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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.

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1. The food is really, really good.

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!

Papanași in Sinaia, Romania

Papanași at Hotel Bucegi in Sinaia, Romania

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.

Lidl in Romania

While shopping for groceries at a Lidl in Romania, an impressive thunder storm wipes out the power. Where else will we ever get to use our phone flashlight apps to shop for produce?

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.

Romania money

Romanian paper bills are so pretty, they’re works of art. Each commemorates a historical figure, like our dollar bills, but lei are more colorful with transparent logos imprinted in creative shapes.

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.

Overwhelmed by the steady stream of stray dogs, we’re struck by the ridiculous inequality between our pampered pup  and this beautiful fellow waiting patiently for scraps in Bran.

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.

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6. Driving in Romania is just – wow!

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.

Driving in Bucegi Natural Park, Romania

On Romania’s paved 2-lane highways and freeways, it’s common to see drivers speeding and passing on blind corners, double lines, and near intersections.

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.

He didn’t.

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.

Road construction in Romania

We wait, and wait, and wait in Maramureș County for delays caused by road construction.

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???

We receive a parking ticket in Sighisoara, Romania and have to figure out how to pay it.

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.  WhuSeriously?!  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.

Sleeping in a hops field in Danes, Romania

We overnight in a soggy, but free, hops field near Daneş, Romania – a first for us.

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.

Camping Iza in Romania

After 6 nights of mostly rough camping in Hungary and Romania, we splurge on our last night in Romania and stay at Camping Iza. Even as our most expensive camping in Romania, the cost is still less than $10 for the night.  Hello, hot shower!

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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Java bean cocktail in Bran, Romania

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.

10 Things You Might Not Know About Romania

34 Responses

  1. Tatum Skipper

    I have a friend from Romania! I seriously hate seeing all the stray dogs, it breaks my heart to no end! A lot of 3rd world and even developing countries have this problem! Aside from that, I love adventure! Camping, hiking, exploring! I never knew Romania had so much of it!

  2. Dane

    The animal thing always upsets me so much! I always try and feed them and play nice but sometimes they are so filthy and kind of scary. But it always makes me so sad! The rest sounds amazing though!

  3. Elena

    As a Romanian girl, I must agree with the fact that the food here is amazing. As for the rest of the facts, I know there is plenty of room from improvement, but we’ll get there. On the bright side, our landscapes are still wild and still beautifully preserved, so you can’t go wrong with choosing Romania if you’re looking for getting in touch with nature 🙂

    • Carrie @ Two Small Potatoes

      The food IS amazing, Elena! You’re lucky to come from such a proud country with a fascinating history. There is room for improvement in Romania just as there is for all other countries. And whatever our subjective experience of your country was (which was overwhelmingly positive), I just hope the changes that are made are for the benefit of your people, not for tourists. You’re right about the nature, and I think it’s probably the biggest reason we loved it so much. 🙂

  4. Sandy N Vyjay

    This has a wealth of information about Romania. We do not get to see many posts about this beautiful country, so it is really great to get this perspective. I think of late Romania is emerging as a destination of choice for travelers.

    • Carrie @ Two Small Potatoes

      I’m afraid you’re right, Sandy. I imagine in the next few years as folks start to really discover its charm, tourists will really begin to flock to Romania. I suppose that’s good and bad. :/

  5. Indrani

    We did a similar road trip till Budapest. Romania is in wish list. Sad to know about the street dogs, so similar to situation here in Bangalore. Tips on tips is helpful one. 🙂 I have never camped outside like this may be a feature I must try out.

    • Carrie @ Two Small Potatoes

      Did you like Budapest, Indrani? We drove all the way across Hungary and really didn’t see or do much there. I’m glad you found the “tips on tips” 🙂 helpful, and I would definitely recommend camping there. You’ll have so many options and it’s cheap!

  6. Global Brunch

    Loved this post! You’ve really sold Romania to me. I’m especially loving the sound of doing a road trip there. Although I’m fully expecting all of the locals to be zooming past me.

    • Carrie @ Two Small Potatoes

      Thank you so much, we’re glad you enjoyed it. Hopefully you’ll let us know about your experiences there after you’ve visited. Maybe you’ll tell us we’re just a couple a old fogeys on the road and they don’t speed at all! Hah!

  7. Wanderlust Vegans

    Romania sounds like a quite the adventure indeed and a great place to camp. It’s interesting to hear the good, the bad and the ugly to know what to expect before you go to a place. I’m glad they were so forgiving about the parking ticket, that’s hilarious.

    • Carrie @ Two Small Potatoes

      We were glad about the parking ticket too! Oh my gosh. On a different road trip, we got a huge ticket for not having a vignette in Slovenia and got shaken down for money in Ukraine on the same road trip. We had NO idea what to expect in Romania. Luckily they were totally awesome sauce about it!

  8. Jitaditya Narzary

    Interesting list. Food is a surprise really. I wasn’t expecting something like that. Was expecting to read something about Dracula but then probably everybody knows that already.

    • Carrie @ Two Small Potatoes

      Well I’m glad we surprised you, Jitaditya! We did visit Bran Castle (aka Dracula’s castle) and loved it. If you’re interested, we wrote a blog about it. It doesn’t matter that the real-life Dracula never lived at Bran; it’s still a gorgeous castle.

  9. Adam, Bite of Iceland

    I’ve been in Romania several years ago and it stole my heart 🙂 It was a big adventure for me, especially the trekking in Fagaras Mountains 🙂 I love Romanian nature, architecture, food and of course people. They were so nice and helpful!

  10. Joanna

    I am from Romania and I have to agree but also to disagree with some of your notes. 🙂 Yes, our food is really good. I live in another country and every time I can, I try to ship some of the basics ingredients and spices for dishes like mamaliga, sarmale or mici. The roads are in a constant “work on” status due to the big companies fighting for really expensive contracts. You are right, we don’t have the best roads but we do have some pretty cool scenery. There is electricity all over Romania and people do afford it. In the villages it’s actually very cheap and there have been numerous European funded programs for solar panels and wind turbines. We actually produce more energy that we consume. Stray dogs are not an issue anymore in big cities. A few years ago a very “smart” mayor has passed a low that took away all stray dogs from the big cities. Sure, you will find them in villages but they will be usually fed by the locals and they won’t be dangerous.

    • Carrie @ Two Small Potatoes

      Wow, thanks so much for chiming in with your unique insight, Joanna! I always assume if everyone agrees on everything in one of our posts, it’s not a very good post. 🙂

      First I should clarify that I didn’t mean to say all of Romania’s roads are bad. We were stunned at the brand new autobahns that run across just about the entire country. They’re better than here in Germany! We love the sections in Germany that have unrestricted speed, but so much of it is aging and undergoing repairs that it causes frequent traffic problems. And we found the pot-holed secondary roads of Romania entirely charming! We grew up in rural areas like that in Idaho and are drawn to that when we travel. Hopefully Romania won’t pave all of them.

      It’s heartening to hear that the stray dog issue is being addressed, at least in big cities. We spent most of our time in rural villages and the countryside, where the dogs were definitely not well fed or healthy. We never felt any danger from any of them, but we had to be extra careful with our dog because some of the strays were aggressive toward her. I tell everyone we talk to that they should visit Romania, but they’re more likely to enjoy their experience if they know what to expect. 😉

      Where do you live now? Will you eventually go back to Romania? I imagine you must get homesick…

  11. Jesper, The Biveros Effect

    Romania is one of the countries in Europe that we still have to visit. Have heard so much nice about the sights in the country from Romanian friends. Hopefully we will go there soon, so thank you for your advice. 🙂

    • Carrie @ Two Small Potatoes

      You’re lucky to have Romanian friends to give you the scoop on the best places to visit. We especially loved the Turda Salt Mine, driving the Transfăgărășan, camping in the Carpathians, and touring several of the castles. I’m sure you’ll have a fantastic time when you visit!

  12. Siddhartha Joshi

    Such a lovely post Carrie. It made me smile, and also made me sad – especially the state of dogs there. I can completely understand because even in India things are not so different 🙁

    On a happier note, that dealio looks delicious 🙂

    • Carrie @ Two Small Potatoes

      Thank you so much, Siddhartha. We haven’t been to India yet, but we’ve heard similar stories from Indian friends. As I’m sure you know, traveling can be both heart-warming and heart-breaking.

      The food was definitely a highlight!

  13. Rashmi and Chalukya

    We don’t really get to read much about Romania. This post was a good insight into what to expect from a Romania visit. It was disheartening to read about the stray dogs. And interesting to learn that it has a good bear population. Did you have a chance to spot one driving and camping around?

    • Carrie @ Two Small Potatoes

      That’s cool you haven’t seen a ton of stuff about Romania, Rashmi. 🙂

      We didn’t see a single bear, much to our dismay! We had a bear scare though. After a crazy midnight adventure in the mountains one night, we finally drove across a creek to get to a campground. Bear warning signs were posted nearby and the campground had huge dogs as protection. In the middle of the night, we heard scary growling near our tent, but my husband’s convinced it was just a guard dog. Maybe he was growling at a bear!

  14. Soumya Nambiar

    Like you said, when we think of going to Europe, Romania is not the first place that comes into mind. It is interesting to see how traditions are so rooted in their everyday life.

    We do face a lot of stray dog issues here in India too and I know how it can be disturbing to see for people not used to it.

  15. Marla Daye

    I never knew this much about Romania or that it was so amazing. I haven’t had it on the top of my travel list, but now I’m reconsidering that! I think I would love that food. It looks yummy. Way to go Romania for getting rid of your parking ticket! That’s a great feeling.

    • Two Small Potatoes

      It really is amazing, Marla. My husband and I were only half-joking when we said we should just stay there instead of going back to Switzerland. It’s nice that with the exception of a few places like Bran Castle, it hasn’t been over-run with tourists yet. I think some folks might struggle with their unique style of lawlessness, but independent travelers looking for wilderness and adventure will love it. And I would definitely recommend the food to anyone!

  16. Luca

    I knew about the dogs there and you just confirm that. I have to say that one of the main reasons I didn’t go to Romania so far is the problem with stray dogs, as I fear dogs.

    • Two Small Potatoes

      Romania definitely isn’t the ideal travel destination for someone with a fear of dogs, Luca. You’re right about that. It’s really too bad though because the country has such a rich cultural identity, from its historical sites and traditions to the food and natural attractions. We traveled independently throughout our entire trip, but if you’re open to joining an organized tour group, it might be a good option for you to still visit.

  17. Maps and Merlot | Melissa

    I’m intrigued by Romanian food new, had never heard it mentioned at all really. By the way, what exactly is the food/drink in that first photo? I’m really curious now. Also, the photos of the stray dogs have me about to start crying, that’s so sad.

    • Carrie @ Two Small Potatoes

      Same here, Melissa. Romanian food definitely seems to fly under the tourism radar. The drink in the first photo is a chilled espresso cocktail with Bailey’s at the Restaurant Galeriile in Bran. It’s not far from the infamous “Dracula’s Castle”. So tasty, and the coffee beans on top aren’t just garnish – they’ll perk you up after a long day of sight-seeing.

      The stray dogs – I know! I won’t lie, I cried when we saw one in particular at night in the freezing rain, starving, with a horribly injured leg. The one pictured in this blog was actually the friendliest, healthiest dog we saw on our trip. The worst is being helpless to help them.


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