Romania – A Country of SurprisesArticle and Photos by John and Doreen Berg
Romania surprised us by unlocking a wealth of unexpected intrepid travel experiences. Our three-week journey was a fantasy visit to a country steeped in history and culture. We visited medieval fortresses, walked ancient streets, marveled at castles, discovered wooden churches, photographed painted monasteries and clamored about fortified Saxon churches. We were delighted with the warmth we received from our hosts and the delicious traditional dishes we consumed. In our humble opinion there's never been a better time to visit Romania and discover what this Eastern jewel offers for the adventurous travelers!
Our initial reason for visiting Romania was not based upon prior research nor our bucket list, but was dictated by a KLM seat sale! In the fall the Dutch airline offered a flight special to five European capitals. Since Bucharest was the only listed capital we had not visited, Romania became our spring travel destination by default. We heard or read of Romania’s 1990 political unrest and Dracula's blood-thirsty lust, but knew little else. It wasn't long before our research began to expose an insightful overview of the country that contains a wealth of varied travel experiences. Our expectations and excitement of our forthcoming visit began to build and in the end we were not to be disappointed.
Our Bucharest customs clearance went smoothly and with backpacks on our backs met our prearranged airport pickup to transport us to the Green Frog Hostel for our comfortable three night stay. On the drive to the hostel our English speaking driver treated us to a historical/political dissertation addressing the main domestic and fiscal issues currently facing Romania.
|A beautiful wooden church relocated to the
National Village Museum.
Our few days in the capital were spent strolling through the parks, wandering the central historical quarter and viewing the many sights. The visit to Bucharest’s Village Museum and the Palace of Parliament were two highlights.
Village Museum is an open air collection of homesteads, churches, watermills and windmills relocated from different regional locations and placed in the park-like setting. The village was established in 1936 and is considered one of the oldest open air museums in Europe.
The Palace of Parliament is the world's second largest building in surface area after the US Pentagon. Ceausescu’s infamous creation built in 1984 cost billions while Romanian people starved and suffered shortages during the various construction stages. Today the massive edifice supports daily tours and we too marveled at the many crystal chandeliers, special staircases and parquet floors as our tour guide ushered us through the many rooms and floors. With still much to see our Bucharest visit came to an end as we planned to leave the next morning for Brasov.
|Our first view of the fairytale like Pele Castle.
After the visit we hiked a short distance to nearby Pelzer Palace. Ironically, we had to wait for a group of 15 people to form before being allowed entry. It's unfortunate that most tourists choose not to visit the Palace as it’s certainly worth a visit. The palace’s furnishings were imported from Vienna and features a beautiful gold room with walls covered in gilded leaf.
|Bran Castle's inner courtyard.
Can you spot Dracula?
Late in the day, our driver, Dan dropped us off in front of Jugend Strube Hostel. The hostel is strategically located in Brasov's historical center providing ease of walking to the city’s sites.
Our first day’s adventure found us riding a cable car to the top of Mount Tampa to enjoy panoramic views. Our descending hike through the beautiful wooded forest following the twisting trail was very enjoyable although we felt envious when a group of young runners rushed passed us on their way to the top and it seemed only minutes later before they again passed by on their descent! Great to be young with such energy! Next was a chance to explore the interiors of three fortress bastions. In the 15th century each bastion was defended by a guild to warn of a pending attack. Remembering the cold wet weather we had left behind in Canada, it was exhilarating to wander ancient streets seeking a restaurant that served lunch on a shaded patio!
|The entrance to the Orthodox Church of
St. Nicholas Cathedral, Brasov.
To reach our Gypsy home stay location in the small village of Valenii we traveled by bus to Sighisoara and transferred to an 18 passenger mini- van traveling to Targu Mures. We stayed two nights with the Gabor family. The home was spacious and the family exuded a warm hospitable feeling. The first thing we noticed was the many new pot and pan sets stored on shelves in the kitchen and living room. Apparently, the cooking sets are the dowry the wife brings to the wedding. Klara, the eldest daughter, spoke excellent English and was to be our guide. The father is a busy backyard mechanic and the mother is a homemaker. Klara has a nine year old sister and a seven year old brother. The grandmother lived with them too. Grandmother's role is to sell hooch out of the pantry. It's common for countryside families to use plums to make a distilled clear potent alcoholic brew.
To experience the public's attitude and reaction toward gypsies, Doreen dressed in a colorful wrap-around pleated skirt, a beautiful patterned blouse complete with a headscarf. The plan was to visit Targu Mures to wander the shopping area visiting shops and taking in the cultural center and I was to be the neutral observer. It was remarkable to notice shop clerks closely watching Doreen and Klara while paying little attention to my browsing. At the Cultural Center the two gypsy ladies were regularly asked to show their tickets. And again, I was never questioned in fact I was directed to a special auditorium where a musical group was rehearsing. Apparently, cultural biases do exist.
After a hearty breakfast and warm hugs we caught a mini- van returning
to Sighisoara. From the bus stop in Sighisoara,
we hiked a steep stairway to the Citadel at the top of a fortified hill and found
our Casa Saseasca located in the medieval town square. Arriving at the helpful
tourist office we booked an afternoon walking city tour and a car visit to
three fortified Saxon churches for the following day.
|Gabor family-three generations -from the left-
Mother,grandmother and Daughter
The tour’s first stop was Capsa Mara a small almost deserted community as many German residences fearing further political unrest had returned to Germany in 1990. The church is in disrepair and badly in need of restoration work. The caretakers unlocked the church allowing us to meander through the church's interior eventually clambering rickety stairs to the bell tower. From here we were treated to a sweeping view of the surrounding fertile farmlands.
The next stop was Biertan, another small village with a much visited church. The site was awarded UNESCO World Heritage status in 1993. The church’s interior is decorated beautifully with frescoes painted on the walls. We observed the three walls surrounding the church with the narrow openings to allow for shooting at invaders. It seemed the church’s courtyard would be impossible to penetrate.
The last visit was to a restored mansion in Melincraw. Prince Charles has a residence here and visits regularly to relax and enjoy the regions tranquil grounds – far from the paparazzi. The” Wanderlust Tours” provided an excellent overview of the famous fortified Saxon churches and the role they played in the 15th and 16th centuries.
|Sighisoara's clock tower at night.
Next day a train ride to Bara Mare began a ten day tour of the traditional villages of Maramures and the painted monasteries of Bucovina. Have you ever experienced a vacation that you would like to repeat because it was first- rate? That was our experience with Daniel Rosca as our driver/guide for Maramures and Bucovina regions. Every day was like a new painting and although we knew what the plan was it evolved Sighisoara's clock tower at nightinto a storybook each day. Daniel met us at the train, calling out my name as I stepped down from the metal stairs. He recognized us from our Skype computer call. He immediately took our bags and off we went to his car, a small compact red number that suited our purposes perfectly. It was arranged that we would pay for the gas and our meals and accommodation and his bill would cover the touring cost. We knew well in advance what to expect and Daniel held true to our pre-arranged itinerary.
When Daniel picked us up from the train at 7:30 in the evening, he immediately took us to a homey Hungarian restaurant where we heartily consumed huge hot bowls of soup, mine being beans and sausage and John and Daniel's being roe (deer). We had warm drinks too. Finally around nine we drove 20 kilometers to Baia Sprie, where we selected our spacious and beautifully decorated room at Casa Olarului. We had a huge bedroom with large handmade woolen blankets which covered the duvets (it must get cold in this region) and our own ensuite.
|Daniel looks on as I admire my creation.
The bowl made it home safely!
After lunch in town we drove to Surdesti to see the tallest wooden church in the world built in 1721. It is 72 meters high! We carried on to Plopis to see similar churches and walked around the village and looked at traditional homes, outdoor toilets, gardens, cane-type fences and modern three-storey homes. We also saw tractors, horses pulling wagons, ladies working in their garden who offered us a drink of wine which we turned down, and pigs in pens and yapping dogs and graveyards. Very country-like!
The next day we travelled from Baia Sprie to Breb, a beautiful small village in a valley where hospitality exudes. In the early morning we walked from our Babou Hostel, owned by Matthijs and Eveline, a lovely Dutch couple. We met people in the pastures and along the roadsides and a farmer and his wife who were working a field. While watching a sheepherder passing by struck a conversation with Daniel and told him about a shepherd festival held once a year where farmers bring their sheep to be milked and then taken to the high pasture. Daniel exchanged phone numbers with Ram to find out the exact time and location for the festival.
|A fun train ride smellling the wood scented smoke
while enjoying the ever changing landscape. On the return trip
we experienced a derailment and were able to watch
as the train was placed back onto the tracks!
|The sheep pens and the even
being blessed by the priest.
|Very quickly the goat
was ready for the grill.
We watched a farmer butcher a young sheep to be roasted for the meal. All part of the day's work but unusual for us to view. We were invited to stay for the afternoon and enjoy spit-roasted lamb with them but we had a wedding to attend- another special event for us.
We went back to the lovely Marioara Pension. Maria is a very special lady who works hard running the pension for guests as well as performing farm tasks helping her husband. These people are very industrious and have transformed the interior of a lovely wooden house into a casa with four bedrooms complete with ensuites and are presently working to complete a second guest house, even larger. One excellent feature was a washing machine for guests which we took advantage of as we hadn’t done laundry since leaving home.
|A most spetacular sight to view the
costums and decorated horses.
Later the bride and groom appeared and had their photos taken in front of the beautifully decorated horses while people watched from all angles. The couple then proceeded down the hill a short distance to a reception hall, such as it was- nothing fancy, but the organizers had set up rows upon rows of trestle tables and benches in a small hall to provide as many seats as possible and then an added platform covered in a plastic roof with more trestles and benches and an open area to allow for dancing. We sat in the second area which was lovely since we could watch the dancing, keep cooler and be out of the way. Not everyone was invited to the reception but we were privileged because we were Maria’s guests.
The party literally went on all night with many not returning home until eight o'clock the next morning. We made it until three a.m.! On arrival at the hall the narrow tables were covered with white cloths set with dishes, cutlery, drinks and antipasto. There were bottles of wine and water on the tables and servers to assist you. After guests consumed the first course there was dancing for an hour before the next course of salads was served. The dancing was fun to observe as they formed circles- both young and old, and held hands facing into the circle, dancing in an anti-clockwise direction with a two step and the hips moving slightly. John and I joined into the circle several times. As the tempo of the music changed partners whirl around holding each other's shoulders. They whirl and whirl in one direction. When John and I tried it I became very dizzy and we weren't twirling very fast. I don't know how they do it. ! The evening continued with more food courses and more dancing and no one was leaving. We spoke to our hostess, Maria; the next day as she was wonderful at twirling and she said when she was younger she could even go faster.
It was interesting to observe the young teen girls at the wedding. Many arrived in very pretty party dresses, often strapless and either long gowns or just above the knees, but it was the shoes that were so fascinating usually at least four inches in height, either spikes or wedges and the colours were spectacular- gold, pink, orange, bronze, white with polka dots, red, black - some laced but usually with straps. Some girls dressed traditionally so there was a real contrast. The traditional dress was a coloured printed skirt just below the knee, a white embroidered peasant blouse and a crown hat with streamers down the back. Sometime through the evening most girls went home and changed into party dresses. However, Daniel said they looked more beautiful in their traditional dress!
Our next stop was Voronet in Bucovina. To arrive here we drove over the Carpathian Mountains and actually hit snow. Snow in May! Along the way to Voronet we stopped at a small village museum in Ciocanesti. It housed lovely old farm equipment - butter churns, separators, paintings, samples of weaving and Easter eggs. We purchased eggs to take home for our children. The waxing and painting procedures are time consuming and difficult, but the results are magnificent. As it turned out later we actually visited a master designer in the Eggs Museum in Moldovita. Her name is Lucia Condrea who is world renowned and designs her own patterns, following the traditions of Moldavian culture. She has a great passion and talent and has a new personal design that looks like lace. One of Lucia's special ones was called "The paths of sadness" which represented Christ's shed blood for the whole world. She also has a collection of international eggs which she has traded from all over the world. Her husband showed us the museum and Lucia's work, of which he is proud.
|Doreen and Daniel admired the well-known bibical
storiies painted on the church's exterior walls.
We stayed in another lovely accommodation in Voronet called Conacul Domnitei Guest House. Helen, our host, made our stay special with her delicious meals. She served sour milk as a beverage that I tasted and liked so I asked for the recipe which Daniel translated and I've been making ever since.
|Met as strangers and left as friends!
From the left-Daniel,John and Doreen
Tzigania Tours: www.tzigania.com email@example.com
This is an opportunity to experience a home stay with a gypsy family.
Operates in conjunction with the Cultural Heritage Info Centre. The company does guided walking tours of Sighasoara and the fortified churches. Offers free maps and excellent help.
Daniel Rosca works with clients to meet their individual desires and budgets. Wide spectrum of cultural, natural and traditional tour options. Excellent organized tours.
Hostel and Casa Suggestions
Accommodation prices are for two people and are expressed in Canadian funds (Using 3.3 RON exchange rates.) All accommodations have internet access and unless stated otherwise provide a breakfast.
Green Frog Hostel: General Dona Street, nr. 11, Bucharest, Romania
A renovated home transformed into a well located hostel. We booked through HostelWorld.com, a standard double with shared bathroom. Staff provides a friendly atmosphere and is keen to help.
Cost 120 RON ($34 CA) Upon request, free airport pickup was granted, otherwise there is a cost.
Jugend Stube Hostel: 13 Michael Weiss Street, Apt. 5,
Excellent location, right in the heart of medieval Brasov. Our accommodation was a self-contained suite, a short walk from the reception. We were able to prepare meals is we desired. A helpful staff.
Cost 140 RON ($40 CA)
Gabor family home, two night’s gypsy home stay.
Getting the last drop to register
as much milk as possible!
Cost 120 RON ($34 CA)
Casa Casasaseasca: Piata Catatii 12
Comfortable hotel style casa located on the citadel’s main square. Breakfast is not included but restaurants are within walking distance.
Cost 140 RON ($40 CA)
Maramures and Bucovina Regions
Baia Sprie: Casa Olarului: Str. Luncii nr.1
Baia Sprie is located 10 km east of Bara Mare. A boutique casa with loads of character and ambiance. Owned and operated by Daniel , a potter who offers lessons in his attached workshop. Our room was spacious and comfortable with attached ensuite. The breakfast was fantastic-probably the best breakfast provided.
Cost 120 RON ($34 CA)
Used the village as our countryside hub while visiting its local craftsmen and driving to the nearby sites. We split our five nights stay between two accommodations.
Babou Hostel: Breb 149, 437206 Breb, Maramures, Romania
|A traditional romanian meal.
Cabbage, polenta and a meat.
Cost 120 RON ($34 CA)
Miarioara Pension: Ocna Sugatag, sat Breb, nr. 346
Charming, immaculate, traditional wood framed guest house. Our room was spacious with an ensuite and well appointed. Beautifully carved wooden gate marked the entrance to our accommodation. Maria served an excellent breakfast and upon request provided evening dinners at $10-$12 p/p. Another larger casa complete with a restaurant will soon be completed, providing even more room for guests. Free laundry available for guests.
Cost 160 RON ($46 CA)
Conacul Domnitei Pension:
The pension offers comfortable well appointed rooms with spacious bathrooms. The countryside setting provides picturesque views from each room. There’s a large dining area. For breakfast, guests order from a menu. Other meals are also available and of an excellent quality.
Cost 130 RON ($37 CA)
|May was a busy haying season.
The grass is hung on wooden racks to dry
ready for feeding the cows during the winter season.