Romania is located at the point where Central and South-eastern Europe meet, at the edge of the Black Sea. Like many ancient countries it has a checkered history of invaders who battled for possession of what is now the European Union’s eighth largest country by area at 92,000 square miles. Transylvania, for example, suffered subsequent invasions by Habsburg, Ottoman, Hungarian and Wallachian forces, while the historical provinces of Moldova and Wallachia fiercely opposed the Ottoman Turks.
After World War II Romania was infamously dominated by the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu who was finally overthrown in 1989. In subsequent years Romania embraced democracy and joined NATO, becoming part of the European Union in 2007. Access for visitors to Romania is usually via cheap flights to the capital Bucharest or the international airport at Iasi, the largest city in eastern Romania.
The rich fabric of historical buildings in Romania includes castles and fortresses, medieval towns, traditional villages and the amazing painted monasteries at Bucovina in the north-east of the country. These are deemed to be artistic masterpieces from the Byzantine era with ornate and highly decorated exteriors containing frescoes from the 15th and 16th centuries, which depict scenes from the life of Jesus, portraits of prophets and saints, and images of heaven, hell, angels and demons. Enthusiasts of unique art and architecture and religious history will find the monasteries make compelling viewing and are well worth a couple days for exploration if time permits.
Traditional ways of life
Romania has plenty of grandiose and imposing medieval castles, such as Bran Castle on the border between Wallachia and Transylvania. It dates from the 1300s and is the mythical home of the infamous vampire Count Dracula, as created by the writer Bram Stoker. Ringed by the Carpathian Mountains, Transylvania is also home to many charming villages and hamlets where the pace of traditional rural life is slower than in the cities. Horse-drawn wagons, prolific vineyards and cheerful local festivals abound.
Apuseni mountain settlements are yet more remote and many traditions have been preserved in the quaint villages of the Aries valley, which include Garda, Albac and Ariesni. Fashioning musical instruments and furniture from wood continues to be popular and the sounds of Alpine horns, known as Bucium, can still be heard echoing in the valleys. In fact, handicrafts and folklore form an important part of ancient Romanian customs and visitors can take a trip to the small folk museums to admire Saxon ceramics, local folk dresses and even the site of a paper mill at Prundu Bargaului.
Given the diversity of cultures that Romania has encountered and fostered over the centuries it comes as no surprise that the cuisine reflects myriad influences. Inspiration from Greek, Roman, Saxon and Turkish styles, plus the impact of Magyar and Slavic neighbors all combine to create a uniquely special fusion. Main meats are lamb, beef and pork, and fish is also eaten. Romanians also favor vegetables and use dairy products, notably cheeses, and fruit. There are many traditional dishes such as Chiftele – meatballs, Tochitura – a pork dish traditionally served at Christmas and Zacusca – a vegetable mix usually served on bread. All the tasty dishes of Romania can be enjoyed with wonderful local wine or beer.