Unpredictable. Intense. These are the words my Romanian friend Pusa uses to describe her country.
My words are unnerving and inconsistent, but I think Pusa’s words are better. My friend Michael said, “Creepy and dark. I loved it!”
Based on my own and a limited sample of others’ experiences, it seems there’s a big difference if you visit Transylvania—and maybe all of Romania—solo or at least with one other person. I went solo.
I’m not sure why, but I felt unnerved soon after I got in my rental car and left the airport.
One thing you hear again and again is the bad condition of Romania’s roads. I didn’t think the main roads were too bad, but I did find some neighborhood ones that would challenge the definition of “road.”
But road quality is hardly the only driving concern.
Romanian drivers pass you whenever they want. Often. An 18-wheeler truck passed me and the car in front of me in a no-passing zone. At least it was a straight road. Cars passed me and others within a village and even right before, during, and coming out of a curve.
All the while, you need to watch for pedestrians. Even on the most major roads, there are pedestrian crossings. Often.
Driving started to feel like a video game come to life. Not a particularly fun one either, which was disappointing because I love road trips. Add temps in the 90s and an old car with weak air conditioning—and the dog bite—and I have to admit that the trip wasn’t a favorite.
But every place has something to offer, and I did have some enjoyable times. I also learned some interesting—and, at times, shocking—things.
Transylvania’s mystique attracts many people. For some, the name conjures images of Dracula.
Many have speculated that Bram Stoker’s Dracula was inspired by the real life Vlad III Dracula, also known as Vlad the Impaler. Vlad III lived in the 15th century and became known for punishing and terrorizing his enemies by impaling them—thousands and thousands of them. I learned about Vlad III’s chosen method of impaling. It’s not pleasant.
Many places cash in on the Dracula connection, however fleeting that connection may be. Visitors flock to see Bran Castle, and there seems to be a popular assumption that the castle is somehow affiliated with Vlad the Impaler or Dracula. I heard that it inspired the castle pictured in the film. I heard that Vlad III was imprisoned in the castle briefly. The castle’s website mentions none of this. The only Vlad III reference talks about him passing through Bran in 1459 on his way to attack nearby Braşov.
More shocking and more recent, I learned of the execution of the country’s former dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu and his wife by gun fire on December 25, 1989. I was disturbed to discover videos of it on YouTube. I didn’t watch them, but one notes “graphic images” in its title and requires you to sign in to confirm your age, which suggests it’s the real thing.
On the more upbeat side, I did enjoy Sighișoara’s medieval citadel, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city was established in the 13th century by Saxons to help colonize Transylvania and protect its border. It’s also where I had the most delicious cooked spinach I’ve ever tasted! I would have enjoyed my time in the city even more had it not been for the dog bite (which, by the way, did not happen in the citadel area).
Also settled by the Saxons, Braşov was another highlight with its various yet harmonious architectural styles and modern day nod to Hollywood.
I did find some good wine in Romania. For my only stop outside of Transylvania, I visited Rhein Cellars in Azuga. Built in 1892, the winery produces only sparkling wine and has supplied the country’s royals throughout history. Today, it also offers a charming guest house, museum, and restaurant.
Nearby in Sinaia, there’s the beautiful Peleș Castle built in the late 19th century as the summer residence for the royal family.
Just a walk up the hill, there’s also the Pelişor Palace.
As I noted, every country offers something to the visitor. Whether or not we’re ready for it—or even want it—is another story.