In general, we consider that something is surprising when what we see in reality has nothing to do with what we had imagined before. Currently, we receive so much information of all kinds – photos or videos, comments from friends, news, social networks … – that we draw in our mind a biased idea of the destination to which we travel.
Romania is a good example. Due to its troubled past, its geographical location or our treacherous ignorance, it is not one of those destinations that most of us have in mind when we think about traveling. “In my country,” explains Florin Cristea, a local guide for Civitatis in Romania, “there have been fundamental changes in a relatively short period of time and, in recent years, it has become a place where you can discover wonderful corners and live extraordinary experiences ”.
The traveler perceives the mark of almost 45 years of communism and 20 of transition to democracy
What are those changes you are referring to?
I was born in Brasov, in Transylvania, in 1981. At that time, my country belonged to the communist bloc, on the eastern side of the famous Churchillian expression Iron Curtain. I grew up in the middle of the totalitarian communist regime, which ended in 1989 with the revolution and the consequent end of the dictatorship. But I consider myself lucky because I experienced this incredible change in my own flesh: we went from the harshest communist regime in Europe, that of the dictator Ceausescu’s family, a kind of dynastic communism similar to what North Korea is today, to a country that it is a member of the European Union and from which we can travel to the Caribbean, for example, with a simple national identity document. Because, as you well know, many islands are territories of some countries of the European Union.
Is this how the travel ban was opened?
Yes, indeed, since 2006, with the decisive opening of the country to the West, I had the opportunity to work and travel with a company that produced shows for cruise ships, hotels and casinos. Over the next 10 years, we visited more than 130 countries on every continent, including Antarctica. I also have an extraordinary memory of Spain, the country that was embedded in my soul.
And Romania also opened up abroad …
Sure. Today, Romania is completely open to the world, it is a welcoming place, connected to Europe and it is increasingly safe. The people are hospitable and friendly. However, it remains the great unknown of Europe. Any traveler will perceive the traces left by the almost 45 years of communism and another almost 20 years of transition to democracy, but that precisely will make their experience give them a unique perspective of the recent history of our continent and that makes Romania a destination different from the others
What’s so special about it?
There are many things, the truth. It could be said that there is a Romania for every traveler. I would highlight its extraordinary mix of cultures and traditions, from the historic province of Transylvania, full of fortified towns and churches, medieval cities, fortresses and castles, to Moldova, with monasteries protected by Unesco, a disturbing history, nature in its purest form and a very genuine gastronomy. Or the fascinating province of southern Wallachia, between Europe and the lively Balkans. And let’s not forget Bucharest or Dobrogea, the Black Sea coast, where we can go to the beach but also discover a unique natural sanctuary in Europe, or the Danube Delta, an impressive natural space.
The first tip would be to leave behind all the preconceptions about Romania
What advice would you give me if I decided to take my first trip?
The first advice would be to leave behind all the preconceptions about Romania and look forward to meeting us. That is crucial. Spaniards will be very surprised by our language, because they can easily read or converse in Romanian. It is the only one of Latin origin in Eastern Europe and is closely related to Italian, Spanish, Portuguese or French. In fact, that is one of the reasons why more than a million Romanians have settled to live in Spain. We have many similarities.
Any practical advice?
The official currency is called the leu, although you can also find it as “rum.” I advise you to change at the airport only what is strictly necessary for a taxi or if you have to move to the city. In general, card payment devices are available in stores, restaurants, and hotels. Then, once in the city, you can change safely at any bank or office, where the rates are more convenient than at the airport.
And as for transportation?
Trains and buses between the main cities and Bucharest are cheap and punctual, perhaps not the fastest, but quite comfortable and picturesque. On the Bucharest-Brasov route, for example, the frequencies are optimal and the landscape will enchant you. If you choose a rental car, I recommend caution with the capital’s traffic and pay close attention if the idea is to travel at night. In general, roads is another thing that has improved a lot compared to recent years.
Let’s get to the point: what can’t I miss?
For starters, medieval Transylvania with its cities like Brasov or Sighisoara, with fortresses from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries like Rasnov or Rupea, Bran Castle, fortified churches protected by Unesco like Prejmer or Harman, rural sites like Viscri, a This place, incidentally, so captivated Prince Charles of England, that he bought a traditional house there and has become an ambassador for Transylvania and Romania.
There we also find Dracula …
Of course, the most famous Romanian of all time, the warrior prince of Wallachia, Vlad Tepes, the Impaler, known by the nickname Dracula, whose story inspired the legend of vampires in more than 250 films, cannot be ignored. Many travelers usually make a route following the scenes of the novel and the characters of Bram Stoker, the Irish writer who wrote the story of the legendary vampire in 1897.
What does it consist of?
He leaves from the palace of the old Curtea Veche district of Bucharest, the former royal court, and then goes to his tomb in the Snagov monastery, the remains of one of his watchtowers, in Targoviste, and the ruins of the Castle of the boyars in Poienari, perched on the rocks of the South Carpathians. Later, tour the medieval towns of Sibiu and Sighisoara, where Vlad Tepes was born. The route also stops at two places linked to the novel: Bistrita, the town where Jonathan Harker, one of the protagonists, sleeps the first night, and the Borgo gorge, where the book places the vampire’s fortress. Finally, it is worth entering the lavish Bran Castle, the medieval gateway to Transylvania and one of the 14th century buildings that best retains its original form.
My recommendations are Bucovina, the northeastern region, and Maramures, with impressive wooden churches.
Now take us to the most unknown Romania …
My two most special recommendations are the northeastern region, Bucovina, with its Orthodox monasteries, especially the painted ones: Humor, Voronet, Moldovita or Sucevita. There you can discover the peace of rural Romania and the Orthodox roots of our country, especially in what is the scene of the Angel of the Last Judgment in the Voronet monastery, called the “Sistine Chapel of the Orthodox world”. And a second little-known region is the northwestern part of the country, with an absolutely endearing place: Maramures, where you can see the impressive wooden churches or the only joyful cemetery in Sapantza, the place where people treated the moment of death with humor and naturalness. It is a most curious open-air museum, since its tombs are decorated with naive paintings and show optimistic epitaphs dedicated to the loved ones buried there.
Any other secret or curiosity?
As I am passionate about recent history, I recommend discovering without complexes the stage before the communist period. In that sense, a must-see is the magnificent Peles Castle, the former summer residence of the Romanian kings. Did you know that the famous Orient Express stopped in Sinaia, at Peles Castle, and tourists from the early 20th century were invited to dinner at the castle? Speaking of cities and buildings, did you know that Bucharest has the largest and heaviest administrative building in the world? It is the House of the People, the construction that changed the view of the capital; a megalomaniac project of the ex-dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.
And a route to do by car?
Those who like to drive should know that, according to the producers of the prestigious automobile series Top gear, Romania has “the best road in the world”: the Transfagarasan, which crosses the Carpathians at an altitude of more than 2,000 meters. It was built in the 70s as a military route and today it is an exceptional road trip route or, for the bravest, a real bike challenge.
Where would you recommend me to look for accommodation?
They will accuse me of favoritism because I am from Brasov. Well yes, in Brasov! Although I have strong arguments, since it is located in the center of the country, it is well connected to Bucharest and other large cities, and it is a perfect base to reach all areas of Romania with relative ease. In addition, it will soon open its international airport. At the moment, those in Bucharest, Sibiu or Cluj-Napoca are the busiest. Brasov’s tourist tradition has generated excellent accommodation and restaurant services. It is a great host city, with a spectacular medieval historic center, amazing nature, and, in winter, with one of the best ski resorts: Poaina Brasov.
And what about gastronomy?
To make an in-depth trip, you will have to try Romanian cuisine and its excellent wines and beers. I know that for Spaniards this is an important piece of information: in general, lunch hours are from twelve to three in the afternoon and from seven to nine thirty at night for dinner, during the summer. In winter it gets dark around five in the afternoon, dinner is eaten a little earlier. The good news is that in Romania the restaurants are open all day and during the summer, until late, even by Spanish standards.
Do you recommend an interesting restaurant?
I am sure that each traveler has their own method of discovering the best restaurants. As a local from Brasov, I like establishments like La Ceaun, Sergiana, Casa Hirsher, Casa Tudor, La Roata Norocului, Sub Tampa, Casa Romaneasca, Sura Dacilor, in Poiana Brasov. In Bucharest, the Carul cu Bere or Hanul lui Manuc restaurants are very picturesque. Everywhere you will be surprised with large dishes and excellent services at reasonable prices.
What dish should I order?
Cold appetizers like aubergine salad or vinete; zacusca or beaten beans, la fasole batuta; the famous hot ciorba, soups that are almost always found in a Romanian house, or small mici, a mixture of very popular meats and spices that go well with mustard, potatoes and Romanian beer. You can also taste the traditional sarmale, meat rolls with cabbage leaves, or a typical dish from the mountainous areas called bulz, that is, a tasty mixture of cornmeal polenta, cheese and meat, of course, accompanied by excellent wines Romanians. If you still have the strength to order dessert, you cannot miss the papanasi, the amandine or the savarine, among the most popular desserts.
Meanwhile, to get you started, any interesting book or documentary?
To have an image close to reality, you can search YouTube for the series Wild Carpathia, produced by British writer Charlie Ottley and featuring Prince Charles of England, one of Romania’s new and good friends.