Postcards from Romania

I have been thinking lately to all the traveling and sightseeing opportunities that Romania has to offer, and got to one alarming conclusion: I had almost forgotten the beautiful side of my country. And since it’s not a thing to brag about, I had to do something to change it. How? Well, a five days car trip, summing up just over 1.700 kilometres across half of the country, sounded like a good starting point.

Green hills in Maramureș

I’ve been living in Bucharest for ten years now, and although it has a few nice areas, like the parks and gardens, some picturesque streets and imposing buildings, and a lot of cool places, where to hang out, I’ve never considered it a pretty city. It’s not unattractive either, but I just feel that it lacks that “wow factor”.

Luckily, outside of this concrete jungle, you’ll find the Carpathian mountains, the Danube Delta, or the regions of Transylvania or Maramureș. And these, my friends, are completely different stories. That’s where the true beauty and wilderness of Romania start…

Cimitirul Vesel (The Merry Cemetery) in Săpânța, Maramureş county

Going back in time, I recall that, during my childhood, I used to travel a lot throughout the country. But in the past few years, I’ve found traveling abroad much easier and even more convenient, specially in terms of time, which is a key factor in most of the decisions that we take. I have to tell you that the roads inside Romania are not the best – to say at least, and too many times you’ll end up with spending hours and hours in traffic jams. Being patient is the solution, but when you’re on a tight schedule, it’s way easier to say it, than to actually do it.


Accommodation

Since there were five days and quite a long distance to cover, planning was essential. The itinerary wasn’t hard to sketch, since the main goal was to reach Maramureș, a region situated in North-western Romania, where time is still running slowly and old traditions are kept alive. Adding interesting locations along the way was probably the easiest thing to do.

Coming back to the accommodations: the plan was to find decent hotels, in one of the towns marked on my map. I didn’t care much about the location or facilities, because I only needed a good bed and a clean bathroom. So, for the first night, I’ve booked a room at Mountain-Rest Pension (Drum Forestier Piricica), a hotel located in the middle of a dense forest, 9 km away from Miercurea Ciuc. It was quiet, affordable and it offered me a real breath of fresh air. Would even recommend it for a longer stay, especially when you wish to disconnect from the city buzz and modern day technology.

Harghita-Băi, a mountain resort, part of Miercurea-Ciuc

The second night was spent in Bistrița, at the hotel with the same name (Piața Petru Rareș 2) – a decent option for a night, but nothing more. The good news is that the pretty town fully compensated the dull accommodation.

Oradea was the location chosen for the third night, and Caro Boutique Hotel (Mihail Kogalniceanu 21/A) proved to be a very good option. Clean and modern, offering good breakfast, the hotel is situated at 5-10 minutes walk from the main sights. The last night was spent in Turda, at Hotel Potaissa (Piața Republicii 6). Another dull place, but at least it was renovated recently. And it was really close to the Turda salt mine – which mattered most, because the plan was to go there early in the morning, to avoid a big crowd.


Guide to Romania

  • Day 1 (București – Brașov – Lacul Sfânta Ana – Miercurea Ciuc)

The first day was more about driving and less about sightseeing. Getting from București to Brașov (170 km), via the Prahova Valley, on a Saturday morning, requires a lot of patience. It took me over four hours, but at least arriving in one of my favourite cities in Romania was worth it. This time it was just to have lunch, but in case you wish to read more about Brașov and the places around, check out this article.

The highlight of the day was Lacul Sfânta Ana, the only crater lake in Romania, located in the Ciomatu Mare mountain, part of the Eastern Carpathians. What you need to know is that the road from Bixad is one of the worst I’ve ever seen, full of potholes and bumps. So your nerves are really put to the test – for a moment, I wanted to quit and go back. But the location is amazing, and the lake’s water is crystal clear. There is a car fee of 10 to 20 RON, depending on where you want to park your car. And since we’re in Ținutul Secuiesc (Székely Land), you must try the kürtőskalács, a local pastry horn. My favourite is the one with chopped nuts.

Lacul Sfânta Ana (Saint Anne Lake)

The day ended near Miercurea Ciuc, in the middle of the forest, with fresh air and a clear sky, full of stars. Priceless feeling…


  • Day 2 (Miercurea Ciuc – Pasul Tihuța – Colibița – Bistrița)

Miercurea Ciuc is the smallest county seat in Romania, with a population of just over forty thousand inhabitants. Despite this fact, it has a lovely center (check out Petőfi Sandor street), and is home of the Mikó Castle. This former fortress is one of the main attractions and hosts nowadays an ethnographic museum, devoted to the Székely heritage.

Mikó Castle, Miercurea-Ciuc

On the way to Topliţa, you will be amazed by two landmarks, in only a few kilometres: the first one is the Lázár Castle, while the second is the Cathedral of Ditrău. Both look stunning from the outside, it was such a pleasant surprise to discover them.

Ditrău Cathedral, Harghita

Moving on, it’s time to head for the mountains, towards Pasul Tihuţa. The curvy roads pass through small villages of breathtaking beauty, like Fărcașa or Borșa. The simple way of life, the herds of cows, the flocks of sheep, and the green hills surrounding everything complete a fairy tale atmosphere. All that you need to do is to watch and enjoy.

Hills around the village of Farcașa, Neamț county

Pasul Tihuţa is a well-known high mountain pass, connecting two major regions of Romania: Transylvania and Bukovina. It was made famous by Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula, as being the “gate” to Dracula’s realm. Everything that I wrote above, about the remote villages in the mountains, applies here is well.

Tihuța Pass

The last stop, before reaching the end destination of the day, was in Colibița, a village that has earned a strong reputation in the past years, thanks to its lake. Although the location is marvellous, I felt that the ecosystem around is starting to deteriorate, due to the increasing number of tourists. And that’s bad, as the place has lots of potential. All the people involved should think first, before continuing with the investments.

Colibița Lake

The evening ended in Bistrița, a town which surprised me in a very positive way. A peaceful and intimate atmosphere could be felt all over the town. From its main square, the majestic Lutheran Church dominated everything in sight. I think that it is one of the most striking churches in Romania. In case you wish to have a late snack, consider Crama Veche (Strada Albert Berger 10), they have a wide range of both traditional and international dishes.

Biserica Evanghelică (Lutheran Church) at dusk, Bistrița


  • Day 3 (Bistrița – Vișeu de Sus – Ieud – Bârsana – Săpânța – Oradea)

Tree Coffee (Piața Unirii 49), in downtown Bistrița, is the perfect place for a coffee and a good start of the day, specially since it was going to be a long one. The plan was to see, in just one day, as much as possible of Maramureș. And that’s not easy…

Biserica Evanghelică (Lutheran Church), Bistrița

First on the list was Vișeu de Sus, the starting point of the Mocănița (a steam train for tourists, running in the Vaser Valley – for more details, check their website). Arriving around noon doesn’t offer you many options, because the trains leave early in the morning. But it was fun enough to go inside a locomotive and see a few traditional old wooden houses.

Traditional wooden house in Vișeu de Sus, Maramureș

Mocăniță in Vișeu de Sus, Maramureș

Maramureş is home to eight wooden churches listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. These churches still stand were initially built, between the 17th and the 19th century. It would be a pity to travel all this way and not see at least one. I made time and visited Biserica din Deal Ieud (Ieud Hill Church). Located on a hill, as the name says, it is a small, lovely church, that still has the original paintings inside. The whole place feels cosy, being surrounded by many nut trees.

Biserica din Ieud Deal (Ieud Hill Church)

Next was a short stop at the Bârsana Monastery, a very touristic spot, which attracts a large number of people. To be honest, I didn’t enjoy that much the ~20 minutes that I’ve spent here. All sorts of people around, too much buzzing, it simply didn’t meet my expectations. But one thing that I did like was that they kept the traditional architecture in their new buildings.

Bârsana Monastery, Maramureș county

My story in Maramureş ended in Săpânța, a scenic village, made world famous by Stan Ioan Pătraș. He was the carpenter/artist who, back in 1935, started the creation of Cimitirul Vesel (the Merry Cemetery), by adding funny, naïve poetry on the tombstone crosses. It’s a unique place, pretty cool in my opinion, that well deserves the hype. The church was undergoing renovation, but I totally loved what they did to the roof.

Cimitirul Vesel (The Merry Cemetery) in Săpânța, Maramureş county

And the day had an amazing ending, with this mesmerizing sunset, over a field of sunflowers:

Sunflower field at dusk, Satu-Mare county


  • Day 4 (Oradea – Cluj Napoca – Turda)

What a joy to walk around and do some sightseeing in Oradea! The city looks great, and it’s in a continuous transformation. A true example of the secession movement, Oradea is reinventing itself, with the help of the local authorities. Here are some highlights:

Palatul Episcopal Greco-Catolic (Palace of Greek-Catholic Bishopric), which was caught in a fire, 11 days after I visited Oradea. Unfortunately, the building suffered severe damage.

Palatul Episcopal Greco-Catolic (Palace of Greek - Catholic Bishopric), Oradea

Unirii Square, with the Town HallBiserica cu Lună (The Church with the Moon), the Catholic Church and Palatul Vulturul Negru (Black Eagle Palace), a secession masterpiece.

Unirii Square, with Oradea Town Hall and the Catholic Church

Palatul Vulturul Negru (Black Eagle Palace), Oradea

– Over the river, to the north: on Calea Republicii you’ll spot multiple impressive palaces (out of which Palatul Moskovits really stands out), and Casa Darvas-La Roche.

Astoria Hotel, Oradea

Moskovits Palace, Oradea

Oradea Fortress, shaped like a pentagon, dating from the 15th century.

Inside court of the Oradea Fortress

Neolog Synagogue Sion, one of the largest in Europe, which has been beautifully rebuilt in the past years.

Inside the Neolog Synagogue Sion, Oradea

After a truly remarkable day in Oradea, it was time to hit the road and head for Turda, but not before making a stop in Cluj-Napoca, to have dinner at Casa TIFF (Strada Universității 6). I’m not going to write more about Cluj this time, because I’ve visited the city less than one year ago. If you wish to discover the capital of Transylvania (and a cool city), have a look here.

St. Michael's Church and Matthias Corvinus Monument, Cluj-Napoca


  • Day 5 (Turda – Alba Iulia – Sibiu – București)

Salina Turda (Turda Salt Mine) needs little presentation. Business Insider has placed the mine at the top of their list of the ten “coolest underground places in the world”. And indeed, it is an incredible place, which deserves the 30 RON entrance fee.

Main hall inside Turda Salt Mine

The temperature inside is constant, at around 12 degrees Celsius. You’ll first enter through the Franz Josef Gallery and afterwards will be able to explore multiple mines. The deepest one is Terezia, situated at more than 200 meters underground. It is a really spectacular mine, in the form of a bell, that has a cascade of salt and a lake, with a salt island in its middle.

Terezia mine with the underground lake, Turda Salt Mine

Alba Iulia is one of the most historically important towns in Romania, thanks to one major event that occurred here, on the 1st of December 1918: the union of Transylvania with the Kingdom of Romania. The main historical area of Alba Iulia is the Upper Town, where you’ll find the Alba Carolina fortress. Inside, you’ll spot some of its best landmarks: the Orthodox Unification Cathedral, the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Sfântul Mihail, the Union Museum and the Batthyaneum Library.

The Citadel Alba-Carolina, Alba-Iulia

After a one hour drive from Alba Iulia, I reached the last stop of the trip: Sibiu. Named the European Capital of Culture, back in 2007, Sibiu has kept his medieval charm untouched over the years. In my opinion, Sibiu, Sighișoara and Brașov are the pearls of Transylvania. But Sibiu is my top favourite. Believe me, if you’re visiting Transylvania, you must come to Sibiu. Wandering around the old city, through narrow passages and colourful houses, always feels magic. Here are a few top sights of Sibiu:

Pia Mare (The Big Square), with the Brukenthal National MuseumBiserica Romano-Catolică Sfânta Treime and the Town Hall nearby.

Pia Mica (The Small Square), hosting Podul Minciunilor (The Bridge of Lies).

Houses in Albert Huet Square, Sibiu

Catedrala Evanghelică Sfânta Maria (Lutheran Cathedral of St. Marry), an iconic Gothic church, built in the 14th century.

Catedrala Evanghelică (Lutheran Cathedral) tower, Sibiu

Mitropoliei Street, along which you’ll spot Catedrala Sfânta Treime (The Holy Trinity Cathedral), Casa cu Cariatide (House with Caryatides) and several other stylish old houses.

Holy Trinity Cathedral, Sibiu

House on Mitropoliei Street, Sibiu


Looking back now, I’ve realised how many interesting things I’ve seen and experienced in just five days! Five days of pure Romania, with a few bad things too, but mostly with great ones. If you’re planning a trip to Romania, include some of the parts I’ve visited. I know that it’s a bit hard to travel 1.700 km, in such a short time. It’s also hard to stay so little in these marvellous cities and towns, but you can get the idea of a place right from the first moments spent there. And if you have enough time, you can stay longer and enjoy more the people and the place.

Old town passage, Sibiu

Rămas bun pentru moment, Romanie frumoasă!

Author: Marian Bulacu

Live. Love. Travel. Make a difference.

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