You Can't Plan a Romania Road Trip, But You Should Anyway

I started writing this post in September 2014, not long after coming back from vacation. I dropped it because I got sick of going through the hundreds of pictures we took just to pick the perfect ones for this post. But, like a seed once planted, it needs some water and the right conditions to flourish. In my case: an email from a reader, asking me about road-tripping through Romania, and the chance to lift this weight off my back. So here it is, a summary of one Romania road trip, from Cluj and back.

The Itinerary


2,656 Kilometers.
188 Liters of gas.
2,919 RON.

That's more or less the tally for the Romania road trip I took with my roomie/wife Roxana. We could have booked an all-inclusive vacation to Greece, Turkey, or Bulgaria at about the same cost, but how could we resist a road trip? A unique waterfall, the 'tunnel of love', the best driving road in the world, Summer Well festival, and Vama Veche were all experiences we couldn't trade in for an easy week at the beach.

This post may be more about the pictures and less about the writing. But if a picture is worth a thousand words, then it's guaranteed to be the longest post I've ever 'written'.

Day 1 

It started with a night-drive to Arad for a quick family visit. The trip was mostly uneventful except getting pulled over somewhere in Alba county. I had switched on the high-beams, the fog lamps, and was probably going over 50 on the outskirts of a mountain village. But, because I had no national ID card and a Canadian driver's license, it was probably too tedious a process for the cop to give me a ticket. The next day we drove down south and, with that occasion, took a highway (A1) for the first time in Romania. There were about ten other cars on it, and I wished I had a better (faster) car.

Having entered Caras-Severin, the weather went from sunny to downpour in about half an hour. We picked up a hitchhiker who  told us that, at twenty seven, he's never used the internet and was hoping to find handyman work simply by asking around. He asked if we had any "pile", which basically means  'relations' or 'hook-ups', in order to get him a job. He'd just been stood up by somebody who told him to meet in the little town, where we picked him up, about some work. Didn't have to get too far from Cluj to see what the reality is like in the rest of the country. But we were pleasantly surprised to find a beautiful county in Caras-Severin's rolling hills, dense forests, and winding roads. There is also Bigar waterfall. It was meant to be a highlight...

This is what the internet says it looks like


This is what it really looked like

To be fair, 'sparkling in the sun' effects and thunderstorms are mutually exclusive phenomena. But it was, nonetheless, forgettable. If you ever go, pick a nice day. And try to get a view from the lower level. 


The stenciled-on sign reads "potable water". I imagined myself stooping down to fill up a water bottle and clumsily tipping over into the rapids. That's silly though, real life isn't slapstick comedy. So I then imagined drinking the crisp water and, a few months down the road, checking in to hospital for tapeworm removal. Instead, I just took a couple pictures, and then we left.

We had to hurry to Obreja. The elusive Tunnel of Love was not conveniently added to Google Maps at the time and all I knew was that it was located somewhere off the main road between Obreja and Otelul Rosu, over an abandoned railway track. Abandoned, keep that in mind.

We get onto a rutted dirt track and I'm hoping that the blog post comment I'm using as guidance comes through. Soon enough we come up to a faded railroad crossing sign. I pull over onto the overgrown grass and we get out to stretch our legs. Expecting peace and quiet, I'm surprised at the cacophony of sounds. In the near-distance there are dogs barking, kids' voices, and the voice of a man who can only speak when yelling. I walk up to the tracks and look both ways. There are 'tunnels of love' on either side, neither particularly impressive. There's also something else.
"That's weird," I say to my roomie, "they've even left an abandoned locomotive on the track."
"I think it's coming closer..." she says
"Hmm..." I squint at it. Even though every single article and post about Tunelul Dragostei says that we were standing on an abandoned track, the locomotive was approaching us ever so slowly.  "I think you're right." I must've given the engineer a very stupid look because his face seemed to be saying, "what?" as the engine slowly crept on by.

I decided that the 'real' tunnel was formed by the overhanging trees on the left, where the locomotive had come from. On the way back to the car to grab the camera I noticed a dried up, dead snake in the grass. "Whoa!" (But I might've actually said "Oh, shit!")
"Uh..nothing." I said, because Roxana is the one person who hates snakes more than I do. But she knew. Somehow she knew. "I'm staying in the car!" None of my coaxing helped so I went off alone, at a brisk jog.

The dogs went crazy when they saw me. Luckily the chain link fence running alongside the tracks kept them from getting at me. A few meters on, I saw the house. Half-build or half-demolished, I don't know, but I imagine the family living there wasn't in very good shape. On the other side of the tracks was their personal dump. I noticed quite a few diapers. The man was still yelling. Maybe at me, maybe at the dogs. I couldn't see him. I snapped a few pictures and jogged back, pissing off the dogs some more. I decided to check out the other side, maybe I'd get a better 'tunnel of love' effect there. All I got was a face-full of mosquitoes. I braved the swarms to snap another couple of pictures and then said 'to hell with it.'  Later I found out that snake numbers in Caras-Severin county had gone through the roof in 2014. Especially vipers.

The 'winning' picture
What can I say, it's entirely possible we were at the wrong section of 'abandoned' railroad. The tunnel in all the blog posts could be a few hundred meters on either side of where we stopped. Unlikely, but possible. Either way, it didn't look like this:

The highlight turned out to be our accommodation in Teliucu, just outside of Hunedoara. The host waited  for us to finish a late dinner in town and then told us all about the old family farmstead converted into a now-popular B&B. He was warm and gracious and we continued our conversation the next day at breakfast. Made almost entirely of ingredients sourced from the inn's garden, orchard, and goat herd, it stands out as one of the finest I've ever had. There was a ham and cheese platter, fresh bread, a great big omelet, crepes, and homemade apricot jam. I don't think we ate lunch that day.

Day 2

We checked out and made the ten minute trip to Hunedoara for a visit to one of Europe's largest castles: Corvin Castle.

I wondered what it might be like to live in such a place. While some rooms were spacious, and, I imagine, much more luxurious in their day, many were no larger than cells. I'd choose my apartment and it's modern comforts over castle life any day. And yet, nobody would pay an entry fee to visit our home...Stone. Wood. Cold. Heat. Things we don't think about the way our ancestors did.

We got on the second highway of the trip, then onto a county road, and then we hit our destination, another road, but not just any road: the Transfagarasan. You'll see it as the manually drawn scribble on the map above, between G and A, because Google refused to let me choose it as a route at this time of year.

Pictures don't do it justice. Not because they don't look good, but because it's the type of place you need to experience, not just see.

Slow moving traffic


"Extremely dangerous curves ahead"

Two things you should know about driving this road:
1. It's a scenic drive, not a rally. Your average speed is going to be 30-40 km/h. There are too many hairpins and the scenery is far stunning to rush through. You'll want to pull over and take pictures numerous times.
2. It opens on the first of July, and closes at the beginning of November. Plan accordingly.

Once we were through the hairpins and into Arges county, the DN7C (as it's officially named) becomes a typical, albeit serpentine, mountain road. Still interesting, but with the forest on either side, the vista is no longer the same. Our next stop was Vidraru Dam, the head of the artificial lake that that marks the end (or beginning) of the Transfagarasan adventure. We took a few quick snaps and continued on to Curtea de Arges.

Back on the road, we ran into these cows coming home. Or rather, they ran into us. Awesome.

There's a beautiful 16th century cathedral at Curtea de Arges and I'd wanted to visit ever since reading Vasile Alecsandri's ballad about its construction. It's a sordid tale, but it gives the cathedral an air of mystery and the sort of other-worldly quality unmatched by modern architecture.

After gawking at Manole's masterpiece, we headed south to our nation's capital, for the final leg of our day's trip. We had dinner in the old town, Lipscani, and then got into bed already asleep.

Days 3 & 4

The second week of August sees the festival-inclined youth of Bucharest swarming to Buftea, a suburb of Bucharest where, for two days, the beloved Summer Well takes place on the grounds of an old princely estate, Domeniul Stirbey. We joined the throng for this annual pilgrimage and spent the day listening to artists like The 1975, Tom Odell, and John Newman. There was also a brief hot-air balloon experience (not a trip, because you just go up and then down again), a wonderful food truck burger, and the sunset over Buftea lake. But the trip wasn't complete without paying a visit to a fellow Torontian, who treated us to champagne and the best rooftop view in Bucharest. 

View to the People's Palace

And some atmosphere...

Days 5, 6, 7

On the "Highway of the Sun"

Romania's pre-eminent holiday destination has always been "la mare", the seaside. The Black Sea coast attracts millions of Romanians - and some foreigners, too - during the summer. While many Romanians like to complain about the high prices, the gentrification of places like Vama Veche, poor quality of service, and the traffic one encounters on the way there and back, it's not enough to stay away. We were looking forward a relaxing few days at the beach, cold beers, and some tasty fish. Check, check, and check.

The unexpected adventure came on our second to last day on the litoral, when we decided to head over to Bulgaria. Rumour has it that beaches are less crowded and that they're nicer than those on the Romanian side. It was hot and the sun shone bright in an almost cloudless sky. Just before coming up to the Bulgarian border we picked up Kryzs..Krzyszsy...let's just call him Krys, our Polish friend from Warsaw, by way of Belgium. He was hitchhiking across Europe and was hoping to get to his hostel in Varna by the evening.

Romania-Bulgaria border
We ended up visiting Cape Kaliakra together then hung out at a nearby beach, situated in a cove overlooked by an abandoned military base. I had an American football in the trunk and we tossed it around in the  shallow water a for a while, drank some beer, and talked about travel, Romania, Poland, and the EU. I remember one thing Krys said, when I asked how it was that Poland has done such a good job in absorbing over 90% of EU funds while Romania barely hits 50%. "Well, they're corrupt there too, but also they know that the era of the EU funding is going to end someday, so they're using the money to improve the country before that happens." Sad to think Romania's own leaders can't put self-interest aside in the same manner.

That perfect spiral

By late afternoon we had both grown attached to Krys, so when Roxana suggested we take him to Varna, instead of leaving him stranded on a random Bulgarian road until the next ride came along, I agreed and added another 150 km to the Clio's 1.4L engine.

Downtown Varna was very much like an Eastern European South Beach: Open terraces, restaurants, bars, and clubs all next to each other, clamoring for customers. The smell of the sea permeated everything. A light breeze ruffled the palm trees. What I thought to be a large flying insect turned out to be a hummingbird. Hard to believe this semi-tropical city was so close to Romania. After an amazingly tasty dinner of gyuvech with hot peppers and cheese, Shopska salad, and traditional grilled meats, I was sold. We'd have to come back here. We took our leave of Krys and returned to Romania on the pitch-black coastal roads of eastern Bulgaria. This is no exaggeration: From Varna, and all the way back, there wasn't a single sign indicating that Romania was nearby until we'd passed the last village and the border was 5 km away. 

Next day we hung out at the local beach and partied in Vama Veche where we ran into work colleagues. Like I said, everybody in Romania goes to the seaside.

Day 8

It was time to head back to Transylvania so we took the Highway of the Sun back whence we came, thanking our lucky stars we were leaving. The traffic coming in was bumper to bumper for about 30 kilometers as all the local tourists flocked to the seaside for the August 15th weekend. We escaped the madness and soon found ourselves gaining altitude along the serpentine roads of Prahova and Brasov counties. We didn't make it to Peles castle on time to go inside, so we admired it from the outside and then bought a small rug and a telescopic baton (snake protection ;) from the trinket merchants lining the path to the castle. We spent the evening having dinner with family in Brasov, Tiramisu and Prosecco at an Italian place, and again crawled gratefully into bed at a very nice family-run B&B at the foot of Tampa mountain.

Panoramic view from balcony

 Day 9

Another eventful day, though we wouldn't know it until much later. We had planned on visiting fortified Saxon churches, which make up a good chunk of Romania's UNESCO World Heritage contribution. We started with Prejmer, on the outskirts of Brasov. Established by Teutonic knights in the 13th century, it's a revelation for any history buff. The walls surrounding the church held numerous rooms for lodging or storage areas when villagers had to take refuge from Ottomans attacks. It looks not unlike a motel. A medieval motel with small doors. Walking the interior wall is a trip to the Middle Ages. Although outside it was an easy 30C, and bright as ever, the interior was cool and dark, with sunlight filtering in through slits in the thick walls. The church, although interesting in its own right, also held a sleeping owl, perched on the ornate molding over the pipe organ. One of the staff  said it lived there now.

Up next came Viscri, via the most potholed road in Romania. RIP my suspension, etc. That aside, we got out in the middle of the sleepy village, where the few people who were sitting on the wooden benches outside their homes stared at us, as Romanians tend to do with strangers. I asked an older lady if indeed Prince Charles had a house there. She pointed up hill from where we parked, it was not in any way royal, they all looked the same.  Once again, we missed getting tickets by minutes and only managed to see the outside of the church, situated a couple of hundred meters up the main road.

It was starting to get late and we still needed to get to Sighisoara for the night. Then, a couple of kilometers past Saschiz we hit a traffic jam. We didn't budge for ten minutes, so back we turned for an extended pit stop in Saschiz. We ordered a soup each at the bar/restaurant near the church and watched as the column of cars extended into the village. We weren't making it to Sighisoara for a good few hours, and given the city's popularity, there was no guarantee we'd find lodging. Our guy had already given away the room we'd reserved.


A little souvenir from the men's bathroom

We doubled back to Rupea and took a county road to Szekely land, thinking we'd try our luck in Odorheiul Secuiesc, where there were likely to be fewer tourists. After driving in pitch black darkness (with high-beams, of course) on winding mountain roads, we finally made it. The only place with free vacancy was the old communist-era city hotel overlooking the town's main square. As 'luck' would have it, the Szekely's were celebrating their heritage day...long into the night. It was fascinating to be in a place so unmistakably Romanian-looking where every sign, and every conversation on the street was in Hungarian. I always wondered what it would be like in "Romania's Quebec". Now that I'd satisfied my curiosity, I'd rather visit Budapest for the all-Magyar experience.

Good morning, Székelyudvarhely!
Day 10

This was it. Romania Road Trip (TM) was heading to Sighisoara; Romania's most touristic medieval town. It didn't disappoint, and, like the Transfagarasan, the experience trumps any pictures. The clock tower, school house, and the entire old town are the clear highlights here, but unfortunately, playing restaurant Russian Roulette for ten days was bound to catch-up to me, and my stomach capitulated to the Ciulama de Porc I had for lunch at Casa Ferdinand (#4 on TA, just my luck). No longer in shape for extensive exploration, we headed back to Cluj late in the afternoon. I then spent the weekend getting over the mild food poisoning. I guess I'm grateful it was only mild.

The Real Tally

The map is pretty unambiguous about it; we traveled a lot, but still only visited a fraction of this beautiful country. Maramures, Bucovina, Moldova, and the Danube Delta are calling.  It hasn't been two years yet, but I'd go on another Romanian road-trip in a heartbeat. The reality though is that you need to keep an open mind, travel with a dependable car, and roll with the punches. As it turns out, our Day 9 detour was serendipitous, so was the evening in Varna. We didn't plan on Prejmer but it turned out to be an amazing historical site. The trouble with traveling through Romania is you're liable to miss impressive sights, hiding somewhere around the corner, if the itinerary is set in stone.

We visited places we'd never seen before, we drove all of Romania's highways (or, portions of highway), ate great food, met interesting people, had great times with friends, and discovered a country whose charm is set in the paradox of planning the unplanned. But I'm not sure that makes sense unless you try for yourself.

Bonus Pictures

Storks, Timis county

Flooded Fields in Timis county
Cop car at Summer Well
Lunch at Becca's Kitchen, in Bucharest

Picture of a picture: Photography exhibition in Varna

Another striking photograph

Guard dog, Brasov

Bonus Transfagarasan Driving Footage