Romania

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Colorful inexpensive culture, scenery, and activities abound in this long-suffering but gradually recovering corner of Eastern Europe

On Halloween night, the full moon dominated the clear Bucharest sky, glowing and sinister. Like Jonathan Harker of Bram Stoker's Dracula, I realized I'd be heading into Transylvania on the morrow. Yet despite that unfortunate fellow's experience, I wasn't a bit apprehensive. After a splendid $5 meal, I was happily ensconced in plush velvet seats at the Romanian National Opera (eighth-row orchestra tickets $1.75) with Andrei, my charming guide, enjoying a magical Swan Lake - no ominous encounters looming on the horizon. Thirteen years after the overthrow of the Stalinist dictatorship of its latest vampiresque ruler, Nicolae Ceausescu, I'd expected Romania to be an unrelenting parade of Soviet-grim towns, eyesore apartment blocks, a few decrepit monuments, and dour denizens. Yes, there is a bit of Communist hangover, but mostly I discovered enchanting medieval villages, gorgeous landscapes, a good travel infrastructure, and warm, friendly people whose Eastern European reserve is tempered by a Latin culture left over from membership in the Roman empire.

With 23 million people nestled into an area the size of Oregon, Romania was originally inhabited by an ancient tribe known as the Dacians, conquered and Romanized in the 1st century A.D. (that's why Romanian is a Romance language). Over two millenia, Saxons and Slavs, Magyars and Huns, gypsies from India, and the mighty Ottoman Empire raided, invaded, or settled-a historical Cuisinart yielding a kaleidoscopic melange of travel options at a fraction of typical European costs: decent digs for $12, savory meals for $5, bottles of wine under $3. The land whose native son Eugene Ionesco invented the "theater of the absurd" is the land of "prices of the absurd." At some 32,000 lei to the U.S. dollar, you can answer the question "Who wants to be a millionaire?" for about $32. One of Europe's most inexpensive corners also qualifies as one of the cheapest places on earth.

Arresting Bucharest

Thanks to its graceful nineteenth-century architecture, Romania's capital (pop. 2.2 million) was once dubbed "the Paris of the East." Gracious buildings braceleted by iron-filigree balconies flank stately boulevards punctuated with parks - there's even an Arc de Triumf. Bucharest is cosmopolitan and hip again, as fashionably clad girls, hair in hues like "Bucharest Burgundy" and "Revolution Red," check out Swatch watch displays at the malls before rendezvousing with friends in trendy cafes. Romanians are friendly, and you can meet them in music clubs such as Green Hours (downtown at Calea Victoriei 120), through listings in local English-language sources like Nine O'Clock and Bucharest - What, Where, When, by placing an ad on rotravel.com, or by taking advantage of numerous homestays (see below).

Navigating is easy. On public buses, a one-way ticket is 5,000 lei (16:), an all-day Metro (subway) ticket is 15,000 lei (50cents), and a Metro-plus-bus ticket is 30,000 ($1); a book of ten will run you a whopping 37,000 ($1.25). Taxi fares are 4,000-6,000 lei (12cents-19cents) per kilometer.

In addition to exploring Bucharest's myriad museums, palaces, and churches (my favorites being the National Art Museum and National History Museum), few visitors leave without visiting the eye-popping Palace of Parliament, the world's second-largest building after the Pentagon (admission 60,000 lei/$2). Built in 1989 by Ceausescu and designed by a 27-year-old female architect, this gargantuan Stalinist-style monstrosity groans with 3,107 rooms, one-ton chandeliers, and 35 million cubic feet of marble. From its central balcony, Michael Jackson (yes, the gloved one) made a 1992 speech that Romanian fans still remember.

Another must-see, especially if you don't visit the countryside, is the outdoor Muzeul Satului (Village Museum), where admission is 40,000 lei ($1.35); 90,000 ($3) if you bring a camera. Located north of downtown in Herastrau Park, it comprises an extensive collection of actual traditional furnished houses and churches from Romania's different rural regions. Avoid souvenir-hunting in the gift shop - you'll fare better elsewhere.

Bucharest beds & bites

You generally get better lodging discounts through tour operators, who can obtain 40 percent off listed prices, rather than booking independently or trying to haggle with inflexible hotel managers. The best hostels in Bucharest include the 30-bed Villa Helga (2 Calea Salcamilor, tel/fax 1/610-2214, helga@rotravel.com) in a quiet residential neighborhood near the Piata Romana Metro stop. Safes, kitchen, laundry, and Internet facilities are available. The per-person cost with breakfast is 300,000 lei ($10) a night, 810,000 ($27) for three nights, 1,680,000 ($56) weekly. Elvis's Villa (5 Calea Avran Lancu, 1/315-5273, elvisvilla.ro) is a recently opened hostel in district 2 with four rooms of two to ten beds at 360,000 lei ($12) a night, doubles for 874,500 lei ($29), including breakfast.

Among more standard hotels, the coolest budget find in town is the elegant, conveniently located, 28-room Hanul Manuc (Strada Franceza 62-64, 1/313-1411, fax 1/312-2811), where the peace treaty following the Turkish-Russian War of 1812 was signed. Cobblestone paths and massive iron doors lead to a central courtyard with an outdoor cafe. Doubles are 725,000-990,000 lei ($24-$33), with bath, TV, and heating but no air-conditioning (true for all lodging below unless otherwise noted). Breakfast isn't included, but the terrace pastry shop is an inexpensive treat for both edibles and ambience.

You'll find various rock-bottom options around the train station; a good choice is the Hotel Cerna (Bulevardul Dinicu Golescu 29, 1/637-4087), whose 88 rooms are sparse but clean and functional. A single with shared bath runs 315,000 lei ($10.50), a double 450,000 ($15); if you want private bath, TV, and breakfast, it's 450,000 ($15) and 600,000 ($20), respectively.

A bit up the line pricewise, near the airport and the Village Museum, the Hotel Turist (Bulevardul Poligrafiei 3-5, 1/224-2328, fax 1/224-2984) has 293 rooms with good lighting and amenities including a swimming pool, bowling alley, and tennis court. Singles cost 930,000 lei ($31), doubles 1,230,000 ($41), including breakfast. Near the railway station, the 168 rooms at the Hotel Astoria (Bulevardul Dinicu Golescu 27, tel/fax 1/212-6854) are small, but larger than other railway-neighborhood options. All have private bath and include breakfast for 1,080,000 lei ($36) single and 1,575,000 ($53) double. Also in this area, the Ibis (Calea Grivitei 143, 1/222-2722, fax 1/222-2723, ibishotel.com) is a branch of the spiffy French chain, offering recently refurbished rooms with TV, A/C, phone, and modern bath for 1,770,000 lei ($59); avoid the pricey $7 breakfast, though.

When it comes to getting fed, bucatarie romaneasca (Romanian cuisine) is tasty and filling, so don't bother with the ubiquitous $2 Big Mac combo when you can dine sumptuously on the likes of sarmale (savory meat-and-rice-stuffed cabbage) for half that; soups, salads, and beer for under a buck; bottles of good local wines like Premiat for $3 or less; and palinka (potent plum brandy, the national tipple) for 80,000 ($2.65/liter). For breakfast, neighborhood patisseries serve calorie-laden extravaganzas of chocolate, whipped cream, and fruit for 7,000 to 12,000 lei (23cents-40cents), and coffee for 4,000 (13cents). If your hotel has a fridge, groceries are cheap (loaf of bread 6,000 lei/20cents, processed cheese 63,510 lei/$2 a pound, yogurt 5,000 lei/17cents a container).

The Bucharest dining scene is becoming more international every year, but there are plenty of excellent, centrally located spots to enjoy local grub. A favorite is country-style Terasa Doamnei (Strada Doamnei 9, sector 3, 1/314-6481), with wooden furniture and pottery tableware, serving roast sirloin with wine sauce or chicken fricassee for 30,000 to 50,000 lei ($1-$1.65). The vaulted brick cellar of the Hanul Manuc (see above) is now a bistro where hot entrees and grilled meats go for 18,000 to 73,000 (60cents-$2.40). Becker Brau (155 Calea Rahovei, 1/335-5650) is a faux-rustic restaurant/pub where German-style bere (beer) is brewed on the premises and homestyle entrees run 105,000 lei ($3.50).

Good bets for quicker bites are Braseria Cina (Strada Franklin 12, 1/310-1017), an outdoor cafe with a lively young crowd (most female patrons have magenta hair) and stalwart dishes like grilled trout (78,000 lei/$2.60) and beef stew (92,000 lei/$3). At folksy Boema (Strada C.A. Rosetti 10, 1/313-3783), welcome mats of fresh evergreen branches are followed by a plate of smoked sausages and beans for 68,500 ($2.30).

Three other novel spots are not to be missed. Burebista (Strada Batisetei 14, 1/211-8929) is styled as an ancient, candlelit hunting lodge, with boar's heads, antlers, and animal pelts, and specializes in traditional cuisine (especially game) such as lettuce with venison and wildberries (45,000 lei/$1.50) and pork fillet stuffed with sausages and garlic (40,000 lei/ $1.35). At Casa Oamenilor de Stnnta (Piata Lahovari, 1/210-1229), housed in the elegant 125-year-old Romanian Academy of Sciences, you're given a free tour of the ornate upstairs before dinner. At its nine tables, diners are feted with the likes of beef schnitzel (63,000 lei/$2.10) and fried carp (72,000 lei/$2.4) to live violin music. The Count Dracula Club (Splaiul Independentei Strada 8A, 1/312-1353) starts guests off with drinks in the Weird Bar, then follows up in the Medieval Room, Count's Library, or Chapel with imaginative (and unbloody) treats like cheese-stuffed polenta with bacon (70,000 lei/$2.35) and wild duck with fruit (130,000 lei/$4.35).

Transylvania beyond Dracula

Speaking of the toothy count, many outsiders' only image of Transylvania is still hopelessly mired in cheesy Bela Lugosi flicks. In reality, Romania's central region, surrounded by the Carpathian Mountains, is awash in dramatic scenery, history, medieval villages, outdoor activities, and cultural diversity.

The real Dracula, fifteenth-century prince Vlad Tepes, was one of the most dreaded foes of the invading Ottoman Turks. Though all in all he probably wasn't any more bloodthirsty than the average medieval ruler, "Vlad the Impaler" is remembered for his favorite version of the death penalty: impaling enemies on wooden stakes, then relishing their slow deaths as he dined (and giving new meaning to the concept of a "stake dinner"). Locals are planning to cash in further by opening a Dracula theme park by late 2003.

Only one-and-a-half hours from Bucharest by train, the town of Sinaia, 2,500 feet in the Bucegi Mountains, was established by a wealthy seventeenth-century lord who visited Mount Sinai in Israel and built a similarly named monastery. Sinaia climbed in social importance after King Carol I built his summer residence, the fanciful 160-room Peles Castle (admission 60,000 lei/$2), in the 1870s. Today this charming old town lined with elegant villas and gingerbread-style houses is also a ski resort (equipment rental around $4 to $6 a day, lift tickets $8 adult, $3.50 child).

Northeast of Sinaia is Bran Castle (50,000 lei/$1.65, also includes admission to the Village and Customs Museums). Perched atop a 197-foot rock aerie, this standard stop on the Dracula trail is extremely atmospheric, with its four towers, Gothic arched ceilings, and secret stairway through the chimney. Alas, the bloodthirsty luminary never actually resided here - but it was owned by Vlad's granddad between 1395 and 1427. You'll find good buys in surrounding souvenir stalls.

Continue a bit farther north to Brasov, a stunning twelfth-century walled town (100 miles/21/2 hours from Bucharest by express train, first-class 185,000 lei/$6.15), built by Saxons and boasting Romania's largest Gothic church, the fourteenth-to-fifteenth-century Biserica Neagra (Black Church; admission 15,000 lei/50cents), with an extraordinary collection of ancient Turkish carpets; services (in German) are on Sundays at 10 a.m. Anchoring Brasov's historic district is Piata Sfatului, the central square, rimmed with fifteenth-and-sixteenth-century buildings in muted sherbet palettes (now housing shops, pubs, and outdoor cafes, ideal for an afternoon of browsing).

Another two hours (first-class train 165,000 lei/$5.50 each way) northwest of Brasov is Sighisoara, a UNESCO World Heritage Site built by Saxons in the twelfth century. There are two main squares, lined with fifteenth-and-sixteenth-century houses, and it was in a mustard-colored house on one of them, Piata Muzeului, where Vlad Dracula was born around 1431. It's very much a living town; I once noticed a bride dressed in foamy white cascading down the cobblestone streets to a ribbon-bedecked Citroan. The fourteenth-century clock tower (35,000 lei/$1.15 for tower and museums) contains eclectic displays of medical instruments, beer steins, and more on the way to the top's spectacular views. The nearby torture room exhibits delights such as a finger crusher, rack, beating sticks, stocks, and chains.

If you drop your bags in Sinaia, do so at historic Complex Economat (44/311-151, fax 44/311-150) near Peles Castle. This grand chalet with wood-trimmed pink stucco (where King Carol's guests waited for audiences) has 34 rooms; rates with bath in the hall run 425,000 lei ($14) single and 850,000 ($28) double; doubles with bath 950,000 ($32). There's a spiffier section for about $6 to $8 more that includes a voucher for 450,000 lei ($15) daily to be used in the hotel restaurant (most full entrees 64,500-73,100 lei/$2.15-$2.45). A terrific value!

In Brasov, most hotels are in the $30-to-$70 range; one cheaper bet is Aro Sport (Strada Sf. Ioan 3, 68/478-800), where doubles with shared bath are 420,000 lei ($14). Nearby Sighisoara has more options, so it makes a better base. The Hotel Rex (Strada Dumbravei 18, tel/fax 65/777-615, hotelrex@netsoft.ro) offers 28 clean, spacious units with TVs, refrigerators, and large bathrooms for 490,000 lei ($16) single and 590,000 ($20) double, including breakfast. It's a 15-minute walk or quick public bus ride (10,000 lei/33cents) to the main sights. More atmospheric is the seventeenth-century Casa cu Cerb (Stag House), adorned with heads and antlers and housing a new inn/restaurant called Messerschmitt (tel/fax 65/774-625, info@er-messerschmitt-s.ro). It has ten Ikea-furnished rooms (all with bath) for 420,000 lei ($14) single and 840,000 lei ($28) double. The restaurant's brick-vaulted ceilings form a canopy for crisp white linens and forest-green upholstered seating, where diners feast on pork in paprika sauce with dumplings for 59,600 lei ($2) and clatite (pancakes with jam) for 11,400 (38:).

You can also dine at Casa "Vlad Dracul" (773-304) in the Impaler's very birthplace. Diners ascend stairs past a fresco of the town dominated by a mega-Vlad looming like a malignant Gulliver, then sit in tall, carved wooden chairs and dine on omelettes with ham and mushrooms for 25,000 lei (83:) and pork cordon bleu 89,000 ($3). The stakes on the wall, they say, are for decorative purposes only.

To really soak up local culture, consider village homestays. Through ANTREC Romania in Bucharest (tel/fax 1/223-7024, antrec.ro), you can arrange delightful guesthouses such as Cheile Gradistei in the Carpathian foothills village of Moeciu de Jose convenient to Bran Castle and Brasov on a public bus line. Rooms are spotlessly clean, and some have private verandas with breathtaking views. Doubles with bath run 750,000 lei ($23) and 600,000 lei ($20) without. A stream runs through its chalet-style restaurant, where beef stew or meat-stuffed cabbage rolls are 75,000 lei ($2.50).

Maramures: Still Dacian after all these years

Inhabitants of the northern portion of Transylvania are of Dacian descent, culturally distinct from the remainder of the province. Here in Maramures, village customs and crafts like gaily embroidered costumes, pointed footwear, and intricately carved wooden gates have been handed down for centuries. Horse-drawn wagons go clipping by, loaded down with animals and people heading to market, horses' bridles bobbing with orange tassels for good luck. Village markets are a cacophony of cowbells, clinking bottles of palinka, bleating goats, and folk music spewing from boomboxes. From Sighis-oara to the region's capital, Baia Mare, the train takes five hours via Cluj (first-class 343,000 lei/$11.45). Explore villages like Birsana, with its beautiful monastery, and Surdesti, with the world's tallest wooden church, all by public bus (autobuz) for 15,000 lei (50cents) per 30 miles or in a rental car (gas: 63,967 lei/$2 a gallon).

Twenty miles from Baia Mare, don't miss one of Romania's most fascinating sites, the Cimitirul Vesel (Merry Cemetery) of Sapanta, a 67-year-old garden of carved wooden crosses painted vibrant blue and bearing first-person epitaphs with sometimes poignant, sometimes amusing tales of the deceased ("I worked with sheep, but a bad Hungarian cut my head from my body. I curse this man").

Maramures is also the perfect area to try a homestay; otherwise, good bets include Motel Siesta, in Sighetu Marmatiei (4925 Sighetu Marmatiei Avram Iancu 42 Maramures, 62/311-468, fax 62/311-253, siesta.mm@alphanet.ro), 450,000 lei ($15) single and 600,000 lei ($20) double, with breakfast. All 16 rooms have baths with stall showers, and the hotel restaurant serves filling dishes such as smoked pork with beans (43,900 lei/$1.46) or chicken with rice (27,700 lei/92cents). Hotel Cerbul (Borsa Complex, 62/344-199), with singles at 560,000 lei ($17) and doubles at 700,000 ($23), including breakfast, is a quaint ski resort with 29 bath-equipped rooms and a restaurant overlooking the mountains. It dishes up roast beef for 30,800 lei ($1) and pork with mushrooms for only 22,450 lei (75cents).

Moldavia: Paint your monastery

Moldavia province is best known for the UNESCO World Heritage Sites found in its northern region, Southern Bucovina. The fifteenth-and-sixteenth-century Orthodox monasteries (admission 20,000 lei/66cents each) were erected by Stephen the Great and his son, their outsides painted with biblical scenes to teach religion to the illiterate. Miraculously, the images still survive, and the most famous monastery, Voronet, dubbed the "Sistine Chapel of the East," is a veritable symphony of color, one wall displaying a masterful Last Judgment, vibrant in "Voronet blue." The six monasteries, as well as Romania's finest citadels, built four to six centuries ago to withstand Ottoman invasion (admission 10,000 lei/33cents each), are connected by public bus (10,000-15,000 lei/33cents-50cents) from the region's now industrialized main town, Suceava.

Southern Bucovina abounds with charming options for eating and sleeping. My favorites in Suceava are the ten-room Casa Calin (Strada Horia 1, Vama, 94/549-929, bucovina.casa.calin.ro), where singles (450,000 lei/$15) and doubles (660,000 lei/$22) include breakfast and private bath; the delightful proprietors will also cook dinner for a few bucks. Casa Elena (Voronet 8, 30/230-651, fax 30/230-968, webmaster@casaelena.assist.ro) offers 22 doubles at 650,000 lei ($22), all with private bath. There are great mountain views from the indoor or al fresco restaurant, where spit-roasted meats are 80,000 lei ($2.65).

Romania-mania!

Get more information from the Romanian National Tourist Office (14 E. 38th St., New York, NY 10016, 212/545-8484, fax 212/251-0429, romaniantourism.com), or online at beautifulromania.com, mtromania.ro, romaniaguide.com.

Tarom Romanian Airways (212/560-0840, tarom.digiro.net) flies direct from the U.S.; a round-trip coach ticket from New York to Bucharest costs $350 to $650, depending on time of year. British Airways (800/247-9297, britishairways.com) and Austrian Airlines (800/843-0002, aua.com) are among several European airlines connecting to Bucharest. Fares from New York range from $481 to $935. For packages, contact CMB Travel in Bucharest (tel./fax 1/210-5244, cmbtravel.ro). Once in Bucharest, you can get good rental-car rates from Absolut Rent A Car (1/330-4255). When calling Romania from the U.S., first dial 011-40.

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