News: The UD Travel Blog
Posted: 26 June 2015
Romania – The Land that Time Forgot - Aled Evans
I like to think that I am not a travel snob; however it takes a lot to impress me these days and even more to surprise me. I’m delighted to say that Romania managed to do both.
If you read some of the British tabloids, then Romania is a grey den of iniquity, full of soviet style architecture and immigrants hell bent on coming to the UK and abusing our benefits system. We all know to take our beloved red tops with a large pinch of salt, but I can’t stress enough how far from the truth this image portrayed by some sections of our media is.
On arrival at Henri Coandă International Airport in Bucharest, I was quickly through immigration (Romania is a full member of the EU but has its own currency) and within the hour I had checked in to my hotel in the city centre, 30 minutes from the airport.
Here was my first surprise. Bucharest has wide tree lined boulevards, Royal Palace’s and Roman architecture. Even during the large electrical storm that greeted my arrival, this large cosmopolitan city felt safe and welcoming and was easy to explore on my own. In the evening, the bars and restaurants are bustling with the young and beautiful of the city, modern Europeans with a great sense of pride in their city and their country. Bucharest was the first of many surprises.
The next morning, we set off heading north-west to the small village of Sibiel, travelling along good roads and passing through the beautiful forest lined Olt river valley. We arrived at Siebel and were heartily welcomed by our hosts at our homestay for that evening. After dropping our bags off in our en suite room, there was time to explore the village. Cranes were nesting above the street lights and horse drawn carriages clip-clopped along as we made a visit to the fascinating museum of glass icons whose curator was Father Zosim Oancea imprisoned for plotting against the state. There was plenty to think about while viewing the intricate art work. We returned to our home stay to be met with the wonderful aromas of home cooked food. A glass of very good homemade brandy started a superb meal accompanied with a never ending supply of excellent red wine. I was beginning to like Romania even more!
The next morning we bid our hosts farewell and drove the short distance to Sibiu, European Capital of Culture for the year 2007. We had time to explore the old centre of the town with its ramparts, churches and narrow alleys, stopping for a coffee and ice cream in the delightful market square. The list of upcoming festivals advertised on the town hall in the coming months ranged from jazz to film and pottery. We couldn’t stay too long though as we continued our journey to Bran, arriving that evening and checking in to a delightful alpine style hotel.
After a good night’s sleep, we took a tour of the stunning Bran Castle, tenuously linked to the legend of Dracula. The real story and history of the castle as portrayed by our guide was much more interesting than the Bram Stoker inspired kitsch. Although there are a lot of shops selling monster masks and restaurants serving vampire related snacks (Dracula’s teeth - they turned out to be very tasty chicken wraps), the visit to Bran was certainly a highlight for me. Even here, at what must be the largest tourist attraction in the country, I found the service and quality offered to be of an excellent standard.
We left Bran and travelled through the stunning Transylvanian countryside, with local people busy in the fields, mowing with scythes and building large haystacks. We turned off the main road and drove along a small country lane passing miles and miles of wild flower meadows, bursting with colour only interrupted by the occasional horse grazing. Our destination was Viscri, one of the Saxon villages of Transylvania and a very special one, due to the great fortified church which is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The other attraction in the village, although not one that you can visit, is that a couple of the houses are owned and regularly visited by HRH The Prince of Wales. Apparently we had missed him by a week when we arrived.
Our accommodation was in one of the village houses with a shared bathroom between two rooms. It felt a little like staying in a museum but was welcoming and strangely, it felt just right. A tour of the village on a horse and cart took us to the local brick maker and blacksmith, both of whom welcomed us in to their homes, happy to show us their unique skills and how they are still relevant and used in the village and the surrounding area. The tour of the fortified church gave great views of the beautiful countryside and the evening was finished with another wonderful homemade meal and the hosts insisting we kept tasting their excellent supply of homemade wine and brandy.
The next stop was Sighisoara, the birthplace of Vlad the Impaler and a wonderful example of a fortified town. With cobbled streets and a unique clock tower with great views over the town, this was a lovely place to spend the night. The characterful hotel located just off the main square served as the perfect base to explore the city once the day trippers had disappeared. After a leisurely breakfast the next morning, we set off driving in to the Carpathian Mountains. Passing through oak forests that went on for as far as the eye could see, we were reminded by our guide that this is one of the last areas in Europe that is still home to wild brown bear, wolves and Eurasian lynx. Although we were not fortunate enough to spot any, a group we spoke to at our homestay had seen two brown bear on a trek that day.
After a lovely overnight in an alpine style homestay, our next day was to be the Painted Monasteries of Bucovina. Now, I am not a religious person and the thought of a full day looking at Monasteries did not appeal in the slightest. In fact I was dreading it, but within the first few minutes of the first Monastery, I was engrossed. Whether you are a believer or not, you cannot fail to be impressed with the skill and dedication that has gone into these amazing 16th century frescoes. Both inside and outside were equally impressive and with each Monastery having its own architectural style and story, it never felt too much. Having a guide with such good knowledge of the buildings, paintings and stories of each place added to the overall experience and certainly brought the frescoes to life.
Unfortunately, my time in Romania was coming to an end. I was not able to visit what many have described as the highlight of the whole tour – the visit to the Danube Delta. As the best preserved of Europe’s delta regions and a wetland paradise for wildlife, our stay in a traditional fishing village would have to wait. Back in Bucharest and as I waited for my direct flight back to London with British Airways I suddenly realised that this was not a bad thing and that it gave me the perfect excuse to return again as soon as possible!
Now back in the UD office, Romania seems like a different world. A part of Europe so similar in some ways and so different in others. All I can say is that if you like to challenge your perceptions, love good food and wine, beautiful scenery, welcoming hosts and amazing wildlife, then you MUST visit Romania sooner rather than later.