Culturally Immersive Travel in Romania's Heritage Regions
Few people know much of anything else about Romania except for its famed stories regarding Dracula, which then attracts more commercial tourism to its cities. Every once in a while, some major publication may list the ‘best places to visit’ in this eastern European country, but Romania is much more than any Dracula story or list of popular destinations. If you’re looking for the cultural essence, spirituality, and authentic lifestyle of the Romanian people then this list will tell you just where to find it.
There is a popular saying in our country: Eternity was born in the Romanian village. It is in the authenticity of the locals inhabiting the Romanian countryside where this saying rings true; In small villages and communities where modern-day issues and industrialization haven’t changed everything—yet. Life here is simple and goes at a much slower pace because people are concerned only with their daily needs and delight themselves with the small things in life. Ambition, hard work and happiness are combined in a unique self-sustainable way of life that fascinate travellers from all over the world.
All over Romania, there are regions where traditions, customs and ‘ways of doing things’ are followed religiously by the locals of the area. History, culture, and geography have influenced local cuisine, creating hearty dishes with home-grown products and a delightfully surprising taste pallet. While in these regions, pay close attention to the handicrafts, handmade decorations and small objects that the locals make and sell, as, in addition to making memorable souvenirs, these are some of the things that people actually use in their daily lives.
If you want to see how rural Romanian life operated hundreds of years ago, then visit the places where time stands still; where people have preserved a unique way of life. Follow the roads leading out of the major cities and open your mind and your heart to these beloved, traditional regions in Romanis.
Maramures – A fairy-tale woodland
The Northwestern region of Maramures is renowned for its picturesque sights, cultural richness and peaceful life. The people in this region are hardworking and hospitality takes on a different meaning here because guests are treated like family when they come for a visit. The region itself is famous for its beautiful landscapes dotted with mountain villages while the locals are best known for their extremely talented wood carving, weaving, and pottery skills.
Local attractions include the Sapanta Merry Cemetery, a ‘happy’ cemetery where people write funny anecdotes about the lives of their loved one on their colourful, wooden tombstones, or, for a more somber look back into history, you can visit the Communism Memorial in Sighetul Marmatiei where Romania’s violent past comes to light in a former political prison. Finally, the region is home to the famous UNESCO Wooden Churches of Maramures, unique in Europe for their construction and their ability to withstand the test of time over multiple centuries. For a close-up view of these churches and other wonderful sites, consider staying in the villages of Budesti, Desesti, Poienile, Izei or Breb.
Pass through villages, observe local life, and admire the beautiful, painstakingly hand-carved wooden gates and their symbols. On Sunday locals’ put on their traditional wear and go to church—definitely a sight worth seeing. Food is plentiful, hearty, and made to keep your stomach full from morning till dusk, which are the typical times when people in Maramures eat. And be sure not to miss out on trying Afinata, a local brandy made out of wild black currants—delicious!.
The closest airport is in Cluj-Napoca and hiring a guide is highly recommended because a lot of local navigation and connections are needed in this region. Consider spending at least 2-3 days in the area to relax and get a good feel for the area.
Bucovina – The spiritual heart of Romania
Religion plays an important role in everyday Romanian life and Bucovina is the spiritual cradle of Orthodox Romania. In this Northeastern part of the country, consider visiting the monasteries of Voronet, Sucevita or Moldovita, beautifully decorated with exterior paintings that depict scenes and characters from the Bible. Though over 400 years old, these detailed works of art are very well preserved and have been included as part of the UNESCO heritage site for their unique, cultural value and, just like in Maramures, you will see locals putting on their ‘Sunday best’ to attend church.
A road trip through Pojorata, Gura Humorului or Vatra Dornei is nothing short of breathtaking, hosting superb views of the Eastern Carpathian Mountains and unique sights of local village life. Stop anywhere for a local lunch and be sure to try the ciorba radauteana (sour chicken-based vegetable soup) or poale-n brau (oven-baked sweet dough stuffed with cheese or jam)—Yum!
The locals here are famous for their painted eggs. Locals use in a centuries-old traditional process called incondeiere. This special technique uses wax, heat, special natural colours, intricate patterns and painstakingly detailed line work techniques. The Lucia Condrea Museum in Moldovița boasts an impressive collection of such painted eggs and tools and even organizes workshops and live displays for you to enjoy.
Getting to Bucovina is a bit of trek, being a long way from Bucharest but is well worth it. The closest airport is in Suceava or Cluj-Napoca. This region welcomes many tourists throughout the year, especially those searching for a religious or generally spiritual experience while travelling, so it is best to plan and book ahead if you wish to avoid larger crowds.
Transylvania - A strikingly beautiful treasure
The land beyond the forests, as Transylvania’s name translates, will make you fall in love with this region just like H.R.H. Prince Charles did when he first visited in 1996. Since that first visit, Prince Charles has purchased 4 traditional village houses in the area and spends his summers vacationing in their picturesque views, so you know it has to be a sight well worth seeing. Though this region makes up much of western Romania inside the Carpathian Arc, Transylvania proper is located in the centre of the country around the popular cities of Sibiu, Brasov and Sighisoara.
The place is beautiful beyond imagination and your time here will seem more like a scene from a Thomas Hardy novel set in 18th century England and less like the gloomy land envisioned by Bram Stocker in his Dracula novel. There are many attractions in this region, like the fortified villages of Viscri, Biertan or Saschiz, or the medieval Sighisoara Citadel, both of which are part of UNESCO. The countryside area around Sibiu and the villages of Cisnadioara, Selimbar, and Cristian are renowned for their outdoor picnics with, of course, all the most traditional foods you could ask for. In fact, Transylvania is famed for its delicious rural-based gastronomy so don’t miss the chance to taste something new!
But nothing will feel as good as staying in a small village guesthouse to experience the peaceful, charming life of the countryside. Seeing villagers live as they did hundreds of years ago will hopefully show you a different perspective on your way of life. The cities of Cluj-Napoca, Sibiu and Brasov are your entry points in this wonderful region.
Buscovina images: Sergiu Bejan