Winter in Romania | A Photo Journal
Some people like to claim that the world has already been discovered; that there’s nowhere left for the rogue adventurer. Personally, I have so many places left to see and so while I can’t validate or discredit this statement, I can say that it surely doesn’t feel that way in Romania.
Romania has long been an off-the-map destination: try telling someone that you’re taking a trip there and they’ll likely cock their head and ask, “That’s a real place?” I recently looked into the numbers: the country actually ranks #37 for annual number of tourists, which is no France, but certainly far from unknown. Then I dug deeper into the source for those visitors and it turns out that 6.5 out of the 10 million people who visited in 2016 came from bordering countries, and 2 million of them from Moldova, which also happens to be the 4th least visited country on the planet.
So yeah, Romania is pretty random as far as vacation spots go. (Sideline: I spent way too long looking through the list above and noticing how different all the rankings were compared to what I previously thought, like how Tunisia is higher up than Sweden, or that Liechtenstein and Mauritania are actual countries.)
To the world, Romania, and especially Transylvania, is mysterious: a place filled with vampires and old folklore. But it actually has a lot to offer tourists: rolling green landscapes, thriving folk culture, and reasonable prices. Joel and I decided that two weeks would be the perfect amount of time to explore.
Bucharest has somewhat of a negative reputation amongst European capitals. Cold, slab, and grey, the city is a classic representation of Communist ideology beating out the traditional culture of its countries. The same process happened in places like China, who’s thousands-of-years-old history was squandered during Mao’s rule and replaced with a “the duller the better” methodology.
After the 1980’s, Bucharest was left in an unseemly mess of concrete nothingness and beautiful French architecture. What was once a cultural idol nicknamed, “Little Paris”, had become irrelevant in the eyes of tourists.
Loving Bucharest is a slow kind of love. It’s not universally appealing like Paris and it doesn’t overwhelm the senses like Tokyo. In many ways, Bucharest looks like any other city. But there is beauty to be found if one only takes the time to look.
We arrived late at Podstel Hostel on our first night, fresh off the bus from Sofia.
The first item on our itinerary was Old Town, a charming square located in the center of the city. Here, Bucharest’s gloomy architecture melts away and the old charm of the city unfolds before you. We began to see why visitors once considered this city beautiful.
Our walk through the city center was filled with church visits: Manastirea Radu Voda, Biserica Sfantul Anton, and Stavropoleos Monastery. You could see Romania’s old Catholic legacy painted in the frescos wrapped around the vaulted ceilings, grand and intricate. There was a distinct gothic element, somber and dim, but the gold details and colorful murals brought a sense of coziness that provided a perfect retreat from the brisk, winter day.
We found our first Romanian meal at Caru’ cu Bere, a 140-year-old restaurant sitting squarely in the center of Old Town. It was loud, crowded, and the hostess asked if we had reservations, despite it being 2pm on a Monday.
We ordered the set menu: plates of sauerkraut, sausages, chicken, goulash, and torte de mare were placed one after the other in front of us. I was immediately drawn to the cabbage. I’m not a picky eater by any means, but I never fancied sauerkraut. But holy goodness, this was so different. Delightfully lemony and lightly oiled, I could feel the metaphorical clouds parting and hear trumpets blaring. This was cabbage on a whole new level.
After checking out of Podstel, we moved into our new Couchsurfing home and introduce ourselves to our hosts: Hakan and Anna. We all hung around the living room chatting about our personal histories and travel stories, and eventually sat down for dinner. Anna served us a Romanian soup and rice dish alongside glasses of mulberry juice, brought back from their last trip to Turkey.
It was time for a visit to the Palace of Parliament, the second largest administrative building on Earth. Its massive size was clear at first impression. Both edges of the building swept across the central boulevard, towering over the Christmas market that had been temporarily erected in light of the holidays. We were excited to tour the inside, only to realize as we approached the ticketing desk that we’d forgotten our passports.
One adage I came across over and over again in my Romanian research was clear: avoid the trains. At all costs.
Railway infrastructure had been a large focus of the Communist government, and was promptly abandoned when the regime fell, the free market took over, and the Romanian economy turned to dust. Nearly a decade passed before renovations could take place. Now the country is playing catch-up, something that’s clearly still a work-in-progress: they current trains are old, broken, and drafty. But they’re also cheap. So we boarded one to Brasov and crossed our fingers that we wouldn’t get derailed somewhere in the Romanian countryside.
Although I chose Brasov as a base for exploring smaller towns in southern Transylvania, the city held its own as a destination in itself. The buildings were flat-faced and colorful with Christmas decorations on every window. A stark “Brasov” nameplate towered over the city from the mountain above, similar to the one in Hollywood.
We checked into our new accommodation, and the owner offered us a local drink as a welcome gesture. It was thick and syrupy with a pool of mysterious berries drifting at the bottom, each reminiscent of a moonshine cherry.
Our first day here turned out to be St. Nicholas Day, a holiday which I had no clue even existed before arriving at Brasov’s Christmas Market. It explained the closed storefronts and the growing crowds at the main square. There was apparently a tree lighting ceremony scheduled for the evening, and eager onlookers gathered around the center and counted down in unison.
Meanwhile, I made a beeline for the mulled wine. Do I even need to explain myself?
I think it’s safe to say that most Americans only know Romania for one thing: the inner region of Transylvania, or more specifically, the home of Dracula. We boarded a small shuttle to Bran, the town that sits in the shadow of the count’s famous castle.
It turned out that the legend of Count Dracula actually had very little to do with Bran Castle (or anything in Romania, really). The castle once belonged to a certain prince known as Vlad the Impaler, who was just as violent as the title implies. Vlad was Bram Stoker’s primary inspiration, and so while the novel was loosely based off of his character, he really had nothing to do with vampires or mystical folk legend. Bummer.
The castle was still worth a visit. It’s a beautiful example of Romanian architecture (although as I was about to find out, far from the most beautiful example). Inside was what seemed like a never-ending series of rooms, secret rock tunnels, and a lot of little details (like a wall where medieval weapons were hung up like trophies) that make you really glad that you were never on this dude’s bad side.
We arrived back in Bran just in time to make our train to Sinaia, another small town an hour’s ride south of us.
We hiked our way to Peles Castle (I say hike because even though it was on a road it was also 90% uphill) and arrived with just enough time to explore the grounds before it grew dark (which, for Eastern European winters, is like 3pm).
Remember how I said that there are better spots for castle hunting than Bran? You’ll definitely find better in Sinaia. Peles is gorgeous. It’s probably the most stunning building I’ve ever seen, even more than Versailles.
Earlier at our hotel, the owner told us that the castle was closed because they were holding a funeral for the late King of Romania (turns out Joel and I have a knack for unintentionally crashing kings’ funerals). We took our chances anyway.
There were TV trucks stationed outside the front entrance, and at first we were afraid they wouldn’t let us in. But the event must have already ended, because we noticed tourists coming in and out of the castle. We ended up taking a free self-guided tour of the inside. It was incredible. Equal parts medieval grim and royal decadence. Glass-stained mosaics lined the windows, jewel-colored carpets covered the floors, chandeliers decorated with thousands of crystals hung from the ceilings. One of the curators even pointed out a hidden room behind one of the bookshelves.
Sighisoara is a tiny town located between Brasov and Sibiu. We had already booked our train to Sibiu and were planning on taking a day trip here the next day, but a few days before leaving we went to look for accommodation and found NOTHING. I’m talking every single hostel in the city was sold out. The only hotel rooms available were close to $100, so we took a second train straight from Sibiu to Sighisoara and spent the night there. It was about 8 hours of traveling across Transylvania via creepy old trains in the middle of the night, but we made it safely, just as the midnight bells chimed softly from one of the churches in the center.
The morning we woke up in Sighisoara, it was snowing! Like, real snow guys. The kind where you can have snowball fights and make snow angels in.
It was a magical moment, mostly because we hadn’t witnessed a real snowfall during any of our time in Europe so far. We skipped around in the main square like little kids and then headed off to explore the rest of the town.
Baia Mare & Breb
The final stage of our Romanian adventure took place in quiet and unassuming Maramures, a rural county known for being one of the last true peasant cultures in Europe.
We spent the first night in Baia Mare (the largest city in the area) before taking off for Breb, one of the smaller villages about an hour’s drive away. Or at least, we tried to. It turned out that Breb was a really difficult place to access. Maramures had almost zero tourist infrastructure and the only way to get around was by car rental or doing as the locals do: casual hitchhiking and infrequent shuttles. Our only option was a minivan that left a handful of times of day and didn’t actually stop in Breb proper—instead, we were dropped off by the side of the road, two miles out from town. We started walking (it was also raining) and soon after saw a car approaching in our direction. Joel and I turned to each other and gave a sort of “fuck it” shrug as he stuck out his thumb. An old man pulled over, invited us in, and started asking us where we were going (or at least I assume that’s what he was asking since it was all in Romanian). We mentioned the homestay we were staying at. He nodded and smiled in recognition as we climbed in.
He pulled up to a farmhouse not ten minutes later. A man came out to greet us. The driver waved away our attempt to pay him and the two of them chatted for a moment before he left. Breb is a tiny town of roughly 1,500 people, so it wasn’t surprising to find that everyone knew each other.
His wife showed us to our room. No one spoke English, and we spent the next few moments working out meal times and asking questions in Spanish instead. Two Asian-Americans speaking Spanish with a peasant woman in rural Romania—now there’s a situation I never thought I’d be a part of!
Maramures has a lot of activities to keep visitors busy: wandering around the neighborhood and getting a peek into real village life, traveling to the outer hills and visiting 500-year-old wooden churches, or taking a spin on one of the last wood-carrying steam trains in Europe. And we got to do exactly zero of those things because the next morning we woke up to a flood.
All was still well in the world because at least the people there really liked to eat. Our adopted Romanian grandmother made us breakfast and dinner each day, all with ingredients from the family’s farm or from neighboring farms. And it was served with unlimited horinca, which tasted exactly like the god-awful white liquor that every culture (looking at you baijiu) seems to love for reasons I still can’t fathom.
And there you have it! Two weeks, come and gone.
I still have mixed feelings about our time in Romania. Our interactions with the people there were a steady mix of warm hospitality and meager indifference. Some of the cities and views were stunning, while others were dreary, winter landscapes. We came across gorgeous churches and dilapidated buildings in equal measure.
I don’t know if I’ll be back for a while, but I do want to return one day. Maybe in the summer, when I can rent a car and see what else this country has to offer. I have a feeling that I’ve only barely scratched the surface.