Time-travelling through Romania
Written by Brian Johnston
Romania’s renovated old towns, fabulous castles, and diverse architecture reflect centuries of style. History lover and Romania admirer Brian Johnston takes us time travelling through this as-yet largely undiscovered country.
Romania boasts the historical depth and culture of Europe without its tourist crowds, high prices, and hustle. A tour of its highlights brings you not only Dracula legends and a fascinating history, but considerable beauty and a contemporary buzz too.
If you’re going to travel from past to present through Romania, then there’s no better place to start than in the 15th century at Sighșioara, one of Europe’s best-preserved and still lived-in citadels. The hilltop town is dominated by a medieval clock tower above houses jammed inside defensive walls studded with towers. Though compact, Sighișoara’s winding alleys and leaning houses deserve lingering appreciation, especially as changing light illuminates different façades as the day progresses.
Sighișoara isn’t just beautiful: it sits in the heart of Transylvania, and has irresistible associations with Romania’s most famous character, Count Dracula, who was born in an old-town building now transformed into a restaurant – staff will give you an amusing fright if you ask to see Dracula’s bedroom. In truth, most of this is delightful nonsense, though Count Dracula – more properly known as Vlad Ţepeş, prince of Wallachia – was certainly born in Sighișoara in 1431. You’ll find a statue of him with his trademark flamboyant moustache behind the church. Romanians consider him a hero for his resistance to both Ottomans and corrupt overlords. The mythical nightmare figure is largely a creation of Irish writer Bram Stoker in his sensational 1897 vampire novel Dracula.
Head south from Sighișoara and you can take in another medieval destination associated with Dracula, turreted Bran Castle, which sits atop a rock guarding a pleasant valley on the southern edge of Transylvania. Wooden floorboards creak, tiny windows let in gloomy light and, in the dungeons, you wouldn’t be surprised if Dracula himself leapt out of his coffin. In the early 20th century, however, Bran Castle was used as a summer residence of Romanian Queen Mary. If anything, it has a rather romantic, feminine style well matched to lovely battlement views.
Bran Castle is an agreeable stopover on the way to Brașov, which takes you from the Middle Ages to the baroque era. The city became prominent and fortified under German knights in the 13th century and was later a wealthy trading city of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Brașov’s renovated old town has a delightful collection of orange and red buildings that span the medieval and baroque eras. Locals linger in the superb, fountain-splashed Piaţa Sfatului square in the evenings, slurping ice creams, chatting in cafés, and watching their children play.
Brașov’s towers and fortifications are medieval, but its pastel palaces are firmly of a more opulent and surely more agreeable era. Above town on the hillside runs an elegant Esplanade with views over chimneypots and steeples. Kids run about feeding (or chasing) pigeons as retirees gossip on park benches. Anywhere else in Europe, such a lovely old town would be overrun by tour coaches and souvenir shops, but Brașov retains a lively local buzz and comfortable, provincial charm on which mass tourism has yet to have an impact.
Drive another few centuries into the future and you’ll arrive in Sinaia, just under 50km south of Brașov, but with the atmosphere of another time entirely. The alpine resort was the late 19th-century summer retreat of Romanian aristocracy, whose fine former hotels and pastel-coloured villas sit among the pine trees with down-at-heel elegance. Among the sights is the 1920s home of great Romanian composer George Enescu, where you can listen to scratchy recordings of his music as you wend your way through antiques and memorabilia. A cable-car ride up 2,500m Bușteni mountain provides glorious vistas and good walking (or snowshoeing and skiing in winter) and demonstrates why Romania’s wealthy were so enamoured of this fresh-air resort town.
Peleș Castle is Sinaia’s highlight and shouldn’t be missed, despite the castle fatigue that can eventually overtake even the most determined visitors in Europe. Built in a faux-German, medieval fairy-tale style between 1892 and 1914 by King Carol I, the castle provides a fabulous sensory overload of Tiffany glass, art nouveau sculpture, tapestries, armour, the latest turn-of-the-century furnishings from Vienna, Bukhara carpets, Meissen porcelain, and enough wood carving to make you feel as if you’re walking through a giant cuckoo clock. Despite its appearance, the royal summer retreat was also rather cutting-edge: it was the first castle in the world to be electric powered. Outside, formal terraces and statue-cluttered gardens dissolve into meadows and forested mountains.
The 120km south to Bucharest brings you from Carpathian peaks and on through vineyards into the sprawling Romanian capital. It too has plenty of fine architecture from the belle époque, when it was likened to Paris for its boulevards, of which Calea Victoriei is an elegant remaining example. But a visit here also brings you into the 20th-century Communist era, nowhere more so than along monumental Bulevardul Unirii or at the grandiose, 1,000-room Parliament, one of the world’s largest buildings, where tours provide a lively insight into Communist leader Nicolae Ceauescu’s megalomania and paranoia.
Piaţa Revoluieisquare was at the epicentre of the revolution that overthrew Ceauescu in 1989. It has a monument to those events and has preserved the bullet holes in some of its surrounding buildings. However, your journey should rightly end in the 21st century in a resurgent Romania that’s now part of the European Union and is slowly overcoming its historical and economic problems. You’ll find Bucharest a lovely city in places, dotted with restored monasteries and 19th-century buildings, full of good museums and leafy parks. It buzzes with youthful optimism and energy, with a busy café scene, and tempts with nights out at the opulent Opera Română or in the jazz clubs along Strada Lipscani. The Lipscani district is at the heart of historical Bucharest and is now full of trendy shops and restaurants and has rather a party atmosphere in the evenings: the perfect place to celebrate the end of a journey through Romania.
Escape to the country
It isn’t only cities and historical sights that will make you linger in Romania; it has remarkable natural attractions too. The Danube Delta is Europe’s best-preserved river delta, a vast wilderness area of reed marshes, wetlands, and wildflower meadows that are home to 300 bird species. And don’t miss the spectacular Carpathian Mountains, where the Transfăgărășan highway provides a scenic driving route, and hiking, skiing, mountain biking, and rock climbing are drawcards. In southern Romania, family-oriented Comana Natural Park is easily accessible from Bucharest and particularly beautiful in autumn for fishing, canoeing, and hiking.
Grigore Antipa Museum
This national museum of natural history in Bucharest, which recently emerged from a €14 million refit, has exhibits highlighting Romania’s geographical regions as well as international ones, with a good interactive section for children and entertaining 3D films. Needless to say, the requisite dinosaur skeletons – as well as remarkable butterflies and gemstones – will thrill the kids.
1 oseaua Kiseleff, Bucharest, +40 21 312 8826, antipa.ro
Several playgrounds, a go-kart track, a steam train to clamber over, various sports courts, and a funfair with rollercoasters and a Ferris wheel are all part of the family-oriented attractions in this parkland in the southern suburbs of Bucharest. Adjacent is the vast and lovely Tineretului Park, which has wide-open spaces, bicycle rentals, an artificial lake, and more play areas. Orășelul Copiilor, Bucharest, +40 730 034 678
National Village Museum
This excellent open-air museum in Bucharest brings together historical buildings from all over Romania, spread out in an almost rural setting that lets kids run off some steam. They can explore farmhouses, barns, windmills, and more, and (especially at weekends) watch demonstrations of cow milking, horse shoeing, and other rural skills. Few kids will be able to resist the sweet shop at the entrance. 28–30 Șoseaua Kiseleff, Bucharest, +40 21 317 9068, muzeul-satului.ro
Bucharest has no lack of deluxe hotels and a steadily increasing number of mid-range accommodation options, many within the city centre, a short walk from attractions.
Luxury: Grand Boutique Hotel
This former home of a banking family, hovering on the edge of the old town near University Square, transports you back to the heyday of Bucharest when the city was likened to Paris. A grand carved staircase, elaborate wrought iron, marble columns, parquet floors, and mirror-draped ballroom are among the preserved historical elements of the pretty apricot-coloured villa. The luxury hotel’s restaurant serves contemporary updates of classic Romanian dishes. 1B Negustori Street, Bucharest, +40 31 425 62 30, grandboutiquehotel.ro
Timeless boutique: Casa Georgius Krauss
If you’re keen to stay right in the heart of medieval Sighioara, then this boutique property is your answer, as the 17th-century building is classified as a historic monument and sits right by the cathedral. The luxury hotel has just nine individually decorated rooms (two are twins) complete with handmade wooden furniture that contrasts with chic Italian light fittings and stylish en-suites. The cellar restaurant is romantic, with brick arches and woodwork, and offers impressive fusion gastronomy.
11 Bastionului Street, Sighișoara. +40 365 730 840, casakrauss.com
Classic: Casa Wagner
This recent addition to the Brașov hotel scene couldn’t have a better location: it’s right on the old town’s lovely baroque-era main square, housed in a former bank building dating back to 1477. Its multilingual staff are friendly and, with just 12 intimate rooms, guests receive individual attention. The hotel can arrange tours, car hire, and much more. Rooms are all different, some tucked under the eaves, others with little terraces looking over the town’s chimneypots. 5 Piaţa Sfatului, Brașov, +40 268 411 253, casa-wagner.com
Count Kálnoky’s Estate
Transylvanian aristocrat Count Tubor Kálnoky, more welcoming than legendary Count Dracula, has restored historic houses on his country estate and converted them into antique-decorated holiday accommodation that provides a taste of Transylvania without sacrificing luxury. Guests can horse ride, hike, fish, or even milk cows. The nearby rural retreat of Britain’s Prince Charles, which is administered by the count, can also be rented. 186 Micloșoara,, Covasna County, +40 742 202 586, transylvaniancastle.com
Caru’ Ce Bere Restaurant
The 1879 building that houses this Bucharest restaurant is an experience in itself, rich in gilt and carved wood. Live music and dancing often enliven the main dining hall of this earthy, perennially popular local eating spot. This is the place to try Romanian specialities such as bean soup, sarmale (stuffed cabbage leaves), and platters of local cheese.
5 Stavropoleos Street, Bucharest, +40 726 282 373, carucubere.ro
The lively owner of Bucharest-based but Romania-wide Medieval Tours is adept at bringing the country’s history to life and can tailor-make itineraries to suit particular interests. The straight-speaking, charming host, who honed his skills as a freelance guide for over a decade, brings personality and humour to Romania’s often dark history, and provides a chance to explore the rural Romania seldom encountered by tourists.
88 Matei Basarab Street,
Bloc L116, Sc. A, Etaj 5. Ap. 13,
Sector 3. Bucharest, Romania
+40 21 326 6268, medievaltours.com
Distance: : 3,123 km
Flight Time: 5 hours, 5 mins
Frequency: 4 direct flights a week and 2 flights via Ankara