Ryan and I have been in Europe for almost 2 and a half years now and thought we had this 3-day-weekend deal down to a T. The universe decided to throw us a bit of a curve ball with Romania.
This trip requires a little background. Buying the tickets (as almost always) was based on perfect flight times from our tiny regional airport for the right price (read: very cheap). After booking tickets to Sibiu, a small town in the middle of the country, Ryan asked for travel tips straight from the source. He works with a woman born and raised in Romania so he thought he would ask her for some ideas.
Her first reaction was “why are you going there?” Ryan explained that we wanted to see a little bit of real Romanian life and also, you know, great flights, so she helped us out with a few recommendations for the area. We took those tips, got on Google Maps, and booked a hotel that was a reasonable trip to the airport, close to the spots she said to visit, and truly tucked away in the Transylvanian wilderness.
Flash forward to Friday night. We got our 7:50 PM flight and landed in Sibiu at 11:00 PM. It was a quick 15-minute walk to our hotel and, after seeing a snippet of a Romanian wedding reception, we headed up to bed. The last thing Ryan said before we fell asleep was “crap, we forgot our international driver’s licenses.”
Assumption #1: if you’ve never had to show your international drivers license before, you probably won’t need to show it now.
Universal Truth: Whenever you don’t have something, that is precisely when you need it.
After a filling continental breakfast at our airport hotel, we headed back to find our tiny rental car place, hidden away in the arrivals area. Being the frugal people we are, we had opted to use the obscurely named rental car agency and wait a day to rent the car to save a few bucks. Those few bucks came in handy when we had to pay 3x the price just for the rental insurance since we forgot our international licenses. All in all, it was still pretty cheap compared to what we would expect and they still let us take the car. With no one to blame but ourselves on this one, we shrugged it off and took the 15 minute drive down to Sibiu.
We found a parking spot a bit outside of downtown that cost 2 lei (aka 50 cents) an hour and started our morning activity, walking along an ancient fortress wall that had kept the city protected. Then we went on through the archway and spent our morning strolling through the peeling, colorful buildings. There was lime green and pink and blue lining the quiet streets and every house, with its eyelid shaped windows, peered out as us as we walked along.
We made it to the main promenade and spent the rest of our morning walking along, stopping in a few shops and watching families playing all along the pedestrian zone. We walked across the Bridge of Lies, which allegedly creeks and groans whenever you tell a lie. We tested it (I said “I hate cheese”) and didn’t find it working. We walked down to the lower town, strolled through some neighborhoods there, then headed back up to the main street for a small lunch. We got some Covrigi (twisted pretzels) and some quasi-calzones, one with ham and cheese and one with just salty cheese. (Healthy, I know…)
We ate in a park, watching a grandma play with her grandson and musing about how no matter where you are in the world, little boys will always find the biggest stick in the park and try to throw it at a bird.
Assumption #2: There has to be an alternative route through the mountains if the one road we wanted to drive is closed
Universal Truth: Nope, there doesn’t ….
After lunch, we started our long drive. When we first booked our trip, our hotel was an easy 1.5 hour drive from Sibiu. We’d go straight down the Transfăgărășan, a winding, dramatic highway through the Carpathian Mountains that led straight to our hotel. Last week, when we were reviewing our plans for the trip, Ryan noticed that Google Maps had us going on a roundabout route that went 2.5 hours out of the way in order to get to our hotel from the other side of the mountains.
We weren’t in a hurry that day so we figured we’d do a long sightseeing drive through the Transylvanian countryside and ask at the hotel about the best way to get to the airport when we arrived.
Assumption #3: Google Maps is reliable
Universal Truth: Google Maps will take you on the “fastest” route but that isn’t always the way you want to go
We started our drive south just after noon. The first thing we noticed was, at any given time on our two lane, winding, mountainous road, there were always at least 4 cars in the left lane. I’m talking the most aggressive passing I’ve ever seen and German driving even puts US passing to shame. We joked at the cars flying past 5 or 6 cars at a time, 40 km over the speed limit around blind turns. Luckily, no accidents occurred as a result of such reckless driving.
All along the way, the roads were lined with rolling fields, most of which were dotted with cylindrical stacks of hay. We debated what they were for before discovering that they were used to dry the hay for winter feed. Along with many other things, the people of the area were still harvesting and farming in the way their parents and grandparents had for generations.
It was honestly a bit of a relief when Google Maps told us to turn left and cross the river, taking us onto a quieter road that headed diagonally down to our destination. That feeling of relief didn’t last long. What started out as a paved road quickly turned into an unpaved, uneven and virtually uninhabited “road”. This is where things started to get interesting.
First we came around a corner to find a cow smack dab in the middle of our path. He slowly turned his head to wonder who was disturbing his afternoon and then he shuffled to the side to let us pass. Around another corner we came upon packs of stray dogs, a few of which lunged at our car as we drove along. There were men and women shepherding 50 goats along the path, nudging the stragglers with their walking sticks.
We came onto what we believe were Roma enclaves. The villagers stopped to stare as our unknown car rumbled into town. Most people smiled and waved as we passed. The men were wearing squat little black hats and the women all had full, colorful skirts and tightly-tied headscarves. There was one little girl in a bright pink dress. Only later did I mention to Ryan that I hadn’t seen a school in an hour.
We kept working our way up the mountain, Ryan doing his best to dodge the gaping potholes and steer us along the smoothest road. Giant chickens ran along the road in front of us. There were massive turkeys penned up along the road and at one point, we had to slow down when a pig lumbered across the street. We were miles away from anything familiar and it was incredibly eye opening. This was all on what was labeled as a national highway, by the way.
After working our way through villages, we made it to a long expanse of deserted road. We were in the middle of the Transylvanian Forest with a muddy trail in front of us. The only thing I could think of was trying to retrace that drive in reverse early Monday morning as we tried to get to the airport.
I can honestly say I’ve never been more relieved to see a pave road in my life. We had averaged 30 km (about 15 miles) an hour for the last hour and I was sure we had narrowly dodged getting stuck at least twice. The sun was starting to set as we once again wove along through the mountains. We crossed a giant dam, drove beneath the castle of Vlad the Impaler (aka Dracula) and arrived at our hotel in the growing darkness.
We picked Vila Balea because it was the closest hotel to Balea Lake, the top recommendation from Ryan’s coworker, and because it had a wonderful, rustic charm. It didn’t hurt that it was €40 a night either. We had to do a bit of searching to check in but we were quickly settled into our room, complete with a lovely long balcony that overlooked the log cabins on the property.
Assumption #4: Credit cards are always a valid option
Universal Truth: You will almost always need hard currency, especially in Europe (yes Dad, you were right…)
After dropping off our luggage, we went down for our Romanian meal. Surrounded by what felt like a lot of local families, we enjoyed fresh caught trout with garlic green beans and smoked lamb with polenta. We had a few Romanian beers and ended with some shots of Pálinka – one honey and one blueberry. Luckily, we had the foresight to take our some cash at the airport. When we asked to pay with card, the waiter shook his head. We had enough but I had to run up to the room to grab it.
During the course of the meal, we had asked our host about the closed road that Google Maps had mentioned. “So can we drive to Balea Lake from here?” we asked. It was 20 km up the road. “No” was the answer. We had reached the end of the drive-able road and the only option to get to Balea Lake was to take an 6 hour drive all the way out of the mountains and around to get at it from the north. The same went for our route back to the airport on Monday.
I will admit, I had some “getting to the airport” nightmares that night. Even after countless flights, nothing gives me anxiety like the idea of not getting to the airport on time (thanks a lot Mom and Dad….) I woke up at 6 in the morning after imagining all the ways we could get stuck on the route we had driven that morning and all the possible ways we would miss our flight.
The highlight of waking up at 6:00 am was going out onto our balcony to take in the stunning clear sky. We were miles away from anyone and anything and for a few minutes, Ryan and I got to take in the starlit sky all by ourselves in the peace and quiet of the woods.
But the low point was the realization that, we could either leave our hotel a day early or face the prospect of a 3:30 AM wake up call and a teeth clenching drive to the airport. We opted for the former option and, thanks to WiFi, found a €50 room halfway between our current hotel and the airport.
We had a great breakfast downstairs before our departure. I got a smoked sausage omelette but Ryan went for the full traditional – peppers, tomatoes, and smoked lard. That’s right, he chomped on inch long chunks of smoked fat as part of a healthy breakfast!
After breakfast, we had the bummer conversation telling our hotel we were leaving. The man apologized for the road but it was an unfortunate case of things outside of anyone’s control. We thanked him for a great stay and then made our way out to the car.
Ryan wanted to drive to see the road closure half a mile up the road but, after encountering a whole bike gang ahead of us, I convinced him to turn back around.
We now had a full day ahead of us and none of the original plans available. Balea Lake was off the table so we decided to take a look around the local area. Our first choice was to go see Poenari Castle. There are a few castles that have an Dracula-n claim to fame but this one was the one that Vlad actually built and lived in. It came with an equally chilly tale from the famously bloodthirsty ruler as well as an intimidating hike to the top.
After a few false start already on our trip, we decided to google it and check the hours and instructions first. Good thing we did, too. The reviews were full of comments saying that it wasn’t actually open to the public. When we arrived, the reviews were right. The stairs were closed and had been for 6 months. Turns out, they had a bear problem in the region and couldn’t have people walking through the woods unguided.
So, the hike was out! We did a quick google search instead and found what looked like a pretty cool monastery right on the road to our next hotel. We figured, why not? Turns out, it was a much cooler stop than we anticipated. The Curtea de Argeș Monastery, besides just being a gorgeous demonstration of 16th century Moorish and Russian architecture, was also the burial place for all of Romania’s modern kings.
One of Romania’s fun facts is that, when they became a unified country in the mid-1800s, they were missing a royal family to bring them together. They went shopping for one and they found a willing king from the Hohenzollern (Bavarian) Royal family. Which is how they ended up with King Carol I. The most recent king , Michael I, was given a full state funeral when he passed way in 2017 even though he abdicated the throne in 1947. The little 27,000 person town hosted the funeral, attended by the likes of Prince Charles. Why they were buried here, miles away from anything, I’m still not sure but we paid our respects at their graves and then went to explore the town.
On our search for lunch, we happened upon a funeral procession. We stopped to pay our respects with the rest of the passersby. The deceased was being conveyed in a full military convoy, attended by 4 uniformed officials in the car. There were 30 black-clad mourners following along and another 20 leading the whole caravan carrying placards and a cross. It took us a second to recognized the man himself, lying in an open casket in the middle of it all. It’s always strange to stumble upon these actions of someone’s everyday life, surrounded by their loved ones, in the middle of such a foreign-feeling place.
After the procession passed, we made our way to a very busy restaurant for lunch. We made ourselves at home for what turned out to be a full afternoon. Starting with some tea, we then launched into the unknown. I got a rustic salad and Ryan got some Gulasch soup. It arrived as a hanging cauldron full of soup and an empty bowl for Ryan and a plate full of pickled vegetables.
Uncertain about what we were supposed to do, we almost certainly messed it up. Convinced that it was cabbage for the soup, we proceeded to fill Ryan’s goulash with my rustic salad and, although it did taste alright, if anyone was watching us I’m sure they got a good laugh! That was followed by Mititei, some Romanian rustic sausages, and then two chicken dishes with polenta. I got a simple one pot chicken but Ryan got the mountain chicken – a full bird that had been slow roasted and was coated in a heart wine sauce.
Throughout the meal, we got in plenty of people watching. The teenagers in Romania are just as obsessed with their cell phones as teenagers everywhere else. Middle aged men watch football (aka soccer) and toddlers toddle all around the restaurants. Our waitress finally asked us at one point where we were from. When we said the US, her jaw dropped a bit. “I don’t travel much” she explained, “but how far was that flight just to get here?” We explained that we lived in Germany but even that didn’t seem to convince her that it was worth the trip. By the time we had taken that all in and gotten our bill (the total was less than $€40) we were just in time to finish the 45 minute drive to our next hotel – the Grand Hotel Sophianu.
We checked into the regal hotel and quickly headed down to the hotel spa. The saunas were broken but there was a pool with massage seats and a hydro massage shower so we warmed up and relaxed for an hour before we showered up for dinner.
I’m not sure if it was outside the busy season or if it was normal but for 99% of our 2-hour meal, we were completely and totally alone in the restaurant. We fell back to something familiar and got tomato soup, an arugula salad with shrimp, seafood risotto, and ended with blueberry cheesecake, all pair with a fantastic Romanian red wine. As it started to storm outside (so glad we didn’t try to drive the muddy “roads” after that downpour) we talked to our parents and caught them up on our Transylvanian vacation. As the lightning flashed, there was the obligatory vampire joke made and our trip got plenty of laughs.
Our last morning was a relaxing trip to a local coffee shop. Again, we were the only ones in there. The quiet little town didn’t seem to be fully awake yet. We headed back to the hotel to check out. The man at the reception desk asked us if we were British. When we answered from the US, he seemed just as surprised as our waitress the night before. He asked if we were going to Bucharest but we said no, Sibiu. He seemed relieved. “Bucharest is nothing but crowds,” he said “you didn’t miss anything.”
We took our last winding drive back north, past crumbling houses and wandering livestock, through dramatic cliffs and along winding rivers. The hills were covered in a wonderful golden gleam from the changing trees. The towns flashed by and a few farmers, harking back to simpler times, tended their sheep in fields or guided their goats down the roadways. We got back with plenty of time before our flight, sat down in front of gate 2 out of 4, and reminisced about the feeling of being outside of our comfort zone.
Assumption #5: there is always food past the security line
Universal Truth: Yes actually, that one at least holds true
I dared to utter the words “I assume” as we were checking into our flight and the irony made us laugh. We took the chance anyway (we had some backup snacks just in case) and were rewarded with some sandwiches at a coffee shop. We played back the highs and lows of the weekend in our head, wondering if we had given Romania a fair chance to see all it had to offer. The airport was dotted with pictures of the lake we never got to see and the winding mountain road we never got to drive. In place of that though, we got to see the burial place of kings, drastic landscapes, and most importantly, a glimpse into the lives of the 20 million Romanian people.
Assumption #6: Our way is the right way
Universal Truth: Everywhere has its own assumptions and norms, completely unaffected and different from those things we hold to be self-evident
By the way, if you don’t know the end of the joke: You know what they say about assuming… it makes an ass out of u and me.