ROMANIA: North-Central A+ great; a time warp.

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Travels: The North and Central regions were way beyond our expectations, nothing like we imagined, absolutely splendid. One of the best parts of our trip, among the best rides in my life. These two bikers were smitten.

'Scenic’ with a new meaning; stepping backwards in time, experiencing a rich European cultural heritage, a dramatic change from other European travel. 'This traditional culture is still preserved in Europe?' we kept asking aloud. One wishes it could be kept so forever.

But for things like asphalt, cars and electricity, it's a glimpse of a nearly unchanged agrarian Medieval life before it gets swallowed by progress, simple village life as it used to be; all within a stunning mountainous geography.

Romania’s North – the district is called Maramures [map link], along the Ukraine border – is like it was 100 or 400 years ago. They were largely left alone by the Communists evidently because of a formidably isolating mountain barrier and their strong resistance to the former regime.

Cows, sheep, chickens, dogs wander the roads. Strays just stray, heedlessly; avoidance is your problem, not theirs.

Babushkas or kids lead a couple animals, slowly going somewhere.

Thousands of horse or oxen-drawn wagons, overloaded with hay and firewood; people pull wagons as well, labour is cheap. Drawn wagons are extremely ubiquitous, not the occasional oddity, almost never attached to a tractor.

People swinging scythes, cutting hay as it has been done since metal was invented.

Gorgeous mountain, meadow and village scenery.

Friendliest people, communicative albeit mostly in sign language, a spattering of English and German.

Great motorcycle or car driving. Switchback twisty roads up and down. Sport riding, not mere transport. Great place to be on a bike.

Piles of fresh horse poop make asphalt slippery, one of the unusual bike watch-outs. Animals solo or in herds are another. Potholes come out of nowhere, their edges can cut motorcycle/car tires. You weave around people, wagons, taking it easy.

Occasional fresh asphalt appears for a few km, but not that often. Usually its a bit bumpy, but we rode perfectly passable paved roads. The human and animal traffic keep you going slowly, more so than the roads. Mostly you go slowly because you want to soak it all in, not miss anything.

Churches are a huge deal, abundant, varied and so artistic. Every town has one or more, perhaps there was some neighborly inter-parish rivalry in their making.

Houses have a wide variety of styles; brilliant old-world. Copious well-made log cabins; interesting relief stucco on brick; stunning ceramic tile patterns; hand-carved wood fascia; tall artistic and varied front gates like nowhere else on earth.

Skilled craftsmanship with creativity is everywhere in evidence – they care how their places look and want to make an individual statement, it's not me-too.

Towns have their own character and special styles. So do districts.

Old women wear black babushkas as often as not, and they do look old and weathered. Peasant clothing still has its own style. Fashionistas, not even close.

Nor gourmets. White soft bubbly bread sliced thick is the norm, calling most of what we ate 'bad cooking’ is being kind. Rare is a decent coffee. We bought cheese, salami, €3 wine, and ate in our room often. We loved it, but just one great Romanian meal to remember and talk about, would have been a nice bonus that we did not luck upon.

Going reasonably local, this is an inexpensive place to visit as Europe goes; US$40-$120 per couple daily all-in, at good standards. A nice 4-star hotel tonight is US$50 double, a 2-star or pension would be far less.

Three or four days of riding north and central Romania might add up to 500-1,000 km if you stop as often as we did, and drive as slowly. We enjoyed every minute, as most others will.

Do yourself a big favor and explore a unique wonderful corner of the world before it becomes modern.

Unfortunately on-line maps of Romania that we found are unhelpful. Google Maps just includes the main roads, does not allow one to chart the trip. Honda’s bike GPS also has few small roads. Evidently there is insufficient demand to digitize the roads network properly, a good reason to go there now, before the throngs arrive.

Paper maps are it for any Romanian trip, unless you find a hand-held GPS with decent maps which we doubt exists yet.


Economy: It’s a poor country, a big big step down from Hungary. We met a Peace Corps volunteer who works here; they work mostly in the Third World, which this isn't, but parts are Second World.

This place has lots of catch-up to do in infrastructure, roads, buildings, industrialization. There is a surprising number of Audi's, BMW's and Fiat trucks – someone makes money here, just a small minority, the great majority of wheels are old clunkers. Or animal-drawn wagons.

Major infrastructure needs doing, major money needed.

Romania has a population of 22 million; joined the EU in 2007. It has an estimated growth rate of a tiger-level 8% but inflation at about 7.8% eats most of that growth; people do not actually feel richer.

Poverty is huge with 25% below the poverty line.

GDP per capita (Purchasing Power Parity = PPP) is at $11,100 which on surface seems respectable [source link] as #88 country out of 225.

To compare the ex-Communist neighborhood in GDP/capita: Romania is almost tied with Bulgaria next door; but is just 70% of Poland's $16,200; 55% of Hungary or Slovakia's $19,500; 45% of Czech Republic's $24,400.

But being early days in the Communist recovery and EU membership, low labour costs – manufacturing might well grow if endemic corruption and bureaucracy are brought under control – Romania and Bulgaria are the most corrupt nations in Europe [Freedom & Corruption list link.]

Here's The Economist about Romanian corruption [link] and a country profile from the same source [link.]

Romania has the 19th largest economy in Europe out of 27 countries. It has much agriculture; a broad manufacturing base; an educated work force; is developing tourism on the Black Sea and in the Carpathian mountains. Things are happening in places – but outside the cities, it does not strike one that much is happening at all, at least not where we rode.


Travels (cont'd): Our ride until Bucharest – in point form, lacking electronic maps, you will see Google Maps has towns but few roads:

!! News Bulletin December 2010: !!
Google Maps works for Romanian roads of late.
Hence I put our itinerary in "".
Here's a link to a map of our ride [link].
- Arad [map link] was the starting point. Not great except as an entry point, horrible streets, very poor, but Hotel Gia was OK.
- From Arad to Crisineu-Cris [map link]
- To Varfurile [map link, no road shown]
- Past Turda [map link]
- Baie Mare, stayed in Pension Joanna which is fine [map link]
- Vascau [map link]
- Barsana [map link] right near the Ukraine border, has an amazing Monastery of the most remarkable woodcraft, a 56-metre tall church is the tallest wood structure in Europe and beautiful.
- Sapanta [map link] world-famous, a teensy village where they have a highly folk-artistic graveyard, one of a kind hand carved & painted naive art tombstones 6' tall with humour [photos link]. Stayed at Pension Yohanna – sorry no link, but you'll find it on the main road – a lovely converted family-run house for US$50 with 2 meals, as a bonus got drunk with our host in his kitchen in Romanian sign language, downing multiple shots of his homemade plumb brandy 100-proof 'OMG am I drunk' firewater ...
- Drove two days in the north area on Hwys 18 ,19 and smaller.
- South on lovely country roads to Targue Mures [map link], a fine town, bustling. Pensiune Restaurant Europa is 4-star. Staff nice as can be, wi-fi in the room, good resto, a garage, wide screen TV in English, the works, about $80/night. It was an upscale break after a few days.
- Sighisoara [map link] Dracula's town, Bran Castle a nice citadel
- We could not cross the apparently stunning Fagaras mountains pass, one of the highest in Europe, it was closed due to snow in early October.
- Brasov [map link] is a mediaeval city, we found it pretty bad, disliked intensely the Pension Naturale owner who pestered us to stay longer, walked into our room without knocking a couple times, and we exchanged words – avoid it
- Sinaia, Peles Castle [map link] built in late 1800's, claims to be one of the nicest in Europe, designed by a combination of Italian, Romania and Czech architects, built in the rugged magnificent mountains.
The road and scenery/culture en route south to Bucharest [map link] was poor, shortly after Sinaia. The magic we experienced in the north and centre was gone for us as we moved south.


Bucharest itself is just a big city, has crazy traffic and nothing much to see. Search on-line; no one selling tourism there has much in terms of temptation.

Our advice is, go elsewhere in Europe to see cities, there are so many great choices.

In Romania, spend extra time in the north – we'll go there again if at all possible.

Dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu built the Palace of the Parliament, the world's largest civilian building (Pentagon is largest overall.)

What a monster vanity project, such a huge economic drain, in the context of a very poor country and lip service to the egalitarian communism of the time. But it sure is big and opulent! Not wonderful, just big, opulent. Here is a great [photo link], that gives you an interior 360˚ tour of the place.

Ceauşescu also built the main drag next to it that is intentionally just a few meters bigger than Champs Elysées. ('Mine's bigger than yours' syndrome.)

Ceauşescu was overthrown late in 1989, then he was shot after a two-hour session by a kangaroo court.

We stayed in the Bucharest Hotel Colentina two nights, but suggest you find another. However reserve in advance as we didn't – traffic is truly bad and we didn’t like most other hotels we saw.

The Museum of the Romanian Peasant [link] in Bucharest won some European prizes and is indeed well done, of interest if you are into seeing a large collection of peasant implements, some folk art, clothes and a reconstructed peasant home. Thao and I had different levels of enthusiasm for it, but once you are in Bucharest, go see it. Repeating myself: Far better to see the real thing(s) still being used daily in the north – it is living history.

McDonalds has arrived in the larger urban centers; without exaggeration it raises the culinary standards – and it whenever we saw one, it was packed.

Also on the negative side are the urban buildings from the commie era that were from day one, now are even more so, utter rubbish that can be fixed only by leveling. There are rare exceptions, but sufficient acres of these stand out in one's memory.


After two nights we left Bucharest with nothing left we wanted see, so drove the 50 km south to the Bulgarian border, crossed over at Ruse.

But we left loving Romania, especially the first part of our trip there.

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