Adventures in Romania
Walking in Romania was an idea that had simmered on the backburner of our
imaginations for years.
The big drawcard was Bucovina and its fabulous painted churches. We had
also, long ago, absorbed Patrick Leigh Fermor's romantic descriptions of the
Transylvanian countryside and a way of life seemingly gone forever. (Between
the Woods and the Water, 1986). On the our various long flights from Australia
to Europe, after crossing the Black Sea, we would look down and compare the
map on the back of the aircraft seat with twinkling lights below and wonder
what you would find in the Carpathian Mountains.
View pictures of
Visiting Romania during the communist years was just not possible. After the
fall of Ceausescu in 1989 opportunities began to open up but poor transport
and limited accommodation were stumbling blocks.
Internet searches from time to time were encouraging, showing that the
country was becoming receptive to tourism and that there was increasing
interest in providing walking holidays. Finally the discovery of Ramona
Cazacu's site "My Romania" (myromania.com.ro) was the push we needed. We contacted
Ramona and she put together an itinerary that combined some easy walking
with visits to the cultural highlights of Bucovina, Maramures and Transylvania,
all in the very north of Romania.
A whole new page of the atlas opened up. We flew into the university city of
Cluj Napoca and in two weeks we travelled north almost to the Ukraine border.
We walked between rustic villages in the rolling hills of Maramures, crossed
the Carpathians to Bucovina and the long awaited painted churches, then
passed across the mountains again into Transylvania and its Saxon villages.
Our trip finished in the beautiful city of Sibiu. It was a wonderful adventure in
mild autumn weather.
Walking is very popular in Romania, though it is not as well
organised as in the countries further west in Europe. The
Carpathian mountains offer well marked paths, adequate
maps and a good network of mountain huts. Many of the
major trekking companies now offer a range of guided walks
here though there is a heavy and macabre interest in Dracula,
Bran Castle and the confused historical fabrications created
by Bram Stoker. Other accessible areas are the Bucegi and
Fagaras ranges south and west of Brasov, and the Apuseni
mountains south west of Cluj Napoca.
Opportunities for walking
Everywhere else there are
tracks and trails varying in
their accessibility, difficulty
and signposting. Some are
forest trails, whose main
purpose is to provide
access to logging and
forestry interests. Then
there are the many
pathways and small muddy
roads that wind over the
hills between villages, well
known to locals but scantily
Maps and guidebooks are
hard to find and transport to
remote areas is difficult. For
those with the means, it is
best to find local guides
who know their way around
and can provide heaps of
information and insight into
local customs and the
everyday way of life. There
are many small local
operators who can be found
on the internet or through
local information offices.
We had been a bit nervous about hiring a car to travel around. The roads are
notoriously bad and mostly unsealed, the drivers are aggressive, and the
traffic chaotic, varying from Soviet era trucks to horses and carts.
For those with the time, there are buses and there are trains but they are
slow and don't penetrate to many of the interesting places a walker will want
to visit. The luxury of a small van with our driver and guide suited us well.
A Condensed History
"Romania" is a relatively new political entity. A short and history lesson is
essential to understanding the passions that continue to drive this fascinating
country. It also helps to explain the settlement patterns, ethnic makeup,
language, traditions and architecture in the villages, towns and cities. This is
a very condensed history, any more would cause much confusion and a
In pre-Roman times the land
north of the Danube was Dacia. The
Romans, led by the Emperor
Trajan, arrived in 106 AD. Trajan's
column in Rome depicts the
conquered Dacians. The Romans
and the local people co-existed till
the departure of rhe Romans round
271 AD. The peasant people left
behind were essentially romanised
and spoke their own version of
Between the 4th and 10th
centuries these people disappeared
from history. Goths followed by
Bulgars swept through the area, till
finally the Magyars permanently
occupied Hungary and, by the 13th
century, also Transylvania.
In the mid 1100's Saxon people
came south and settled in
Transylvania. Tartar raids through
the area in the mid 13th century
led the Hungarian king to offer the
Saxons further encouragement to
settle and help protect the area.
They became a major presence. At
the same time the Szekelys, a
Hungarian ethnic group living in the
region, were given autonomy in
exchange for their military support.
In the 16th century the Turks invaded. Hungary was
overcome by the Ottomans and Transylvania became part of
the Ottoman empire until 1687 when the Turks were defeated
at the gates of Vienna. Transylvania was then part of the
South and east of the Carpathians, the history was somewhat
less tumultuous. In 1859 Wallacia and Moldavia united to
create a national state, which in 1862 was named Romania.
In Transylvania the 18th and 19th centuries
were marked by revolts and revolutions
protesting against feudalism and seeking
political emancipation. The Magyar domination
continued till World War I after which
Transylvania, Bucovina and Banat were taken
from Austria-Hungary and absorbed into the
state of Romania.
After the World War II Romania found itself under
Soviet influence. From 1965 the repressive rule of
Nicolae Ceausecu crippled the country until the
revolution of 1989. Since then the country has
been finding its way within the western world and the
The geography. Romania encompasses three large
geographical areas separated by the Carpathian Mountains.
North and west of this arc of mountains is Transylvania, east is
Moldavia and south to the Danube is Wallachia. The modern
day provinces of Maramures, Crisana and Banat are in the
eastern part of Transylvania, bordering Hungary and Serbia.
Bucovina is north and west of Moldavia.
The staple beverage in every home and establishment in Romania is tuica a fiery plum
brandy which is pressed on the visitor at every opportunity. Usually it is home made
using whatever fruit is available and distilled in makeshift communal stills dotted round
the countryside. We came upon a couple of these in Maramures, rather unsanitary
setups beside a stream or lake with rusty bits and pieces lying around and, in one, a
couple of dead mice in a bucket.
There is a "high end" product as well, sold in boutiques in the larger towns. We indulged
in a small bottle in Sighisoara and occasionally have a sip to remind us of convivial
evening meals in village houses.
Events leading up to and during World War II led to
more border adjustments until, at the end of the war,
the present day boundaries were established. A
major result of this sovereignty issue is that a large
population of Hungarians now live under Romanian
rule in a state of restrained ethnic tension.
Dinners always start with soup chorba, to which you
add lashings of sour cream. This was the filler of the
meal and was nearly always different - sometimes
based on chicken or meat, often potatoes, beans,
mushrooms or dumplings. They were always
The main course was typically chicken and rice,
cabbage rolls, stuffed peppers, meatballs, pork
fillets or veal schnitzels. Polenta, potatoes or beans
are filling side dishes. Sour cream goes with
everything. A local wine usually followed the tuica
and often it was surprisingly good. Dessert featured
homemade cakes, tarts, donuts often with jam and
more sour cream.
Breakfasts were usually simple - bread, sometimes
ham and cheese, sometimes eggs. Pancakes were
a treat on one occasion. There was lots of
homemade jam and honey. Beverages were tricky.
As devoted tea drinkers we found it difficult to
choose between peppermint tea, tisanes the or very
strong coffee. Occasionally there was "black" tea, a
rare treat that set the tone for the day.
Tuica is offered at the start of a meal, a small
glass which you knock back with a hearty
"Noroc", sometimes chewing on a hot chilli at the
same time. When you recover from the shock it is
time to start dinner.
We began our explorations in Cluj Napoca, arriving in something of a daze after the
long flight from Australia. In the remarkable Soviet era Hotel Victoria, chandeliers,
golden curtains, marble foyers and uniformed staff were somehow not what we had
Cluj was important in Roman times. Napoca was its Roman name and was
recently added to the city's name to emphasise its origins. There are Roman ruins
and streets lined with elegant Hapsburg era buildings decked out with silver domes
and turrets, decorative panels and rococo statues. There are two huge old
churches, a splendid opera house and some large and gracious plazas. Between
the busy main streets are narrow, cobbled lanes lined with pastel coloured houses.
Hidden behind street entrances, are enchanting, almost rural, enclaves. It is a
university city and buzzes with cafes and bars.
Less attractive are the Soviet era blocks of flats that became a feature of
Ceausescu's attempt to urbanise the country and concentrate the population
in the cities.
We had time for a quick look around before a massive demonstration took
over the streets. This, we discovered was part of a nationwide protest
against a proposed goldmining operation at Rosia Montana in the Apuseni
mountains which would leave a cyanide polluted lake as its legacy.
Next morning we met Ramona, Dan our driver and Sergiu our guide and were
whisked north to Maramures.
In the next pages are descriptions of our experiences in