Roaming the cities and villages of Romania

by Judith Rosen, Alexandria, VA

Before planning our month-long trip to Romania and Bulgaria, Alan and I asked for suggestions in ITN’s “Person to Person” section. Among four gracious replies, both Al Jungers and Carla Menist reported favorable experiences working with Sirma Nedeva of Alexander Tours (Sofia, Bulgaria; phone/fax +359 2 983 33 22 or visit, whom we contacted. (Sirma now has her own company, Across Europe, Ltd., where she can be contacted at

Our in-depth visit to these two very different countries included places most tours don’t, even some to which our Bulgarian guide with 30 years’ experience had never been.


As advised by Randy Keck in his July ’03 column, we requested small inns or guest houses wherever possible. Except as noted, all accommodations cost $15-$30 per person, with breakfast, and were squeaky clean.

Romanian and Bulgarian menus were daunting, running many pages and varying little from place to place, but a 3-course meal typically cost $6-$9. Portions often were huge; sometimes we could get half orders. Breakfast hardly varied: tomatoes, cucumbers, sausage and cheese.

Satu Mare

We were picked up in Budapest, Hungary, in late September ’04 by our Romanian driver-guide, Sorin Scridon, and entered Romania at its northwest border crossing, arriving for the night at Satu Mare, a once-prosperous area now in economic distress.

Disintegration of the Communist system in 1989 caused the closure of factories and nearby gold mines, and years of bad weather had ruined many crops. Vacant shops, rubble-filled alleys, broken streets and sidewalks and dingy buildings lent a seedy air. But shops selling electronics abounded; I counted six mobile phone stores on one block, and new construction was visible on all sides.

We spent the night at Villa Bódi, a 9-room, 4-star gem of a hotel on the main square whose greenery, fountains and playgrounds were a sharp contrast to the drab buildings. Although there were other restaurants on the square, Sorin took us to the family-filled No Pardon Pub (Str. Corvinilor 11), where we enjoyed a delicious fruit soup, meat pancakes and dumplings.

Venturing out

The next day we continued on a narrow road through areas of lovely rolling hills and dense forest. Horse-and-wagon transport outnumbered motor vehicles here, as it would for most of our trip through Romania.

Nearing the town of Corteze, we noticed more and more construction until, along the main street, nearly all houses were not only new or still being built but were huge mansions, many in fanciful styles. About half the men from this area had gone to the U.S. to work in the ’90s, returning with enough funds to build these splendid villas and retire comfortably.

In Sapanta we visited the Merry Cemetery with its colorfully painted headstones created by a local family. Each showed a portrait or other pictures of the deceased, illustrating his or her life or profession with a descriptive, sometimes humorous, poem below.

We continued to the Museum of Arrested Thinking in Sighetu Marmat¸iei, a memorial to victims of Communist oppression held in the grim former Communist prison. In the stark cells and torture niches were exhibits about persecuted individuals and groups. In back was a chapel on whose wall the names of all who had been imprisoned there were inscribed.

At the end of a narrow muddy lane in the hamlet of Vadu Izei we found the Borlean Guest House, a 100-year-old farmhouse inherited by the Borlean family and cleverly converted into four tiny sleeping rooms with heat and individual bathrooms. Mrs. Borlean served dinner there but lived in another house, where she also rented rooms. She said there were 23 similar guest houses in this tightly packed community.

The next day, close to the Ukrainian border, we visited Barsana Monastery, a complex of wooden buildings built without nails and beautifully situated on a commanding hillside. Several young nuns were tending the well-kept grounds.

For miles, many small villages were strung along the road with almost no side streets and no town square or central marketplace. Traditionally, socializing took place along the road. For weddings or other gatherings, the largest building available would be used.

Bucovina and the painted monasteries

We started across the Carpathian Mountains into Bucovina on winding, hairpin roads, traveling through scenic areas of hills and forest, finally settling for two nights in Vama at the Florica Guest House, one of many we saw in the area. Dinner was a soup made of bors¸ (a slightly sour juice derived from grain); polenta (a staple of both Romanian and Bulgarian diets); beet leaves stuffed with rice and cheese; apple strudel, and homemade cherry brandy and white wine.

The next day was devoted to visiting four of Bucovina’s famous painted monasteries, whose vivid wall paintings have endured since the 16th century except on the north sides where winter winds have taken their toll.

The decorative motif of all was about the same, featuring The Last Judgment, the Siege of Constantinople, the Ladder of Virtues, etc., but each had a different overriding color: red at Moldovit¸a, green at Sucevit¸a, a very distinctive blue at Voronet¸ and earthier tones at Humor.

Sucevit¸a’s museum contained old Bibles on lambskin and vealskin, an epitaph embroidered with 10,000 pearls and other curiosities. It also had the best gift stalls of the four, offering some authentic-looking folk clothing.

Lunch was a combination of chicken, mushrooms, polenta, sausage and egg at the luxurious Best Western in dreary Gura Humorului, where we had been slated to stay until I insisted on something small and Romanian. Afterward we stopped at the Marginea ceramics factory, where a very attractive black pottery is made, before returning to Florica’s.

After dinner, our host, wearing his traditional Moldovian shirt, demonstrated the popular art of egg painting done with a single horsehair after suctioning out the shells and soaking them in saltwater to harden them. Through Sorin, he explained the strict design rules and color symbolism and how they made the dyes from plants in their garden. He also sold his eggs for a fraction of the price asked at the souvenir stalls.

The style of housing in the area was distinctive. In front of each was a wooden gate, sometimes intricately carved, with a small covered door for people and large double ones for wagons. Design details varied according to villages or areas, but the basic form was always the same. Inside the gate there was often a well, sometimes elaborately covered and often matching the house.

Throughout the area, different regions used a variety of highly decorative wood or ceramic paneling on the sides of the houses. Zinc, the cheapest roofing material, was widely used, and on church domes it gleamed in the sunlight.

On to Transylvania

The distance south from Vama to our destination in Transylvania looked short on the map, but the narrow, steep roads zigzagging over the spectacular mountains required a whole day. The scenery was breathtaking.

We descended to the Bicaz Dam at Red Lake, where most of the region’s electricity is generated, stopping in a valley at Hotel Lacul Rosu (Red Lake), where we had fruit-filled chicken breast and a local pastry called somoi, a sort of chocolate sponge pudding soaked in brandy.

The deep valleys narrowed into rocky gorges — a favorite rock-climbing area. Several huge cement plants blighted the sensational vistas, but soon we climbed again (on a very bad road) to a popular ski area.

At Câmpulung, the site of another ceramics factory, we found the largest battery of souvenir and handcraft stalls we had ever seen, maybe 100 or more some three or four rooms deep, stretching a quarter of a mile or so on each side of the road. I found that most carried the same array of embroidery, basketry, woolens, ceramics, wooden items, etc.

We were now in a section of Transylvania where much of the population speaks only Hungarian. That night was spent in the village of Zetea in a house inherited by Simma Imbolya, who lived next door. This was part of a complex of guest houses managed by an enterprising woman named Olga, who showed us her mother’s house, preserved as a museum. The tiny kitchen, looms and other furnishings were over 100 years old.

Sighis¸oara and Sinaia

Overlooking the town of Sighis¸oara was a medieval citadel which until the 1990s had been a prosperous enclave populated by Germans. Virtually all relocated to Germany after 1989, abandoning everything in search of better economic conditions. A few of their elegant houses have been converted to hotels, but many are still vacant or have deteriorated into slums occupied by squatters.

We slept that night at Sighis¸oara’s Casa Wagner, a converted 17th-century house so named because the composer had frequently visited a “girlfriend” there. Vaulted, whitewashed rooms were filled with antiques. Our tiny window under the eaves overlooked the town square.

On Monday we were supposed to visit Bran and Peles¸ castles, but our tour operator had ignored the well-known fact that both were closed Mondays (Peles¸ is closed on Tuesdays, too), so we visited Peles¸ on Sunday.

Both Sinaia, the town where the castle is located, and the ornate palace were packed, with not only foreign tourists but local families. Only the first floor of Peles¸ can be visited, as the wooden structure would not withstand the hordes, but the tour was enlivened by a bat careening erratically through the lavish rooms, causing a great deal of shrieking and fleeing. By contrast, the smaller, homier castle next door was almost empty.


That night was spent at Poiana Bras¸ov, a ski resort, where our windows at Pension Valentin overlooked the ski lifts. Dinner was at nearby S¸ura Dacilor, styled to look like a traditional barn of the Dacian tribes who had once lived in the area.

In the old part of the city of Bras¸ov, we saw the huge pedestrian square surrounding the town hall. Opposite is one of the oldest buildings still standing, built around 1200 and now a café. On the hillside above, two of the original watchtowers still stand guard.

On a side street I found a synagogue, apparently still operating, and a kosher restaurant. Behind some of the faceless buildings, serene courtyards could be glimpsed through open gates.

Near the square loomed the immense Black Church, so named because much of it was charred when the Austrians torched the city in 1689. Here the scholarly Johannes Honterus, who made the first maps of the area (on view in the church) and set up the first library in 1532, converted the area to Protestantism. The church boasts a 4,000-pipe organ and reversible pews which can be turned to face the back when concerts are held.

After lunch at the Blue Corner restaurant down an alley from the main square, we visited the heavily advertised Elena Mall, brand new and the first of its kind in the area. It was a small collection of furniture, appliance, music, accessory and apparel shops with a food court and children’s playroom. Previously, we had seen only the most basic shops in Romania.

We also prowled through a supermarket, to the amusement of our guide, trying to compare products and prices. The markets we saw in Bulgaria were more modern and extensive.

That night we stayed at Villa Bran, 60 steps up a hill and another two winding flights to our room with its sweeping view of Bran and the surrounding countryside.

Fortress forays

On Tuesday it was finally possible to visit Bran Castle, which some had decided looked like a suitable home for Dracula, which it does. Actually, it has no connection with Vlad the Impaler, except that he may have been imprisoned there.

It is a brooding structure, built as a fortress at a strategic mountain pass in the 14th century. In 1920, Queen Marie of Romania converted it into her favorite residence, and a few rooms have been furnished as they would have been then, with the rest restored to reflect its use as a fortress.

Continuing through undulating sheep and cattle country, we made an unscheduled stop at Faragas, where I spotted an interesting-looking fortress not far from the road. Begun in 1222 and used for many years as a Communist prison, it is now under restoration and contains a small ethnographic museum and the town library.

In a remote corner, I found a small, cramped room which was the children’s library, with books in Romanian, Hungarian, German and French. Through Sorin, the librarian told me that in this town of about 36,000, more than 6,000 children had library cards, as required by their schools. Most of the books looked old and poorly bound. The librarian said she might get 80 new books a year, but it’s usually fewer.

After seeing grim pictures of the basement as it had looked as a Communist prison, we decided to have lunch in that cavernous space, now converted to a restaurant. We were the only patrons, and our appearance seemed to send the lone waitress nearly into shock.

Sibiu and Sibiel

We arrived in Sibiu in time to spend a couple of hours at the Astra outdoor museum, a vast collection of houses, workshops, mills and churches brought from all over Romania, before settling in at the Imparatul Romanilor Hotel ($80), ideally located next to the central pedestrian area.

I wandered through the large and small plazas to see the Liars’ Bridge and down to the winding and unkempt streets of the lower town, ending at the magnificent Orthodox cathedral where a melodious evening service was being held.

After a morning visit to the Ethnographic and Brukenthal museums and an outdoor lunch on the Lesser Square, we drove to the tiny village of Sibiel to a seldom-visited old church building housing some 700 icons lovingly gathered from all over the country. There was also an exhibit of painted eggs arranged to show the various styles of painting from different areas.

We then headed south through a narrow, high-walled canyon, with traffic sometimes bumper to bumper as this is the main route from Turkey to Western Europe. Here, for the first time in Romania, we saw horse-drawn carts being forced to cling stubbornly to the sides of roads, sometimes causing major traffic jams.

We stopped at the tiny 1386 Cozia Monastery, whose frescoes were remarkably preserved, and continued for an overnight in Curtea de Arges at Hotel Posada on the broad, tree-lined main street.

The next morning, after visiting the unprepossessing royal tombs in the restored 1352 monastery, we picked up the superhighway to Bucharest.

In Bucharest, traffic was horrendous. It took an hour to get from the outskirts of the city to the centrally located Hotel Opera, a boutique hotel with only five rooms on each floor, listed at $175 a night.

Lunch was around the corner at Vatra, a restaurant decorated with folk art and offering a menu in English. We toured the Romanian Peasants’ Museum, a fabulous collection of costumes, ceramics, fabrics, icons, etc. Their obscure gift shop behind the building featured mostly fabrics and embroidered clothing. Lovely blouses started at about $35.

That evening we strolled through the oldest part of town and saw the oldest church, the oldest beer hall and Strada Lipscani, the oldest street, formerly the glass and textile center but now filled with bridal shops. Dinner was at Hanul Hangitei, another folk-themed restaurant in the Old City.

Bucharest is impressive at night, with imposing buildings artfully lit, lighted fountains and rows of lights lining broad streets.

We started extra early the next day to overcome the traffic and arrive on time for our “confirmed” reservation to visit the huge Parliament building, only to find that tours are not given there at that time of year. We did tour the magnificent tree-lined boulevards, some eight lanes wide, past Bucharest’s Arc de Triomphe, modeled after the one in Paris, and some lovely residential sections.

Except for the deplorable condition of the streets and sidewalks, it seemed a splendid city, although considerably marred by huge billboards on the tops and sides of many buildings. By noon, however, the traffic was so impossible that we just canceled the rest of our scheduled drive.

Instead, I walked for several hours along Calea Victoriei and visited the Romanian section of the National Museum (admission 30,000 lei), which had some spectacular old vestments, icons and paintings plus modern Romanian works on the upper floors.

On to Bulgaria

On Saturday, with our Bulgarian guide, Irena, and driver, Ivan, we again plowed through an hour of dense traffic and road construction to the outskirts of Bucharest. Because of hulking trucks and other vehicles, the 60-kilometer trip to the border took over an hour and involved five inspection stops before we crossed the bridge. This cost about $6 ($12 if traveling the other way), not the $75 a previous ITN reader had reported.

Our destination was the 2,400-year-old Thracian tomb at Sveshtari, discovered in 1984 but opened to the public only four years before our visit following the installation of elaborate preservation measures. Under a huge mound, the remains of a 35-year-old king and his favorite wife, who had been killed to accompany him in the next world, had been found. Many other mounds, possibly containing more tombs, and a fortress and town await funds for exploration.

Next month, the journey through Bulgaria continues.