Ramble in Romania: The best budget holiday this summer

Cheap flights, food and hotels are just some of the advantages of visiting Romania. However, there is so much more to this great destination, says Isabel Conway

If you’re someone (like myself) who can’t resist a bargain, least of all a sale bonanza €60 return flight to the European capital, billed as interesting, funky and exceptionally affordable, read on. Ryanair enticed me at last with their — checked in bag included — cheap new year flights to re-invented Bucharest, whose hideous grey Communist era architecture has been re-named ‘socialist modernism’.

Compare Bucharest to a drab old winter coat and your first reaction on arrival in early February may be a desire to dump it in the nearest bin. The first thing you notice is the concrete gloom of all those hibernating high rise ugly suburbs, impatient for a springtime wake up call. It’s a city that craves the life blood of sunshine, pavement terraces, and colour more than most metropolises.

“Are you sure you’re going to Bucharest and not Budapest?” the barista at the coffee counter in Cork enquires with a chuckle, while I boast that my flights are cheaper than the return train journey to Dublin. He recently met an Irish couple so convinced their booked short break was to the capital of Hungary that they had purchased a Budapest Lonely Planet guide. They only realised their mistake after printing out their boarding passes.

“If you’re headed to Bucharest you can leave your wallet at home,” he jokes. The barista says he’s Hungarian, although born in Transylvania which became Romanian territory in the years following WWI. “You won’t get robbed, Romania is a safe country; it’s really cheap, you’ll get by without spending much,” he promises.

Be sure to visit Transylvania’s beautiful medieval trio of towns — Sibiu, Sighisoara and Brasov and, of course, nearby Bran and Dracula’s Castle, he recommends. Great advice, they will be the highlights of my short stay.

Once called “The Paris of the East” Bucharest has survived economic ruin and political turbulence, emerging as an energetic offbeat metropolis of nearly two million citizens.

Many of the city’s 19th century French grand buildings were destroyed in an earthquake in 1940, coupled with bombing by the Allies during WWII which wiped out much of its pre-war beauty.

Another major earthquake struck in 1977, claiming 1,300 lives and flattening numerous buildings. Infamous dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s massive re-development tore down most of the remaining art nouveau villas, neo classical architecture and places of worship for assorted faiths.

Arriving at Bucharest’s Henri Coanda International airport at night (there’s a 24- hour bus service into the city and Uber taxis are also a good option), my hotel offers a welcome transfer,a big black shiny Mercedes with a chatty, well informed driver. We purr past a landscape of shopping malls, half built offices and dilapidated administrative buildings along a six lane boulevard which has little traffic and whose pavements are deserted.

Bucharest’s hotel accommodation is much more affordable than other European capitals, I’d discovered online booking sites offer comfortable four-star hotels for around €70 for doubles and a three-star, some with breakfast, for as little as €45. A trawl of the internet showed that a de-luxe double room at one of the city’s leading five-star hotels, the JW Marriott Grand cost an off season bargain €105.

A word of warning: beware illegal taxis and those yellow ones which display higher tariffs than similar vehicles. If you agree a fare in advance, or use an Uber, it’s a reliable way of getting around.

Romania joined the EU in 2007 but it is not in the Eurozone so remains good value for tourists. A three course dinner, a couple of lagers, a good bottle of Romanian wine, plus fiery plum brandy afterwards sets us back €45 for two at Hermania, a nice traditional restaurant in Transylvania’s delightful small city of Sibiu.

Romanian food turns out to be wholesome, tasty, good and cheap, influenced by past periods of occupation by the Turks, Greeks, Austrians and Russians. A typical speciality served everywhere ‘Sarmale’ is a minced meat beef sausage wrapped in pickled cabbage leaves, surrounded by a kind of maize semolina.

Romania has always been the land of wine and you will notice vines growing on the walls of tenement blocks. A decent bottle of robust red wine in restaurants is priced at around €10-€12. They are also passionate coffee lovers and you come across great little coffee hangouts everywhere.

The Marriott’s near neighbour is the world’s second largest building after the Pentagon, the Palace of Parliament. Ceausescu’s most infamous creation, which has over 3,000 rooms and a maze of underground bunkers, was built at a cost of €3.3 billion in 1984, a time when most people unconnected with the Communist elite were suffering extreme poverty.

Another enormous building is going up behind the Parliament Palace. A work in progress and a controversial one at that, Salvation Cathedral is costing a reputed €250 million to build. When completed in 2024 it will be the tallest Orthodox Cathedral on earth.

Deprived of places of worship for more than a generation — churches and stately old architecture was bulldozed during the Ceausescu era to make way for his grandiose boulevards and miles of brutalist concrete office and apartment blocks — the Cathedral carries much significance for believers. Old Town (Lipscani) south of University and Revolution square — where bullet holes in the walls remind us of pivotal events leading to the toppling of Ceausescu — is a favourite tourist hang out.

Lipscani’s warren of cobbled streets and laneways house numerous restaurants, great live music cafes, some sleazy lap dancing dives, flamboyant clubs and hipster — something for everyone here when it comes to night life.

No trip to Romania is complete without driving a stake into the heart of all those Dracula stereotypes. The legend of Dracula is inexorably linked to Transylvania and while many Romanians cringe at the very mention of the name, others embrace the myths.

Welcome to Dracula Tours, Dracula city breaks, Dracula wine and chocolates, vampire capes, blood spattered fangs and plastic stakes and crosses from China on display wherever tourists go.

Brasov is on the threshold of Dracula territory, yet is an unspoilt enchanting town of fairytale turrets, Medieval spires and fine buildings that reflect its Austro-Hungarian past.

According to legend the Pied Piper re-emerged from Hamelin in Brasov. You can well imagine him in the shadow of snow-capped Mt Tampa (where the award winning movie Cold Mountain was filmed) wandering through the ancient Schei Gate into the walled city.

A Hammer Horror studios flashback, turreted Bran Castle, or as its better known Dracula Castle (though its links with the Prince of Darkness are spurious) guards a mountain pass, at times suitably swirling with mist, framed by thick forest. Plans for a Transylvanian Dracula theme park in the area were put on ice.

The Dracula circuit also takes us to Sighisoara, birthplace of Vlad Tepes Dracula, the psychopathic 15th century despot on whom the Dracula myth is loosely based. Better known as Vlad the Impaler, he inspired Bram Stocker with his penchant for killing tens of thousands of his enemies by ramming a spike through them.

A 1,000km long stretch of Carpathian mountain terrain across Romania is home to wolves, lynx and an estimated 6,000 bears. Adrian, a forestry graduate who drives and guides me for some of the journey explains “you can hike up in our magnificent empty Carpathian Mountains for days and not meet another human being.” Public transport is infrequent in rural Romania. As we drive into Transylvania, hitchhikers wait on the roadside. They are usually picked up in return for a couple of lei that buys a beer or cigarettes for the lorry driver or motorist who stops. On one stretch a nun in her long traditional black habit stands with her thumb stuck out.

We overnight in another perfect Game of Thrones location, 12th century Sibiu. a former European capital of culture and upcoming European Region of Gastronomy 2019. The charming medieval town built by German Saxon settlers has found itself recently in the spotlight, visited by EU leaders, their entourages and international media for a high profile summit as part of Romania’s six month long European Union Presidency. The event showcased one of Transylvania’s best preserved and most picturesque cities of magnificent baroque squares, and smart sidewalk cafes and restaurants within Sibiu’s massive fortified walls.

Sibiu, with a Bohemian yet stately ambience, once served as the seat of the Austrian governors of Transylvania and much remains from a progressive past, reflected in the city’s impressive architecture and culinary scene. The country’s first hospital, school, library and pharmacy were established here, EU leaders, impressed by Sibiu’s spirit of enterprise, heard. A famous landmark, the Iron Bridge, nicknamed ‘Liar’s Bridge’ connects Sibiu’s upper and lower towns. It was named after the dodgy merchants who met here to trade and the young lovers who declared their ‘undying’ love on it. The bridge is supposed to creak if you tell a lie upon it and to collapse if it’s a right whopper of one. To everyone’s relief the bridge withstood the European Union’s invasion, still gleaming from a preparatory spring clean.

GETTING THERE

Ryanair (www.ryanair.com) flies to Bucharest five days a week ex Dublin. Isabel stayed at the JW Marriott Grand hotel (www.jwmarriottbucharest.com). She took a guided three day tour by car of Transylvania, www.carpathian-travel-center.com.

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