Best Discovery

In Maramures, the remote borderland along the frontier with Ukraine, fantastic wooden churches, many built without using a single nail, soar above villages where at weekends people still wear traditional costumes and attend traditional open-air dances. Most of the churches were built in the 18th century after the last Tatar raids, but in a local version of the Gothic style.

Alternatively - immediately to the east along the Ukrainian border, but in a different cultural sphere, the hills of Bucovina monasteries built around the 16th century in thanks for Moldavian victories over the Turks. Their external walls are covered with frescoes that combine religious teaching with anti-Turkish propaganda, in a blend of Byzantine formality and folk vitality.

Most excessive vandalism

Nicolae Ceausescu, Romania's communist dictator until Christmas Day 1989, demolished a quarter of Bucharest's historic centre in order to build "the first socialist capital for the New Socialist Man". Much of this area remains as wasteland, but Ceausescu's palace is complete and now houses the parliament, and is perhaps the main tourist sight of a pretty drab city. Ceausescu's plans similarly to vandalise the countryside, the "systematisation" scheme, barely got started before his overthrow, so rural Romania remains the best of the country. Pre-industrial farming continues, permitting the survival of meadows full of flowers and forests full of bears and wolves. Here and in the higher mountains there is some of Europe's best hiking.

Hoariest myth

Vlad Tepes (the impaler), son of Vlad Dracul (the dragon), remains a national hero for his struggles against the Turks; Bram Stoker's Dracula has nothing to do with him. The Romanian tourist industry is happy to milk the myth, but ordinary Romanians are fed up with this. Bran castle, flogged to tourists as "Dracula's castle" but unconnected with Vlad, is lovely, but the interior is in fact the creation of Queen Victoria's granddaughter, Queen Marie of Romania.

Best lost culture

What is known as the Saxon community dates from 1143, when Germans were invited by the Hungarian king to colonise Transylvania and guard the Carpathian passes against the Tatars, and later the Turks. Over the centuries they developed a highly distinctive culture, but since 1989 virtually the entire population has emigrated to Germany leaving their distinctive villages and above all their massive fortified churches as a testament to their eight centuries in Transylvania.

Best hotel

In Sinaia, a mountain resort where crags rise a kilometre above the pseudo- Schloss (castle) built in the 1880s by King Carol, the Palace Hotel retains both turn-of-the-century decor and service. Now Swiss-owned, $7m is to be spent on "refurbishment" - see it before it's modernised.

Most excessive hospitality

Given the highly alcoholic nature of Romanian hospitality, it's hard to remember this one - but I do recall that the first time I came into contact with tuicla, the plum brandy that is Romania's national drink, I fell asleep standing upright and came to in the morning in an unknown house, with a full bladder but no other damage.

Worst timing

I visited Romania over the New Year of 1996-97, when eastern central Europe was gripped by its coldest weather for several decades, -25C at its worst. There was no organised snow clearance, so snow was trampled into sheets of ice. The trains managed as ever to run more or less to time, but the heating simply wore itself out in a battle with the ice on the windows, leaving the passengers as cold as when they boarded. When I reached Sighet, I found that the festival that was the object of my journey had taken place the previous weekend.

fact file

Fact file

Flights and package tours. For flights call the Romania Travel Centre, Clayfield Mews, Newcomen Rd, Tunbridge Wells, Kent, TN4 9PA (Tel: 01892/516901; Fax: 01892 511 579; e-mail:

City breaks are available from Intra Travel, 2nd Floor, 27 King's Exchange, Tileyard Rd, London, N7 9AH (Tel: 0171 619 6700; Fax 619 2757). For hiking trips, contact High Places, The Globe Works, Penistone Rd, Sheffield, S6 3AE (Tel: 0114 275 7500; Fax: 0114 275 3870; e-mail:


Visas are issued on arrival, costing pounds 21 for a 30-day stay. In advance, they cost pounds 33, which is ludicrous.


In Bucharest, Hanul lui Manuc (Str. Iuliu Maniu 62, Tel: 01/613 14 15; Fax: 01/312 28 11) is an ancient Caravansera beautifully restored and still remarkably inexpensive. In Sinaia, the Hotel Palace is at Strada O. Goga 8 (Tel: 044/31.20.51) in the town park.