Stereotypes abound about Romania, a country I had the pleasure of visiting recently: Roma gypsies, Transylvania and Dracula, poverty. If you are my age (early 40s) you will remember mention on the news in the ’90s about Romanian orphanages and the reign and subsequent killing of the Communist leader Ceausescu on TV. So the week I spent in the country – more specifically Transylvania (mainly) – was an opportunity to see if there were any truths to these stereotypes and what kind of lasting impressions I would have of the country. Of course, spending a week in a country is only a tiny glimpse into a country and is largely superficial but anyway.
I should point out at the beginning that I’ve been wanting to visit Romania for many years now. My mother has also wanted to visit the country for a long time for another reason – she met a Romanian couple 30 years ago and has wanted to catch up with them again. Since my father rarely travels these days, she bought me a ticket to go with her and I wasn’t going to complain….
I have spent a lot of time living and travelling in Central and Eastern Europe, and Romania is one of the places I hadn’t up to now got round to going to. There are a few reasons this part of the world interests me: the world is becoming more and more uniform and homogeneous, therefore anywhere that is different or more ‘exotic’ is more interesting. I feel that more and more countries are losing their soul, getting increasingly more materialistic and just becoming boring and the same as everywhere else with the same shops, brands, music, TV programs and even similar mindsets, opinions and perspectives. Theoretically, countries in Eastern Europe shouldn’t be as ‘spiritually destroyed’ as those in the West, they should have more ‘soul’.
My first impression of the country was the greenery – around Bucharest airport there were countless garden centres and houses with vegetable plots and orchards – trees with ‘white socks’ on them as my mother put it. The trees are painted with some kind of insecticide or fungicide – they are plainly attacked by some insect or disease that doesn’t affect Ireland. The next impression is the amount of trees (and we were still in the capital!) and they were all in bloom – well ahead of Ireland after that unseasonable cold spell we had in March. In Ireland we really are short of trees and more especially forests. Of Ireland’s total land surface area, just 10% is comprised of forests, which represents the second lowest proportional percentage of any country in Europe. Compare that to Romania (by no means the most forested country in Europe) with 28% and there are still wolves, bears, lynxes, foxes and snakes in them! Another impression of the country were the beautiful houses especially in the mountainous areas – they are often with wooden balconies or even wholly wooden and some of the older ones are very ornate. Like any other modern European country, Romania has all the things we take for granted – high speed internet, modern facilities (especially in urban areas), smartphones, plasma TVs, more and more motorways but also things not so prevalent in Ireland: huge advertising hoardings and multi-story communist era apartment blocks.
Bucharest used to be very grand and was once dubbed the ‘Paris of the East’ – now it is a great mish-mash of architectural styles – Communist era, pre- and post Communist era. Despite the eclectic mix of styles, you certainly can understand the Paris analogy – the wide boulevards, many grand and imposing buildings and even a mini Arc de Triomphe. Big cities hold no great fascination for me – Bucharest included. The only real reason at all Bucharest was visited was because we were flying to and from there. We stuck mainly to the Old Town where we drank coffee and ate ice cream while watching the world go by. As Old Towns (or Lipscani as it is known to locals) go in Romania, Bucharest’s is small and not based around a central square unfortunately. It is definitely the place to go f or nightlife though, but seeing as I was with my teetotaler 84 year old mother, there wasn’t a lot of that going on….If I do go back I’ll get a better glimpse of the colossal Palace of the Parliament, the largest administrative building in the world. It was the pet project of the Communist megalomaniac dictator Ceausescu. He levelled a hill, destroyed 7km² of the old city centre and displaced thousands of people to build the colossal structure.
We spent most of our time in Romania in the region of Transylvania and the beautiful city of Brasov which was where our hosts resided. Transylvania is known for the scenery of its Carpathian landscape – the highest peaks were still snow capped when we were there- and in the West is associated of course with vampires due to the influence of Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’. We didn’t see any vampires but we did visit Bran or Dracula’s Castle. Bran Castle is the main castle linked to the Dracula legend yet seemingly Stoker didn’t know of the castle, had never visited Transylvania and Vlad the Impaler (or Vlad Dracula), who inspired the character Dracula, had only the flimsiest associations with the place. Vlad Dracula was the prince of Wallachia in the 15th century and is considered a hero amongst Romanians because he stood up to and defeated the Ottomans when they attacked and demanded tariffs. Vlad earned his name from impaling his enemies on stakes in the ground and leaving them to die, thus giving inspiration for Dracula.
The castle itself was charming – full of alcoves, nooks and crannies and multiple balconies with stunning views of the surrounding countryside. Interestingly there were many Chinese and Israeli tourists. Apparently Israeli tourists make up the largest group of visitors due to the strong links between the countries. Many Romanian Jews fled to Israel, so many come back to visit and it is very cheap for them (as it is for us for the moment).
It’s worth bypassing all the kitsch Dracula souvenirs and visiting a folk village at the bottom of the hill on which Bran Castle is located. Here simple wooden sheds, houses and barns were situated, inside which was period furniture, weaving machines etc. There was also an old mill, but our highlight of the day was seeing a young fox in the grounds of the folk village!
The next day our hosts drove us to another castle: Peles located about 80km from Brasov. Peles Castle is a relatively new castle, work on which was started in 1875 and it is located amongst some magnificent scenery, courtesy of the Carpathian Mountains. The grand palatial alpine Neo-Renaissance castle was probably the most luxurious, opulent place we had both ever been to. The effeminate guide showed us secret doors, myriad rooms with pretty chandaliers, fake ornate stoves, walnut and oak panelling, Italian marble, gold plated everything….always the best quality material and each room seeming more opulent than the next in diverse styles such as Florentine, Moorish, Imperial, Turkish and French. The castle was the first in the world to be fully powered by locally produced electricity and it was the first building to have central heating.
After visiting some nearby ski resorts (Poina Brasov and Predeal which is the highest town in Romania: 1200m, we had dinner in a highly ornate restaurant with huge fir beams and a mill inside. I choose ‘Sarmale’ (cabbage leaves stuffed with rice, meat and herbs) with ‘mamaliga’ (polenta which is very popular here). It was delicious even though polenta isn’t something I would eat normally.
Brasov itself is well worth a visit: the Old Town in particular. Surrounding the main square is a church, town hall and other buildings beautifully renovated and as with all Old Town Squares in Central and Eastern Europe and indeed many parts of the West, the area is the place to go to meet people, drink coffee, eat ice-cream, mingle and people watch. When we were there there were a group of Greek girls dancing ad hoc in a circle – there were a surprising amount of tourists and again, a lot of Israelis. On the same day, there was a Guinness Book of Records attempt – there was a huge queue of people of all ages holding a classic Romanian book of literature. They were apparently taking it in turns to read a passage from the book and break the record in the process for most people to read a classic book in one day or something similar. I have always loved such Old Squares on the continent – we have squares in Ireland but without the atmosphere – although my home town Tullamore actually has two squares, they are used primarily as car parks. Of course, the weather affects the use of the squares at home. Still, despite the rain, I think if we banned cars in our squares and they placed markets in the squares (as in the past – in fact one square in Tullamore is called Market Square) and put more tables and chairs outside cafes and restaurants as well as enough benches, maybe even a fountain, as in Brasov, it would encourage people to gather together. One aspect that differentiates Brasov with most others is that it is surrounded by some towering peaks covered in dense forests. There is a funicular railway to one of the peaks and a (now closed) restaurant at the top. On that same peak there is a sign, Hollywood style that says in big letters ‘Brasov’. I recommend seeing Brasov from the hills as we did – visible were the town walls, defence towers and the beautiful Old Town with its red roofs. As with our hosts, most people unfortunately live in the altogether much more drab and dreary New Town with its Communist era apartment blocks, all of which look disappointingly similar and soulless. I highly recommend Brasov city park near the zoo – this has a lake with an island (and a bridge to it) with swan and duck shaped boats for hire. It’s just a very pleasant place to spend a lovely sunny day and there was a great atmosphere. We saw a tandem, people out for walks, couples and kids. There were also two dozen huts or so where loads of people were picnicking, having barbecues and playing soccer. Bear in mind that it was only 11 o’clock in the morning but although it was still spring, it was like a summer’s day: 23C. I left our hosts and my mother and walked up the steep hill to go for a little hike in the forest, something which I was dying to do since I got to Romania.
For one of our bigger journeys, we left Transylvania and made the two hour car journey to the charming town of Sighisoara (North west of Brasov). On route, the towering snow capped mountains of Transylvania gave way to a hilly landscape, a lot less trees and much more arable land. Many of the hills were still covered in dense forests – though more deciduous than coniferous as in Transylvania. The architecture changed as well – less of the wooden mountain houses and more concrete though still often with balconies, and in the villages especially, many vegetable plots and even orchards and fruit bushes. We passed through a gypsy village with its small houses and grinding poverty. As in Slovakia, there is a large population of Roma Gypsies in Romania – similarly with Irish Travellers they usually are quite segregated, have a much lower life expectancy and are universally despised and looked down on. Yet it is funny how many hate gypsies on the surface but love their music, and back to the Irish example – most seem to loathe Travellers, yet they used to be quite respected when they could make a living making pots and pans (before cheap plastic and mass production put paid to this). If governments allowed nomadic peoples to roam freely and if everything wasn’t made in China, if the dole didn’t exist and people were much more self-sufficient and trusting as in (some mythical period in) the past, you have to wonder, would the relationship between Settled people and Travellers and Roma Gypsies be different. Another fascinating thing for me was seeing storks nests en route to Sighisoara – these were hard to miss since they are so big. I could never understand how it is babies are delivered in Ireland because we don’t have storks in Ireland. You see storks and their nests all across Central and Eastern Europe but not in Ireland. Can someone explain this?!
Sighisoara has many churches – Orthodox, Catholic, Evangelical etc. all with their own specific architecture. It also abounds in fortifications, forts and castles and not for the first time, reminded me of Slovakia. We went to the supposed house of Vlad the Impaler (inspiration for Dracula). It was pure kitsch and a waste of time – it’s actually a gimmick to get people to go to a restaurant. The restaurant was downstairs and upstairs was devoted to Vlad the Impaler. Two spookily lit rooms, one of which had a guy in a coffin who pretends to be dead and jumps out at you – you get the picture! Much better was the Old Town Square again with its cafes and restaurants, a place to watch the world go by and enjoy a beer/ coffee/ ice-cream. Interestingly, the Square wasn’t a sterile place just catering for tourists – there were a few schools in the Old Town which gave it a very ‘lived-in’ feel.
A strange phenomenon happened shortly before arriving in Romania – there was a sandstorm in the Sahara desert and sand actually reached Brasov, covering cars and everything else in a coating of sand. Our hosts washed the car but it got covered again the next day. It didn’t last much longer than a few days, but still a highly unusual occurrence.
So, is there any truth to the stereotypes? As I said, a week is only enough time to get a superficial glimpse of a country. On the surface, the country has made great strides and is a very advanced, developed place compared to the Communist era of the past. As with most countries, there is a rural, urban divide with the cities not much different to cities in the West. Of course, if you were to spend time in the gypsy villages or in some of the more remote villages, they would seem (materially) poor, but the richness in the hearts of the people, their heritage and traditions would make you reconsider some things. At least, that is the impression I got from a YouTube video I highly recommend entitled ‘Discover Romania with Peter Hurley’ (an Irish man who has lived many years in Romania) – I didn’t actually spend much time in villages and I was mainly either with my mother or our hosts. We saw primarily the pretty places, the tourist areas. Yes, there are many gypsies in the country, yes, many of them beg and yes the Dracula myth is everywhere (in Transylvania at least), but Romania is so much more than these stereotypes and well worth spending time in (preferably longer than a week…)
I would love to return to Romania, but I will spend much more time in the forests and the beautiful mountains. I always prefer nature to man’s towns and cities, no matter how lovely, but spring is a good time to visit rather than summer which I imagine can get pretty sweltering. Make sure to visit the country before it becomes just like everywhere else and prices inevitably go through the roof!