2017 South East Europe – Romania

Flights were booked, an interesting itinerary was developed and on the third of September I boarded a short flight to Bucharest for the beginning of my adventure.  Two and a half hours after takeoff I arrived in Bucharest and once again it was an unusual experience for me to start a holiday without the usual jet lag.

Customs went smooth, luggage did not take long and when I walked into the arrival hall a driver from Unzip Romania (the company with who I organized my tour) was already waiting for me.

The drive to my hotel did not take long and this is where I got my first impressions of Bucharest. On the outskirts there were the usual large company compounds and I was not surprised Ikea made it over here as well.

Closer to the centre I saw the first impressive old buildings. Typical grand communist style, made to impress. We passed the Romanian equivalent of the  Arch de Triomphe and then had to make a little detour as the road was blocked due to a local market.

Not much later I was dropped at the hotel which turned out to be walking distance from the old city, how convenient.

My first impressions of Bucharest were very much in favor of this city which somehow cannot get rid of it’s not deserved bad reputation. The government buildings were impressive, as expected, though some cleaning would make them look even nicer. In spite of the abundance of graffiti the centre was amazingly clean.

There was a trendy vibe in the streets and it appeared that every space available was turned into a terrace. Everywhere people were enjoying themselves, having a drink and smoking the occasional water pipe seemed to be very trendy. I absolutely loved it. Memories from Tkalciceva Road in Zagreb came back but over here it was on a much bigger scale. I just strolled around and enjoyed the charming atmosphere. I absolutely loved it!

It did not take long to realize Romania is still a very traditional and religious country. Although the old city centre is rather small there were plenty of churches to be admired. All were rather dark inside and with a lot of shrines and paintings. Devotees were praying and I lost count of the number of crucifixes I saw.

In one of the churches I witnesses a baptizing ceremony, it seemed to be the season for it as outside at least two other couples were waiting with their newborn to be baptized. I enjoyed the singing for a while and the prayers by the priest after which I disappeared between the countless terraces once again.

After a small bite to eat and a nice glass of Romanian white I returned to my hotel for a nap. I must have needed it as I slept for good two hours.

By the time I woke up sun was setting so I headed for the old city centre for having dinner. Earlier that day I had seen a nice place in the court yard of the Inn of Manuc, part of the former royal palace. It was a massive place but looked very traditional in a way and so it was. A band was playing, there were groups of people celebrating (even a wedding party took place at one of the tables, and all guests were dressed traditionally).

I knew I made the right decision with the fancy lamb roast when the waitress had a smile on her face when I ordered it. And it was lovely, especially with a glass of Romanian red which was surprisingly smooth.

Although I could have spent here much longer I went for another stroll through the old city centre which now felt more like a massive open air bar. It started raining but it did not bother me. I watched the scenery with a big smile on my face. People style dancing in a cafe, others occupied in a vivid conversation whilst zipping a drink or smoking a water pipe.

The heavier the rain became, the bigger the smile on my face. I had a shiver down my spine and realized that once more I had fallen in love. No, not with Bucharest but traveling in general. New places, new cultures, new experiences. I decided I should do this more often and with being retired nothing is stopping me…

After a good night’s sleep I had a refreshing shower, enjoyed a good breakfast and was ready to hit the road again. I wanted to start today with a visit of the world’s second biggest building, the palace of parliament. This was built in less than 5 years time by over a million constructors. It can also be considered to be the ultimate communist madness created by dictator Ceausescu and his wife before the revolution started in 1989.

A quick look at google maps showed me it was not to far away so instead of grabbing a cab I decided to go for a stroll. I started down the Calea Victoriei and passed the old city. Further south I saw some of the impressive buildings of the Romanian court and then continued on a more modern looking road.

And at the next junction I saw the massive palace of parliament, not that it could be missed. Enormous, massive, pompous. I could hardly believe it’s size and even better, the sun put it in a beautiful light this morning. Needless to say I had an enormous smile on my face.

As I had not booked a tour yet my first priority was to get a place on one. It took me quit a while and a long walk to find the entrance and there I was lucky enough to get a place on the first tour of today at 11:00. As by now it was only 9:00 I had time enough so I decided to go for a walk and admire the exterior of the building.

Walking around it gave a good impression of it’s sheer size. I do not know how many entrance gates I passed, as well as the added entrances for the underground parking garage. Friendly but strict guards allowed me to make pictures but no more than that. Entrance strictly forbidden…

At the Bulevardul Unirri I spotted a fountain which seemed to have no end, it was impressive to say the least and only later during my tour of the palace I found out how long it was.

Still in time to enjoy a cup of coffee I returned to the booking centre where punctual 11:00 our tour starts. First I had to pass some security measures which would not have been misplaced at an airport and where I had to leave my passport behind. It took a while before the whole group was processed but then we started. As soon as we climbed some stairs I got my first impression of this colossal building and it’s wealth.

Our guide had a wonderful sense of humor and I loved her smiles when certain topics were discussed, her sarcastic sentences but even better what was not said but insinuated. She was absolutely brilliant.

The next hour and a half we were lead through reception halls, conference rooms and endless corridors. Every room left an even longer lasting impression, what a madness. 

At the balcony I had a good view over the Bulevardul Unirri and it’s fountains. Originally it was supposed to be 1 1/2 km long but this was not good enough for  Ceausescu’s liking so more buildings were demolished to create a view from the balcony over a boulevard that was over 4 km long. The irony was the Ceausescu never survived to fulfill his dream, speak to the masses from the balcony where I was now standing…

The tour was over far to quick for my liking and by the time we were finished we were only shown less than 10% of the entire building. It had been an amazing experience though.

I took it easy on my way back to the old city where I selected a nice place in the sun for my lunch. I selected spiced pork and when the Romanians say a dish is spicy they for sure they are not kidding. I was not sure whether it was the wine or the distance I walked that morning but I started to feel extremely tired. So I headed back to the hotel and went for a well deserved nap.

As I had planned something for the evening I set the alarm and that was no unnecessary luxury. For sure I  would not have woken up in time.

During my tour earlier that day I had met Vincenzo, an Italian and he had given me a brochure of a free walkabout tour he highly recommended. I sounded interesting so I went to the National theatre where the meeting point was. A nice international group gathered together for what turns out to be a extremely interesting experience.

Carmen our guide started telling us about the changes that occurred in Romania during the revolution and led us past several landmarks. They were not your typical touristically highlight s but meaningful places in that violent art of Romania’s history. It did not take me long to realize I had made the right decision for joining this tour as it showed a completely different perspective.

Bucharest had plenty of abandoned cultural centers and we passed several of the. Each time we were told their story and significance. Carey had a great sense of humor, very similar to our guide this morning and I thoroughly enjoyed the walk.

At one point we passed two passages, one which was famously decorated with colored umbrellas while the other, the English passage, had a darker history as it used to be the Bucharest red centre, which was now a domestic area for the less fortunate.

Contrasts are never far away in Romania and this was another example of that. Not much later we passed a festival named after a famous Romanian composer and witnessed a classical concert. We did not have much time as we continued our tour to the gardens of Eden, an abandoned garden now turned into a quiet pub.

A catholic cathedral marked the end of our tour but of course this came with an unbelievable story as well about the building that was constructed next to it but never used…

From the first moment until he very last I had loved our walk. Vincenzo and I returned to the old city for a beer and relive memories of a very special day after which we said goodbye and I found a place for dinner. I ended up in Caru’ ce Bere, Bucharest most popular place and tasting the food I understood why. That night I fell asleep the moment I saw my bed, what a wonderful day it had been.

Next day I was woken up by the alarm and even had some time to write my diary. But then I saw Diana and Christian, my guide and driver for the next couple of days so it was time to hit the road again.

As soon as we left Bucharest the landscape changed and big colossal buildings were replaced by small villages and simple houses. It was here where I first could feel the poverty as most houses were only half finished and a lot of work needed to be done.

Still I did like the more rural atmosphere and the activity. People selling their harvest in front of their houses, farmers working on the field, all had a nice feel of Europe how it could have been decades ago.

Our first stop was a winery. In the basement, where the barrels were stored I was explained the history of the winery and how the grapes were cultivated. It did not come as a surprise I really liked the local wines that were offered to me afterwords during the tasting. Like Croatia Romania has a lot to offer but their batches of wine do not justify large export quantities so unfortunately they remain largely unknown in Western Europe.

Next stop was the famous Peles castle. Before going over there though we had a stunning lunch at a restaurant close by. Then we walked straight int what could have been a fairy tail. As much as I looked the outside, it could not have prepared my for what I saw as soon as we entered the castle.

Overwhelmed by impressions I could not help it but become very emotional. Peles castle was more than just a castle, it was a castle on steroids. The interior was overwhelmingly impressive, such a surplus of details of decorations it was almost to much to take in. Each room was entirely different and was decorated in its own unique way.

Breathless, stunned, flabbergasted. I cannot describe my feelings better than this as I had never seen anything like this before. It is only three days right now but I must admit Romania keeps surprising me in the most positive way possible.

During the drive to Brasov I fell asleep, overwhelmed by what I had seen and experienced. I woke up when we arrived at the outskirts which had this typical feel of dull communist housing. Fortunately the centre was far more interesting and my hotel very nice. Instead of exploring the place I went directly to a restaurant recommended by Diana and spent a lovely evening enjoying local cuisine whilst I took my time to catch up on my diary. That evening I went to bed early…

Going to bed early was not enough, the next morning I overslept terribly and even 12 hours of sleep did not make me feel refreshed. A rushed shower and an even more rushed breakfast later I was on he road again. Diana and Christian were not bothered I was late but I felt a bit embarrassed.

The first stop of today was the (in)famous Bran Castle that became better known as the Castle of Dracula. Although most stories known are historically incorrect the myth remains. I was extremely happy to have Diana around who turned out to be thoroughly informed about the castle, it’s interior and it’s true history.

Weather turned, it was cloudy, mist covered the pine tree forest and a little drizzle fell upon us. I could not have imagined better circumstances than this as the visiting Dracula’s castle in bright sunshine simply would not have felt right. It’s unavoidable that crowds flogged the castle but according to Diana today was not to bad.

Compared to Peles castle the interior of Bran Castle was basic. Lots of German influences with heavy dark wood furniture was to be seen in the Kings quarters but the queen added a more feminine and English touch to her rooms. I completely loved the atmosphere. Being built on the highest point there was no space so the rooms were smaller and connected through a true labyrinth. Hidden staircases led to different rooms, each of them having a very intimate and different atmosphere.

It did not take much of my imagination to come up with vampire stories and that imagination was fed even more in the torture room which exposed a collection of torturous equipment used centuries ago in all over Europe. Some of them really caused a shiver down my spine thinking of the pain they must have caused.

I loved the place, the atmosphere, and all the myths surrounding it. The weather just made my visit perfect.

After a coffee and a piece of apple cake we continued our way to the next point of interest, Rasnov Fort. It was located high up the hills and although time had taken its toll still a lot was preserved from the fortified village.

It was surrounded by huge pine forests at one side and a town in the valley under it. Strategically I was perfectly located. It was wonderful strolling through the narrow streets while Diana explained me a lot about it’s history. Again it was rather crowded but not to the point it became disturbing. On could easily imagine how life was at those days the Turks from the Ottamanian empire tried to conquer the area.

What a perfect day it had been so far. Time was flying by and I did not realize it was already past two until my stomach told me it was time to eat again, I was getting hungry. Time to find a traditional Romanian restaurant for lunch.

And lunch was perfect, Spare ribs with a Romanian potatoes dish, accompanied by a garlic sauce so strong I will be safe for the rest of my journey through Transylvania.

The final stop was a short walk through the medieval town of Brasov. The black church looked impressive from the outside and even though the original frescos and icons were destroyed the interior was still very impressive. Unfortunately for whatever vague reason photography was not allowed.

We made a short walk over the remaining walls that surrounded Brasov and from there we have a good view over the town. Back at the square it was time to say goodbye to Diana and Christian for the day but instead of going back to my hotel I went for another stroll and visited another church.

Back at the hotel I left my gear behind and returned to the centre. As I had enjoyed a late lunch I was not hungry at all so I just went to an Irish pub for a local beer, updated my diary and called it a day. But what a day it had been…

I slept Well that night, very well. Next morning I felt completely refreshed and was ready for another day. We would be leaving Brasov and a long drive was on the program. The scenery became much more rural, small villages, lot of agriculture, farmers driving their horses and wagons were common sight and after a while I was under the impression Romania was growing Europe’s complete stock of corn as that could not missed.

Our first stop was the Harman fortified church. Over here the German influence was strongly present. It was a simple but very nice church surrounded by a strong wall to protect it from ancient enemies (The Turks from the Ottoman Empire), what was most interesting over her was that the inside of the wall was completely covered up with storage rooms, something that was nowhere to be found in Romania.  Diana and I climbed the tower and just when she told me to cover my ears when the bells rang it went off with one extremely loud ring, as if to demonstrate her words. I was glad we did not happen to visit at noon.

Not far away we visited a 2nd fortified church, the Prejmer fortified church, which was much smaller but still very picturesque and worth visiting. Also over here the German influence was heavily present and I was amazed most signs were in German, then to be followed by Romanian.

On the way t our next sighting I fell asleep and had to be woken up by the time we arrived. Placed high on a hill to get a good overview of the area Rupea Fortress was another stronghold to protect the country from conquering Turks. By now it was only a ruin, in spite of some restored areas but one could get a good impression of how things looked like in the past.

And then it was time to continue to our final destination for the day; Sighisoara. Over there we had a belated lunch and checked in at the Hilton hotel (Not my usual standard but this was included in the tour, no complaints). I left my suitcase in my room, quickly enjoyed the view over the citadel from my balcony and then returned to the car for my next adventure.

Romania is well known for the biggest group of wild brown bears in Europe so how could I travel hear and not enjoy a bear experience… It was an hour and a half drive from Sighisoara and then we still had to wait for the ranger. We were joined by a group of Hungarians and drove in a Land Rover into the forest. There we were told to be totally quiet no follow the ranger into a safe house, one could feel the excitement.

Once in the safe house two assistants placed food at an open area in front of us and once they were done it did not take long for two bears to arrive and feast on the treats that were left behind for them. It was a wonderful experience to see these wild animals from so nearby, clearly at easy und unaware of our presence.

Once the two mature females were satisfied they left the scene which. Was then taken by a younger mother and her two pubs. They were adorable and I could not count myself luckier than when she was attracted by some food on a rock, no further than two meters away from me. Perhaps it was good we were separated by a glass window so she could not smell us, that might not have been appreciated by their protective mother.

When the sun set it it was time to leave the safe house, a bit awkward to walk in the forest knowing there were wild bears around but apparently we were protected by numbers.

Back at Sighisoara we enjoyed a late dinner after which I was brought back to the hotel. By now I was so tired I could not write my journal anymore so I decided to set my alarm a bit earlier and leave that for the morning. Time to sleep!

When the alarm went of at 7:00 am the next morning I dozed for another 15 minutes, had a refreshing shower and headed to the restaurant for breakfast. Then it was time to update my journal which I just finished before my meeting with Diana and Christian. Another exiting day lay ahead of me.

It was about an hour drive to Viscri, our first visit for the day. Visiting is a rather isolated village so we had to leave the main road to reach it. It seemed like a complete time warp to me. Although very picturesque one could see the people over here were living a much simpler life than what I had seen before. Shepherds were herding their sheep, horse and wagon were a common way of transport over here and villagers were spending time sitting at the benches in front of their colorful houses and chat together.

Our main goal to come here was the fortified church which I did love a lot. Much simpler than the ones I visited before but it had this earl village feel to it. Also there was a good view over the village.

I decided to walk through the village for a while and encountered goats and geese during my walk. Diana told me Prince Charles had bought some properties over here and started some foundations to help the people. He visits every year in March.

The walk was thoroughly enjoyable but unfortunately it started to rain a bit. Fortunately Christian picked us up so I could enjoy the stunning environment from the comfort of the car. We passed a colorful beehive and appear entry the colors were not just for decoration but helped the bees to find their proper beehive.

Back in Sighisoara we returned to Concordia for lunch and a local beer. I enjoyed a traditional bean dish served in a loaf of bread and as usual the portion was not disappointing (Although I am afraid I will have to go on a strict diet when back home).

A we were close to the city centre we went for a walk in the citadel. It was a relatively small town located on a hill so it would provide the perfect protection  in former years. Some beautiful watchtowers were located on strategic places and as usual in this area the houses were extremely colorful which made walking through the centre a joyful experience. One of the houses was the birthplace of Count Dracula but I did not see any added value to visit his room so we visited the church first.

That was to be reached through a long tunnel with what seemed an endless amount of steps that lead towards the top of the hill where also the old school was located. Once again Diana and I climbed the tower so we could enjoy the breathtaking view over the citadel.

Instead of returning through the tunnel we took a path over at the backside of the hill that led through an extensive cemetery. I was still actively in use and exciting graves were used again and again for family members that passed a way. Although not as impressive as the one I visited in Zagreb years ago the location was very peaceful and simply breathtaking.

We returned at the citadel and continued our walk. We headed towards the main watchtower and started our ascend. The tower also was used as a museum and there were several rooms with exhibitions to be admired but I felt I was getting tired so skipped those. Fortunately the climb was not too bad  but I must admit I felt rather uncertain and dizzy walking over the balustrade on top. The views were to die for but I was not ready for that just yet.

Fortunately We made it safely to street level where we made another short stroll to Theo’s wine cellar for a wine and Palinka (traditional Romanian brandy) tasting. I did notice however my energy for the day was consumed so skipped the wine and asked for really small portions of Palinka. Each of them were completely different and unique and I did like them a lot.

After the tasting it was time to call it a day though so I was dropped of at he hotel for a well deserved nap. I slept for a good 2 hours and felt much better after that. As I did like Concordia so much I returned over there for a glass of Romanian red, and worked on my journal whilst watching the world go by and another great dinner. By 9:30 I was back at the hotel and did not keep my eyes open for long. What a day it had been.

Next morning Diana and Christian like usual were already waiting for me in the lobby, even though I arrived early. We packed my suitcase in the car and were on our way to Biertan, a small village which was rather isolated. In spite of originally only having. Community of 700 people the fortified church was enormous. As usual we had to climb a hill to reach to the church but by now I got used to that so did not have any issues. The church itself was rather simple but I did enjoy it’s interior. It was a mixture of evangelical and Lutherian decorations and also here a lot of German influence was to be seen.

The safe room was locked by a door which had a lock that closed at 19 different points and in the beginning of last century was brought to Paris to be exhibited.

With Biertan being such a traditional village we could not miss out on exploring it on foot. Horse cars were a much used way of transport in this region so it came at no surprise that on one occasion I placed my food in some of the droppings. It simply had to happen at one moment.

Chicken ran free in the streets, pigs were kept in cages and I even saw some goats. It was clear the lifestyle was so much simpler over here than what I had seen before. This was more like the rural Romania I had expected to see.

Instead of taking the highway to Sibiu, our next stop, Christian had promised me the day before to take a more rural, scenic route and so we did. The villages were really remote and although extremely picturesque it would drive me crazy to live here.

People sat outside or were working in the fields, I noticed some men already started drinking beer quite early in the morning, not strange if I considered the surroundings where simply nothing exiting was happening. It was village life in it’s most simple form.

When we arrived at the outskirts of Sibiu I recognized the terrible communist style housing again. Blocks of uninspired flats which must not be very nice to live. Fortunately the old city centre had a much nicer appeal.

It felt like arriving in a complete different country. The architecture, the atmosphere at the streets, I liked it a lot. Before going on our walk we had a bite to eat at one of the many restaurants. I opted for a selection of meats that was presented in a very special way. Fortunately Christian had offered to share this dish as it was simply too much for one person.

There was a buzz in the city as the Sibiu Music Festival took place at the main square. Terraces were full and people were enjoying their Saturday. We strolled through the upper and lower part of the city and everywhere there were special activities going on. Some food was being prepared, small stalls with gifts were to be seen everywhere and a beer festival as well. Diana and I decided to try a pear cider as neither of us had tried that before.

We visited the Catholic Church first and then continued our walk through the picturesque streets.

The highlight for me though was the Orthodox cathedral. It had beautiful frescos and glass in lead Windows. A priest was performing a wedding which added to the alive feeling in the Cathedral. I did enjoy the atmosphere a lot and watched the believers performing their rituals.

By now I was getting extremely tired and although it was only just past three I returned to the hotel and enjoyed a long but much needed afternoon na. I did not wake up until after six when I returned to the city centre.

The big square was really busy now and from the streets leading to it many people arrived for the event to happen. At the many terraces there was not a single unreserved table left so I headed for Strada Nicolae Balsescu, the Main Street, and found a nice place over there to enjoy a local drink and work on my journal.

By the time I was ready for dinner the big square (Piata Mare) was packed so I decided to walk on a bit and Lund a nice place or a drink and to update my journal. Not much later I was tapped on my shoulder by Christian who saw me from a neighboring terrace where he and Diana were sitting. I joined them for dinner and once again their choice of restaurant did not disappoint.

That evening I was glad I had a room at the back of the hotel. As it was pretty close to the main square it could have been a noisy occasion but in spite of the concert that went on until very late at night I slept well.

Next morning we had a long drive ahead of us. We left Sibiu and headed for the mountains. I loved the small villages and the atmosphere around it but could not avoid dozing away a couple of times.

As soon as we arrived at the mountains my attention was focused again. The roads were steep and curvy and slowly we were going up. We were now approaching the famous Transfagarasan Road, and not only is this Romania’s most famous road but it has been named the most beautiful road by the original Top Gear team. Needles to say my expectations were high.

Our first stop was at the Balea Glacier Lake from where we had a stunning view over the meandering road below us. Whilst we were there I had to ask Christian several times to stop in order to enjoy the panorama below me and to make some pictures. The lake itself was nice and lots of stalls were selling local products. We could not resist a donut filled with cheese and a crepe with blueberry sauce.

We continued our drive through magnificent scenery and made another stop at a dam with an enormous artificial lake behind it. Looking down from the other side made me realize how deep the lake must be. Another stop worth spending some time.

Our final stop for the day was Poienari Fortress, but in order to get there I first had to conquer 1480 steps through the forest. A trying climb but well worth it. Although Bran castle is also called Dracula’s castle this fortress has much more ties to Vlad.It was still in use for a number of years after his death but was abandoned thereafter. By now it was nothing more than a ruin but the breathtaking views were worth the exhausting climb.

Back at street level we enjoyed lunch after which we continued our drive to Bucharest. Traffic was heavy and we ended up in a traffic jam due to two accidents. But not much later I was back at the Capitol Hotel where my Romanian adventure began one week ago.

During our week together Diana had noticed my passion for food and she had told me about The Artist, Romania’s best restaurant. Needles to say I did not need to be encouraged any more so I had booked a table for my last dinner in Romania.

And a wise decision it was. Although only a three course menu was served each of them was preceded by a greeting from the kitchen. Some excellent wines were served with it and I can only say that style, presentation and flavors were absolutely Michelin worthy. It was absolute magic and the prefect way to finish off a more than perfect week. I had a short chat with the chef who turned out to be Dutch and passed on my compliments for the efforts of himself and his team.

I decided for one more drink in the old city to chill and relax and let he experiences of the past week pass by. That night I slept very well.

My Romanian adventure had come to an end and later that afternoon I  flew to Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, for the 2nd part of my holiday. When I started my trip I had no idea on what to expect, as not a lot of people travel to Romania and its reputation is not highly rated.

And I do not understand. Everyday Romania kept on surprising me in the best way possible. It’s diversity, it’s rich, but not always nice history, the people and the food. The countless castles, fortresses and churches. Oh, did I mention the food?

I can only say that most opinions on Romania I have heard before are misconceptions based on stories which are now long time history. Things are happening in Romania and it was a pleasure to see with my own eyes how this country is developing. I have only seen a small part of it as my journey mainly focused on Bucharest and Transylvania.

Yes I was lucky as I could not have thought of better people to show me their country then Diana and Christian from Unzip Romania, the company I choose to arrange my tour. From the moment we met there was a match and I thoroughly enjoyed their company. It was a wise decision and thanks to the both of them I now have a better understanding and impression of one of the oldest civilizations in Europe. I loved my experience!!!  Multumesc.

Conyinue the journey in Bulgaria