As the holiday season is in full swing, BR takes you on a whistle-stop tour of some of Romania’s highlights, from its rustic reaches to the crowded capital. Whether you’re fresh off the plane or have lived here all your life, there’s plenty to see, do, eat and drink in this colorful country.
By Paul Barbu
TRANSYLVANIA: FROM DRACULA TO DACIANS
For many foreigners, Romania is practically synonymous with Transylvania, the romantic region popularized by Bram Stoker in his famous novel Dracula.
Costin Corboianu’s company, Travel Vacante, offers Romanian and foreign tourists a series of tours in Transylvania, from the east (Bistrita Nasaud, Mures) to the west (Timis and Bihor).
“We have tours lasting between five and seven days, in which we reach the most important landmarks of this area, and here we are talking about castles, natural reserves and also popular cities such as Cluj-Napoca, Oradea, Arad, Sighisoara and Brasov. For tourists we also have trails that include a number of lesser known natural reserves, such as the caves in the Apuseni Mountains, the Cave of Bears, the Biseat Bridge, and the Crystal Cave,” says Corboianu.
He has a special focus on the traditions of the Romanian people. Through his project Proud of Romania, tourists will go this summer to Bistrita Nasaud County, where they will spend three days visiting the most important attractions, including the memorial houses of major Romanian writers, the Guards’ Museum, and Colibita Lake, while meeting authentic folk craftsmen of the region. Everything will end with a tasting of palinca and the famous Lechinta wine.
The remaining fortified Saxon churches in the region number about 250, seven of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. But even excluding these jewels, there are extraordinary churches to visit, such as Herina, a unique church in the Romanic style, built by the Saxons.
“It is known that when Saxons were brought to the Hungarian kings, they were settled at the crossroads separating the Hungarian kingdom from Moldova and Tara Romaneasca. We also have a separate program for the fortresses and fortified churches in Transylvania, so we will go to Prejmer, Valea Viilor, Biertan, Calnic, and Darjiul, the only Szekler church included among UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites. We usually see six Szekler and Saxon churches. The church at Darjiu is very little known, but it is a real jewel that I recommend visiting,” Corboianu advises.
Depending on the duration of the trip or tour specifics, prices start from RON 250 per person and reach some RON 1,200 per tour.
If you’re after culinary experiences, Romania has unique areas. But you cannot talk about food without mentioning wine, and in Transylvania there are two such areas, Jidvei, where wine was brought by the Saxons, and the Recas area where it was brought by the Banat Swabians. In Transylvania, where fattier food is more popular, there is no borsch, but soup. Over 70 percent of traditional dishes are cooked with milk or sour cream and, of course, no table is complete without a bottle of palinka (fruit brandy).
“We have a very interesting offering that brings together all the historical areas of Romania called The Most Beautiful Romanian Villages, where tourists can see the ten most beautiful villages in Romania. Apart from Cirnea, which was the first Romanian touristic village, there are also Rimetea, Botiza, Cazanesti or Ciocanesti, where we made an entire circuit for tourists who wanted to discover the rural Romania. In the summer months, we plan to visit Dabaca fortress, the mining town Baia Sprie, Blue Lagoon (a lake formed in a sand quarry) and Tara Oasului, a region where all traditions are kept alive. And on the subject of nature reserves, in the Sebes area we have Rapa Rosie and Crisul Gorge,” Corboianu added.
In Moldova, experts say tourists should not miss: Bicaz Gorges, Neamt and Suceava Fortresses, and the well-known monasteries Agapia, Varatec, Bistrita (Neamt County), Moldovita, Sucevita, Voronet, and Humor (Suceava County).
“For the monastery tour we recommend staying in the Fundu Moldovei area (Suceava County), in Cerbului Domain, the Gura Humorului Area, and Inima Bucovinei Boarding House. It is possible to follow mountain and ecotourism trails in the Ceahlau National Park, and we recommend staying in Brates, Tarcau (Neamt County), Rodna Mountains, and the Calimani Mountains,” said Maria Stoian, president of the National Association of Romanian Rural Ecological and Cultural Tourism (ANTREC).
Following the Wine road
The Ministries of Tourism in Romania and the Republic of Moldova have established a partnership promoting the “Stefan cel Mare Route”. This includes tourist attractions and destinations related to the history of the Moldavian ruler as well as vineyards, 24 historical and cultural sites in Romania and about ten in the Republic of Moldova, including: Putna Monastery, Neamt Fortress and Iasi Palace of Culture.
“For wine routes, for example, the best time to visit is in autumn when tourists can take part in picking grapes, see how the wine is made, pick fruit from orchards and other similar activities. Summer is best for hiking in nature in the mountains, and winter is loaded with traditions and customs, especially around the winter holidays. The same goes for spring when Easter is popular with tourists, especially since we are in the homeland of the painted egg,” the ANTREC chief said.
An egg-cellent attraction
ANTREC Romania has promoted the area of Ciocanesti, Suceava County, for over 25 years. The Trout Festival is held this area, around the feast of St. Mary, an occasion on which the area is celebrated on the Bistrita Aurii shore. Ciocanesti stands out as a true open-air museum, where the houses are “painted” like Easter eggs and boast decorations specific to Bucuvina.
In Ciocanesti tourists can also visit a museum of painted eggs, see exhibited dowry boxes, trout farms, and follow hiking trails in the Suhard massif. To make the most of Ciocanesti, ANTREC recommends accommodation at the Viorica agrotourist boarding house, which is especially popular with foreign tourists.
“We also recommend visits to the Lamp Museum in Campulung Moldovenesc, the Workshop of the Craftsman Ionela Lungu from Neamt Fortress, Ion Creanga’s House in Humulesti, Bojdeuca lui Creanga (the house where the writer lived between 1872 and 1889) in Iasi, and Eminescu’s Linden Tree,” added Stoian. Prices start at RON 150 / room / night, including breakfast, depending on season, activities etc.
Top festivals for foreign tourists
Every autumn, in Oituz, Bacau County, ANTREC organizes the gourmet Pies Festival, as well as the promotion of traditions and historical settlements in the Oituz step and hospitality in Moldavia. Do not miss popular portraits, local folklore dances, and visits to the historical, cultural and natural sites of the area.
In Botosani, on December 31, the commune of Vorona hosts the Winter Dining and Customs Festival, where tourists flock to discover the traditions of Botosani. The event includes a parade of mascots, the promotion of winter gastronomy, and traditional music.
Hanu Ancutei, the outlaws’ gathering place
The inn called Hanu Ancutei, which boasts three centuries of tradition, looks like time stood still. Rooms have a medieval look that is surpassed only by the atmosphere created by the musicians playing centuries-old songs. And the food is highly reputed: locals say that if you don’t love Moldova for anything else you will love it for the food.
An unsalted polenta like a smiling sun is placed in the middle of your table, amid distinctly tasting dishes. On one side you will receive cheese, sour cream, bacon and a fried egg. On a wooden platter an array of meats will wait patiently to be tasted, all washed down with a cold glass of local wine. Or, if you think you can take it, try a few small glasses of tuica – but don’t blame us if you quickly get merry!
A room costs no more than EUR 30, and if you want to dine like a king with a table full of Moldavian goodies it will likely set you back less than EUR 50.
Periodically, Hanu Ancutei, in Tupilati, Neamt, organizes Romanian evenings, being a cultural and tourist landmark of the Neamt lands. The owner won the Golden Margarita Award for Gourmet Diversity and Culinary Experiences.
Also in Neamt, tourists can visit the Targu Neculai Ethnographic House-Museum, where an exhibition of hundreds of masks of various shapes and colors will delight tourists.
DOBROGEA: THE DANUBE DELTA AND THE SEASIDE
Nature lovers should head for the Danube Delta, where a true ecosystem will be revealed. Rare or unique animal species in the world make their homes in one of the largest deltas on the continent. Tourists can take a ride in a local’s cart along the sandy paths of the Letea Forest. Lipovenian traditions (specific to Russian ethnic groups called lipovenians) must be “tasted” at least once in life.
Those who prefer to stay close to civilization can choose the “wild” atmosphere of the Romanian seaside, where, from Mamaia to Vama Veche, the fun doesn’t stop all summer. The white nights in Mamaia are surpassed only by the rock and folk of Vama Veche, where the beach is home to adventurous youngsters who sleep off the excesses of the night before to the gentle lapping of the waves. The wine cellars in Dobrogea are also a must-do for oenophiles.
BUSTLING BUCHAREST – THE GATEWAY TO ROMANIA
Bucharest is getting harder to visit because it has become very crowded. “With very small groups, we can go on foot, but it is indescribably busy: cars, bikes, scooters. A simple transfer from the airport to the city center takes more than an hour. This is inhuman from a tourist point of view. We have several apartments for rent in the center of Bucharest, at University Square, and from there we organize city walking tours because generally if you want to do it by car it is very difficult,” said Dan Anghelescu, owner of La Piovra Turista.
His firm runs trips around Bucharest, the bestselling of which is Two Castles, One Day, on which tourists leave in the morning, visit Peles and Bran castles and pass through Brasov before returning to Bucharest. The 12-hour trip with an English-speaking guide includes transport and entrance to the sights. Tourists who do not speak English can use videophones with the same explanations in German, Spanish, Italian and French.
“We offer traditional dinners at Hanul lui Manuc, Caru cu bere, and Teresa Doamnei. We have set menus ranging from EUR 30 to 55,” Anghelescu told BR. He added that the problem with Bucharest is that it is a last-minute destination, and the average duration of a stay is 1.9 days. In general, it is a departure or arrival port, so there is still work to do, as it’s very difficult to build good quality services over 1.9 days. For last-minute prices, services cannot be of the highest quality.
However, the capital has over 600 tourist attractions, of which, unfortunately, only ten are promoted. According to Oana Danaila, director of the Bucharest Municipal Tourist Company, the city lacks information centers and foreign travelers do not stay for more than two or three days because they do not know what to visit.