The people of Romania and their food are awesome. The tourist places and the scenery are beautiful enough but the combination of the food and the insanely friendly people helped make Romania one of, if not the best, places we’ve traveled. It’s like Romania is one of the best kept secrets for travelers. The combination of what exists in Romania, the people, the food, the scenery, the chill attitude, the ease of access, the tourist places, and the great value, doesn’t really exist anywhere else in the world!
In our travels we are commonly greeted with indifference as we are just another tourist. Very rarely are people genuinely interested in us, what we are doing, where we are going in their country, or spend the time to tell us about themselves and their country. We don’t really mind, people have their lives and they are busy, no big deal. Sometimes, like in Australia and Japan, we find a ton of awesome people willing to talk to us and share their lives and culture with us. This makes a destination go from good to amazing and makes our time in the country unforgettable. We’ve had a lot of great experiences with a lot of people but there’s a few that stand out for different reasons.
I had mentioned we spent a lot of time trespassing because tourist places would be closed when they were supposed to be open or we simply found a place where we wanted to visit and couldn’t find anyone to let us in. If we were caught no one would care and sometimes we’d just get asked to leave. If we found out there was an admission fee we’d offer to pay. We’re not total criminals after all :). In one instance we set off a burglar alarm. In the US that’s sign to make a quick getaway but people are so chill in Romania we figured we’d wait to find out who would show up to turn off the alarm and see what happens. After about five minutes of the alarm ringing a five foot flat, 80 year old, woman, who walked with a limp responded to the alarm. We quickly figured out she didn’t speak English so I used the translate app to tell her we were sorry for setting off the alarm and we are tourists from America. She then grabbed our arms and brought us to her home next door, picked up the phone, and called someone. After handing the phone to Jacquelyn, we figured out she had called her granddaughter who spoke impeccable English. The granddaughter said her grandmother asked her to take us on a tour and that she’d be there in a few minutes. The granddaughter spent about two hours with us touring around and then brought us back to her grandmother who had cooked us supper during the tour! When everything was said and done we had taken around four hours of these people’s lives and we offered to give them money for the food and the tour. In typical Romanian fashion, it was a simple “no” with the explanation that they love their home area and they were so happy we were able to tour and share in their culture. I’ve trespassed a lot of places and I’ve been banned from a lot of places for trespassing, like my hometown mall, this is the best outcome I’ve ever had while trespassing!
Romanian people love to talk. People off the street would ask us how we like Romania, where we are from, how things are going, whether or not we like Romania and so on. There was never a shortage of people who wanted to talk to us. We had a very long train ride across Romania and we ended up in a cabin with six other people. The people were curious who we were but no one spoke English. They all looked at us and said, “Duetsch?”, “English?”, and saidsome other countries. I replied, “USA, America”. They all went, “ohhhh!!!”. Not many Americans make it to Romania for tourism, only around 200k/yr, and the part of Romania we were going to had very few tourist in general so an American going to that area was pretty uncommon. The train ride was really hot so I went out of our cabin and stood next to an open window in the hallway for the last five hours of the ride. The different folks in the cabin would come up to me and just stand with me, say a few words of Romanian here and there, offer me drinks and snacks, and then go back to the cabin. We were going through the Carpathian mountains so it was insanely beautiful – it seemed they all knew the word ‘beautiful’ so I probably said that word no less than 100 times to the different people who kept me company. One person tried to organize a taxi to our hotel for us, one person offered me whiskey shots, one person helped us carry all of our baggage off the train at our destination, and another person walked us down the street until we saw our hotel just to make sure we ended up safely to our destination. It was such an unexpected and awesome experience!
There are some problems in Romania: Romania has some tough demographic trends. To start, Romania’s average income is in the $500-$600/mo range in the bigger cities and in the villages/rural areas it’s much lower. This means a lot of people live well below the US minimum wage; a lot of people are very poor. Many people leave Romania for greener pastures, one person told us Romania’s greatest export is their youth which made sense why there were not a lot of youth around. When driving through rural towns we’d see people in their 50s+ and school age children but nothing in between. Once we’d go to bigger cities with universities we’d find more people around our age. Romania’s population is shrinking: they lost 12% of their population through emigration in the last 10 years, of the 19million people left only five million work so a rather small minority of people are supporting the retirees, the individuals unable to work, and themselves. Almost all the people we met around our age wanted to leave Romania and since Romania is part of the EU they can easily move to a more prosperous place.
On top of the unfavorable demographic trends, everyone we met seemed to despise their government. One particular Airbnb host stands out: she was in her 50s and lived through communism. After communism she became a successful entrepreneur employing multiple people and winning business awards. Her house was very big and she alluded to having many vehicles in the past and doing very well financially with her business. Through a series of events that I do not entirely understand due the language barrier, the government ended up shutting down her business and confiscated her assets like her cars. She was also accused of bribery/kickbacks and was investigated but was cleared of any wrongdoing. This happened over three years ago and when she told the story tears still came to her eyes. She said, “I lived eight years as a worker in communism and 25 years in capitalism. We are going the wrong direction.” She’s actively looking to leave Romania for good. Her story was crazy to hear and something unimaginable for us.
We met quite a few people starting their new careers in tourism. We heard time and time again how people have a hard time getting paid from their work or it takes forever to get paid so people are turning to tourism, like owning and running a hotel or becoming tour guides, because tourists pay when they arrive or when they leave – no lag. We met an engineer who became a tourist guide in Alba Iulia for the huge citadel in the city. In any Western European country Alba Iulia Citadel would be listed as a “must do” destination and be a jewel of tourism but in Romania it’s kind of sort of visited by some people because a lot of people, like us, have a hard time finding places to visit. We didn’t know about Alba Iulia prior to a few days before our visit but once we did learn about it we wanted to visit and we wanted to hire a guide for a more enriching experience. There weren’t many guide options and the only one listed on TripAdvisor never responded to phone calls or emails. We still decided to visit, pulled up to the citadel and saw a sign for guide service. We called the number, stated we wanted a tour starting immediately and he said he was available. It’s not like he ran a company with many guides, he was the company! We ended up having a great tour and learned a lot about Romania, it was awesome! The lack of tourism has really benefited us in lots of way in Romania, places aren’t busy, guides are available, and things aren’t that expensive yet. That said, hopefully many more people come to Romania for tourism and hopefully people’s lives will improve as tourists spend money.
The food in Romania is delicious. Pretty much everyone has a vegetable garden and makes their own alcohols and sweets. The food is a lot like what had back in the US: lots of meat, soups, breads, and spices we are familiar with. But the combination of fresh ingredients, cooking from scratch, subtle yet dynamic flavors, and great care help make Romanian food stand out. Romanians are really good at making sweets like pies and cakes. There is one dessert, called papanasi, that really stands out. It’s a super soft cheese baked into a donut looking thing served with a sweet cream and berries. Everyone has their own version of the recipe but in all cases it is absolutely delicious!
We stayed at a very small hotel in the middle of nowhere for a couple of days where the hosts lived in the same building. In the morning our host asked us what we wanted for dinner. I had no idea so I just stared at him. After an awkward pause and my blank expression, he asked if we wanted a traditional Romanian dinner and grew a huge smile after I said “sure”. His wife was the cook and the food turned out absolutely delicious! It was here we learned the typical Romanian meal is a soup, bread, a main dish, and a dessert. People make food and drinks from all sorts of things growing off the land. When we stayed in the mountains we had a host who made jams and alcohols from the mountain berries he picked every year. We also found people who would pick elderflowers growing in the mountains and make a slightly fermented drink like 7Up but way better. It seems as though people could take almost anything and make great food!
Alcohol is a very good value in Romania. Romania makes some amazing wine and pretty good beer. We saw lots of fruit trees and vineyards while driving around but the most surprising thing we saw were HUGE hops farms in the countryside. I think that is what helps keep prices low for alcohol. We don’t drink a lot of wine so we don’t really know good wine but the good news was wine was cheap enough to buy a handful of different types, try them, and then dump them out if we didn’t like the wine. I’m really not sure how anyone makes money on a $2 bottle of wine but that’s not my problem to solve :). Beer was equally cheap. We could buy 2/3rds gallon bottles of beer for about a buck fifty. That’s Franzia cheap
I can’t really think of any bad experiences we’ve had in Romania. I think the worst thing that happened was the occasional rain but that’s not Romania’s fault. We really forward to the day we get to come back. We’re not done yet, we still have a couple more stops in the country and we’re not excited to leave. Romania is too awesome :).
Enjoy the photos!