As with my Tuscany lists, I’m doing a random (yet totally definitive and quote-worthy) best/worst overview of this summer’s research trips to Romania and Moldova.
One all-encompassing word of warning to start, do not travel here in July or August. Romania has already begun to mirror Western Europe in that heat/crowds/prices become insufferable in the high season. Leave travel for April/May or September/October when the tatty souvenir stands start drifting off, the busses disperse and the prices halve. Also, the debate on whether or not to splash out on a room with air-con will be moot.
Best/Worst of Romania and Moldova
• Worst street signage: It’s a tie between Bucharest and Constanta. The lack of street signs and even door numbers in these cities will drive new arrivals into a singular rage, especially if those new arrivals are racing around town trying to find 25 addresses in a single day.
• Least improved city: Sighisoara due to all the horrible, unsightly souvenir stands that they’ve let people set up inside the Citadel. Someone in their city government needs to be fired over that. And probably have their income audited while they’re at it. No one in their right mind would approve those pedestrian disrupting eyesores if kickbacks weren’t involved.
• Best city for strolling: Brasov used to be my fav, but I’ve changed my tune and Sibiu is the winner. The newly restored historic center is just lovely with the added advantage of having scant screaming/honking cars.
• Best tourist information office: Timişoara. The English-speaking staff here were so stunningly helpful and informed that I needed to be helped to a chair and fed a nitro pill. Iaşi’s new tourist information office is a very close second – they had less brochures, but more cleavage. For the love of Buddha, why can’t Bucharest do this? Get on the ball you lazy jackholes before I rewrite the book, saying Iaşi was re-named the capital!
• Worst located tourism information office ever: The state of the art Piatra Craiului National Park Office in Zarneşti. Or more accurately outside Zarneşti. Like 2km outside Zarneşti, down a dirt road in the middle of an effing field. These people have mountains of excellent hiking information that no one will ever see. What a clusterf*ck.
• City with worst accommodations value: Tie between Timişoara and Iaşi. These places either need more one and two star hotels built after the fall of communism or they need to open some hostels. Preferably both.
• City with best accommodations value: Sibiu. Three brand new, fabulous hostels have opened here and they’re all well priced.
• Best bookshop selling English language books: Anthony Frost English Language Bookshop in Bucharest.
• Best museum (display presentation): Sibiu’s newly re-opened Museum of History, easily the most modern, professional and swanky museum in the country.
• Best museum (fringe interest): Cluj’s Pharmaceutical Museum – for as long as the amiable Mr. Radu-Mihai is leading tours, for pure entertainment value, this is the best 5 lei you’ll spend in Romania.
• Best museum (spunkiness): the Comrat Museum (Comrat, Gagauzia [Moldova]) – the lackluster collection of stuff seemingly rescued from townspeople’s attics is greatly enhanced by the staff who may only see one or two foreigners per year and want to make sure visitors see every piece of their beloved history. Be prepared for thickly accented lectures in Romanian the entire time.
• Best hostel: the brand new, funky, comfortable and central Flying Time Hostel in Sibiu.
• Best overall accommodations: for the rare display of swank and good value while having shown heroic restraint by not raising their prices in two years, the award easily goes to Hotel Atlantic in Oradea.
• Most disappointing accommodations experience: Hellios Inn in Doi Mai (Black Sea Coast). A former ‘author’s choice’ selection (wondering if the author was drunk at the time of visit), I spent a very regrettable night here. The staff were rude when they weren’t totally ignoring me, the beds were awful, something leaked in the bathroom all night and, I was belatedly informed, there was no breakfast included. On an entirely separate note, Doi Mai’s beach, overlooking a shipping yard, is the coast’s worst.
• Best beach: Vama Veche
• Most gratuitous, death-defying, habitual display of cleavage in the tourism industry: the clerk at Burg Hostel in Sighisoara. She was the talk of men (and women) on the backpacker trail. It was impossible not to stare at this Elvira Mistress of the Night enthusiast. And you just knew if you looked long enough one of them was going to eventually bounce out. Too bad she was such a sourpuss otherwise.
• Best restaurant: yet again it’s Bella Musica in Braşov. They keep raising their prices, but I still love them for serving mouth watering ciorba (soup), excellently prepared beef, admirably authentic Mexican dishes and the best salsa I’ve had in Europe. Honorable mention goes to Beer House in Chişinau.
• Biggest bang for your buck: Any of the Moldovan wine tours. Some of the best and least expensive wine tours in the world.
• Least bang for your buck: the Black Sea Coast, particularly Mamaia, Mangalia and that over-touristed craphole Eforie Nord where crowds, bad food and ludicrously over-priced accommodations leave one in a perpetual, consternated, unsatisfied state. Everyone from the four-star hotels down to the ice cream vendors took the country’s new EU member status as a signal to double prices without the tedious annoyance of adding any value to their products/services. If this keeps up, bloody Tuscany will be a better travel value than Romania’s Black Coast by next summer.
• Best drive: as I’ve mentioned previously, it’s hands down the drive between Gura Humorului all the way to Vadu Izei. God help you if you’re the driver though, all that up-down, twisting and turning – if take your eye off the road for a second you’ll pinwheel down the mountain into someone’s hay barn. Also, for pure mind-bending height and driving anxiety, you can’t not mention the Transfăgărăşan Road.
• Worst drive due to…
o Road conditions: the E68 in southern Transylvania where over-ambitious road construction has left a single lane for two-way traffic to take turns using every 500 meters or so. With the interminable stop and go conditions, it’s almost faster to walk the 143 kilometers from Sibiu to Braşov.
o Bad drivers: the entire Black Sea Coast. You get it all here – the usual local drivers invoking the patented Romanian combination of bursting appendix urgency crossed with ringing cell phone distraction. Then you also have the vacationers who are often lost (due to the above mentioned poor signage) and driving like they have all week to get to where they’re going – because they do.
• Best off-the-beaten-path experience: the villages in Maramureş. On a side note, the new daily super fast ferries out to the Danube Delta villages makes the trip out there much more accessible. The bad news is that it’s now a little too accessible. Four star villas are appearing and school groups are arriving. So much for that little bit of escapism.
• Number of days on the road: 49
• Number of rest days in that time: 2.5
• Distance driven: about 4,028 kilometers (2,502 miles)
• Number of cities/towns/villages/destinations visited: 47
• Number of times I was honked at for obeying the law: 57
• Number of times I did laundry in 49 days: two
• Number of rain days: 2.5
• Number of times I parked ‘creatively’: 76
• Number of parking tickets: zero
• Number of teeth fixed: two
• Total cost, including x-rays, to fix teeth: $91
• Number of guidebooks that I autographed: six
• Number of times I was told to “come back tomorrow” by lazy schmucks that didn’t feel like giving me the information that I needed: 6 (down from 126 when I did this in 2006)
• Number of near-car accidents: 17 (down from 372 in 2006)
• Number of actual car accidents: zero
• Based on my Romanian language skills, number of times that people ever so briefly thought that I was Romanian: four
• Number of times that I was lectured about the failings of the current Romania guidebook by normal people: three
• Number of times that I was lectured about the failings of the current Romania guidebook by batshit crazy crackpots: one
• Number of times that I was pleasantly surprised about how Romania has improved in so far as customer service and infrastructure in the past two years: 34
• Number of times that I was shocked at how abysmally bad customer service and infrastructure in Romania still is: 12
• Number of times I wished I had a decent hamburger and a cider and a mattress that wasn’t made out of old tank parts: four