There aren’t many countries in Europe where farmers still drive horse-drawn wagons and covered markets dominate over shopping malls, but then Romania isn’t quite like other places. While other Eastern Bloc members have seen their cities spruced up and populated with boutique hotels, international restaurants and quaint attractions, this traditional country still clings to its dog-eared charm. Yes, you’ll find the usual smattering of resorts towns clustered around the Black Sea Coast, but outside the tourism hotspots Romania dances to the same rhythm it’s tapped out for a hundred years.
The capital, Bucharest, was once dubbed ‘Little Paris’ in homage to its elegant architecture and cultural sophistication. An egotistic campaign by communist dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu destroyed much of the historic centre and turned vast swathes of Bucharest into a concrete jungle, but this is still a lively and attractive city. It’s also by far the largest in Romania, with a population of around 2 million to second city Cluj-Napoca’s 320,000.
But it isn’t the cities that have shaped Romania’s national character. The country is still defined by its small, rural communities – many of whom depend solely on their livestock and their crops for survival. From the isolated villages clinging to crags high in the Carpathian Mountains to the Saxon towns of Transylvania, a tour of Romania’s backcountry will uncover a treasure chest of cultural gems.
It is, of course, practically illegal to mention Transylvania without paying lip service to the legend of Dracula. The Romanians are well aware of the interest Bram Stoker’s demonic vampire inspires in foreigners, and the castle at Bran (supposedly the spot that inspired Stoker’s story) has been transformed into one of the country’s top tourist attractions. Perhaps more interesting are the local legends weaved around the Carpathians: the spring that supposedly brings eternal youth; the caves that transport those who enter them to faraway places; the grottos where candles refuse to be lit.
Romania’s natural beauty is also remarkable. From the bubbling mud volcanoes of the Buzău County to the sweeping sandy beaches of the Black Sea Coast, there’s a range of geographical diversity here that will take your breath away. The forests covering the Carpathian Mountains shelter Europe's last remaining healthy population of brown bears, wolves and lynxes, while racoon dogs and rare muskrats gather around the rivers. The Danube Delta, a biosphere reserve and UNESCO World Heritage site, is a haven for birds and other wildlife.
Visitors will find Romania's history of Roman, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian rule has left a mosaic of cultural intrigue. Whether you’re exploring the Painted Monasteries of Bucovina, discovering the country’s collection of fortified castles or attending a medieval festival in one of Transylvania’s ancient Saxon citadels, the country offers a chance to immerse yourself in a way of life that has barely changed in centuries. That isn’t to say, of course, that the Romanians don’t appreciate their creature comforts. The natural spas sprinkled across the country purport to cure everything from rheumatism to heart disease, and make a luxurious finale to any Romanian adventure.