Exploring the backroads of Romania on a private tour

By Donna Altes
This article appears on page 42 of the July 2016 issue.
Inside a synagogue in Brașov

After losing my sister Ellen in 2014, I began to feel an urgency to find my Romanian family roots. 

When my father was alive, I (like most kids) was never motivated to question our family’s origins. Now that I was the last remaining member of my family, I wanted to find a genetic link, especially in Romania. 

I knew that my Jewish paternal grandfather emigrated from that beleaguered Eastern European country on the SS Rotterdam in 1901, arriving in the Bronx, New York. With the ship’s manifest in hand, I found myself returning to the same part of the world from which I had just returned. (Just 13 days before, I had been traveling in St. Petersburg, Russia.) 

As I was standing at the airport in Bucharest, praying that my guide, Costin Soroceanu (costin_soroceanu@yahoo.co.uk), was going to be standing there holding a sign, I wondered, ‘What was I thinking?!’ But the travel gods were with me, and a smiling Costin whisked me into Romania with a charm that melted my heart. 

In good hands

Without skipping a beat, Costin assessed my stamina level, surmising that a restaurant complete with traditional Romanian fare, costumed dancers and several shots of t¸uica˘ (the powerful local schnapps) would properly initiate me into Bucharest. Within minutes, I was up and dancing.

When you travel with a private guide, it can be a game of chance. Amazingly, Costin and I quickly established a comfortable pattern for 15 days of intense travel. 

He knew that I wanted to find my family but advised, “Be patient, Donna. The wheels of bureaucracy do not turn quickly.” 

Putting my immediate goals into the background, we began our journey through the surprisingly diverse landscape of Romania.

Open about his family’s years living under communism, Costin was a treasure trove of honest communication. From early in the morning, when we met for a let’s-start-the-day breakfast, until late at night, enjoying a dinner filled with t¸uica˘, goulash, dumplings and pork in every form imaginable, I was soaking in all the information he shared about the history, geography and people of his country.

The cost of E3,000, or $3,400, for his services as a guide included all transportation costs. We each paid for our own hotel accommodations and meals.

Beginning in Bucharest

We began our journey in Bucharest. As we traveled throughout the country, Romania’s stunning Carpathian Mountains, verdant fields, green pines and other colorful trees dotting the landscape continuously took my breath away.

Donna Altes in front of Peleș Castle near Sinaia.

Romania is a country of fortifications, and most of its cities have remnants of the walls built around them to keep out the Ottoman Turks, among others. Bran Castle, perched on a precipitous hill, Hunedoara’s 15th-century Gothic Corvin Castle and King Carol I’s immense Peles¸ Castle are among the popular sites for visitors. 

Due to the geographic isolation between the villages situated in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains, the individual customs and dress of locals have been preserved. Spotting a tree decorated with colorful pots and pans (signifying that a daughter inside was available for marriage), Costin slammed on the brakes, grabbed my camera and ran back to create a memory for me.

Surprising me, Costin took me to spend one evening with a multigenerational Roma (Gypsy) family, who opened their arms to me. Klara answered my questions openly and without hesitation. 


The days spent ambling through Bucovina, Moldavia, were filled with visits to charming villages. The highlight of my Romanian adventure was a visit to the 15th- and 16th-century painted monasteries of Bucovina. The churches’ vivid frescoes have survived weathering, pollution and wars and are painted exquisitely inside and out in Byzantine and Moldavian styles. The unique architecture of the structures, the ethereal art and the religious solemnity of the grounds more than reward visitors. 

As we were driving outside the cities, there often was a pervasive haze hanging in the sky, caused by the burning of leaves, branches and foliage, creating an, at times, hard-to-breathe environment. The smell was reminiscent of thousands of fireplaces emitting smoke at the same time. 

Back at my hotel, as I was viewing the hats in the tiny gift shop, the general manager engaged me in welcoming, open chatter. After insisting on gifting a hat to me, I was invited to a bonfire/party/dinner offering free-running pálinka (another regional alcoholic beverage), wine and local delicacies. I soon found myself ensconced in a rip-roaring Romanian-language private company party, complete with exuberant dancing, music, singing and toasts, where friendships began and ended within five hours. 

Memorable moments

What made my two weeks so memorable was traveling with a Romanian native. As Costin and I traveled the backroads over the Carpathian Mountains, I was introduced to the country’s foods, sights and people (many of whom he knew). 

Along the way, we were open to serendipitous adventures. 

An exhibit in the museum of local customs and traditions in Gura Humorului, in the Bucovina region.

In Bras¸ov, we befriended Jimena, a graphic artist from Mexico City, inviting her into our little group for a day.

Another time, we passed two women sitting on a bench outside their house, knitting. I jumped out of the car, hoping to get a photo. 

Unable to communicate a word, I used hand gestures to offer to buy the socks they were creating. The next thing I knew, some of them ran back inside, bringing out many pairs. 

I ended up with the most expensive pair of hand-knitted socks, made with the finest Romanian wool. It was worth every lei.

And I will never forget the night I joined the protests with frustrated, angry college students following the horrendous nightclub fire in Bucharest. Left to my own devices that night, I snuck out, found the marchers and joined in. 

The amazing bellman at my hotel was able to go with me, openly sharing with me the back story of what was happening and why people were calling for the resignation of the prime minister. It was exciting and happening in real time!

Market in Sighetu Marmației, Maramureș region.

The personal experiences I had were made so much richer by Costin’s storytelling, spur-of-the-moment meandering, amazing memory and willingness to share. 

At the end of my time in Romania, he delivered me to Budapest, Hungary, where I would embark on another adventure. As Costin and I walked into the lobby of Hotel Palazzo Zichy, shrieks and hellos from fellow Napans distracted me.

When I turned around, Costin was gone. 

I am going to miss my new Romanian friend. 

Footnote: Costin is continuing to work on the search for my family footprint in Bucharest. I have not given up hope.