Off the Beaten Path in Romania

I know I just referred to Budapest as a more off-the-beaten-path destination, but Romania definitely wins the contest of off-the-beaten-pathness. If it were on a path, Brașov, Romania, would be on a grassy, overgrown trail through the woods, and Bucharest would be across an abandoned lot, through a hole in a chainlink fence. And that lot would be full of stray dogs.

We ended up in Romania in large part because of the limitations of the Schengen Area visa. The average American tourist is likely not very familiar with this limitation because how often do they stay for more than 2 weeks, let alone 3 months. But here's the deal - for all the countries of Europe that share open borders, Americans can stay for 90 out of every 180 days. This includes basically every country you might think of visiting with the exceptions of the UK, Ireland, and Croatia. But it also makes available the rest of the Balkan countries (Serbia, Bosnia, Albania, etc.), plus Romania and Bulgaria. So, looking for places to duck out of the Schengen Area for a couple months, we cobbled together a plan to combine 2 weeks in Romania, 5 weeks in Croatia, and 1-2 weeks in Morocco.

Within Eastern Europe, and even drawing in people from Austria, Brașov (pronounced "Bra-shuv") is actually quite a tourist destination. Nestled in the Carpathian Mountains, it is gifted with gorgeous hiking opportunities in the summer and a pretty great ski resort for winter. The town/city itself is its own draw, with a Medieval old town with historical ties to Austria and Hungary.

Brasov panorama

We were there in mid-January, and the city was still all lit up for Christmas since the Orthodox holiday celebration falls in January.

Brasov Christmas lights Brasov Christmas lights

It took us a couple days to really feel comfortable here for a few reasons. One, it was really hard for us to get cash and we felt anxious about using our credit card. All this is because Romania has a serious reputation for identity theft and fraud. We read that in some restaurants, waiters had been known to steal your credit card info. Perhaps because of this, there is heightened security on all the non-sketchy ATMs so that they won't accept cards without chips. Our credit card has a chip, but our bank doesn't offer debit cards with chips. If we had known this, we could have taken out Euros in Austria, or Forint in Hungary, and exchanged them on arrival, but as it was we had to opt for a cash advance on our credit card and swallow the fees.

Two, there is a certain level of shabbiness and disrepair that you have to get used to there. The old town is full of cool old buildings, but the majority of them are in need of repair, and some look beyond repair. Things are not all polished. I remember the first time we walked out into a bit of a plaza next to the big, central church in the old town, Brendan said something like, "Whoa, it's so desolate."

And three, everyone smokes, and smoking is allowed inside most restaurants. Even some restaurants that have non-smoking sections do very little to separate the sections, so it still smells like smoke.

Once we had become accustomed to these things, gotten some cash out, and identified some restaurants with no-smoking policies, we got to like the town quite a bit. We found some restaurant gems, like a place we habitually called "the vegan place" because they offered one or two vegan options on their menu; and a great Italian restaurant where the head chef, who I would guess was also the owner, stood by his brick pizza oven by the front door, chatting with the staff in Italian. Our favorite place for authentic Romanian food, though, was called La Ceaun, which means "the cauldron." Much of what they offered was cooked in cauldrons, like slow-cooked pork and polenta, or in cast iron pans in the oven, like the cabbage pie I had. Hearty and delicious. They also had really good pickled green tomatoes that I will have to try to replicate someday.

La Ceaun Photo credit: http://platferma.ro/

We also fell in love with a doughnut place called Glaze Haze. These were not your average doughnuts - they were layered like pastry, and though they were classic doughnut shape (with the hole in the middle), most of them had filling inside. Ultimately I believe we settled on the chocolate frosting/vanilla custard filling and the chocolate frosting with peanuts and no filling as our favorites. Naturally, this research required multiple tastings.

Eating out in Romania is fabulously cheap - but sadly this is in part because they pay waitstaff very poorly. Romania is the only European country we've been to where tipping is actually expected, not just a nice thing to do, because - like in the US - the waiters depend on it.

Many of the historical buildings in Brașov were closed for the winter, so we only got to see the outside of all the Medieval fortifications:

But we did rent a car and take a trip to see Bran Castle - aka Dracula's Castle. Never mind that there is very little tying Vlad the Impaler, the apparent inspiration for Dracula, to this castle -- it's still a pretty cool castle. It was used as a home and retreat for the Romanian royal family up till the end of World War II, and is decorated and furnished largely with items collected by Queen Marie, who was on the throne in the 1920s.

Bran Castle Photo courtesy of the official Bran Castle website, as I failed to get a good shot from a distance.

Bran Castle The man himself

They had some beautiful woodwork, including these doors:

One of our favorite parts of our trip to Brașov was the outdoor time we got. Early on, before it snowed and turned cold, we took a great hike up Mount Tâmpa, a steep-sided mountain that marks the southern side of the old town and is home to Brașov's very own Hollywood-style sign. In warmer weather, there is even a cable car that runs up to the top. We had hoped to find the cable car running in order to ride it back down, but we did at least find that the cafe at the top was open. We grabbed a coffee and played with their enormous dog before hiking back down.

Hike pano

We also went ice skating at Brașov's outdoor rink, located right at the bottom of Mount Tâmpa. It was a nice big rink, if a bit sketchy with some uneven ice and questionable railings, and wasn't crowded.

And best of all our outdoor experiences was the skiing. We went twice in our two weeks there, once each week, and we had a great time. The first time, it was hovering right around freezing, and there hadn't been any snow in weeks, so it was all manmade, but we were impressed by the quality and coverage of the manmade snow. The second time, it had snowed a couple feet and the whole place was a winter wonderland.

There is a convenient bus from town (that amazingly advertises free wifi, despite being held together with duct tape in some areas), and the ski resort itself was great. There are plenty of shops offering ski rentals, and we found that you could even rent ski goggles. There were restaurants both at the bottom and halfway down the mountain serving tasty food, beer, mulled wine (vin fiert in Romanian), and coffee. There was even a hut at the top of the main gondola serving mulled wine. Some non-skiing vacationers would take the gondola up, have a drink, take some photos, and ride back down. All in all, two very satisfying days of skiing.

I should also mention that the Carpathians are some for-reals mountains. They are craggy, snow-capped, and majestic. We would love to come back to hike them in the summer. At the end of our two weeks in Brașov, we hopped a train to Bucharest, from which we got more great views of the mountains. In fact, we got a great view of Romania's sparsely populated, largely agricultural landscape in general from the train to Bucharest.

Carpathians Farm land

On pulling into Bucharest, though, the pleasant view disappeared, replaced by crumbling, Soviet-era buildings, empty lots, and packs of stray dogs. I wasn't kidding about the stray dogs.

Bucharest train yard

We thought this might be just the case around the train station, being a bit outside the city center, but when we ventured to the center the next morning, we found Bucharest to be a rather sad place.

From the sidewalks still coated in snow and ice days after a storm, to the bombed-out buildings audaciously displayed throughout the city, Bucharest seems void of any pretensions or self-consciousness of its current plight. It was mildly awkward when, during one of our walks around town, we stumbled onto a local news team who asked our thoughts on the city. We both just looked at each other for a couple seconds, wordlessly debating how honest we should be in our assessment. In the end, after a few circuitous phrases, we went with the truth: Bucharest has a long way to go in recovering from 20th century war and its Soviet past.

Once you get down to the city center, there are actually some lovely parks, and there is a section of older buildings and pedestrian-only streets that give a hint of Bucharest's glory days in the 1930s, when it was known as the Paris of the East. We were surprised to find that broad streets we assumed were going to feel very Soviet actually felt rather Parisian.

However, even in the center of the city, very little was open, and almost no one was out on the streets. Granted it was a Sunday morning, and very cold, so perhaps it is a very different scene on a warm Saturday afternoon or Friday night. I had read that the center of Bucharest had quite a bar/club scene. We did find a nice cafe in an old building that had a dedicated non-smoking floor, so we paused there for a mimosa and cup of coffee.

One of the great destructive forces in Bucharest's history was the Romanian President of 1974-1989, Nicolae Ceaușescu. His gargantuan Palace of the Parliament, the second largest administrative building in the world behind the Pentagon (and apparently the heaviest building in the world), required the destruction of 7 square kilometers of the old city and the displacement of 40,000 people. It cost billions of dollars to build, requires millions of dollars each year to keep it running, and was built at a time when Romania was struggling with poverty and hunger. But Ceaușescu saw it as a symbol of the power of the Communist party and his own legacy, and some Romanians are quite proud of the building.

With our last half hour in Bucharest's center, we walked by this monstrous building and snapped a few photos.

Palace of the Parliament

Our last experience in Bucharest - a taxi ride to the airport - was another of those funny glimpses of modernization that remind you that Romania is actually on the rise. Our hotel concierge summoned a taxi for us by simply punching the request into a computer, and then handed us a slip of paper with the arrival time of our taxi. When it arrived, we found that the driver had a Samsung tablet mounted on his dashboard running an app that showed incoming requests and allowed him to respond with an ETA by tapping a button. Awesome!

The Bucharest airport was also quite modern and comfortable, and we enjoyed lounging with a drink or two while waiting for our flight - a little prop plane that would take us to Belgrade, Serbia (a rather weird airport where each gate had its own security check). From there, another prop plane would take us on to Zagreb, and thus began our Croatian adventure!