There are often strangely blurred images in our heads that we take with us on a journey to an unknown country, only to return home enriched with completely new images.
For me, Romania was socialism, a clubbed people under the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his secret service Securitate. Then, in 1989, there were pictures flickering over the television. Pictures of a bloody revolution, of the fall of Ceausescu, his execution – and of orphanages with half starved and completely neglected children.
Many years with few pictures followed, except for the organized begging gangs in some western European cities. Oh by the way, Graf Dracula was there as well – and the German saying “in the middle of Wallachia”, which suggests that there is not much exciting about it. So it was time for me to fill my gaps of knowledge with new impressions and to see Romania, that is a member of the European Union since 2007, with my own eyes.
My journey begins in Bucharest. Where the focal point of the revolution was in 1998 and where protests against corruption and the current government are taking place again today.
I experience Bucharest as a very lively city. In terms of traffic, it is in no way behind other European cities. The journey through a pretty quarter in the French style surprises me. This is not how I had imagined Bucharest, even though I know that the city used to be called the Paris of the East. Further towards the city centre, socialist buildings appear. Square and high and not very charming. This is how I had imagined Bucharest. Only that these buildings do not dominate the townscape at all. Again and again, magnificent buildings attract my attention. In between decay, as it is unfortunately to be nowadays seen in many European cities .
The lively pedestrian zone with modern restaurants, bars and cafes could just as well be in London or Paris.
Quite unique is the monstrous but magnificent building, the Parliament Palace, with which Ceausescu has posthumously set himself a monument. It is one of the largest buildings in the world. It is the second largest administrative building in the world after the Pentagon. However, it was completed only after Ceausescu’s death. It is estimated that the building cost 3.3 billion Euros. Not much less bombastic is a semi-finished orthodox cathedral located at the far end of the palace. This should devour only 400 million Euro by the time it will be finished. Parallels are purely coincidental.
After a short glimpse of the city, I leave Bucharest thoughtfully behind me. The journey goes through the wide country of Walachia in the direction of Carpathians and Transylvania.
Huge flocks of sheep, accompanied by shepherds and herding dogs, are dotting the wide late summer fields and meadows. With an estimated 6,600 bears, Romania has the highest density of brown bears in Europe. Therefore it makes a lot of sense that shepherds and shepherd dogs are with the herd.
The land is flat and sparsely populated. From time to time we drive through villages where small, simple detached houses cluster along the roadsides. A picture that repeats itself constantly. The villages seem generally poor, but usually well-kept. The colouring of the houses seems courageous, as if one wants to cheat the slight dreariness.
My journey continues from Walachia to Transylvania. Here the flat, open countryside is replaced by deep forests and by the up to 2’544m high peaks of the Carpathians.
Transylvania is the land of castles and palaces and pretty towns. A region worth discovering
The small town of Sinaia in the Carpathians is a popular winter sports resort.
Castle Peles was built between 1873 and 1883 for the Romanian King Carol I. Its style is reminiscent of Hohenzollern Castle, the original home of the king. Peles was his favourite castle.
Today the pretty castle, which is situated in a large park, attracts many tourists. Especially on weekends, when half of Bucarests population flees to the country.
The traces of the Germans in Romania
What is surprising at first sight is that many of the villages in Transylvania have a German name in addition to their Romanian name. Until the era of Ceausescu, a large German minority lived in Romania. In the years 1968-1989 Germany bought out many of these Germans from Romania. It is estimated that they were about 100’000. After the fall of communism in 1990, another 100,000 German citizens emigrated, so that only about 40,000 Germans of German origin live in Romania today. Nevertheless, German schools still exist today and some universities are teaching German. In Transylvania one finds traces of the Germans every step of the way.
Transsylvania – the land of castles
The fortified church of Hărman (Honigberg)
Also the white fortified church of Honigberg (rom.: Hărman) tells the story of the german settlers who were brought here by the German Order of Knights after the year 1211. It gives an interesting impression of the life of the farmers at that time. The defiant castle was built to protect the population against attacks by enemies.
The fortified church of Biertan (Birthälm)
Biertan (German: Birthälm) has the largest fortified church in Transylvania. It is located about 150 km northwest of Hărman. It towers majestically over the small town. For centuries it served as the seat of the protestant bishops of Transylvania.
Only 30 km away I reach the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Sighisoara (germ.: Schässburg). It is the most beautiful and best preserved building in the rural Gothic Baroque and Renaissance style in Eastern Europe.
Sighisoara is the only castle in Transylvania that is still inhabited today. Small cafés, restaurants and souvenir shops enliven the pretty buildings. Here I come across the probably most famous Romanian export hit for the first time: Count Dracula.
Supposedly this is the place where he was born. His birthing room can even be visited. But what is reality and what is a marketing strategy remains obscured in the dark of the past.
Bran Castle (Törzburg)
Count Dracula is the one who takes me to the last and most famous castle of my journey, Bran Castle. Bran Castle is located about 130 km south of Sighisoara, at the border to Walachia.
Countless souvenir shops gather around the base of the castle. Vampire teeth everywhere the eye goes. On T-shirts, on cups, on ashtrays. I find the castle a bit disappointing and is definitely not one of the highlights of my trip. Why, you can find out here: A trip to Transylvania -Where is Dracula?
I find the impressions on the way much more exciting than the countless castles, churches and palaces. The country opens again and again. Simple villages, huge maize fields, large flocks of sheep, horse-drawn carriages, which still serve as means of transport on the countryside and almost endless plains alternate with deep and dark forests and rugged mountain peaks. I have rarely seen so much diversity in the same place.
During the drive through the country the eye can barely see enough. This contrast also continues in the cities. While life in the villages doesn’t seem to have arrived in this century yet, the cities are surprisingly modern.
Transylvania’s pretty cities
As the name suggests, Kronstadt (rom.: Brașov) is a pretty town with a historic town centre. It was founded in the 13th century by the German Order of Knights and was the spiritual and economic centre of the Transylvanian Saxons for many years.
Pretty restaurants and cafés are inviting you to enjoy and linger. The pedestrian zone is flanked by houses with ornate facades.
Also here Romania is surprisingly colorful. The common retail chains, which unfortunately dominate most of the world’s cities, attract a mostly younger, enthusiastic public. It is worth taking some time in the shopping hustle and bustle to discover the legends told by many of the houses.
About 150 km further west there is another splendid and lively town. Sibiu (germ.: Hermannnstadt) was the UNESCO world cultural heritage city in 2007. Also here I am overwhelmed by the splendour of the buildings, the colourful houses that seem to watch everything that happens in the alleys of the pedestrian zone with Argus eyes.
Sibiu is a small town to relax and linger and to soak up the impressions of the city. The people are friendly and open-minded and a closer look around the next is definitely worth it.
If you are lucky, you might end up in a side street where the pretty vaulted cellar of the Restaurant Crama Sibiul Vechi (Strada A. Papiu Ilarian No. 3) is located. Here the hearty delicacies of Romanian cuisine are served in authentic surroundings. Maize porridge with mushrooms and cabbage wraps.
In the Bookshop Schiller you can stock up on German literature about Romania and Transylvania. Of course also with Bram Stokers Dracula.
Even without Dracula and moments of horror, Romania is an exciting discovery for me. So completely different than I had expected. This country doesn’t correspond at all to the mostly negative images that I had in my head before I started my journey. Now I return home with my head full of new pictures of colourful villages and towns, of impressive churches, castles and palaces, of endless vastness, deep forests, high mountains, flocks of sheep, horse carts and friendly people. I feel richly presented! Thank you, Romania!
Often the pictures in our heads do not match reality very well. Go and discover for yourself! Replace the false pictures with real ones. What is better than coming back home after a journey and feeling richly rewarded, rewarded by impressions and insights?
With sunny greetings,
Romania round trip
I travelled Romania with ITS Coop as part of a guided bus tour. A very pleasant and uncomplicated way to travel and get to know a foreign country.
During the trip our German speaking travel guide constantly provided us with exciting information about the country and its people. The trip usually takes one week. We were lodged in 4* hotels. However, one should not expect the same standard as in a 4* hotel in Central Europe.
You can find more information about the whole tour here: ITS Coop-Romania
Further information about Romania
- currency: The national currency is the Leu. 1 Leu corresponds to approximately USD/CHF 0.25 (as of October 2018). I would recommend to withdraw money directly at the airport at the ATM.
- The cost of living in Romania is comparatively inexpensive. A meal including drinks costs around USD/CHF 10-15. You can find exchange offices and ATMs in the cities, too.
- Language: In addition to Romanian, German is still spoken in many places in Transylvania. English also gets you through well.
Disclosure: I was invited to this research trip by ITS Coop. My opinion remains unaffected.