Driving, hiking in Romania

Just as our July ’03 issue arrived with Randy Keck’s article on Transylvania (Romania), we were about to leave on a self-planned trip covering the same sites. These are our observations, to augment his.

Hotels were all quite good, with Casa Viorel (phone 40-268-262-431) in Poiana Brasov being outstanding. The largest hotel we stayed in was the only place we found that accepted credit cards, but ATMs were available in every town we visited.

A hiking trail in the Transylvanian Alps. Photo: Pyle

Food was a different story. About half the restaurants in every city were pizzerias, and they were likely to be our best bet for meals. Romania has some wonderful local cheeses, but meats were of varying and marginal quality. The real surprise was vegetables — in an agricultural country with nice farmers’ markets, most of the vegetables served to us came out of cans.

Vlad Dracul’s House in Sighisoara (which Mr. Keck mentioned) served our absolute worst meal.

Coliba Haiducilor (The Outlaws Lodge) in Poiana Brasov, also mentioned, had the best-quality food. The experience there could have been much more enjoyable, however, if an English menu had been available. As I recall, our meal cost about $20 for two, including one alcoholic beverage. This was by far our most expensive meal in Romania. We frequently had dinner for two for less than $10.

At least in Transylvania, driving in Romania was not as difficult as previous reading had led us to believe. For seasoned travelers, we would offer Costa Rica as a comparison. Minor roads had plenty of potholes but were nowhere near as difficult to drive as those in Costa Rica. Major roads were of good quality but with all manner of moving objects, leading people to pass with insufficient margins of safety. While Costa Rican drivers may be “un poco loco,” Romanian drivers are certifiable! They pass wherever they wish, assuming they can crowd back in, if necessary. City driving should be avoided wherever possible.

Hiking in the Transylvanian Alps was one of our objectives, and we would offer these special notes to hikers.

Among those in the Romanian travel industry, we found very curious attitudes toward hikers. The sightseeing desk in our first hotel started by telling us that hiking was far too dangerous without a guide (at $25-$40 per day). Once they realized we weren’t about to pay this, that we had Lonely Planet’s hiking information and that we had some idea of what we were doing, they changed gears completely, giving us excellent information on alternative routes plus tips on how to use local transportation to make a circle route.

In Bran, we used the local office of ANTREC (National Association of Rural, Ecological & Cultural Tourism; visit www.antrec.ro) to book a farmhouse B&B, very successfully. But repeated e-mail questions about hiking opportunities brought no response. And when we confronted them face to face, it was like we were not speaking the same language. We had difficulty convincing them that we wanted to hike, not be driven to a park in a 4-wheel drive. They finally pointed us, and other would-be hikers, to a kiosk where we could purchase a map of hiking trails.

Like in the Alps in Western Europe, it’s possible in Transylvania to take ski lifts up the mountains, hike the plateaus and then take another lift down. There are also “cabanas” along the trails offering food and lodging. These are nowhere near as luxurious as their Western counterparts, but you also don’t have to deal with crowds.

The Romanians have not figured out the value of switchbacks. Trails go straight up and straight down. . . and get badly eroded.

We took along a GPS (global positioning system) device, in case we did get hopelessly lost. This worked fine on the plateaus above the timberline, but it wasn’t really needed there. On lower trails, the trees were so dense that we could rarely get a reading. The frequency and quality of trail markings varied, but they were adequate if we paid attention.

Romania is not a “Western European experience,” but it definitely has something to offer to the adventurous traveler.

Boulder, CO