This has been an year of offbeat destinations for me, and this was another feather in that cap. Before the trip I would have been hard placed to point out Romania on a world map except be able to identify the general region of Eastern Europe. Romanian history is nearly unknown outside of the country and its art, while spectacular, has never been marketed well, unlike the Italian counterpart. Most people would struggle to name a famous Romanian though the name Nadia Comaneci will ring a bell. Count Dracula is of course the most famous Romanian, except that he is a fictional character. The town and the castle he is supposed to be based out of are actually real and are fast becoming a tourist attraction – for whatever little tourists Romania gets. Most of the tourism is still the party tourism of Bucharest and even that is small by global standards.
The scale of tourism can be easily seen by spending 5 minutes at their largest airport of the country, the Bucharest Henri Coanda Airport. It is by far the most internationally connected Airport of the country and still accounts for only about 5-10 flights an hour, total! Compared to other European capital cities, this is really tiny. The airport generally feels empty and lines for anything are rare. This also means finding connections to Romania maybe tough from countries like India that don’t generate much unorthodox tourism. The best (and cheap) connections were from Moscow and Doha.
For context, we travelled in mid-November which is kind of shoulder season where the winters were still mild but the official peak was over in October. Most of the time we could get away with light jackets and a sweatshirt, though there was one evening when I was feeling a little chill. One thing we did miss was the fall colors. It was apparent that the leaves had just shed and Bucharest would have been far prettier a week ago.
Bucharest was our primary destination with an intent to make a trip to the fabled Transylvania. It is easy enough to camp in Bucharest and do day trips around to a variety of places – you can even drive up to Bulgaria or go take a dip in the Black Sea. Most of the destinations are 2-3 hours away and will make for long road trips but then these are very quiet places so might get a little boring for overnight stay. Though if you had the time and are adventurous, staying in the small Romanian towns like Brasow could be quite exciting and will allow you to explore even more small towns – there are several and each drive their own sub-culture and back stories.
We stuck around in Bucharest as it was a short 4 day trip and spend the days exploring around the area and the nights at local restaurants and watering holes. As maligned as old town Bucharest may be, it is still the best place to stay for its lively streets and night action. I always like to stay in walkable areas and this one is kind of perfect. We picked a hotel (Hilton Garden Inn) at the edge of old town, which allowed for access to both the walking areas and cabs very easily. Some of the museums and attractions outside of the walking area were also walkable from here. I must say it was a very good place to stay. Beware that even though this is not a massive city, it can get some massive traffic jams at peak hours. Thus, car mobility is not always easy, though Uber works really well and is cheaper than local Taxis. There are several tours available in very small groups for Transylvania and other towns and given the traffic, these are not a bad alternative to driving.
Food in Romania can be totally amazing or absolutely crappy. The local cuisine is very meat intensive but light on carbs. We mostly stuck to restaurant recommendations made by our hotel or friends who had visited earlier and it turned out really great. Experiments, especially in old town, were a disaster as the touristy places don’t really care about any customer loyalty. So you will get bad food and bad service after a great welcome. However, once you can get to the local favorites, the food is outstanding and memorable. There was one Pork knuckle that I shall remember for a while and a number of grilled sausages that can make a bid for the hall of fame. Their local stews are delicious as well and make a bulk of the local diet.
The national drink is called Palinka and it will taste like drinking rubbing alcohol in the first go, but it is an acquired taste. It is a fruit flavored brandy that can have 40-60% alcohol with a mild fruity aftertaste to make up for the harsh beginning. Usually the waiter will be able to recommend a milder one on the menu. In my limited experience the plum flavors were milder than the apricots. If your choice of drink is usually a semi-sweet riesling, I would not recommend trying a sip of Palinka. You can dig into a Papanasi at the end of the meal instead for a local experience.
Papanasi is the very widely available dessert that seems to be the pride of Romania. I am not sure if it was only popular in the tourist Romania because if the locals ate it everyday most of them would weigh over 300 pounds. This monstrous dessert consists of a couple of doughnuts covered in sour cream and jam and then topped with cream filled spheres. This fried overdose of sugar is what almost every restaurant will proudly serve and even push at the end of a meal. To be honest, I did see several locals eat a plate but I myself could never finish even half.
Finally, no conversation about Bucharest can end without talking about the time zone it operates in. I am not talking of the geographical time zone, you can very well google that. I am talking of the time the city comes alive and kick starts – it is another 3 hour offset from any other place. People party late and wake up late. Some clubs open doors only around 11pm, though the crowds peak only at 1 am and then party goes on till 6. At 9 am the streets will feel deserted and only around 11 does it seem like the city is awake. Even some of the museums don’t open till noon. This city is for the lovers of the night – the party animals in real life and the vampires in legends.