Romania is an amazing country and one I highly recommend to any traveler coming to Europe. It has beautiful scenery ranging from rolling farmland to steep craggy mountains and dense forest, a rich history with a huge number of castles and churches, and (coming from Australia) is very affordable. The people are also very friendly and the country is very easy to travel in as a foreigner.
I arrived by plane into Bucharest and met up with my friend Chris. We spent a day seeing some of the sights of Bucharest in the pouring rain. Bucharest old town is pretty special – lots of interesting cobbled streets and impressive buildings. What surprised us though was the prevalence of massage parlors! Every block had at least one and many more were advertised in hotel lobbies. The most impressive sight though is definitely the Peoples Palace. This enormous building is the second largest in the world and was famously built by the dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu at great expense before he and his family were shot on Christmas day 1989 during the revolution. Today the palace is home to the Romanian government. It is enormous and extravagant – there are over 1300 chandeliers and 1 million cubic meters of marble.
While in Bucharest we also had a go at an ‘escape room’. This is kind of like a real-life computer game. You are placed in a room filled with clues that lead you to ‘solve’ the room. The first one we played had a war theme and the goal was to defuse a bomb. To be honest we kinda sucked. We over thought lots of things and missed really simple things. The staff member observing must have thought we were idiots! It was heaps of fun though – so much that we played again a week later when we got back to Bucharest. We were much better the second time round – we completed the room with 10mims to spare. Booya!
From Bucharest we hired a car and headed up into Transylvania. We spent a couple nights in Sinaia and used it as a base to see Peles, Bran and Rasnov castles, all of which were great in their own way. Peles was the royal castle for a number of years and is comparatively modern by castle standards. It still has all of its furnishings and is richly decorated which makes it appears like something out of a fairy tale. Bran castle is famous for its (rather tenuous) link to the Dracula story. It is pretty much the quintessential image of a Transylvanian castle even if the interior is less than authentic. Rasnov castle, in comparison, is huge and dates back to roman times. Not a lot is left of it now, but the views from the walls across the valley to the Carpathians are spectacular.
After some intensive castle-visiting we spent a couple of days mountain biking. In Sinaia we caught the cable car to the cota 2000 station and rode through some beautiful alpine terrain for a couple of hours before descending along the road back to the valley. The most surprising part of that day was encountering shepherds in the alpine meadows and getting stuck in a sheep traffic jam for a good 20mins along a narrow road. The next day we rode with a guide from Brasov, north of Sinaia, up into the ski fields. The way up was basically 1.5hrs of grinding up fire trails, but it was worth it for the couple of hours descending back to Brasov along some really well made flowing single track. And as a bonus I only stacked once on a nasty steep tree-root filled descent. Luckily I managed to make it over the handlebars and land on my feet without any injury…
Brasov was a great town – of all the places in Romania I saw it is the one I could see myself living in. The old town has a great feel to it and it is surrounded by mountain biking, climbing and skiing. What more could you ask for?!? It was also home to the best meal I’ve had so far this trip – boar, bear and deer salami with cheese and dates to start; with a rich stew and polenta for mains; and apple pie and ice cream for desert. All washed down with a litre of really nice red wine and all for under $25AUD!
After Brasov we headed to Sighisoara – famous for its walled medieval city. Our accommodation was in a pension in the city walls themselves dating back to 1797 and restored over a number of years. On the way we visited a small town called Viscri which is a beautifully preserved Saxon village with a fortified church. The church is one of several in the area that are UNESCO listed and were built in smaller towns that did not have a fortress or castle as a way of defending the church and providing refuge for townspeople in times of conflict. The Viscri church is of particular note because Prince Charles is associated with the village and its restoration efforts.
Sighisoara old town itself is also beautiful. It has a maze of brightly colored houses packed together along cobbled streets and well-preserved city walls complete with intact guard towers named for the guilds that were once responsible for defending them (we stayed near the Weaver’s tower). Our host was a very friendly guy who gave us homemade schnapps (very strong!!) and recommended some sights along the road for the next day, including a church in a nearby town called Laslea.
The thing about this particular church is that it is not usually open to the public but we were reliably told that it can be accessed by “asking around town for the key”. This turned into a bit of an epic. We first tried at the hospital adjacent the church, but with no luck. We then decided to try the police station down the road. The local policeman had no idea who had the key (and told us he had never heard of anyone trying to get into the church before) but he was very friendly and decided that he too would like to know. So he made a few phone calls. Then a few more. Then he got a lead that it might be at the hospital, so we walked back down and he made some inquiries. They yielded nothing so he made a few more calls – all the while we are trying to tell him that its not really that important and we were just curious. But he was on a mission now. Finally he got another lead and jumped in his police car, returning 10mins later with a little old lady in her slippers who did indeed have the key! All told it took nearly an hour to get into the church! And it turned out to really just be a church. But given the trouble it took we felt obliged to look around in detail and make appreciative faces at everything. It did have an very cool watch tower though, which we asked if we could look inside. The policeman and key-lady were amused that we wanted to look in the obviously disused tower but told us to go right ahead. When we stuck our heads in there were some very old ladders leading up 4-5 very rickety landings to the top. So we climbed them… (No such thing as suing for stupidity in Romania…). When we got back down we discovered that the town’s only other policeman had arrived to look at the church too!
We spent that night in the old town of Sibiu, and then the next day we drove to Pitesti along the Transfagarason – a road made famous as the “best road in the world” by BBC Top Gear. And to be honest – it is an amazing road to drive. It starts through some villages in a valley and then winds its way up to a pass in the mountains with amazing corners and sheer drops and spectacular views. The road takes about 4 hrs to drive, and the scenery goes from steep mountains to deep forest and pretty lakes. Also along the way is Peionari castle perched high above the valley floor. This is the actual castle of Vlad Tepes the Impaler, and is the one associated with his infamous impaling of his enemies. Today the castle is mostly ruins but worth visiting – even with the 1500 stairs you have to climb to reach it.
The following day we drove the few hours between Pitesti and Bucharest where we returned the hire car and caught an overnight train to Moldova, which I’ll write about in my next post.