Romania is generally known for Dracula, Vlad Țepeș, the Carpathian Mountains, Dacia cars, Dacians (our forebears), Hagi, Nadia Comaneci, wine, The Black Sea, George Enescu and Brâncuși. These are just the tip of the iceberg. Let me take you on a journey through time, from the beginning to present.
Romania is one of Europe’s lesser known corners, with a rich and fascinating history. Having come through tough times, today, it’s a member of the European Union, clearly on the upswing and a rewarding place to explore.
Travelers experience a land of contrasts. Its lively capital has a modern bustle. Its mammoth palace recalls a horrible dictator, a romantic king’s retreat stands tall in the mountains and medieval churches hide behind fortified walls.
While many are lured by the Dracula myth, the reality is even more fascinating in this complex land where a vivid folk life still thrives. In the southeast of Europe, Romania sits where the Danube River meets the Black Sea.
The Capital, with about 2 million people, is a sprawling tangleof buildings. It’s muscular and gritty, hard to like at first glance. But with a thoughtful look, it reveals its charms. Bucharest has a raw and bracing urban energy. First-time visitors are struck by its eclectic mix of architecture. Just wandering the streets with your neck craned up is entertaining.
The foundation of this architectural jumble dates from the late 19th century. That’s just after Romania become a unified country for the first time. In the 1860s, without a royal family to call their own, the Romanians went shopping for a king who could connect them with the European mainstream.
They found one in Germany, where a prince looking for a throne agreed to become King Carol I of Romania. King Carol embraced his new homeland while bringing Western reforms and securing true independence for Romania. Under King Carol, Bucharest blossomed. He imported French architects to give Bucharest a romantic allure. Today, Victory Avenue is a showcase of the city’s belle epoque, when Bucharest was nicknamed “The Little Paris of the East.”
The Avenue rumbles toward the recently rejuvenated Old Town. Under more stately architecture, you’ll find inviting pedestrian lanes. This is the traffic-free heart of town. Locals enjoy a fun and relaxing scene, and there’s almost no tourists in sight. And the nightlife scene is on the rise.
Formerly abandoned shopping galleries are now sweet with hookah smoke. Food trucks fill a vacant lot with late-night sipping and socializing. If you’re looking for fun after dark, this part of Bucharest can feel like one big, sprawling cocktail party.
Thriving as it is today, Bucharest’s Old Town was lucky to survive the Communist period. Most of the historic center was wiped out by the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu so he could build a grandiose new town perfect for a megalomaniac.
Ceausescu took power in 1965, and through his 24 year dictatorship, his ego ballooned. He became addicted to massive projects without budgets. After a visit to North Korea, Ceausescu returned inspired to transform his city.
He ripped out most of Bucharest’s historical core to create his enormous civic center. Its wide boulevards and stone-faced apartment blocks all have a distinctivem Pyongyang aesthetic. The culmination of his master plan was an immense palace with more than 1,000 rooms, fit for a dictator gone wild.
Ceausescu literally starved his people to build his dream. Over 6 years, from 1983 to ’89, thousands of laborers worked on it 24/7. When it finally opened to the public in 1994, that was 5 years after Ceausescu died, the Romanian people were both wonderstruck and repulsed.
Today, guided tours lead gawking visitors around these vast and empty spaces. You feel small exploring its grand halls, huge staircases, and mega-ballrooms. Ceausescu demanded the ideal balcony from which to deliver speeches while looking out over his new town and a boulevard grand enough to match his ego.
This palace and similarly extravagant projects all around the downtrodden country created a powerful anti-Ceausescu sentiment that ultimately led to his downfall.
In late 1989, with winds of change sweeping the Eastern Bloc, armed revolutions spread across Romania. An angry populace filled the square here in front of the Communist Party headquarters. They arrested their dictator and shot him on Christmas Day.
This monument honors more than 1,000 Romanians who died in the struggle to overthrow the tyrant and free their country. Today, Ceausescu feels like ancient history, and Romania is proud to be part of the European Union. While Romania’s challenges are significant, it’s clear the country is moving in the right direction.
Peles Castle, the summer residence
of Romania’s first king, Carol. He chose a mountainous and forested setting that reminded him of his German homeland. And he imported German architects to create this fanciful hunting lodge. Prickly, with over-the-top spires, Peles ranks among Europe’s finest Romantic Age palaces.
It boasts one of the most dazzling late 19th-century interiors anywhere. The Hall of Honor, with its red carpets, grand staircase, and venerable portraits, sets the tone. The woodwork is exquisite. The rest of the rooms have a grand yet somehow cozy elegance, glittering crystal chandeliers, thoughtful touches.
Just over the Carpathian mountains, You find town of Brasov, which fills a scenic
mountain valley. Most of the city’s people live in boxy Communist-era apartment blocks, many of which have been spiffed up.
But the historic Old Town is much more charming. It’s packed with locals enjoying a balmy evening. Thriving and appealing, Brasov offers a glimpse into a mid-sized Romanian city that has its act together.
Among other things, Transylvania is well-known for its rustic and wild countryside and a medieval history with a surprising German twist. In the 12th century, Transylvania’s Hungarian overlords needed help taming this wild frontier. So they imported skilled merchants and hardworking settlers from the German lands. For that reason, you’ll find German-speaking enclaves and delightful German towns in this part of Romania.
One of Transylvania’s seven original German towns is Sighisoara, perhaps the most popular tourist town in all of Romania. The old center is entirely contained within its fortified hilltop. Several of Sighisoara’s watchtowers still survive, and its historic centerpiece is its clock tower, proudly trumpeting the town’s special status in the Middle Ages.
Within the town’s protective walls, visitors explore cobbled lanes, enjoy pastel German-style facades and sip beers on the main square. Nearby, a statue honors the town’s tenuous connection with an infamous Romanian prince, Vlad Tepes.
In the 15th century, he ruthlessly fought the Turkish Ottomans. Much later, he became better known as the inspiration for a vampire. Vlad had two nicknames: Vlad the Impaler and Dracula. That means “Son of the devil.” Vlad the Impaler was brutal in his defense of his homeland. While he didn’t drink anyone’s blood, he was sadistic, famously impaling his victims. The popular Dracula myth came much later.
Dracula in the myth is a fictitious vampire created centuries later by the Victorian novelist Bram Stoker. He wrote his famous novel, “Dracula,” after being inspired by the tales of this bloodthirsty prince and other local legends. Dracula is big business for local tourism. For many, when in Transylvania, a stop at Bran Castle is considered a must.
While people call it Dracula’s Castle, it has virtually nothing to do with Vlad the Impaler. But that doesn’t stop the tourists from coming or locals from selling their vampire kitsch. Past the tacky souvenir gauntlet, a cobbled path curls up to the castle entrance. Despite the fanciful legends, Bran is actually a fine example of an authentic medieval fortress dating from the 14th century.
Some of Romania’s most memorable fortresses aren’t castles at all. They’re actually churches. While big towns were well-fortified, smaller German villages were vulnerable to invaders.So what did
the industrious settlers do? They fortified their churches. Dozens of fortified German churches, mostly built in the 13th and 14th centuries, are scattered across Transylvania.
Like other medieval fortresses, they have beefy bastions, stout lookout towers, and narrow slits for archers. Entire communities could take refuge inside, within these wraparound defensive galleries.
This fortified church had a room for each family. And when under attack, each family had a defensive responsibility. Stepping inside these churches feels like stepping into medieval Germany. Decoration was humble. Pews were simple benches. Bible quotes are in German. And to this day, the services are Lutheran. Today, most of Romania’s ethnic Germans are gone, having emigrated in the late 19th century or fled to Germany after World War II. Those who remain speak a time-warped German and work hard to keep their unique cultural heritage alive.
And the cultural heritage of Romania is many-faceted. Appreciating the diversity of the 20 million people who make up this country enriches your experience. The faces, as varied and beautiful as the land itself, tell the story.
Of Romania’s many people, one group in particular has struggled to fit in is the Roma. Also known as gypsies, the Roma originated in India. They were nomads who migrated over the centuries throughout Eastern Europe and gained a reputation as musicians, thieves, and metalworkers.
Romania has Europe’s largest Roma population. They’ve had to abandon their nomadic ways and face the challenge of settling down. The classic Roma image is poor people in shanty towns. But most Roma live side by side with their Romanian neighbors, more or less fitting into mainstream society and many Roma carry on the traditional craft of metalworking.
At the fringe of the country, tucked next to the Ukrainian border, is Romania’s most isolated region, Maramures and is fiercely traditional. Its centuries-old ways endure. Horse carts are commonplace. The men wear distinctive straw hats. The women are tough as the land. People work the fields, as they have for generations. Village roads are lined with ornate wooden gateways.
These gateways are intentionally elaborate, designed to show off
the family’s wealth. The gates protect family compounds. Along with a home,
you’ll find a barn, a garden, and an old-time dipping well.
Maramures has some of the finest wooden churches in Europe. Their graceful spires punctuate the countryside. Soaring skyward, they seem to connect earth with Heaven. The exteriors show off the quality craftsmanship of local woodworkers through the centuries.
In 1935, a local woodcarver, reviving an old tradition, began adorning what’s known as the “Merry Cemetery” with a forest of vivid memorials. Each one comes with a whimsical poem and a painting of the departed in the moment of death or doing something they loved. Even if you can’t read the poems, the images speak volumes. From a lifetime commitment to a traditional trade, like weaving, baking, or woodworking, a more modern one
like television repair, or to a passion for bicycles.
A sad, early end by a lightning strike, or a humorous memorial to a lifetime spent enduring a nagging mother-in-law. It’s a poignant and good-natured celebration of each individual’s life, as well as a chronicle of village history. And it’s all painted in cheery blue, to match the heavens where these souls are headed.
Traveling through Romania feels about as far from home as You could ever go
while still in Europe. Sure, it’s got some rough edges, but you’ll enjoy amazing sights, endearing people, and rich memories.