"If Romania has slipped under your radar (like it had for me) and the name generates ideas of Dracula and horse and carts, I strongly advise you to get over there as soon as possible and discover this fascinating country as it really is.
Landing in Bucharest in 26 degree heat and bright sunshine I was feeling very excited to meet my new Explore Tour Leaders for training and to have a few days to discover the country for myself. As we headed to our training location, Sinaia, the temperature slid down and the clouds rolled over and, having just left a beautifully sunny London, I wasn’t best pleased! However, when we arrived the view was well worth the single figure celsius.
As always I had a great time training our new Tour Leaders. It’s a pleasure to get to know them individually, but also to see them get to know one another too - at this session was a mix of Tour Leaders from Romania, Albania, Serbia and Russia. Sinaia was a perfect setting for our practical session as we spent the morning hiking up to Queens Clearing, following in the footsteps of many of Explore’s walking groups. We then spent the afternoon in the castles of Peles and Pelesior - the places that make Sinaia such an attractive stop between Bucharest and Brasov.
After very successful training sessions, I set out on a three day recce to absorb as much knowledge of Romania as possible and see some of the beautiful sights that our customers experience on our tours. In two days we covered 900km! I was very lucky to be accompanied by very knowledgeable local Tour Leader Tudor who endeavoured to tell me everything I wanted to know about his home country in just 72 hours. What I found most interesting about Romania is how so many different influences from varying cultures across Europe and Central Asia have made it what it is today. Romania’s chequered past is still visible in everyday life and Tudor was very happy to talk me through the past politics, occupations, ruling empires and revolutions.
The Carpathian Mountain ranges are the natural divider between the three main regions of Romania – Transylvania to the north-west, Moldavia to the north-east and Wallachia in the south. In times gone by the mountains have acted as natural fortresses in many a war between parties fighting to call Romania their own. Because of this, it was often the case that the three regions belonged to different empires or rulers at any one time and this is now very obvious in the architecture and food you may experience in these different areas today.
Let me take you to Brasov firstly, one of my favourite stops. Pronounced Brash-ov, this town is found in Transylvania and as you drive in from the south it looks like many ex-communist towns with bleak apartment high-rise buildings lining the horizon. However, ignore your first impressions and get into the hub of the town where a lot of the old architecture, including the city gates and fort walls, still remain. The old town has a very strong Saxon feel to it and you wouldn’t be wrong to liken it to a town in Germany’s Bavarian region. Once a purely Protestant area dominated by German Saxons, it still has active German schools, mostly attended by Romanian children now, and some Protestant churches - although nowhere near as many as there once was. The town square is a lovely place to sit and watch the world go by. There are also some great points of interest including The Black Church, the town’s most narrow street and any bar which serves beer by the litre is worth a visit!
We then moved on to Sibiu, the other big town in Transylvania and Brasov’s well known rival. It's yet to make it on to our itineraries but I’m hoping to change that! Much like Brasov, Sibiu is also steeped in history and has a very Germanic feel to it. The town is tourist friendly with lots of pedestrianised areas, little alleyways and old staircases which link the towns upper and lower levels. Sibiu was once a very wealthy citadel and much of the old architecture remains in all its glory. It also has an air of romance about it including at the Bridge of Lies. This was the first iron bridge in Romania and it’s said that if you told a lie whilst on the bridge it would collapse, but it’s also a known place where lovers would meet to declare their love and in more recent times to attach padlocks to the bridge as a symbol of their love. There is also a wonderful gothic cathedral which is open to the public for a small fee and boasts the country’s largest organ.
Let’s move on to Moldavia; it’s warmer! Well we were very lucky with the weather on this occasion and Tudor took me to see where our Moldova and Romania tour customers will be white-water rafting this summer on the Buzau River. Tudor, a keen white-water rafter himself, was very excited at the great water levels whereas I on the other hand was relieved we didn’t have the time to test it out! However for those of you that fancy some adventure in amongst your cultural experiences, this tour could well be the one for you. Or if white-water rafting isn’t your thing then there’s also the option on this tour to visit a church and hermitages complex that are built into the mountain side, which I was very fortunate to go up to see. The drive is a bumpy one, which is why we use four-wheel drive vehicles to take us through traditional villages that usually see very few visitors. The houses are sporadically built up the hillside and feature the typical wooden outhouse tostore hay and muddy backyards for their animals. And then you reach the church. It’s hard to believe that this tiny church built into the hillside is still active, but when we visited many of the locals were still milling around following the earlier Sunday service. You can also take a walk up to see the living spaces that have been built into the side of the mountain hundreds of years ago. It’s unknown whether these were homes of the villagers or were occupied by monks but they generally consist of one or two stone rooms and you can still see the dark patches from where they had their fires burning.
A curious highlight of Romania that’s found at Berca are the cold mud volcanoes. Similar to those in Iceland, except without the heat and the strong sulphuric smell, these bubbling mud pools are moonlike - but watch your step! Otherwise, like me, you will end up standing in thick grey mud up to your ankles!
Before moving on to Bucharest to discover the capital, let me talk a little about food. I had no idea what to expect but I love food so I’m normally okay wherever I go and I certainly wasn’t let down by Romania. Firstly the portion sizes do err on the edge of huge – fine by me! The cuisine isn’t typical to Romania itself because they have been influenced by the Germans, Russians, Turkish and certainly the Balkans. When I asked Tudor what the national dish is he wasn’t sure. I loved the mix of food! Typically, like in the Balkans, there is a lot of meat on the menus, which I personally love. But fear not if you are vegetarian because the cities and larger towns have plenty of variety on offer and, having met the couple that runs one of our small village accommodations, I don’t doubt you’ll be eating just as heartily as the rest! The Romanians are keen sharers of food so I quickly got used to Tudor trying my food and me his. I would recommend beef soup - I tried this in several places and it was delicious. Sarmale is similar to the mincemeat wrapped in vine leaves in Greek and Turkish cuisine except it is made with cabbage leaves and, finally, always have desert! Oh, and everything comes with sour cream!
My final stop was Bucharest and the weather was even warmer. All I can say is WOW! This is a must see. The old city has a very strong Parisian feel to it, for reasons you’ll discover when you’re there, and the signs of the Soviet Union are still very apparent. Here Soviet rule is only just history and communism is a not so distant memory. The city is a perfect illustration of Romania’s changeable history.
- If you’re short on time then you can travel to Romania with us on our Transylvania Backwaters short break to experience the culture and wildlife of this fascinating region.
- If you’re looking for something more in-depth then our Village Folklore and Danube Delta tour offers you a great insight into the country’s highlights.
- If you want to get out and about on foot then our Trekking The Transylvanian Alps holiday is a great option.
- If you want to visit many of the areas I did and have the chance to experience Moldova as well then there’s our new Moldova and Romania tour that gives you a great introduction to these two unique countries.
However you choose to visit, I urge you to forget about your preconceptions of Romania and get out and experience it for yourself."