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Exploring Less Traveled Places: Romania

Updated: Jan 8

If you're reading this, you like to explore the world. But you prefer to get off the beaten path, visit lesser known places, take a deeper cut into the world, explore the places in-between the well known, rather than follow the same well trodden itineraries. I share my style of adventure and experiences here in hopes of either inspiring travel as a method to happiness, or simply sharing insight to decide whether you want to visit Romania.


Alleyways below the Citadel in Sighisoara

This past summer, my family decided to take a 7 day Greek Islands cruise leaving from Athens. I figured if I'm going to fly all the way to Europe from the US, I'm going to stay a while longer and add on another adventure. Since traveling, exploring and learning is what makes me happy, I take advantage of every opportunity to do that. So I opened Google maps and looked at my options. Prague, Spain, Amsterdam, Bulgaria...Romania!


Why Visit Romania?


Romania jumped out at me for a few reasons: Transylvania! The land of lore and childhood mystery, supposed birthplace of Dracula. I mean how many places in the world have that sort of legendary status? The Carpathian mountains. Remote countryside, rugged and wild--there aren't too many little-explored mountains. Lack of tourists. The fact that few people visit made me want to visit even more. And supposedly it was not an expensive country to visit.


Planning a Week in Romania


I'll share my thought process and how I planned my itinerary: You pretty much have to fly into Bucharest, so that became my starting point. From there, I'd rent a car and drive almost the entire length of the country north to the Ukrainian border and back, seeing as much as I could of Romania in a whirlwind 9 days. Was it too much? Probably. But I'm glad I did it.


How to decide where to visit in Romania


My 9 day route through Romania with overnight locations

My resources included several days of googling and reading 20-30 travel articles on Romania--not from the big enterprise travel sites, but from passionate individuals who explore like me and write about what they found and loved. I looked for Facebook groups for Romanian travel--this didn't pan out like it usually does, I only found posts of beautiful scenery and Romanian women. I also posted on a Reddit group focused on Romania hoping to get some locals' perspective--several people living in Romania gave me some great hidden places to try to visit, though in the end most were too far off the trail and I didn't have time. From all of those resources, I looked for either those places that were commonly mentioned as *must sees*, or a place that was only mentioned once but sounded totally unique, or others where I saw a single amazing picture. I put them on a Google My Map, then plotted a route that hit as many of them as realistically possible.


When I was done researching, instead of just making a list of a bunch of sights, I grouped them into 3 main goals: Visit remote villages where locals still lived by centuries-long traditions. Visit the fantastic looking and well preserved castles (not just "Dracula's"). And explore the countryside and mountains, perhaps taking a hike or two. Turns out I traded off any real hiking for spending time in the towns and other sights, and well, a lot of driving.


“I often think about why I love to travel. I think it's because I love to explore. When I explore, I learn and I experience. I gain perspectives greater than the ones I had.”

You Don't Have to Book Everything Ahead of Time


As far as what I booked in advance, well, I did book my flight in and out. That was most important to have locked in, but I did that only after deciding how many days I wanted and could afford to spend there. Besides that, I only made one hotel reservation before I arrived, the first night in Bucharest! I felt comfortable not having reservations because I had done plenty of research and had 1-2 options scoped out in advance in several towns. But I didn't make any reservations for them for 2 reasons--although I had my route mapped out and a general plan, I wasn't sure exactly where I would want to stop each night. Also, if I loved a place and wanted to stay longer, I now had the flexibility. I made all the rest of my lodging bookings through Booking.com, usually a few hours before I arrived. Looking only for places rated 8.5 or above, and everything went very smoothly.


What to See in Romania (How my goals turned into visits!)


Beautiful Castles

The castles of Romania did not disappoint! I chose three castles that became pins that guided my trip through the country: Bran, Peleș, and Corvin.


Bran castle is the setting for Bram Stoker's Dracula so it's an obligatory stop about a half hour West of Brasov. In fantastic shape because it was owned and cared for by the Queen of something or other.

With secret staircases, a courtyard straight out of the movies, and beautiful views of the Carpathians from the top. But aside from marketing, there's nothing Dracula about it. Much like Corvin castle, it evokes the images of storybook tales, both Disney and horror movies. (You can click on any photo throughout for a larger version, others are a slideshow you can click through)


Peleș (pronounced with a "sh" at the end) was more recently built in the 1800's, so intricate and beautiful. I arrived too late to go inside but the long walk up the long cobblestone road among the woods with the lush green mountains of Bucegi Natural Park as the backdrop and the stream running along side was the real treat. This was an amazing setting that I'm sure inspired Walt Disney and many authors of the last 200 years. I spent over an hour just strolling and soaking in the atmosphere. It's about an hour south of Brasov.



One more castle snuck into my itinerary as a last minute detour as I drove from Peleș to the town of Brașov. I passed a sign that said "Turn here for the Filming place of Netflix's Wednesday". I knew it was filmed in Romania but didn't do much prior research as to where. But a quick right turn off the main road, across the creek and a short jaunt down a rural road took me to Castelul Cantacuzino. Not as captivating and impressive as the others but very cool to spend a half hour wandering the grounds and playing snippets of the show set in different parts of the grounds, with great views of the valley and tree-filled mountains on the other side. Not to mention getting a photo with my first Romanian woman at the entrance.


Last was the castle I was most looking forward to--Corvin. It was the photo I saw of Corvin castle that sealed my desire to visit Romania. What an amazing looking place! A castle that was no doubt the inspiration for countless films, settings, not to mention Bran Stoker's Dracula as well. One of the largest in Europe, built in the 15th century and in near-perfect shape thanks to four large scale renovations (the first renovation in the 17th century gave it its current look). It's not that it is anything special inside--although the circular staircase and parapets are very cool to wander--but it's the feeling you get standing outside gazing up at this wonder. There are only a few castles in the world that inspire this kind of feeling.

Construction and terrible, super narrow roads almost thwarted my visit after driving 90 minutes west of Sibiu. But I parked in the meager lot down the road (where they learned people will pay to use the loo), meandered past the sparse tourist and food stalls (yes, even Romania has some at the bigger sights), and gazed up at the majestic fortress. Sure I had to get my obligatory photo in front of the castle, but sitting on the ledge overlooking the moat that I would soon cross over, eying the original iron gate I would pass through, looking up at the pointed turrets topping each imposing tower, realizing I am here at this 600 year old castle surrounded by the hills of the notorious land of Transylvania, I felt like I had stepped into any one of the fairy tales I heard growing up. It was the real life backdrop that matched the images of those fairy tales in my head. Well, all fairy tales end. So after an hour or so I grabbed a delicious Socata from one of the vendors and got back on the road. 'Cause there isn't much else to see or do in that town.


Traditional Villages

Every group of people has its own culture. As the world progresses and modernizes, old traditions get traded off for newer, faster, shinier ones. Hand-made techniques get forgotten in favor of ones that allow for more leisure time. Another draw that pulled me to Romania were the large number of communities that have held on to traditional ways of living, customs, building, dressing.


I don't know exactly why I love experiencing old ways of doing things. Perhaps it's a longing for my childhood. Or the influence of films I watched growing up. Or just a desire to learn about our past. But when I read that there were not just a couple villages but an entire region of Romania that still lived by these old traditions, I made it a key destination of the trip. Maramureș is all the way on the northern border of Romania with Ukraine, 460 miles from Bucharest. Quite a haul, even from the castles of Transylvania--the first 2/3 being unexpectedly flat and boring (I couldn't drive fast enough to get through it) and the last third being hilly, mountainy, and wonderfully scenic (seems like I was stopping every few miles to look around).


What's unique about Maramureș

Wooden Gates

Maramureș was the only place I stayed 2 nights in the same place, every other night was just a place to rest before continuing to explore further. Immediately as I approached the hills leading up to Maramureș, I started passing imposing wooden gates straddling the driveway entrances to where people lived. I passed 2 or 3 of them before it hit me that this was one of the traditions of the area they have held onto. Every gate was quite tall, with a steepled header and a pedestrian gate entrance on one or both sides. Stopping to admire some of these gates, I was amazed at all the intricate carvings! Not just a symbol in the center or a design inscribed into the top, but nearly every inch of every board of wood was hard-carved with detailed patterns or images. Large homes, small homes, church entrances--these weren't just for the well to do, they were part of the culture and were ubiquitous throughout the region.


Most were weathered raw wood. Some varnished, some colored, many old, many newly built, some with hanging decorations, others had roofs. I don't think there were two gates that looked even remotely alike. This was the antithesis of the ultra-homogenized, Home Depot mass selling of mass produced cookie cutter material, tract-home repeating architectural drawing way of home construction that is so common and cost effective in the USA now. These were what people took pride in. Carrying on traditions, building something meaningful to their family and themselves. It felt real and it was beautiful.


Wooden Churches

The oldest church built entirely of wood still standing in Maramureș was built in 1622 (on a 1530 foundation) in Breb and the newest was still being constructed when I visited, also in Breb. Wooden churches are the norm in Maramureș, at least one in nearly every town. Made of huge trees, the newer ones as intricately carved as the gates


(Click through the slideshow)


Of the few I saw inside, pews and tables were hand carved and walls were sparsely decorated with fabrics, hangings and religious objects. What struck me most was how imposing the elements of the building were. Coming from a land of 2x4 framing and 2x8 header construction, seeing the tree-trunk sized logs that made up the walls, massive doors, intricate hand-carved design, I can't help but admire not only their work but way of thinking that propels them to put such effort and dedication to create such lasting structures.


Something else I found fascinating about their woodworking culture. In the center of Breb next to the newly built wooden church, out front was a newly delivered pile of cut tree trunks, bark and all still intact. I don't know what these would be used for, but what caught my attention was that these tree trunks weren't delivered to a lumber mill for processing and cutting, then put back on a truck and delivered to a lumber store, then sold to a delivery company to be put back on a truck to deliver to the building site. The trees were dropped directly at the site to be cut on site as each timber was needed. Makes me wonder which way is more efficient, smarter? Have we made things better through our American supposed progress? What could we learn and apply from their adherence to their simpler ways (which by the way was how Americans and most of the world built homes prior to the 1900's.)

Clothing and Dress

Romanians in the Maramureș region dressed like any other modern culture, perhaps on the conservative and simpler side. But I had read how they still dressed in traditional dress for formal occasions such as church and weddings, something that most cultures have largely traded away in favor of comfort. Two villages in particular were called out for the dress being prevalent, one of which was Budesti, only 20 minutes from Mara where I stayed. And tomorrow was Sunday--excellent! After wandering the village on foot and exploring their 400 year old wooden Church of St. Nicholas, I noticed a stream of people walking down the road (there were few cars being driven in any of these smaller villages, by the way). Most dressed in traditional dress of different colorful colors, women wearing scarves, men wearing cute hats. Church had just let out and everyone was walking home. Yes, even those that lived at the far end of the village.



What Else Made Maraumreș Special

I chose to stay at Pastravaria Alex in Mara, because it wasn't just a bed to sleep in but a place that extended the experience of the region. Wooden covered tables dotting the pond and hillside for meals, a beer, or just relaxing. Great food, wonderfully presented. Traditionally dressed servers (and some guests), and a great place to sip palinka or drink an Azuga marzen style beer.

When in Rome-ania...


I did notice that many homes had a water well. I don't know how many were still operating or which villages had piped water now, but their presence added to the charm.


I find a country or region's cemeteries fascinating. They're an expression of art and style as much as they are a celebration of life and death. I loved how many wooden grave markers there were, hand carved of course. Most had little roofs on them, even the metal ones. Many live plants and flowers, all well maintained and I have a feeling that some of that maintenance is done by local women, not necessarily enlisted by the church.


The Merry Cemetery in Sapanta however is the most extreme, colorful and interesting. One man decided he would carve and paint colorful and personal grave markers for everyone interned there and dedicated himself to that art for decades, and his son is carrying on the tradition. Quite beautiful and the church itself is decorated nearly as colorfully. A light rain shower on the day I visited made it even more special with the light hitting the reflective colorful tiles of the church and saturating the color of the painted grave markers beautifully.


There are a few monasteries in Maramureș, but I only visited two of them. The Barsana Monastery, a 30 minute drive to the east of Mara, is by far the most amazing. A sprawling complex of maybe 15 unique structures, beautifully adorned, surrounding a picturesque huge courtyard. It is nearly spotless and perfect, partially because these buildings were only built in 1993 even though the site has been a monastery since the 1300's. The music playing created a relaxing ambiance as I walked around. A few buildings were open to explore inside and I bought my Romanian hat and scarfs for my mom and girlfriend at the little gift shop. I also visited the Sapanta-Peri Monastery in Sapanta. Only two buildings, but just as beautiful. If I had more time, I would have liked to stop at some of the smaller ones I passed as well.


Favorite Towns & Other Sights

Saliste

I love to take my time along any drive and stop to walk around and explore. A small town, a group of people, a market. I've found some of the most memorable experiences this way. So I took a back road from Sibiu on the way to Corvin Castle through what looked like 3 small villages. Pulling into Saliste, just west of Sibiu was the only place that compelled me to stop and walk around. I ended up spending 2 hours! I'm not quite sure why, but I took in the small outdoor fruit and vegetable market, flower-draped stream, little bakery and farmacia (pick up whatever you need at a pharmacy in Romania, it's 2-10% of the American price), walked up the hill to the two small churches, one nestled in the green mountainside with yet another picturesque cemetery, and just admired the people strolling and stooping. The look of a few of the women caught my eye with distinct crooked noses. Ok, maybe not that crooked, but unique enough to catch my eye. And it made me wonder if Hollywood hadn't taken inspiration from this and similar regions when designing the faces of famous crooked-nosed characters in popular films.


Salina Turda

Of all of the "attractions" I read about, only one sounded somewhat interesting enough to get me to stop--the salt mine in Turda. First of all, how could a salt mine be interesting? Images of miners chiseling away in a dimly lit tunnel came to mind. After all, the cliché growing up was that being sent to the salt mine was like prison. And second, the town is named Turda--come on. Even the drive to the entrance was across a dry, brown, boring landscape. But wow, I never expected to find an immense, 23 story deep (or high once you are at the bottom), shiny, colorful cavern of salt that looked like a 23-story tall 3D work of art! There isn't much I found interesting to do once inside but just being there is the true experience.


Sighisoara

Besides Brasov, Sighisoara was the only "city" that drew me to stop and stay there. And I loved it! The old town at the top of the hill that used to be a citadel in the 12th century was wonderfully picturesque and stroll and explore. Dinner on the cobblestone sidewalk outside one of just a few cafes in the citadel itself housed in 900 year old building. Walking up the covered stairway to the Church on the Hill. Finding a hauntingly beautiful cemetery just outside of the church full of winding paths and ivy-covered graves and slices of sweeping views of Sighisoara below. Admiring the intricate clock in the clock tower (think German cuckoo clocks or Disneyland's 'It's a Small World'). Wandering the cobblestone streets and alleys lit beautifully at night, and again during the day exploring each of the 12th century towers along the citadel walls. Running across an actual wooden pillory used to punish and humiliate convicts in the square. And yes, it's also the childhood home of Vlad Dracul who Bram Stoker took some inspiration from for his Dracula character, but don't expect too much other than souvenirs and short, character themed tour of his actual home. (P.S. When looking for a place to stay, beware of places that are actually within the citadel walls. They're not convenient. You'll be walking your luggage up the road since you can't drive there. I didn't meet with this fate, but almost did had I not taken enough time to read enough reviews.)


Fortified Churches

There are many, but I visited the 2 closest to Brasov--Harman and Prejmer. What's a fortified church? Well, it's church with a circular fortress around it. What made them interesting is mostly the fortress itself. Basically a 15 to 20 foot deep wall, and between the thick outer wall and inner wall are "rooms" that either acted as storage for weapons, food, grain, or sleeping quarters for, well, everyone living inside. And there were 4 levels of rooms, so to access the upper levels of rooms, you had to climb incredibly steep wooden stairs! Imagine if you were one of the defenders who had to climb not only to the third level, but the roof above that to fight whoever was attacking. I'd be more afraid of falling than of the attackers! Which did I like better? They're both very similar, but I liked the original spiked iron gate at Prejmer and the stairs were steeper and scarier at Harman :) .



Other Notes on Romania

Brasov - Yes, loved it. Spent a full day here. I just don't have much to say about it other than what other you'll likely find on many sites.


Cluj-Napoca - I stayed here only because I needed to a place to stop, I found almost nothing of interest there other than a fantastic bakery, Panemar, with delicious freshly made apple strudel and German pretzels. Loved them! and was hoping there would be more in other towns, but no. Otherwise, Cluj is just a big city like Bucharest.


Bucharest, fountains to palace

Bucharest - I stayed one night each on the beginning and end of the trip. It's a city with a lot of history and culture but seems to lack forward thinking and focus to return it to being attractive and inviting like other big cities in Europe. The old town is somewhat interesting, the stroll from the fountains to the largest palace in the world and monument to the infamous communist ruler Nicolae Ceaușescu is certainly one of a kind, and there are a handful of places to visit (at least I think there might be, I spent my last night at a laundromat, exhausted after 9 long days!)


People - I'll let the photos speak for themselves, but beyond those working in the places we visit, it's the rest of the locals that make up the culture of a town, region or country. I didn't expect and was struck by how many people used bicycles or horse-carts to get around town, and really loved one guy who built his own lawnmower-cart contraption--reminded me of what I'm sure people were doing in-between the horse & buggy and first Ford Model T here in America. Many women working the land, farming. Only one person "accosted" me. She spoke no English, so through her hand gestures I understood that she either wanted me to make a baby with her or wanted money to feed her baby lol. Probably the latter. English speaking was prevalent in big cities, and non-existent in some small towns.


I Highly Recommend Exploring Romania


I often think about why I love to travel. I think it's because I love to explore. When I explore, I learn and I experience. I gain perspectives greater than the ones I had. It helps expand my opinions of right and wrong, what's weird versus normal, what's unique about my culture and what's common between them. I start to see how fairy tales and novels are inspired. It gives me an appreciation for how other people live and act and an understanding of why.


For those reasons, I love to visit places that are quite different than what I'm used to. Off the beaten path. Unique. I loved the experience exploring Romania! The country lacks a landmark destination that becomes a world-known draw like the Louvre in Paris or New York City in the USA. Or perhaps it just needs better tourism marketing, since any of the places I visited are worth visiting on their own. It was easy to get around (at least with a car), the roads were in great shape, I always felt safe (ok, maybe not all parts of Bucharest), and I would call it overall an inexpensive place to visit.


Leave a comment with any questions or to share your own related experiences.




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