Road trip in Romania – A suggested itinerary

I love road trips as they give so much flexibility to go where you want. The flipside is that I tend to want to see even more, since I have the possibility. In hindsight, we could favorably skipped some of the places we stopped by, so here is the route and sights I recommend, including links to the more informative blog posts from the different places. Naturally, I could have liked to stay longer at the various locations, but at least you get a taste.

Essentials:
Getting there: Most people fly in to Bucharest, and are serviced by both low cost and full service airlines. Wizz Air is a major operator, with direct flights from more than 30 destinations.
Local sim card: As we did not have a GPS in the car, and also had not booked our accommodation upfront, we got a local sim card from Vodafone. You can get one in any Vodafone shop, but make sure to ask them to activate the program you want, as all the instructions will be in Romanian….
Navigation: We used Google Maps for navigation, and it worked like a charm most of the time. We named our “Google Voice” Vladina, and she only let us down once, when we were driving the Transfagarasan Highway. But that is a different story….

Day one: Bucharest – Brašov

View of the Black Church and the old town seen from the Black Tower

View of the Black Church and the old town seen from the Black Tower.

Pick up the rental car at Bucharest airport. We chose the national Romanian company Autonom. Drive straight to Brasov, and skip the detour to Snagov Monastery unless you are extremely eager to see the tomb of Vlad Tepes… It also ended up being a long detour, as we struggled a bit to find the way to the monastery.

Stroll the streets of Brasov and soak in the atmosphere. If you have time, take the cable car to the top of Tampa for an overview of the city.

Stay overnight: Central House Hostel or Casa Postavarului, the apartment we moved to the next day.

Central House Hostel
Central location on the main street in the old town. We stayed in a 4-bed room with private bathroom. Beds were comfortable, bathroom clean and the room was spacious. Enough sockets for everyone.

Casa Postavarului
Wonderful and big apartment in a quiet parallel street to the main street. Lovely balcony and pleasant host. Nice and clean, and great to have the fridge for cold drinks in the morning.

Day two: Bran and Rasnov
Bran Castle
Visiting Transylvania, Bran Castle – known as the castle of Dracula, was a must! Dracula pops up in most people’s minds when they hear Transylvania. With good reason. Bram Stoker’s novel took place here, but the writer himself actually never visited Romania. Get ready for a day of Dracula, medieval citadel and (disappointing?) views. Arriving back in Brasov, walk around a little bit more.

Stay overnight in Casa Postavarului

Day three: Drive from Brasov to Sighisoara via Fagaras
The castle in Fagaras
In case you have not yet seen what I suggested in Brasov, it is time for some morning sightseeing before hitting the road. A short stop by the castle in Fagaras is nice, before continuing on a scenic country side road.  Watch out for sheep and holes in the streets. And beautiful scenery, of course!

Sighisoara, Romania
Arriving in Sighisoara, check in either at Casa Lia or Pension am Schneiderturm before heading to explore the charming old town inside the citadel.

Stay overnight:
Casa Lia
Very nice host, centrally located in the citadel, in what turned out to be our favorite street. The room was spacious and bathroom nice. The host invited us for a drink and gave us information about the city. Breakfast is available for an extra fee, either bread with jam/honey or omelet.

Pension am Schneiderturm
The room was not the biggest, but good enough for us. Nice outdoor seating area. Very helpful host, gave us a lot of information both about Sighisoara, the area, and gave us tips what roads to choose for our onward journey. The breakfast was outstanding, with all types of cheese, sausages of sheep, deer, bear and boar. Also many types of both marmalades and honey. Cereal, fruit and yoghurt was also available. A great way to taste many local specialties. Make sure you do not miss this breakfast!

Day four: Daytrip from Sighisoara to Biertan fortified church and Bethlen castle in Cris
Bethlen castle in Cris
Biertan fortified church
Sighisoara is the perfect base for a daytrip to Biertan and Cris. Explore the majestic Manor house with the adorned cylinder shaped tower in Cris, before heading on to the charming rural village Biertan and the fortified church that is on the UNESCO World Heritage list.
Return to Sighisoara for more strolling and enjoy a drink outside between the lovely colorful houses.
Sighisoara, Romania3

Day five: A full day drive to Maramures.
Ieud, one of The wooden Churches of Maramureş, Romania on the UNESCO World Heritage list
Not the most interesting day, the road was actually quite boring, with exception of a few stretches of attractive scenery and lovely villages.  The settlements in the north are different; the houses are more scattered, not like pearls on a string along the road as further south. Horse and carriage is also noticeably more prevalent in this area.

The first wooden church we saw, we stopped the car and got out. Just hold your horses and don’t. There are so many nicer, and older, coming up along the way. We did a detour to Moisei Monastery but you can easily skip that as well, as Barsana Monastery complex that you will visit later is much nicer.

Ieud was along the way and we stopped by the old wooden church to get a taste of what was in stall for us the next day. Driving the picture perfect rural road between Ieud and Botiza was a great choice, and we had to stop several times for photographing.

Stay overnight:

Orghici Ana
A wonderful home stay with a lovely family. The room was spacious with shared bathroom in the hall. We chose half-board with dinner and breakfast. We got a fantastic soup with vegetables, potatoes, meat and egg for first course, polenta with cheese as main, and apples in syrup for dessert. And of course homemade wine and snaps from the grapes in their garden. We did not go to bed hungry….. Breakfast was egg, bacon, jam and bread. The oldest generation did not speak English, but Ioana came home after a short while. The three year old daughter was super sweet and tried her best to entertain us with dancing and singing.

Day six: The day of wooden churches, the Merry Cemetery, and bars…
Poienile Izei, one of The wooden Churches of Maramureş, Romania on the UNESCO World Heritage list Graves at the Merry Cemetery in Sapanta
What is your definition of Hell? According to the ones making the wall paintings inside the wooden church Poienile Izei, it is the Devil playing violin while you try to sleep!
After being amused by this, we continued for more laughter at the Merry Cemetery. That does sound completely wrong, I know. But the people in Sapanta wanted to turn the tragedy of death into something funny, and created the Merry Cemetery.

Arriving in Cluj, I must admit that I did not find the city particularly charming. However, the Old town of Cluj is an energetic area with many bars. After some days in quiet areas, it was nice to be able to enjoy the lively atmosphere and some people watching.

Stay overnight:

Lucas Aparthotel
Very spacious apartment, nice and clean. Good location near the main square and old town. Parking available nearby.

Day seven: Sibiu

View from the Councils Tower in Sibiu, Romania

View from the Councils Tower.

Cetatii street in Sibiu, Romania

The charming Cetatii street.

We got an early start, both because we needed to get the most of the time in Sibiu, but also due to the fact that we did not figure out how pay for the parking longer than to the evening. We could of course go in the morning to pay to park longer, but then we had to wake up anyway.

To break up the drive, we made a stop in Sebes. It can easily be skipped to avoid wasting the time you could spend in Sibiu. Sibiu on the other hand is worth some time, and getting a short guided tour of the city even more so.

Stay overnight:

Cathedral Apartment
Nice location in the old town. Pleasant family, the room was big and new, and everything was very clean. Parking nearby.

Day eight: Driving the Transfagarasan Highway and Bucharest.
The Transfagarasan Highway in Romania
The Transfagarasan Highway
is the Romanian version of the Norwegian Trollstigen. And what a spectacular drive! At least if you are lucky enough to escape the fog….

After starting with an unnecessary detour (thank you very much, Vladina….), the drive took a little longer than expected, but as the weather was pretty bad, we saved some time doing less photo stops. I would call that a lose-lose situation, though…

Anyway, arriving safe back in the city center in Bucharest, a man from Autonom car rental company came to meet us, as they offer free pick up of the car within the city limit. Perfect! That saved us the time and hassle to get back after delivering the car at the airport.

Time to explore Bucharest, the last stop on this fantastic journey through the beautiful and fascinating Romania! Several times along the way we were already talking about when we could go back to explore more….

Stay overnight:

Maya Old Town Apartment
Good location on the street just outside of the old town. The room is one of three in a bigger apartment. Shared kitchen and seating area with the other rooms, but had a private bathroom. Spacious and clean room.

So go ahead and explore Romania on your own! Feel free to get inspired by this itinerary, and if you have any questions, please do not hesitate to ask!

If you prefer someone else to plan and book everything for you, or even join an organized tour, the travel agent VisitRomania.No offer these services. Their wine tour already got me tempted….

 

In the footsteps of Dracula

More or less by coincidence we ended up following in the footsteps of Dracula, from birth to death – or actually the other way around.

On the way from Bucharest to Brasov, we did a detour to Snagov to visit the monastery. In hindsight, we could easily skip it, but if you are a very interested in Vlad Tepes maybe you should reconsider, as this is where he is buried. As we did not even know that, it was the start of a few random “meetings” with him, starting backwards from his death.

The character Dracula from Bram Stokers novel is often mistaken as Vlad Tepes (also known as Vlad the Impaler or Vlad Drakul). The devil is known by many names…. Dracula actually mean “son of the Devil” in Romanian.

So, they are not the same, but that is a minor detail. Let’s just pretend. As the tourist industry mainly does…

As is the case also for Bran Castle. Yes, it might have been the inspiration for Draculas castle mentioned in the novel, but Vlad Tepes never lived there. He MAY have stayed there a few nights on his flight from the Turks, but that is maximum.

Sighisoara on the other hand is the birthplace of Vlad, and they even have a room in the Casa Dracula restaurant claiming to be the room where he was born. Apparently, there is a coffin up there as well. We did not go to check…

Our guided tour in Sibiu ended outside the The Evangelic Church, where the guide talked about many interesting facts. What made us pay most attention though, and actually made both of us burst into laughter, was the fact that Vlad Tepe’s son is buried inside! Seriously, what are the odds?!

We thought at least this would be the end of our Vlad/Dracula related places, as our road trip was about to end. But no. Driving the The Transfagarasan Highway, we passed Poienari Fortress. This is the ruin of the real Dracula Castle, where Vlad Tepes actually lived. And back in Bucharest, his statue was standing out in the Old Town….

Dracula fans are welcome!

 

 

 

Bucharest

I am having a hard time deciding if I liked Bucharest or not. I think it depends very much what you are looking for, obviously. Compared to the charming other towns we visited, I would say I would rather go back to one of those. At the same time, I know that Bucharest has so much more to offer than I experienced, so I would absolutely spend some time there next time as well.

To get an introduction, I joined the Walkabout Free Tour. Our first stop was by the fountain and main boulevard, looking down towards the gigantic white Palace of Parliament built by the former president/communist leader Ceausescu. In fact, it is the world’s 2nd largest building and more than 30.000 people were moved to demolish their houses to make room for the palace when it was built in 1983. It also has the nickname “The Iceberg”, as even though it is 84 m tall above the surface, it is also 96 m deep underground.

The Palace of Parliament in Bucharest, Romania

The Palace of Parliament.

The boulevard leading from the Palace of Parliament in Bucharest, Romania

The boulevard leading from the Palace of Parliament.

The boulevard leading from the palace is the widest in Europe. When it was built, Ceausescu asked his architects what was Europe’s largest boulevard. “Champs Elysees in Paris”, they replied. “Make me a bigger one then!” he demanded. And so they did…

In general, it seemed Ceausescu enjoyed building new and moving things… There are many hidden churches in small streets, as he was just hiding them behind large communist buildings. He believed that if people did not see the churches, they would not practice religion.

Thirteen churches were also moved to save them from being torn down during communism. Ceausescu actually paid for the moving of the first, mainly because he did not think it was possible and wanted to prove the initiator wrong. Nevertheless, it actually worked, so many other buildings were also moved, including an apartment building with everything, including people, inside. Then he could brag about his achievements instead. Well, at least it saved some historical buildings, including the Stavropoleos Church.

The Stavropoleos Church in Bucharest, Romania

The Stavropoleos Church.

Inside the Stavropoleos Church in Bucharest, Romania

Inside the Stavropoleos Church.

Going a little bit further back in time, to the 1930’s Bucharest was often referred to as Little Paris due to the French architectural influence. Sadly, the city was heavily bombed during WW2, so many of them were destroyed.

One of the city’s oldest buildings, the Hanu’lui Manuc Inn, has recently been refurbished after being heavily neglected during the revolution. It now houses a hotel and restaurants, and has a nice outside terrace in the backyard.
Hanu'lui Manuc Inn

Vlad Tepes, Vlad the Impaler or Dracula. You choose...

Vlad Tepes, Vlad the Impaler or Dracula. You choose…

No tour in Romania is complete without at least one element of Vlad Tepes, or Dracula, so we also visited the statue of him. Even though Vlad Tepes and the character Dracula from Bram Stokers novel are not the same, they are often mixed together. With or without purpose… Anyway. Vlad was the ruler of Valahia, and was trained by the Ottoman Empire. However, he went his own way and turned against them. So when the Ottoman soldiers were sent to get him, he simply impaled 2000 of them on wooden sticks, scaring off others to try the same… Hence the name Vlad the Impaler. Sounds like a nice man…

Back to another not so nice man. The end of the tour was also the end of Ceausescu. The communist leader was trying to calm down the people protesting, but instead it ended in a bloodbath. Ceausescu and his wife were also arrested, and later executed on live TV on Christmas day. In theory, Romania became a democratic country January 1 1990, but sadly followed a period where many innocent people were killed.

During the city tour I had met a few others travelling alone, so we decided to have a few drinks together afterwards. As we felt the old town was filled with less inviting bars, we went a bit uptown to find the locals. On M60 (Strada D. I. Mendeleev 2), we did. Sitting by a table outside enjoying a craft beer while talking to them for a while, we got a few other recommendations. As it was a nice late-summer evening and we wanted to sit outside, we decided to go for the tip Gardina Eden (Garden of Eden, if you did not catch that… Calea Victoriei 107). The backyard garden is filled with wooden tables and chairs under the trees, and even some hammocks scattered around. A real getaway from the busy street right outside.

Gardina Eden in Bucharest, Romania

Gardina Eden

If you do not want to move out of the old town, I recommend Barza Viezure Minz, a cute café/bar stuffed up by mainly local food, wine and beer. Otherwise there are plenty of bars, you just have to find one of your taste…

Inside Barza Viezure Minz in Bucharest, Romania

Barza Viezure Minz

Sitting outside Barza Viezure Minz in Bucharest, Romania
So back to my dilemma. Do I like the city or not? Again, I had too little time to judge, but I think it all depends on your reason to go there. If you want a romantic getaway, I do not think Bucharest is the place to go. Parts of the old town are nice, but sadly tacky touristic restaurants and bars have ruined most (in my point of view). If you travel with a group of friends on the other hand, and want to experience the city life in a less known big city, I would give it a try. The choice is now up to you, would you visit Bucharest?

The old and new bank in Bucharest. The latter mirroring the history of the first.

The old and new bank in Bucharest. The latter mirroring the history of the first.

The statue outside the National History Museum in Bucharest, Romania

The statue outside the National History Museum.

Old Town in Bucharest, Romania (2)

Old Town in Bucharest

Old town in Bucharest, Romania

One of the bar streets in old town Bucharest, Romania

One of the nicer bar streets in old town.

Driving the Transfagarasan Highway, a spectacular experience!

Driving the Transfagarasan Highway, a spectacular experience!

The Transfagarasan Highway in Romania
The Transfagarasan Highway
is one of the most scenic drives in Romania, and I was really looking forward to experience it.

However, first thing first; make sure you head for the right road, first E68 and then 7C. Next; make sure that you actually are on the correct road. Then; double-check your route along the way to make sure you are still on the correct route. If you take the wrong turn approximately 15 km outside Sibiu, Google maps (aka Vladina) will not tell you that you are on the wrong way until you have driven about 30 minutes. Trust me….

Unfortunately, the weather was not on our side so we started the drive in thick fog. But luckily, as we entered the area with the hairpins road, the fog lifted its veil just in time for us to see the bending road. Stopping at a viewpoint almost at the top gave us the chance to step out of the car and look back at the twisted road we just drove up. As far as we could see, the view from the very top was not as spectacular but then again we didn’t we give it much of a try so don’t take my word for it.
The Transfagarasan Highway in Romania The Transfagarasan Highway in Romania
The rest of the road takes you through stunning landscape (if you are lucky enough to escape the fog), green forest and steep hills. There are also several places to stop along the way, including Poienari Fortress. This is the ruin of the real Dracula Castle, where Vlad Tepes actually lived. As we were running out of time, climbing up the 1500 steep steps was not an option. But according to the commercial posters, it seems they have a new lift to take you there without the effort as well.

Even though we were mainly driving in fog, it was still a magical experience when we could actually see something. And the rest was up to us (and now you) to imagine…

Just a little advice on the way; the drive will probably take longer than you plan, so make sure to calculate extra time…

Sibiu

I think we chose the right route for our journey, each place topping the previous just a little bit. That goes for the walled cities of Brasov, Sighisoara and Sibiu at least.

At first sight, the city did not seem that special, even though I had been told numerous times how beautiful Sibiu is. The main street is for sure nice with colorful houses, but nothing exceptional compared to other pretty main streets. It was first when we walked a bit passed that, I understood what it was all about. It should not come as a surprise though, as that is usually the case.
Main street in Sibiu, Romania The main street in Sibiu, Romania
The Councils Tower is a great place to start your exploration. Climbing the steps to the top gives you a great view of both the Large Square, the Small Square on the opposite side, and the colorful houses surrounding the Evangelical Church almost like a fort wall.

View from the Councils Tower in Sibiu, Romania

View from the Councils Tower.

You will probably notice them quite quickly; the eyes watching you from the rooftops. Or, at least it feels like the sleepy “eyes” follow your every step around town. These eyes however, are openings made for ventilation and light.

Rooftops with eyes watching you in Sibiu, Romania

Rooftops with eyes watching you!

To learn a little bit more about the city we joined a guided tour, starting in the beautiful Cetatii street, with a few of the city’s 10 remaining towers. The fortified city originally had 39 towers, built and guarded by the different guilds.

Cetatii street in Sibiu, Romania

The charming Cetatii street.

Colourful street in Sibiu, Romania Sibiu, Romania
Sibiu, also known as Hermannstadt, was built by the German population in the 12th century. As there were numerous attacks, thick walls were built to protect the city. The side facing the mountains was extra strong, as the attackers usually came from that direction. Rumor has it that when the Turks tried to attack, the citizens defended themselves by toughing out different parts of pork, often burning, as the Muslims could not touch that. This bought them more time to prepare for the fight!

Sibiu is also a cultural city, often referred to as “Little Vienna”. Their yearly theater festival is very important, and there are several open-air events free of charge, so everyone has the opportunity to enjoy culture. The city has its own “Walk of Fame” with stars for popular actors and directors.

Walk of Fame in Sibiu, Romania

Walk of Fame.

Even though there are still many ancient houses left in the old town, unfortunately many of them had to give way when the communism took over and tore them down to replace them with modern buildings. Luckily, the houses by the Large Square were saved from being demolished. These buildings used to house the rich and important persons, and the houses are still named after one of the previous owners. The most significant is the Brukenthal Palace, now housing a large collection of art. The constructions have a mix of different styles, as every owner wanted to add a new element.
A part of the Large Square in Sibiu, Romania Sibiu, RomaniaMoving on to the Small Square, where the tradesmen lived, you see a change in style again. All the houses had arches with a hallway around the whole square so people could go shopping in the different stores without getting wet. I bet the publics loved that! What they probably did not appreciate, was the fact that the tradesmen had a reputation of being liars, trying to fool the buyers. Legend has it that a tradesman was standing on the bridge trying his best to make his costumers pay much more than they should, when the bridge suddenly fell down. Even the bridge could not stand his lies….
Sibiu, Romania Sibiu, Romania Sibiu, Romania The stairs down to the oldest part of Sibiu, RomaniaSibiu, Romania Sibiu, Romania
Crossing the cast iron Bridge of Lies, we continued to the Stair’s Tower by Huet Square where the Journeymen’s house is located. Ever since the middle ages, the Journeymen wandered around in Europe to get experience with different crafts to be skilled craftsmen. The tradition is still alive today, though in a much smaller scale.

The Evangelic Church in Sibiu, Romania
The Evangelic Church’s original construction was finished in 1520, but has later undergone various changes. Since it was only the 2nd largest church after the Black Church in Brasov, they decided to make the tower the tallest. Some Journeymen were sent to Bistrita to measure the height of their tower. Measures were made by a rope, and after their mission was accomplished, they went to the pub. Problem was that they got a little bit too much to drink, so their reason for visiting was revealed. The citizens of Bistrita was not interested in losing their status having the highest church tower, so it the night they simply cut a piece of the rope without the Journeymen knowing…. End of the tale; the church tower in Sibiu was built, but ended up being lower than Bistrita.

Even though it is not the largest, nor the tallest church, it sure is impressive inside with its massive columns and the largest organ in South-Eastern Europe. In addition, the chapel has 67 tombstones, including the grave of Prince Mihnea the Bad – Vlad Tepes son. Yet another “Dracula related” place we just stumbled upon…

During the sightseeing, I had spotted a nice café selling local craft beer, so after leaving our guide Adela, we headed to Arhiva de Vafea si Ceai. Really a cozy gem, and delicious beer! The perfect ending of a great day!
Delicious craft beer at Arhiva de Vafea si Ceai in Sibiu, Romania
Sibiu by Night Sibiu by Night Sibiu by Night

Visit the official website for Sibiu for more information about the city.

Nightlife in Cluj

The Old town of Cluj is an energetic area with many bars. After some days in quiet areas, it was nice to be able to enjoy the lively atmosphere and some people watching.

Shadow Bar: The inside gave its name justice, with heavy smoke hanging as a shade over the whole room. The small cozy balcony facing Soul Bar on the other hand, was a nice place. Walk up the stairs and to the left, passed the toilets. There are only two tables, so be lucky – or leave.

Klausen: A bar with seating both indoors and a nice terrace with hanging trees along the walls. They have a large selection of international beer, but I wish they had more local ones as well.

The Sovjet: Just across the street from Klausen, you find The Soviet pub. The red Soviet star in the window and other symbols inside make up for the name. To underline it, their cocktails immediately brings you to Soviet. Mainly because of their names, not for the vodka.

Che Guevara Social Pub: Continuing on the red star theme, Che Guevara Social Pub is a good place to continue the evening. Get the feeling of sitting out in a backyard, without getting the chills.

Sisters Cafe: On our way home we passed by Sisters Cafe. It looked inviting, but as we had an early start the next day and we were way past bedtime already, we unfortunately had to skip it. But if you check it out, let me know how it is!

The Merry Cemetery in Sapanta

Graves at the Merry Cemetery in Sapanta
What an amazing place! When entering the Merry Cemetery, the wooden blue crosses with the different colorful images are spread out in front of you. The Roman people are not afraid of the death. They look at the cross as an entrance gate towards eternal rest. The Merry Cemetery got its name from its humorous undertone in the verses written on the crosses. The images represents a part of the deceased life either their occupation or another thing of significance describing the person, such as infidelity to take one example. Nothing stays a secret in a small village….

Some of the paintings even describe the cause of death. There were quite a few car accidents, while others drank themselves to death. You can spend hours in the cemetery just studying the paintings. Some of my favorites were the drunk barman, the Shepard playing music for his heard and the old woman taking care of the graves.

Sadly, we did not understand the written texts as they are written in a local Maramures dialect, but the paintings at least gave an indication for us to imagine ourselves the stories of the people.

Prepare for a colorful experience on many levels!
Graves at the Merry Cemetery in Sapanta Graves at the Merry Cemetery in Sapanta
Graves at the Merry Cemetery in SapantaGraves at the Merry Cemetery in Sapanta