2011 saw a return visit to Romania as part of a road trip around the region. I'd driven before from Sofia to Bucharest in the late 1990s, and had left massively unimpressed. Things started badly right at the Romanian end of the Danube bridge, which joins Bulgaria to Romania. I was waved between 3 huts at the side of the road, where I had to pay all sorts of taxes. This included an 'environmental' tax amongst other things. When I complained to a border guard at the actual customs post, he got in the car and went back with me to get some of the 'taxes' back. Things didn't get better half an hour later, where I was pulled over by some traffic cops who helped themselves to all my Bulgarian cash (I didn't have any Romanian at the time). Admittedly I was speeding and overtaking on a single white line at the time, so they had a reason to pull me over. Oddly I didn't get a ticket though. When I got to Bucharest, it was a city that one could only described as f*cked. There were huge, and I mean huge (as in you'd never get out) potholes, long queues at tram stops. Around the corner from the all encompasing People's Palace (as it was then known) were buildings falling apart, open land with chickens in make shift wire pens. And most memorable of all was watching a a tram rail that had bent up from the road, and was just bouncing around precariously in the breeze. In the late 90's, Romania was not a good place to visit, and somewhere I had little desire to return too. But things change, and 12 or so years later, I went back.
When thinking of Romania there's usually only one word that springs to mind, and let's face it, it's Gypsies. To some a negative connotation, along with horses & carts, crumbling buildings and peasant life. However to sum up a country based on those national traits would be very wrong. The very fact that they are such national stereotypes gives the country an identity which clearly distinguishes it from other nations. Although seeing horses & carts battle for space in Cities is a little disconcerting, mainly for the horse if nothing else. Seeing them in rustic villages gives one an appreciation of a slower life. One where getting up at 7am to join others cogs in the machine on packed commuter transport, and then seeking to step all over your fellow colleagues to get the carrot their boss dangles in the form of promotion and/or bonuses. Watching villagers on busy through roads all come out to watch the cows slowly plod through along the tarmac, with no care for the motorists or how long it might takes the cattle to reach their passage off the road. It wasn't annoying, it was beautiful, a reminder of times gone by, times it's a rarity to appreciate.
Other things in Romania to appreciate are the views, particularly from the most picturesque region of Romania, namely Transylvania. The whole region is stunning, full of the above mentioned rustic villages with coloured plaster walls on their homes along the main road. To the views in the various mountain ranges that form a horseshoe in the country, and the towns that sit amongst them and on their slopes, like Sinaia, Brasov and Sibiu. The shot below is from near Sibiu, the gorgeous Făgăraș Mountains. The road below is Route 7C, also known as the Transfăgărășan Pass, a road built as a military route by the former Dictator, Ceaușescu. Now more popularly known as 'the best drivers' road in the world, thanks to Top Gear. I hiked with a friend the mountains up here, and it really is just stunning.
Currency: Leu (RON)
Visa: No Visa is required for most Western countries.
Plug: European two round prongs, 220v
GMT: GMT +2
GDP Ranking (IMF): # 74 £7,800 (similar to Iran and Venezuela)
Communications: Country code is +40
Health: No vaccinations or specific precautions are needed for Romania. Hospital quality can vary, and medical insurance is recommended. EU citizens with Eurocard won't need insurance.
When to Visit: As a Northern Hemisphere nation, Romania has hot summers and cold winters.
Personal Safety: Most visits are generally safe, and you are unlikely to be a victim of crime. Observe usual precautions in larger urban areas, and be particularly wary of gangs of young children who gather round you and help themselves to your valuables. A known scam is for a 'plain clothes cop' to quickly show a police badge and ask to see passport and wallet, the latter will be lighter on its return. Credit/debit card skimming is also well known. Up-to-date advice from the F&CO is here.
Getting Around: The rail network is comprehensive and reaches almost every town and city. It has acquired more modern trains and carriages, but the speed is not great. Buses also operate all over Romania, although standards vary and timetables are 'flexible'. Car hire is a good option to enjoy the countryside. Hitchhiking is very common in Romania, usual cautions exist, especially for women.
What to see/do: I can't recommend enough hiring a car and driving around the amazing countryside and mountains of Transylvania. Utterly gorgeous little towns and villages, with exquisite rivers, valleys and rural scenes that haven't changed in centuries. The BBC motor show, Top Gear, recommend the Transfăgărășan pass in the Southern Carpathian mountains as the greatest driving road in the world. It's possible to drive it during the summer months, and is closed for winter. If the roads are free of ice and snow, it's possible to drive to the top (2042m) even when closed (a block sits in the road, but is easily passable), however a tunnel through the mountain is closed preventing onward journey. Brașov and Sibiu are two of the most attractive cities in Transylvania.
Transylvania is also well known as the home of a certain Count Dracula. Based on the tales of Vlad the impaler, the castle Vlad lived in briefly in Brasov, is called Dracula's Castle, and attracts Dracula fans in their droves. Peleș Castle and Sighișoara Fortress are less well known, but more impressive than Brasov castle. Timișoara is an attractive medieval city, that was a major player in the ending of Communism in 1989. Bucharest is the capital, and features the usual facilities and museums. Bucharest has lots of medieval neighbourhoods, worth an urban hiking expedition through. The cities top attraction is the 'House of the People', a crazy project by the former Dictator, Ceauşescu. The Danube Delta is a top spot for nature and bird enthusiasts.
Food & Drink: Romania has an abundance of local foods to search out including, Sarmale (stuffed cabbage or vine leaves), Mamaliga (A Polenta), the very delicious Bulz (roasted polenta filled with at least two kinds of cheese, along with bacon and sour cream), Salata Boef (finely chopped and cooked vegetables and meat salad, usually with a mayonaise topping) and Tocana (stew). Romania has plenty of beers, Ursus Black is regarded highly, Neumarkt Premium is a worthwhile lager beer, and Silva Strong Dark Beer is 7%abv, for those looking for a stronger quality beer. The local brandy type drink is Tuica, and Palinca is a traditional Transylvanian spirit (at 60% abv!!). Romania has a long history of wine making, these are popular wineries, Murfatlar, Cotnari, Dragasani and Bohotin.