When I can prise my wife away from our dear grandchildren and ensure our dogs will be cared for, we’re keen travelers. The latest of these escapades included ten days exploring Romania and it was so surprisingly good that I wanted to share it with you.
Romania is a latin country with lush green countryside that supports a strong rural economy. Horses pulling carts are common, evoking the charm of rural France 50 years ago. Horses are much valued and their heads are adorned with red tassles as extra fly switches and to ‘ward off evil’. With its mountains, hills and fertile plains, we found it a blend of France and Austria at half the price. The people are very friendly and we felt extremely safe there. More than 80% of Romanians are Latin Orthodox Christians – similar but not the same as Russian or Greek Orthodox.
In the northern rural areas, the scenery is beautiful and we met local villagers as well as seeing many in their traditional dress, especially the little old men and ladies – some working in the fields with their scythes and putting hay in stooks, others walking home from work carrying their scythes and rakes, all the horse-drawn carts with various loads on them – hay, logs, milk churns. It is a very old style rural situation there.
Romania has three regions: the hills of Moldavia in the north east; mountainous Transylvania in the north west; and the plains of Wallachia to the Danude delta in the south. Though surrounded by slavic countries, Romania is latin, so French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese speakers find they can communicate reasonably well. It is part of NATO and the EU but still has its own currency, which keeps it competitive. Its modern capital Bucharest, is one of the largest cities in Europe, known as the Paris of the East. The infamous Nicolae Ceaușescu built a huge palace and an avenue like the Champs Élysée before he was discarded along with communism in 1989 when Romania embarked on democracy.
We understand Ceaușescu began as a humble shepherd/farmer and there is a story about another shepherd after the Communist era, who did an amazing land deal involving changes to the airport. It created instant wealth for him, which he used to build an ostentatious manor and other business interests as well as winning a senior role in government before falling foul of the law and ending up in jail. There are many such stories as Romania transitioned from Communist leadership to democracy – many ex-communist leaders acquired state assets in the transition, but Romania’s surprisingly free press is gradually exposing such corruption.
In early history, the region was a Dacian kingdom before the Romans turned up seeking its gold and silver deposits. Roman rule lasted only 165 years for most of the region but it was enough to infuse the latin language and create a lasting latin culture. Much later the Ottoman Turks tussled with various Christian rulers, supported by Austro Hungarian kings who utilised German Saxons to build a line of seven citadels (burgs) along the western Carpathians as an Ottoman defence.
One of these Transylvanian citadel towns is Sighișoara (siggy-show-are-a) where Vlad the Impaler was born. Sighișoara is a great spot and when we visited, the needs of a popular communal dog named Jimmy were being met by all the pensiunes (hotels) up on the citadel (he even has his own Facebook site – Jimmy Dogson). Some other citadel towns are Bistrita (bis-trit-za) and Cluj (clooge), near these lies Bánffy Castle, rebuilt in baroque style in 1750 and now being restored with the support of Prince Charles.
The period 1400-1600 featured Vlad in raids on the Ottoman Turks (1456-62). I’ll spare you the gory detail but yon Vlad was the son of Dracul, making him Dracula (son of). Later in 1897, Irish writer Bram Stoker dreamed up a fiction around Vlad that included vampires. While it seems Vlad used gruesome cruelty as psychological warfare, he was a ruler of Wallachia in the southern plains rather than mountainous Transylvania to the north as in Bram Stoker’s fantasy.
So, if you like visiting castles, churches and monasteries then Romania is for you. It has also been a mecca for railway buffs and in the north at Vama, about 10km from the Ukraine border we joined a throng of people taking the slow steam train ride up the valley. It is a narrow gauge track used by loggers to work the mostly beech forest up the valley. At the end of the ride for tourists, there is food drink and folk dancing while the train re-stocks its tender with timber fuel for the trip back.
Romania was only formed in 1859 when Moldavia merged with Wallachia – later joined with the Transylvanian regions around the Carpathian Mountains to the north-west after World War I. But after WWII, the Russians carved of a piece out of Moldavia to create the small landlocked country of Moldova. Moldovans would now like to rejoin Romania but its EU membership is now likely to make this difficult.
The River Danube forms Romania’s southern border with Bulgaria. It is Europe’s second longest river and flows into the Black Sea on Romania’s eastern side forming Europe’s largest and best-preserved delta. The Black sea was considered inhospitable for navigation until improved by Greek navigation techniques, so the Turks later named it the Black Sea. Regardless, another Romanian tourist mecca is that coastal area for its scenery, healing waters and mud baths in the delta. For us, this will need to wait for a later visit but we do recommend you give Romania consideration in your tourist planning.