Rustic Romania

"All the stories we had heard about simple farming folk getting around with horse-drawn carts turned out to be absolutely spot on."

The old rural way of life persists in many parts of Romania (photo credit: BARRY DAVIS)
The old rural way of life persists in many parts of Romania
(photo credit: BARRY DAVIS)
Before my trip over there toward the end of the summer, Romania to me was just a mélange of imagined landscapes and colorful ethnic groups, and a vague idea of what Bucharest might have to offer. In the event, my suppositions turned out to be not too far off the reality mark.
My trip was sparked by an invitation to attend the George Enescu Festival in Bucharest. The biennial event is one of the highlights of the global classical music circuit and it was an honor to be hosted there. It was also a pleasure to catch the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra with Zubin Mehta on the conductor’s dais – hobbling somewhat unsteadily following a recent accident – and the IPO putting in a masterful rendition of Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1, followed by a similarly polished performance of Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony.
The Enescu Festival is a big deal in Romania, and attracts huge audiences from across the country, elsewhere in Europe and the world.
“We have people coming here this year from 41 countries,” noted festival executive director Mihai Constantinescu when we met prior to a rendition of Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 by the National Radio Orchestra, supported by eight vocalists.
“This festival is very important for Romania. In many ways it represents Romania and Romanian art,” Constantinescu added.
The opening night was attended by Romanian President Klaus Iohannis and several other VIPS, and the 3,000-seat Sala Palatului was packed to the rafters for the occasion, as it was for all the other concerts I attended there.
It was interesting to note that the audience members seemed to come from across-the-board socioeconomic sectors and walks of life. Classical music clearly enjoys robust health in Romania – at least in Bucharest.
I STARTED my 10-day Romanian sojourn in the bucolic climes of Transylvania in the northwestern part of this generously proportioned country.
After landing at Bucharest airport, I caught a connecting domestic flight to Cluj and was met by a genial tour guide named Dan, provided by the local Antrec tourism authority.
It soon transpired that Dan’s English was somewhat less than Oxfordian, and all sorts of “Danisms,” such as “glomorat,” had to be construed in order to make sense. Glomorat, I eventually guessed, meant traffic jam, while “cruze” was nearer the mark and meant cross.
Something that had more serious implications for the enjoyment we could expect to glean from the Transylvania tour came to light just a few miles down the road, when it became uncomfortably clear that Dan’s car’s air-conditioning was well below par. It was around 33º outside at the time. But Dan proved to be a smiley, accommodating character and took us to see many a beautiful and inspiring sight as we crisscrossed our (un-air-conditioned) way across sunny, enchanting Transylvania.
We kicked off with a truly astounding tourist attraction – the salt mines at Turda. We had been forewarned that we were going to see something special, but nothing could really have prepared us for what we actually saw and felt.
As you walk through the corridors, hacked out of black salt, with a sumptuous palette of gray and white veins running through the darker stuff at intriguing angles, your first impression is of an immediate sharp drop in temperature.
Then you marvel at the impossible smoothness of the walls and ceiling, sculpted to perfection by the drafts of air that are constantly funneled in from the outside.
While that was impressive enough, what followed was definitely in the gobsmacking category. As you approach the end of the lead-in corridor, you suddenly become aware of a sense of something cavernous ahead. To say the mine’s main chamber is vast would be to damn with faint praise. The open area spreads laterally several dozen meters, with the base of the chamber a full 126 meters below ground level.
When you get all the way down to the bottom – we took two elevators down but, on the way back up, I opted to climb the hundreds of stairs, which really brings home the elevation element – you encounter something akin to a weird and wonderful fun park, with strangely themed compact enclosures dotted around the place. And there is even a diminutive boating lake, which allows you to get close up to the sleek dark walls. Incredibly, there are even some Dr. Seuss- like beaded stalactites to marvel at.
Mining began at Turda as long ago as Roman times and ceased in the 1930s. It has been a very popular tourist spot for over 20 years.
WE HOLED up at the homey La Maison de Caroline hotel in Alba Iulia for the first couple of nights, where the welcoming members of staff added further gloss to the more than comfortable accommodation. They even catered to our vegan dietary needs, as did other hotels and various eateries, although it must be said that after a few days we got a little tired of rice and eggplant.
Dan, our guide, hails from Alba Iulia, and we got a right royal tour of the citadel there, with its pair of churches – the Romanian Orthodox Church and St. Michael’s Cathedral – the latter pertaining to the Roman Catholic denomination.
The former, like all Orthodox Christian houses of prayer, was a much more ornate affair than its neighbor, and Dan was at pains to note that “nowhere else in the world can you find two churches so close together.” There are barely 100 meters between the two spired edifices.
The tourism authorities and local municipality have done a good job with sprucing the place up and maintaining the aesthetics, and a walking tour of the three-century-old citadel, with its museum, appealing sculptures and expansive plazas, makes for a rewarding experience.
The same could be said for Sibiu, around 75 km. to the southeast, a journey of just over an hour. The roads in Romania are generally not of Western highway standard, and there can be the odd “glomorat.” Sibiu is a pleasantly appointed city with verdant shaded parks, often populated by folks who seem to have plenty of time on their hands, to while away the day sitting on benches or engaging in an animated game of chess or backgammon.
Sibiu’s historic center is chock-full of fetching structures, some dating from medieval times. The Catholic church to the side of the expansive main square, like all the other aged buildings, was well maintained and in sparkling condition.
Our walk also took in the Evangelical church with its towering gothic-style spire, the council tower and the Brukenthal National Museum, said to be one of the finest repositories of art in the country.
But it was the old common or garden bits of the old part of the town that really caught the eye and the heart – the web of narrow streets and alleyways that snake their way around the more monumental core of Sibiu, with the centuries-old red brick walls and buttresses and tiled roofs.
Much of that can be espied from the Bridge of Liars. Legend has it that should a dishonest person venture onto the bridge, it will immediately crumble. Apparently, I am kosher.
The Pharmacy Museum, located in one of the first pharmacy outlets in Europe, dating from the 16th century, provides some cozy respite and interest after all the outsized sights.
MEANWHILE, OUTSIDE the main tourism sector, the Orthodox church, with its soaring twin spires, is somewhat reminiscent of the Neolog Synagogue in Budapest – although the latter is of far more voluminous proportions – and the interior is sumptuous almost to a fault.
But what I found most intriguing about the aesthetics of rural Romania or, should we say, anywhere outside Bucharest, is the street-level stuff. It was fascinating to take in the abodes of the small towns and villages we passed through, as we zigzagged our way across Transylvania. En route to Brasov, for example, we caught sight of houses whose tiled roofs appeared to be a zither-strength air shift away from collapse, while some locals had clearly fared better since the Communist dictatorship finally ended, and their houses sported renovated tiles and external walls sans pockmarks.
There were delectable mundane “vision-bites” galore, if one only took the trouble to peek behind some of the made-over exteriors. You could, for example, quietly venture into a cobbled backyard surrounded by three or four abodes that could do with a lick or two of paint and probably some restructuring, too. It was in such spots that you got a sense of real rural Romania. And often on the main streets, too, you’d find an aged structure whose timeworn beauty was still there to be enjoyed, between the cracks and crumbling plaster.
Museums, while providing neat presentations of local art, can often feel contrived. But the Astra National Museum Complex, just outside Sibiu, is anything but. The 96 hectare site is a gigantic open-air museum that provides the visitor with a pretty accurate idea of the range of traditional styles of architecture and agriculture from all over Romania.
There are, for example, a bunch of windmills in various structural styles, farmhouses – replete with heritage-compatible interiors – the Universal Ethnography Museum, Museum of Transylvanian Civilization and Museum of Saxon Ethnography and Folk Art. A Museum of the Culture and Civilization of the Romany People is also in the planning.
Thankfully, we also got the opportunity to spend some time with Mother Nature, with a traipse along a river – and a refreshing dip in the fast-flowing cold water – through the Rameteliui Gorge and nature reserve a short drive northwest of Alba Iulia. It was heartening to note that the simple rural way of life portrayed at the Astra complex actually exists, and we saw a number of small farmsteads, complete with thatched roofs en route.
ONE OF the highlights of the trip was the visit to Bran. For starters it was the only time we had some respite from the oppressive – largely un-air-conditioned – heat. The small town, best known for the Dracula connections of the local castle, sits at a mite over 1,000 meters above sea level and, tourist traps notwithstanding, the place exudes a refreshing sense of untainted bucolic beauty.
We stayed at the Pensiunea La Busu, which is run by a lovely chap by the name of Christian who spent eight years working in Israel, in construction, and has more than a smattering of street-level Hebrew, in addition to excellent English. The place itself is charming, and Christian pulled out all the stops to vary our vegan dishes.
The castle itself is a sight to behold. Sitting atop a hill, the 13th-century fortress is a picturesque structure, complete with red-tiled turrets and a narrow, cobblestoned courtyard overlooked by several tiers of balconies.
It was from these structural overhangs, as well as the yard, that we enjoyed a couple of days of superb entertainment, courtesy of the annual Bran Jazz Festival, with veteran Norwegian guitarist Terje Rydal, Danish trumpeter Palle Mikkelborg, German cellist Jorg Brinkmann and his trio, and irrepressible Italian pianist Stefano Bollani – who has graced the Opera House stage in Tel Aviv on several occasions – in the stellar lineup.
Back down nearer sea level, we also enjoyed a visit to the Peles Castle, which served as the summer home of King Carol I, who ruled the roost in Romania in the second half of the 19th century until his death in 1914.
When we finally made it to Bucharest for the Enescu Festival, it became immediately apparent that the capital is an entirely different kettle of lifestyle and socioeconomic fish.
Betwixt the flash cars and the accelerated pace of life, the old part of the town was quaint in a sort of slightly more up-market, Nahalat Binyamin way, and the preposterously colossal parliament building, which was designed to serve as the seat of Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, has to be seen to be believed. When the Berlin Wall fell, at the end of 1989, the 1,100-room edifice was almost complete. It is worthwhile taking a stroll along the left side of the building to the National Museum of Contemporary Art, which puts on several fine shows, while the Parcul Herastrau park is a lovely, expansive, urban green lung.
But it is the lush countryside of Romania that really enchanted us. All the stories we had heard about simple farming folk getting around with horse-drawn carts turned out to be absolutely spot on, and there is plenty in the way of unfussy rustic heritage museums, such as in the Alba County village of Rimetea.
 The writer was a guest of the Romanian Cultural institute and the Antrec Tourism Authority. For more information visit and