Recovering from corruption and poverty, half the Romanians have left to go work in Western Europe.
Communists, vampires and gymnasts would seem to be the only inhabitants of Romania if the stereotypes were true. Add gypsies, orphans, and corrupted officials in the mix and you get the complete picture of Romania to the outside world. But this easternmost European country has much more to offer.
Still a heavily rural country compared to its Western European sisters, the old and new clash in a unique way: horse-drawn carriages race on big city streets along with the latest models of BMWs and 4X4 Jeeps.
Beautiful urban ladies flaunt their sexy outfits, walking alongside their countryside counterparts – still beautiful, but with long flowing blouses and skirts reflecting a modesty that belongs to another century.
Whilst the cities are modern and have plenty of nightlife, there are also many time-forsaken villages where life has changed very little in the past hundred years. Some of these villages are without paved roads, people still work the field with ploughs pulled by animals and perhaps only one person in the village is in possession of a telephone.
Then you’ll find other villages pimped up with impressive multi-storied villas and can’t help but where how such wealth came to a place seemingly inhabited only by old folks and kids. The secret lies in Italy or in Spain, where most of the young, working population migrated in search of jobs that paid a decent wage.
Ceausescu and communism may have departed but as any Romanian will be happy to tell you (at great length over a glass of wine), much of the old guard are still there, along with the incompetence and corruption that typified the previous regime. Today Romania is run by demagogue politicians, senators that were once folk-singers or poets, millionaires of doubtful origin and all enjoy the support of the mass media. Which they also own.
Democracy or no democracy, money can still buy you anything in Romania. The culture of the envelope prevails if you want to be treated courteously and fast whether in a hospital, a government office or at a school. You need to show your appreciation for the authorities by accidentally – and subtly – leaving a envelope packed with cash on their desk. Check with the locals for rates, as they differ by service and location. Keep in mind that foreigners are considered automatically richer, therefore they’ll expect more from you. It’s a land of opportunity and opportunism.
Romania is an underrated travel destination and there’s loads of stuff to do. If you’re into nature, for example, there’s the Danube Delta, a unique ecosystem in Europe, and the Carpathian Mountains, with great trekking in the summer and skiing in the winter. Alternatively you can hang out with bohemian communities on the coast of the Black Sea, close to the border with Bulgaria. Or, if you feel like a spot of 19th century tourism, you can go and get watered-up at mineral spas up and down the country.
Most cities have old historic centres that coexist with ugly communist neighbourhoods and more new and kitschy constructions of the democratic era. In Bucharest you can see one of the biggest buildings in the world and definitely the largest one in Europe: Ceausescu’s People House, an effigy of communist grandomania.
Sighisoara, in the midst of eerie (but actually quite rustic) Transylvania, is one of the few inhabited medieval fortresses. The old part is amazingly preserved and will take the traveller back a few centuries. It’s also the birthplace of Vlad the Empaler, the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula.