Romania: Amazing Sights, Endearing People, And Fascinating History


Hi. I'm Rick Steves, back with more of the best of Europe. This time, we got plenty of horsepower for an amazing trip in Romania. Thanks for joining us! 

Romania is one of Europe's lesser known corners, with a rich and fascinating history. Having come through tough times, today, it's a member of the European Union, clearly on the upswing and a rewarding place to explore. 

Travelers experience a land of contrasts. Its lively capital has a modern bustle. Its mammoth palace recalls a horrible dictator. A romantic king's retreat stands tall in the mountains. And medieval churches hide behind fortified walls. 

While many are lured by the Dracula myth, the reality is even more fascinating in this complex land where a vivid folk life still thrives. 

In the southeast of Europe, Romania sits where the Danube River meets the Black Sea. Starting in Bucharest, we visit Peles Castle, head for the Carpathian Mountains in Transylvania to visit Brasov and Sighisoara. We finish in the traditional region of Maramures. 

Romania's capital, Bucharest, with about 2 million people, is a sprawling tangle of buildings. It's muscular and gritty, hard to like at first glance. But with a thoughtful look, it reveals its charms. 

Bucharest has a raw and bracing urban energy. First-time visitors are struck by its eclectic mix of architecture. Just wandering the streets with your neck craned up is entertaining. 

The foundation of this architectural jumble dates from the late 19th century. That's just after Romania become a unified country for the first time. 

In the 1860s, without a royal family to call their own, the Romanians went shopping for a king who could connect them with the European mainstream. They found one in Germany, where a prince looking for a throne agreed to become King Carol I of Romania. 

King Carol embraced his new homeland while bringing Western reforms and securing true independence for Romania. Under King Carol, Bucharest blossomed. He imported French architects to give Bucharest a romantic allure. 

Today, Victory Avenue is a showcase of the city's belle epoque, when Bucharest was nicknamed "The Little Paris of the East." The Avenue rumbles toward the recently rejuvenated Old Town. 

Under more stately architecture, you'll find inviting pedestrian lanes. This is the traffic-free heart of town. Locals enjoy a fun and relaxing scene, and there's almost no tourists in sight. 

And the nightlife scene is on the rise. Formerly abandoned shopping galleries are now sweet with hookah smoke. Food trucks fill a vacant lot with late-night sipping and socializing. If you're looking for fun after dark, this part of Bucharest can feel like one big, sprawling cocktail party. 

Thriving as it is today, Bucharest's Old Town was lucky to survive the Communist period. Most of the historic center was wiped out by the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu so he could build a grandiose new town perfect for a megalomaniac. 

Ceausescu took power in 1965, and through his 24 year dictatorship, his ego ballooned. He became addicted to massive projects without budgets. 

After a visit to North Korea, Ceausescu returned inspired to transform his city. He ripped out most of Bucharest's historical core to create this -- his enormous civic center. Its wide boulevards and stone-faced apartment blocks all have a distinctive Pyongyang aesthetic. The culmination of his master plan was an immense palace with more than 1,000 rooms, fit for a dictator gone wild. 

Ceausescu literally starved his people to build his dream. Over 6 years, from 1983 to '89, thousands of laborers worked on it 24/7. When it finally opened to the public in 1994 -- that was 5 years after Ceausescu died -- the Romanian people were both wonderstruck and repulsed. 

Today, guided tours lead gawking visitors around these vast and empty spaces. You feel small exploring its grand halls, huge staircases, and mega-ballrooms. 

Ceausescu demanded the ideal balcony from which to deliver speeches while looking out over his new town, and a boulevard grand enough to match his ego. This palace and similarly extravagant projects all around the downtrodden country created a powerful anti-Ceausescu sentiment that ultimately led to his downfall. 

In late 1989, with winds of change sweeping the Eastern Bloc, armed revolutions spread across Romania. An angry populace filled the square here in front of the Communist Party headquarters. They arrested their dictator and shot him on Christmas Day. 

This monument honors more than 1,000 Romanians who died in the struggle to overthrow the tyrant and free their country. 

Today, Ceausescu feels like ancient history, and Romania is proud to be part of the European Union. 

Joining local families on a Saturday morning in the park, you feel optimistic. While Romania's challenges are significant, it's clear the country is moving in the right direction. 

Heading north for the Carpathian Mountains, we leave Bucharest. Stunning fields of poppies are irresistible. And this quick roadside stop is just too joyful to pass up. 

Our next stop is Peles Castle, the summer residence of Romania's first king, Carol. Carol chose a mountainous and forested setting that reminded him of his German homeland. And he imported German architects to create this fanciful hunting lodge. 

Prickly, with over-the-top spires, Peles ranks among Europe's finest Romantic Age palaces. And it boasts one of the most dazzling late 19th-century interiors anywhere. 

The Hall of Honor, with its red carpets, grand staircase, and venerable portraits, sets the tone. The woodwork is exquisite. The rest of the rooms have a grand yet somehow cozy elegance, glittering crystal chandeliers, thoughtful touches. 

King Carol ruled for 48 years. When summering at the palace, he took care of matters of state in his study. For over 30 years, the king dined with guests here. His impressive collection of weapons and armor stoked conversation. 

The library showed off the king's passion for education. And today, more than a century later, tourists from around the world still marvel at King Carol's castle. 

Just over the Carpathian mountains, we cross into the fabled region of Transylvania. "Trans-sylvania." It means "across the forest." And that's literally where we've gone. 

We're spending the night in the handy home-base town of Brasov, which fills a scenic mountain valley. Most of the city's people live in boxy Communist-era apartment blocks, many of which have been spiffed up. 

But the historic Old Town is much more charming. It's packed with locals enjoying a balmy evening. Thriving and appealing, Brasov offers a glimpse into a mid-sized Romanian city that has its act together. 

Among other things, Transylvania is well-known for its rustic and wild countryside and a medieval history with a surprising German twist. 

In the 12th century, Transylvania's Hungarian overlords needed help taming this wild frontier. So they imported skilled merchants and hardworking settlers from the German lands. For that reason, you'll find German-speaking enclaves and delightful German towns in this part of Romania. 

One of Transylvania's seven original German towns is Sighisoara, perhaps the most popular tourist town in all of Romania. The old center is entirely contained within its fortified hilltop. 

Several of Sighisoara's watchtowers still survive, and its historic centerpiece is its clock tower, proudly trumpeting the town's special status in the Middle Ages. 

Within the town's protective walls, visitors explore cobbled lanes, enjoy pastel German-style facades... and sip beers on the main square. 

Nearby, a statue honors the town's tenuous connection with an infamous Romanian prince, Vlad Tepes. In the 15th century, he ruthlessly fought the Turkish Ottomans. Much later, he became better known as the inspiration for a vampire. 

Vlad had two nicknames -- Vlad the Impaler and Dracula. That means "Son of the devil." Vlad the Impaler was brutal in his defense of his homeland. While he didn't drink anyone's blood, he was sadistic, famously impaling his victims. The popular Dracula myth came much later. 

Dracula in the myth is a fictitious vampire created centuries later by the Victorian novelist Bram Stoker. He wrote his famous novel, "Dracula," after being inspired by the tales of this bloodthirsty prince and other local legends. 

Vlad the Impaler? Important prince. Dracula the vampire? Just a scary fairy-tale. Nevertheless, Dracula is big business for local tourism. 

For many, when in Transylvania, a stop at Bran Castle is considered a must. While people call it Dracula's Castle, it has virtually nothing to do with Vlad the Impaler. But that doesn't stop the tourists from coming or locals from selling their vampire kitsch. 

Past the tacky souvenir gauntlet, a cobbled path curls up to the castle entrance. Despite the fanciful legends, Bran is actually a fine example of an authentic medieval fortress dating from the 14th century. 

Some of Romania's most memorable fortresses aren't castles at all. They're actually churches. While big towns were well-fortified, smaller German villages were vulnerable to invaders. So what did the industrious settlers do? They fortified their churches. 

Dozens of fortified German churches, mostly built in the 13th and 14th centuries, are scattered across Transylvania. Like other medieval fortresses, they have beefy bastions, stout lookout towers, and narrow slits for archers. Entire communities could take refuge inside, within these wraparound defensive galleries. This fortified church had a room for each family. And when under attack, each family had a defensive responsibility. 

Stepping inside these churches feels like stepping into medieval Germany. Decoration was humble. Pews were simple benches. Bible quotes are in German. And to this day, the services are Lutheran. 

Today, most of Romania's ethnic Germans are gone, having emigrated in the late 19th century or fled to Germany after World War II. Those who remain speak a time-warped German and work hard to keep their unique cultural heritage alive. 

And the cultural heritage of Romania is many-faceted. Appreciating the diversity of the 20 million people who make up this country enriches your experience. The faces, as varied and beautiful as the land itself, tell the story. 

Of Romania's many people, one group in particular has struggled to fit in -- the Roma. Also known as gypsies, the Roma originated in India. They were nomads who migrated over the centuries throughout Eastern Europe and gained a reputation as musicians, thieves, and metalworkers. 

Romania has Europe's largest Roma population. They've had to abandon their nomadic ways and face the challenge of settling down. The classic Roma image is poor people in shanty towns. But most Roma live side by side with their Romanian neighbors, more or less fitting into mainstream society. And many Roma carry on the traditional craft of metalworking. We've been invited in to learn more. 

Rick: My name is Rick. So, how many years has your family been making copper? Man: 450 years ago. Rick: Many generations. Man: Yeah, many generations. Six, maybe seven generations. Rick: Six or seven? Man: Yeah, yeah. Rick: Your father, his father... Man: Yeah. My grandfather, my grand-grandfather... Rick: Right here? Man: Yeah. Rick: I love your hat. Can I see your hat? Man: Yeah, sure. Rick: So this is a Roma hat? Man: Yeah, it's Roma hat. Yeah. 

Rick: Do you like to be called Roma or gypsy? Man: Uh, Roma. Rick: Roma. What is important to the Roma people? Man: For Roma people, it's important, it's important -- family. Respect life, my people. Art, music, language. Pure language. Rick: So you speak a Roma language. Man: Yeah. Yeah. Rick: So today, for the Roma community, what's the challenge? Man: Oh, living modern times, and at same time, like, keep traditions. 

Pondering the challenges of maintaining traditions in an aggressively modern world, we leave Transylvania and drive north. 

At the fringe of the country, tucked next to the Ukrainian border, is Romania's most isolated region, Maramures. 

Maramures is fiercely traditional. Its centuries-old ways endure. Horse carts are commonplace. The men wear distinctive straw hats. The women are tough as the land. People work the fields, as they have for generations. 

Village roads are lined with ornate wooden gateways. These gateways are intentionally elaborate, designed to show off the family's wealth. The gates protect family compounds. Along with a home, you'll find a barn, a garden, and an old-time dipping well. And if you've never tried one of these, locals are happy to demonstrate. 

Rick: Can you show me the well? Yeah? What do we have? Woman: Yeah? Rick: Like this? Okay. Nice! Okay, so, in to the horses? There we go. 

We're staying at a farmhouse B&B. Our host ritualistically closes the gate behind us. People here are superstitious, especially after dark. It's dinnertime. But first, we're getting a little tour. Traditional Romanians collect their nicest belongings into one room, designed to impress their guests. Heirloom dowries are lovingly displayed. These are bridal gifts going back generations. 

Tonight, we're being treated to a farmer's feast. The food is typical of the region -- rustic, delicious, and farm-fresh. Our host, Anna, is determined to feed us well. Hearty salads, cabbage rolls. Polenta is a daily treat around here, and pork is big. In Romania, like everywhere else, food is especially tasty when it's local and fresh. And everything goes better with the local firewater.  

After dinner, the evening continues in the music room, where Anna's husband gets out his violin and shares some rousing folk music. 

In this traditional community, many homes are busy with small-scale crafts and industry. Just up the lane, we meet a family who welcomes us into their cozy yet busy world. 

The daughter, using a technique that goes back to ancient times, gracefully spins raw wool into yarn. Inside, her mother weaves the yarn into bolts of cloth, which will eventually be made into heavy woolens for the winter. 

Next door, a water mill does the same work it's done since medieval times. With the flip of a giant lever, George, the miller, sets things in motion. All of this powers his fulling mill, which takes the neighbor's woven wool to the next stage. Wooden hammers relentlessly pummel the fabric. With the help of hot water, the wool is pounded into a dense felt. 

The finished product is heavy and warm, ideal for the frigid Romanian winter. The waterwheel also powers grinding stones. To this day, villagers drop off their grain to be ground into everything from animal feed to polenta. 

And George also has his own still for making the local brandy, horinca. He stokes the fire and patiently stirs his heated plum mash to keep it from burning. After its steamy journey through his low-tech water cooler, George's beloved firewater trickles into his bucket. And you can't visit George's distillery without tasting the final product. 

Maramures has some of the finest wooden churches in Europe. Their graceful spires punctuate the countryside. Soaring skyward, they seem to connect earth with heaven. The exteriors show off the quality craftsmanship of local woodworkers through the centuries. And our guide, Theo, shows us how beautifully decorated the interiors are. 

Rick: Theo, this is remarkable. And how old is this church? Man: 17th-century. Rick: How old are all these beautiful paintings? Man: 18th-century. Rick: You know, they look more simple, like what you would see 14th century in France or Germany. Man: Yeah, it was a kind of a delay, or a very long-lasting tradition. 

Rick: And the carpets? I've never seen a church with carpets everywhere. Man: They are gifts donated from parishioners, from the ladies. Rick: So ladies want to show their devotion, they bring a carpet. Man: Yes, it's a kind of devotion. A kind of sacrifice, let's say it. Rick: And these beautiful embroideries, are these gifts also from parishioners? Man: Yes. For example, here, you can see it bears the donator's name, Jurca Pălăguţă. Rick: Oh, that's the name of the woman who embroidered this. 

Even modern churches are still built in the traditional wooden style. Dating from 1995, this one towers 250 feet, with artistic shinglework cascading from peak to eaves. Again, the technical mastery of the woodworkers is on display. Chunky timbers, precisely dovetailed, keep massive walls firmly in place. 

Just up the road is another unforgettable church, this one with an unusually joyful cemetery. In 1935, a local woodcarver, reviving an old tradition, began adorning what's known as the "Merry Cemetery" with a forest of vivid memorials. 

Each one comes with a whimsical poem and a painting of the departed in the moment of death or doing something they loved. Even if you can't read the poems, the images speak volumes. From a lifetime commitment to a traditional trade, like weaving, baking, or woodworking, a more modern one like television repair, or to a passion for bicycles. A sad, early end by a lightning strike, or a humorous memorial to a lifetime spent enduring a nagging mother-in-law. 

It's a poignant and good-natured celebration of each individual's life, as well as a chronicle of village history. And it's all painted in cheery blue, to match the heavens where these souls are headed. 

Traveling through Romania, I feel about as far from home as I've ever been while still in Europe. Sure, it's got some rough edges. But you'll enjoy amazing sights, endearing people, and rich memories. 

Thanks for joining us. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on travelin'. Cha. Cha, cha. 

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