Romania: A travel guide

February 1, 2011

Waves crashing gently on a white sandy beach, ruins upon a hilltop beckoning you to explore, and snowcapped mountains against the horizon looming with majestic grandeur.

Romania has none of these things. It does have mountains, but they aren’t snowcapped. They just tend to have a lot of dry grass and a few bushes dotted about.

We touched down in Bucharest at midday, leaving the plane and torching cigarettes with something akin to religious ecstasy. Two hours later, in a rented Toyota Corolla, we ventured into the crippling heat of a Romanian summer. Those snowless mountains off in the distance rippled in the air, like a vengeful God had shaken the sky, and it was a genuine surprise that the petrol in the tank didn’t just give up and explode.

Romania as a holiday destination doesn’t have a lot going for it. It would be a beautiful country if Nicolae Ceausescu hadn’t gone to war with nature. Everywhere you look are rusting oil pipelines, concrete towers with crossed hammers stencilled at the top, and factories belching out smoke and Dacias in equal measure. The mercury is good and high there, but without a beach it won’t be winning the Thomas Cook holiday of the year. It does have castles. Which are great, for about an hour. After the hour is up you begin to realise that all castles are the same, all the souvenirs are poor quality rubbish, and seeing the spot where Vlad Dracul Tepes beheaded somebody and put the result on a spike really isn’t as interesting as it should be.

It is cheap, and you can live like a mighty king on the pennies in the jar on your desk if you’re so inclined. It’s also the most dangerous place I’ve been. Apart from Birmingham.

Wandering around some of the smaller towns is like something from a Spagetti Western, and excluding the disconcerting feeling that everybody wants to kill you and make furniture out of your remains, there is also the minor issue of:

Wolves, snakes, vampire bats, perilously high cliff tops, jagged rocks at the bottom of said cliffs, hepititus B and C, Bubonic Plague, Typhoid, polio, tetanus, dipheria, tick-borne encephalitus, and cows.

There are thousands of cows in Romania, usually to be found pulling carts along busy roads, or just wandering around like half-ton hitchhikers with hooves. You may be wondering what possessed me to go to such a desolate place, and may have leapt to the conclusion that I’m a terminal vampire nut, determined to get to Transylvania at any cost. This is not the case.

What Romania has, more than cows, is orphans. Naturally, after a night at the pub with a charity worker, I decided to go along and perform my good deed for the year. So there I was, in the middle of Eastern Europe, the sun baking the salt out of my body, clutching a cigarette that reeks of cow dung on my way to a holiday camp for orphaned children. How sanctimonious. Hunedoara, the region we were based in, is one of the poorer parts of the country.

Previously Vlad the Impaler’s holiday home, it is now the habitat of street urchins, farmers, and the old man in the City of Deva, who will insist that you smoke dope with him if you sit by the fountain in the middle of town. Any attempt to leave or say no results in him bursting into tears.

There are some essentials for travelling Romania. Before you leave, get your doctor to immunise you against everything up to and including old age, and make sure you pack long-sleeve shirts, jeans, decent boots and a hat, the insects there are relentless. Sun tan lotion and bug spray are also vital.

My time there passed quickly, spent acting as entertainment for the kids and rushing out at a few minutes notice to fetch supplies from the nearest town, 25 miles away. The children spend a week there, a summer holiday away from the orphanage and schooling. When the time came for them to leave, the tears were in full flow. It wasn’t until then that I realised the impact of the English visitors.

It had been great fun being a cowboy in Romania, cracking jokes and playing music as my black fedora gets passed around from child to child. But I would be headed back to comfort, a big bed, and Tesco value BLT sandwiches. The kids would probably never afford that. They boarded the bus crying. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the last episode of M*A*S*H.

One girl, Georgiana, found me before she got on the bus. She was one of the older kids, in her final years at the orphanage, and had spent most of the week translating for me and fetching my hat back from the smaller kids. I’d avoided the sad farewells, and was hiding in a secluded area having a cigarette . Hastily stomping the burning tube into oblivion as she rounded the corner, I saw her tears. She hugged me and pressed something small and metallic into my hand, a necklace she’d been wearing the week she’d spent making my poorly pronounced Romanian understood. After making me promise to return, she stepped onto the bus. I still have that necklace.