10 days in Romania -- Sibiu and Bucharest

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October 20th 2016
Published: October 29th 2016
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We set off for Sibiu on back roads without hardly any traffic or people about as the bad weather had finally arrived. It wasn’t so bad though – just a light rain. We arrived at Biertan, our first stop of the day. Unfortunately the rain picked up during our visit and we had no umbrella, of course. So many umbrellas had been waved in my face every time a cloud appeared all through our trip but with blue skies and strong sun on our heads we never felt we needed one and by the time we did, there was not an umbrella to be found. So we were umbrellaless in the rain but not terribly bothered by it most of the time.

The countryside was very pretty but mostly empty and misty. Every village has a castle or an amazing church, sometimes both. Unless you have an academic interest, you won’t stop and visit them all. Biertan is a fortified church built at the end of the 15th century. We didn’t have a guide and I usually tend to tag along and attach myself to some random group with guide. Didn’t have much luck this time so I just read up on the things that interested me later. There is a sort of prison on the grounds where couples that wanted to divorce were confined in one room for 3 months according to the English speaking guide and 2 weeks according to online sources. They had to share one plate, one spoon and one narrow bed. No mention is made of washing facilities. In three centuries only one couple divorced. It is my theory that there was no need for divorce because they had resorted to suicide and murder instead. No way two people were ever going to get comfortable on that bed.

We drove on to the industrial city of Medias. That’s what the guide book said anyway. We actually, for once, didn’t get lost in the industrial part, but even missed it entirely and drove straight into the very nice old town. Big square and impressive church, old buildings, some quite dilapidated but a lot of restoration work going on. We only spent an hour or two there but it seemed to be a nice place for an overnight stop. It is right in the middle of an area rich in fortified churches and quaint villages so it could also be a good base for trips in the area. There was a lot of renovation and building work going on, as there was all over Transylvania. I think the Romanians are anticipating a tourism boom and I think they could be right.

We arrived in Sibiu in the afternoon for two nights. It was now much colder and also raining more but not all the time. We spent the next two days walking around in the rain and it somehow never bothered us too much. Except for one thing. The only disappointment of this trip and a pretty major one at that. Because of the rain and bad weather, we decided not to drive down the Transfagarasan highway to Bucharest. I had really been looking forward to that but had to be practical – you really need a nice day to enjoy the long drive on a challenging road.

Sibiu is Romania’s culture capital and the favorite destination of many tourists. We arrived in the rain just in time for the end of the tourist season and there was nothing going on. There was a lot of building work in the squares and they were erecting a huge tent in the main square for a beer festival – taking place after we left. The back streets were nice with their old peeling green and pink houses. Many of the houses had attics that looked like eyes, giving a creepy feeling of being watched.

Lots of reasonably priced cafes and restaurants. I liked all the themed cafes – sorry I didn’t take photos. The Moustache Café caught my eye – very attractive black and white décor. Sibiu is home to Romania’s first hospital, school, library and pharmacy. We wanted to visit the pharmacy (opened in 1600) but everything was closed on the days we were there. The museum shop (but not the museum) was open and it has a good selection of gifts. This was the best place that I saw in Romania to buy decent souvenirs with ok prices. Monday and Tuesday in Romania is for trips to the country because all the tourist attractions are closed. Instead we walked around the cobble stone streets and visited some of the bigger churches.

The Evangelical Cathedral is a stark building that took 200 years to build. They started in 1320. The cathedral houses an organ with 6000 pipes. There was an organ recital scheduled for 6 pm and we decided to go. Quite tired from our long day, I thought we would be listening to very loud, majestic organ music, that would energize us and wake us up. First there was a man that made a very long speech in Romanian and then repeated it in German. The only word I understood was Mozart. And indeed the first part of the concert was gentle, almost lullaby-like music that very quickly put the entire audience to sleep. I was trying really hard to stay awake but when I looked around I saw that many people were already dozing. Micha seemed to be in a deep sleep. Somebody finally turned up the volume and there was loud, crashing organ music that startled everybody awake just in time for the end.

There are some castles worth visiting not too far from Sibiu but we had had enough of castles for the time being. There was no point in driving into the mountains with the mist and rain, so we decided to drive in the direction of Sibiel, a village reminiscent of a German fairy tale. It was raining on and off but we still really enjoyed the day driving between the Saxon villages and walking around the little streets. Sibiel was largely deserted and apart from a small gift shop there was nothing else open. A very pretty village even in the rain, painted brick houses, cute little wooden houses, carefully tended gardens, flowers in window boxes, fruit trees heavy with apples. There is a brook running through it and it is surrounded by forest. Last winter they lost 50 dogs to wolves. Not just wolves here though, evidently bears come down from the mountains to raid the fruit orchards too.

There were stork nests on all the specially erected platforms on top of the electric poles. They had them in all the villages and there was a nest on every pole but there were no storks in the nests in September. Later we saw two storks sitting on a roof. There are a lot of dogs in these small villages. They don’t seem to be aggressive but I was very wary of them. I don’t think they are strays, they act like they belong. They are mostly very big dogs, with thick coats and employed to defend against wolves and bears. Tough dogs, if I saw one heading toward me, I usually got back in the car or ducked into a café or something. Maybe they were friendly but I wasn’t taking chances.

In the back streets of Sibiel we came across a group of men shoeing a horse. There was a blacksmith with his own horseshoes, one man to hold the horse’s reigns, one man to hold the horse’s hoof and two men to shout encouragement. There was a lot of laughter when we started taking photos, they didn’t mind, they were joking that they would be on Instagram. We were like two anthropologists that had never seen anything like it – actually I never had seen anything like it. No need for a blacksmith in the city where I grew up.

In a small village not far from Sibiel we stopped at a large church surrounded by a cemetery. The church was locked but the entrance gate was painted with religious scenes and that by itself was very nice. After a nice day trip outside Sibiu and another dinner and long walk around the city it was time to head off to Bucharest for two nights before flying home.

We had a nice big hotel room in Bucharest and we spent a bit more time in it than we usually do in our hotel rooms. The rest of the time we were in the old historic part of the city and unfortunately after the destruction of the Nicolae Ceaușescu era there is not much left of it. What remains is lovely. Just a small hint of what must have been.

Bucharest was heavily bombed at the end of World War II but did not suffer extensive damage. In 1977 there was an earthquake that damaged some buildings and the communists took it as an excuse to demolish much of the old town and replace it with big, soulless edifices. Seven square kilometers of the old city and the entire Jewish quarter was demolished and 50,000 people moved to make way for Ceausescu’s People’s Palace. Situated on the top of a hill, a grand church was demolished and the hill leveled to make way for it. The destruction started in 1983 and only stopped when Ceausescu was executed in 1989 before he could finish the job of completely destroying the historical heart of Bucharest.

His people’s palace is a complete waste of space - huge hallways, conference rooms, theaters, offices - with very little in the way of architectural or design elements to commend it. It is the third biggest building in the world, designed by a 28 year old architect and chosen in a competition, probably because of its size. I always say that when some tin-pot ruler starts building huge, tasteless, money-draining edifices to himself, it is a sign that the end is near.

On our last night we had dinner in the Caru’ cu Bere which is a traditional Romanian restaurant with painted ceilings and covered in elaborate wood work. The main hall is surrounded by a terrace upstairs and there is also a cellar area. Every now and then a group of folk dancers burst into the middle part and sing and dance and get people up from the tables to join them. All very touristy but good fun. We stood near the bar while waiting for a table, soaking in the atmosphere and watching the dancers and the traditionally dressed staff hurrying back and forth with plates of food and bottles of wine. There was no place for us in the main hall and we ended up in the cellar. Also good. We had a band sometimes joined by a woman singer playing all through dinner. The traditional Romanian food is heavy, meat based peasant type food. Not for everyone. There is a lot of polenta and cabbage too – I had something like that. I only ate a bit. The whole place was full with people eating and drinking and the music was in competition with all the laughing and talking – a really fun night and a good way to close our Romanian holiday.

I think we will be back because there is just so much to see and do and we only did a small part – I do want to drive down the Transfagarasan one day and also the transalpine and there are lots of small villages we didn’t visit and mountains we didn’t go up and of course, there is more to Romania than Transylvania. Romania is an up and coming tourist destination, with very nice people, beautiful scenery, mountains, wildlife, quaint villages, reasonable prices – everything you need to have a great holiday.

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9th November 2016

Nice countryside

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