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Romania 2015: overview

So, I went to Romania. And it was completely amazing! Too amazing for one LJ post, actually, so what I am going to do is type up a sort of overview here, and then follow that up over the next few days and weeks with a series of themed posts, complete with pictures, about particular aspects of the holiday. Those will cover roughly:
  • The historical Dracula
  • Bram Stoker's Dracula
  • Hammeresque architecture and scenery
  • Health and safety gone (not 'gone mad' - just... gone)
  • Flora, fauna and topography
  • People
  • Misc other awesomeness
I think those are the main categories, but if I think of anything else I will add it in.

Anyway, the holiday came about in the manner which I have described here. Basically, I noticed that a London-based group called The Dracula Society which I'd been following on Twitter for a while was planning pretty much my dream trip to Romania, calculated that I should just about be able to fit it in time-wise even during the exam-marking season, and so joined up, paid my deposit and waited excitedly. As I said in the linked post, it was obviously a calculated risk committing to a 12-day holiday with a bunch of people I didn't know, but I'm very glad to say that my calculations were correct. On the basis of their website, I'd concluded that they were "a bunch of moderately-eccentric middle-class people having fun being a bit geeky - exactly like me", and this was confirmed when I arrived at the airport to meet them, and found one of them carrying the same Hammer Dracula bag as me. They were also extremely generous and welcoming to a stranger in their midst, which I felt very touched by and which made it easy to slot smoothly into the group dynamic. So it was lovely to be part of this vibrant and enthusiastic team pursuing excitement and adventure through the Carpathian mountains, and I have come back glad to have acquired a new circle of friends.

One thing I hadn't actually quite realised before I set off is that travel is actually the true raison d'être of the Dracula Society. I'd assumed they had grown towards that from a foundation based on monthly talks and meetings, but actually I discovered on chatting to some of the longer-standing members that the group had come together in 1973 precisely so that they could travel together to Romania - obviously not something that you could very readily do as an ordinary tourist at the time. They went for the first time in 1974, and again in 1975, and although they have since broadened out their travelling interests to include a range of other places of Gothic interest, they still return there on a roughly 6 or 7 year cycle. This is great news for me, because basically it means that I have now discovered an awesome bunch of people who organise holidays to awesome places on a regular basis, and will be very happy for me to join them on future ventures. Next year, they're planning a trip to Geneva to hang out in the general area of the Villa Diodati and celebrate the bicentenary of the famous wet weekend which gave rise to Frankenstein and The Vampyre - and assuming the timing fits in OK with my work commitments, I am totally going to join them!

The exact itinerary for our holiday can be seen here, and was basically generated by members of the Dracula Society sketching out all the places they wanted to visit, and then a company called Travel Counsellors pricing it up and handling all the logistics. We had a dedicated bus, driver and guide for the duration of the holiday, and toured around from location to location, staying in 8 different hotels over 11 nights (so no more than two nights in any one location). That made for a very busy holiday, especially since we packed a lot into every day, and some of what we did was quite physically demanding too - especially climbing hills to castles and steps inside medieval bell-towers, both of which we did a lot! So it was not exactly a chill-out holiday. In fact, it was so busy that I genuinely struggled to find the time to buy postcards or stamps, and at least twice we didn't arrive at our intended accommodation for the night until 10pm. But then again there was plenty of time spent sitting on the coach gazing out over beautiful mountainous landscapes, and the occasional morning or afternoon free for wandering round lovely medieval towns, sitting in cafes, or simply curling up in our rooms. Maybe it was just the sheer excitement of being there, but I never felt as tired out as I'd feared I might, especially after the rather epic efforts required to get my dissertations marked before leaving, and certainly arrived home feeling refreshed and invigorated - which I think is rather the point of holidays, isn't it?

Guided bus tours can be hit and miss, of course. I haven't been on many, actually, but I learnt enough about both historically ill-informed and boring guides on an eastern Mediterranean holiday with my sister in my early 20s to be aware of the dangers. Happily, though, the guide we had on this holiday was absolutely excellent. He was cheerful and enthusiastic, incredibly well-organised, unfailingly helpful and patient, really knew his stuff and was a delight to listen to and talk to. His name was Stefan, and he was so central to the success of the holiday that although this isn't really a picture post (that's what the follow-ups are for), I'm going to include a couple of pictures of him in action here, telling us all about the the baroque Banffy Castle in Bonțida to (as you can see) rapt attention:

SAM_2808.JPG no title

The pictures encapsulate pretty accurately both the weather we enjoyed and the types of sites we visited, too. Beautiful early summer sunshine for the most part, though with occasional wind, rain or oppressive heat, and an endless succession of incredibly interesting and beautiful historical monuments and landscapes. The monuments in particular would be difficult to visit in the way we did without an experienced local guide, because a lot of them weren't open on any kind of regular schedule - you had to know who the local key-holder was, and Stefan spent a lot of his time while we were travelling phoning ahead to arrange meeting up with that person to collect the key and let us in. But from our point of view it was impressively seamless, sweeping up in our coach and straight in through the gates to discover the wonders behind - and that is of course the real benefit of going on an organised tour. There are some places which weren't on the itinerary for this holiday which I'd like to visit (mainly sites in Wallachia connected with the historical Dracula), and I think now that I'm familiar with the country I would feel happy enough to do those myself, equipped with a hire car and a willing friend, and probably on a rather more leisurely schedule than the DracSoc tour. But I'm really glad I got started this way, with such incredible privileged access to the absolute best places Romania has to offer in the areas we visited.

As for the particular places we went to on this holiday, though, they were absolutely stupendous and consistently surpassed my expectations. I knew I would find the Dracula-related locations exciting, of course, as well as the general feeling of being in the real landscape which inspired both Stoker and so many of my favourite films - and I did. But although I was quite willing to mosey about the various fortified churches, monasteries, non-Dracula-related castles, towns, villages and landscapes also featured on our itinerary, I didn't expect them to be quite as spectacular as they were - or so easily relatable to the wider imaginative world of the Dracula story, either. More or less every medieval tower, every mountain valley and every local person walking by in traditional costume could be related back to one of the Draculas (historical, Stoker's or Hammer's) somehow or other. And all of them were just beautiful and awesome and exciting in their own right anyway. I'll save the details for my photo posts, since they're better shown than told, but in summary I cannot praise Romania's sites and landscapes highly enough.

Indeed, I would now recommend Romania very strongly to anyone as a holiday destination. I found all the people we encountered extremely polite, friendly and helpful, and in the contexts where we were operating (hotels, cafes, restaurants, tourist sites) they almost all spoke very good English - though they also patiently appreciated my halting attempts at phrase-book Romanian too! Those two classic tourist banes - pushy traders and pick-pockets - were utterly absent (though we didn't go to Bucharest, so I wouldn't want to offer a guarantee against pick-pocketing there, any more than I would in any other capital city). And though once or twice I was approached by plaintive-looking gypsy children whose parents watched from a short distance away, they weren't pushy either - and hey, begging also happens in the UK. A lot. Meanwhile, by UK standards everything there from a cup of coffee to a hotel room is incredibly cheap, costing typically I would say about 1/4 of what it costs here. The entire 12-day holiday, including flights from Luton, entry to all the sites we visited, the dedicated service of our bus, driver and guide, at least two meals a day, and accommodation in what were clearly the best hotels in each location cost me £1,376 in total - i.e. about £100 a day once you take out the cost of the flights. You just couldn't begin to get what we got for that money as a tourist anywhere in western Europe.

Obviously, countries which come across as cheap to western European tourists are also those with comparatively weak economies. Many parts of Romania are still barely touched by mechanised agriculture, many of the city apartment blocks put up in the Communist era are in serious need of structural repair work, and the country definitely took a hit during the credit crunch. But it's also very obvious that life has changed a great deal in Romania from what my parents experienced when they visited in 1987 - everything falling apart, barely anything in the shops and children begging for biros in the street because they had nothing to draw with. Standing at the top of a medieval tower in Sibiu, I could see around me three very distinct rings of construction - a sizeable medieval / early modern market town, an actually relatively narrow band of Communist-era blocks, and a vast explosion of post-Communist construction beyond:

Sibiu bands.jpg

I was also struck by how many property plots in the predominantly rural area of Maramureș had new-build houses either recently completed or under construction next to what was clearly the old cottage / farm-house, and how marked the upgrade was from the one to the other. Basically, people are replacing their 3-4 room traditional houses with 8+ room palaces - according to Stefan, partly on the basis of the local agriculture but also by going to do seasonal work in the construction industry in Italy. Good for them. Meanwhile, the shops and markets are bustling, the food (bar one or two disappointments) is good, and people seem to be really enjoying their lives. All in all, then, Romania comes across as a busy and growing country, and I'm not surprised to see from Wikipedia that, recent blip aside, they are doing pretty well on the whole. It's just that these things are relative, and of course an economy can grow a lot when it starts from a very low bar and experiences vastly improved access to prosperous neighbouring markets over a short period. Still, what can western European tourists like me do to help Romania keep on moving upwards? Go there, spend money, and have a brilliant time. I was happy to do my bit!

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( 20 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 21st, 2015 05:28 pm (UTC)

I know I've had a sneak preview but am looking forward to seeing/reading about it again:-)
Jun. 21st, 2015 07:25 pm (UTC)
I'm glad you enjoyed the sneak preview enough to want more! My parents are keen to see my photos, too, and are digging out theirs from the '80s so we can compare notes.
Jun. 21st, 2015 06:02 pm (UTC)
I am so glad you liked it there :) It is a wonderful country!
Jun. 21st, 2015 07:28 pm (UTC)
Yes, it is, and I am definitely going to go back.

Thanks also for your tips and advice, especially with the language. Though I didn't get as far with that as I would have liked to, I'm very glad I made at least some effort. It is a very cool language, and quite rewarding too, in that I was able to understand most of the signs I saw around me and to buy things like ice-creams and stamps well enough, even though I'd only got through a few chapters in my text-book.
Jun. 21st, 2015 07:06 pm (UTC)
It sounds amazing and I look forward to the picture posts!
Jun. 21st, 2015 07:30 pm (UTC)
Cheers! :-)
Jun. 21st, 2015 10:36 pm (UTC)
This sounds amazing-- & I'm happy to be the willing friend next time you go back! (I'm planning to travel next summer, esp if my department has me do a study abroad).
Jun. 22nd, 2015 08:42 am (UTC)
Awesome! You would be very welcome. Something like the first week of September next year might even work pretty well for me, on the grounds that it's not peak season, so flights will be a bit cheaper, it's not peak summer, so it won't be oppressively hot, and I may well have gone to Geneva (though that will only be for a few days) in early summer, so that will space them out. We'll keep in touch about it!
Jun. 22nd, 2015 09:22 am (UTC)
Yay! The timing will depend on if I keep my job (it's dependent on getting my PhD awarded by next summer, i.e., when I should). Our fall terms start in mid-August, but we end in May so we could possibly do that shoulder, if you've not done Geneva. Alternatively, we could go later in summer, though, again, prices might be higher. :( I'll keep you up to date, though! :)
Jun. 22nd, 2015 09:48 am (UTC)
Well, we'll see how things pan out. Obviously your fall term timing does rather scotch the early September idea, but yes - it may be that I can't do the Geneva trip, and even if I do early summer would still be an option.

For now, you keep focusing on bagging that PhD - and if we can't fit this in next year, there is always the one after.
Jun. 22nd, 2015 08:35 pm (UTC)
:) Focus is the problem-- so many other interesting things to research! :P It's also possible that my dept will send me to the UK to do a study abroad, in which case we can possibly arrange timing that way (i.e., just before or just after).
Jun. 22nd, 2015 10:07 pm (UTC)
OK, well let me know if they do, and if the timing works for me too that sounds like a plan.

Meanwhile, just think of the PhD as being like vegetables - you have to eat them all up before you can go on to the shiny exciting dessert.
Jun. 22nd, 2015 10:45 pm (UTC)
I'll keep you in the loop! :)

I normally like vegetables, but the PhD revisions are like cauliflower and kale, which I can't stand... :P
Jun. 22nd, 2015 07:04 am (UTC)
Definitely leaning towards Romania as a destination now. Thanks!

And I'm so pleased you've found a group of likeminded people to holiday with. I hope there will be more such trips.

Your analysis of the mediaeval/Communist/modern town rings reminds me very much of Brno in the Czech Republic, a town I've visited twice and liked a lot.
Jun. 22nd, 2015 08:46 am (UTC)
I have evangelised effectively, then! And you've not even seen the pictures yet... :-)

Seriously, given the sort of things you seem to enjoy from your own holiday write-ups, I'm certain you would love it.
Jun. 22nd, 2015 01:15 pm (UTC)
though we didn't go to Bucharest, so I wouldn't want to offer a guarantee against pick-pocketing there, any more than I would in any other capital city

I was in Bucharest earlier this year -- had no problems really. It seemed OK, quite safe... not the most exciting city in the world and I wouldn't rush back but certainly I never felt I was in danger of being robbed.
Jun. 22nd, 2015 08:16 pm (UTC)
Good news, as that's one of the places I want to visit next time - partly so I can see Dracula's Court, and partly some of the Art Deco buildings which survive there.
Jun. 23rd, 2015 11:15 am (UTC)
The thing you should see there is Ceaușescu's palace. I'd not heard of it before but it is totally insane.


Apparently one of the world's largest buildings. We did an hour long tour and saw something like 5% of the rooms (and some we literally just walked through and out). Only the pentagon is a larger administrative building.
Jun. 23rd, 2015 11:22 am (UTC)
Yes, several of the DracSoc members were telling me about that, as they went inside it too during their last trip to Romania. I gather it is up there with Gaddafi's.
Jun. 23rd, 2015 11:34 am (UTC)
I think if you pushed all of Gaddafi's and Hussain's palaces together into a single building they'd still look like a bedsit by comparison.
( 20 comments — Leave a comment )

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