Ask the person next to you to talk for one minute about Romania and watch them crumble into a quivering mess of hesitant mumbling followed by sheepish acceptance that they should probably do some swatting. After mentioning Dracula and realising you’ve probably never read it, you’re left clutching at old footballers (Gheorghe Hagi) or questionable musical talents (The Cheeky Girls). For some reason, very few people seem to have any depth of knowledge about the place. From the beautiful beaches of the Black Sea to the eerie forests of Transylvania, Romania is truly a place where East(ern European culture) meets West(ern European culture).
The history of Romania is difficult to condense. After some good old historical fighting between peoples, the first Principality of Romania was formed in the 14th century. Various lands changed hands between various nations a few times before the country gained independence from the Turkish Empire in the late 19th century and formed the basis of what is the Romania we know and love today. After the First World War, a few more bits of land were added on to Romania, including Transylvania. After the Second World War, the tyrannous power of the USSR swept over the nation under the veil of communism, before dissolving in 1989. Ensuing democracy enabled the Romania to join the EU ten years ago and things have been developing there in much the same way as any other EU member state.
How you enter Romania will greatly shape your first impression of the place. Clearly, the obvious first stop is the capital, Bucharest, a large Eastern European hub with a troubled past. As you travel in from the airport, you’ll see the buildings change from generic blocks for the masses, to the grand mansions of the affluent. If you arrive by train, as with many city stations, you’ll find yourself in the middle of a busy area of an unfamiliar foreign city, which can be quite overwhelming. At first glance from the train station, you’ll notice subtle differences from other cities, like the slightly harder selling tourist touts, or the mismatched buildings. These are things you’ll learn to love about the city, but as I said, being plonked straight into all can be a bit of an experience. When attempting to find your accommodation, be very careful when using taxis, especially from the airport. Taxi scams in Bucharest are abundant, low cost offers can be tempting but as the old adage goes: if it sounds too good to be true, use public transport.
Petty crime aside, Bucharest enjoys a relatively low crime rate compared to other European cities. This leaves you soaking in the eclectic architecture with the knowledge that your average street thug is only interested in commandeering your wallet, instead of your life. Communist Romania saw the city grow with archetypal tower blocks springing up all over the place. These were sometimes built as part of a new district, but much of the historical buildings were razed in order to make way for the pieces of art. The idea was to replace the hideously bland neo-classical and art deco buildings with structures which represented social realism. A large part of the destruction of the old city was to make way for the four billion kilogramme Palace of the Parliament. This truly colossal structure, originally built to house the entire government, now boasts three museums, an international conference centre, and various parliamentary offices, amongst other things.
Fact*: Unlike the Great Wall of China, The Palace of the Parliament can actually be seen from space. The city also hosts its very own Arcul de Triumf, modelled after the famed Parisian arc. This, combined with the elegant architecture emanating between the two world wars were how Bucharest obtained its nickname ‘Little Paris’. This was, of course, before Nicolae Ceaușescu knocked down half the city to make way for his marble palace. It is pretty impressive though.
*May be conjecture
After you’ve tired of exploring streets with a 200 year old temple, a skyscraper, and a communist block on the same stretch; head underground to the Politehnica metro station. While the station doesn’t have the striking artistic beauty of the metro stations of St Petersburg, it does have a unique quality. As you walk along the marble floor, you may notice its pink tinge and ornate patterning. What you may not realise, along with many other people, is that you are stepping on 85 million-year-old fossils. The marble was taken from the Apuseni Mountains in the 80’s and placed in the metro station, the architect oblivious to the marble’s hidden secret. This is still a relatively unknown factoid so you may look rather strange on your hands and knees observing the floor in this commuter station, but the Metro system is planning to install ‘interactive palaeontology classes’ inside the station to sate your cretaceous curiosity.
For the history buffs, one of the main points of interest will be visiting an old residence of Vlad the Impaler right in the heart of the city. A reconstruction of where Vlad spent the latter part of this life. As the name suggests, the chap wasn’t known for his pleasantries and tea party decorum. He murdered anywhere up to 100,000 civilians back in the 1400’s, with a preferred method of impaling. Yet, he is seen as a national hero by some; a man who fought for Romanian independence, battled off the Turks, and amassed numerous stories involving impalement. Nowadays, most of this is forgotten with the majority of foreigners more interested in the embellishments of Bran Stoker, thanks to whom you’ll be more familiar with Vlad the Impaler’s real name: Vlad Dracula. The castle is not presently being touted as ‘Dracula’s castle’ so you may be able to visit the place in relative privacy, the main ‘Dracula’s castle’ is, of course, in Transylvania…
In Romania’s northwest, about a three-hour train ride from Bucharest, lies the land for which Romania is best known. Much of the fame derives from the novel, Dracula, so let’s start there. Just outside the tourist city of Brasov, you’ll find a rolling landscape of tree covered mountaintops. On a misty evening, howling wolves on the horizon, one might be forgiven for succumbing to the legends, as in the distance, a break in the greenery reveals the ‘real’ Dracula’s castle. Dum Dum DUUUMMM. Only, there isn’t any strong evidence this castle is the ‘real’ castle. Vlad may have stayed here once or twice in his time but it certainly wasn’t his residence, and Stoker is rumoured to have based his idea of Dracula’s castle on a painting of the castle, other than that, we must rely on what the Romanian tourist board tells us and our vivid imaginations. In any case, it’s a very nice castle.
Bran Castle, along with many others dotted around the area, has a very Bavarian feel to it. This isn’t so coincidental, as German merchants made their way over in the 12th century and started bosching up castles over the next few hundred years. For the hardcore Vlad the Impaler fans, his main fortress was Poenari Castle, which is slowly falling into ruin on a mountaintop a few hours’ drive from Bran. Chosen presumably for its impenetrability, you’ll have to climb nearly 1500 steps to step inside. The choice is yours, Poenari Castle has more historical intrinsicality with Vlad the Impaler, but Bran castle may have stronger ties to Dracula, who despite being based on Vlad is arguably more famous/interesting. Bran castle is definitely nicer.
The whole area is worth exploring by car or bus (trains are slow), and you may find yourself becoming enchanted by the unspoilt scenery with a sense of truly stepping back into a medieval landscape; Serfs making hay and rounding the livestock before mounting a horse back to the farmhouse, centuries old structures and ruins spread amongst the mountains, brown bears roaming the forest… Whilst you are unlikely to see a brown bear crossing the road, they are relatively prevalent in this part of Europe. As a backpacker not so many years ago, you could wander up to your local hostel owner, offer him €20, and off you’d go in his beaten up Dacia to a rural forest edge. From here, he’d slap a load of honey over the bonnet of his car before hastily retreating to the relative camouflage of a nearby bush to play the waiting game. What happened next was usually a docile encounter, although could occasionally end with fighting bears and broken pieces of rusty 70’s car strewn about the place. Nowadays (while I’m sure this version of bear tourism still exists), spotting bears comes in many forms, from paying hundreds of pounds to spend many days bear watching, to hoping one wanders past your hotel rummaging through the bins (less romantic).
Sighişoara is the heart of Transylvania’s historic region with almost perfectly preserved, authentic medieval architecture. The city was one of the most important in Transylvania for hundreds of years and served as a key commercial centre in central Europe. The locals will proudly tell you about the town’s history and famous natives such as… Various people. So many. Too many to name. Vlad also has his roots here with the town boasting the (alleged) house in which he was born. The citadel offers familiar hilltop views with an added ingredient for variation: a water feature (a river). It is a small place which can easily be traversed on foot as a day trip, however, there are various walks or bike rides which open up even more breathtaking view of Sighişoara and the surrounding villages from the top of the nearest hill. A brisk around the valley following signposts will lead you to a couple of impressive fortified churches.
A day or two in the area, given that Transylvania is all quite medieval, will be sufficient for you to want to head east and find out what beaches Romania has to offer. But wait, are you here in the last weekend of July? Why not stick around for the festival of medieval arts and crafts? Local beer, traditional foods such as goulash, parades, costume re-enactments, street performances, handmade souvenirs. It’s all enough to make you want to stay forever. Until a few days later when the festival finishes and the calming sound of waves crashing against the shore calls you to the coast (500km away).
When you imagine Romania, you’ll probably start to paint a picture similar to the first half of this article. Vampires, medieval villages, countryside, sure. Beaches? The country boasts over 250 kilometres of beach where Romanian land meets the Black Sea. Don’t think you’ve escaped your medieval educational holiday yet, Constanta, the most well-known seaside settlement, is more than just a beach town with some chip shops and a fair. Constanta had been in existence for over half a century BC and claims to be the oldest inhabited city in Romania. Fear not, although there are Roman remains and remnants of medieval living, the most famous building, strangely enough, is an old casino. This impressive structure on the cliffs of the Black Sea had its last spin of the roulette table back in the late 80’s, it continues to attract visitors. The setting of a grand art nouveau building which used to host royals and the rich from these Eastern European lands is now no more than a landmark, a reminder of a place once as revered as the French Riviera. Thanks to the wondrous nature of the EU, funding was allocated to restore the building, however, the rumours of the roulette wheels spinning once more have yet to be verified.
I’m guessing you didn’t leave Gibraltar to stare at a waterfront casino all day, so fortunately, there’s plenty more to keep you entertained. If you’ve never got round to trying windsurfing over in Tarifa, why not give it a crack here? For those whose budget will allow, you can rent sail boats for the day, for the rest of us, we’ll have to settle for picturesque walks (and maybe a quick go on a quad bike). If you’re travelling with a significant other, I’d recommend taking the boat out to Ovidiu Island for one of the more romantic meal settings you’re likely to have.
If you have the time, rent a car and get lost in the further reaches of this eclectic area, after all, drinking cocktails on the beach can only go on for so long before you start longing for a good old fashioned glass of wine. As luck would have it, there’s a nice vineyard not far from Constanta where you can grab a glass of that famous Romanian wine and kick back in the country’s warmest region. There are actually an abundance of wineries in Romania, but the fact that wine tourism remains a fairly untapped market means that after you’ve found a way to traverse the language barrier, a tour of the ground and some wine tasting will be a truly authentic experience. As always, tourism is on the rise so get in while you can. After leaving enough time for your alcohol levels to drop to a level where you’re safely (and legally) allowed to drive, you can further explore the area. A few days on the beaches Constanta will soon have you looking for something a little more unspoiled. Further up the coast you’ll come across a number of resorts ranging from no-good-at-all to way-too-expensive-for-me. Some of these resorts have their own beautiful private beaches to relax on but for those of us who prefer a less touristy experience, you’ll find an abundance of untouched beaches all the way up the coast. Days of fun.
At the end of your holiday, you might want to take things in a different direction. The Danube Delta offers a level of serenity like nowhere else. It’s hard to imagine how the mighty river has cut its way through ten countries before dumping the water here, into the Black Sea. It’s hard to believe because it’s so peaceful and so quiet. Too quiet some might say, if you’ve ever run into someone who’s been here, they might have complained about the distinct lack of things to actually do here. While this may sound boring for some, I’m sure most of us can agree that a few days set aside to listen to birdsong whilst finishing your novel are more than welcome. Bird watchers, flower spotters, and anglers will all want to extend their stay here, for everyone else, the riverside sun going down is the setting for you to reflect on the end of a memorable holiday.
Many countries in Europe are diverse, but few have the complexity and intrigue of Romania. A summer visit will see dipping in and out of the sea on a secluded beach, or perhaps, one of the country’s mountaintop lakes, to escape the heat. Six months later, you can ski down Transylvanian mountains and take refuge from the snow next to a fire in a 16th century building. Whenever you decide to go, there’s a long list of things waiting for you to do on arrival, and you’re more than likely to come back with a bigger list than when you arrived. And vampires probably won’t try to suck your blood.
words | Chris Hedley