Return to Romania

I’ve finished a trip to Romania to research the next edition of the Bradt Guide to Transylvania – I had a lovely time and I can report that (despite rampant inflation) the country is in a pretty good place at the moment. The first thing that bowled me over, in Timișoara and București (Bucharest), was that drivers were desperate to stop at pedestrian crossings and let me cross safely – a total turnaround from how things used to be. They’re also quite punctilious in using their indicators now. So far, so jaw-dropping.

 Other changes were more predictable – far more people (and most young people) speak English now, contactless payment is everywhere, and there are all kinds of interesting beers available. When I visited in the early 1990s I made it my personal mission to save Romania’s dark beers and make a stand against the flood tide of lagers (especially with the main Romanian breweries being bought up by the likes of Heineken) – well, I can definitely report that that battle has been won. Cheers!

From beers to bears, and they’re everywhere too – hunting is no longer allowed (although it was a nice little earner for the country) and numbers have exploded. I was seeing bear prints in mud and snow not just in the higher-altitude forests but in relatively low, populated areas too, especially when I was walking between the Saxon villages where Brașov, Mureș and Sibiu counties meet. There were plenty of wolf prints too. There’s no great risk for daytime hikers, but who knows what might happen after dark? I used to camp wild without a second thought, but I would certainly think twice or thrice now. In many places I found myself following markers for the Via Transilvanica, a new long-distance trail that crosses Transylvania from northeast to southwest, crossing most of its main ecological zones and most touristed areas. It’s pretty good for walkers, though as usual in Romania there’s no telling when some forestry operation will turn everything to mud, but they also claim that it can all be cycled, which is far from the case.

The construction of motorways has been a long-running saga, with all kinds of delays and scandals – the sections from Ploiești (north of București) to Brașov and from Cluj west to the Hungarian border are an especially long way from completion, but it’s now possible to drive easily (and toll-free) from Sibiu and Târgu Mureș to Cluj, Deva and Timișoara – handy for drivers, of course, but I particularly noticed how quiet and pleasant so many towns and villages now are with the endless lines of Turkish trucks removed from them. Railway modernisation is not going nearly so well – huge sums of European money are being spent to rebuild the main lines, but at the same time any kind of useable service has been wiped out, with in many cases just a couple of one- or two-carriage trains running per day, and a general assumption by management that anyone who wants to get anywhere should just drive – bizarre! Bus (well, minibus, aka maxitaxi) services are better than they were, with most of the cowboy drivers tamed or removed, but weekend services are terrible, again with a general assumption that if you need to get anywhere you’ll drive or hitch a lift – which does work pretty well.

 The new edition of the Bradt guide will include some new museums (in Brașov, Bran and Cluj), and lots of fine new guesthouses (in eg Meșendorf, Valea Viilor, Richiș and Porumbacu de Sus), and of course cafés and restaurants – but you’ll have to buy the book for details.

 Friends of Charles

I had a spell of meeting FOCs (Friends of Charles – you know, the chap who was Prince of Wales and is now King, which has led to some verbal contortions in the new edition) almost every day. Most were just contacts, really, but at least two are inner circle. I’ve added a box to the text, not about them, but about the way Charles has brought together people working for architectural and ecological conservation in Transylvania, and how this exemplifies the co-operative approach of the best guesthouse owners and others working to make their region better and more sustainable.

 A bit of lit crit

I’ve been reading some books by expats in Transylvania, and can strongly recommend them. Arabella McIntyre-Brown’s A Stake in Transylvania is already a classic of the genre, with copies lying around in the type of guesthouses that foreigners use. It’s a candid account of her move from Liverpool to Transylvania and her far from blinkered love for her new home, with lots of balanced insights. Mike Ormsby’s books are somewhat similar but with a more satirical edge to them. Rupert Wolfe Murray’s Romania, Rude and Vile? (the name does not mean what you think) is an interesting collection of journalism and other pieces written between 1989 and 2023 that cover many aspects of Romanian life and culture with insight and affection.