Traveling southeast from Budapest on the train to Transylvania, we weren’t sure what to expect. We chose to visit Romania, because it seemed to have everything we were looking for in our next destination: incredible mountains, friendly people, and places that are a little more off the beaten path. Our intel was solely based on our good friend Bryan’s vivid anecdotes, and while we trusted Bryan we also felt like we were stepping into the relative unknown for the first time in our travels. At 8:30am, thirteen hours or so after pulling away from Budapest, we stepped bleary-eyed onto the train platform in Sighișoara and began our first of thirteen days in this endearing country.
Sighișoara is a small town with medieval roots that forms a triangle on the map with two of Transylvania’s larger cities, Sibiu and Brașov. We found an Airbnb, Casa La Grecu, at the top of a hill overlooking the town. The house is owned by a Greek man named Sotiri who was born in Hungary, grew up in Romania, and ran a taverna in Germany before settling into life on the hill in Sighișoara. Lucky for us, we had our first experience with wonderfully friendly Romanians within hours of arriving. Stefan and Dia, young outdoor enthusiasts and software developers from Oradea, were staying at the Casa as part of a road trip holiday, and they were as eager as we were to explore the 12th century town and its fortified center. We spent the better part of the day with them, exchanging life stories among the cobblestone streets, talking Romanian and US politics over beers, and learning the ins and outs of local cuisine. They sadly had to hit the road the next day, but they left us with a treasure trove of homemade Romanian goodies (zacuscă, givetch, plum jam, smoked pork belly) and lasting memories with new friends.
We spent three and a half days in Sighișoara, which was the perfect amount of time to see the town, relax a bit, and take a side trip to Biertan, home to one of Transylvania’s many fortified churches. It was here where we met two more friends, Germans Katharina and Marie, also by way of Sotiri the Greek!
Our next Romanian rail adventure took us from Sighișoara to Brașov, where we booked a week in another Airbnb. This time our home was a room in Brașov-native Daniel Popa’s apartment smack dab in the heart of the city. After bouncing from one place to the next every three days for the past two weeks, we wanted some time to settle into a place and move at a little slower pace; Brașov turned out to be the perfect spot for that.
Our neighborhood in Brașov was the Old Town, where several pedestrian streets converge upon a large cobblestone square flanked by the massive Black Church. Most of our days began or ended with a walk along these streets, usually stopping for a tasty treat or drink along the way. There was no shortage of places to eat, and we took most of our meals out. It was hard to say no to the delicious, affordable Romanian food that kept us honest with our budget but perhaps not so with our waistlines. Our favorite spots in Brașov were La Ceaun (traditional clay pot dishes), Emma La Dolce (mint chocolate gelato), Mado (chocolate baklava), and Coffeeöl (good coffee, ridiculous milkshakes). Also, the bread everywhere we went was irresistibly delicious, hence the waistline problem.
We made sure to counteract our calorie consumption with a couple of long hikes, the first of which was a jaunt out to Piatra Craiului National Park with our new friends Aurelie and Dotan. Traveling from Tel Aviv, they stayed at Daniel’s place for two nights as part of a two week road trip through Romania and offered to take us along for a day trip in their rental car. The Piatra Craiului range of the Carpathians is distinguished by its fin-like rock formation, which made for a pretty dramatic landscape. The hike was a mix of gentle and strenuous effort rewarding us with views of mountains, canyons, and several herds of cows and sheep making their way along the valley. As enjoyable as the hike were the conversations we had with Aurelie and Dotan, from Brandon swapping military experience stories (military service is compulsory in Israel) to Aurelie describing the time she spent at an equestrian center in Florida. As brief as the encounters may be, I am grateful for the friendships created along our travels and hopeful we’ll get the chance to spend more time with those two.
Host Daniel led us to our other hike in the Brașov area, which was really more of a necessary means down than a planned hike. Daniel graciously offered to take us to see the Sfinxul, a curious rock formation eroded into a shape resembling Egypt’s famous landmark of the same name, which required we catch a bus to the town of Bușteni. Due to a combination of not-so-blissful ignorance and a relaxed pace to the morning, our means of transportation to the mountain were in flux for a while. After a missed bus, a late train, and a long line for the cable car, we made it up to the ridgeline of the Bucegi Mountains, home of the Sfinxul. It was a short walk from the cable car to the rock formation, but we decided to stretch it out with a small act of public service: trash pickup. An unfortunate side-effect of the popularity of this natural wonder is its visitors’ apparent disregard for the nature around them. Daniel is a rock star, however, and always carries gloves and trash bags with him on hikes. We followed his lead and helped him fill a bag full of discarded bottles, wrappers, and cans. It was the most fulfilling thing I did that day, and he inspired us to do the same whenever and wherever we can.
Our hike was our 4,000-ish feet descent down to Bușteni, since the cable car’s last call was at 3:45pm and we wanted to stay a bit longer to walk around at the top. Had we done a little more research, we would have chosen to get an earlier start and hike up, saving the luxury of the cable car for the ride down. As one of our trip mantras goes, live and learn. It was a good day, nonetheless.
We spent our last couple of days in Romania in its capital, Bucharest, hosted by the wonderful and talented Paula Rusu. I met Paula by chance on the train to Bușteni, and she offered her apartment to us after frantically exchanging contact information as I disembarked. I guess it’s a good thing we missed that bus! She is a freelance illustrator who also leads a growing illustration and graphic design school, Visual Playground, with some of her fellow freelance friends. Paula and her friends showed us a side of Bucharest we wouldn’t have seen by ourselves, and her warmth and openness is something I will try to emulate whenever we have the chance to host guests again.
We boarded our train bound for Bulgaria at noon on September 15th, feeling good about our decision to move on but knowing we’d probably be back at some point. I feel an even stronger pull to return having now read Robert Kaplan’s fascinating account of Romania in the 20th century in the book Balkan Ghosts, highly recommended for anyone traveling to this part of the world. While we only experienced a small slice of Romania, it absolutely delivered, and we’re looking forward to more pie. Mmm, pie…
Have you been to Romania? What should we do when we go back? Let us know in the comments!