Approach via Belgrade. Since my last visit to Serbia in 2012 a lot of new buildings along the river Sava with huge construction holes visible. But large parts of the town seem unchanged, prefabricated concrete slab buildings, often in neglected condition highly prevalent. A minibus picks me up at the hotel. Four hours and 15 Euros later, it deposits me at my first stop in Romania. Driving east across the Danube: lots of fields of corn or sunflowers, no wheat. Some silos, the landscape is flat all the way to the horizon.
Vršac is the last town before the border. Typical one-story buildings here, churches and facades a reminder of the Habsburg empire. The customs building on the Serbian border reminiscent of a public building in the developing world. But the EU-border is much more modern. It becomes quickly apparent that Romania has profited significantly from EU membership. Romanian and EU flags are everywhere. Lots of new roads (tolls apply), built with the help of EU funds. One-street villages are typical here, sometimes stretching along a street that is many miles long; prominence of new, single family homes and traditional houses with roof tiles made of wood already being a rare sight.
Locals are telling me repeatedly that they are the true inhabitants of Romania, and that they don’t want to be associated with Gypsies, as this damages the country’s reputation. A Romanian family would only have one or two children in contrast to the six to eight offspring, that Gypsy families tend to have. Without any prompting, I was told that up to two million Gypsies live in Italy and about one million in Germany. This seems remarkable, as I hardly see any children despite recent media reports about big support payments by the German government for Romanian children.
Slowly the scenery changes with hills and mountains lining the horizon. Absolutely every forest in the Danube plain had been cleared. Despite fairly good roads the journey is slow. Drivers like to ignore speed limits but there are plenty of curves and serpentines, particularly in the Carpathian Mountains. Overtaking despite oncoming traffic is common, and I often see the remnants of accidents with plenty of damaged vehicles by the roadside. Pedestrian crossings are strictly observed. You can rely on cars stopping.
Timisoara: Unappealing in its outer fringes but then the old town is quite a surprise with three enormous squares, each with its own unique character. Most impressive of those is Victory Square with the national theatre and the orthodox cathedral (inaugurated in 1946), inside quite dark and colourful, on the outside with colourful, play-like towers. In 1989, the revolution against dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu began here with a civilian massacre taking place on the steps of the cathedral. A priest (and party member) denied the demonstrators shelter inside the building. Pursued by the military, many died in the ensuing bullet hail. Timisoara enjoys the nickname little Vienna and indeed many small palaces and phantastic art nouveau buildings grace the streets, although many are in a sorry state of repair. Almost exclusively domestic tourists here. The huge square around the Holy Trinity column is lined with churches, museums, and beautiful old buildings. Quiet and peaceful atmosphere. Alleys full of bars and restaurants. In 2021 Timisoara will be the official European Capital of Culture, presumably the quietness will be gone by then.
I took an Uber to the train station, and a minibus via Arad and Salonta, north to Oradea (3 hours, 178 km, around 8 Euros). Hotel by the river, first impressions are of a charmless, industrial town. However a big surprise during the first walk: After endless concrete slab buildings and broken sidewalks I come across the historically important citadel Oradea, a huge former bastion of the Habsburg empire and the Transylvanian principality. In 1598, a handful of soldiers fought against 10,000 attacking Turks. In 1660 though, and after a relentless siege, the citadel finally fell to the Ottomans. Today the mighty walls are crumbling. In the two large courtyards are castle-like buildings and a church. Artisans and craftspeople. I am walking through a pleasant park, passing the big Neologa synagogue. The massive Vultural Negru (Black Eagle), an art nouveau colossus, is a real highlight. Freshly redecorated, playful with wonderful ornaments, winding inner passageways and high ceilings. On Unity Square, I visit the St. Maria Ascension cathedral, a Greco-catholic episcopal palace and the biggest baroque building in the country, as well as the town hall; very appealing architecture around. Crossing the Crisul river and into the pedestrian zone: more art nouveau buildings, a theatre worthy of a big city, plenty to see.
Train ride to Cluj-Napoca (130 km, 3 hours, 6.50 Euro), the country’s second biggest city: new hotel with spacious suite. The old city is not very big and frankly, rather disappointing. Lots of students, though. The next day I am taking a rental car at the small airport. New motorway, at least part of the way to Sibiu. In Julia Alba, I saw a huge sawmill; little surprise given the deforested hills around the area.
The influx of German settlers has left its mark on the history of Transylvania and is widely visible. Sibiu (or Hermannstadt in German) was European capital of Culture in 2007. Early morning sightseeing with hardly any people around: colourful orthodox cathedral, the upper town with the central square, scenic town hall, city wall with three ramparts.
From Sibiu to Sighisoara through beautiful, isolated countryside: forests and wildflowers, no suburbanisation. Fortified castle-like churches and horse-carts along the way. In many villages countless storks nesting on telegraph poles, their clattering can be really noisy. The old part of picturesque Sighisoara (a UNESCO site) lies on a mountaintop with narrow alleys leading uphill. The 64 meter high clock tower dates back to the 14th century. Medieval setting with a total of fourteen guild towers and a complete city wall. The myth of Vlad Dracul, the grandfather of count Dracula is cultivated here in his alleged birth house. However, he had never visited the town … go figure. Colourful houses, narrow alleys, the German cemetery on top of the mountain, next to the mountain church. Crowds of domestic tourists.
Day tour to Brasov. The nearby Dracula castle in Bran is the epitome of the Dracula hype. Massive traffic jams in town, alleys of souvenir and kitsch sellers, overpriced. Atop the town, Rasnov is another mighty fortress, inside a small village. Brasov disappoints as the main and almost only attraction is the Black Cathedral, the old city appears to have not much individuality. However being only two hours away from the capital Bucharest, the place attracts lots of tourism. German supermarket discounters like Lidl and Kaufland are very present, next to Metro, Selgros, Carrefour, or Decathlon. Around Brasov big operations of German automotive suppliers (Continental, Bosch and more).
Driving north to Piatra Neamt: Lake Rosu is a mountain lake; Rosu means pink but that’s certainly not the colour of the lake. Numerous paddle boots. Then the very narrow Bicacel gorge with scenic limestones jutting hundreds of meters to the sky. Over-tourism. Off the main road lies the Pangarati monastery (14th century): 28 monks, idyllic place. A monk tells me he spent one year in Konstanz, Germany, with a grant from the German church that paid him 1050 Euros per month: a top salary in Romania. The Neamt region derives its name from Hungarian settlers who claimed that they did not understand incoming Germans (neamt means ‘I don’t understand’). The word subsequently became a synonym for German. Through an alpine scenery with haystacks, creeks, and healthy looking, dense forests. Next are the Moldavian monasteries, all dating from the 14th century and all now classified as UNESCO sites. Most are very colourful inside, some also on the outside. Way too many tourists for my liking … Voronet monastery is surrounded by high walls. Its famous, blueish wall paintings gave name to the voronet-blue colour. Moldovita is another impressive monastery. Locals sell artful eggs, decorated with colourful wax. Arbore church lies in a dreamy garden, and largely disregarded by the tourist hordes. Sucevita is number three on the list of well-known monasteries, huge outside walls.
Through the Bukovina region to Suceava. My travel companion gets bitten by a local dog; the wound heals very slowly. Lesson learned: Do not get bitten in Transylvania. In a local cemetery, I noticed that every second grave is a member of the Vlad family. More than a hundred storks hovering in the air. Beautiful drive through the Carpathian Mountains. On the roadside, locals are selling mici (grilled sausages), honey and halba (another nod to German settlers with the German word of ‘Halber’ meaning half a litre of beer). In the forest nearby, stalls that sell raspberries, blueberries, chanterelles, and boletus. Bistrita, a typical small town with a large square, cathedral, and a lot of open air restaurants. Baia Mare: Numerous wedding couples having their pictures taken. A massive thunderstorm with torrential rain, and a friendly local driving us back to our hotel. Returning the car in Cluj-Napoca after driving 1700 km.
A safe, medium-priced country, with English being widely spoken. Plenty of tourist accommodation. Note on rental cars: Make sure that road toll is electronically enabled and already paid.