Uncovering the Beauty of Romania
Romania has been a place that I’ve been curious about for a while now, but beyond the castles and legends of Transylvania, I didn’t really have a concrete image in my mind of what it had to offer. While through my current role in travel I specialize in the countries of Eastern Europe, for most of my clients their East ends in either Hungary, Poland or the Baltics. Further beyond the territorial borders of these countries you’ll see that there are a few sizable and relatively unknown countries that extend beyond the Eastern comfort zone of many, and Romania is one of them.
Big and Bold Bucharest
The first logical starting point in any country’s exploration is its capital. Preliminary research will tell you that during the first half of the 20th century, given its cultural and architectural riches, Bucharest was known as Paris of the East. It even has an Arc de Triomphe and a boulevard modelled after the Champs Elysees – intentionally constructed to be a little bit wider and a little bit longer in an attempt of one-upmanship. With a population of nearly 2 million and the 2nd largest administrative building in the world, Bucharest is a big city. As can be expected in any large European city, traffic is a bit of a nightmare. Once downtown, I saw the scale and magnitude I was expecting, with wide avenues and an interesting mix of historical and post-communist architecture. It had a cool buzz, in a somber, neglected kind of way. You might notice the graffiti on a building before you realize it has a beautiful, neo-classical façade.
Bucharest is situated in the southeast part of the country and unless you’re heading to the Black Sea coast, as you set out on your travels you’ll likely be heading north, towards cities and towns that you’ve likely never heard of before. The riches of the Romanian countryside are many, and can be broken done more or less into categories – each worth at least a day of exploration on their own.
The castles you come across in Transylvania are impressive and cover a wide range of history, from the fortress-like medieval structures of the 13th and 14th centuries, to the picturesque and luxurious masterpieces of the 19th century. In the first category, about a 3 hour drive from Bucharest you find Bran castle. While most well-known for its role in inspiring Bram Stoker’s Dracula, its connection the infamous Vlad the Impaler is loose at best. Even still, perched atop a 200-foot high rock, it’s an imposing site. This is the castle that most people come to see in Romania, and while impressive, it’s far from being the most picturesque.
Much more scenic and in fact one of the most impressive castles I’ve ever seen is Corvin Castle. This beautifully preserved Gothic-style castle is complete with tall towers and turrets, bastions, inner courtyard and a draw bridge. The castle is somewhat isolated in where it lies, and is actually at about the halfway point between Bucharest and Budapest. By the time you’ve reached Corvin castle, you’ll like have already been travelling though Transylvania for a few days, and hopefully you’ve still got a few more ahead.
For something a little more modern and a lot more luxurious, Peles castle served as the summer residence of the royal family until the middle of the 20th century. It’s a masterpiece of German new-Renaissance architecture and is filled with European Art and Murano glass chandeliers. It was the first European castle entirely lit by electrical current, with the electricity coming from its own plant.
I never knew that this was a thing, but all over central Romania you’ll find these medieval strongholds dotting the landscape. While the church was always an important place spiritually for people, there was a time where their importance was a lot more strategic. Many of these churches were built in the 12th and 13th centuries and they were used as defense against Ottoman invasions.
One of the largest and most impressive of these churches can be found in the village of Beirtan. Three tiers of defense walls that comprise much of the complex made the church impossible to conquer. Another fine example of this type of structure is the one in Saschiz. This magnitude of the building against its surroundings is awesome, and its Gothic architectural elements make it a beautiful site to take in. One of the oldest fortified churches in Transylvania can be found in Viscri, and what it lacks in aesthetic beauty it makes up for in prowess and its commanding hilltop location overlooking this tiny village.
There’s a little chunk of history that I had never even heard of before that was carved out by the Dacian civilization. They occupied a region which spanned from the present-day countries of Poland down to Serbia, and from Hungary to the Ukraine. The most important military, political and religious centre of the Dacians was a site called Sarmizegetusa Regia. It’s situated in a natural park covered in forests, meadows and lakes, and to access the site you have to walk from the parking lot for about 15 minutes up a gradual path to its unassuming entrance. Due to its isolation, this is a little-explored region of the country. However given its former historic glory it’s believed there’s still a lot of the site that hasn’t been discovered. It’s apparently still being plundered by occasional treasure hunters, and while we were exploring the site we were being watched by the security of the site to ensure we didn’t wander off the marked trails. It’s an intriguing site with a just enough stones still in place to give you an idea of what used to be there. Compounded by the fact that we were there on a wet and foggy autumn afternoon, the place exuded a calming and grounding energy.
One thing you might notice as you’re driving through the countryside is that the houses are all clustered in small villages, and that you don’t see any single settlements up on a hill or down a lane. These villages were established centuries ago and this was done for defense reasons. As a result, much of the landscape surrounding the villages remains untouched, and the further you drive, the more you get the sense that you’re getting further and further away from the modern world.
You come upon a village every 15 or 20 kilometres or so, and they typically consist of one street, lined with houses that face away from the street. While this might give somewhat of an unwelcoming feel to the village, the old ladies you see chatting on the side tell you otherwise. You’re more likely to see a horse and buggy than you are a car, and in the afternoon you’ll witness stray cows returning to the villages on their own after a day of grazing in the nearby fields. Not to mention the chickens, geese, dogs and donkeys that seem to outnumber the human population. The sense of community is very strong in this area, and you’ll find a harmonious blend of Romanian, Hungarian and Roma living off the land. Most of these villages are completely non-descript, and only every third or fourth one seems to have some sort of store selling non-perishables. You’ll be hard pressed to find a gas station or place to grab a coffee.
Fortress Ruins Make Great Places to Hike To
It seems like you’re never on the road for more than half an hour before you see the foreboding ruins of a once-important fortress dominating a nearby hilltop. They serve as constant reminders that you’re travelling through an area that was both an important thoroughfare and a battleground, spanning for several centuries. Since they’re generally situated on the tops of hills, they make for great hiking destinations, offering rewarding views once you reach them.
On the way to Bran castle you’ll pass by Rasnov fortress. Back in the 14th and 15th centuries, the local population would be holed up here for decades at a time, seeking shelter from invading Mongols and Turks. Not far from Sighisoara is Saschiz fortress, just up the hill from its impressive fortified church. A little further from civilization but well worth the effort it takes to get there, the ruins of Coltesti fortress make for a great, moderate hike, and the panoramic landscape around the ruins is spectacular.
This traditional and authentic way of life can still be witnessed all over Romania, and one of the best places to witness it first-hand is in Brasov County. The commune of Bunesti is comprised of 5 villages, each with its own fortified church. While I was in Bunesti village I had the privilege of meeting the owner of a guest house called Bike Check Inn and he gave me a tour of his recently completed facility. More on this here.
So Much More
In a week I covered a fair bit of ground in Transylvania and Bucharest but I still felt like there was a lot more to see. With each passing day I felt more in tune with my surroundings, and more unplugged from my daily life. I was just a small dot on the map of the 12th largest country in Europe and there were a lot of parts I didn’t get to see. I’m already thinking about how to cover the gorges of the Danube, the western border of the country and the northern region of Maramures on my next visit.