Just back from our epic Romania + Western Balkans trip. I'm going to break up the trip reports by country, starting with Romania. We flew direct from Stuttgart to Bucharest on BlueAir, a Romanian airline. The tickets were a good deal (with taxes and checked baggage fee, about 65 euro each one way). It was clear the plane was quite old, and the seat in front of me was held together with duct tape, but the flight was on time and the service good, so no complaints. We were trying our hand at being CouchSurfing guests for the first time (I'd hosted a few people recently), and our host told us to meet him at the giant Casa Presei complex. The first of a few miscommunications - he assumed we were taking the airport bus and chose the location as a good way to meet us without us having to navigate Bucharest public transit on our own. But we'd hired a driver. Turns out he lived very, very far from Casa Presei, so we had an uncomfortable 45 minutes with two transfers on trams and buses with luggage. Whoops... Cont.
What a cool trip, Sarah! You know what they say - the greater the adventure, the better the story. Romania is near the top of my list because my grandmother's parents came from there. Guidebooks say one thing, but the best advice comes from people "on the ground" so to speak.
We got to our host's house and met his fiance, they lived in a fairly large apartment in one of those giant Communist-era apartment blocks. We were surprised a young couple just out of college had such a big place to themselves, turns out it is owned by Ada's family, and they just recently were able to move in together. They were a very nice couple, Ada speaking very good English and Cornel struggling a bit but making a great effort. They were perfect hosts. However their apartment was a good 45 minute bus ride from the old city/city center, which we didn't anticipate. So we spent the bulk of our first day in Romania on public transit. Ada and Cornel were nice enough to take us to the old city, to show us around and have dinner at the wonderful and beautiful Caru cu Bere ("The Beer Cart") restaurant. Despite being maybe the most touristy and famous restaurant in the old city, the food was fantastic and the price jaw-droppingly low - a recurring theme in Romania. Dinner for four, plus several drinks a person, was less than 40 euro with tip. The old city was very beautiful, but we didn't stay out late, as Ada and Cornel didn't seem to think it was a good idea for us to be out without them. I don't know if we gave off "clueless American" vibes or what, but they had lots of warnings about Bucharest - don't take the taxis from tourist areas or train stations, they will extort you, always walk with your purse cross-body in front of you, hand over the purse, don't give money to beggars, and so on. They are both Bucharest natives and did not seem to have high opinions about the safety of Bucharest, not just for tourists, but for themselves - they'd been cheated by taxi drivers and pick pocketed in this area. Just fyi.
They gave us instructions on getting to the main train station, Gare du Nord, the next morning. Two more bus legs with luggage, traffic, took another 45 minutes from their apartment. We checked our luggage at the train station, and hoped to have time to tour the "People's Palace" built by the former dictator, but even the metro took quite a long time to reach the stop, which was another 25 minute walk to the entry of the palace itself. So we didn't have time. We did see the outside, then headed back to Gare du Nord to try to buy tickets for the night train to Timisoara we were taking in a few days. That didn't work out, as not a single ticket seller at the main station spoke English and my basic Romanian was not good enough to communicate specifically that we wanted a 2-person sleeper ONLY. Using the Romanian-only automated ticket machine, it appeared that all seats on the train we wanted were sold out anyway. Uh-oh...I'd figured 72 hours would be enough time for advance purchase for the train, but I guess not. Gare Du Nord was a pretty intimidating train station in general. I'll go ahead and say it - Bucharest is a pretty intimidating city. Aside from the old city, it's not beautiful (quite ugly in fact), with lots of thug-looking private security guys walking around, heavily armed, in addition to police. Aside from our delightful hosts and waiter at Care cu Bere, customer service ranged from surly to outright hostile. And I'm saying this as someone who thinks German customer service is polite, and as someone who has a thing for cities that many consider "edgy" - like Marsielle and my adopted hometown of Oakland, CA. Take that for what it's worth. I am glad I decided to just spend one night in Bucharest and not two. On to Transyvania and Brasov!
We took the nicest and fasest class of train to Brasov, and it was still pretty old and unpleasant by Western European standards, but fine. It was over two hours, although the last half hour did have some great mountain scenery. We'd been told by my guidebook (Rough Guide Romania) not to judge Brasov by the train station and suburbs surrounding it, which was good advice, as it wasn't much more pleasant than Bucharest. But we hopped the bus into the old city and found it to be very beautiful. Better yet, our incredibly cheap hotel room at Old City Pension was one of the best and biggest I've stayed at in Europe. The young woman who runs it was very nice, although a bit confusing (she asked us if we spoke Romanian, which seems like a random question for two Americans, and after asking us what we wanted for breakfast, insisted that I have the meat and cheese plate after I'd said I wanted an omlette...lol, OK.) The pension is at the quieter end of the old city, at Piata Unirii, and she informed us that the hotel was non-smoking but showed us a nice patio we could smoke on instead, which was perfect. The hotel was 25 euro a night with 3 euro breakfast and I would happily stay there again and recommend it glowingly. Brasov, being one of 7 main cities in Transylvania built by Saxons, didn't feel all that unfamiliar in architecture to old German cities. One thing I was routinely surprised by on the trip was the presence of Jewish communities - we happened to be walking by the synagogue right at sunset on Friday night, and they were getting ready for services, so we couldn't go inside (unless we wanted to attend service, but we weren't dressed for it - it was tempting though!) but I was able to admire the exterior and say "Shabbat shalom" to the man in a kippah who was turning curious tourists away at the door.
We wandered the old town, checking out a few restaurants recommended by the "In Your Pocket" brochure guide that we'd found at the train station. We sat down in the very touristy Cerbul Carpatin and was not impressed by the menu or the feel of the place, so we ran out and tried another rec, Butoiul Sasului. While the restaurant was traditional feeling and charming, the service was terrible and the food was the worst we'd had in Romania - not horrible (food in Romania was great!) but bland, dry, and disappointing. It also wasn't relatively cheap compared to other traditional restaurants. I don't recommend it. We had an (overpriced by Romanian standards) drink in the beautifully restored former Public House called "Festival '39" - there was live jazz and the atmosphere was great. The next day we explored more of the tourist sights in town - the Black Church, the bastions and fortifications, and took the cable up to Mt. Tampa for the view. We ate lunch at Gustari, one of the best restaurants in town and a total steal, even though it's on the main square. My husband had something that is best described as a Romanian chimichanga, totally delicious. I had a pork and sausage stew over polenta with a fried egg on top. Yum. While doing the fortifications we came upon a Hungarian festival - Transyvania was former part of the Hungarian empire and there are still many towns where Hungarians and related Mygar ethnic groups are well-respresented. Kids in traditional dress performed dances and sang, while guys stirred literal cauldrons of goulash over open fires. Unfortunately we were still stuffed from lunch! But it was a fun way to spend an hour. We bought some wine and paprika and tried out our Hungarian (very, very badly!) In the evening we tried out the restaurant closest to our hotel, Casa Romanesca. It was utterly fantastic. Cont.
My husband had the chicken livers and onions (something he grew up eating) and I had the homemade sausage with cabbage - sounds very German, but the flavors are very different and (imo) a lot better. Romanians understand seasoning their food! (apologies, Germans). The price was great, too. Day 3 we had arranged a private driver to take us to Castle Bran and the ruined fortress at Rasnov. It was 30 euro for both of us from 8am to 3pm, although we ended the tour early becuase we'd realized we'd forgotten to give our hotel the key when checking out. Bran was touristy, but we got there at opening before it got crowded - definately the way to go. I found the story of the German-descended royal family of Romania who lived in the castle part-time from the late 1800s up until WWII to be more fascinating than the non-existant Dracula connection. A great example of a traditionally restored castle. The fortress at Rasnov is also not to be missed if you're in the area, it was originally Roman and then built up by the Knights Templar, until it was basically a self-functioning town after the knights left. Now it's in ruins, and it's a great contrast to Bran, with great views. Back in Brasov we had a few hours to kill before our train, so we had a late lunch at Casa Romanesca, and ended up witnessing an Orthodox funeral luncheon there accidentally, as I snuck in from the biergarten to use the restroom and discovered the entire interior full of black-clad mourners saying prayers. Whoops. Lunch was great, we got the house plate of cheese, meats, and veggies and the "hot chicken wings" - not what we were expecting (sauce comes separate) but delicious. Then we caught a very amusing lady cab driver back to the airport, enjoying yet another seatbelt-less crazy cab ride as the lady bragged about her driving skill and yelled at jaywalkers. This happened a lot in Romania.
Now the hard part - getting OUT of Romania! When we'd arrived in Brasov, we'd stopped by the Wasteels travel agency in the train station, hoping to find someone better than the indifferent ticket sellers to figure out how we were going to get to Serbia. The problem, which I knew in advance, was that there was no direct service to Serbia. However, there was a night train from Bucharest which connected to another train at Timisora, near the border, to the Serbian town of Vrsac. From there, you take a bus to Belgrade. Problem was, the connecting night train was full - but there was another night train that left an hour later. We'd miss the morning connection to Serbia, but could catch another train to Vrsac in the late afternoon. That later train only had a 2 person compartment available from departure until 6am, meaning we'd spend the final 2 hours of the trip in a different car, normal first class seats. Well, it was better than nothing. So 2 hours from Brasov to Bucharest, 2 hours waiting for our night train, then we go to board and the ticket taker cannot understand our ticket - he thinks it's for the next day. We panic, he talks to an associate, finally all is sorted, and we're allowed to board and told we can stay in the compartment all the way to Timisoara. Score! The compartment itself is beautiful - an old 1960s Deutschebahn car. We're already exhausted and assume sleep with come easily. Because we were night train newbies in love with the romance of the idea. And once again, this board was right. Night trains are not a good idea for sleeping. At all. It didn't help that it was stifling hot in the car unless the window was open, which was ungodly loud. Or that the tracks were in bad shape and the train listed from side-to side at an alarming and apparently unsafe angle (my train nerd husband luckily didn't tell me this til after the train ride).
Also, it turns out we didn't have the sleeper compartment the whole night. We were "woken up" at 5:45 and told we had to move (none of the interaction with this train guy took place in English, I'm just assuming most of what we were told, lol). I'd finally figured out how to doze less than an hour before that came. We dressed quickly and had to wait at the end of the car for our stop, as the doors to the different cars were chained and locked. So we had to hop out of our car at the next stop, and walk down to the other car. We finally arrived in Timisoara. The train station had no luggage hold. We'd hoped that maybe there would be a bus to Vrsac or some other town across the border, so we walked to the bus station, after getting lost in one of the markets, and were informed there were no buses to Serbia. This is my biggest peeve with Romania - which author Francis Tapon also discussed in his book "The Hidden Europe" (btw I don't recommend that book, but I did read it, based on his interview with Rick Steves on his show) - getting from Romania to a neighboring country by public transit is a ridiculous fiasaco. There are only four trains daily across the border into Serbia - two from Timisoara and two from another border town further up north. No buses! This is insane. Apparently getting to Bulgaria via public transit is equally ridiculous. We'd even tried to contact a private company that supposedly made the run from Timisoara to Belgrade for 25 euro a person - but they did not answer their phone or respond to emails sent days earlier. So we were stuck for the day. I called the TI and they told me there was a hostel we could store our luggage at - so we took a taxi there, a stoner-looking British dude said it was fine to leave the bags there, although he wasn't an employee, so we did and set out to explore Timisoara.
On the surface, Timisoara is more attractive than Bucharest. While there's plenty of run down buildings, there's some nicely restored ones as well, and the Hapsburg influence is present. That said, I was quickly pretty bored of the city. There just wasn't that much to do. The history museum looked like it had been ransacked, with broken doors and leaves blowing through the lobby. We tried to find the museum of the Revolution, and it simply didn't exist at the address given both in my guidebook and on the TI's map. We double checked it several times, no museum. We didn't bother to ask anyone, somewhat resigned to "Well, that's Romania!" and whiled away a couple hours at a couple different cafes before it was time for our afternoon train out. We'd spent most of our Romanian currency, and I was afraid of arriving in Vrsac with no cash at all, in case there were no ATMs nearby or our card didn't work (always a fear when traveling - I'd informed one bank of our travels but had forgotten to do so with the other bank, which I rectified later when I had wifi access again) so I took out some more Romanian Lei before we got on the train. A mistake. Once we'd made the border crossing (hostile Romanian officials, relatively nice and welcoming Serbian ones) and arrived at the station, a taxi driver didn't speak English but understood we needed an ATM and took us to one in Vrsac's pleasant old town, then dropped us off at the bus station, were we had about a 45 minute wait for the 2 hour bus to Belgrade. We were back in a place where transit connections worked normally, and despite the language barrier, people were helpful and friendly! I'd never pictured myself as being relieved to be in Serbia, but I was!
Takeaways from Romania:
While we didn't have time to see much of the country or do it justice, from what we did see I'd certainly recommend Brasov and I'm sad we didn't have time to explore Translyvania more. The food is outstanding and in general Romania is excellent value. That said, I would say that traveling there is not for the faint of heart. Very often you're "on your own" for getting around, people there do not seem to take the idea of tourist infrastructure very seriously. While it's understandable given how much they suffered under Chechescu's brand of communist dictatorship, this certainly doesn't apply to the former Yugoslav countries we visited. The people individually are nice and welcoming, provided they aren't in a customer-service job. Everyone we spoke to expressed a frustration with the way things were in Romania - the ever-present stray dogs, the bueracrcy, corruption, and cronyism, and that "today, everyone's just in it for the money". No one has faith in police, either. This was by far the craziest driving I'd ever seen. People passing on blind corners, no seatbelts in taxis, very angry and hostile drivers. I was also glad I wasn't in a rental car. I don't know how I'd suggest getting around - guided tour seems to make the most sense, even if that's not really my scene. I would go back, to see more of Translyvania nad the Marmures, but I would fly in and out of Romania and not attempt to cross the border unless I was driving. That said, I have so many other places I want to see, returning to Roamania isn't at the top of my list. But it was interesting and fasciating, and you see a lot of rural traditions, even in the touristy areas. For people bored of Western Europe, it is quite the adventure!
Sarah, I was just about to put out a police bulletin, as you seemed to be missing for awhile. Interesting report, thanks!
I'm a bit like Tom just saw you had commented on another topic, so realized you are back from this grand adventure. Fascinated to read about your experiences! Thanks for all the detail.
Sarah - Thanks for all your trip reports - lots of really good details and sounds like you had a good trip. It seems like you ran into more instances of needing to communicate with non-English speakers on this trip. Dis you try any other language - like German or French?
Sarah, I was wondering how your trip went, glad to hear you had a good time. So you would consider driving in Serbia and Bosnia, but not Romania?
Elaine - I actually default to basic German whenever I'm in a panicky situation in a foreign country or just out of habit because my brain doesn't have room for more than one foreign language at a time, so I was accidentally saying "nein" and "bitte" constantly but did not get any more response in German than I did in English. I did get very good at the Romanian phrase for "Do you speak English?" but the answer was usually an angry shake of the head, a couple of I got yelled back in Romanian the equivalent of "Of course not, this is Romania, I speak Romanian!" For a language with only 28 million speakers worldwide (at most) this seemed really hostile and discouraging to tourists (in both times, the people were in customer service jobs in touristy areas, so it's not like I was asking random villagers or anything...) I certainly don't expect most people in another country to speak English, but the hostility for just asking in their own language was really unwarranted IMO. I have been asked many times in my own country if I spoke another language (usually Spanish) and while I usually couldn't help much I would never dream of being rude to someone who asked. Danni - I'm not huge on renting cars, but I would consider it in Serbia, Bosnia, and Croatia. There's still the issue of lots of passing on two lane mountain roads, but it generally seemed to be done with more consideration to safety and less hostility than the way people drove in Romania. Plus - seatbelts!!!
Thank you Sarah for your info. We are heading to Romania in a month. My daughter lived there for 16 months so she speaks the language so that will help. What you described is very much what she has told us since she has been back from there (about a month now). Especially the part about the no seat belts and the crazy drivers and pedestrians. lol The trains, she told me were old German trains from the 60's. I can't wait to see if they are the trains I use to use when I lived in Mainz in the late 60's early 70's. We will be spending about four days there, flying in and out and then using public transportation while in Romania. I can't wait to try the food and buy paprika myself. I actually thought it would be a good Christmas gift for the family. :) Your information will help me as we travel there.
Sarah, Wow..........you are a very brave, adaptable, and flexible traveler.......amazingly so. After reading your posts, I realize I am quite the travel wimp in comparison. Thanks for sharing your adventure, and it
sounds like overall you enjoyed the trip.
Wow, that was quite an adventure! I'm curious though as to why you weren't able to use your German at all. The ethnic German population in Banat is not as large as it once was but I heard that it is growing again and at least in places like Timi?oara more visible. Or have I indeed met more German speaking immigrants from Banat here in Calgary than you've met in Romania?
Beatrix - even though we spent time in both Brasov and Timosara (apologies for being too lazy to add the appropriate characters in the names) we never heard german and when flustered with my romanian i'd default to basic german i wasn't understood either. the romanians we spoke with had a much easier time in english than in german. i'd heard otherwise but in my brief experience it wasn't true today.
Sarah, Thanks very much for your excellent report.
Maybe German didn't work because Romanian is a romance language? Neat report.
Ed - the reason German was brought up is because huge parts of Romania used to be part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, where German was the lingua franca, and because Romania's main tourists used to be German. So I'd read that German was widely spoken in tourist areas (in fact, many of the tourist towns in Transyvlania were built by Germans in the middle ages and still have largely ethnic German populations) I didn't find that to be true. I wish Romanian was truly a romance language, it would've been easier on us. In fact, 60% of it is Slavic in origin, so while a knowledge of Spanish or Italian might help a little, it's not enough to get you through. My husband speaks decent Spanish and aside from numbers, we were pretty screwed, linguistically.
I still think its a great report with an interesting perspective of Romania. But, just to keeps the facts straight for the lurkers: The Austro-Hungarian Empire only extended into rougly Trasylvania, never as far as Bucharest. The only thing Bucharest had to do with the mess was being the location of the signing of the treaty. Romanian is the only country-wide language and it's well more than sixty percent romance-based. It's spoken by about ninety percent of the population. Hungarian is language number two, and spoken by something like five percent. That leaves German way down there somewhere. There's a few more minor languages, but I've forgotten what they are and where they're used. Hungarian and German are regional/pocket languages, found mostly in smatterings of the old A-H Emp, with the exception of the Hungarian clump in the central part of the country. The German-speaking crowd is the Trans-Saxons or something like that, living about where the name implies.
I know the history/geography part is right, but thinking about the language is starting to make my head hurt. One final stab: I think Romanian as a Romance language ended at the Vulgar Latin stage and didn't progress to Proto-Latin like the other four did. Post-roman to early Dark Age history isn't my field, but I halfway think that the maundering hoards from everywhere had a whole lot of linguistic influence, mostly Balto-Slavic. By the late Middle Ages and language codification, Romanian was pretty much established as it is now. Zzzzzzzzzzzzz.
"The Austro-Hungarian Empire only extended into rougly Trasylvania, never as far as Bucharest." That's why I said "huge parts of Romania" and not all of Romania. Regardless, as I also mentioned, German is often stated as being a common 'second language' for Romanians during the communist years due to it being taught in schools and a lot of East German tourists during that time.