The Carpathian Mountains draw a wide arc through the centre of the country, leaving a swath of exposed rocky peaks surrounded by groves of pine and deciduous trees, and stretches of bright green meadow below. Hiking trails skirt the peaks, and a network of mountain huts provides somewhere to rest your head at night. Europe's second-longest river, the Danube, marks Romania's southern border before turning suddenly northward and emptying into the Black Sea. The Danube Delta is a vast and unique protected wetland, perfect for hiking, fishing, boating and birdwatching.
A country is only as good as its people, and you'll find Romanians in every region to be open, friendly, proud of their history and eager to share it with visitors. While tourism is growing, Romania is still considered something of an off-the-beaten-track destination for foreigners, and you'll get kudos from the locals just for showing up. While Romanians themselves decry what they see as the brashness, even rudeness, of their countrymen in Bucharest, even there you'll discover plenty of friendly faces and impromptu drinking buddies if you make the effort.
Castles and Medieval Villages
The land that gave us Dracula has no shortage of jaw-dropping castles pitched precariously on rocky hilltops. There's spooky Bran Castle of course, with its spurious connection to Bram Stoker’s fictional count, but don’t overlook beauties such as Hunedoara’s 14th-century Corvin Castle or King Carol I’s sumptuous 19th-century pile, Peleş Castle. North of Curtea de Argeş, you’ll find the ruins of a fortress that really was the stomping ground of old Vlad Ţepeş. In Maramureş you'll discover towns and villages that seemingly stepped out of the Middle Ages, complete with hay racks, horse carts and stately wooden churches.
Romanian history is filled with tales of heroic princes battling fierce Ottoman warriors. That's all true, but it partly obscures the reality that much of Romania, for centuries, was a productive peasant culture. The hilly geography and lack of passable roads necessitated the emergence of literally hundreds of self-sufficient villages, where old-school crafts such as bread making, pottery, tanning and weaving were honed to an art. These days much of the country has moved on to more modern methods, but a fondness for that 'simpler' way of life persists. Folk museums, particularly open-air skansens, are a must. In smaller villages, many old folkways are still practised.
Folkore and Superstition
Jonathan Harker noted in Dracula: '...every known superstition in the world is gathered into the horse-shoe of the Carpathians, as if it were the centre of some sort of imaginative whirlpool.'
Few peoples cherish their old-world folk tales as do Romanians, with a colourful panoply of witches, giants, ghosts, heroes, fairies and Nosferatu to keep them awake at night. Given that much of Romania is rural and remote it's not surprising that some of these superstitions and tales survive to this day. As much as 20% of people in Maramureş still believe in witchcraft.
Some traditions are innocuous, like a tree strung with pots and pans in the front garden, advertising that there's a daughter in the household who's free to marry. However, in certain remote areas there are more disturbing beliefs. Garlic and crosses are still wielded, and bodies are exhumed and a stake driven through their hearts to stop them haunting, as in the case of the village of Marotinul-de-Sus (west of Bucharest) back in 2004. During the total eclipse of '99, while urbanites were partying others in Romania were lighting bonfires and ringing churchbells across the countryside to ward off vampires, werewolves and evil spirits (all of which are associated with the lunar phenomenon).
Need to know
Romania’s capital gets a bad rap, but in fact it's dynamic, energetic and more than a little bit funky. It’s where still-unreconstructed communism meets unbridled capitalism; where the soporific forces of the EU meet the passions of the Balkans and Middle East. Many travellers give the city just a night or two before heading off to Transylvania, but we think that’s not enough.
Transylvania conjures a vivid landscape of mountains, castles, fortified churches and superstitious old crones. The Carpathian Mountains are truly spectacular and outdoor enthusiasts can choose from caving in the Apuseni range, rock climbing at Piatra Craiului National Park, biking atop the flat Bucegi plateau, or hiking the Făgăraş.