand. It has some really beautiful old stately buildings in need of a coat of paint. I really enjoy these down-at-heel unfashionable places, where there’s no pretence and everything feels somehow more authentic.
Where we stay always has a big impact on my perception of a place. In Sighetu, we were on the ground floor of an old Soviet style apartment building. These are fairly similar all over the ex-Soviet and are shabby on the outside but spacious on the inside. This one had a big verandah closed in with wrought iron. It was such a great place to sit, overlooking the shared flower garden with some big old shady trees and squirrels darting about. Everyone gathers outside these old buildings in the evening and it has a real atmosphere that you can feel part of. Shopping for food at the central market was also a great experience. I don’t think they were used to tourists and we provided great entertainment. Some people ripped us off, others gave us things for free, and all of them laughed at us.
There are so many churches in Romania. I don’t think any other country I’ve seen has as many. Every little village has at least one and sometimes three or four. Christianity has a kind of protective superstitious quality here, as if its main purpose is to ward off evil. As usual, the religious buildings are the most elaborate and the churches are all beautiful works of art. The architectural styles and building materials are incredibly diverse. Some are huge cathedrals and others are the size of a telephone box. Many are total bling with gold or silver domes and spires, shining brightly in the sun. Maramureş is famous for its wooden churches and quite a few are UNESCO world heritage listed. Wood is also used very creatively here for individually unique houses and huge carved gates.
Another interesting thing in Maramureş is the Merry Cemetery in Sapanta. Every cross is painted in cheerful ‘Sapanta Blue’ and has a painting that illustrates the departed person’s life with a little poem that sums them up. The poems are apparently funny but since they’re in Romanian I couldn’t say for sure. It’s such a lovely idea. The Romanian language is an interesting one. It’s so much easier to read than Bulgarian as it uses the Latin alphabet (plus a few extra letters) rather than Cyrillic. It actually seems to have more in common with Italian than it does with Bulgarian. So many more people speak English in Romania too, so communication has been pretty easy.
Being a bit too lazy to hike up mountains if it can be avoided, we found a great alternative way to see the mountains in Maramureş. The ‘Mocanita’, a little puffing billy forestry steam train takes tourists up into the mountains for a full day circuit of huffing and puffing slowly up through the forest and back down. It was great fun in the open carriage but the real highlight was a Romanian woman we met on the train who responded loudly every time the train blew its whistle with “woooohoooo, chika, chika, chika, chika”. I’ll never be able to see a train again without shouting this to myself.
Romania is very pretty. The natural scenery is much like Wales or NSW and the patchwork fields are much like other rural areas in Europe. However, what’s special about Romania is the architecture. The castles, monasteries, churches and public buildings are indeed fabulous but it’s the ordinary houses and cottages that I think are so captivating. I don’t think any two are alike in the whole of Romania. These houses are not your average square white boxes. They’re often not symmetrical at all and can have higgledy-piggledy combinations of turrets, domes and spires, unusually shaped doors and windows, and come in all kinds of unexpected colours and materials. Some even have crosses stuck all over them like a pincushion.
In the villages of Comuna Ciocănești, the houses are painted in the colours and patterns of the local traditional folk embroidery.
We drove across the top of Romania to see the ‘painted monasteries of Bucovina’. They’re famous for their brightly coloured and artistically detailed Byzantine paintings, on both the inside and outside. Seven are on the UNESCO World Heritage list. They illustrate bible stories in pictures for the mostly illiterate medieval villagers, which probably scared the hell out of them. By this time we were suffering from church-fatigue and could only face visiting one of them. We chose the Voronet Monastery, built in 1438, sometimes ambitiously called the ‘Sistine Chapel of the East’. The distinguishing feature of this small and pretty monastery is the intense blue paint, known as Voronet Blue. The artists kept their trade secrets and the paint composition was a mystery for centuries. It’s still vivid after almost 600 years.
The Vânători-Neamț National Park is supposed to be a good place to see bears in the wild, as well as wolves and lynx. It’s also one of the main places in Europe where they’ve reintroduced bison. We didn’t see any of these things. I think it’s very sensible of them to stay as far away from humans as possible. I might have seen bison somewhere before but sometimes I’m not sure if I’ve actually seen something or just read about it. We did have lots of fun driving around all the dirt tracks in the park and experienced a wonderfully fierce hailstorm. It was good for the soul to be out in the forest, breathing with the trees. What we did see was yet another bloody beautiful monastery and random christian altars and icons scattered amongst the trees. Rather unusual, I thought.
Our last stop in Romania was the eastern city of Iasi (bizarrely pronounced ‘Yahsh’). It’s a big modern city with a soul that dates back to 400 BC. It has five universities and all mod cons, including veggie burgers and trams. I really liked Iasi because the people are so friendly. Everyone seems to have time for a chat, from waiters to Uber drivers to our next door neighbours.
We limped across the border into Moldova in our increasingly troubled motor car. We’re pretty sure the clutch is kaput but hoping it’s not anything worse. It seems it’s not possible to get parts for the racing Ford Maverick here in Moldova. We’re not in the EU anymore Toto! After being passed around from one mechanic to another, we’ve left the car in the hands of George, who says he’s going to try to bodgy it up. I think that’s what he said anyway. He said he’s helping us because he’s “a christian and god is good”. We’ll see how that pans out.
Meanwhile, we’re in a nice, cheap and comfortable apartment with good wifi, a desk and chair, two couches, a hot shower and lots of kitchen gadgets. It’s on the 12th floor in a cluster of high-rise apartment buildings in the town of Stăuceni, just north of the capital Chişinău (pronounced ‘Kishinow’). We haven’t seen anything much of Moldova yet but the weather is perfect – blue skies, sunshine and temperatures in the mid-twenties. Everything is incredibly cheap here, especially food (and hopefully mechanics). There’s a good shop and a groovy bar in walking distance. What more do you need? Life is good.
More photos from Romania here in Flickr.