Rick Steves is in Romania! Why Romania?

A year and half ago as we prepared for our move to Romania, we started doing what we always do before a move – read up and watch up.  We gathered literature and guidebooks and watched movies and travel shows.  We had a Lonely Planet travel guide, but I wrote Rick Steves and asked if they had a guidebook or one in the works.  His Travel Team responded promptly with some helpful information but apologized that there were no plans for a guidebook:

Rick has chosen what he considers to be the best, most essential places for a first-time visitor. Rick’s books are not all-inclusive – there are many fine places that he has not yet included. We encourage you to explore beyond any printed material and find new “back doors” in Europe.”

We have no trouble exploring beyond printed material (though a printed map is always helpful).  Halfway through our year in Romania I pulled up that email, thinking of all the reasons why Romania is a ‘fine place.’  Then I wrote him back.  I wasn’t suggesting Rick Steves make a guidebook of Romania, but perhaps offer tours or at least ‘consider it.’  I was thrilled to learn this spring that Rick Steves will be in Romania filming for the tenth season of his award-winning travel show.  Finally, Romania in the spotlight!  Then I cringed.

One notable travel writer and TV personality that we enjoy is Anthony Bourdain.  Years ago Bourdain did a show on Romania that we dug up in the youtube archives.  Maybe he had an ill-informed handler.  Maybe his Plan A, B, and C, fell through.  Whatever the issue, the show was ghastly, playing up the worst stereotypes of Romanian culture and history.  It was all about communism, Dracula and strong drink.  It was horrific. That is so NOT Romania.

Every once in awhile I wince, remembering that episode and hope Rick Steves will redeem Romania to the American TV-viewing masses.  I have no doubt he will and I’m looking forward to seeing the product of his efforts.   Romania is no perfectly manicured western Europe countryside with perfect roads and groomed chateaux with handcarved shingles inviting wine-tasters.  It’s Europe in the raw.  Truly Europe through the back door.  And, quoting myself from letter to his team in January, “Rick Steves junkies would find a Romania tour very enlightening and rewarding.  This is a Europe they’ve never experienced before!”  I never heard back from that email, but I’m satisfied knowing that Rick is in Romania right now, opening doors to this underrated destination.  You can find him on Facebook and track his progress through the region.

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Below I have copied my email tome in its entirety.  In January I was so excited to hear he was coming that I started ruminating over what I would tell him about Romania, answering the question ‘Why Romania?’, if I met him in person.  One day, after the kids were at school, I wrote this down and emailed it off.  If anything, it helped me process why we found Romania so fascinating.  I didn’t include photos in the email, but I am adding a few of my own for your reading pleasure.  

Thank you travel team for getting back to me about Romania last year.  We now are living in Romania for a year (halfway through our time) and I was listening to the live recording session on Tuesday when Rick interviewed David Willett.  It was 1 am my time and Rick read my letter with an anecdote about a trip to the Balkans I took ten years ago.  Right before the interview started, I heard Rick say he was going to Bucharest soon.  Could it be so?  Might he be considering adding Romania to a tour itinerary? If so, I wanted to share some thoughts on Romania.  

There is Bucharest and then there is Romania.  The two are vastly different.  We live three hours outside Bucharest on the southern plains where horse carts are still in common use and every Saturday people gather at a market to buy livestock, grain, saddles and shoot the breeze.  I tell my Romanian friends in Bucharest that I appreciate those things and they laugh at me, embarrassed that Romania is still so ‘backward.’  Bucharest has its charms, but compared to other Eastern European cities like Budapest or Warsaw, it’s not Romania‘s gem or greatest attraction.  Romania‘s strength is the abiding culture of the rural people, its love of the arts and culture, and its marvelous natural beauty (and, for now, it’s much cheaper than the rest of Europe!). 

The foundations of the church, the first Christian church north of the Danube.
The foundations of the church, the first Christian church north of the Danube.

In the 7 months that we’ve lived here with our three children (ages 6 and under), we have been continually surprised by the open doors and hearths.  It might be because we’re American.  Romania has one of the highest approval ratings of America; we joke they give higher ratings of America than Americans give themselves.  And we also put in a little effort to learn the language so we can greet and offer a hearty thank you.  Either way, we are always surprised by hospitable strangers.  For example, we pulled up to roman fortress in ruins by the Danube River.  Construction was underway to make it an official tourist site, but for now, you can just walk all over it.  A construction worker saw us, noticed we spoke English, and made a quick phone call.  A 50-something lady on a bike road up five minutes later and offered to give us a tour.  She was a local who was informed about the notable history of the place, including the fact it housed the first christian church in history north of the Danube (the foundation of the church was still visible at these ruins called Suceadava).  When the tour was over she said she had to rush home to get her bread out of her coal oven.  Would we like to join her?  Of course!  We walked down the street and into her lush vegetable garden that consumed her entire yard (very common in Romania).  In the back was a small shack with a fire pit where she pushed the coal off a pot and lifted out several loaves of bread.  We sat on stools and broke off pieces of the bread as she proudly told us the history of her family, including that her daughter was now a doctor and lived in Bucharest.  We left amazed.  Did that just happen?  We’ve been all over Europe (I’ve lived in various countries in Europe over the course of 7 years), but we’ve never received a welcome like that in a home so vastly different from our own.  I have other similar stories to tell of hospitality and being sent home with bottles of homemade brandy and crates of homegrown vegetables, which they insist we take.  These are a gracious, welcoming people.

National Theater in the small town of Caracal.
National Theater in the small town of Caracal.

We enjoy the arts and culture and, while Romania is a poorer country, they continue to pursue the arts with the passion of generations past.  The Universities and cities have an overabundance of professional PhD musicians, so amazing (cheap!) concerts are common.  Even in our small town, one of the first things that got refurbished as the economy picked up was the theater.  It might be surrounded by old homes with rusty tin roofs, but it is a glorious piece of architecture that everyone is proud of.  One day, my husband and I attended a concert by a professional violinist that gave us the history of his Stradivarius before serenading us for an hour with piano accompaniment.  Two opera singers recently came to town and performed.  These are all free, because otherwise people couldn’t afford to go.  In larger cities there are opera companies, philharmonics and theaters all with fabulous professionals doing incredible concerts for SO cheap ($15 for best seat on the house, for example).  Bucharest, of course, is no exception and Cluj-Napoca is renowned for its art scene.  We’ve enjoyed this aspect of Romania‘s priorities because we can expose our children to the arts for much cheaper than in the United States.  Any visitor to Romania could take in a couple operas and orchestra concerts and it would hardly dent their budget.  

My in-laws came to visit and we traversed the Carpathians two times with them and I was astounded at the natural beauty. We drove on highways and small country lanes (getting stuck behind carts piled two stories high with hay!).  This is Romania‘s greatest natural treasure.  The documentary Wild Carpathia got us really excited before we came and we certainly weren’t disappointed.  One thing our children continually ask is “when can we go hiking again?”  I only wish we lived closer to the mountains! (But, alas, that’s not where my husband’s work is).  
Peles Castle.
Peles Castle.
World War I monument in Caracal.
World War I monument in Caracal.

What I’ve enjoyed most in Romania, aside from the people, is learning more about its history and its context in greater European history.  I’ve seen Trajan’s Column in Rome.  It didn’t mean anything to me until I came to ‘Dacia’ and cities like Alba Iulia and learned more about the outer reaches of the Roman empire which are found in Romania.  I now have a greater understanding and appreciation for the Roman ruins I’ve seen in southern France, Croatia and, of course, Italy.  Visiting the Saxon villages and fortified churches of Transylvania and learning about the impact the Reformation had in this area for centuries, I have a greater appreciation for what I learned and saw when we visited Lutherstadt Wittenberg in Germany when we lived there for 3.5 years.  Driving down the rural lanes, I also notice that every village, nearly without fail, has a WWI monument listing those lost from the village in the Great War.  This part of Europe was transformed as much by that war as the pocked fields and forests of Verdun, which I have visited.  When I visit Peles castle, built by German artisans and so similar to the numerous castles I’ve visited in Germany, I learned how Romania‘s first king was German.  Why would that be?  When I found out, I had a greater appreciation for the workings of governments and monarchies across Europe in the late 1800s. 

Elie Wiesel's boyhood home.
Elie Wiesel’s boyhood home.

And when we visited Sighetu and Elie Wiesel’s house, up north near the border of Ukraine, we were blown away by learning how even this far corner of Europe was no stranger to deportations and the holocaust.  We saw the train lines that took the Jews hundreds of miles to Auschwitz to be exterminated.  It’s one thing to visit Auschwitz.  It’s another to visit a town hundreds of miles away that was emptied of its Jewish population because they were all killed in Auschwitz.  Of course, I haven’t mentioned Ceaușescu or communism.  You know why?  That’s just a small blip in Romania‘s history that in no way frames the entire context for a country.  There’s so much more here than that.  

If all one knows about Romania is Anthony Bourdain’s  No Reservations episode on Romania, Romania is a joke, a forgettable destination.  I don’t know how he sets up his show, but I think he just had a bad tour guide who showed him what he thought Americans want to see – Dracula, gypsies and grappa (homebrewed and called by various names around the country).  Those things are here if you want to find them, along with piles of trash dumped on the side of the road (but not nearly as bad as Naples!) and stray dogs and rural poverty not unlike some parts of southern Italy.  
I could go on about Romania and how surprised we are at how much we like it (referring to the Romania outside Bucharest), but I’ve already written an entire essay and my neighbor is here to pick up firewood for his ceramic oven that heats his house (we live on a small orchard and they trimmed all the trees and now have enough wood to last the rest of winter). I know you said you have no plans in the future for a guidebook, but I think Rick Steves junkies would find a Romania tour very enlightening and rewarding.  This is a Europe they’ve never experienced before!
   ~ Heidi

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