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Impressions Of Romania: From Transylvania To Bucharest

Parliament Building, Bucharest, Romania
When I crossed the border from Serbia, my initial plan was to spend about ten days in Romania before continuing on into Bulgaria, where I hoped to spend the final week or so of my Eurail Adventure. However, three weeks later, I still had yet to leave Romania. In fact, I even made the decision to skip Bulgaria altogether.

The natural conclusion from this decision would be that I found it extremely difficult to leave Romania, a conclusion that would be quite true, although, for reasons that you might not expect. Romania certainly appealed to me, but not in the way that most countries appeal to most travelers.

In reality, I’d have great trouble talking excitedly about the actual towns I visited, the sights I saw and the activities I participated in during my stay in this country. I could talk a little about the food and the interesting history as well, but again, that’s not really what stood out for me either during my time here.

When you look at my itinerary, which included visits to Timisoara, Bucharest, Brasov, Bran, Sighisoara, Sibiu and Targoviste, I spent time in a couple of popular travel destinations and a couple of less popular places. It goes without saying that I missed out on many places along the way, many amazing places I’m sure, but that’s just how things go. You can’t see everything and it is far more important to be happy about what you did see and experience than upset about what you didn’t.

So why did I find it so hard to leave Romania? Here’s my attempt to explain why by looking at a couple of the destinations I visited.

BUCHAREST

Before my arrival in Romania’s capital city, I generally had heard an endless stream of negative remarks about this place, from both locals and travelers alike. Most people told me that a couple of days would be more than sufficient and I would even hear things such as ‘we’re not so proud of Bucharest’ from Romanians themselves.

Bucharest, Romania 2

And so, I stayed just three quick days, spending my time walking around the small, but pleasant Old City, visiting the Parliament Building (which claims to be the second largest building in the world), eating in a handful of classic Romanian eateries, wandering down as many random streets and into as many random neighborhoods as possible, socializing in the evenings and even meeting a couple of wonderful readers of this blog.

However, I will admit that Bucharest didn’t stick out as my favorite city on the planet and I saw no real reason to stick around much longer than the three days. And so I boarded a train to Brasov, ready for a taste of Transylvania.

BRASOV, TRANSYLVANIA

Just as I was told ahead of time that Bucharest was not the best of destinations, I was also informed by the same people that the city of Brasov would be a highlight of my trip. And yes, I would say that proved to be somewhat true, but mostly due to the people I met once there. Of course, it was quite a unique experience to spend a few days roaming around the town itself, soaking up the atmosphere in the Piata Sfatului (central plaza) with it’s impressive Council Building and the nearby Gothic-style “Black Church”, exploring both the Romanian and Hungarian sections of town, hiking from the White Tower to the Ecaterina Gate and even up to the top of Tampa Mountain for the swell views of the city and surrounding countryside.

Brasov, Romania

Also, apart from the ‘nice’ town of Brasov itself, the owners of the guesthouse I stayed in also helped make this an interesting stop on my trip. The owners, an Estonian/Romanian couple who, interestingly enough, met each other while working on board cruise ships, had a refreshing way of making sure that their guests were well taken care of.

One night we were invited into the “Time Machine”, a room in the basement of their house where they insisted that we all get to know each other by talking whatever “bullsh*t” came to mind while sharing bottle after bottle of homemade palinka and wines. The very next night, we were invited to join the owners in the Finnish sauna they had in their backyard. At 9:00pm, as the temperature outside dipped below freezing, I wandered into the cold wearing only my swimsuit, and then spent the next two hours alternating between sessions inside the sauna, drinking beer outside in the cold and, on occasion, jumping into the swimming pool and its 7C (40F) water, which, surprisingly, felt quite wonderful.

Anyway, the point is, my time in Brasov was fun but simple. Some walking, some eating, some saunaing. Great place, but again, not enough to make me want to stay in Romania longer than planned.

BRAN CASTLE (Dracula’s Castle)

Bran Castle is often referred to as the home of Bram Stoker’s Dracula and it is located about an hour away from Brasov. The character of Dracula is actually believed to be based upon Vlad the Impaler, a Romanian Prince that ruled the region of Wallachia between 1456 and 1472 and who was well-known for his campaigns against the Ottoman Empire and naturally, for his cruelty in the form of impaling those he didn’t take too kindly to.

Bran Castle, Romania

However, despite the fact that Vlad the Impaler had only loose associations with Bran Castle, and never actually lived there, this castle was designated as Dracula’s Castle nonetheless, most likely to draw more visitors.

Well, it was a castle. A nice castle. A super-crowded castle, probably because I was there on a Saturday. In the end, given it’s close proximity to Brasov, it was well worth the day trip to Bran, but once again, this castle was in no way the reason I ended up finding it so hard to leave Romania.

And neither were my next two destinations, Sighisoara (the medieval town where I was almost eaten by dogs while in a cemetary on Halloween night) and Sibiu, the pleasant town where I took a break from being a traveler.

Those places were quite nice as well, but I’ve spent a great deal of time in ‘nice’ places over the past 12 years and so they didn’t really make such a powerful impression on me either.

But….

BUCHAREST, THE SECOND VISIT

After spending ten days overall in Transylvania, I suddenly made a decision that surprised even myself. Instead of continuing to head north to the town of Cluj, a town that was highly recommended by every traveler I know who has visited this country, I decided to just turn around and head straight back to Bucharest.

Bucharest, Romania

I knew it would be a gamble, to return to a city that initially failed to fully grab my attention, especially when there were so many other places in Romania that I could visit. But I’m a firm believer that we should always follow our heart, and my heart was telling me to get on a train and head back to Bucharest.

Well, thank you heart. Not only did I have the most memorable week of my European trip during this second stay in Bucharest, but I found myself to be the happiest I have been in quite a few months.

Immediately upon my arrival this second time around, the entire city seemed absolutely perfect. The Communist-era buildings, the dark streets, the construction sites, the decades-old tram cars, the waterless fountains, the florists on the sidewalks, the insanity of the taxi drivers, the simple bakeries and cafes, the statues of men on horses, the fresh juice stands in the parks, the crowded metro and even the fishermen on the Dambovita River….they all put a smile on my face like no other.

Fisherman, Bucharest, Romania

Is there an explanation for such an attraction to a city that seems to have such a negative reputation?

Of course there is, but I’m going to save the details for a future post. All I can say now is that my happiness had nothing to do with the random neighborhoods I walked around, the restaurants I ate in, the markets I visited or the museums I explored. It all had to do with something completely different, something that made my final week of this incredible Eurail Adventure, an adventure that has taken me across seven fascinating countries, the most memorable week of them all.

You never know how travel will work out in the end. You may travel across the globe to a destination you can’t wait to explore, only to discover that the connection you hoped for never happens. Or, as was the case for me in Romania, you may decide to stay in one country for much longer than you had ever imagined and for reasons that don’t always seem to make sense.

And the beautiful part is that everyone’s experiences are completely different and not everyone will like or dislike the same places. This is exactly why one person may have no desire to spend more than one day in Bucharest while not only can I see myself returning to this city very soon, but I can’t stop smiling when I think of the time I spent there.


Any experiences to share of a time you loved a random destination for your own personal reasons?

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55 Responses to Impressions Of Romania: From Transylvania To Bucharest

  1. Andrei says:

    Hi Earl,
    It was a pleasure to read your post as well as your inputs on TA :) seems like Romania really got to you . After i read that most of the tourists go to Brasov – Sibiu – Sighisoara i somehow feel bad for them :) because what really represents us in a good touristic way is the rural part, the homemade staff, the simple people that will hurt their hands in order to explain you something :) Not to say about the Danube Delta, when i got there this year i was speechless. I will follow your paths and if you ever come to Romania i will take you on a beer and show you more :) I am as passionate as you are about travel and i recently decided to contribute to the image of the country by involving in this “business” .

  2. Ricardo and Jesse says:

    We are attempting to get to Bucharest in October or November 2014 but we cannot find a inexpensive flight, any suggestions?

    • Wandering Earl says:

      Hey Ricardo and Jesse – You just have to be flexible with your dates and look at all normal and budget airlines…also depends on where you’re coming from!

  3. Andy says:

    This post really helped me – thanks!

    I was hoping to see Brasov, Cluj and some other places in Romania next month. The reports I’d heard of Bucharest made me look at maps, and seriously consider flying into Budapest or Belgrade, to catch a train to northern Romania, instead! I’ll definitely give Bucharest a try (perhaps it will also be a favorite part of my trip)

    Do you have any recommendations for nice areas (or even hostels) for a new arrival to stay in, to enjoy their time there? My main criteria is feeling safe, and being fairly easy to get to and from at different times of the day or night?

    • Wandering Earl says:

      Hey Andy – You really can’t go wrong in Bucharest…there are many hostels right near the Old Town, such as the X Hostel that are great places to stay. As for feeling safe, anywhere in the city center is extremely safe and it’s not something you have to worry about at all. Unless you wander way out of the city to some of the sketchier neighborhoods, you’ll be perfectly fine…I’ve never felt unsafe at any time of day or night (including the middle of the night) anywhere I’ve been in this city over the past 2.5 years.

  4. Piso Mojado says:

    Dude, you fell in love in Bucharest. Not with Bucharest, but with a human being. Admit it! That’s why you returned to Bucharest instead of going to Cluj and that’s why everything in Bucharest seemed so “absolutely perfect”. You could have been in Kabul and felt the same way. Not that is anything wrong with that.
    You’re going to admit it in a future post, right?

  5. madison says:

    Just came across your post! Unfortunately I have not been all around Romania as I would prefer. However, after traveling between Galati, Bucharest and Constanta, and even to Chisinau, Moldova, I must say that Bucharest is absolutely one of my favorite cities in the world. I’ve showed people pictures and I’ve attempted to explain what it was about the city, but no one sees what I’m talking about. And yet, despite the bland or old or simple aspects of the city, there is absolutely something special about it. Happy for you that you went back a second time :)

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  8. Andrew says:

    Hey Earl,

    Just going through all of your Romania blog posts now. You ever make it to Cluj in the end? Having spent a bit of time there (Rom) now, would you settle in Bucharest again or somewhere else in the country? (I’m thinking Sibiu maybe)

    How have you found Bucharest for use as a ‘hub-travel’ spot?

    Cheers,

    Andy

    • Earl says:

      Hey Andrew – I have not been to Cluj (Colin is there of course) but I have been to Sibiu. Sibiu was nice, maybe a bit small for me to spend a long period of time in. I think because I was looking for an actual long-term base, Bucharest worked best as there is just more to do here than in the other destinations and it is much easier to reach other parts of Eastern Europe from here as well. Bucharest isn’t for everyone but it certainly matched what I was looking for.

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  10. Tara says:

    I read this book The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova while I was on my Eurail trip in western Europe three years ago. Perfect novel to travel with, mixing the joys of traveling in Europe, meeting locals, and the legends and history of Vlad the Impaler. The book travels through France, England, Spain, Turkey, Romania. My younger brother just left in January for 4 months in Italy and I gave him this book to travel with. I picked it up at the airport in Dublin and I’m glad I did!

    • Earl says:

      Hey Tara – I shall add that book to my list as well. It’s great that you traveled and that your brother is following in your footsteps!

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  12. Ezra says:

    Oh and I’m planning to go there early of April

  13. Ezra says:

    I love every bits of this article, and also your whole blog! I’m flying to Budapest from London, then take a train to Sighisoara. I could go to Sibiu for a day trip. Then a few days in Brasov, and to Bucharest after, then back home to London. Would it be easy to find a cheap place to stay wthout making any reservations? oh and i’m travelling solo too :)

    • Earl says:

      Hey Ezra – You’ll definitely have no problems finding cheap places to stay without reservations here in Romania. Just use a website such as HostelBookers.com and you’ll be able to read about your accommodation options in every town, what their rating is, the price and if they have space available for the dates you need. And that’s all there is to it! Congratulations on traveling solo…you won’t regret it!

  14. Travis says:

    I had a similar experience in Gibraltar (South of Spain). It was the last place I expected to have any fun, in fact I was going to do homework while I was there. The only reason I visited was because I was about to go over my 90 day visa in the Schengen area and become an illegal alien. I remember when I crossed the border into Gibraltar from La Linea in the middle of the night and saw the Rock towering over the whole place. It was the strangest feeling, very sublime. After I dropped off my stuff at the hostel I went exploring and ended up meeting all kinds of friendly locals throughout the night. The next day one of them gave me a tour on his moped and brought me up to the top see the monkeys. Everything in Gibraltar just exuded unique intrigue and I still can’t seem to figure out why, it was such a snow globe of a place. Maybe it was the fact that I wasn’t expecting anything, but Gibraltar was definitely one of my favorite experiences while traveling and it left me wanting more.

    • Earl says:

      Hey Travis – Sometimes that’s just what happens. We have an idea that we’re going to one place for a specific reason (in your case, to get out of the Schengen area) and we get so caught up in that reason that we forget there is an actual travel experience to be had. And once it does begin, we are surprised when things turn out so well and we have a completely different, and incredibly positive, experience. Glad you enjoyed Gibraltar…it was one of my favorite stops when I used to work on board cruise ships…

  15. Octavia says:

    I do believe that there’s more to traveling than just the shiny buildings or plazas. Each of us connects to the place they visit in different ways. I’m glad that you enjoyed Romania. Still, all the great stuff here is hidden. Most of the attractions which appear on travel guides, which are somewhat famous, are not always what you would expect. Go behind the streets and walls and then you will be surprised.

    • Earl says:

      Hey Octavia – You are of course correct and that’s the case with many destinations. The truly unique and rewarding stuff must be uncovered by exploring beyond the main sites!

  16. Kelsey says:

    I too have heard bad things about Romania, but it still really sounds like somewhere I’d like to visit! Then again, I tend to enjoy countries that others find dreary or depressing, so there’s that…

    • Earl says:

      Hey Kelsey – Either way, Romania is worth a visit. Like I mentioned, everyone has different experiences and what is not an enjoyable destination to one person just may be a fantastic destination to another!

  17. Interesting run down! I was planning to visit Romania this summer but ran out of time. Glad to hear some positive notes about Bucharest.

  18. Mark Wiens says:

    Awesome post Earl. I get this feeling in many places that I travel. We always hear the comments like “don’t spend much time in that city – there’s NOTHING to do,” or “you’ll really enjoy this place,” and I tend to remember those comments, but keep them at the back of my head. We all enjoy different things, have varying levels of tolerance, different attitudes, and we are all excited by unique things. I’ve found that it’s sometimes places that don’t get a really positive reputation that I really enjoy and want to further explore.

    • Earl says:

      Hey Mark – It’s funny, I’m sitting here in Istanbul right now and just this morning I was talking about you with Jodi (legalnomads). I was saying how I wish I had a chance to finally meet up with you in person!

      And what you said above is exactly what I believe as well. Sure, it’s a good thing to listen to other people’s opinions about certain places but it is far more important to experience a place for ourselves as we never know where or who or what we might connect to. I’m the same way as you…some of my absolute favorite destinations from over the years are places that others generally don’t enjoy at all. Maybe that’s the appeal right there!

  19. I was in Romania in 2008 and I also really enjoyed Bucharest, but my favourite times were spent in Brasov! I loved your last few paragraphs and I really identified with them; I’ve been on the road for six years and I’ve had so many of those unexpected moments, the moments of total contentment or total letdown.

    Most recently I can think of a few random places in SE Asia that I fell in love with and ended up staying much longer than expected – Kampot, Cambodia immediately comes to mind. A few people had told me they found it to be boring or even hated it, but, for reasons I won’t go into here, I absolutely loved it. It’s that “beautiful part” of travelling at its best. Part of the reason I loved it so much was that I wasn’t expecting anything from it at all, which is why I try to always travel with an open heart and an open mind. You never know what’s around the corner!

    • Earl says:

      @This Battered Suitcase: I had a huge smile on my face when you mentioned Kampot as I had such a wonderful connection to that town as well when I visit about 10 years ago and back then, there was nothing there at all. But I’m glad you know what I’m talking about when it comes to finding those special places that may be special only to one person for their own unique reasons!

  20. Lotte Sorensen says:

    I also loved Bucharest. It’s such a weird combo of decadence and decay. I couldn’t stop staring at the huge bundles of power lines in the electric poles. I also got quite mesmerized by a an old, once beautiful building with broken windows, plants growing all over it – right next to the parliament building.
    I also find the people there super friendly and helpful, if you need directions. I’d love to go back.

  21. Doro says:

    I’m so glad that you enjoyed your stay in Romania! If you ever plan to do a second tour, let me know. I’d be happy to join you and show you some places. There is so much you haven’t seen yet!

    • Earl says:

      Hey Doro – Thanks for the offer and I certainly do plan to do a second trip to Romania, so I shall be in touch when I get there again!

  22. Lori says:

    I am so sorry, Earl, that I had no idea you were visiting Bucharest, for i would have loved to give you some tips and maybe even enjoy a coffee together – also with Andrei. We are from Bucharest and yes, there are many nice places to visit – I’m actually looking forward for your next post to see what you liked :)

    Romania has also many-many lovely cities – I’m glad you liked Brasov, maybe in future trips you’ll be able to visit others too.

    • Earl says:

      Hey Lori – That’s a shame that we didn’t connect but perhaps I’ll be there again soon and we’ll have another chance! And of course, there are plenty of other places that I definitely want to visit in Romania as well. I’ll get there eventually!

  23. Mina Sameh says:

    I totally understand this post!! and I know how this feels when you suddenly feel a weird connection between you and a city that is not usually on the top of the list of other people and for reasons that are not totally understoof even by yourself :)

    For me that connection happened to a tiny town (and I mean tiny) called Hontanas in spain while I was walking el Camino de Santiago. Unfortunately I didn’t have time to stay there for a couple of more days, but again listening to my heart I know I’ll be back there someday :)

    • Earl says:

      Hey Mina – Thanks for sharing and I hope you do make it back to Hontanas at some point! When we feel that connection, there’s no point in ignoring it!

  24. Shane says:

    I rather liked Bucharest. Despite never having been near the place every Bulgarian who heard we were going there suggested the city was a squalid hole full of thieves. Instead we found an attractive city with friendly people.

    I think our highlight was wandering through the middle of a motorcade of Chinese dignitaries just as it was coming to a halt. I can still see the emploring eyes of the police officer in charge as he wished us away before anyone important spotted what we had done to his security arrangements.

    • Earl says:

      Hey Shane – That would have been amusing to see. Travelers tend to find ways to get around anything, including heavy security it seems. And I’m glad to hear from someone else who had a good time in Bucharest. I was shocked at the difference between what I experienced and what everyone had warned me about.

  25. Phenomenal testimonial. I am dying to go but not a solo traveler in new places usually. Now I am more excited about going for it!

  26. Scott says:

    Hmm, random places. Graz, Austria. We only went there as an intermediate stop between Florence and Krakow, but it turned out to be the most amazing place. Maybe it was the clock tower on the hill, oct maybe the ultra modern art museum, our maybe the most amazing map store I have ever been in….but most definitely the people.

    • Earl says:

      Hey Scott – That’s what tends to happen and there doesn’t have to be one specific reason for why we love a particular place. Little things make a huge difference and can turn an ordinary stop into the most memorable travel experience!

  27. Erik Smith says:

    Bucharest looks so… Stalinesqe…

    Great review.

  28. Geoff says:

    Sounds like you met a nice lady………

  29. Cam says:

    Glad you enjoyed Romania! We visited in Novemeber a couple years ago and found it to be the perfect time of year to visit.
    Great photo capture of the massive palace

  30. Cat says:

    I was also surprised by how much I liked Romania. Hope you made it up to Maramures!

    • Earl says:

      Hey Cat – I did not make it up to Maramures as I was told that at this time of year, given the extreme cold, it was not worth the visit. Also, I didn’t have much time in the end and wanted to get back to Bucharest of course!

  31. Sebastian says:

    Interesting post!

    I hated Bucharest, the dark streets, the walls full of graffiti and the unfriendly people totally shocked me and after 13 hours I had enough and left.

    Have you visited Peles Castle in Sinaia? It’s 35 km away from Bran and the castle is absolutely beautiful!

    • Earl says:

      Hey Sebastian – That’s a perfect example of how we all have different experiences as I found the people in Bucharest to be very warm and kind and never really encountered any unfriendly people at all. I did not visit Peles Castle in the end. I think I was just a bit castled-out by the end :)

      • Antoaneta says:

        Thank you once again for taking the time to get to know my city and see things differently. I don’t live there anymore, I left in 2001 and travelled and lived abroad since then (cruiseships – CCL, Montreal, Barcelona, Lisbon as I write). But I do enjoy spending time there, going to the Opera, theaters and exhibitions, enjoying the parks and strolling in the pretty neighbourhoods.

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