I just returned from 9 days traveling around Romania. Specifically, Transylvania. I didn’t have a good idea of what it’s like before I went. Especially in the miles and points world, there’s very little report on this country. So, I thought I’d to share my experience.
This was probably the first trip in a very long time where I spent that much time (9 days) in one country. I typically spend 3-4 days in a country, and 2-3 countries per trip. This allows me to see what I consider enough of each place and more countries with limited time off. I often go back to countries I like to visit different areas. 99% of travelers I meet don’t do this; many take 2-3 weeks to see a country more thoroughly. I don’t think what I’m doing is too unusual in our (miles and pts) world, but for this trip, I thought why not walk in the shoes of “normal people”, slightly, for once.
Some historical background – Transylvania was historically part of the Hungarian Kingdom. After being sacked by the Mongol invasion in the 1200s, German Saxons were invited to rebuild fortified cities, many of which survive today. The Saxons built 7 principal cities, including Brasov, Sibiu, Cluj Napoca, and Sighisoara. These are the 4 bases I spent time in, along with some day trips.
Here are some of my impressions.
Amazing old towns, villages, and nature; but…
There is NO shortage of well preserved old towns and villages. Sibiu, Brasov, and Sighisoara have outstanding historic areas and are well served by public transportation across the country. Sighisoara itself is a UNESCO World Heritage site. There are also smaller historic towns like Biertan, Saschiz and Viscri that look amazing in pictures (part of another UNESCO World Heritage Site – Villages with fortified churches in Transylvania), unfortunately not reachable by public transit. Unlike some other historic areas, cars are allowed almost in the entire old towns of Sibiu, Brasov, and Sighisoara, a convenience some will appreciate but takes away some of the historical charm.
Being steeped in the Carpathian Mountains, there’s plenty of nature and hiking opportunities. Balea Lake was simply breathtaking. Brasov and Sinaia are surrounded by mountains. Piatra Craiului near Brasov looks amazing.
People are friendly, except…
In general, I found the people very friendly and helpful – except restaurant staff. Regardless of whether they’re actually busy, service and helpfulness are generally at a low level, except in upscale restaurants. But overall, the people were lovely.
Not very touristy
You know a place is relatively undiscovered when there’s no Asian tour bus. In fact, very few tour buses altogether. Sighisoara had the most tourists, while Sibiu was full of locals during a Sunday festival (it had 10% of the people next day). Compared to more famous places on the continent, it’s quite manageable. I saw maybe 30 Asians the whole time. You also do see a fair amount of locals in the city’s old town (which is nice to see), with the exception of the Sighisoara citadel because of its compact size.
Only private tours
This is the thing that irked me the most about Romania. I looked extensively for organized tours to hard to reach places that I can join as a solo traveler. I found exactly zero – in English anyway. Every tour operator wanted to give me a private tour and charge 3x the price. This is the first country I’ve been to without public tours that bring different people together. It’s not necessarily because of the tourist number – Bosnia had arguably fewer tourists and I easily found “joinable” tours in both Sarajevo and Mostar. Maybe Romania has fewer solo travelers? Who knows. But if you want to see Turda Gorge or Biertan, your options are rent a car, pay an expensive private tour, or hitch hike.
Actually, one other option is to find a group and tag along. This is where I love hostels as a platform to meet people. I did stay in hostel in Brasov, but I didn’t need a group there. I needed one in Cluj Napoca to go to Turda Gorge, but I was staying at a chain hotel and didn’t meet anyone with the same schedule.
Public transportation is good
I traveled by public transportation for pretty much everything. I did take one taxi and one shared minivan to Balea Lake. That’s it. Everything else was by public transport. I traveled by train between the cities. I bought some train tickets in advance online and some at the station on the day of travel. For intra-area bus I researched online or asked people.
One traveler I met said Romania modernized too much for her liking. She wishes getting around were less defined and required more effort. I’m not sure I agree with her, but I see her point, which is that modern structure is taking away traditional life. That aside, most of the train passengers seem to be older Romanians. Everyone was friendly, or at least respectful. I had one seat mate who seemed to enjoy talking to me in Romanian, which I unfortunate don’t know a word of. After a while, I remembered Google Translate, but he would stop talking whenever it started recording for translation. As soon as the speech detection ended, he would continue. Ah, well….
Pro tip: many train stations have a ticket machine. It has an English interface, and it accepts US credit card without pin (it never asked for my pin). FWIW I used CNB Crystal. I never saw anyone use the machine, while there would be a queue for the ticket window. Maybe Romanians (who are the majority of travelers) don’t have credit card? Anyway, the machine is easy to use, and it’s all yours.
Stay tuned for part 2
… Where I’ll talk about the food, prices, lodging, Communism, Bucharest (or lack of), vampires, and comparison with another country. In subsequent posts, I’ll tell you more about each place and what I’d do differently in hindsight.