An account of 5 days spent exploring Romania. We came to see wild bears, and we left having made new friends, discovered new cities and eaten far too much delicious food.
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Ever since 2013, my husband Doug and I have enjoyed 2 to 3 week adventure packed holidays every year. Having got married in 2017, Doug proclaimed that we needed to save money and therefore no long holidays were allowed. This is a statement he soon came to regret, as I took that literally. He did not ban holidays, he only banned long holidays! And as such I managed to book a weekend away every month of 2018!
One of these adventures took us to Romania, a country I knew nothing about. Clever and persistent marketing from Much Better Adventures promised me I’d see castles and bears for not very much money, and therefore we decided to give it a go.
Day 1 – Bucharest or Benidorm?
Because I normally book all our trips, including the hotels and the excursions, it means I have done a lot of research before visiting a country. However, as we had left our entire trip in the hands of Much Better Adventures, I didn’t have a clue what to expect when we landed in Bucharest. I have to say, what we saw was not it! Being part of the Eastern Block I thought the city would be made up of communist era grey blocks and bleakness, not dissimilar to Kiev. Instead, we were greeted with a French colonial feeling, lots of green space, impressive houses, and wide boulevards. OK, there are a few communist looking buildings and the odd grey block of flats, but on the whole, you could have been anywhere in Western Europe!
We had arrived a day before all the other guests to give us time to explore the city, and as soon as we made it to the hotel, we dropped off our belongings and donned our walking shoes. Time to explore! The Old Town, which is where we were staying, is the party hub! Restaurants and bars spilled out on to the recently renovated cobblestone streets; buskers played lively latin music whilst reps tried to convince us their bar had the best cocktail in town! Had we mistakenly come to Benidorm? Or maybe it was Amsterdam with those red neon signs that read “Love is worth paying for!”.
Day 2 – Bucharest City Tour
As the trip with Much Better Adventures would see us spending only a brief evening in the city, we decided to make the most of the day to try and get under Bucharest’s skin and learn as much as we possibly could.
We started off by renting bikes and cycling around the beautiful Herastray Park, the largest park in the city. We then followed this up with a city tour. Unusual for us not to have a food tour, however, we felt that we would be eating enough local cuisine over the coming days and therefore settled for a history lesson instead.
We booked the city tour with Bucharest Urban Adventures which took us back all the way to the medieval ages before spending a long time speaking of the communist reign, which was, in theory, only eradicated in 1989. The political state of the country is still not great, with high level corruption being a big issue. In fact, we were there during the 2018 protests that made the international news. The protesters were campaigning for those found guilty of corruption to serve time, following the passing of a decree stating that government officials were exempt from jail time.
Who let the dogs out?
As we walked towards the cemetery we passed a stray dog. Doug automatically went to stroke it when the guide forcefully stopped him! “No! They recently killed a tourist; you must not trust them!” she shouted. I struggled to believe that this lovely dog would do us any harm, but we were intrigued to find out more. It seems that when the communist party came into power, they demolished a lot of houses to make space for tower blocks. This meant that families lost their gardens and as such decided to simply let their dogs roam free. The dogs mated and within a couple of years Bucharest had a big stray dog population. These gradually became more and more unruly until one killed a Japanese tourist. This prompted the government to act, and the problem is now under control, however, it has created fear amongst the residents.
We also learnt of another killer, a “vampire” who would wait for waitresses to make their way home at night. He would follow them, rape them, murder them and then dismember them. The reason he was thought to be a vampire was that he also drank their blood and ate their flesh. Eww!!
That evening our official tour started with Marius, the general manager of Untravelled Paths, the local tour operator working in conjunction with Much Better Adventures. This was the beginning of a weekend of feasting! We were taken to a traditional Romanian restaurant for dinner and tried all manner of local delicacies. For starters we had vegetable spreads, bread and a cold meat board including lard, chorizo, sausage, cheese and pate made of pigs stomach (actually very nice!). As a main we enjoyed some minced sausage meat wrapped in cabbage leaves served with polenta and sour cream and for dessert we had a cinnamon and almond cake with apple on top. And to add to the atmosphere we were serenaded by a Gypsy band that only knew one song! Even we had learnt the words by the end of the night!
We waddled back to the hotel that evening with new found friends and very full tummies eager for the weekend ahead!
Day 3 – Teddy Bear Picnics
Do not come to Romania in August! It is their summer holidays too and the roads and attractions are chaotic! We sat in traffic for about 3 hours before finally arriving at an overcrowded Peles Castle. Beautiful, but GET ME OUT OF HERE! Too many people!
The afternoon however was much better as we drove into the mountains near Brasov and went for a hike until we reached a bear hide. This was a wooden cabin overlooking an area where bears are fed to avoid them wandering into the nearby towns. From the cabin, behind a large window, we sat in silence waiting for the bears to come for their picnic. We didn’t have to wait long before one bear appeared, and then a second, and a third. In fact, so many came to have a bite to eat that we lost count! Even a wild boar joined the party! The bears may have only been eating, but it was still amazing to sit so close to them in the wild.
In fact, we got a little closer than we had bargained for. When we opened the door to the hide a bear was standing right by the porch! We got ushered back inside for safety, however, the bear was more scared of us so scampered away. What a privilege to have witnessed such beautiful animals in their natural habitat.
Not that long ago bears were a significant problem with up to 40 of them at a time descending into the nearest city of Brasov in search of easy food: garbage. This led to Romania acquiring a reputation for having the largest bear related death toll in the world, and as such the government decided to take action. They started off by hunting them, but this has now been banned (apart from for conservation reasons). Instead, feeding stations have been set up away from the towns to avoid the bears descending into civilisation and these feeding stations have been turned into tourist attractions that help cover the cost of the conservation (which was previously covered by the hunting).
To ensure the bears’ natural habitat isn’t disturbed there is a limit to how many people can go to the hides and to how many visits a hide can have in any given week (maximum of 2 visits a week), to ensure the bears are not unnecessarily disturbed.
Aside from bears and an overcrowded castle, we spent the rest of the day in traffic which gave us an opportunity to learn a lot more about Romania and our guide. Here are the most interesting facts:
- Marius got tear gassed at the protests in Bucharest the previous night after dropping us off at the hotel. Over 800,000 people showed up that evening to speak up against corruption. The army intervened with water cannons and tear gas managing to get rid of 700,000 of those protesters, though a hardy 100,000 remained for the night.
- Despite standing up for corruption the night before, Marius didn’t think twice about bribing the car park attendant to let us park in the “no park zone”.
- Romania has a program called “Adopt a peasant”. Not quite what it sounds! It’s their aim to encourage people to support local businesses rather than buying from chains.
- Gypsies have as bad a reputation in Romania as they do elsewhere in the world. Apparently, Sweden once upon a time had a law that allowed you to kill gypsies without consequences. Just another group marginalised and persecuted throughout history for being different.
- Dracula’s character is based on Vlad the Impaler. He was determined to eradicate poverty and therefore would invite many beggars and cripples to enjoy lavish meals where he would dine and wine them to show them “the better life”. At the end he would shout “Are you ready to say goodbye to poverty?”. Of course they’d shout YES in unison elated to have found their saviour. At this point Vlad would lock the gates and set fire to them, thus, eliminating poverty!
- Romania has the second largest emigration in the world, second only to Syria. Before everyone started to leave, Romania was ruled by gangs and mafia with terrible knife crime. As far as our guide is concerned, joining the EU has been very positive for Romania, as a large chunk of the criminals left. I wonder where to?
That night we stayed in the fairy-tale city of Brasov, in Transylvania. Surrounded by the Carpathian Mountains, with its cobblestone streets and gothic spires, it was certainly an enchanting town. One I would have liked to have been able to explore for a little longer, as I’m sure it wouldn’t have taken much digging to uncover many exciting stories.
We had stopped in Brasov for lunch earlier on in the day, and enjoyed a meat platter, a bean soup served inside a loaf of bread and some pancakes with sweet cheese, sour cream and raisins. That evening we went out for another meal where we enjoyed yet another platter of meat and cheese, some pork scruff with potatoes and sour cream and the most amazing pudding: papanasi! Doughnut filled with sour cream and blackberry jam! Yum yum yum!! As you can probably tell sour cream is served with everything!
Meteor Diarrhoea Cocktail
On the way back to the hotel we stopped off at a cocktail bar that served their drink in chemistry veils. We spent ages pouring over the poorly translated cocktail menu giggling at the names of each of the cocktails: pink eye, anorexia, meteor diarrhoea. As we ordered each of our strange concoctions the waitress gave us a funny look before asking “Are you sure?”. Turns out, they weren’t cocktails at all, but instead medicinal teas! We did laugh out loud!!
Day 4 – Libearty Bear Sanctuary
We came to Romania to see bears, and bears we saw! Day four started off at a bear sanctuary that has spent the last 10 years rescuing bears, and in that short a time they have rescued over 100! Where possible they re-introduce the bears back into the wild. In some cases it isn’t possible and as such they get to live out the rest of their time in big enclosures within this sanctuary.
Some of the bears rescued are wild bears that wander into towns. The authorities will often put these bears down as they generally become re-offenders. The sanctuary will always try and get there first to avoid their unnecessary death. These are the bears that are generally relocated and re-introduced to the wild. A lot of the bears rescued were being used to entertain tourists, such as the famous dancing bears. These bears are often not able to be let free as they have never experienced wildlife and would not have the necessary survival skills. Some of the footage they showed us of the conditions in which they found the bears was disgusting. One in particular was kept in a cage no bigger than 2 by 3 metres. I struggle to understand why some humans think it is OK to treat animals so poorly.
The Story of Max – the alcoholic bear
The story of Max really got to me. He was used for the entertainment of tourists, being made to stand for hours on end on his back legs so that tourists could take selfies with him. To ensure they came to no harm they pulled his teeth out, stabbed his eyes with needles to blind him and kept him subdued by drugging him and feeding him alcohol on a daily basis. When he was rescued they realised Max was actually an alcoholic and it took 6 months of rehab to get him clean.
The Sanctuary was very nice, with large enough enclosures for the bears to hide away from praying eyes if they did not wish to be disturbed. They only offer tours between 9-11 for a limited number of people to ensure the bears have peace and quiet for the rest of the day. Definitely a highlight to the trip and a cause worthy of supporting.
Bran Castle, i.e. Dracula’s Castle, was stunning, but once again there were simply too many people to be able to enjoy it. Over-tourism at its best! We did however learn some more interesting facts about the charming man that was Vlad the Impaler:
- One of Vlad’s wives, Katherine, believed that if you bathed in blood you’d remain youthful. As such she would arrange for young girls to be murdered so she could run herself a blood bath!
- Vlad loved impaling people (hence the nickname!). He once impaled over 1,000 soldiers creating a forest of bodies which their comrades then had to walk through in order to get to Vlad to try and take him down.
As well as learning about Vlad we also learnt a little more about the levels of corruption in Romania. The National Wildlife Trust runs an “adopt a bear” program which at the time of visiting had raised over €2m; every cent of which had been pocketed and not used for its intended purpose.
Corruption aside though, I loved Romania. Bucharest reminded me of Buenos Aires whilst the countryside reminded me of my childhood growing up in the Basque Country. Big mountains, heavily forested green scenery, and very traditional customs. Peasants still cut grass at the side of the road with a scythe, whilst horse and carts carry firewood back to the farmhouses. These remain some of my fondest childhood memories, so driving through the Romanian countryside was like peeking back in time.
Day 5 – Good bye
Our final day didn’t quite go to plan. We had hoped to spend the day volunteering at a dog shelter but they were unable to cater for us. Instead we opted to aimlessly walk around the city ticking off landmarks in the scorching hot sun.
The first such landmark was the parliament building. Too big to even fit in a panoramic photo! It has its own boulevard leading up to it with a Mexican wave of fountains in the grounds. The only other administrative building that is larger is the Pentagon. Now that is saying something! It does however win the prize for heaviest building in the world!
Having read that the tour was well worth doing we decided to check it out. However, we missed the entrance which lead to us walking 15 minutes in 44 degree heat across the length of the building only to find out we needed to walk 15 minutes back the other way! And when we got there, the tour was fully booked! I probably don’t need to describe the mood at this point, especially when in order to get to our next landmark, a castle in the park, we had to walk the entire length of the building once more.
After walking through the scorching streets we finally made it to the shade of the park where there was no castle to be found. Neither the residents, google maps nor the tourists knew what we were talking about! The Culture Trip Blog lied to us, there was no castle! There was however ice cream and a cold lemonade! In fact, they had a full lemonade menu! Who knew there were so many options! I can now certainly recommend adding honey and ginger though!
Although our final day did not go to plan, I still thoroughly enjoyed our whirlwind trip to Romania. I would like to come back and hire a car to explore further afield one day (and visit the castles without herds of tourists). I’m sure the hiking in the Carpathians mountains is superb and I’ve seen some epic looking mountain roads that are begging for a road trip!
However, if it is bears you are after I cannot recommend Marius, from Untravelled Paths enough. He was a great guide and I would certainly book another trip with him in the future. And best of all, the people are friendly, the food is delicious and it is cheap!