Romanian Holiday

Community Highlights Europe Romanian Holiday

I’ll admit, Romania was not on my bucket list, but like Albania and Tajikistan I’m swept in by its beauty and charm and scold myself for (once again) being swayed by preconceived notions.

We pick up a rental car in Bucharest and adjust immediately to lawless driving attitudes. Not even an excusatory wave as they cut you off! Parking is easy - wherever it fits, sidewalks included.

The House of Parliament, aka, the House of the People (its post revolution name) should really be called Ceausescu’s folly as it demonstrates the unbridled megalomania of Nicolae Ceausescu, Romania’s notorious dictator (in power from 1965-1989). Depending on how you divide them, this monster of a building (second in size only to the Pentagon) has 1000 - 3000 halls, conference rooms and offices. Crystal chandeliers, mountains of locally sourced marble and wood lend to the oppulence of the halls we are allowed to visit. A flurry of activity interrupts our guided shuffle as the President of Croatia and his (heavily armed) delegation sweep through.
House of the People, Bucharest

House of the People, Bucharest


Before/after - the fountains in front of Ceausescu’s palace

Before/after - the fountains in front of Ceausescu’s palace


Inside Ceausescu’s palace, Bucharest

Inside Ceausescu’s palace, Bucharest

Old town (Lipscani) is the place to hang out. Many of the buildings have been refurbished and the area is filled with upscale bars and restaurants. Themed cafes like Van Gogh and neighbor Rembrandt do a steady business, while beer houses are also extremely popular.
Old town, Bucharest

Old town, Bucharest


There is no shortage of churches though only a few originals survived Ceausescu’s bold redevelopment plan in the 80’s.
Stavropoleos Church, Bucharest

Stavropoleos Church, Bucharest

The pretty little town of Sinaia, on the edge of Transylvania, got its name from a nobleman who built a monastery upon his return from Israel’s Mount Sinai in the 17th century. However, the architectural jewel of the town is the century-old Peles Castle, King Carol I’s summer retreat though he died shortly after its completion in 1914. Every inch of this turreted, fairytale castle is carved and gilded.
Pelés Castle, Sinaia

Pelés Castle, Sinaia


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Interior Pelés Castle, Sinaia

Interior Pelés Castle, Sinaia

The town sits at the base of the rugged Bucegi mountains offering year-round sports activities.
Center of town, Sinaia

Center of town, Sinaia


Casa Ella (20 euros), Sinaia

Casa Ella (20 euros), Sinaia

One day, we stop for lunch at Nabucco restaurant in the town of Ploiesti and delight in the tastiest pork ribs (coaste) not to mention a delicious white bean dip. We make a note to come back to this restaurant at the end of our trip, but within a week realize that the ribs are divine everywhere in Romania! Portions are huge and the meat falls off the bone.

Transylvania is most famous for Bran Castle. While Bram Stoker based his character on the infamous Vlad III, aka Vlad the Impaler, that Vlad Dracula lived or spent any time at Bran Castle is a modern fabrication for the purposes of tourism. Kudos to the genius who set that ball in motion! From a distance, the castle is spectacular. As you get closer, the kitsch (enhanced by interminable souvenir stalls) is beyond imaginable. One of the more interesting myths on display at the castle is that of the Strigoi - the evil souls of the dead. Considered the precursors of vampires, the only way to kill them is to dig up their graves and drive a stake thru their hearts. Apparently, some rural villages still practice this.
Bran Castle

Bran Castle

Strategically located on the road between Bran and Brasov, the 13th century Rasnov Fortress was built to defend Transylvanian villages from persistent outside invasion. People from surrounding villages took refuge in the fortress, sometimes for decades.
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View from Rasnov Fortress

View from Rasnov Fortress

Hollywood-style letters on the mountainside also confirm your arrival in Braşov. Our room at Corona Guest House (24 euros) is very large and comfortable and just a 5 minute walk from Piata Sfatului, the main square.
Corona Guest House, Brasov

Corona Guest House, Brasov


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Main square, Brasov

Main square, Brasov

Thanks to Nicolae Ceausescu, who forbade anyone except himself to hunt bears, the region has the largest population of brown bears in Europe. Flanked by a guide and ranger, 6 of us walk single file through the forest towards a hide occasionally stopping to gape at large fresh paw prints. We take seats in a wood cabin at a large picture window.
Bear hide in the forest near Brasov

Bear hide in the forest near Brasov


Inside the bear hide

Inside the bear hide

On cue, a young cub trots into view, sits on a fallen tree and nibbles at food put out by the rangers.
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Suddenly, he jumps up and runs away. After a long pause, during which we silently scan the panorama, a large male saunters in from stage left and takes his place at the tree.
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The ranger insists that the bears (population about 60) are fed in order to keep them away from of the town which is only 20 minutes away. No doubt it helps tourism as well. We spend a couple of hours observing the dynamics between 4 adults and 3 cubs. The rules are obvious: males own the place, females can approach with permission while cubs wait for the elders to leave before rushing in for scraps.
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Leaving the hide as night falls and walking back thru the forest is nerve wracking but uneventful. The guides are equipped with pepper spray and weapons.

Our next stop is the beautiful fortified town of Sibiu. We have to park the car outside the historic center and lug our bags along quite a few uneven cobblestones to reach the cute, well-appointed studio apartment (20 euros) just off the pedestrian main square.
Entering the main square in Sibiu

Entering the main square in Sibiu


Studio apartment, Sibiu

Studio apartment, Sibiu


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Views of Sibiu

Views of Sibiu


Lady at window, Sibiu

Lady at window, Sibiu


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Views from Evangelica Church, Sibiu

Views from Evangelica Church, Sibiu

The Transfargashan highway is described by the TV show Top Gear as, “the prettiest road in Europe”. Our first attempt to drive It ends abruptly at a road block just past the entrance to the Lake Balea gondola. We are too early in the season, there’s still too much snow. Regretfully, we will again be defeated on our second attempt a month later for the same reason.

Transylvania’s region of rolling hills settled by the Saxon’s in the 12th century is known for medieval villages, stunning fortified churches, and its most famous benefactor, Prince Charles.
Romanian countryside

Romanian countryside


On the road in Romania

On the road in Romania

For this exceptional view of Biertan’s 15th century fortified church, we hike up a hill between two private properties sending a few local dogs into hysterics. Thankfully, they are fenced in!
Landscape and church, Biertan

Landscape and church, Biertan

Listed as UNESCO World Heritage, the church, at the center of three high walls, is the only one in the region still in use today.
Fortified church of Biertan

Fortified church of Biertan

We drive on and stop for the night at Venesis House (22 euros) just outside the center of Sighisoara.
Venesis House, Sighisoara

Venesis House, Sighisoara

There are many cute restaurants in town. Unfortunately our waiter is unable to get any part of the order, even drinks, correct. Service is so bad, it’s laughable, but the thin crust pizzas are deliciously Italian. Like the ribs, this proves to be consistent throughout the country.

Bursting with charm, Sighisoara’s 12th century, fortified citadel, is right out of a Brothers Grimm fairytale. Also a UNESCO site, the less enchanting aspect is that it is the birthplace of Vlad Tepes (another one of his many names) the ruthless ruler famous for impaling his enemies and the inspiration for Count Dracula.
Streets of Sighisoara

Streets of Sighisoara

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Views from the citadel, Sighisoara

Views from the citadel, Sighisoara

Rows of blue-shuttered houses line the main road in the quaint Saxon village of Viscri.
Main Street, Viscri

Main Street, Viscri


Here too, the 12th century fortified church is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The view from the top wraparound balcony is worth the rickety wooden stairs. Today the population is predominantly Roma and most doors are open inviting one to purchase local handicrafts. A private foundation, supported by Prince Charles, helps to maintain the authenticity of the site and promote its cottage industry.
View from the fortified church of Viscri

View from the fortified church of Viscri

Roma woman knitting socks, Viscri

Roma woman knitting socks, Viscri

I’m looking forward to a night at Pensiunea Nomad (32,50 eu) in the town of Targu Mures eager to try their top-rated restaurant. Unfortunately, it’s closed for a private event, but the manager sends us to Soul Bistro for a nice Italian meal.
Pensiunea Nomad, Targu Mures

Pensiunea Nomad, Targu Mures

As the GPS guides us to our confirmed guest house in Turda, I get a text: “Sorry, overbooking, no room available.” Annoying, but no big deal until we find out that it’s a holiday weekend and everything is sold out! We give up on the booking sites and start knocking on doors. When I push the gate open at Casa Andi, I feel like I’m crashing a family BBQ. Luckily, they have a fully equipped studio (25 euros) available.
Casa Andi, Turda

Casa Andi, Turda

Turda is famous for a most unusual site, the Salina Turda (salt mine) that dates back to the Middle Ages and was operational until the mid 20th century. The temperature drops dramatically as we descend into cavernous underground galleries. You cannot imagine what is waiting for you 112 meters/367 feet below; pingpong and billiard tables, a bowling alley, a lake with row boats, a restaurant, souvenir shops... Though hotly debated, many believe in the curative properties of the salt (halotherapy) especially for the treatment of asthma. People come from all over for cures that entail spending many hours for days on end breathing the pure, mineral-laden air. Day trippers are also welcome.
Views of Salina Turda salt mine

Views of Salina Turda salt mine

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Man covered in therapeutic mud, Turda

Man covered in therapeutic mud, Turda

Cluj Napoca is a pretty city, but here too we cannot find a place to stay. Too bad, because by evening it’s a hopping college town with many nice cafes. A giant screen is going up on the main square to kick-off a film festival, but the sun sets so late it’ll be hours before the first screening, so we grab a bite and move on.
On the road in northern Romania

On the road in northern Romania

As we drive across the country, stork nests are becoming a regular sighting. Chicks are often visible in the large nests even from a distance.
Stork nest, Romania

Stork nest, Romania

When repression creates masterpieces. Transylvania was under Hungarian occupation for ages. In the northern Maramures region Romanians, forbidden to build stone churches, erected uniquely-styled wooden structures. Of the hundreds of Greek Orthodox and Greek Catholic churches built, eight are listed by UNESCO.
Wooden church of Surdesti

Wooden church of Surdesti


Interior of Surdesti church

Interior of Surdesti church


At Calinesti, we are accompanied up the many steps by Lulu, the dog from Poland.
Calinesti Susani church

Calinesti Susani church

The biggest town in the Maramures region, is sleepy Sighetu Marmatiei, Sighet for short. During the day, there’s some activity around the central square but by 6PM the shops close and it feels like a ghost town; and there are plenty of those here.
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Sighetu Marmatiei

Sighetu Marmatiei


For centuries there was a large Jewish population. Sighet’s most famous resident was Elie Wiesel who, along with the entire Jewish community, was sent to Auschwitz in 1944.
Elie Wiesel’s home, Sighetu Marmatiei

Elie Wiesel’s home, Sighetu Marmatiei


Later, during the Communist regime, the state’s most feared dissidents were tortured at Sighet’s maximum security prison. It has been renamed, the Memorial of the Victims of Communism and of the Resistance.
The old prison of Sighetu Marmtiei

The old prison of Sighetu Marmtiei


Memorial of the Victims of Communism and of the Resistance, Sighetu Marmatiei

Memorial of the Victims of Communism and of the Resistance, Sighetu Marmatiei


Man wearing a clop (traditional straw hat)

Man wearing a clop (traditional straw hat)

About 20 minutes from Sighet in the tiny town of Sapanta, the utterly charming Merry Cemetery sits behind a pretty church with a multicolored steeple. One man’s life work, each painted wooden cross has an illustration of what the person did or enjoyed in life accompanied by a lyrical inscription.
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The Merry Cemetery, Sapanta

The Merry Cemetery, Sapanta

Such welcoming people at Motel Buti. The rooms are dated, but sparkling clean. (32 euros).
Motel Buti, Sighetu Marmatiei

Motel Buti, Sighetu Marmatiei


Finding a restaurant for dinner is a challenge. At 8PM we are turned away from (supposedly) the best place in Sighet because they close at 9... We're baffled, but they direct us to the Flamingo Hotel which offers late dining in a nice garden.

There are only a handful of cars at the border crossing into southwestern Ukraine. Note: you must inform the rental company when taking possession of the car in Romania if you intend to visit Ukraine (additional fee) as paperwork must be presented at the border. Once thru the town of Solotvyno, the road with potholes as big as the mansions along it, begins to smooth out as it winds into the Carpathian mountains.
On the road in Ukraine close to the border of Romania

On the road in Ukraine close to the border of Romania


Every so often, there are kids selling delectable wild strawberries on the road; BYOR, bring your own recipient!
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Young girl selling fresh berries on the side of the road

Young girl selling fresh berries on the side of the road


Wild strawberries

Wild strawberries

It’s off season as we drive into Bukovel, Ukraine’s fanciest ski resort.
Arriving in Bukovel

Arriving in Bukovel

Chair lift, Bukovel ski resort

Chair lift, Bukovel ski resort


Most places are closed or under construction, but we find Lavina, a brand new hotel in the typical log cabin style (23 euros) and stop for the night.
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Lavina Hotel, Bukovel

Lavina Hotel, Bukovel

The picturesque center of Lviv (pronounced liv or levov) is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Once again, we cannot find a place to stay! This time it’s an antique car rally.
Lviv, Ukraine

Lviv, Ukraine


Reluctantly, we decide to move on. About 10 kilometers outside Lviv, we spot Vivo Hotel just off a highway exit. Adjacent to a gas station, with secured parking, the motel is sparkling clean and comfortable (23 euros with breakfast).
Vivo Hotel, outside Lviv

Vivo Hotel, outside Lviv


It works out perfectly as during the day, for about $5, we are able to park in the stunning city center. There’s plenty to see in Lviv and lots of good cafes and restaurants.
Lviv center

Lviv center


Sipping sour cherry liquor, Lviv

Sipping sour cherry liquor, Lviv


View from City Hall - Church of Assumption (l) and Church of the Dominicans (r), Lviv

View from City Hall - Church of Assumption (l) and Church of the Dominicans (r), Lviv


Cafe Mikolasch (old pharmacy), Lviv

Cafe Mikolasch (old pharmacy), Lviv

Scrumptious pastries at Cafe Mikolasch, Lviv

Scrumptious pastries at Cafe Mikolasch, Lviv


Dining room at Cafe Mikolasch, Lviv

Dining room at Cafe Mikolasch, Lviv

The best way to visit the opera house is to take in a performance. To our astonishment, the tickets for Cavalleria Rustica cost under $5!
Lviv Theater of Ballet and Opera

Lviv Theater of Ballet and Opera


Cavalleria Rustica performance, Lviv

Cavalleria Rustica performance, Lviv


Wedding day photos by the fountain in front of the opera house, Lviv

Wedding day photos by the fountain in front of the opera house, Lviv

The city of Lutsk about 2.5 hours north is somewhat disappointing after the buildup in our guide book. Visually, it is not the mini version of Lviv we were expecting. Lutsk Castle, famous for the largest gathering of monarchs in history (1429) is the centerpiece. The rest of the historic center is a few cobblestone streets with old buildings in various stages of renovation.
Lutsk Castle, Ukraine

Lutsk Castle, Ukraine


Cafe near Lutsk Castle

Cafe near Lutsk Castle


Lutsk old town

Lutsk old town


In the new part of town, we stumble upon Show Basilic an exceptionally good restaurant.
Honey ribs

Honey ribs


Beet dumplings

Beet dumplings


Spinach dumplings

Spinach dumplings

The Hotel Versailles and nightclub (luckily it’s midweek) is also in the new town. Our room, 56 euros for 2 nights with breakfast, is quite spacious and elegant. Oddly, breakfast is served in the somber, velvety nightclub.
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Hotel Versailles, Lutsk

Hotel Versailles, Lutsk


New town, Lutsk

New town, Lutsk


Ladies selling flowers, Lutsk

Ladies selling flowers, Lutsk

Clearly the quirkiest attraction in Lutsk is the home of local sculptor, Mykola Golovan. An affable man, he can usually be found tinkering around his property and while he speaks only a few words of English, he’s eager to show off his fascinating work in progress
Home of sculptor Mykola Golovan, Lutsk

Home of sculptor Mykola Golovan, Lutsk

Figures vary, but in the neighborhood of 1 million Jews perished during the Nazi occupation/collaboration of Ukraine. On a discovery mission for our extended family, we find ourselves knocking on doors in the towns of Drohobych & Boryslav. About 10,000 Jews were deported to Belzec extermination camp from the Drohobych Ghetto.

Roads in Ukraine are everything from decent to horrific. Driving over 90 kms/55 miles per hour is difficult and it’s not unusual to suddenly come to a complete stop. Some drivers refuse to wait and just barrel on thru. Others walk ahead to find out, then come back, but we can never get any explanation in English. It’s usually roadwork.
On the road in Ukraine

On the road in Ukraine

After the parentheses in Ukraine, we head back towards Romania to visit more monasteries, salt mines and spa towns. This time, kids on the road are peddling the sweetest blueberries.
Kids selling berries on the road in Ukraine

Kids selling berries on the road in Ukraine


City of Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine

City of Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine


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Hotel Karpaty (15 euros), Ivano-Frankivsk

Hotel Karpaty (15 euros), Ivano-Frankivsk

On the road in Ukraine between Ivano-Frankivsk and the Romanian border

On the road in Ukraine between Ivano-Frankivsk and the Romanian border


Near the Romanian border

Near the Romanian border

At the friendliest border ever, they check our papers and the car, then wish us a, “pleasant stay and happy journey in Romania.” Imagine the thousands of people who would give anything to be met with a smile at a border...

The road towards Moldavia, the northeastern part of Romania, winds thru dark green pine forests, over passes and thru small villages with colorful wooden houses, horse-drawn carts and locals sitting on benches keeping tabs.
Typical homes throughout the countryside and our car

Typical homes throughout the countryside and our car


Horse-drawn cart, Romania

Horse-drawn cart, Romania


Ladies on the road in northern Romania

Ladies on the road in northern Romania

The highlight of the region is the Bucovina painted monasteries with frescoes both inside and out. Eight are recognized as UNESCO World Heritage sites. We visit 3 of the 15th - 16th century churches: Voronet whose legacy includes the color blue, Humor, and the most beautiful, Sucevita.
Frescoes, Voronet Monastery

Frescoes, Voronet Monastery


Humor Monastery

Humor Monastery


Exterior frescoes, Humor Monastery

Exterior frescoes, Humor Monastery


Sucevita Monastery

Sucevita Monastery


Vivid exterior frescoes, Sucevita Monastery

Vivid exterior frescoes, Sucevita Monastery


Hotel Santa Fe in Suceava is offering a special promo today of 32 euros with breakfast. The surprising restaurant serves delicious, organic, locally-farmed food.
Hotel Santa Fe, Suceava

Hotel Santa Fe, Suceava


Views of Cacica Salt Mine

Views of Cacica Salt Mine


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Church inside Cacica Salt Mine

Church inside Cacica Salt Mine

We drive 4 hours on a two-lane road through towns and villages over mountains on unpaved bits with gargantuan potholes. Although we have seen many storks throughout Romania, on this particular drive, in one small town we see no less than 10 nests with mamas tending their babies. The nests appear to have extra support. Research unveils an award-winning campaign in which the Romanian Ornithological Society and the country’s largest energy provider have worked together to monitor and protect the migrating birds.
Stork nest, northern Romania

Stork nest, northern Romania

We arrive in Praid and reach the salt mine just in time to visit before they close for the day. Slick steps lead over 100 meters down a narrow gallery blasted through thick rock and salt into a cavernous decor right out of a Bond film. This mine is enormous. It includes a full-size church, shops, cafes, a restaurant, playground, games and working internet to help pass the time for those in treatment.
Praid salt mine

Praid salt mine


Church inside the Praid salt mine

Church inside the Praid salt mine


A very large family visiting Praid salt mine

A very large family visiting Praid salt mine

Outside, we hike around a quarry where salt is seeping out of rock cliffs, bubbling out of the ground, in the river; everywhere.
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Views of the salt canyons outside Praid mine

Views of the salt canyons outside Praid mine

With visions of soaking in healing waters we head towards the spa town of Covasna.
Roma family on the road between Praid and Brasov

Roma family on the road between Praid and Brasov


My heart sinks at the sight of the fading building and I’m snapped back to reality as we enter the Hotel Montana and notice that we are the youngest people in the bustling lobby. This is no day spa. Cures, primarily to treat cardiovascular problems, are generally 2-3 weeks under doctor supervision, but we are welcome to have a look around. The high-pitched clanking of silverware leads to the dining room and a sea of chattering grey hairs. The treatment rooms look more scary than soothing. Green tiles, metal tubs with old fashioned faucets behind drab half-curtains and people who frankly, look miserable.

We hightail it out of there and set the GPS for the Danube River Delta, Romania’s easternmost region on the Black Sea. With just a few days left to explore, we head for the mud baths of Lake Techirghiol near the port city of Constanta. The thick, black mud, a potent combination of minerals and microorganisms, is reputed for its healing properties especially in the treatment of inflammatory joint diseases.
Ovid Square, Constanta

Ovid Square, Constanta

The public baths are behind a simple white building. A man chatting with the woman at the ticket window strikes up conversation with us in French and offers to show us around. Within 20 minutes, we’re setting our bags down in his home, House Lake (32 euros pre-season promo).
House Lake, Techirghiol

House Lake, Techirghiol


An idea for some striking portraits has us setting up a black cloth background on the beach and asking people to pose in front with the thick black mud on their bodies. By day 3, we have photographed almost everyone on the beach. Most are locals from Constanta and have been coming here for years. Others are following a cure at the sanatorium and supplementing treatments with the mud. Everyone swears by it.
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Mud baths, Lake Techirghiol

Mud baths, Lake Techirghiol


Unfortunately, by the time I’m ready to try it myself, the sun, essential for the drying process, has disappeared...

We’ve covered a lot of ground in just over a month and yet, there are still so many places to discover in and around Romania. The country ticks all the boxes: scenic landscapes, medieval charm, rich cultural heritage, welcoming people, a panoply of activities and the infrastructure to enjoy all of it no matter the budget. And then there is Kiev and the rest of Ukraine to be discovered not to mention Bulgaria, so we’ll be making another trip back this way one day.

This featured blog entry was written by SpiceChronicles from the blog The Spice Chronicles.
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By SpiceChronicles

Posted Mon, Apr 01, 2019 | Romania | Comments