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Bran Castle and Vlad the Impaler inspired Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”.

Dracula is alive and well (though technically dead) in Romania. If he’s not, then what else are the perks of eternal life? That’s why I first traveled to Romania. Not for the eternal life, but for the mystery of the unknown. It’s a country that is still very raw, from the Transylvanian countryside to the post-communist block housing of Bucharest, everything that is Romania feels very accessible, yet very unknown. To this day, Romania is the furthest East in Europe that I’ve ventured and although I would recommend that you travel further (I sure will soon) this country is a great place to start and gain perspective of what it’s truly like to be “East”.

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Streets of Brasov

Diving straight in, one might expect to be bombarded by medieval folklore, aka “I vant to suck your bloooood” (the tale of Dracula is actually from an Irish Writer, Bram Stoker), but that’s hardly the case unless you’re headed up to “Dracula’s Castle”, Bran Castle not too far outside of Brasov. There you’ll find all kinds of trinkets and relics to fend off demons and even The Count himself. But besides that, Romania is off the tourist path and it’s very freeing.  Everything from train travel to wandering narrow streets will make you feel transported back in time experiencing a story play out. In fact, I encourage you to wander, to get lost. The locals are very helpful and the insight and perspective you’ll gain will be something that you’re going to want to take home.

My favorite town and a must see on any trip to Romania is Brasov, right in the heart of Transylvania — and it’s absolutely stunning. However, if you’re going to visit the heart of Romania (Transylvania), you’ve also got to visit its brain. Bucharest is the capital and commercial city of not just the country, but perhaps the region. Venturing even further, and you’ll arrive at Constanta, with beaches on the black sea. Romania has a lot to offer and is the key to a successful Balkan Itinerary. Just be sure to mind your step after dark, things do go bump in the night.

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Downtown Bucharest


ESSENTIAL INFORMATION

  • The currency here is the Romanian Leu. Compared to some of its neighbors (looking at you Hungary) their currency is easier for those of us on the Pound, Euro, or US Dollar to manage as each Leu is worth roughly an easy-to-work-with fraction of that. For the US Dollar it’s roughly 25 cents.
  • Cash is by far the most predominant payment method and most places other than hotels and your occasional high end restaurant will not take your plastic. ATM’s are not too hard to find just beware of scams using them as some people have had issues with “non-functioning ATM’s” that ate their card. Thieves will wait until you leave and go fish out your card with whatever they used to block the reader to begin with. Also with currency, be aware that lots of shops will not take large notes (which of course is what ATM’s usually spit out).
  • Romania is very cheap compared to most of Europe. You can have a full sit down meal including a local brewskie for around 7 dollars if you’re not looking for anything fancy and don’t go to a tourist trap. Just be aware that although most attractions are very reasonably priced, some will have additional charges for various things including taking pictures/video while visiting (Bran Castle especially).
  • Most places are pretty safe. Leave it to the former Soviet Union to stamp out crime in a country, at least partially. Violent crime is very rare, however there are plenty of scams that you need to be aware of. Probably the most common involve ATM’s (mentioned above) as well as the “helpful local” scam where someone offers to help you, and then at the end will try to get you to pay for their service or donate to a “charity”. I had the later pulled as I was boarding a train and a couple young lads dressed “official” took our bags as we boarded and helped us to our seats. Of course they then asked for a donation “for the kids” upon which we reluctantly gave an appropriate amount to avoid confrontation. They replied with “this is nothing” before taking off in search of the next tourist to “help”. Just keep a wary eye for scams and never leave your belongings out of sight. Also be aware of people who might be dressed as plain clothed policemen. They’ll ask for your ID and then run off with it. You’ll know who the Romanian Police are as they will be dressed in uniform.
  • When dining out know that no tip is required unless you’re at an expensive establishment. That said, nothing will light up your server’s face better than tipping a small amount anyway. Oh, and be ready to ask for the bill. Most servers consider it rude to interrupt and ask if you’re finished and therefore won’t provide the bill until you ask for it.
  • The Trains can be very confusing. From local subways to regional trains, this is where I ran into the most problems while in Romania. Anything other than a standard purchase (sometimes even that) requires speaking with a ticket office. Keep this especially in mind if you’re using a Eurail Pass. At most major stations, one of the ticket windows will usually have a little sign that says “I speak English”.  More on that below.
  • Sometimes the people working the ticket counters can be rather… unhelpful. When I was in Brasov and looking to buy my ticket onward in a couple of days time, the person working said that no trains were available for a month and then turned away. Strange. Luckily, it seems a business has arose because of this said apathy? Most stations (including Brasov) have a travel agent’s office and they are way more helpful (and might not even charge commission; ours didn’t). The woman working there claimed that the ticket office didn’t know what they were doing and that of course they of course had tickets. What happened? I still have no idea, but as long as I got where I needed, I wasn’t going to ask questions.img_3002
  • Romanian is the official language, but some of the younger population will speak some English and possibly French. Also, I found most of the locals (not working in public transit) to be very helpful and upon several times when there was a language barrier, offered to jump in order to practice their English. One very friendly young woman even offered to accompany myself and my mother to our subway stop (it was on her way) and make sure we got where we needed. Overall, be sure to learn the basics in Romanian. Hello (salut), goodbye, (la revedere) sorry/excuse me (pardon) thank you (mersi/multumesc) at the very least. Locals will really appreciate you trying! As always, you should never assume that someone speaks your language — and this is where I feel there is a justifiable exception in Romania — unless they have a sign posted that says “I Speak English”. That’s who you go to as, the other workers will most likely not help you as it’s not part of their job. This can be very problematic when the person in fact doesn’t actually speak English and gets very upset when you try to speak to them. This happened twice to me, but both times locals were very kind and offered assistance.
  • Don’t be surprised by curiosity. Many locals, especially those living off the beaten travel path might be curious where you come from and what it’s like to live there. You have to keep in mind that the Soviet Union collapsed almost thirty years ago, but the effects have been long-standing. Pay is only slowly rising and it’s much harder for locals to travel long distances as many cannot afford a trans-continental flight. Therefore, they might look to you for perspective. The locals here are extremely friendly and helpful. Don’t be afraid to strike up a conversation. You’re going to learn a lot.
  • Drinking in Romania may be different than where you’re from. The locals definitely like to have a fun time, however keep in mind some of the rules that can be very strict. You cannot drive after any amount of alcohol and there is zero tolerance. However, drinking in public is okay, even on trains and public transit (it seems). That said, it’s rare that you’ll see people drinking everywhere, especially near churches.
  • Romania is a religious country, and perhaps more so than many of the countries to the west. It’s not uncommon to see people stop and pray as they pass an orthodox church. Be sure to be respectful, which in Romania means to wear conservative clothes when visiting churches, i.e. no shorts, and women should wear shirts that cover their shoulders at the minimum. If you see someone praying on the street outside a church, try to give them space and not talk so loudly that they can hear you over their own prayer. Expect a lot of places to be closed on Sundays.
  • The dogs: Yes, there are random stray dogs that wander the streets,even in Bucharest. Most are not harmful and spook very easily. However, never approach a stray dog with food or to offer comfort. The dog may react very negatively and possibly bite. Just leave them alone and you’ll be fine.
  • Romania is home to what many people call Gypsies, aka the Roma. Most Roma are completely harmless and might be curious about where you come from. However, some children might seek to bag snatch or wallet grab. Although it’s a stereotype and most Roma won’t pay any attention to you, in their culture possessions are much more of a loose fix. Depending upon their sect, they may not feel that thievery is as bad as you and I. After all, it’s you that’s leaving your bag in an empty seat while you’re on your phone — that kind of logic. As long as you don’t do that and keep an eager eye you have nothing to worry about.
  • Public Restrooms are probably not to be used unless you have no other choice. You might have to pay a few Leu, but that doesn’t mean that they are clean. Oh, and bring toilet paper. Never a bad idea.
  • There is an up and coming Micro-brew scene. It wasn’t as alive when I visited as it is today, but I would highly suggest trying out some of their local specialties, including the IPA’s.

COSTS / MONEY SAVING

  • Local beers are very cheap. Buy by the bottle and good for the road. Although buying a beer at the bar isn’t going to cost you anywhere near a fortune, you can make your suds budget go way further by stocking up at the corner store. Timisoreana, and Silva are both options i tried and enjoyed.
  • Pastries carts are plentiful and delicious. Some even have meats (sometimes refrigerated) that I took my chance on and thoroughly enjoyed. These can be a great saving tool if your accommodation doesn’t provide breakfast.
  • Check out smaller local hotels. You may have to walk up a few floors, but it’ll definitely save you money and there are plenty of options to save on. Just make sure that you don’t go too far out-of-the-way. This is also a great way to get some local charm.
  • Public transportation is cheap and once you have your ticket, fairly easy to use. Just keep in mind that certain buses sometimes don’t stop at all the stops listed and you may have to alert the driver of your intention to depart.
  • Avoid buying the tourist trinkets and souvenirs next to landmarks, you’ll usually find the same things in shops down the street, or elsewhere in town for much cheaper. They may seem cheap, but then again most everything is cheap here.