Oftentimes when people find out what I do, the first question I get asked is “which country is your favorite?” That’s like inquiring as to what’s my favorite candy bar—some day it might be Snickers, other days it’s most definitely a York peppermint patty. How can any chocolate lover in her right mind pick just one?
The same goes for travel. I’ve visited a lot of places and seen a lot of things. Cathedrals in Italy, beaches in Spain, concentration camps in Germany, ancient stone circles in Scotland, Africa’s magnificent Sahara Desert – I sometimes took it for granted that witnessing such beauty and living history was a part of my everyday life living in Europe.
However, one trip in particular stands out in my mind as truly remarkable, simply because of the nation’s lack of progressiveness and abundance of uncharted territory. Having explored nearly every country in Western and Central Europe, it was only natural that I next expanded my travel horizons to encompass that of Eastern Europe, as well. So I enlisted the accompaniment of my travel-savvy boyfriend Scott, we
hopped a plane to Budapest, Hungary, and were soon cruising in a stylish rental get-up through the vast plains and paradoxical rocky terrain of Romania.
Now prior to living with my Swedish housemate Nana in Holland, all I knew about Romania was that it was (maybe still is?) home to Dracula, as well as the famed gymnastics team that once included Nadia Comaneci and always racks up on the Olympic medals. But after spending ample time with Nana, who has a degree in Eastern European Studies, spends each summer in Romania and speaks the language fluently, I was intrigued by more than fairy tales and stories of athletic triumph and decided to take a trip there myself.
The first thing that shocked me was how underdeveloped the country was. Scott and I drove for hours after crossing the Hungarian border before we stumbled upon any signs of life. Having a car was a particular advantage in this case, as reliable public transportation is nowhere to be found in the country, and seemingly infinite expanses of remote wilderness stretched for miles at a time. This way, we were able to see much of the countryside and also many of the diminutive villages that littered the land.
Our first night was spent in Timisoara, not far over the border, but I must remorsefully admit that it took us so long to find a place to lay our heads that we didn’t, in fact, have any free time to explore the city. We did take a quick walk through the next day and, from what I can tell, were not missing a whole (forgive me, any Timisoara natives), as there wasn’t a whole lot to hold the interest of an intrepid traveler.
Regardless of having a car and wrongfully believeing this would cut back on travel time (trains in Romania creep along) and grant us what few hours of winter daylight prevailed to do some sightseeing, some days we would be in the car half a day before finally entering a town.
This could be particularly alarming when in need of gas or, for me more than Scott, a restroom (guys, you don’t know how lucky you are to be able to play the whole emergency-pee-in-a-beer-bottle card whenever you feel the need). Finding food, however, was no problem, as every few miles, some Romanian or the other had a stand selling entire blocks of cheese and palinka, the country’s own version of moonshine. We stocked up on the palinka, as it was an unmatched rarity and took home reused liter water bottles to friends and family baring the magical elixir. At one point, I even purchased two liters of Romanian liqur made from woodland berries (40% alcohol) and mixed it with two liters of palinka (70%+) to compose my own potent concoction. Bear this in mind should you yourself be passing through in future travels.
As the Romanian meat was questionable – Scott and I both were inflicted with food poisoning at some point – and veggies were non-existent, I was grateful for these frequent stops to roadside “vendors” even though the snow was swirling down around us in the biting 20 degree Fahrenheit cold (on good days) and it meant my diet for the duration of the trip consisted of nothing but Gouda and booze.
And although our entire trip followed the main highway that crossed the entire country from the west to the east, the two-lane roads were of such poor condition that it would often take us the entire six hours of daylight to travel a mere 100 miles. Romania is just slightly smaller than the state of Oregon, yet three days straight of driving only deposited us in the country’s center, still hundreds of miles from the industrial capital Bucharest.
When we did finally reach a suitable town each night, a few more hours were spent tracking down a place to stay. I suppose Romania isn’t exactly a hopping tourist destination, especially this time of year when there is a constant two feet of snow on the ground and the thermometer hovers in the teens for days on end. When lodging was found in each location, we were often the only ones in the entire establishment. This, paired with the Romanian friendliness and their love for Americans, only promis
ed the finest hospitality.
Nana had told me in advance that Romanians are quite obsessed with the American way of life, but I didn’t realize to what extent until I arrived. Having spent seven months in Western Europe where you’d be better off saying you’re Canadian to avoid the prevalent anti-American sentiment, I was caught off guard to find people who actually celebrated the fact that I am a U.S. citizen. I could proudly wave my “W for President” flag high (kidding, kidding!). The more Nana explained, the more it made sense. To them, I am a symbol of hope in their limited, poverty-stricken society (again, if you are Romanian, I am just speaking of some of the poor, crumbling towns I encountered; the dichotomy of that and the bigger, bustling cities was amazing). The American Dream may be dead in many parts of the world, but in Romania, it is still very much alive.
Still, it is a rather strange civilization, or at least from my perspective as an American. Dogs run wild in all areas of the country, the locals travel from town to town by means of hitchhiking and sheepherders wearing massive fur coats not unlike Harry Potter’s pal Hagrid usher their flocks throughout the countryside day in, day out – all visions that seemed to me more out of a fairy tale than reality. I loved everything about this facet of the country. It made it seem almost pure and untainted.
But despite the tourist lure in Transylvania, it was a gorgeous area of the country and one well deserving of the visit. Scott and I made our way to Brasov, a quaint town at the foot hills of the Carpathians, enjoyed our first snowfall of the season while drinking mulled wine at the local Christmas market and marveling at the 40-foot tree that towered high in the town center. Much against my better judgment (certainly not his!), we drove the 12 or so miles up to Poiana Brasov, the ski resort town at the top of the mountain, which took a good hour to reach despite its proximity because of the winding roads and increasingly deeper snow. But once we reached the top, the sight was one to behold.
I felt like Lucy in the Chronicles of Narnia when she steps out of the wardrobe for the first time to witness the magical kingdom. The lack of bodies around made it even more peaceful – not to mention harder to find a hotel room, as many were not yet open for ski season. But we ended up staying at one of the nicest bed and breakfasts I have ever found, a hugh farmhouse-like lodge where Jude Law resided during the filming of Cold Mountain. Because we hit up Poiana just before tourist season, there was only one other family staying in the house, so we had the entire upstairs to ourselves and what seemed to be a honeymoon suite, complete with living room, balcony overlooking the snowfall and evergreens outside, sauna and hot tub. It was divine to put it mildly. I didn’t want to leave, but alas we had castles to explore!
One of the oddest things that happened to us was when we toured Castle Bran, home to none other than everyone’s favorite vampire, Dracula (or Vlad the Impaler, whichever story strikes your fancy). As if the atmosphere wasn’t eerie enough, Scott and I were the only visitors in the castle, a blizzard howled outside the iron-barred windows, and as we entered one of the bedroom chambers, a castle attendant seemed to evaporate from thin air and snuck up behind us. She didn’t speak English, nor we Romanian, but she motioned for my camera and gave us a gentle shove over the velvet rope and into the forbidden area off limits to all.
We were led from room to room, and the woman allowed us to sit on the ancient furniture while she snapped our photos. When she was done, we were rushed up to a private room where three other Romanian women sat knitting and crocheting scarves, hats and socks. I looked at Scott and shrugged, as he bought a hat and I purchased a scarf. I suppose that was the exchange for her act of kindness. And even though we each paid the equivalent of $5 for our homemade possessions, you’d think the women had just won the lottery. Romanian people and gratitude go hand-in-hand, I have come to find. Not to mention, $5 can get you far in Eastern Europe.
A similar incident occurred when we ventured over to Peles Castle in the neighboring town of Sinai. In this palace, we were required to exchange our shoes for slippers and had to wait for an English tour guide to lead us and the four other English speakers through the royal chambers. As we neared the end of the tour, I realized Scott had gone missing. I retreated to the previous room, when someone grabbed my arm and pulled me through a door.
At first I thought we were being thrown out for some reason unbeknownst to me, but this time, eight of the women working in the palace teamed up and took us to each room, letting us sit on the furniture in each room as we posed for the camera. Perhaps they do this for every easy tourist, but we didn’t mind. How many times in your life can you say you sat at the royal table in the Turkish tearoom of an ancient castle?
I suppose one nice thing about Romania was the pace of life. There was no constant pressure to always be on the move, and everyone there seemed to take time to enjoy life. But things may change in the near future.
Earlier this year, along with Bulgaria, Romania became one of the newest accession states to join the European Union, and unlike other countries like Norway that rejected European membership, the Romanian people couldn’t be happier; this is made evident by the pro-Europe signs promoting the Euro and European flag that can be found in any town.
Like Romania’s Eastern European predecessors such as Poland and the Baltic States that became “part of Europe” in 2004, it will be interesting to take a trip back to Romania and see how such an underdeveloped society becomes Westernized by its joining the EU, as well as integrated into a community that includes global superpowers like France and the United Kingdom.