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.
There are two kinds of populism stalking the earth at the moment, both equally nasty (though the Trump version is far more dangerous), although they both depend on an ill-informed electorate. The traditional kind involves a corrupt pyramid of patronage, in which a mayor doles out contracts for vote-winning public works to contractors who pay him a generous backhander, and he pays off the guy above him who brings out the votes for him, and so on right to the top. In Romania this is how it’s been most of the time since the end of communism, with the former ruling party transformed into the party of patronage and power. When the latest edition of the Rough Guide to Romania went to print last year (mid-2016), the situation was that there had been massive public protests after a nightclub fire on 30 October 2015 that killed 63 due to corruption in the Bucharest fire inspection service; the prime minister stood down and was replaced by a technocrat. But by the time a general election came around in December 2016 this had changed to apathy and an absurdly low turn-out, which allowed the same old gang of crooks to turn out the vote in their rural strongholds and get back in to power. The PSD used the traditional populist promises: tax cuts for pensioners, a higher minimum wage, and free public transport; but they’ve also been emboldened by the successes of populist parties and movements elsewhere.
Almost at once the new government announced that it would decriminalize corruption (yes, you read that right, essentially), supposedly to reduce prison overcrowding but in fact because so many of its politicians are being dragged through the courts by the commendably dogged DNA or Anti-Corruption Agency. Cue more outrage and mass demonstrations (at least 150,000 in Bucharest, and as many again across the nation), and tut-tutting from the European Union and the like. As we pointed out in the Rough Guide, Romania’s justice system never met the standards for accession to the EU, and it is the EU taxpayer who has paid the price, with billions of euros plundered from EU funds. Thankfully, the president is on the right side and is taking a stand, and even the Orthodox church, usually a slavish follower of power, has come out against the government.
On 30 January 2017 the government swore that it would not force through the mass pardon it was giving itself, then the next day it did just that with an emergency government order (shades of Trumpism there), then after more massive street protests, withdrew it on 4 February. The government won a vote of confidence in parliament and tabled a parliamentary bill along the same lines as the emergency order. One of the strange things about the December 2016 general election was that the former opposition parties largely vanished and the third largest party (after the PSD and PNL, forming the ruling coalition) is now the Save Romania Union (Uniunea Salvați România), formed only in 2016 following the success of the Save Bucharest Union in local elections. It now has 30 seats in the Chamber of Deputies and 13 in the Senate; it seems promising but is still far too small and inexperienced to stop the government coalition from doing what it wants. The effective opposition comes from President Johannis, who told parliament that he respected the election results, but that now the government has to govern in the national interest; parliament did pass his proposal for a referendum (with a question to be decided by him), so now we’ll see what happens next. The corrupt politicians have far too much to lose, so no-one imagines they’re just giving up. And they genuinely can’t understand that there’s another way to do politics.
That other form of populism? That’s what happens when people who’ve been told that they’re growing up in a developed country and that they are ‘educated’ actually believe that and start to think that they can read rags like the Sun and the Daily Mail and alt.right sources like Breitbart and that this counts as news – and of course again they’re being lied to and believe the liars and elect the liars.
Argentina always used to favour the Romanian model of populist corruption – they voted for pieces of shit and got the government they deserved, alas, but the mantra was always ‘yes, but he’s my piece of shit’. Whereas of course the voters were being conned. Now, with Mauricio Macri as president there’s a chance they can turn it round – which would be nice, as I enjoy visiting, and writing about, Chile and Uruguay (I’ll post something about Uruguay in a few months, when the new edition of the Bradt Guide is published).
And I haven’t even mentioned Putin! Or Brexit. Or Viktor Orbán across the border in Hungary. But I can say that all this global nonsense makes the dirigiste style of government of Singapore (where I was a month ago) and Taiwan (where I’m writing this) seem far more attractive than it would have done a year ago.
No photos of beautiful Romanian mountains, sorry, it’s not that kind of post. Oh ok then, here’s one showing how they teach people to be nice in Singapore.
The first place I went to research a guidebook was Romania, in the spring of 1991, and after writing two editions of the Bradt Hiking Guide I continued as author of the Rough Guide to Romania, still somehow trundling along with new editions to this day.
My first professional contact with the Rough Guides was when I went to Portugal in 1992 with a second-hand copy of the guide and sent back detailed notes, which they found useful enough to offer me a free book for my next trip – so when I went to Morocco at the end of 1992 I sent in a good load of information on Marrakech and hiking in the Anti-Atlas. When I returned to Morocco in March 2016 I took that 1993 4th edition (we also took a 2013 Footprint Dream Trip guide which was quite adequate for current info), and I was reminded how very good the RGs were in those days. My notes from that first Morocco trip led to my working on the RG to Romania, a satisfying experience at first as the country transformed itself (with countless detours and delays) from a post-communist mess into a more modern mess, but an experience that became depressing as each edition was cut, cut, cut – just as the tourist offer was expanding in volume and variety. The Morocco book had a particularly good Contexts section at the rear with extracts from literature by Moroccans and about Morocco – the sort of thing that’s ideal for long bus rides, but long since lost from guidebooks. For the most recent (7th) edition of Romania, researched in late 2015 and published in 2016, we had to endure a re-design of the text, breaking it up with extra headings so that – suprise surprise! – more information had to be cut (while finding space for all the new URLs, more detailed opening hours, both English and Romanian names for all museums etc). Hard and tedious work – and it was quite a shock to return to the 1993 Morocco guide, and then a month later the 1997 RG to Tuscany & Umbria, to see how much information and added insight they were able to give – even if we couldn’t really see the difference between the zellig designs in the various medersas, it was good to know about it.
To give a bit more detail, the text has been broken up into app-friendly nuggets – each given its own heading, followed by a line with practical details (often just a two-word street address) – then the name is repeated (in English and Romanian) in the text below. So on the one hand there’s pointless repetition, and on the other any nugget that doesn’t reach about 30 words has to be either puffed up with flannel or cut. Likewise, hotel and restaurant/café listings have to be 30 words, or be cut – passing mentions in running text are now banned. The upshot is that the redesign – which we were promised would actually save space – actually needs more space, and leads to the text being cut ruthlessly. Of course, as always in this image-hungry world, there are lots of glossy photos. And this is a book that has been trimmed in all the preceding editions – there was no fat left to lose, while there was lots of new material, especially in Transylvania. Space could be saved by using single instead of double quotation marks, by writing eg p.154-5 and 1946-7 instead of p.154-55 and 1946-47 etc (that adds up over the length of a book), but the design is sacrosanct. The Rough Guides have always taken a much more mechanistic and formulaic approach than other publishers I’ve worked with, but this time there really was almost no wiggle room.
The official view was that the redesign would actually save space, but there would also be ‘counterbalancing cuts’, though I have no idea what these were: ‘To achieve the desired extent in other titles, we’ve depended on the counterbalancing cuts mentioned in synopses, in tandem with the slight shrinkage naturally brought about by the redesign’.
I hate this not simply because valuable information is being lost, but because it’s a shift towards a more metropolitan style of tourism where people rush from one honeypot to another in search of third-wave coffee. The redesign did seem to work for Wales, but the thing about Maramureş and Transylvania is that it’s all about the villages, and often there isn’t a single specific sight. If we have to delete every place that doesn’t have the requisite number of cappuccino outlets it ends up like every other guide to towns and other tourist hotspots. Now we can’t even write ‘the road from A to B passes through C, where there’s a nice church and a couple of guesthouses, and a lovely unrushed rural lifestyle.’ – now it all has to be pumped up into full listings, or cut. So people’s livelihoods in sustainable, community-based businesses are jeopardised, and the tourist experience just gets duller.
Rough Guides (now part of Penguin-Random House) is progressively buying out authors’ copyrights, so that we now receive a fee rather than royalties. This shouldn’t have changed our status, but increasingly the payments department in particular is treating authors on a level with suppliers of office toilet paper, in a faceless bureaucratic maze where we’re threatened with non-payment if we don’t use exactly the right format for our invoices – and I was sent just one copy of the finished book until I demanded a second (an oversight, apparently). Authors are no longer expected to check the proofs – but thank goodness I did see them for indexing, as there were quite a few errors still in the text, given the last-minute rush after the lengthy to-and-fro trying to decide what really had to be cut. The fact that the layout and cartography are now done in Delhi didn’t help.
Given the general atmosphere of doom and gloom in guidebook publishing since the 2008 crash and the rise of smartphone apps to replace dead-tree guidebooks, we were a bit surprised that a new edition of Romania was commissioned at all, and there was never much chance of getting space for all the new tourism developments in the country – so I may have been unreasonable in trying so desperately to fit all the new stuff in while not hacking out too much existing text. No-one is as dedicated as me to going through text word by word (several times) to make it as tight as possible, but it was never going to work.
Anyway – the upshot of a process in which each edition looks prettier but contains less useful information is that over 80 villages were cut from this latest edition. From the Transylvania chapter these are: Moeciu, Fundata, Cloaşterf, Sâmbata Monastery, Cisnădioara, Răşinari, Săcel, Miercurea Sibiului, Slimnic, Ocna Sibiului, Sebeş (actually a fairly significant town), Lăzarea, Brâncoveneşti, Hodac and Gurghiu, Cernat de Jos, Zalánpatak, Băile Homorod, Vlăhiţa, Stejărişu, Buru, Ocoliş, Bucium Poieni, Beliş, Călata, Călăţele, Mănăstireni, Fildu de Sus, Hida, Cizer, Leşu, Beclean, Coşbuc, Năsăud and the whole of the Someş Mare valley (Sângeorz-Bai, Rodna and Şanţ) and the Bârgău valley (Livezele, Josenii Bârgăului, Prundu Bârgăului, Tiha Bârgăului and the Tihuţa Pass). But we’ve added the delightful villages of Richiş, Moşna and Alma Vii.
Now I’m not saying that some of these places didn’t need to make way for newer ones, or in a general process of streamlining, but I do want to make the information available in the somewhat more elastic space of the internet. I’m posting a selection of accounts of Transylvanian villages in this post – some updated, some not, and all shorn of their context. I’ll come to the rest of Romania in another post.
Continuing with the topic of cuts to the 7th edition of the Rough Guide to Romania and my mission to put much of the lost text into the public domain (see my previous posts hereand here), in the Maramureş chapter the villages of Giuleşti, Berbeşti, Glod and Petrova were cut, and I’ve put the text below. In the Banat and Crişana chapter I was happy to cut most of the villages northeast of Arad (Salonta, Bârsa, Ineu, Pâncota and Moneasa), whch were included only because of their very minor festivals. as well as Lesnic (east of Arad), but I did manage to add a few further south, such as Oraviţa and Sasca Română/Sasca Montana.
As for the chapters that I wasn’t involved with, the coverage of Bucharest is still undoubtedly exemplary, but even so the Russian church, the Museum of Old Western Arts and the Museum of Popular Arts have been cut, as well as Căciulaţi and Căldăruşani in the city’s outskirts. From the Wallachia chapter Breaza, Cheia, the Rucăr area, Călimăneşti-Căciulata, Polovragi, Bistriţa, Arnota and Tismana have gone; from the Moldavia chapter Galaţi (a major city), Brăila, Focşani, Mărăşeşti, Bacău, Panciu, Odobeşti, Oneşti, Slănic Moldova, Târgu Ocna and Vama have been lost. And Niculiţel, Babadag, Basarabi, Medgidia and Murfatlar (one of Romania’s best-known wine-making areas) were cut from the Delta and the Coast chapter.
Contexts (the background section at the rear of the Rough Guide) got squeezed, of course, and Alexander the Good has vanished – a shame as he pops up in the Moldavia chapter, so let me just say that he was the ruling prince of Moldavia (Moldova) between 1400 and 1432, who may have earned his honorary title (Alexandru cel Bun) by ousting the Turks from the eastern marches, though it could well have been bestowed by the Basarab family, whom he made feudal lords of the region subsequently known as Bessarabia.
GIULEŞTI AND BERBEŞTI
Further north on the main road to Sighet is GIULEŞTI, a larger village which has a stone church and, like many of these villages, an ancient watermill: its two mill wheels grind wheat and corn, the miller traditionally taking one cupful of each hopper-load. Everything is made of wood, right down to the little water channels lubricating the spindles of the wheels, and it doubles as a fulling mill, its large wooden mallets beating the cloth clean.
On the northern edge of BERBEŞTI, a 300-year-old carved wooden crucifix (troiţa), adorned with four mourning figures and symbols of the sun and moon, stands beside the road, a reminder of a time when travel was considered dangerous; no journeys were made on Tuesdays, which were deemed unlucky, and it was believed that after dark ghosts and vampires roamed the highways, seeking victims.
Giuleşti and Berbeşti are on the Baia Mare–Sighet road, served by fifteen buses daily.
From Poienile Izei, a poor road leads on to the tiny and unspoilt village of GLOD (more easily reached by a 7km road from the Iza valley just east of Bârsana). It’s known for its folk beliefs – for instance in werewolves and spirits of the night – and associations with the outlaw Pintea Viteazul; tales tell of his treasure buried under a spring and protected by a curse. There’s also a wooden church, dating from 1784.
From the Autogara Jan in Sighet, there’s one daily bus to Glod, at 15.45.
Pensiunea In Poiana, no.81; 0262/332 367, 0720/071 787, pensiunea-inpoiana.ro. Behind a traditional wooden gateway, a modern four-storey block houses a surprisingly welcoming guesthouse with a small swimming pool, and a large and adequate restaurant. €18
Various bits of Rough Guide text about Romanian film-making were amalgamated into a new Film section, but this also got cut at a late stage of the editing process, so here it is:
Romanian film is currently on a roll, its highly acclaimed New Wave beginning in 2005 with Cristi Puiu’s Moartea domnului Lăzărescu (The Death of Mr Lazarescu; 2005), the tale of an elderly man being trawled around Bucharest’s hospitals as he faces imminent death; this was followed by Corneliu Porumboiu’s A fost sau n-a fost? (12:08 East of Bucharest; 2006), a fabulous deadpan comedy surrounding the events of the 1989 revolution; Radu Muntean’s Hârtia va fi Albastră (The Paper Will Be Blue; 2006), a tragedy brought about by confusion and misunderstandings during the revolution; and Cristian Mungiu’s Palme d’Or-winning 4 luni, 3 saptamâni si 2 zile (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days; 2007), a tragic story of illegal abortion set during the final days of the Ceauşescu regime. In fact, Puiu had already made the low-budget road movie Marfa şi Bani (Stuff and Dough; 2001), now regarded as one of the classic Romanian films, and the short Un cartuş de Kent şi un pachet de cafea (Cigarettes and Coffee; 2004), which won a Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival; Muntean had made the thriller Furia (The Rage; 2002), while Mungiu’s Occident, a tragicomedy about young people moving to Western Europe when they can not make ends meet in Romania, had come out in 2002, and Porumboiu had already made prize-winning shorts.
They’ve continued to make excellent films, mostly with a touch of black humour, such as Puiu’s Aurora (2010), the tale of an ordinary man cracking up, and Sierra-Nevada (2016). Porumboiu has had Polițist, Adjectiv (Police, Adjective; 2009), a masterfully crafted tale of choosing between the law, bureaucratic authority and a personal sense of justice, and Comoara (The Treasure; 2015). Muntean’s excellent Boogie, about Romanians in their 30s who try to reconcile marriage and partying, freedom and responsibilities, teenage and adulthood, came out in 2008, while Marţi, după Crăciun (Tuesday, After Christmas; 2010) is a domestic drama set against a backdrop of rampant consumerism, and Un etaj mai jos (One Floor Below; 2015) a slow-burning psychological drama. Finally there’s Mungiu’s Amintiri din epoca de aur (Tales from the Golden Age; 2009) and După Dealuri (Beyond the Hills; 2012), which won the Best Screenplay prize at Cannes.
These directors have inspired a younger generation, such as Cristian Nemescu, whose California Dreamin’ (2007) has a group of Americans soldiers stranded at a tiny Romanian railway station on their way to Kosovo; Marian Crisan with Morgen (2010) and Rocker (2012); Calin Peter Netzer, whose Poziţia Copilului (Child’s Pose; 2013) won a Golden Bear in Berlin; Tudor Giurgiu with Despre Oameni şi Melc (Of Snails And Men; 2012) and Why Me (2015); Florin Șerban with Eu cand vreau sa Fluier, Fluier (If I Want To Whistle, I Whistle; 2015) and Box (2015); and Radu Jude’s Cea mai fericită fată din lume (The Happiest Girl in the World; 2009), Toată lumea din familia noastră (Everybody in Our Family; 2012), and the black-and-white Aferim! (2015), which has been compared to Steve MacQueen’s Twelve Years a Slave, with its hunt for a runaway Gypsy slave – it won the Silver Bear for Best Director at the Berlin festival.
It’s not just feature films that show a typically dark and sardonic sense of humour: documentaries are also revisiting Romania’s recent history, such as Alexandru Solomon’s Kapitalism – Rețeta noastră secretă (Kapitalism: Our Improved Formula; 2010), with Ceauşescu returning after twenty years to see how things have changed, and Ilinca Calugareanu’s Chuck Norris vs Communism (2015), about how smuggled videos of action films may have helped to bring down communism.
And finally – I’ve always cared strongly about boosting local family-based rural tourism, and when village guesthouses started to appear in Romania but were failing to market themselves or to create a decent system for making available information about places to stay, I tried through several edition of the guide to give what links I could. That is no longer necessary, and my background text has now been cut, so here it is too:
Ceauşescu’s systematization policy, aimed at demolishing many of Romania’s villages and moving the inhabitants to concrete apartment blocks, had hardly got started before his downfall, but it had attracted protests from Prince Charles, among others, and the Belgian charity Opération Villages Roumains. The programme was immediately scrapped by the new FSN government, but far more irresistible forces were about to strike Romania’s rural lifestyle.
Many people who had lived largely cash-free by subsistence farming learned about consumer goods and a more modern lifestyle from the suddenly omnipresent television, leading many to go abroad in search of paid work. This money, plus ludicrously generous and unchecked EU agriculture grants, led to many older houses being demolished and replaced by ugly new piles, ruining the traditional vernacular appearance of many villages. Meanwhile the villages were dying as young people left, while EU-inspired regulations aimed, for instance, to end traditional cheese-making and remove horsecarts from the roads. Even in 2015 shepherds were protesting in Bucharest against proposed restrictions on the number of dogs they can have with them and, ludicrously, to stop them grazing at all from December to April.
Rural tourism was an obvious way to bring cash into the villages and keep people on the land; but with a government interested only in beaches, skiing and Dracula tourism, it was left largely to foreign NGOs to put together networks of guesthouses and help owners bring them up to acceptable standards. The OVR took an early lead, together with the Mihai Eminescu Trust, formed to support dissident intellectuals, which had then joined the fight against systematization. Prince Charles entered the fray again, both as the MET’s patron and buying and restoring houses himself. The Lutheran church, with German support, has worked hard to save the Saxon fortified churches and opened guesthouses in parish houses, while the Transylvania Trust and various Hungarian bodies did a fantastic job at Rimetea, turning back the tide of modernization and creating delightful guesthouses, now serving as a model for other projects. ADEPT, working to preserve Transylvania’s landscape and biodiversity, was involved with local tourism projects, while the Association of Ecotourism in Romania also has a few guesthouses among its members, together with various hiking and horseriding agencies. However, much is being achieved by individual foreigners (often Dutch, for some reason), settling in a village and catalysing its revival with projects for campsites, authentic jams and the like.
As I said in my previous post, here are details of some Transylvanian villages that didn’t make it into the latest edition of the Rough Guide to Romania.
Around Braşov –
There are more authentically rural places just southwest of Bran in Moeciu, all very clean with lots of stripped pine and big breakfasts.
Moeciu de Jos (Lower Moeciu) Pensiunea Liliana Urzica, no.433; 0268/237 233, 0745/867 168, firstname.lastname@example.org, pensiunea-urzica-liliana.ro. With 16 rooms in old and new blocks, this is a friendly place with simple comfortable rooms. €18
Pensiunea Mariana Olteanu, Str. Cheia 427A; 0268/419 477, 0745/091 164, email@example.com. Comfortable rooms in a traditional wooden house and a larger new block, 2.5km up the valley from where the buses terminate at km105. €15
Moeciu de Sus (Upper Moeciu)
Vlahia Inn, Str. Principala 21A; 0747/118 311, vlahiainn.ro. A friendly place where a good buffet breakfast fuels you for hiking in the Grădiştea valley; in winter there’s also a skating rink across the road. €31
Atop the spectacular Bran or Giuvala Pass (1290m), 14km south of Bran, FUNDATA is one of the highest villages in Romania, and is served only by occasional Braşov–Câmpulung buses. Little more than a scattering of small farmhouses, with a few new guesthouses, it hosts the popular Mountain Festival (Nedeia Muntelui) over a weekend in late August or early September. The underlying purpose is to transact business: exchanges of handicrafts, livestock and (formerly) of pledges of marriage. Straddling the border between Transylvania and Wallachia, the Festival was important as a means of maintaining contacts between ethnic Romanians in the two provinces.
Sâmbăta de Sus, 18km southwest of Făgăraş (and not served by buses), is known as a gateway to the Făgăraş mountains and for the Sâmbăta Monastery, founded in 1696 by Constantin Brâncoveanu, which houses a famous collection of icons painted on glass, as well as old books, parchments and vestments. The monastery is actually 9km south of the village (and 8km east of Victoria) in the so-called Sâmbăta Climatic Resort, a random collection of guesthouses and a busy restaurant (complexsambata.ro), as well as a ski skope and ropes course. The asphalt ends here, with a forestry road continuing south, marked with red triangles that lead up to the Valea Sâmbatei hut (3 hours hike) and a path on to the main ridge of the Făgăraş massif (another 2 hours).
Pensiunea Belmonte, 0722/256 274; 0723/311 132, firstname.lastname@example.org belmontesambata.ro. An excellent guesthouse near the monastery, with 8 attractive ensuite rooms and access to the kitchen and a barbecue in the garden. €22
Pensiunea la Nise, no.529A; 0745/369 312, pensiunealanise.ro. In the village of Sâmbăta de Sus (just southwest of the centre), this has spacious rooms and a garden with trampoline, bikes, table-tennis and other facilities for an active holiday. €22
Pensiunea Royal Garden, Str. La Remu 515; 0761/123 169, 0742/880 394, pensiune-royalgarden.ro. This is a friendly place with good food in a very quiet location 1km north of the monastery (not easy to find at first). €22
ZÁLANPATAK (cut from the account of Micloşoara/Miklósvar)
Count Kalnoky also manages Prince Charles’s lovely house in the tiny village of Zalánpatak, in the middle of nowhere between Sfântu Gheorghe and Baraolt, where the forests are full of bears and other wildlife.
The next village along the E60 from Criţ (2km to the left) is CLOAŞTERF (Klosdorf), where many houses have been restored with funding from the Mihai Eminescu Trust. Within a simple square wall in the centre of the village, the church is a modest Saxon construction finished in 1524 and with three of its four original towers remaining – the freestanding bell tower, meanwhile, dates from 1819. Ask for the key at no. 99, about 200m back down the road near the entrance to the village.
Around Sibiu –
SLIMNIC AND OCNA SIBIULUI
The main road south to Sibiu (DN14) passes through rolling hills and orchards, and more Saxon villages, notably Slimnic (Stolzenburg; 17km north of Sibiu), which is interesting because the church, begun in 1450, was never finished, but the ruins of a substantial fortress around it survive. Along the railway, slightly to the west, there’s little worth stopping for other than OCNA SIBIULUI (Salzburg), a bathing resort with fizzy, very salty water, which bubbles up in four lakes formed in abandoned salt-workings. They’re very popular, especially on summer weekends, but facilities are still fairly simple, with basic changing rooms. The nearest train stop to the spa is Băile Ocna Sibiului, 2km north of Ocna Sibiului station proper, with a decent campsite adjacent. Just beyond the Ştrand complex is the stunning Helios complex, built in 1906-9 in Secession style, recently refurbished but not currently open; Strada Băilor continues west to the centre of the village, where there’s a walled church (1240-80) now used by Hungarian Calvinists, an Orthodox church rebuilt by Constantin Brâncoveanu in 1695, and a standard Habsburg Catholic church completed in 1747.
By bus: Buses from Sibiu to Ruşi pass through Slimnic after 20 minutes (15 Mon-Fri, 3 Sat, 0 Sun). Buses from Sibiu to Ocna Sibiului take 40 minutes (9 Mon-Fri, 2 Sat, 0 Sun).
Casa Verman, Str. Băilor 22; 0269/541 219, 0756/151 569, email@example.com casaverman.ro. Between the pools and the village, this is a modern guesthouse with a decent restaurant. €27
Complex Balnear Ștrand, Str. Băilor 26; 0269/541 473, ocnasibiului.eu. At the spa’s main crossroads, this includes the comfortable Hotel Ştrand as well as camping chalets. Price includes access to pools. €47
Pensiunea Negrone, Str. Eminescu 4; 0269/541 056. At the main crossroads, a striking building built around 1900 houses a retro guesthouse with four ensuite rooms on the first floor and 5 with shared bathrooms on the top floor. €16
From central Cisnădie, it’s a 3km walk west along Str. Măgurii and the valley road towards the striking 70m-high rock that looms over CISNĂDIOARA (Michelsburg). Crowning the summit of the hill is a tiny Romanesque church, built in 1223, which frequently withstood Tatar attacks; the villagers defended it by hurling down rocks which had previously been carried into the citadel by aspiring husbands, the custom being that no young man could marry until he had carried a heavy rock from the riverbed up the steep track. The interior is bare save for a tiny stone altar, but the views over the 2m-high ring wall to the snow-streaked peaks of the Făgăraş mountains are superb. The stiff fifteen-minute climb to the church begins from the crossroads in the centre of the village – someone should in theory be present to collect the €2 fee between 10am and 6pm daily, but if not (and the gate is shut), go to house no.246 or call 0269/564 332. Organ recitals and other concerts take place in the Baroque Lutheran church in the village at 5pm on Sundays in July and August.
There are five buses a day (Mon–Fri only) from Sibiu; otherwise it’s a 2km walk from where buses terminate in Cisnădie.
Camping Ananas, Str. Pinului; 0269/566 066, 0741/746 689, ananas7b.de. Under 1km west of the central crossroads, this lovely campsite is geared up for campers (€6) and caravans (€8) but also has space for tents (€2), as well as chalets (from €12 for 2), wooden cottages (from €28 for 2) and three rooms.
Pension Subcetate, no.252; 0369/596 051, 0740/220 035, sub-cetate.ro. In the centre of the village, just down from the path up to the church, this is a lovely, homely place with bright a/c rooms and traditionally painted furniture, it also has a good restaurant (Tue-Sun noon-9pm).
From Sibiu, hourly buses trundle south for 12km to RĂŞINARI, a tight-packed village with a painted Orthodox church built in 1752, and an ethnographic museum (Tues–Sun 10am–5pm), showing the usual range of local costumes and pottery. It’s known to Romanians as the birthplace of the anti-semitic prime minister and poet Octavian Goga (1881-1938) and of the nihilist philosopher Emil Cioran (1911-95), whose view was that the only valid thing to do with one’s life is to end it, although he never quite brought himself to do this. Another noted philosopher, Constantin Noica (1909-87), spent the last years of his life in nearby Păltiniş, removing himself as far as possible from Ceauşescu’s Romania but never quite bringing himself to repdudiate it. There’s an enjoyable Cheese and Ţuica Festival here in late August.
Pensiunea Benderfeanu, Str. Crucii 1611; 0269/557 292, 0743/657 093, firstname.lastname@example.org cazarerasinari.ro. There are many decent guesthouses along the main street, Strada Goga, but this one is just off it at the northern end of the village; as well as a large garden with paddling pool and gazebo, it has 7 spacious rooms and a restaurant. €18
Curmatura Stezii, DJ106A km16; 0269/557 310, curmaturastezii.ro. This former hikers’ cabana, just below the hairpin bends on the road up to Păltiniş, is now a modern guesthouse, but it still has dorms in addition to comfortable rooms and wooden chalets (€13). €22
MIERCUREA SIBIULUI AND CÂLNIC
Road and rail are reunited at MIERCUREA SIBIULUI (Reussmarkt), a village whose name derives from the Romanian word for Wednesday, the traditional market day here. In the centre of the village is a small, well-preserved thirteenth-century basilica, fortified during the fifteenth century, with food stores on the inside of its oval ring wall. In CÂLNIC (Kelling/Kelnek), about 8km west on the DN1/7 and 3km south (from near the Cut train halt), a massive keep and a very simple Romanesque chapel, both built around 1300, are enclosed within one-and-a-half rings of walls that resisted several Turkish sieges. Unusually, the castle was sold to the villagers in 1430, and has recently been restored and opened to visitors, with a small museum in the chapel.
In Gârbova, on a back road between Miercurea Sibiului and Câlnic, the Dutch-owned Urwegen guesthouse and Poarta Oilor campsite, with kitchen and swimming pool, is at Str. Eminescu 573 (0258/748 001, 0748/532 978, guest-house-urwegen.com; €35).
The town of SEBEŞ grew up on the proceeds of the leather-working industry, trading mainly with Wallachia; as Mühlbach, it was the capital of the Unterwald, the westernmost zone of Saxon settlement, and the German street names have recently been resurrected. In 1438, a Turkish army demanded the town’s surrender; a number of inhabitants barricaded themselves in one of the towers of the citadel, which the Turks stormed and burned. The only survivor, a student aged 16, was enslaved, escaping twenty years later to write a best-selling exposé of the bogeymen of fifteenth-century Europe. The Student’s Tower (also known as the Tailors’ Tower), at Str. Traian (or Parkgasse) 6, is thus one of the town’s main sights, although it’s not actually open. Immediately north of the town you may glimpse the dramatic Red Cliffs (Râpa Roşie; rapa-rosie.ro), now a natural reservation.
Tues–Sat 10am–1pm & 3–5pm, Sun 3–5pm
The large Lutheran Church in the centre of town was built in Romanesque style between 1240 and 1270, with a disproportionately large and grand Gothic choir added by 1382, followed by the upper part of the tower in 1664. The choir boasts Transylvania’s best Parleresque statues, and a large polychrome winged altar dating from 1518. The cemetery chapel on its north side, built in 1400, is now used by the Uniates.
Muzeu Ioan Raicu
Str. Mihai Viteazul 4; 0258/735 240, cclbsebes.ro; Tues–Fri 8am–4pm, Sat & Sun 10am–4pm; €0.50
In the late fifteenth-century House of the Voivodes on the north side of the main square is a museum featuring displays on Roma, Saxon and even African ethnography; the art collection includes works by Sava Henţia, born in Sebeş in 1848.
By train The train (Sebeş Alba) and bus stations are just east, in the new town. Note that if you’re travelling the few kilometres north to Alba Iulia, you’re best off catching a bus, saving the lengthy wait for a train connection at Vinţu de Jos.
By bus Conveniently placed between two junctions on the new A1 motorway, Sebeş sees a lot of buses to Western Europe (mainly Germany).
Destinations Alba Iulia (1/2 hourly); Bucharest (5 daily); Câmpeni (2 daily); Cluj (12 daily); Deva (3 daily); Sibiu (12 daily); Timişoara (2 daily). Germany (several daily).
Accommodation, eating and drinking
Clasic, Drumul Sibiului 15; 0258/733 016, 0358/401 567, hotelclasicsebes.ro. Just east on the DN1, this well refurbished place has tidy air-conditioned rooms and a decent restaurant; get a room at the back, as the main road and bar terrace can be noisy. €40
Karlhof, Str. Şurianu 30; 0735/275 463, karlhof.ro. Immediately south of the centre, this late-19th-century villa is now a stylish little hotel and restaurant; some rooms have smart showers with hydromassage plus the music and lighting of your choice. €62
Leul de Aur, Str. Blaga 8; 0258/734 500, 0358/401 510 hotelleuldeaur.ro. At the rear of a shopping gallery and up two flights, this is nevertheless a very comfortable hotel, particularly in the new 4* wing. There’s a busy bar and restaurant, as well as a self-service buffet. €40
La Dolce Vita, Str. Vânători 5; 0258/733 470, 0358/401 223, ladolcevita-rist.ro; Tues-Sun noon-midnight. A decent Italian restaurant and terasa, with a full menu of antipasti, pasta and pizza plus a salad bar, near the bus station.
Michelle Ma Belle, B-dul Blaga 7; 0742/780 641, michelle-ma-belle.ro; daily 9am-9pm. On the main road between the church and the station, this is a good cofetărie that also serves ices.
The Székely Land –
THE HARGHITA MOUNTAINS
In the hills to the east of Odorheiu nestle several low-key resorts that are known for their mineral springs and hiking and mountain-biking opportunities (though not in winter, when this is the coldest part of Romania). The road towards Miercurea Ciuc passes through Satu Mare (Máréfalva), renowned for its carved wooden Székely gates, BĂILE HOMOROD (Homoródfürdó), where you can bathe in hot pools, and VLĂHIŢA (Szentegyházasfalu), which also has mineral springs as well as a campsite. From the pass about 13km beyond Vlăhiţa a poor road leads 4km north up to HARGHITA BĂI (Hargitafürdó), a spa and local ski resort in the thickly forested Harghita mountains, renowned for their wildlife.
There are eleven buses a day (eight on Sundays) between Odorheiu Seuiesc and Miercurea Ciuc, plus 12 (Mon-Fri) from Odorheiu as far as Vlahiţa. Harghita Băi is reached by two buses a day from Miercurea Ciuc rail station, or it’s less than an hour’s walk from the turning.
Lobogo Panzió, 0266/247 545, 0747/119 590, lobogo.ro. A modern resort with indoor pools, spa, restaurant and rooms (10 doubles, 4 suites, 3 dorms and 7 heated chalets). Horse-riding and other summer and winter activities are available. €30
Pethő Panzió, 0740/354012 pensiuneapetho.ro. An upmarket guesthouse at the top of the ski slopes, with wonderful views and 16 ensuite rooms, sauna and spa. €55
UZ Bence Hostel, 0745/629 337, 0745/629 337, uzbence.ro. A solid wooden building with ensuite rooms for between two and five people, with a cheery bar, restaurant and sauna. €8/p
The village of LĂZAREA (Szárhegy), 6km north of Gheorgheni on the DN12 (one stop by train), is worth a visit to see Lazar Castle, just below the Franciscan monastery whose white tower is visible from passing trains – it’s famed as the childhood home of Prince Gábor Bethlen at the end of the sixteenth century. In 1631 a fine Renaissance hall and frescoed facade were added to the fifteenth-century castle, but it was largely destroyed by fires in 1748 and 1842. The frescoes in particular have been gradually restored by artists who hold a summer camp here each year. The castle gallery (Tues–Sun 9am–5pm) exhibits their work, and there is a display of sculpture in the village’s central park, open all year. On a hillock just to the east the walled village church sits just above the road leading up to the monastery.
Ten local buses come from Gheorgheni daily (Mon-Fri; to Remetea) in addition to the buses to Topliţa and beyond. The train station is just southwest of the centre, with four trains a day to Gheorgheni and Topliţa, two continuing to Târgu Mureş.
Fenyő Panzió, Str. Gurzok 622; 0744/399 142, 0723/674 210, pensiuneafenyo.ro. A big modern block east of the centre, this is the grandest place here, with a nice terrace and restaurant and pleasant rooms with all comforts plus six suites. €35
Katalin Panzió, no.1255; 0266/325 775, 0721/445 836, email@example.com. A friendly family house with simple rooms and a pleasant garden, one of a network set up by Operation Villages Roumains. €18
CERNAT DE JOS
Haszmann Pál Museum of Szekely Life and Culture, Cernat de Jos no.330; 0267/367 566 haszmannpalmuzeum.ro; summer Tues-Sun 9am-5pm; winter Tues-Fri 9am-4pm, Sat/Sun 9am-2pm
It’s well worth a detour to the Museum of Székely Life and Culture, 10km down the Braşov road from Târgu Secuiesc and 3km north to the end of CERNAT DE JOS (Alsó-Csernáton): take the road signposted to Cernat de Sus, and fork left just beyond the church. An old manor house displays excellent collections of wooden implements, cast-iron stoves, painted wooden dowry chests (from the 17th century on), textiles and costumes, ceramics and old radios; unfortunately, information is in Hungarian only. A number of village houses have been moved here, including a couple built in 1690 and 1790, and some fine carved beam gates, the oldest dating from 1761, as well as a water-mill and some farming implements. If you want to stay over, the museum has a couple of rooms, and there’s a guesthouse at no.1015.
Five buses run from Târgu Secuiesc to Cernat de Sus on weekdays; the last returns at 1.30pm.
South to Târgu Mureş
From the tiny junction of Deda the railway for Beclean and Cluj heads west, while the DN15 and a minor rail line lead south towards Târgu Mureş, a route marked at regular intervals by the castles of the Hungarian aristocracy that once ruled here. BRÂNCOVENEŞTI (Marosvécs), 13km south of Deda and served by slow trains only, is known for the fine Kemény castle (visible across the river from the train) dating from the fourteenth century and best known for housing disabled children judged too sick or traumatized to recover during Ceauşescu’s regime. The main town on this route, 10km beyond Brâncoveneşti, is REGHIN (Szászrégen/ Sächsisch Reen), best known for its amazingly successful violin factory, located here because of the wealth of fine sycamore (also known as flamed maple) in the Gurghiu valley. You can see their products (including violas and ‘cellos) at the Gliga shop at Str. Pandurilor 120 (0749/049 404 gliga.ro; Mon-Fri 8am-4pm). There’s also a large Saxon church at Str Călăraşilor 1, built in the 14th and 15th centuries and rebuilt after a fire in 1708 with an unusual double gallery.
From Reghin it’s 14km to GORNEŞTI (Gernyeszeg), where the Baroque palace of the Teleki family, which supplied many of Transylvania and Hungary’s leading statesmen, was built in 1771-8 by the Austrian architect Andreas Mayerhoffer, with a fine dendrological park around it. The palace served as a TB sanatorium under communism and was returned to the family in 2011; the current count is paying for its restoration by hosting weddings and other events, but visitors are welcome at other times (donations welcomed; 0757/779 649, gernyeszeg.com). The Teleki family had another kastely in Dumbrăvioara (Sáromberke), just 4km further south (and 12km from Târgu Mureş); built in the 1770s and reworked in Secession style in 1912, it also sits in a dendrological park next to the Calvinist church that houses the tombs of 15 family members. It also served as a hospital and was put up for sale in 2015.
The main reason to stop in Reghin is for bus connections (from immediately outside the train station) to the traditional shepherding communities of GURGHIU, 14km east, and HODAC, 8km further. Gurghiu is known for its Girl Fair (Târgul de Fete) on the second Sunday of May, similar to that of Muntele Găina (see box). At Hodac, there’s a Measurement of the Milk Festival on the first Saturday of May, while the second Sunday in June sees the Buying Back of the Wives Festival, reaffirming the economic underpinnings of matrimony. Check event dates at the tourist office in Târgu Mureş. During the Festivals, special buses run from Reghin; at other times, both villages can be reached by buses bound for Dulcea and Toaca, while Gurghiu is also served by buses to Glăjărie and Orşova.
The Apuseni (western Transylvania) –
Just to the west of Buru, a road turns north to the tiny village of BĂIŞOARA, from where it’s 14km west to the single-slope Muntele Băişorii ski resort; here, you can stay at various guesthouses or the Băişoara cabana (0264/314 569). Continuing north from Băişoara, the road passes through SĂVĂDISLA (Turdaszentlászló), where the Tamás Bistro restaurant at no. 153 (0264/374 455, tamasbistro.ro) offers the best Magyar cuisine in the area, and finishes at Luna de Sus, just west of Cluj.
From Abrud buses run to BUCIUM POIENI, 13km east, the centre of a comuna of six small former mining villages; start here for an hour’s climb to two basalt towers known as the Detunata, which can also be reached by hiking (or cycling) east from Roşia Montană for 3 hours, following red cross markings.
Continuing south from Sâncraiu/Kalotaszentkirály it’s 4km to CĂLATA (Nagykalota) and another 5km to CĂLĂŢELE (Kiskalota), in both of which you’ll see carved wooden homesteads and on Sundays home-made folk costumes.
Sixteen kilometres beyond (connected to Huedin by three buses on weekdays) is BELIŞ (Jósikafalva), a village moved (along with its lovely wood church) from the valley when the artificial Lake Fântânele was created; there’s now a small lakeside resort comprising two identical two-star hotels (both 0264/354 183), and various guesthouses.
MĂNĂSTIRENI, VĂLENI AND FILDU DE SUS
MĂNĂSTIRENI (Magyargyerómonostor), on a minor road running south from the DN1 east of Izvoru Crişului and Huedin, has a lovely thirteenth-century walled Calvinist church whose gallery, pews and ceiling were beautifully painted in the eighteenth century. Just west is Văleni (Magyarvalkó), where many houses have decorated mouldings and the thirteenth-century Calvinist church has a wonderful hilltop setting and a collection of carved wooden graveposts, more typical of the Székely Land. In the valleys to the north of Huedin lie half a dozen villages with striking Gothic-inspired wooden churches – typical of those that once reared above villages from the Tisa to the Carpathians. The most spectacular, and the nearest to Huedin, towers over Fildu de Sus (Felsófüld), reached by a 10km track west from Fildu de Jos (Alsófüld) on the Huedin–Zalău road. Built in 1727, the church was painted in 1860, with scenes of Daniel in the den with some wonderful grinning lions. There’s one daily bus (at 5pm) from the railway crossing in Huedin to Fidu de Sus, and two to Zalău via Fildu de Jos, where there are guesthouses.
Northern Transylvania –
The small town of BECLEAN (Bethlen), 25km east of Dej, was the ancestral seat of the Bethlen family, which provided several distinguished governors of Transylvania. The road and rail routes to Vatra Dornei and Suceava in Moldavia also divide here, drivers heading east to Bistriţa while the train runs further north via Năsăud and Salva, also the route to Sighet in Maramureş.
[The Bethlen castle is in the centre of Beclean and worth a visit – I wanted to expand this coverage but instead virtually everything in this area around Bistriţa has been cut.]
COŞBUC AND NĂSĂUD
From Salva, 49km northeast of Dej, road and rail routes head north to Maramureş; 9km along this road is the village of COŞBUC, named after its most famous son, George Coşbuc (1866–1918), poet and activist for Romanian cultural revival. A couple of hundred metres north of a covered wooden bridge, his simple family home, built in 1840, is now a museum (Wed–Sun 9am–5pm; €0.50), with manuscripts, books and personal effects on display. Along the road to the north are several trout restaurants.
NĂSĂUD (Nussdorf), 6km east of Salva, is at the heart of a region where villagers still wear their traditional embroidered waistcoats and blouses, and hats topped with peacock feathers. A selection of these is on display in the Muzeul Grăniceresc Năsăudean in the 18th-century barracks of the border guards at B-dul Granicerilor 25 (complexulmuzealbn.ro; Tues-Sun Oct-March 9am-5pm, April-Sept 10am-6pm; €1). Just 5km south along the Bistriţa road is the birthplace of Liviu Rebreanu (1885–1944), whose novels Ion, Uprising and The Forest of the Hanged give a panoramic view of Romania before World War I; the simple shingle-roofed house is now a branch of the museum (no.126A; Wed-Sun Oct-March 9am-5pm, April-Sept 10am-6pm; €0.50).
The Bârgău Valley
Five buses a day head east up the valley to Vatra Dornei in Moldavia. The main railway route runs via Năsăud, just to the north, but there’s a branch line from Bistriţa as far as Prundu Bârgăului, from where it’s another 60km to Vatra Dornei, via the 1200m Tihuţa Pass. The scenery is dramatic, with huge hills draped in forests of fir trees, and villages that seem living monuments to a way of life unchanged for centuries.
In Livezile, a long and attractive roadside village 8km from Bistriţa (local bus #3), the Muzeul Casa Sasească (Saxon House Museum; Wed-Sun April-Sept 10am -6pm, Oct-March 9am-5pm; €0.50), at Str. Dorolea 152, demonstrates a way of life that has not vanished further up the valley. Built in about 1870, the house has two large rooms, kept exactly as they’ve always been and stuffed with Saxon ceramics, folk dress, furniture, books and photos; out back there’s a large barn with several wine presses. To find the museum, head down the gravel path leading away from the roadside Lutheran church (the church key is at Str. Dorolea 197; 0263/270 109). There are now only half a dozen Saxon families left in the village.
Climbing steadily eastwards, the DN17 (E576) reaches the scattered settlement of Piatra Fântânele, with the Hotel Castel Dracula at km108. Note that the map of hiking trails outside is incorrect; some trails don’t exist, while some that do aren’t shown. Just beyond lies the Tihuţa Pass, which may be blocked by snow for the odd day between late October and mid-May. Although the country is relatively densely settled near the main road, the surrounding mountains harbour more bears than in any other part of Europe, as well as red deer, boar and wolves; from the pass the view of the green ‘crests’ of Bucovina to the northeast and the volcanic Căliman mountains to the southeast is marvellous.