Adventures in Romania!
Honesty is the best policy…my partner is Romanian…so you may think I’m biased about this place…but judge for yourself, look at the photos, this country truly is AMAZING! I’ve been here several times now and always find something new I fall in love with. The rural areas really are beautiful and unspoilt, if your looking for wildlife and nature in Europe then Romania is a must! The scenes as you travel through the mountains are awesome, and with the highest concentration of large carnivores in Europe, those looking to see wildlife in their natural surroundings have got to check out Romania. There are thought to be around 6000 brown bears in Romania, 2500-3000 wolves (40% of the European population), and over 2000 Lynx cats, incredible. Wildlife or safari type tours can be booked in Romania and there is a growing focus on sustainable tourism. In rural areas living with bears as neighbours is now a part of daily life, interactions with bears are really common…and potentially dangerous. We’ve been told stories how bears will come out from the forests every evening to check out bins around hotels and friends of ours who work in a hotel have told us how they have to shut themselves inside the hotel and wait for the bears to leave before they can go home!
I’m not saying that the place is perfect, there are still many problems in Romania. The average monthly wage is just around 400 euros and corruption is still part of everyday life. However all of the people I have met there have been so friendly and welcoming and have a genuine pride about their country and where they live, I have never felt uncomfortable whilst being there and have enjoyed every moment…just about!
When we have visited Romania we have spent most of our time travelling around Transylvania’s beautiful countryside with a back drop of mountains and scattered with traditional Saxon villages with their pastel coloured buildings. Loads of these villages have there own impressive fortified Saxon churches similar to a keep which the villagers would fall back to should they come under attack. They are really quite something and usually massive with decorated roofs. The main towns and cities are Brasov, Sighisoara, and Sibiu, all three are great places to visit and totally different to what you are met with if you land in Bucharest. Again all pastel coloured buildings and scenic squares, amazing places to spend time.
Our base when we travel there is Bixad, a small traditional village in Transylvania near to a town called Sfantu Gheorge (Saint George) in the county of Covasna. Saint George is a charming town which is in the running to become a future European capital of culture and they are investing in making the town a really attractive place. They also know how to throw a party! We were there for Saint George’s day one year and the town has a huge festival to celebrate with concerts in the evening which attract thousands of people. It really is great, there are traditional food stalls and craft fairs as well, the town really comes to life! The festival is usually at the end of April beginning of May and the concerts go on all weekend long every evening and are free, if you are around the area at this time it’s definitely worth checking out.
Sfantu Gheorghe and Bixad are within an area known as Szeklerland, Szekely Land, or Szekelyfold. This is an area which once was part of Hungary but after the dissolution of the Hungo-Austrian empire was handed to Romania. The majority of people living in this area consider themselves Hungarian and speak Hungarian as their first language, many do not speak Romanian at all. There is a growing push for autonomy throughout this region and the Szeklers have their own flag and anthem too.
We stay with friends who run a really nice hotel Solyomko Panzio in Bixad. Maria and her husband who run it are some of the most friendly people you will ever meet and their son Istvan is really helpful and knows everything there is to do in the local area and helps to promote the area as well. The garden is beautiful and looks out over fields and mountains.
They also have another lovely self catering property where larger groups can stay set in the countryside near Bixad.
Bixad or Saint George are really great bases to explore the surrounding areas. Nearby up a winding road over 900 metres above sea level is the tranquil Sfanta Ana or St Anne Lake. The lake is formed in the crater of an extinct volcano and has a water purity level almost as pure as mineral water, it’s crystal clear! Surrounded by sloping forests on all sides it’s a really peaceful place.
A great place for a barbecue! We tried to do this once and after making it to the top in our hire car with all the provisions it was shut for a car rally taking place around the hills! We went off into nearby forest area and had the best Goulash ever, cooked by my partners brother Attila in a cast iron bowl over a wood fire…amazing!
There is a big push at the moment in relation to this area being a base for adventure sports and they have held some big events here recently.
I don’t think people realise this about Romania but the weather can be great here. In the summer it can easily reach 30 degrees and in the winter they have BIG snow! Some hotels have their own ski slopes, and there is a great ski resort at Poiana Brasov set in mountains high above Brasov with views over Brasov. We have been to Aurelius Imparatul Romanilor hotel there which is surrounded by a lake. The restaurant was so good…chairs with sheep skins over them and traditional Romanian decor along with traditional Romanian food…really really good! There are some great 5 star hotels up here which are still really affordable.
The city of Brasov is picturesque and a really enjoyable place to spend time, it’s about an hours drive away from Sfantu Gheorghe and is the nearest major city. Its main square is a lovely place to enjoy a drink outside at one of the many bars cafés and restaurants. In the centre of the square is the old town hall and just off in the one corner is the Black Church. An impressive gothic cathedral named the black church after a fire almost destroyed it and left the walls blackened.
Brasov is surrounded by hills and mountains on all sides and even has it’s own Brasov sign in one of them alla Hollywood! There is a cable car which takes you up Mount Tampa where the sign is and the views over Brasov are really impressive. Brasov is also encircled by its old defensive walls, 12 metres high and 3km long, punctuated by 7 defensive towers which were manned by the various guilds of the time, for example the rope makers bastion, the blacksmiths bastion and the weavers bastion.
Last time we went to Brasov we ate in a great restaurant called Sergiana. We had our trusty Lonely Planet guide book to thank for finding this place. The entrance is well hidden on the corner of Strada Muresenilor near to the main bus terminus. From the outside all you can see are the double doors and a small sign, you immediately go down some stairs underground and are asked smoking or non smoking? If smoking you are lead to a red brick area with enclosed cubicles, or if non-smoking you are in a brilliant white area. The food is absolutely amazing here, it has traditional Romanian or Transylvanian food as well as some more recognisable dishes. When we went I had the Transylvanian soup which had ham cooked with Tarragon and sour cream served with fresh chillies, followed by wild boar stew with fresh pork crackling, the meat just fell apart, it was so good.
You might have guessed by now, I’m obsessed by food, but also particularly the food in Romania. Goulash, grilled meat, stews, soups, all amazing! One of my favourites I tried whilst over there is Toltott Kaposzta or Sarmale in Romanian, which is minced meat wrapped in cabbage leaves stewed in a tomato sauce for hours and then served with sour cream, really good! However, I don’t think Romanians, or at least people from this area have heard of vegetarians, we plan on taking my vegetarian mum over soon to visit and have no idea what she will eat whilst there!
I haven’t tried travelling around Romania by public transport but from what I hear it’s not the best most reliable or quickest network. We have hired a car each time we have been and it really gives you freedom to explore, plus the distances between destinations are quite big, though the countryside is beautiful. People might panic about hiring a car in Romania and heard horror stories about driving over there but on the whole it’s easy. True, driving through the centre of Bucharest might feel a bit daunting, but now we pick up the hire car from the airport and skirt around Bucharest. One thing about the driving here is that Romanians don’t like being behind over vehicles! They will overtake at any given opportunity! Views like this…
…are not massively out of the ordinary on the roads, but just let them carry on and you’ll be fine, we haven’t even had a near miss throughout our travelling in Romania and some of the drives are just too good to miss out on!
During one of our trips to Romania we did a really cool albeit mammoth road trip around Transylvania taking in Sibiu and Sighisoara and loads of small traditional Saxon villages. Sibiu was the designated European capital of culture in 2007 and has benefited from the investment this brought. It’s a lovely town to spend a couple of days, especially during the summer months.
There are three pretty interlocking squares lined with restaurant terraces, it has a real cosmopolitan feel, I loved spending time here, one of my favourite towns I have been to in Romania it’s such a relaxing place to wander around and chill out in…love it!
Sighisoara is a big tourist hot spot and attracts a lot of visitors. It is a real traditional Saxon town and I can’t imagine that it has changed much over time. It is dominated by it’s huge 64 metre tall clock tower built in 1280 which acted as the main entrance into the citadel. The impenetrable walls at the base of the tower are 2.3 metres thick! It is an impressive sight and seems to be the back drop of almost all of the views in Sighisoara.
As you walk through the arched entrance under the clock tower you enter the cobbled streets of the citadel, it’s a really atmospheric place and again is an amazing place to stroll around and taken in the sites. One of the other draws of Sighisoara is that it is (although not certainly) the birth place of Vlad Tepes. As you enter the square after walking through the clock tower ahead of you on the left you will see a plaque on a wall which indicates the building he was born in.
Vlad Tepes or Vlad the Impaler was the inspiration behind Bram Stoker’s Dracula, yeah there was no actual Dracula! Vlad Tepes was a Wallachian (one of the seats of Romania) Prince born in 1431. His father was named Vlad Dracul, (Dracul being the Latin for Dragon) after the order of the dragon. He gave the name Draculea to his son, meaning son of Dracul. Draco however means ‘devil’. Vlad ruled Wallachia over three separate periods, much of his childhood was spent in a Turkish prison where it is said he was horrifically tortured. At the height of his power Vlad was loved by those he ruled over and they saw him as a hero, however he was blood thirsty and when at war and he won his defeated enemies would be impaled through their backsides around the city walls!
The citadel sits on top of a hill and the views over the pastel coloured buildings are great and worth the trek up to the top! Sighisoara is a must if you are travelling around Transylvania, it’s citadel is listed as a UNESCO world heritage site, it really is unique!
There are some cool museums in Sighisaora and again most places are really affordable and there are some great places to eat, and as with every tourist destination…an Irish themed pub!
Like I said earlier, there are some great road trips to be had in Romania…and the best of all is the Transfagarasan Road! I first heard about this on the T.V show Top Gear when the presenters took three cars, an Aston Martin DBS Volante, a Ferrari California and a Lamborghini Gallardo Spyder and they went in search of the “Greatest Road on Earth!”. The picture at the top of this post is one I took looking back down at a stretch of the road. It is 118 km long and goes up and over the Fagaras mountain range. At its highest point at the glacial lake Balea you are at an altitude of 2034 metres!
Driving along this road is a real adventure! It’s so exhilarating, if you stopped every time you said “Wow” to yet another breathtaking view to take a photograph it would take a week to complete! The road twists back and forth winding it’s way up mountain sides, over bridges through tunnels, sometimes the edge of the road is a shear cliff face! It’s an amazing experience! Due to the altitude and weather conditions it is not open all year round, I have made the mistake and headed up in March to find it shut with huge concrete blockades put in place to prevent you from travelling any further. It usually opens late March or early April. I have ran out of superlatives for the views along this road so I’ll let some pics do the talking…
Then when you reach the top, Lake Balea is an oasis of tranquillity. There are some nice craft stalls here and a café and some stalls that sell some traditional food and snacks (plus handy toilets!). My favourite snack is Kurtos Kalacs, a kind of pancake or doughnut mixture wrapped around a wooden post and grilled over coals, sprinkled with sugar or cinnamon…delicious!
It’s got to be done! There is also a cool Ice Hotel (see what I did there!) in the Fagaras mountains which has a 2016 travellers choice award on TripAdvisor . That would be an experience eh?
On one of our drives around Transylvania we visited the Libearty Bear Sanctuary in Zarnesti, southwest of Brasov near to Rasnov. This place does amazing work. Firstly it is not a zoo, it is a sanctuary for brown bears, they also have some wolves, which would have undoubtedly died if they were not saved by the people working here. It was set up when the keeping of bears was made illegal. Sadly in Romania near many of the major tourist attractions such as Bran Castle bears were kept outside in cages to provide tourists with photo opportunities. The bears suffered horrifically. A story of one such bear was that it was fed alcohol and sleeping pills to keep it docile and had pins pricked into it’s eyes to blind it…how someone could do something like that to such an amazing animal is beyond me and really angers me. When this bear reached the sanctuary it was actually addicted to alcohol, it was an alcoholic, it had to be weaned off it, terrible.
These bears now live in this huge sanctuary with massive enclosures in what would be their natural habitat. Set in amongst amazing mountains the location alone is jaw dropping, and to be able to get so close to these animals here, for me, was an experience of a lifetime.
I hasten to add that these pictures were taken with the aid of some nifty photography work and there are fences between you and the animals, they are still dangerous!!
When we went to visit we were told that visits were by appointment only, but when we called they informed us that no appointment was necessary and we could just turn up. However like I said earlier it is not a zoo and visits are by guided tours only with sizes and times limited so that the animals are not overly disturbed by human interaction. My advice would be to phone ahead just in case. During our trip we were also lucky enough to see a young female bear who had just arrived with a playful cub, there were some special moments here.
There is so much more that we have done and seen in Romania, spent time in Bucharest, enjoying the parks and museums. Visited the amazing castles Bran and Peles, we will be going back regularly to Romania and I’ll post more stuff about what we get up to there over time.
Perhaps this has whet your appetite for an adventure a little of the beaten track!
Remember if you have any questions or advice feel free to contact me and I’ll do my best!
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As always we had our trusted Lonely Planet guide book with us throughout our travels in Romania, it has great insights and historical facts inside and really brings destinations to life. Click the image below to take you straight to the Amazon page to order the book, or on the right of the page click the lonely planet link, they have a great deal where you can get 3 books, chapters or ebooks for the price of two.
Thanks For Reading, happy travelling!