Salut Romania – Hello Romania
I drove about 1.000km through Romania. From the border through Wallachia to Bucharest. Then further into the Carpathian Mountains to Bran Castle in Transylvania. Then north-east into the mountains to Lacul Rosu (Red Lake) and the Bicaz Gorge. From there finally north-west to the highlands of Transylvania (or in German Siebenbürgen, Seven Castles) to the Hungarian border.
Sometimes I had the feeling that the Romanian language is something in between French and Italian. At least when reading it. A few examples? Bye – Ciao. Goodbye – La revedere. Thank you – Mersi. Street – Strada. And of course Hello – Salut.
To the capital of Romania
Bucharest is located in the south of the country, only 70km from the border with Bulgaria. Nevertheless, it took me some time to arrive in the capital of Romania. Because like already at the border it was quite crowded on the way. And I had already lost a lot of time at the border. So I didn’t reach Bucharest until evening.
Until I finally found the hotel in the city center with its confusing one-way streets it was already 9 pm. Because this time I had taken an accommodation near the center. So that I wouldn’t need public transport to explore the city later.
Of course, the few available hotel parking spaces were occupied. But the concierge recommended me to park in the no-parking area near the neighboring theater. And he also promised me to take care of the Landcruiser in case of a ticket.
Money, SIM card and road toll
The next morning, I first took care of cash. I now exchanged my Bulgarian leva and stotinki for lei and bani. By the way, lev in Bulgaria and leu in Romania mean the same word: “lion”. In Bulgaria derived from the country’s coat of arms and in Romania derived from the old means of payment “lion thaler”. For one US dollar I got about 4 lei. Also the purchase and activation of a Romanian SIM card was no problem at all.
The road toll for Romania, on the other hand, I had already paid at the border. Car license plate number and the paid amount were recorded in a database. But you don’t get a vignette for the windshield. On the roads, cameras scan the license plates and then compare them with the database.
However, there was one problem when buying the vignette. Australia was not part of the system as the country where the car was registered. The seller therefore suggested that I simply enter the USA. That’s how we did it and I was never asked about it. Not even at the border when leaving the country 😉
A tour through the old town
The next morning I went to the fountain on Unification Square on the edge of downtown. Here was the meeting point for a “Free Walking Tour” through the old town. The concierge had given me the tip, because I hadn’t even known tours like this before.
Bucharest has many fountains, as I saw when I arrived on the drive through the city. But the largest is on the Unification Square, surrounded by wide traffic roads. It was renovated in mid 2018 and on weekends there are also laser shows here in the evenings.
Approx. 20 mostly young people from all over Europe had already gathered for the guided tour through the city center. And our guide was a personable young man, maybe a student.
The Stavropoleos Monastery
First we went to the Stavropoleos Monastery in the old town. It was founded in 1724 by a Greek monk. And at that time it was financed from the income of an affiliated hostel for travelers and traders. Today, however, only the church remains of the monastery.
This part of the old town is a pedestrian zone. There are many restaurants and cafes here, where you can sit outside in good weather. This is very pleasant. Because in other parts of the city, wide streets are less inviting to linger. A holdover from the communism era.
Paris of the East
In this area there are also beautiful houses from the end of the 19th century. For this reason, Bucharest is sometimes called the “Paris of the East.” Some houses have already been renovated and others are in the process of being restored.
Of course, there are still a few dilapidated buildings. In between there are prefabricated buildings from the Soviet era and new high-rise buildings. A colorful mix in the lively center of the capital of Romania.
The Revolution Square and the Memorial of Rebirth
This square was at the center of the uprising against communist rule in Romania 1989. President Ceausescu gave his last speech here. There were demonstrations with 500 dead and many injured. Since then, it has been called “Revolution Square.”
In 2005, the “Memorial of Rebirth” errichtet. was erected here. It is intended to remember the victims and the rebirth of a free Romania after the end of communist rule.
The residents of Bucharest cannot really identify with the monument. The representation of a ray of light passing through the darkness does not please them. And above all, it was too expensive. So the monument is repeatedly the target of graffiti and color attacks. And the population calls it “potato on a spit.”
The University Library from 1895 is nearby. 500,000 books were burned here when it was set on fire during the 1989 revolution. But I think the result of the reconstruction is impressive. By the way, the big clock above the entrance is a gift from the Romanian King Carol I. He was a German from the Hohenzollern family and wanted his subjects to be more punctual.
An equestrian statue of the king stands in front of the building. However, it is only a replica. Because the original statue was destroyed during the communist period.
The Athenaeum is one of the most popular buildings in Bucharest. And locals as well as visitors consider it the most beautiful one. The porch is reminiscent of a Greek temple and the name of Pallas Athene, the Greek goddess of wisdom. It is a concert hall and its round shape probably has excellent acoustics.
It was built back in 1888, largely through donations. And the round mosaics above the entrance depict Romanian princes.
Pretty passages and an ugly palace
Our city guide had recommended that we still visit the Palace of the Parliament and the residence of the Ceausescu family. But I had to split that over two days. Because the visiting times and guided tours overlapped. Unfortunately, you are not allowed to enter both buildings on your own. So the next day I went to the palace first.
On my way I passed some really great covered passages with shops, restaurants and cafes. The Pasajul Macca-Vilacrosse is definitely an eye-catcher with its yellow glass roof. And you can also eat very well there. Do you fancy an Egyptian or Chinese dinner?
Another passage is the Pasajul Victoria. Here colorful umbrellas form the roof. They already looked a bit worn out. But maybe they’ll be renewed every now and then.
Finally, there is the Pasajul Englez nearby.
But people still live in modest circumstances in the English Passage.
Partly without their own kitchen and toilet. Therefore, you should be a little cautious here. Because noisy tourists taking photos get sometimes a bucket of hot water on their heads. But the passages in Bucharest are something special.
The Parliament Palace
Besides Dracula, it is probably the most famous landmark of Romania. A huge building with more than 1,000 rooms and over 30 halls. The largest of these is 2,200m². In addition, there are also wide hallways, staircases and corridors.
Above ground the building is 86m high and another 92m deep below the ground. It is the second largest administration building in the world after the Pentagon. Wide streets around it were built for marches and military parades.
Dictator Ceausescu had parts of the old town demolished for the construction and the people forcibly relocated.
He called the palace the House of the People. Since 1989 it has been called the Palace of Parliament. The parliament meets here and individual rooms are also rented out for events.
During the guided tour, of course, you only see a very small part of it. But even that gives a good impression of the megalomania of the former rulers.
However, it is difficult to say how long the palace will remain standing.
On the one hand, it sinks 4cm deeper into the ground every year. And on the other hand, its outer facade is beginning to crumble.
However, there is no money for renovation. Moreover, Bucharest is located in in an earthquake zone.
A spledid villa in the green
The following day I walked to the house of the Ceausescu family.
This is in the north on the outskirts of the city center, in a quiet suburb near a park. In the past, this neighborhood was probably off-limits because many politicians lived here.
On the way there, I spotted this large graffiti in a side street.
I also looked around a little bit in the surrounding streets. Everywhere there were magnificent houses with large gardens. Because until a place in a tour was available I had to wait around 2 hours.You can probably book a certain tour on a certain date and time online in advance. However, I did not know that.
By the way, there are two different tickets for the visit.
One for the normal tour in a group of 10 – 15 people for about 25 US dollars. And one for a “private tour”. This costs about 75 US dollars. But for that you are allowed also to visit the private bunker of Ceausescu under the house. However, I decided on the standard ticket.
Four rooms, kitchen, bathroom?
No, it has to be a little more than that.
80 rooms with a floor area of 2,000 square meters. These also include a dedicated cinema room, a winter garden, an indoor swimming pool plus sauna and jacuzzi, and a wine cellar.
There are fountains in the corridors and halls. The whole property is finally surrounded by a garden with more than 5,000 square meters.
That is quite a lot for two adults and three children. But some are just a bit more equal than others – especially politicians.
And then there’s the furnishings. Gilded seating sets stand in front of silk wallpaper.
In other rooms there is dark furniture in front of wood paneling on large carpets.
Many floors are also made of marble. Lamps made of crystal illuminate the rooms and the light is reflected by mirrors.
I wondered who was cleaning this all. But maybe it hardly ever got dirty here.
Because Ceausescu only invited someone once. The American president Richard Nixon. And only briefly for a cup of tea in the lobby.
I would not want to live here. Because I didn’t like it all.
A triumphal arch and a wonderland of books
On the way back to the hotel I passed the Bucharest Triumphal Arch. It was erected in honor of the fallen soldiers in the First World War. First it was made of wood, then in 1936 it was made of stone. The similarity to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris is probably intentional. But it stands a bit lost on a huge square with quite a lot of traffic around it.
Unfortunately, I could not go up there. Because the stairs to the roof of the monument are only open on two public holidays a year.
In the city center, however, I went to the most beautiful bookstore in Romania. In the Carturesti Carusel, tall elegant columns support the gallery. An impressive staircase and small spiral staircases in the corners lead to the upper floors.
I couldn’t read anything here – but right upstairs there’s a fancy bistro offering tea, coffee, cakes and snacks.
In the Carpathian Mountains to Transylvania
That sounds pretty eerie. Like in the novel about the vampire Dracula. But I could also express the headline differently: Two castles in Transylvania. That sounds a lot more relaxed.
Transylvania and Siebenbürgen (in German, see above) refer to almost the same landscape in the center of Romania. Until 1918, it was ruled by the Habsburgs from Vienna.
Because I wanted to visit two castles on the same day, I started quite early in Bucharest.
A fairytale castle
First I went to Peles Castle, near the small town of Sinaia. And this is really a fairytale castle. It was built in 1883 for King Carol I as his summer residence.
And it has also been the setting for movies too. in 2011 for the movie “A Princess for Christmas” with Roger Moore and in 2017 for the Netflix production “A Christmas Prince.”
But because I wanted to go further, though, I did not go on a tour inside the castle.
And a creepy castle
Bran Castle is only 50km away on a mountain pass road. And that is marketed by the tourism industry as the true Dracula’s Castle.
The character Dracula is based on a Romanian ruler, Vlad III. Draculea. Whereby Draculea means nothing else than “son of the dragon.” Because his father was once a member of the Emperor’s Dragon Order.
But Vlad III. has another nickname, “Tepes” the impaler. Because he is said to have impaled 80,000 enemies in his wars. And he does look – well, a little cruel – indeed. There’s a picture of this in the video below.
The castle also lacks the beauty of Peles Castle and so everything fits together. Except that Vlad III. probably never lived there.
Nevertheless, there were tourists from all over the world that day.
But maybe also because it was Halloween. And the rooms were decorated accordingly.
However, a really spooky atmosphere did not arise. In beautiful sunshine and at 25 degrees celsius this was also a bit difficult.
Supposedly, you can also spend the night in the castle in a tower room.
But then I preferred to stay in a guesthouse in the city of Brasov, 30 km away. By the way: Brasov was formerly called Kronstadt in German. And was founded in the 13th century under the name Corona(!).
In Brasov I had difficulties finding the guesthouse. But the nice owner then came with his car and picked me up from the main road.
On through Romania to Sighisoara
The small town of Sighisoara is only 120km further north of Brasov. Nicely surrounded by low mountain ranges.
It was founded by the Transylvanian Saxons at the end of the 12th century. At that time it was called Schaessburg in German. You can still see many German inscriptions in the city. Its center has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1999.
The most famous resident of the city was the rocket pioneer Hermann Oberth, who grew up here.
Oh yes, and Vlad III. Tepes is said to have been born here too. And lived here for five years. But that is not known for sur.
Romanians are of course in the majority of the population today.
But in the context of European integration, the city is trilingual again.
The place-name signs and tourist information are also labeled in Romanian, German and Hungarian.
Lacul Rosu (Red Lake) and Bicaz Gorge
It was only about 150km from Sighisoara to these two scenic highlights. But I hadn’t found a suitable accommodation there. So I stayed overnight in a guesthouse about 50 kilometers away..
A last time offroad
However, I had not considered that I was still in the Carpathian Mountains. That means, my guesthouse was in a valley next to my destination.
So the next day I either had to drive 100km on roads to get there. Or 50km off-road over unpaved forest paths and a across mountain.
I then decided to do the latter. I came through very small Romanian villages, in which the residents mainly live from agriculture and timber industry.
The concierge at the hotel in Bucharest had already told me about this.
You can buy everything in Romania. But most people cannot afford it. The difference between rich and poor is big – and especially in the countryside. The people here are really poor.
Gorge and lake are close together
First I passed through the Bicaz Gorge. It is really impressive when you drive along there. Steep rock faces rise 300 meters straight up directly on the road.
And because I was there so early, I had the road almost all to myself. Even the souvenir stands on the right and left were not yet open either.
The lake is also quite fancy. But it wasn’t red that day. More like green or blue. The reddish color is supposed to be caused by iron oxide, but maybe this only exists under certain weather conditions.
The lake was created by a landslide more than 180 years ago. It tore a whole forest with it. And in some places you can still see tree stumps sticking out of the water.
To the north-west of Romania
After two nights in the seclusion of the Carpathian Mountains, I left for my last destination in Romania. This was once again a somewhat longer route, 290km from Lunca de Jos to Cluj-Napoca.
I wouldn’t have thought of stopping here myself. But four months earlier I had met the director of the botanical garden of Cluj-Napoca. Back then in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan. He had invited me to stop by when I’m crossing Romania on my road trip on the way to Hungary.
So I got a very interesting guided tour through the botanical garden of Cluj-Napoca, the second largest city in Romania.
Yes, Cluj was originally built by German settlers too. Later it belonged sometimes to Hungary and sometimes to Romania.
Today the city is one of the most important cultural and scientific centers in Romania.
With many universities and colleges. Most of the historic buildings in the city center have also been preserved or are being renovated.
And if you are tired and hungry from strolling through town, you can go to one of the many restaurants. There you can enjoy Romanian, Hungarian, Austrian or Transylvanian-Saxon cuisine.
I would like to go to Bucharest again for a very long weekend. And to the Carpathian Mountains in summer. But first it was time for me to move on. La revedere Romania – Goodbye Romania.
On narrow country roads and through small villages I drove 180 kilometers to the border between Romania and Hungary. Firstly in bright sunshine. But the closer I got to the border the foggier it got.
The border crossing on this country road was very small and little used. So I had almost no waiting time. The formalities were done quickly, even thought I entered the Schengen area at this border. This is the area in Central Europe in which there are (usually) no longer border controls between the individual countries.
But the Hungarian border official wanted one more thing from me: an alcohol test. That was the first time on my trip. And the only time so far in my life that I had to do something like this.
As always, at the end of my post my dashcam video, Romania (3m 20s, 622 MB; Music: Fun Activity Montage – Biz Baz Studio, YouTube Audiolibrary).
- To Bran Castle
- Bicaz Gorge
- To the Hungarian border
What I then experienced on my road trip in Hungary, I’ll tell you in my next post then.
Cheers, Ruediger 😎