This isn’t my first blog about Romania, so it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone when I say again that I absolutely love Romania. Love it. Not just for its touristy sites like Bran Castle and the Transfagarasan, but for its “everything else.” It’s a fascinating mixture of the old and the new, a burgeoning young republic shedding the vestiges of Communism. Despite considerable modernization in the last twenty years, the culture is firmly rooted in ancient customs and superstitions, with many families remaining deeply connected to the land and continued reliance on horse-drawn carts for subsistence living. A country in transition, half in and half out, old enough to offer up thousands of years of history, but young enough to remain uncut and unpolished, it’s still often overlooked in tourist brochures and guidebooks. During our 11-day road trip through Romania, we discovered some wonderful, terrible things about it that you’re not likely to read in any travel brochure.
What’s the dealio? Why are more folks not raving about Romanian food? Maybe I’m just reading the wrong travel magazines. Granted, our first experience of Romanian food was an authentic home-cooked meal, which is pretty hard to beat, but when our Romanian friends suggested we also had to try several Romanian specialties before they headed back to Switzerland, Travis and I blindly ordered their suggestions from this menu or that. Turns out, they were right.
Romania, my friends, is a meat-lover’s paradise. I’m sure they offer vegan dishes also, though I wouldn’t know because we were too busy devouring smoked pork knuckles with polenta in sauce, and delicious mititei – small rolls of ground meat pressed with spices and grilled. The special ingredient? Sodium bicarbonate, added to give it a moist, springy texture. If you get the chance, give it a try – you’ve likely never eaten anything quite like it.
My personal favorite, though, was definitely papanași, a fried donut-like pastry filled with soft white cheese (a bit like cream cheese) and fruit jam.
Oh, hello! Come to me, my sweet, fat calories!
2. Don’t count on the electricity.
Apparently electricity is a bit overrated in the States, considering how many folks these days opt to live “off the grid,” giving up modern conveniences like electricity for a simpler life. But many households in Romania don’t have this option.
For many, particularly in rural areas, electricity is still a luxury that isn’t always available. Even in places where it’s available, it isn’t always reliable, particularly during storms that cause power surges and outages.
3. Wait, what’s a Romanian leu?
Though Romania joined the EU in 2007, they have a long row to hoe before they completely implement the lengthy list of requirements for membership. One of those requirements is to switch from their local currency, Romanian lei, to euros.
During our trip, we tried to pay with euros several times but were declined.
The current estimate for the euro to be in widespread use is 2020. Of course, you can typically just use your Visa card, but for many of the smaller, more rural businesses, you’ll still need cash. If you’re planning to travel there, it might help to know that leu is singular, lei is plural, and RON is the acronym for their country currency, the same as an American dollar is written as USD.
4. Count your change.
Unless you intend to tip, it’s a good idea to count your change. Wages for many service jobs (waitresses, hotel staff, cab drivers) in Romania can be quite low, and tipping is customary. However, when we paid our bills in cash at restaurants or for parking, we were consistently shorted our change. Without fail, we only received change back when we requested it, and in one instance, demanded it.
When we asked our Romanian friends about the custom, they had differing views.
Not surprising – ask any two Americans about when and how much you should tip in the States, and you’re likely to get two opposing views.
Though I can only speculate as to the reasons behind this practice, my impression is that it’s simply rooted in culture, and no harm is intended. It’s just a good tidbit to know if you’re planning a trip to Romania and are accustomed to always receiving exact change without even thinking about it.
5. Love animals? Steel yourself for heartbreak.
I am not a kiddin’ on this one. Of all the things we saw and did in Romania, this is the only one I hate, hate, hated.
Stray dogs are everywhere, literally. Sick, injured, limping with clearly broken limbs jutting at obscene angles, hairless from mange, starving, fearful dogs, pacing along rural highways, scavenging for food in trash heaps, groups of up to 15 dogs fighting, sleeping, and cavorting in a single field. Everywhere.
We saw the fewest near touristy places like Bran Castle, so if your points of interest are all in well developed sites like this, you’ll likely be spared the visible proof of a country that has yet to devote appropriate resources to animal welfare.
With the exception of Noroc the kitten, we didn’t see any other stray cats. From previous travels in poverty-stricken areas of Mexico and Central America, I’m guessing that the dogs keep the cat population under control in Romania as well. If you’re traveling with a dog, as we were, it’s advisable to keep them on leash and in sight at all times. Though we didn’t encounter a single aggressive dog toward us (most were timid or even terrified), they were territorial and protective, at times attacking each other.
If you’re a big goo of love for animals, steel yourself to see some suffering and feel helpless to help.
Simply put, driving in Romania is pretty fantastic, but probably not in the way you think. Yes it has some ridiculously nice freeways, a crazy cheap road vignette, and scenic landscapes, but it’s more than that. It’s their unique style of driving that really struck us. When you first cross the border, allow for a brief but tense adjustment period to get used to it – unless you’re a timid driver, in which case booking a tour and not driving at all might be a better option for you. In general, the attitude of drivers is,
Speed limit, shmeed limit. If you can’t break the sound barrier, I’m smokin’ yer slow-ass.
If you see someone behind you, they won’t be in 30 seconds. Blind corners, double lines, intersections, and speed limits are merely suggestions not to pass.
Yet drivers aren’t rude about speeding. It’s not the sheer uncontrolled madness of driving in Italy. In Romania, tailgating only lasts a few seconds until folks blow past you. They seem to adhere to a peculiar code of conduct I came to respect. Drivers generally slow down in or near towns, and most rules of the road still apply. They just happen to have a blatant disregard for speed limits on the open road.
That, and nerves of bloody steel.
At one point, we looked ahead to see two sets of headlights bearing down on the car in front of us, one of them directly in his lane. I tapped the brakes, fully expecting the oncoming car to fall back into his lane at any second.
Rather than backing down, they all passed three cars wide right in front of us, the oncoming offender neatly sandwiched on the center line with the other two cars riding the shoulders. For a few hairy seconds, we were faced with the same offending car in our lane before I hit the brakes, hard this time, and he popped neatly back into his line of traffic like a perfectly fitted Jenga block.
Nerves of steel, I tell ya.
Of course, once you leave the main freeways and highways, it quickly becomes obvious that Romania’s road system is a work in progress. Even many of the main tourist attractions, such as the UNESCO Wooden Churches of Maramureș, are located in rural areas still accessed by crumbling old roads. While numerous road projects are currently ongoing, they also mean frequent road closures, delays, and diversions, at times with no notice. If your travel plans take you off the main road, allow plenty of extra time, consider driving a 4-wheel drive rig, and be prepared for having to take an alternate route.
So can you see why we love driving in Romania?!
Speeding, rutted dirt roads with monster pot holes, unexpected road closures and unplanned diversions – it’s pretty much road trip Heaven for Two Small Potatoes who grew up in the back woods of North Idaho. Romanian drivers are like American cowboys of the open road.
7. The law has some wiggle room.
We learned from driving in Romania that all laws are not created equal and that some are a lovely shade of gray.
Not only did we rather enjoy the style of driving, but we benefited from the liberal law enforcement policies. After exploring the village of Sighisoara for several hours, we returned to our car to find a parking ticket. Dismayed because we thought we were legally parked, we needed to take care of it before we left town.
How do you pay a parking ticket in Romania???
Popping into a nearby hostel, a sympathetic gentleman instructed us to take it to the local police station to pay it.
Arriving first at the wrong police station, we finally tracked down the right one and were rather amazed to find the officials friendly and entirely understanding, telling me to just throw away the ticket since we clearly had meant no harm and it was an honest mistake.
A++, Romania, for being cool about our parking oversight!
8. There be wild crits in them thar woods.
Romania has wild animals! Not only do they have a healthy wolf population, but they have bears – the second largest brown bear population in Europe. (Russia has the most brown bears and is home to over half of the entire world’s population of 200,000 bears.)
Sucky thing is, we didn’t see any wolves or bears, though we did see an adorable baby fox, but it was exhilarating to know we were once again camping in “bear country.” We haven’t seen so many warning signs about bears since we camped in Banff National Park in Canada a few years back.
Nothing says “a good night’s rest” like burrowing inside your sleeping bag, perfectly still, listening to every rustle of leaf and tree, eyes glued open in the pitch dark, knowing a bear is out there. If you’re looking for a travel destination in Europe where you’ll still have the chance to see local wildlife, particularly large predators, Romania should be on your list.
9. Camping is cheap and plentiful.
We’ve learned from experience that camping in Europe is often overcrowded, expensive, and/or heavily restricted.
Romania turned out to be a welcome surprise, where options abound for camping, though sites may not always be well advertised or easy to find or access. Regardless of where we drove, we always found cheap or free sites in both designated and undesignated camping areas. Several of these places had minimal or no amenities, but they perfectly fit our flexible style of traveling and bushwhacking.
The free places we camped lacked amenities entirely but were wild and unrestricted, our favorite kind of camping. The most expensive campground where we stayed cost $9 a night and offered full amenities, was fully fenced and secure, and was guarded by two fierce guard dogs. In general, locals welcome tourists, and businesses are eager to provide accommodations for visitors, regardless of the type of camping you prefer.
10. Romania means ADVENTURE!
From its wide open spaces with vast tracts of unspoiled wilderness and sizable populations of big predators like wolves and bears to its liberal observance of laws and openness to visitors, Romania offers countless opportunities for adventure. Where else can you sleep in a haunted forest, buy fresh berries from a Romani family in the woods, or have to forge a creek just to reach your designated campground? Whether you’re a city dweller eager to reconnect with nature or a country bumpkin hungry to return home – what is life, without a little adventure?
Head to Romania!
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Know Before You Go
A road vignette for your vehicle is required if you plan to drive in Romania. You can find prices, info about how to purchase one, etc on their official site here.
If you’re planning to travel into Romania by car from surrounding countries and you’re traveling with your pet, make sure you have their pet passport. Border officials will request it. See more info about pet passports.
Map of Romania Road Trip
The blue line roughly follows the first half of our entire 11-day travel path and attractions we visited from Fribourg, Switzerland through Austria and Hungary to Romania.
The blue line roughly follows the second half of our entire 11-day travel path and attractions we visited from Romania through Ukraine, Slovakia, and Austria back to Fribourg, Switzerland.