Reflections on My Trip to Romania

When I told people I was going to Romania, I got a range of responses. Some folks questioned why I’d want to go there, implicitly viewing it as a second-tier tourist destination, or expressing concern about my personal safety. Oher folks favorably viewed Romania as an exotic tourist destination, a little off the beaten path and therefore “cooler” than the typical American destinations in Europe. (In contrast to, say, Paris, which is so common that it’s not distinctive. “Paris? Oh, everyone goes there…”).

Having spent a week there, in my opinion, Romania is an excellent tourist destination, albeit with a few major flaws. Some of the things I liked best about Romania:

* excellent sights. Romania has some first-rate destinations that compete favorably with the best parts of Europe. Many of the sights from the late medieval or early Renaissance period are in good condition and worth seeing.

* relaxed vibe. The Romanians I encountered were relaxed and easy-going compared to my experiences in Northern Europe. I felt like I could be myself more without unintentionally offending the locals. This may have been a little specific to Cluj, a college town. Several people from Bucharest suggested that it was a little more uptight there. Another plus: I sensed less anti-American sentiments than I’ve encountered in other parts of Europe.

* genuine and welcoming people. The people I dealt with, virtually without exception, were extraordinarily gracious and eager to please.

Two other advantages: (1) The Romanian academics I encountered spoke excellent English, and in fact many of them had lived in the United States, at least for a short time. Unfortunately, outside of the academic circles and main tourism areas, English quickly became a problem. (2) Tourism costs were noticeably lower than Western Europe, creating the opportunity for good values. I wonder if Romania’s upcoming adoption of the Euro will lead to price inflation, so Romania might be worth a trip sooner rather than later.

Now, the flaws:

* Really poor vegetarian options. Even before going, I knew food was going to be a problem. The Romanians really tried hard to accommodate me as a vegetarian, but they simply don’t know how to cook for vegetarians. The result was that my “best” vegetarian meals consisted of a starchy carb (pasta, rice or potatoes), typically drenched in butter or oil, and a salad or some uncoordinated piles of vegetables. This reminded me of my meals in the UCLA dorms back in the mid-1980s, when I ate so many potatoes that my dormmates nicknamed me “spud.” The US vegetarian scene has improved so much over the past 25 years, but Romania’s vegetarian cuisine is still at square one. Less good vegetarian meals usually involved heavy doses of dairy, such as fried cheese. I did eat close to my normal daily calories (mostly because my hosts provided the meals—given the options, I would not have eaten out often on my own dime), but I can’t say that I had good food in Romania. One other downside: it’s still legal to smoke in restaurants. Yuck.

* Challenging transportation infrastructure. Romania is blessed with many cool tourist sites, but getting to them remains a challenge. I chose not to drive in Romania because of the difficulties navigating the street signs and confusing road system, plus the poor physical conditions of many roads. Even if you choose to drive, it takes substantial time to get between places that are relatively close as the crow flies due to the lack of good freeways. Because Romania is pretty big, in fact many sites are pretty far apart. If you don’t drive, then the choices are even more limited. The trains can be quite time-consuming, and buses are more so, plus they may pose language challenges. So there’s no ideal way to navigate Romania’s cool destinations on a time- or cost-effective basis. Ideally, Romania will eventually upgrade its transportation infrastructure, which may partially solve this problem as it creates others.

One more challenge: getting to Romania involves long flights. I got to Cluj on Lufthansa with a single stop in Munich (at a premium price for the more convenient itinerary). Still, total travel time was 16-17 hours each way. 2 stops would have been over 24 hours of traveling. Plus, Romania is a challenging 10 hours ahead of California, exacerbating the jet lag and making real-time communications with home that much more difficult.

Despite these limitations, I would definitely go back to Romania. I would leave enough time to get around to the far-flung destinations, and I would consider using professional help such as a guide or a tour company. If you get the chance to go to Romania, I recommend you take it.

See my photo gallery from Romania. Also, I posted two videos of a street rally in Cluj before a soccer match (1, 2).

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Some comments about specific destinations:

* Cluj City Center. Grade: B. The city center has a small number of nice highlights. I especially liked that the town presented itself as a working town/college town, so it was not very touristy. There was only one block of street vendors, and many sites didn’t charge admission fees. My favorite spots were (1) Pia?a Unirii (Union Square), surrounded by St. Michael’s Church dating back to the 14th century and numerous attractive buildings, and (2) Dormition of the Theotokos Cathedral, an imposing and incredibly well-done Orthodox church. Although it’s a bit of a hike, I also recommend going to Cetatuia Park for nice panoramas of the city center and the river valley.

My photos from Cluj.

* Cluj Botanical Gardens. Grade: B. I’m not a huge fan of botanical gardens. I’d much prefer to go hiking and see the native flora that way. As botanical gardens go, Cluj’s botanical garden is pretty good. It had a wide diversity of flora, it’s a sizable park close to the city center, it is fairly well-maintained, and it had a cheap admission fee (less than $1.50). My favorite parts were the entrance area, with lots of flowers in bloom in early September, and the observation tower at the hilltop.

* Cluj Romulus Vuia Open-Air Ethnographic Museum (Parcul Etnografic Romulus Vuia). Grade: A-. I liked this museum a lot. It collects original buildings from all over Romania, restored to a different era. For example, it had a couple of gorgeous wooden churches from the 18th-19th centuries, well-restored to glorious condition. It also original farmhouses (both rich and poor) with the kinds of interior decorations and household items actually found in the house. The park is large, so the buildings to inspect and admire kept coming! Some buildings even had docents who would answer questions and point out features, although it didn’t appear that many (if any) of the docents spoke English. This museum is just over the hill from the city’s main valley, making it a little challenging to visit from the city center without a car. Still, it’s a gem worth seeking out. One sour point: the museum was cheap to enter (as I recall, less than $2)—a great deal—but unfortunately they charged an additional photography fee (nominal, but I still object to the fee on principle).

* Turda Salt Mines. Grade: too hard to assign a grade. Salt has been a vital resource since antiquity, and the Turda Salt Mines were a important source of salt since the Roman era. I haven’t been to a salt mine before, so maybe others are more interesting, but as my first introduction to a salt mine, it was fascinating. Admission cost was quite reasonable (as I recall, less than $3). We also had an optional English-speaking tour guide for 30-40 minutes (not sure how much this cost). It was helpful to have the guide—the signage of the various mine features was minimal—but the tour was not especially enlightening.

Then, when I got to the bottom of the mines, I saw something so amazing and baffling that it blew my mind. Many Romanians believe that the salt air helps with respiratory ailments, so they (especially kids) come to the Turda Salt Mines and stay for hours at a time for the purported health benefits. The result is that these Romanians are underground for hours every day, for weeks/months at a stretch, with no natural light. To entertain these folks while they breathe the salty air, the salt mines has an “amusement park” at the mine’s floor—including a ferris wheel, mini-golf, mini-bowling, ping-pong tables, pool tables, even an option to rent a paddleboat on the small lake at the mine’s very bottom. Other folks were reading, playing card games and playing board games. It was surreal to see Romanians “enjoying” leisure time activities a couple hundred feet underground in very dingy light. The amusement park “features” are not interesting enough to warrant their own trip to the mine; they are there for the people who don’t have other leisure-time choices. It made the whole experience surreal and other-worldly. It was incredibly interesting, and I’m glad I went.

My photos from the Turda Salt Mines.

* Sighi?oara. Grade: A-. Sighe?oara is a compact and well-maintained medieval Saxon town set on a hillside, with much of its original perimeter wall intact. With its German roots and hilly setting, it felt sort of like a German Alps mountain-top fortress. Some might seek out the town as the birthplace of Vlad Dracul (i.e., “Dracula”), but I didn’t care much about that, and the birthplace site wasn’t all that rewarding to inspect anyway. Instead, beyond the nice atmospherics of the town itself, I especially liked two things: (1) walking up a wood-covered stairway to the Church on the Hill. The church itself was average, but the walk to the top and the view once there were totally worth it. (2) the Clock Tower, a 13th century building with a colorful roof and atmosphere to spare. There was a so-so museum of various historical artifacts in the Clock Tower, but the real payoff came from the view from the top.

I knocked Sighi?oara’s grade down from an A to an A- due to the annoying tourist trappings. Unlike Cluj, virtually everything had an admission charge (although the costs were fairly nominal), even the rather average churches. Other fees: some places charged for the bathroom, and the Clock Tower imposed a pretty hefty photography fee (about $8). Plus, the streets were lined with vendors selling kitschy/cheesy stuff.

My photos from Sighi?oara.

* Biertan. Grade: A-. Biertan is one of many fortified Saxon churches in Transylvania. Basically, it’s an relatively unremarkable 14th century Saxon church surrounded by fortifications located in the middle of a very dusty, sleepy and economically impoverished town. The fortifications are in outstanding condition and can be fully inspected without any admission charge. You do have to pay to get into the church (less than $3), which even at that low price may not be worth it. The main attraction inside the church is a door with 19 locks–a little steampunky, but still unremarkable.

My photos from Biertan.

* Opera Plaza Hotel. Grade: B+. I stayed 6 nights at the Opera Plaza Hotel, one of the two “5 star” hotels in Cluj. Though it may be 5 star by Romanian standards, I’d rank it more like a low 4 star or high 3 star by American standards; maybe comparable to a nice Hilton or Hyatt but with more personality. Things I really liked about the hotel:

– location. A convenient 10 minute walk into the heart of Cluj’s city center

– room size. I had an upgraded room, and it was HUGE!

– quiet. Perhaps the most remarkable thing was that the room was very quiet. I rarely heard any outside noise, and I didn’t hear any internal noise at all. Given how noisy most European hotels are, and given this hotel’s location so close to the city center, its soundproofing was amazingly successful.

– breakfast (included in the room rate). The breakfast was extremely generous and served in a very nicely decorated room.

– fast Internet WiFi. That always boosts my feelings towards a hotel!

– price: 60 Euros/night (heavily discounted because it was a conference rate), an amazing bargain by European standards.

The hotel had several other amenities, such as an indoor pool, fitness center, business center and cheap massages, that I didn’t take advantage of.

I knocked the hotel’s grade down to a B+ because, despite its efforts, some of the amenities weren’t up to snuff. Examples:

– incredibly overworked mattress, worse than what I’d expect at a Motel 6

– air conditioner wasn’t powerful enough for the large room

– something (the shower?) leaked a lot of water onto the bathroom floor

Also, like most European hotels, the bed didn’t have a top sheet (I ended up using a towel) and the hotel didn’t provide shampoo or conditioner (I now always bring my own to Europe).

None of these limitations materially diminished my enjoyment, but they were inconsistent with a “top-of-the-line” hotel offering.