Romania: A Hidden Adventure in Eastern Europe

I was lucky enough to re-connect with a great friend from university, and was able to visit her home country, Romania, a few months ago. Honestly, I had no idea what to expect! I haven’t seen much of Western Europe, and until Romania, hadn’t seen any of Eastern Europe either. It was only a short trip, but it was enough to know that I will be returning!

I based myself at Umbrella Hostel in Bucharest for my first few days. Its prime location, 500m walk from the Piata Romana Metro Station, meant that I could easily travel around most of the city at ease. A multi-journey card (for 10 trips on the Metro) cost 20 LEI- making the Metro system a very affordable method of transportation. (As a side note- I did need to purchase a separate card for the Airport Bus- 7 LEI for a return trip from the In’t Airport to Piata Romana. Bus drivers don’t sell tickets; pick it up before you get on the bus!)

Although Romania’s political history is much younger than Western Europe (or at least of Switzerland, where nothing has changed in … forever), I got a wonderful introduction to Romania and its past when my friend and I did the walking tour through the Old Town. A suburb that has received a serious re-vamp in recent years has developed into quite the trendy area. Streets lined with cafes and bars, while nestled between 100-year-old inns and medieval monuments, make for quite the interesting walk through the city. We ate lunch at Bazaar, a funky cafe/restaurant located in the old town. One of the things that was instantly culturally-new, was that smoking was still allowed in restaurants. Although I have yet to live in a country that is similiar in its laws to Romania, it was something I became quickly adjusted to as it was such a norm. Most larger restaurants however, will have a non-smoking area.

The afternoon of my first full day in Bucharest, we went to the open-air museum in the north of the city. The Village Museum, is a collection of Romania’s rural dwellings, replicated in exact detail from original locations around various parts of Romania. It was really interesting to see contrasts between Transylvanian Alpin dwellings and that of Swiss Alpin rural buildings and also the surprising comparisons (mostly regulated by weather and terrain).

Bucharest's Village MuseumRomanian Mountain Church

The next day we travelled to Targoviste to meet up with our third member, my friend’s partner, and drove to Sinia. It was an amazing advantage being able to see Romania with a car from this point. One of the most anticipated areas I wanted looking forward to was Sinia- home to Peles Castle 🙂 Although not on the Dracula level of publicity, Peles Castle was high on my list of places to see. Originally built as a summer home for the Royal family, it now runs daily tours. As the first castle that I have seen, it definitely put the bar pretty high!

It was one of the first fully 20th century styles to be built, with central heating, a central vacuum system and running water- all at the end of the 19th century! – 19.04.2015

We did the full tour of Muzeul National Peles and were able to see more of the main castle.

It was truly one of the most beautiful buildings I have ever seen. Tons of wooden panelling and very ornate & intricate designs. … We also paid to visit the upstairs section that showed us the ‘apartments’ that the Family and guests would stay in. It was unbelievably gorgeous! The outside looked like something out of a fairytale! Massive turrets, wood detailing and large gardens all with an impressive backdrop!  – 19.04.2015

Salonul Turcesc (The Turkish Parlor) Outside the CastleAfter spending a few hours at Peles Castle, we continued to Brasov which would be our home for the night. The weather had turned sour and it rained for the later part of our journey north. Due to our limited time together in Romania, we decided that the cold weather wouldn’t stop us from doing the walking tour in Brasov. The sister-tour from Guided Tours Bucharest, its Brasov counter-part was just as informative and fun! It was good to see that there was still a good crowd of people fighting the cold 🙂 We learnt a bit about Dracula, a folk character based heavily on a historical Romania leader. It was a good introduction as the next day we planned to go “Bran Castle”, the setting for Dracula by author Bram Stoker. We were recommended by our hostel in Brasov, to “not waste your time going inside” Bran Castle. As the museum had lost a lot of their original artifacts in a court case a few years ago, the Castle now stands as a museum and tribute to Dracula. Ironically, the medieval ruler that Dracula is based on, lived in southern Romania.

“Farming plains don’t make for an interesting story setting!” 19.04.2015

As best discribed by Bram Stoker.
Bran Castle: Dracula’s home in the novel by Bram Stoker.

The following day we continued to Rasnov Citadel which, due to my lack of preparation, was probably the low point of Romania for me. Located just outside of the Rasnov town, the site is set on a hill overlooking the Transylvania Alps in the distance. Although the ruins offered some of the oldest history I had seen in Romania, I felt as though it was massively under-developed compared to other tourist sites that I was able to experience. Many of the dwellings within the strong-hold housed various touristy nick-nacks (some completely unrelated to Romania) and there was very limited information provided about the citadel. However, like I stated earlier, had I been more prepared, I would have like to of read a bit more about the area before visiting. Ironically, the views that we rewarded with massively made a difference! During my time in Romania, it was the only time I got to see (part) of the Transylvanian Alps.

Overlooking Rasnov towards
Overlooking Rasnov towards Sohodol region.

The following day my friend and I made our way, by train, to Sibiu. Our third musketeer had to return to studies and we were on our on for Sibiu’s exploration. The train ride went by pretty quick as we just talked most of the way there! We had years to catch up on. For our day in Sibiu, we followed a self-guided walking tour map provided by the Tourist Information in the Old Town.

With so much of Romania’s history influenced by the Church and religious beliefs, it was invaluable having my Romanian friend exploring with me. Having an excellent understanding of the Bible, I found it fascinating listening to her explain motifs and reliefs in the Orthodox and Christian Churches we visited. Although I could still appreciate the religious beauty, many illustrations were of significant religious scenes that I hadn’t known before. It was the first time that I was in an Orthodox Church, and given Romanian Orthodox history, it was amazing to hear my friend explain so much. Better than any tour guide would have done!

Sibiu's Old Town Inside Sibiu's Holy Trinity Cathedral The back streets of Sibiu.After Sibiu, we spend a day returning to Bucharest and hanging out at a shopping center. It was nice to do something non-touristy and just enjoy a coffee! As it was my friend’s birthday, I was lucky enough to go for dinner with her family, whom I hadn’t seen in over 4 years! It was great to spend time with them and enjoy a wonderful dinner at Curu cu Bere – “Cart of Beer” and try some Romanian cuisine!

Cultural Music during dinner at Curu cu Bere
Cultural Music during dinner at Curu cu Bere

On the morning of my last day, we (fittingly) spent it learning about Romania’s more recent history. We visited the Palace of Parliament, a massive complex overlooking Unirii Boulovade. Originally designed to house the Romanian Communist Government, the 1989 Revolution changed their political future. The massive complex was drafted to contain all the departments of government in one location, allowing it to become the largest building after the Patagon in America. Nowadays, the Romanian government only uses 30% of the large building! It was an interesting experience, as I (and I’m sure many people) thought we would learn more about the history of Communism in Romania but as the building was actually never finished during the Communist regime (only finished in 1997!) there isn’t really much history pertaining to that building specifically. Unfortunately the words “this rooms is also available to rent for functions” was often heard during our tour… It was still a great finish to my time in Romania.

This was the only section of the Palace that retained any feel of the 1980s. Having the furniture in the room, really made the space feel massive.
This was the only section of the Palace that retained any feel of the 1980s. Having the furniture in the room really made the space feel massive.

View from the front Terrace.

Romania is a country in Eastern Europe that is hugely under-rated. Its steeped in medieval and religious history; from churches to citadels to the many restored Old Towns throughout the country. Because of Sibiu’s rich history on historical trade-routes, its wealth has allowed it to remain a prominent city in Northern Romania. It was one of the best organised (for Tourists) that I saw in Romania. In the south, Bucharest is a perfect example of a historical European city that is staying modern. A developed transport system and excellent tourist structure make it a perfect city for first-time city explorers!

Romania was one of the first times I had travelled with someone other than my partner and it was a wonderful experience. My best friend and I reconnected and we never stopped talking the entire trip. It was such an awesome experience to visit a country with a local, getting an interesting perspective from what Romania is really like. Having a car in Romania certainly helped, as we could visit areas that weren’t necessarily on main train routes.

Growing up in a ‘western country’ (and outside of Europe), meant that a lot of Eastern Europe’s history was never taught to me. There is so much! I really felt as though I just barely scrapped the surface of such an amazing, and safe country. Definitely will be returning!