Back to basics in Romania

The capital city is effortlessly cool, the mountains are awe-inspiring and the countryside is charmingly pastoral.

A van drives along the snaking road ascending the Fagaras Mountains (photo credit: LAURA KELLY)
A van drives along the snaking road ascending the Fagaras Mountains
(photo credit: LAURA KELLY)
Just a three-hour flight from Tel Aviv, Romania is a country on the brink of exploding into the world market. Since joining the EU in 2007, Romania has undergone substantial changes, holding itself to a European standard of goods and services offered, a dedication to environmentalism and sustainability, and making attractive destinations for tourists accessible and affordable.
The currency, the Romanian leu (plural lei), is about 1:1 with the shekel, yet prices in Romania are about 50 percent lower than in Israel. They, too, promote a “five lei” Cofix-type shop, but beer and food are markedly cheaper.
While the capital, Bucharest, has undergone an immense change in the past five years – known for a burgeoning music and art scene, it’s being hailed as the “new Berlin,” attractive for Europe’s hipsters – the country offers a variety of natural landscapes, beautifully preserved castles and medieval towns, and promotes its traditional villages and peasant culture.
Fly into Bucharest
Bucharest is a city of contrasts that is constantly evolving. Its buildings and streets offer a time line of the country’s history. Just outside the restored Old City, a statue of a she-wolf suckling two human babies is the story of Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome and the first empire to conquer Romania, named for “the territory of Rome.”
A few short words in a travel article can’t do justice to the history of the Romanian people, their struggles and triumphs. Yet this country, which for centuries was pushed and pulled between competing autocratic rulers, is just beginning to emerge from the darkness. It’s easy to overlook the scars of history, as they’ve undoubtedly faded, but it’s much more difficult to understand how deep they run.
Later conquerors of the strategic landmass – offering multiple trade routes and defensible borders from east to west – include the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire. At the start of the 20th century, the country became independent and gradually acquired surrounding territories, bringing it to its present size. During World War II, Romania first sided with the Nazis, but by 1944 it had switched sides to the Allies. From 1947 to 1989, the country was under an authoritarian Communist rule which came to a bloody end in December 1989, when revolutionary protests broke out across the country and the autocratic leader, Nicolae Ceausescu, and his wife were arrested, put on trial and executed.
Walking around Bucharest today, one can see the influence of each of these time periods. From ornate Baroque architecture in the country’s golden period, to neoclassical and art-deco, and blocks of utilitarian housing, all share space on the same streets.
Wide, expansive boulevards are a testament to Ceausescu’s manic construction in the city, yet grid-like neighborhoods with small alleyways persisted. The city has an abundance of parks and fountains, and graffiti on its buildings gives the impression of artistic expression, not neglect.
In the summer months, garden cafes all over the city draw some of the 30,000 university students, and menus cater to the modern trend of fresh, natural ingredients for healthy meals. The municipality is also conscious of investing in its residents. Almost every weekend in the summer there is a music, art or general festival.
What to eat and drink
Multumesc” is “thank you” in Romanian and “noroc” means cheers, two words that are best used at the arrival of pálinka, a traditional brandy made from fruit, invented in medieval times. The two most popular local beers are Ciuc (pronounced “Chook”) and Ursus. If you are in the villages, make sure to sample some local wine or schnapps, usually deriving from villagers’ own personal vineyards and gardens.
Food-wise, between traditional and modern cuisine, Romanians are at their best when they use local, fresh ingredients. Between summer-ripe tomatoes, farm-raised cows, lamb and pork, and dairy products that range from smooth and mild to pungent and textured, it’s hard to order a bad meal. Influences in cuisine come from the different occupiers of Romania: Hungarian, German and Turkish.
It’s traditional to begin a meal with a broth soup or stew, while the main course involves a variation on meat and potatoes. Vegetarian options do not leave the diner wanting, and mushrooms serve as a fantastic meat substitute. Also, mamaliga – cottage cheese and sour cream on top of hot polenta – is a dish so popular it’s considered the Romanian “nachos.”
Make sure to save room for dessert and order papanasi, fried dough – similar to doughnuts – but filled with sweet cheese and topped with sour cream and dark cherry jam, a favorite among Romanians.
The great outdoors and peasant life
Escape the city – especially when temperatures reach 40° – for refuge in the mountains. Don’t fear traveling into Transylvania. The home of Dracula is not as dark or ominous as its reputation makes it out to be. It instead offers a beautiful and varied landscape. The rising mountains are lush with towering trees, and rolling hills give way to miles of agricultural lands. Hiking and biking trails are marked through some of the most breathtaking scenery, gondola rides are on offer to some of the tallest peaks, yet other adventurers try for a motorcycle trip through the Fagaras Mountains, following a winding road with a waterfall running the length of it.
Viscri: Literally off the beaten path, the road to the small peasant village of Viscri must be traversed with caution, to avoid the potholes. But thanks to the efforts of local resident Carolina Fernolend, the village marked the milestone of 32,000 visitors for 2015.
For an authentic look at Romanian village life, Viscri is both an open-air museum and a living testament to the past. Under Ceausescu, Viscri was slated for destruction to make way for agricultural fields, with its 400 residents to be moved into nearby urban areas. With the fall of communism, Fernolend wanted to do something to preserve Viscri’s unique heritage and lifestyle, yet create a profit for the village. She started the Mihai Eminescu Trust, securing funds for residents to help fix up their homes, add guest rooms, and train residents in craftsmanship.
In 2000, the first year they opened up the village to tourist visits, they welcomed 400 people. By 2015, there were 32,000. Visitors are encouraged to tour the village, visit its 16th-century citadel and church, and eat a meal in its local tavern. Fernolend says that most tourists come on day trips, but that the village has 100 beds so those looking for an authentic experience can spend a night or two in a traditional Romanian home.
Turda Salt Mine: One way to escape the oppressive summer heat is a visit to the Turda Salt Mine. Its underground caverns below offer amazing displays of the vast salt shafts and an interesting lesson in how the mineral was mined. Visitors are instructed to take deep breaths, as the cool temperature and the salt-infused air are beneficial to the lungs. And true to the new, capitalist Romanian spirit, a children’s fun park was opened up in the caverns, complete with a bowling alley, Ferris wheel, mini theater, and boat rides along the caves’ water system. About 60 percent of visitors are domestic tourists, and the salt mines average around 600,000 tourists annually.
Castles, medieval cities and Dracula
Mention Dracula to any Romanian and you’re sure to illicit an eye-roll. Yet the vampire contrived by Irish author Bram Stoker is probably what the area of Transylvania is most known for. The legend lives on, as one can’t escape Dracula paraphernalia, Dracula-inspired restaurants, and tours following the steps of the inspiration for the night creature, Vlad the Impaler. One of these sites include Bran Castle. Secluded in the forested mountains, built high on a rock with a peasant village below, this is where Stoker imagined the rich and reclusive Dracula made his home. The castle does present itself as a worthy setting in a tale that builds on the “dark and stormy” theme, if one can ignore the Disneyland-like environment that has sprouted up around its base. In reality, the castle was more of a guard tower along the east-west trade route, occasionally housing the royal family. The interior is basic and sparse, and Vlad the Impaler spent only a few weeks in the castle, as a prisoner.
The well-worn tourist path, best for architecture and church aficionados, includes a number of cities that follow an arc so that one can leave and return to Bucharest without backtracking. Here are a few highlights:
Sinaia: In the Bucegi Mountains, Sinaia is the closest Transylvanian village to Bucharest, only about two to three hours by car from the city. While there are gondola rides to the mountain peaks, most tourists pass through on their way to see the Peles Castle, the summer residence of the royal family from the late 19th century until 1947. Different architectural styles and themes are employed throughout the castle’s 160 rooms, including the king’s weapons collection room, a small theater and the Arabic tea room. The castle is an impressive display of detailed craftsmanship and world influences on the country.
Brasov: This city is popularly known as the Hollywood of Transylvania – well, not really at all, but a Brasov sign, à la Hollywood, made of big, white letters, sits atop a hill overlooking the city. This medieval town saw its heyday in the 16th century – a strategic city on the trade route. Becoming rich off its taxes, the old city developed into beautiful buildings and cobblestone streets.
The Black Church – a Catholic house of worship – is one of the main attractions. Today the cobblestone streets are lined with café seating, and a crafts and goods market sets up in the town square. Many active tourists will use this city as a jumping-off point to exploring the mountains.
Sighisoara: Down the road from Brasov and into the valley, Sighisoara is an architectural gem of a city. The entire old city is a monument to architecture, and its clock tower is the center point.
It also has a Dracula appeal – a restaurant reportedly occupies the home of the parents of Vlad the Impaler. The restaurant doesn’t disappoint, food- or kitsch-wise. The beautiful Hotel Central Park has the perfect mix of rustic charm – exposed wooden beams, dark wood furniture and skylights, and upscale amenities – Wi-Fi throughout the hotel, flat-screen TVs in the rooms, beds you can melt in and wonderful showers. For a few days of exploring the countryside or renting bikes and traversing the flat plains, Sighisoara is a great base of operations.
Plan your trip
Between five and 10 days are enough time to get a good sense of the country, and the best time of year is anywhere from April to November. There are lots of tour operators that will take you through all the major sites with stays at the nicest hotels, but traveling independently is also an option, as trains and buses run frequently to popular destinations.
The country’s main tourist website, http://romaniatourism.com/index.html, offers good, practical information for planning your visit.

The writer was a guest of the Romanian National Authority of Tourism.


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