When my husband was in graduate school, he had a lab colleague who was from Romania. I didn’t know anything about Romania at the time, but I remember very clearly how lovingly he spoke of his native country and its mountains, and how he pronounced it “MOHN-TAYNS.” He was also very proud to serve us his homemade ciorba, a Romanian soup. That was the moment in my life when I leaned this very important lesson: if someone from another country offers to prepare you one of their traditional meals from home … let them. Then, as you dine on it together, let them tell you about it, the ingredients, the methods, the reasons for it, how they learned to make it, who taught them, and anything else they want to share about their home.
I asked my husband if his memories of this colleague influenced his desire to take a trip to Romania – this location was his idea – but, despite that making for a better introduction to this story, he says no, it didn’t. Still, I can’t help but remember this friend and his descriptions of his home. I realize now, far more clearly than I ever could understand then, that College Station, Texas must have been so foreign to this middle-aged Romanian man. It’s no wonder he spoke of home so often.
Since my husband indulged me in my wishes to visit Slovenia, it was only fair that I indulged him in his wishes to visit Romania. We went during the fall school holiday at the end of October and beginning of November 2018. The idea of spending Halloween in Transylvania was a bonus to the timing of this trip!
With a week to spend, we visited Bucharest, Brașov, and Sibiu, the first stop being Sibiu.
What We Did
We arrived in Sibiu in the early evening and immediately were faced with the realization that the service industry in Romania isn’t necessarily strong on service. We had read this and heard this from friends who had traveled there, so we were prepared, but it was still interesting to experience it.
First, the guy working at the rental car agency was waiting at the baggage claim area for us and ushered us though the check in/rental process as quickly as he could. Then, he held the vehicle exit gate open just long enough for us to get out and for him to leave right behind us. I guess we were the last customers of the night. Mind you, this was early evening, not outside the normal realm of travel business!
Then, on the way from the airport to the hotel, a hotel employee called us and asked when we expected to arrive. They asked us this on our registration form, too, and we were still within our given window, but apparently, she also had other places to be that our check-in was keeping her from!
We continued to experience inattentive service throughout the rest of our trip. We generally encountered unsmiling workers in the service and tourist industry, a pretty stark difference to the Southern hospitality we are used to in the States, but we know not everywhere is like North Carolina, so we accepted it and considered it part of the nation’s collective personality.
On our first evening in Sibiu, we walked around the old town center, partly to get our bearings, and partly in search of dinner and a pharmacy. My son had a headache and I forgot to pack any basic meds for him, so that took priority that night. It certainly started our stay off with a sense of adventure. We had to walk through a city park that was humming with weird bird noises under a creepy, cloud covered moon, giving our first night in the land of vampires a creepy vibe that felt a little too real.
In the light of day, the creepiness went away and we were able to enjoy the city. Sibiu was the most quaint and picturesque of all the places we saw in Romania. Many of the buildings have an architectural feature that the city is known for, attic windows that look like eyes. There are urban legends that these windows were used for spying on the villagers during communist rule. Even if that is not true, they reflect the feelings and the paranoia of that era.
Bridge of Lies
A popular landmark in Sibiu is the Bridge of Lies (1859), or Liars’ Bridge. Folklore suggests that it is named for the lying merchants that used to sell goods nearby or lying lovers that would cross it. Supposedly if you tell a lie while crossing the bridge, it will creak. My son tested the theory a few times, but we can’t be sure of what we heard!
St Mary’s Evangelical Church
Our hotel suite had a lovely view of this church that dates to the 14th century. We tried to visit but it was undergoing renovations so unfortunately, only one section of the main chapel was open for viewing.
We admired the view from the outside, especially the beautifully tiled roof of the church. These brightly colored tile roofs are common in Romania and they are gorgeous.
Sibiu has a lot of museums, many of which are under the Brukenthal Museum umbrella. We visited both the Brukenthal National History Museum and Natural History Museum.
The National History Museum has exhibits on ancient Romanians, the history of guilds in the country, coins, jewelry, armor, ironworks, and other arts and goods. We enjoyed two lively employees there who are exceptions to what I said earlier about poor service. They were very happy to speak with us and proudly showed us the artifacts in the rooms they were monitoring. They were proud of their country but also very enthusiastic to speak with us about where we are from.
One of them proudly explained that Romanian beer is some of the best in the world because their water is some of the cleanest and freshest in the world. (I have heard similar proclamations from bourbon distillers in Kentucky, vodka connoisseurs in Poland, and beer brewers in, well, everywhere we go. I appreciate the passion and pride.) The other guide loved the name of our home state, North Carolina. It sounded “strong!” he said, with a punch gesture. He was almost giddy when he spoke about how crazy Donald Trump appears to be. They both gave us some chocolates before we left their areas, raising our spirits with their energetic conversation and a jolt of sugar.
The Natural History Museum was smaller and mainly had taxidermied animals. We weren’t planning on going in, but my son wanted to when he saw the dinosaurs on display outside. It’s hard to say no to your travelling kid when he actually wants to go into a museum. Plus, the admission prices to most places in Romania were incredibly affordable.
City Walls and Towers
We walked past some of the old city walls and towers that surround the city. They reminded me of the city walls we saw in Krakow, and the ones we see on Game of Thrones.
In the center of the city, we went in the Council Tower/Turnul Sfatului. This tower has served as a watchtower, jail, granary, and exhibit space. Now it is a tourist attraction for its lovely views from the top, and also still hosts exhibitions.
When we visited, there was a photography exhibit on one floor and a figure of an executioner on another floor. I’m not sure if he is a year-round feature, but he was perfect for Halloween!
Our visit to the tower was given a strange vibe thanks to the music playing throughout the space. We realized quickly that the same song was being played on repeat the entire time we were there, Demis Roussos’s 1974 (apparent) hit, My Only Fascination. Wikipedia tells me that Demis was a Greek singer who had success in Europe a few decades ago. I guess this would explain his song on loop in this Romanian tourist site? Maybe it was just the presence of the masked executioner, but this song gave off some serious creeper vibes. In my imaginary world where I am a movie musical director, I am definitely using this song in a scene about a yacht-rock loving, obsessed stalker/serial killer. Go ahead. Listen to it. Give it 30 seconds while you stare at the executioner. I’ll wait. You’ll see.
The Piața Mare is one of three main squares in Sibiu. We passed through it many times. On the second evening, we saw a candlelight memorial and march taking place. After reading some signs and doing some googling, I realized it was a memorial march for the 64 victims of the Colectiv nightclub fire that took place on October 30, 2015 in Bucharest. This tragedy was a result of pyrotechnics accidentally igniting flammable materials inside the club. Protests erupted throughout the country citing corruption among government officials as the leading cause of the fire, because the government issued operating permits to the club despite it not having proper fire code permits. Ultimately, the prime minister and his government resigned after those protests.
Seeing this memorial was a somber way to end our last night in Sibiu, but a powerful reminder for me of how important travel is to education. This is cultural and historical information that I wouldn’t have known about if we hadn’t been in that square, in that moment. I have always felt that I learn more about history from being in a place than from reading a textbook, and this was another example of that.
Between Sibiu and Brașov, we took a brief detour to drive up the Făgărăş Mountains on the Transfăgărăşan Road. This winding, narrow road weaves though forests and past waterfalls up and over the mountains, connecting the regions of Wallachia and Transylvania.
We took our time driving up to the top where we stopped at Lake Bâlea. We made a few stops along the way to ease some light nausea (the road had some serious switchbacks) and to see the waterfalls. Once we reached the lake, we had a picnic lunch we brought, along with some fresh, hot corn on the cob from a street vendor.
Sitting there in the cold, damp wind at the top of a mountain, that steaming, salty sweet corn was perfection. From there, we drove back down the mountain and through the Romanian countryside to Brașov, passing farms and livestock along the way. (See more pictures from the road in Romania in my post here [link]). We passed many roadside stands selling cheese, potatoes, and other local products.
What We Ate
We ate all our breakfasts at our hotel as it was included. They had a nice selection of breads, cheeses, meats, and cold items, and cooked eggs and sausages to order. At our first breakfast we met some other American travelers whose American voices stood out to us immediately. I had to look closely to confirm that they weren’t Larry David. They just sounded like him. They were friendly, if not quirky, immediately telling us about some of their immigration issues faced when trying to move to Budapest and informing us that Belgium has the second highest rates of traffic fatalities (I have not confirmed this), unprompted other than us telling them that we live in Belgium. I finished my breakfast with the theme song to Curb Your Enthusiasm playing in my head.
We had lunch one day at Burger Bar 2.0, a quick burger joint that was quick and easy for us on a day where we were on the go. Given our busy schedule and our poorly timed search for a pharmacy one night, our dinners were pretty laid back. One night we bought food at a local market and ate it back in our hotel suite (that conveniently had a kitchen). The second night, we ate completely from street vendors. From a bakery called Scufita Rosie we had a calzone sort of thing and a breaded sausage. From another vendor we got hot corn on the cob. I guess this hot corn on the cob street food is a Romanian thing and I thoroughly enjoyed it! So did my son. He was all about getting it whenever we saw it. And of course, we got ice cream.
Another street food we tried in Sibiu was Kürtőskalács, a thin cake wrapped around a wooden dowel and cooked over a spit. We had our choice of seasoning/flavor topping and accidentally got coconut flakes. We thought we were asking for sugar but apparently our attempt to say the order using Romanian names without a Romanian pronunciation failed us. Either way, it tasted good!
Where We Stayed
We stayed in the Casa Luxemburg. This hotel has an excellent location on the Piața Mică (square). We had a suite with a kitchenette which was very useful for some of our meals. Our room had a great view of The Bridge of Lies from one side and St Mary’s Evangelical Church from the other. One hallway outside of our suite had bookshelves full of books in many languages for guests to read. I love little touches like that!
What We Missed
There were more museums within the Brukenthal Museum family that we did not get to. If we had more time, we would have visited nearby Sighișoara, but our time was limited. Next, we went to Brașov, leaving Sibiu with our minds full of memories of its quirky buildings and people.