It’s around 3am Toronto time and I’ve finally managed to catch some shut eye on board my flight to Bucharest. “Are we there yet?” is the only thing on my mind. I still have to deal with an ever-present herniated disc in my lower spine so I don’t do very well on long flights. I carefully reach over my sleeping wife in the window seat beside me and open the shutter ever so slightly. Blaring light floods through the cabin aisle – we’re still above the clouds. I quickly pull it down so as not to wake Catalina. With no sign of more sleep or landing in sight, I open my iPad and watch Icarus on Netflix. I downloaded it before my flight. I sit in my economy plus chair sipping my club soda served in a glass with a lemon wedge (we splurged on the Economy Plus upgrade) and watch the riveting documentary exposing the Russian Olympic doping scandal. No spoilers here, I’ll just say that if you haven’t seen it, you should.
I’ve never been to Russia. Both of my parents fled from the USSR in the 70’s and eventually made their way to Canada after a few years in Israel. But some of the scenes in Icarus, specifically those filmed in Russia, are familiar to me. Grey, dilapidated apartment blocks and crumbling streets. It looks perpetually cold, regardless of the actual weather. The movie could have just as easily been filmed in Romania, or a handful of other Eastern European countries.
This will be my third time visiting Romania. My wife, Catalina, was born and raised in Brasov (a beautiful, mountainous city a few hours northwest from Bucharest) but her family emigrated to Canada during the 90’s after the fall of communism. My first time here was spent visiting Catalina during the winter of 2008 when she was completing her Master’s degree at the University of Bucharest. She was living at her childhood apartment in Brasov and would take regular train rides to the Bucharest campus every other week for classes.
On the weekends, when we weren’t studying (I was completing my undergrad at the time), we would spend our days exploring neighbouring Transylvanian mountain cities, historic castles, and the local farmer’s market. I would load up on fresh produce, local varieties of cheese and cured meats for the week. Not to mention copious amounts of Romanian wines and beers. Some of the best meals I ever cooked came out of a tiny apartment kitchen in Brasov. I still remember the day I discovered wild boar at the market. Catalina thought I was a psychopath; I was so happy! I instantly fell in love with the country’s landscape, people, history, culture and all of its culinary offerings. Despite the fact that I didn’t speak a lick of Romanian, I felt as though I belonged.
I’d be lying if I said it were a picture-perfect country back in 2008. Romania was, and in certain ways still is, slowly coming out of the throws of communism after a bloody revolution. If you looked closely, you could spot the bullet holes that once riddled the neighbourhood apartment buildings. Vestiges of the past still linger here and there but from what I’ve heard, Romania has tidied the streets up a bit, cracked down on corruption, and is once again coming into its own as a world-class destination.
Juxtaposing the country’s violent past, is the warmth of its people. Romanians are proud patriots, well-versed in their history and are notoriously generous hosts. They will go out of their way to share their past, food, music and culture. They also will not hesitate to let you know that their grandmothers are the best cooks and their hometown is the only place that is really worth visiting. As a Canadian, I don’t fully understand regional rivalries, especially when it comes to food. Then again, Canada is still trying to figure out its own national cuisine. Perhaps once that happens cities and provinces will begin putting their own spins on dishes that represent our past and culture(s).
We’ve come back to Romania to spend time with family – my mom has joined Catalina and I on our trip and we’ll be spending a few weeks with my wife’s parents who are already here. For the past few months Catalina’s father has been renovating the old apartments where their family once lived just outside Brasov’s historic city centre. He’s picked us up from the airport, a 150km drive in each direction that has recently been made faster and easier thanks to a shiny, new two-lane highway. The single-lane, narrow stretch of country road that slithers through the Carpathian Mountains past Ploiesti is something else entirely. The breathtaking beauty of the jagged peaks lining either side of the motorway can quickly be undone by unbearable congestion and thick fog.
As we drive out of Henri Coanda International airport on the outskirts of Bucharest, I realize that the Romania of today looks a bit different than I remember. Many buildings have been renovated, roads have been repaved and giant, new, suburban commercial centres now house the latest big name brands. The slow and steady embrace of western capitalism is more apparent than ever before. Everywhere you turn, giant billboards advertise the latest cosmetic products and sugary energy drinks. The latter of which oddly have Bruce Willis’ face plastered all over them. Surely, Jason Statham would have been a better ambassador?
Yet in the distance, beyond the veneer of the action star’s handsome mug, are the ominous silhouettes of rusted, above ground pipelines and abandoned factories from a bygone era. Light floods through the latter’s shattered windows. The lower walls of their crumbling façades have been tagged with colourful graffiti. The dilapidated buildings are bordered by wild, overrun hedges, collapsed brick walls and broken gates. Some big cheese has decided to keep them standing either because it wasn’t worth spending the money to demolish them or they’re hoping they will be purchased for a ridiculously expensive price. To the visitor, they serve as a reminder that times are changing, albeit slowly.
Along the road, I can’t help but wonder why more people don’t visit this country. When I let friends know I was going to Romania they looked at me in disbelief and asked, “Why?”. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a fair question to ask. But tell someone you’re going to Prague and everyone says, “Oh, I’ve heard it’s beautiful there!”. For whatever reason, Romania isn’t really on people’s radars as a European travel destination. Granted, my thoughts are reserved mostly for North Americans and I suppose distance and a lack of relatively affordable direct flights may be to blame. But that hasn’t stopped the recent surge in visitors to Hungary to explore its capital city, Budapest.
I suppose it’s not a bad thing that Romania remains a relatively hidden gem. Those that do make the effort to visit are rewarded with smaller crowds and lower prices compared to other EU countries. The flipside is that it’s not as easy to get around the country because of the outdated infrastructure that is slowly being updated.
I’m not a betting man, but I would wager that things will soon change and Romania will witness a veritable boom in tourism.
Word is spreading that this country has just about everything you could ever want in a travel destination. To the east, you have miles of coastline stretching along the Black Sea at Constanta. New resorts, nightclubs and restaurants welcome visitors seeking sun, sand and relaxation. Closer to the center of the country, the metropolis of Bucharest caters to those looking to experience a taste of what other major European cities have to offer. Venture a bit north west and you’re in Transylvania, nestled in the Carpathian Mountain range. Infamous for its tales of vampires and once home to the notorious Vlad Tepes, AKA Dracula. This is my personal favourite part of the country. A short drive up any of the mountain roads and it’s as if you’ve set foot into a Caspar David Friedrich painting. The air is crisp, the landscape is powerful, the people are kind, and the food is as rich as the region’s history.
A couple of hours after leaving Bucharest, we arrive in Brasov. The weather is overcast, a bit cold and a light rain falls from the sky. The walk from the apartment’s parking lot is one I’ve made before and even though it’s familiar, I can’t help but find myself feeling slightly on edge. I don’t speak the language, I’m jet-lagged, exhausted from a long flight and I can feel inquisitive eyes peering from the apartment block windows.
But there’s something else in the air and it instantly puts me at ease. It’s the smell of home cooking, what can only be sarmale – Romanian cabbage rolls – and its delicious aromas are flooding through my body. For a moment, I let my guard down. I see a few adventurous children laughing and playing in the courtyards. Some grandmothers are returning home from the market with giant loaves of freshly baked country bread, scarves tightly wrapped around their heads. One looks me dead in the eyes with a cold stare. With the little Romanian I know, I greet her. “Buna ziua!”, I say! I’m rewarded in kind and flashed with the most loving toothless smile. All of a sudden, the veil of monotonous, grey, apartment blocks have been lifted and I can see the faded, pastel pinks, oranges, and greens that decorate their poorly renovated exteriors. Without forcing it, I find myself in Romania’s warm embrace.
The scents only grow stronger as we cross the building’s foyer and ascend the staircase. Each floor gives off its own distinct aroma. We cross the threshold to Catalina’s grandmother’s old apartment. My mother-in-law greets us with hugs, kisses and a table set with a home-cooked lunch. No one bothers to ask us if we’re hungry. Our fate has already been decided. We will eat.
Spread across the fresh, white tablecloth are bowls of fish soup prepared with local trout, potatoes and vegetables (ciorba de peste), farm-fresh sour cream (smantana), whipped caviar spread (salata de icre), roasted peppers marinating in oil and vinegar (ardei copti), slices of cucumber (castraveti) and tomato (rosi), hunks of Romanian sheep’s milk feta (branza de burduf), smoked pork (sunca), olives (maslina) and a bottle of Romanian white wine (this time it’s a semi-sweet Cotnari). A light lunch by Romanian standards.
This type of reception is not unique. It’s standard, family or not. As mentioned, Romanians know how to welcome guests. If you find yourself invited to someone’s home, be prepared to eat and drink! Even more so if it’s a holiday. Romanian hospitality is truly a wonderful thing!
I will leave the reader by saying this, if you have the opportunity to visit this beautiful country, take it. Don’t hesitate, not even for a moment. But do yourself a favour and travel here with an open mind ready to embrace everything Romania has to offer. Things are done differently in this part of the world and the concept of ‘service with a smile’ doesn’t really exist. People are brutally honest and you may be thrown for a loop when you get here, especially if it’s your first time travelling to Eastern Europe. But remember, Romania is like a pineapple. Once you get passed its rough skin, you’re treated to the most incredible, golden, sweet, delicious fruit.
Watermelon stand at the Brasov farmer’s market.