Tag Archives: Romania

Romania Final 2015

Our time in Romania is finished. We visited north east Romania to see painted monasteries and then went south to Bucharest before taking the train to Bulgaria. Our last two visits in Romania were an amazing way to cap an spectacular journey through the country. Just like before, we found beautiful scenery, incredibly friendly & helpful people, wonderful sights, delicious food, and everything was a good value. We’ve been away from Romania for a little over a week and we already talk about our eventual return.

I had mentioned researching things to do in Romania was a bit difficult; there wasn’t a whole lot of information. Jacquelyn found a place in NE Romania near Ukraine with a bunch of painted monasteries. The pictures online were OK and the area was REALLY far away from everything in Romania so I felt we were taking a bit of a leap to visit. I am very, very, very, happy we decided to go. Just like everything else in Romania, it turned out to be absolutely amazing and all the information online did the area no justice. We’ve never seen anything quite like the 500 year old painted monasteries. The monastery paintings are stories from the bible and the important people in the church so the average folks, who were illiterate, could understand all the important things of their religion. Interior murals are quite different than the exterior murals; they are gruesome depicting people being burned, boiled, stabbed, ripped apart by animals and so on. I asked our guide why so many paintings where of people being killed and dying horrible deaths and he told us that they are the important saints and the paintings are of how the saints died. That was pretty cool considering I remember we learned a lot about the saints in church school but I don’t really remember learning a lot about how they died

We spent nearly nine hours touring around to the different monasteries and it seems like we could have spent a couple more days staring at the walls. The It was amazing to see how well the murals held up after 500yrs of exposure to sun, snow, rain, heat and cold. Each monastery was a little bit different and had its own character. Much like everywhere else in Romania, there were only a handful of other tourists and we were really able to enjoy the monasteries free from interruption.

Our time in Bucharest was pretty good. We aren’t really city people so we don’t really know what to do with ourselves in a big city. Probably the most odd thing we saw was the Parliamentary Palace which is the second largest administration building in the world after the Pentagon. The construction started towards the end of the communist period and the architecture of the building really shows it. The building really is huge, just massively huge. I uploaded a photo and it doesn’t do it justice. If possible, try to zoom in to see the window air conditioners – they are normal size but look super tiny. Otherwise, the city is a lot like other European capitols with similar architecture, city squares, pedestrian areas, and plenty of restaurants and bars.

Romania is quite the place. Some of the locals said we were “brave” and other travelers mentioned we were “daring” for traveling to Romania. We have no idea why as traveling around was super easy and everything went nearly perfect. Many countries we’ve visited have great features but few countries have amazing attractions, great people, beautiful scenery, great food, great values, and, most importantly, relatively easy access to the things we want to visit. Of everywhere we’ve visited, I can only think of three other countries with similar characteristics. The experiences and photos I shared barely scratch the surface of our awesome experience in Romania, they were just the highlights. Our day to day travels had many other great experiences. We were sad to go and we miss Romania a lot.

Enjoy the photos!

Chris W.

PS – for those who want to see high def documentaries about the mountains and wilderness of Romania just go on to youtube and look for “Wild Carpathia”. It’s an excellent series.

Transylvania Part Two 2015

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!

Chris W.

Transylvania Part One 2015

Our time in Transylvania has been amazing. Even though we’ve been here for two weeks it seems like we just scratched the surface. This area has made a very lasting impression on us and the combination of what we found in Transylvania doesn’t really exist anywhere else in the world. The beautiful scenery, outdoor activities, awesome people, good food, chill demeanor, historical sights, ease of access to the things we want to do, and great values make Transylvania the most under-rated place we’ve ever visited. There is a lot I want to share so I’m going to break this up into two posts. #1 The easy stuff: scenery, tourism industry, and driving in Transylvania. #2 The amazing experiences we’ve had with the people of Transylvania and the delicious food they make. I’m still working on #2 so that’ll come sometime later.

First things first: it wasn’t easy figuring out what to see in Transylvania. Normally, if someone wants to tour a European country the first thing they should do is find Rick Steve’s materials on the country. We were surprised to find Rick Steve’s doesn’t have a guide for Romania and even recommended people skip Romania. The next thing we turned to was TripAdvisor only to find there wasn’t a lot listed. The places that were listed didn’t have a whole lot of reviews and the descriptions of the places were pretty poor. Sites like the Lonely Planet and Wikitravel didn’t help much either. We’ve never encountered a dearth of information like this so we made our own itinerary and figured we’d see at least one cool thing during our two week drive through Transylvania. We ended up being completely surprised by how many things there were to do, how much fun the sites were and, best of all, we pretty much had the tourist places to ourselves because there isn’t a huge tourism scene. We knew Romania had mountains but we had no idea it had so many mountains and with the largest continuous forest in Central Europe. Transylvania has some very stunning scenery. It was really easy to find outdoor activities to do and it didn’t take a whole lot of work to see jaw-dropping beauty. I put some photos up and they really speak for themselves – Romania is very beautiful.

Romania has a rich history of being conquered, subjugated, and passed around by outside forces going back thousands of years. Romania, as we know it today, didn’t exist until after World War One. Because of this, there are a lot of fortifications all over the place dating back to Roman times and even some villages have churches with very large fortifications. A lot of the sites we visited were at some stage of refurbishment, it seemed like everything was under construction. We learned that a lot of EU money and tourist money is being used to make the tourist sites better, which is good, because a lot of historical sites are pretty dumpy and only some are in great condition. There was a huge positive benefit of the dumpiness: we could pretty much wander around anywhere, open doors, peek in everything, and thoroughly explore everywhere, and there were very few “fun police” running around ruining our time. This is pretty different than most tourist sites we’ve visited around the world. We also spent a lot of time trespassing because sites would be closed when they were supposed to be open or we were just interested in visiting. Unlike other places in the world, no one ran us off and no one seemed to get mad! People were generally happy to see us when we were trespassing. After setting off an alarm in one building, we were welcomed with open arms and later given dinner – but that’s a story for part two .

Since we didn’t find a lot of information about what to visit, we’d always ask people for recommendations on what to see during our visit. Almost always people would bring up a salt mine near Turda. We had read about it and planned on visiting it, but it was surprising so many people thought a salt mine was cool. It had its own aura with the locals, the salt mine would come up in conversation and people would pause and say something like, “Oh yes, it’s a very good place. You must go.” So the day arrives and we visit; I never thought a salt mine would be cool but it was awesome! The salt mine had been turned into a mini amusement park complete with a Ferris wheel, mini-golf, pool tables, bowling, row boats, and tons of areas to sit around and chill. Salt crystals were growing everywhere on everything, even the air was salty. Every so often I’d lick my lips and taste salt! It was a really cool visit!

The cost is right for tourism. Most tourist attractions were generally$2-$3 per person to visit, some were free, and the very few ‘expensive’ places, like Bran Castle, were only $7-$10. It was amazing we could go to so many places and see such cool stuff for so little money. In more expensive countries we generally have to choose what we want to do and make some type of judgement call on what we want to see. Not in Romania, we could visit everything! Food, lodging, rental cars, etc., were all pretty reasonable too. We could go out and have a very good three course meal with drinks and desert for $15-$20. That’s a very good deal!

The biggest downside for a tourist had to be getting around. Driving in Romania is insane. The bigger cities are filled with seemingly suicidal drivers and the countryside is filled with dirt roads in bad condition. In the first five minutes with our rental car, I discovered our horn was disconnected. After the first day of driving I told Jacquelyn that we should be prepared to pay for damages for our rental car because there’s no way the car was coming back unscathed. The crap mountain roads, extremely narrow streets, and everyone trying to drive over us was terrifying! That said, I’m thankful for two things which came in very helpful in Transylvania: 1) spending endless hours driving on the gravel back roads of the Black Hills during high school really taught me how to make decent time on crap roads, 2) driving in Albany, NY and Chicago for a year taught me how to deal with super bad and super crazy drivers. We ended up being completely fine and even returned the rental car in one rather muddy piece. These two experiences helped make sure we stayed on the road, didn’t hit anything, and nothing hit us!

So the scenery, the tourist sites, and the trip through Romania was awesome. Even if we hadn’t spoken to a single person in the country, Romania would still be near the top of our list of favorite countries we’ve visited. The unique and extremely awesome part of our trip occurred from all the interactions we’ve had with others and I’ll write about that later!

Enjoy the photos!

Chris W.