Romania – Highlights Of An Unheralded Destination

We hear the strains of chanting even before the monastery looms into view. It gets louder as we step into the candle lit interior, perfumed by incense, the echoes of sonorous Byzantine hymns bouncing off the frescoed walls. It’s a compact space with a dozen or so worshippers, men and women segregated to either side. The melodic chants, alternating between them, transport us half way across the world to the intriguing strains of another culture. I cannot imagine a better introduction to Romania than this mystical liturgy in one of few sacred places in Bucharest – the Stavropoleos Monastery – that survived the demolition spree of the 70s.

Byzantine music at the Stavropoleos Monastery, Bucharest
Stavropoleos Monastery, Bucharest

“Why Romania?” is a curious refrain throughout this trip. It is apparent independent Indian travellers (from India) aren’t as common a sight here as in more popular European destinations. I don’t really have a specific reason. It was more a case of playing tic-tac-toe over a list of less visited destinations that would let us in on our extended Schengen visas rather than a conscious choice. I had been issued a one year German visa when I was invited by GNTB last October and Italy generously matched its remaining validity when Ravi applied for his before our summer visit to Puglia.

We set about planning with meagre knowledge of the country beyond Transylvania and its vampire myths. Beyond those very popular myths, however, we uncovered a series of delightful surprises. And engaged with some of the loveliest people we have met anywhere, whose diversity (in ethnicity and religious orders) and the disillusionment with their politics we could so relate to.

The Palace Of Parliament
Palace of Parliament, Bucharest – The vainglorious project of a dictator who fancied himself king.

Considering their tumultuous history it isn’t surprising that all conversations culminate in discussions of politics. Romania, or more precisely each of its distinct regions, has changed hands more times than one can count and it’s borders altered as often. It’s been a long and traumatic journey since its consolidation into a nation state by the union of Transylvania and Moldavia along with parts of Banat, Crișana, and Maramureș with Wallachia, through the tyranny of the communist regime, it’s brutal end resulting in the execution of dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu and his wife Elena, to a modicum of economic stability and admission into the EU. You feel the hope and the angst. As well as the impatience. Much of its young population has migrated to the West, which explains the conspicuous absence of younger men in the rural areas we visited.

It is most likely because we have little expectation from Bucharest that we enjoy it as much. The monastery visit on this warm sunny morning sets the tone for the rest of our full day here. The historic centre seems the least frenzied of any we have visited of late and appears to have a more or less equal ratio of locals to tourists. One might argue that it is a shadow of its former self, thanks to the communist era destruction of scores of heritage buildings, but we both agree that it merits more time than its critics allow.

The Transfargassen Highway
Bridge Of Lies, Sibiu. The ‘eyes’ on the roofs are lidded attic windows.
Council Square, Brasov
Flock of white doves over the rooftops of Sighisoara.

Transylvania’s photogenic splendour lives up to the hype. Our drive north through the Transfargassen highway meandering wildly through the rugged Carpathian mountains, with a bear sighting thrown in for good measure, is incredibly scenic. As is our return to Transylvania (from Bucovina) through the Bicaz gorge, its steep slopes already burnished gold by late September.

Sibiu, with it’s signature houses-with-eyes and its beautiful squares and churches all prettied up during its role as European Culture Capital 2007, makes a great base for interesting day trips to castles, fortified Saxon churches and ancient archaeological sites. Brasov, nestled in a valley ringed by snow clad peaks that turn into ski slopes in winter oozes all the charm one would expect from an European old town. While the citadel of Sighisoara, birth place of  Vlad-the-Impaler aka Count Dracul, feels straight out of a fairy tale…Unesco certified and insanely popular for a reason.

There are churches every step of the way in Romania. Easily more, per capita, than there are pagodas in Myanmar! It takes effort to wrap our heads around the different Christian orders each belongs to. Not surprisingly, we are nearly churched-out by the time we reach Bucovina, but we still can’t get enough of the painted monasteries this region is renowned for, their colours almost as vivid as in their touched up photographs.

Moldovita Monastery, Suceava County
The scene of the ‘Last Judgment’, Voronet Monastery, Bucovina

It is Maramures, however, unspoilt and rooted in traditional practices, that is the highlight of our trip. We get an immersive introduction to this bastion of traditional farming from Teo, a Maramures resident. And choosing to stay with locals adds greatly to the experience.

Over two full days we get to admire its vernacular timber architecture: soaring wooden churches, shingle-roofed houses and ornate carved gates, we walk through sleepy villages and a quirky cemetery, interact with farmers and craftsmen, attend sunday service in an UNESCO church and a memorial service lunch in another. Rounded off by a sobering reminder of the human capacity for evil at the Memorial to The Victims of Communism in the town of Sighetu Marmației.

All Maramures elements in a single frame.
Awaiting lunch after a memorial service at Serb Susani wooden church, Maramures.
The Quirky cemetery in Sapanta, Maramures.
A cemetery called ‘Merry’ in Sapanta, Maramures
Memorial to The Victims of Communism in the town of Sighetu Marmației
Photographs of the ‘Victims of Communism’ line the walls of the memorial in Sighetu Marmației,
Classic Maramures landscape

We wind up with four full days in Budapest whose opulent good looks Romania’s prettiest cities would be hard pressed to match. But Romania scores, for us, in charm and authenticity. And the disarmingly self-deprecating nature of the people we came in contact with.

We are unable to fit in Prejmer on the way in from Bucovina so Cristian, whose transfer services I had hired, gets his cousin (in Brasov) to take us the next afternoon. Musec isn’t a guide and needs to take off earlier from work to accommodate the request. As he navigates his car through the traffic of downtown Brasov in a sudden downpour, he laughingly narrates his colleagues’ incredulous reaction to the fact that we had come all the way from India to see the little castle-church in their backyard that they take for granted.

“If they want to see it, it must be special.”

It is. So is the country

 

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Hi, I'm Madhu. Wanderer. Travel blogger. Story teller. Bitten late and hard by the travel bug, I am on a mission to make up for lost time.

60 thoughts on “Romania – Highlights Of An Unheralded Destination

  1. Oh Madhu it’s good to have you back! What a beautiful post, and your photos are gorgeous. Romania has been on my list for a long time and you have confirmed it for me. Despite its history I can feel the authenticity of the people and their way of life from your post.
    The churches reminded me of the hidden churches of Cyprus. They are like barns on the outside to keep them hidden, but stunning Byzantine paintings cover the interiors.
    I agree, the church at Premier is indeed special.
    Alison

    1. Thank you Alison. Feels great to be back and to catch up with you guys always. I think the nicest thing about Romania is that it is still not overrun by tourists. Don’t know how long that authenticity will survive. Cyprus has been on our radar for a while, the hidden churches you mention sound fascinating. Have you written about your visit?

  2. Happy to see your words and photos here again, Madhu! Romania is a place I am eager to see. My sister actually went there as part of a student exchange years ago (my guess would be late 70s/early 80s), and even in those much rougher times, it was a place she really enjoyed getting to know. Now it is creeping into the sights of more curious travelers, and I am definitely one of them! Your photos and descriptions of the people and places only cement those feelings.

    1. Thank you for your kind words dear Lex. I am not exaggerating about Romania’s charm. And the wealth of hiking trails should be right up your alley:)

  3. Never thought of visiting Romania before, but it looks incredible! Thank you very much for a great post and changing our mind about this underestimated country ❤

  4. Madhu, as others have said before me, it is so, so wonderful to hear from you and see you posting about your travels once more. Your enthusiasm for Romania really shines through – thank you for shining a light on a country most of us know very little about. Its beauty and charm is apparent from your words and photographs, and I’m glad to know that people there are good-natured, hospitable, and cheerful even after all the hardships they’ve been through in the 20th century alone. I would love to take off for two weeks and visit in your footsteps. Did you manage to drop by Timișoara while en route to Budapest? I’ve heard whispers of the gorgeous architecture there, but not much else.

    1. We didn’t unfortunately. It would have been ideal to spend a couple of days in Tsimisoara and cross over to Hungary. but including Maramures ate into our time so we opted to fly into Budapest. There is such an array of beautiful towns to choose from. We did stop briefly at Targu Mures and I discovered secessionist architecture for the first time! Every journey is a discovery 🙂

  5. Unheralded, perhaps, but with what you’ve written and photographed Madhu, it will not be long for Romania to become the next hot spot. Wonderful photographs, the last one “Maramures landscape” being the exclamation point for me. I was suppose to go to last week Salonta, Romania last week (along the Hungarian border) but had to cancel… however, I must go there for a visit 🙂 Cheers and great to hear from you.

    1. You live practically next door, so getting there should just be a matter of time Randall. As are Romania’s chances of getting to be a hotspot in our hunt for newer destinations to explore. Hope the rural areas, at least, are able to preserve their authenticity as long as they can.

      Thank you so much for reading and sharing your thoughts. Always a pleasure to see you here. Have a great day!

  6. Madhu, hello. First of all it’s lovely to see you and your website looks really good. How’ve you been?

    Romania has been on my radar for a while, but I can’t imagine how to get around, does anyone speak English? I’m always fascinated by religious buildings and could spend whole weeks just visiting them.

    I’d also like to go to Uzbekistan, could I persuade you to check it out and write a travelogue for me, so I can decide if it’s worth it? 🙂 Gxx

    1. Thank you for your kind words and so sorry to have missed this dear Gilly!
      Romania is possible to do via public transport, but will need some planning. We hired a car and driver for the transfers. Yes, most everyone speaks English. Uzbekistan and the Kazakhstan are high on my radar too. Hope I can get there soon enough 🙂 If you need help with Romania, feel free to drop me a line. Happy to help in any way.

    1. We loved their singing too 🙂 Thank you for reading and for the welcome back Ian. I have so many stories languishing in my drafts folder. Am approaching the new year with more enthusiasm towards blogging.

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