Have you been to Romania? I thoroughly recommend that you take a look, speaking as someone who has spent all of five nights in that fascinating country (earlier this week, hence this blog comes to you a day late). We only stayed in Bucharest and Brașov: two cities that just about everybody on a short holiday will visit, in part because they are relatively close together.
When you arrive at Bucharest Airport you immediately know that you are in a modern European city. You drive into town on a busy and well-maintained motorway that could easily be in France or Spain, and as the new and often high-end cars race past you’ll see the usual global brands: BMW, VW, Mercedes, Renault, Toyota and, of course, Dacia. To the left and right are IKEA, Decathlon, Auchan, Starbucks, McDonald’s (unfortunately)… come on England, make an effort! Communism has been left far, far behind.
I confess I wasn’t expecting the city to be so easy on the eye. I had read that it used to be known as “Little Paris” but had been ruined by poor-quality, bad-taste construction from the years of the late, unlamented Commie nutter Nicolae Ceaușescu. Yes, that is partly the case, but the greater part of the 19th-century city, with its wide, tree-lined boulevards, public parks and smart villas, remains unspoilt. There are many fine Art Nouveau buildings too, though some are in poor state of repair. Nothing that a wad of cash couldn’t rescue. There were riverside cocktail bars full of stylish young people, most of whom look just like Spaniards or Italians. There were bike lanes and bikes for hire. The buses were brand new. The metro was clean, well ventilated and easy to use.
I had read that there were 25,000 stray dogs roaming the streets but I didn’t see any. There were very few beggars. People were unfailingly polite and helpful. Drivers stopped to let you cross the road. There were plenty of places to eat and drink, including many serving good local cuisine and excellent wine, and all seemed to take credit cards as well as the local currency. In short: we were impressed. It didn’t hurt that it was warm and sunny for most of the time we were there.
Romania is nearly the size of Great Britain but with only a third of the population, so the countryside is never far away. We took a long forest walk that brought us out into meadows higher than anywhere in England or Wales.
There are about 6,000 brown bears in Romania, and if you want to see them in their natural habitat this is easily the best opportunity in Europe. You can book a trip to watch them from a hide as they put out food for them twice a week to stop them wandering into the towns. So seeing one or more is pretty much guaranteed. (It does make you wonder if there are any truly wild large carnivores left in Europe.)
I was expecting to be nibbled at by the Dracula industry, and there is indeed a certain amount of that. Bran Castle in Transylvania is often marketed as “Dracula’s Castle” when it is nothing of the sort. But all the tourist tat is kept well away the castle itself, which has a very upmarket little restaurant (casa de ceai).
What else? In one of the capitals’s attractive parks is an outdoor museum of traditional village houses, transported and re-erected from the regions. It offers a glimpse at a largely lost world of timber churches, unmechanised farming and home-spun textiles; where communities, such as visited only recently by William Blacker, are almost entirely self-supporting – as referred to in my earlier blog on the rise of veganism.
I haven’t even touched on the language, which is tremendously interesting to anyone who has studied French, Spanish, Italian etc. So familiar and yet so complex (remember the dative and vocative cases?), and worthy of another blog.
Oh, and did I forget to say it’s cheap? At £1.30 a pint you can’t really complain.