Our first encounter with Romanians was not a good one, to say the least. In March 2010, we were in Dublin, Ireland and our rental car was broken into and our belongings were stolen by Romanian Gypsies. Luckily, things ended well because Bryan and Erik chased the guy down and got most of our things back. But I was apprehensive about traveling through Romania in a rental car two years later. I imagined there would be gypsies everywhere trying to rob us.
We’ve been told countless times how beautiful and unique Transylvania, Romania is so I figured I’d give Romania another chance. I’m really glad I did. Except for some ATM troubles, we had nothing but positive experiences during our week of driving through Romania. It feels worlds apart from the rest of Europe, and in many cases, centuries behind it – but not in a bad way. We were fascinated by the lifestyle of the Romanians in the countryside. They live simple, hardworking lives without the technological advances of modern-day. Many Romanians still plow their fields using a horse. Several families join together and take turns reaping the crops from each of their fields, using only scythes and their hands. The Romanian men walk along the roadside with their huge scythes (like the grim-reaper). Many villages and homes even have old-fashioned wells that they still use. It’s common to see old women (all with scarves on their heads) walking down the road with buckets “to fetch a pail of water”.
Driving through Romania, I think we passed just as many horse-drawn carriages as we did cars. Romanians use them to transport logs, hay, family members, whatever. Based on the price of gas in Romania, I think I would buy a horse and carriage if I lived there, too. Gas was the equivalent of $8 USD a gallon – it cost us $100 to fill up the tank of our tiny Chevy Spark. In one town, we passed a horse and carriage filled with big metal containers of milk. Two old women were going door-to-door pouring and delivering milk. On the other hand, we were in a city market and saw the locals lined up to use an automated milk machine that filled their plastic bottles with fresh milk. Along with carriages, hitch-hiking is another popular way to get around in Romania. People actually looked very upset and surprised when we didn’t pick them up.
If you get hungry during your road trip through Romania, don’t worry about having to find a restaurant. Locals stand on the side of the road and sell fresh produce – varying by the region and season. Baskets of fresh berries are extremely common. You can even buy a huge, ripe watermelon for 1 Lei (30 cents USD). We soon learned that you can buy anything you are in the mood for – juice, berries, melons, apples, pears, onions, potatoes, beautifully hand painted eggs, or prostitutes. Yes, you read that correctly. Not everyone in the Romanian countryside lives a simple, wholesome life of farming. We passed lots of women on the side of the highway (in the middle of nowhere) dressed in tight, short skirts, sky-high heels, with teased hair and lots of makeup. I had a feeling they were looking for more than just a ride to the next town.
Along with the people’s way of life, there are many other interesting sites to see in Romania. There are lots of old castles and hill-top fortresses. With the old castles, dense forests, and steep Carpathian Mountains, it’s easy to see why Author Bram Stoker chose Transylvania as the setting for his classic novel Dracula. The region has an air of mystery and intrigue. We didn’t see any vampires, but we did see Bran Castle (the castle that is linked to the real-life Dracula), as well as the house that he lived in as a child in Sighisoara. Prince Vlad Tepes is believed to be the inspiration for the character Dracula (his Father’s name was Vlad Dracul). The former prince was nicknamed “Vlad the Impaler” because of the cruel methods of torture he used against his captives to frighten and terrorize the townsfolk.
The northern region of Romania called Bukovina is home to many gorgeous hand painted monasteries. It was unbelievable how many there are in the area. These monasteries are covered inside and out with elaborate and colorful hand paintings. Most of the paintings are scenes from the Bible and history. Romania is also home to a large amount of fortified churches. During Transylvania’s Saxon period, fort walls were built to protect the churches from attack. Apparently, if you want to enter one of the less-visited fortified churches you need to ask around for the village elder who keeps the original skeleton key for safe-keeping.
Another big attraction in Romania is the Transfagarasan Road. This zig-zagging road cuts through the Carpathian Mountains with impressive scenery. It’s a popular ride for motorcyclists from all over. The best part for us was trying to drive through the huge herds of sheep and farm animals (this is a common occurrence while driving through Romania). There are a few herders and dogs that herd hundreds of sheep, usually accompanied by some goats, cows, and donkeys. The first time Bryan stopped to take pictures of the passing herd, the sheep started veering off the roads towards him. The herders were mad and started yelling at Bryan and the sheep. From then on, we hid while taking photos so we didn’t interfere with the sheep (who are easily distracted).
As I mentioned earlier, our only obstacle in Romania (well, besides passing the sheep) was withdrawing money. We’ve been to over 25 countries in the last 10 months and we’ve never had trouble using our cards at ATMs. However, when we arrived in Romania, none of our cards worked. We called our bank and they saw no withdrawal attempts and stated that they were not blocking our account. We tried four different cards in about 30 ATMs during our first afternoon. Still no luck. Our transactions kept getting denied. After calling our banks again, we found out that VISA was actually blocking the withdrawals (not the actual bank) due to extremely high fraud in Romania. Most of the ATMs even have warnings to look for suspicious devices attached to the machine. Our bank contacted VISA and the restriction was released. We were thrilled to have cash and thought we were good to go. On our last day in Romania, however, we were low on Romanian Leis so Bryan tried to pay for gas with our credit card. All of our cards were denied. There was no way the gas attendants were going to let us leave with an unpaid tank of gas to go to an ATM. So Bryan explained that he was going to leave me with them until he returned (as collateral). I sat with the attendants at the gas station and waited and waited. Geez, had Bryan left me at a gas station in the middle of nowhere in Romania? I felt like I was being held for ransom and waiting on Bryan to bring the ransom money. :-) About an hour later, Bryan finally returned. Our cards had been denied at the ATMs again and he had to find Wi-Fi in the next town to call our bank.
We didn’t just drive, sightsee, and go to ATMs during our week in Romania. Timing was on our side again. Our first night in Romania we went to the city of Brasov and discovered that they were having a small scale Oktoberfest of their own. We were determined to have a good time and meet some new people so we scoured the tables for “fun-looking people.” It didn’t take long before we had a table full of new friends from Spain, France, Poland, and Kenya, and a stack of empty glasses. We called ourselves the “U.N.” and were the first group to climb on the table and start dancing and singing. Our waitress asked us if we would participate in a dancing contest on stage with the Ompah Band. I was shocked that even Bryan participated. All we had to do was drink a beer and dance in a circle on one foot. We even won a big ugly green and yellow beer hat. Brasov’s Oktoberfest was an awesome time, and a good warm-up for Munich’s original Oktoberfest in a few weeks. I hope we find a fun group of people there, too!
Speaking of Germany, our next move will be to fly from Bucharest, Romania to Menningen, Germany on WizzAir (sounds like a high-quality airline ). We will then take some short train rides to our next destination of Salzburg, Austria.
Our Tips for Travelers:
-We highly recommend traveling through Transylvania – especially in the region north of Brasov where the scenery and lifestyle is most impressive. We traveled some in the south and west of Romania and felt that it was a waste of our time (sightless plains and unattractive cities). And we’ve heard terrible stories from other travelers about Bucharest (the capital), so we didn’t even venture there.
-We were pleased with our decision to rent a car. You can rent a car for around $20-25 USD (but keep in mind that gas is pricey). We still felt that the freedom of having our own car and being able to stop to take pictures was worth the price of gas.
-Notify your bank and credit card companies that you will be traveling through Romania and ask them not to freeze your cards while you are there (be prepared to call them if they do). Most importantly, bring cash with you to convert to Romanian Leis, just in case you still have ATM troubles!