Despite living in Europe for over 30 years, I never made it to Romania. There was always some other more compelling country to visit on the continent, such as France, Spain, Italy, Turkey or Portugal. Ironically, now that I am permanently based in Singapore, I recently made my first trip to Romania and discovered a country steeped in rich heritage, culture and wonderful cuisine.
First, a short geography and history lesson about Romania. Situated in eastern Europe, Romania borders a number of countries including Bulgaria, Hungary, Moldova, Ukraine and Serbia. This has allowed it to take on many different cultural and culinary influences over the centuries. It is the 12th largest county within the European Union and has a population of 20 million. Bucharest is its capital and also its cultural, industrial and financial centre.
With its beautiful landmarks and array of historic buildings, the Palace of the Parliament is one of the top tourist attraction in Bucharest. It is the world’s second largest administrative building, after the Pentagon, and is also the heaviest building in the world (although I’m not sure how you measure that!) It is indeed a colossal mass of marble, bricks, steel and glass, with more than 3,000 rooms spread over 300,000 square metres. Although it looks magnificent, it has a less than salubrious past, having been built by communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu. The dictator, who ruled with an iron fist from 1965-1989, used it as his family’s residence and as the seat of his government. To build it, he destroyed or relocated churches, factories, parks and historic buildings so they would not be visible from the palace.
Today, the Neoclassical-style palace houses Romania’s parliamentary headquarters and the National Museum of Contemporary Art. You can book a tour of the palace to see first-hand the outrageous luxury Ceausescu enjoyed. But even viewing it from outside gives you a sense of the building’s opulence and vastness. Causescu was eventually overthrown in a coup d’état in 1989 but strangely around half of Romanians still hold him in high regard.
Foodies will love Romania given its diverse cuisine. Eastern Europe is known for its love of meat and heavy dishes like goulash and peka, and Romania is no different. But there is a new wave of lighter, more organic dishes being created in its bigger cities as the farm-to-table concept gathers pace. The Romanian cuisine is broadly split into six distinctive regions of the country, which have each been exposed to different influences. As a result, the overall cuisine is a melting pot of mostly Turkish, Greek and Slavak flavours. A must-try is Romania’s de facto national dish called sarmale (sometimes seen on menus as sărmăluţe). These are cabbage rolls stuffed with spiced pork and rice, and are much tastier than they sound.
Pork is very popular in the country and pig skin is a local delicacy sold in restaurants and street stalls across Romania. But as much as I tried to like them, I couldn’t get passed the chewy texture. A few other popular foods I encountered during my trip were schnitzel (pork ones of course) and a dessert called papanasi. This looks like a doughnut but is filled with cottage cheese which is sweetened and mixed with semolina and coated in breadcrumbs.
Romania is one of Europe’s biggest wine producers, although much of it is aimed at the lower end of the market, which will please students and tightwads. But you can still find good quality wines, and I was very impressed with the handful of reds I drank. This came as a surprise to me as beer is typically brewed and drank ubiquitously throughout Eastern Europe, along with white spirits like schnapps, which is normally enjoyed at the start of a meal.
Romanians are considered among the most friendly and hospitable people in the world. They are fun-loving and have a great sense of humour. While this sounds like exaggerated guide book talk, I found this to be completely accurate based on the people I met, including the witty Bucharest tour guide who showed me around the capital city. All had a huge arsenal of jokes and funny anecdotes to tell, even about life under Ceausescu, the former communist dictator.
During the trip, I also got to meet some of the Székely people, who have their own distinctive architecture, language and culture. In many of their villages, craftsmen still pass down their skills from generation to generation which is a delight to see firsthand. I visited workshops of weavers and wood-carvers, and an ancient, yet functional, water-mill owned by the Székely people, who are based in Transylvania. Eerily, the local cemetery I visited revealed the old pagan custom of using totems rather than crosses on the graves. The Szeklers are Hungarians, and are one of the many peculiarities of this colorful part of the world.
While most locals laugh off the myth of Count Dracula, they still do pretty well out of the tourists who make the long trip up to Transylvania’s castles and lodges. They have to thank an Irish writer called Bram Stoker’s who based his classic vampire novel Dracula on a 15th century Romanian prince Vlad Dracul III, who earned his infamy by impaling his enemies alive.
During the early 1400s, Vlad’s father, Vlad II, was the military governor of Transylvania and was made a member of The Order of the Dragon (Ordo Dracul) for helping to protect Christian Europe against the invading Ottoman Empire. When his son Vlad III was born, he became known as Dracula, meaning ‘’Son of the Dragon’’. Vlad Dracul III, also known as Vlad the Impaler, defended his beloved homeland with savage acts of barbarism. This included torturing and murdering anyone who dared to trespass upon his domain. Bram Stoker used a fair amount of poetic licence when he created the blood-sucking and coffin-loving Dracula.
If you get the opportunity to drive around this beautiful country, then make sure you include the world-famous Transfăgărășan mountain road into your trip. Just looking at the many twist and turns of the Transfăgărășan will leave most motorists in a cold sweat as this epic road snakes its way up the Carpathian Mountains of Romania. It was with a heady mixture of fear and excitement that I embarked on a 290km road trip that took me along this infamous road. And my weapon of choice for this battle between man and mountain was BMW’s new Z4, a compact sports car that is now in its third generation.
The drive along the Transfăgărășan was the highlight of a three-day driving tour of Romania. In all, I covered about 700km during the three days, scaling huge motorways, quiet country roads and ear-popping mountain passes. A word of warning though. Bucharest is Europe’s most congested city and drivers are aggressive and impatient, while you’ll never find a parking spot. But once you get out into the countryside, things calm down a lot. The only problem is you have to navigate the bumps and potholes of Romania’s country roads. But that’s a small price to pay to be able to enjoy the open roads and countryside of this under-rated part of Europe.