Home away from home in Romania

Romania pulls out all the stops to welcome Israelis.

December 11, 2016 00:49
4 minute read.

A horse-drawn cart in Bran, Romania . (photo credit: BEN FISHER)

 Israel seems to pop up no matter where you turn in Romania.

From the two brothers from Ashdod waving around nearly 10,000 euros in 500 euro bills in our Bucharest hotel lobby, to the 70-year-old medical tourists from Holon we bumped into, to Mihail Rosenberg, an Israeli who began a winery a few hours drive outside of the capital, there seems to be a very strong Israeli presence in the country.

Even so, the Romanian government is pushing for even more Israeli tourists. At a meeting with government officials in Bucharest, as Romanian planes were taking off to battle the flames engulfing Israeli cities and towns, the politicians championed the fact that Romania has had uninterrupted diplomatic relations with the Jewish state since 1948.

They made the point that they want the Israelis who come to visit the country to consider Romania their “second home.”

“And it’s easy for them to feel that way,” a minister of tourism explained. “Israelis and Romanians are very similar people, both the good qualities and the bad!” Certainly the group of Israeli journalists I was traveling with were made to feel at home, with people offering us snacks and tuica, an abhorrently strong Romanian plum brandy, every step of the way. We were fed like geese being prepared for foie gras, sometimes enduring four meals a day.

We flew into the capital city of Bucharest, where the sky was gray and Communist architecture dominates much of the city. But as we drove north, stopping at a gas station where kebabs were being grilled outside over a wood fire, the skies started to clear. We spent the afternoon in the mountainous town of Sinaia, named by a 17th century Romanian prince who traveled to St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai, had his ailments cured, and returned to the Carpathian Mountains and built a monastery that he named after the peninsula. The first lunch of the day was served at the Rina Sinaia Hotel, where the Israeli general manager welcomed us, and seemed eager to have some guests with whom he could speak Hebrew.

He cited the clean mountain air, the skiing, casinos where Israelis like to play blackjack and roulette, and the security that Romania offers as reasons why Israelis come to the country. The country’s security has been stepped up significantly since six young vacationing Israelis died in a 2012 bus bombing – allegedly sponsored by Hezbollah – in Burgas, in neighboring Bulgaria. As we got back on the road toward Brasov, there was enough snow on the ground to excite the Israelis, and our driver rolled his eyes when someone requested that he stop to allow us to take photos of the minuscule dusting.

Further north we went, into the wooded region of Transylvania, known for Romania’s most famous export. Romanian folklore predicts that the mystical figure of Dracula, based on the very real and very violent Vlad the Impaler, a 15th-century Wallachian ruler, will return in a second coming type scenario. At Dracula’s Castle, a Teutonic 15th-century residence perched on a hill in Bran, our guide deadpanned all the reasons she thought that he had already been reincarnated in the form of her mother-in-law.

Wine is big in Romania. Our guide said that most Romanian houses in the countryside have grapes growing in the front yard.

“They make wine from the grapes they grow, and then they go to the store and buy some more,” he told us as our tour van hurtled towards Rotenberg Winery.

The business was begun by Mihail Rotenberg, an Israeli who worked in hi-tech for many years before becoming fed up with the system, moved to Romania in the early 2000’s and opened his winery in 2003. He bought the first hectare of land for 2000 euros.

Rotenberg felt that it was a steal.

The seller felt the same way, and as a result brought to Rotenberg friends and neighbors who wanted to sell their land. Without much knowledge of winemaking, Rotenberg kept things simple. He grows only Merlot grapes, uses no chemicals or machinery in the harvesting process, and doesn’t filter the wine. Though he’s learned more about the process of making wine, these aspects haven’t changed.

On the last day of our visit, we paid a visit to the Romanian Parliament.

Initially commissioned by deposed president Nicolae Ceausescu, with plans for a room with a retractable ceiling in which to land his helicopter, the building was only finished after his ouster and execution in 1989.

The second-largest administrative building in the world after the US Pentagon, it is a study in unnecessary opulence with Romanian marble, crystal and gold leaf all used in excess and extravagance.

More than half of the people in the group touring the massive structure were Israeli – even excluding the journalists.

If you’ve been to Paris, London and Rome, if low prices, fresh mountain air, casinos and the spookiness of Transylvanian forests sound appealing, Romania is only a two-and-a-half-hour flight away, and they will be more than happy to have you.

The writer was a guest of the Romanian Embassy in Israel.

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