Romania: Europe’s most overlooked holiday destination
Romania is one of, if not the most overlooked of European holiday destinations. A quick scratch of the country’s surface reveals that it’s a place that has it all. From unspoilt wilderness to centuries-old castles, from picturesque ski slopes to quiet sandy beaches, from a burgeoning wine and craft beer scene to cities every bit as vibrant as their western counterparts. Indeed, large parts of Romania are modernising, but its distinctive rural folk culture remains, and there are lots of native foods that are well worth trying. If Romania’s tourism ministry got its act together, the country would perhaps be higher on the to-do lists of many a traveller. In the meantime, here are the places to try…
Gura Portiței – an idyllic escape
The Black Sea borders 170 miles of Romania’s eastern coast, but Gura Portiței, a small secluded island at the edge of the Danube Delta — a vast biosphere where the river meets the sea after snaking through half of Europe — offers a world away from the bustle of city life. There are secluded sandy beaches and you can take a dip in the sun-warmed sea. Rooms are affordable and generally adequate. It’s a place to visit for stunning views of the natural surroundings, delicious fresh fish (go for the carp, if you can get past the Romanian spelling: ‘crap’) and boat trips, which run regularly and are good fun.
Sibiu – a charming city brimming with culture
Romania’s urban identity is not just a sea of grey culture-less communist blocks. They do exist, of course, and in high numbers, but there are many cities and towns — in the centres, particularly — that boast large swathes of impressive period architecture. In Sibiu, a small city in western Romania, the distinctive architecture of the Transylvanian Saxons – ethnic Germans who were invited in the 12th-century by Hungary’s King Géza II to protect the area from eastern invaders and to help develop the economy – can be observed at its best.
Visiting Sibiu, an important Saxon city after the Great War, is a must for the culture-hungry traveller. It was the European Capital of Culture in 2007, the year Romania joined the EU, and it’s not hard to see why. Trendy coffee shops and small bistros are tucked away down quiet narrow streets at the fringes of 15th-century squares, and lots of niche events take place here. The Brukenthal Palace, a beautiful baroque building that holds impressive art collections from various European painters, dating from the 15th to 18th centuries, should not be missed.
Big on the pig – and great wines
Like most Eastern European cuisines, Romania goes big on the pig. Sarmale, minced meat (pork and beef) and rice wrapped in cabbage leaves, stewed in a flavoursome tomato sauce and topped with thick sour cream, is filling and moreish. There are also plenty of non-pork delicacies to try. Fish dishes found near the Black Sea, particularly the deep fried anchovies served with polenta and mujdei (a sauce made of raw garlic mixed with sour cream, oil or water), are worthy of your attention, too.
After you’ve eaten, try a double shot of țuica, a kind of homemade plum brandy that tastes a bit like grappa. Romania also boasts a growing wine market, with the native Fetească Neagră and Negru de Drăgăşani grapes the stars of the show. Avincis and Știrbey wines are very nice and there are plenty of supermarket wines around the £3-4 mark that will go down nicely.
Skiing in Şuior, a land that time forgot
There are many places to go skiing in Romania, but Şuior at the base of Gutâi Mountains in Maramureș, north Romania, is one of the best, surrounded by landscapes that appear to be trapped in time. Şuior hosts multiple slopes that are ideal for beginners and those without aspirations of going to the Olympics. What’s great about Şuior is that you can explore Maramureș’ rural landscape of smallholder farms and a way of life that has long vanished from most of Europe, including 100 old wooden Orthodox churches, eight of which hold UNESCO World Heritage status. There is also a ‘merry cemetery’ in Săpânța to visit; the deceased’s lives are depicted on the tombstones in cartoonish drawings, often caricaturing their lives or the way they died. There are many places to stay and you’ll be hard-pushed to find one that will cost you more than £50 per night.
Head for the mountains
With the largest amount of primeval forests left in Europe, home to bears, wolves, lynx and wildcats, not to mention the arcing Carpathian Mountains — it’s fair to say that nature is perhaps Romania’s greatest gift. Thus, for ramblers and cyclists, it is like entering a natural paradise, a wilderness that doesn’t require any special survival techniques and which can be reached easily via a cheap flight with Wizz Air. Unsurprisingly, ecotourism is a growing sector in Romania.
A particularly fun, active and yet relaxing way to see natural Romania is with tour company The Slow Cyclist. Founder Oli Broom, a Brit, knows the Saxon villages of southern Transylvania like few foreigners do, and he organises tailor-made, fully immersive trips that include charming stays in the homes of locals, picnics made up of locally-sourced foods, and punctuated (lightly) by visits to the many picturesque fortified Saxon churches — all set in the foothills of the wild Carpathian Mountains.