My totally arbitrary, random list of Romania raves for 2009

I got a teensy weensy bit of good press in Romania last week. Typically when I get called out by the Romanian media, I’m being harangued by someone who has uncovered years old information, skimmed parts of it, absorbed almost none of it, then written a lengthy rebuttal where I’m liberally misquoted and exhaustively libeled.

Sadly, this good press was poorly timed. Not only was this “news” once again fueled by dated information, but (and they couldn’t have possibly known this) I am finally prepared to post my list of Romania raves for 2009.

This is not to be confused with a ‘best of’ Romania list, mainly because I did not tour all of Romania this year. This summer’s research trip only took me through the regions of Moldavia and Transylvania. Now, these happen to be my favorite regions and, by my estimation, they jointly hold a disproportionate share of Romania’s greatest offerings. However, I concede that one shouldn’t be posting anything resembling a ‘best of’ Romania list without taking places like Maramureş and the Danube Delta into consideration. So I’m substituting ‘raves’ in for ‘best of’, allowing me to bump and name-drop places/things that richly deserve it without selling it as a comprehensive list.

So in the spirit of nearly all my blog posts, let the whimsical raving begin…

•    Best Hostel to Open in the Past 12 Months: Hostel Felinarul in Sibiu. As Xplorio has cheekily pointed out, I seem to have a purely accidental, but undeniable bias for Sibiu lately. The money and exposure that the city enjoyed as a European Capital of Culture in 2007 has carried forward, with a host of new and wonderful accommodation and eating options to supplement the already attractive city. It really seems that Sibiu can do no wrong. Which brings me to Hostel Felinarul, a 14-bed sanctuary, not even five minutes walk from the trio of squares that mark the dead-center of town and roughly mid-way between the train station and the center. The Romanian-Irish husband and wife team put a lot of thought into the design, including tasteful German, Hungarian and Romania influences, and with so few beds they can afford splurges like homemade, organic breakfasts (included in the price).

corvinecastle•    Best Sight That I’d Never Seen or Heard Of Before This Year: the Gothic Corvin Castle. This is also a strong contender for the Most Under-Rated Sight in Romania. Located in the otherwise ho-hum town of Hunedoara in southwest Transylvania, on the way to nowhere special unless you’re heading for the Retezat Mountains (or Serbia), the meager visitor numbers here seem to be limited to wayward tour buses and exhausted guidebook authors. If you have the time and driving fortitude, it can be seen in one very long day-trip from Sibiu (perhaps working in a stop at Deva’s citadel, but only if you get a very early start), but you’d be better advised to work this sight in as a detour on the way to Timişoara or better yet during a proper visit of the area, including the aforementioned Retezat Mountains and the very worthwhile archeological site at Ulpia Traiana (Sarmizegetusa).

•    Best Drive(s): The drives from Gheorgheni to Târgu Mureş and from Sfântu Gheorghe to Miercurea Ciuc. This is an amendment to my favorite drives from last year, Gura Humorului to Vadu Izei and the Transfăgărăşan Road, which are equally amazing for different reasons. Again, this summer was my first chance to thoroughly cruise northeast Transylvania, it being a somewhat off-the-beaten-path tourism choice, and it was simply wonderful. Green, low hills, artfully scattered trees, and panoramic views right from the road. Unfortunately, I was A) driving, and B) pinched for time while zigzagging through the area, so I didn’t pull over every four minutes like I should have to take pictures.

moeciudesus•    Best Real Life Approximation of the Hobbits’ Shire: Moieciu de Sus (a.k.a ‘Moeciu de Sus’). An easy day-trip southwest of Braşov, Moieciu de Sus runs along a cinematically perfect valley surrounded by low hills with rocky peaks, specked with clumps of fir trees and shepherd shacks. The seemingly out-of-control development of guest houses in Moieciu de Sus doesn’t notably detract from the scenery (and there’s no fear of not finding a decent place to sleep!). My visit was one of those agonizing, travel writer moments where I drove away whimpering and cursing, wishing that I could spend a weekend hiking around the area with expensive camera equipment (and someone that knows how to use it), rather than a couple hours checking prices and being lost. Since I was once again too rushed to do the area justice with my own photos, I’ll direct you to the somewhat disappointing results available on Google images.

•    Most Improved City Vibe: Vatra Dornei. Way cheerier, scenic and friendly than when I visited in 2006, though the time of year probably played a large part (June rather than March). Also, the stretch from Vatra Dornei to Câmpulung Moldovanesc is one of the highlights of the aforementioned Gura Humorului to Vadu Izei scenic drive.

•    Most Heartening Infrastructure Development: wi-fi. It’s everywhere. Furthermore, it’s strong and free. It was a profound cross-culture mind-screw, being that I had been in Tuscany only two months earlier, where wi-fi is as rare as white truffles, almost as expensive and asking a hotel clerk about free wi-fi elicited a condescending head-shake and a chuckle, like I was asking for the keys to the family Lamborghini or a cappuccino after 10 o’clock in the morning. When asked the same question, Romanian hotel/hostel clerks looked at me like I just asked if they charged extra for oxygen. Unfortunately, Romania embracing wi-fi so heartily has led to the quick death of internet cafes everywhere. Only the biggest cities still seem to have them, but who knows for how long? I fear that soon people traveling without wi-fi equipped devices are going to be completely screwed.

•    Cheapest/Best Car Rental Companies: D&V Touring has the cheapest prices by a hair, but if you’re renting long term, it can make quite a difference. Sadly, they only have one location, Bucharest’s Otopeni Airport. The best nationwide car rental company is hands-down Autonom, who have offices in most major cities. I’ve rented from both companies repeatedly and have never had serious trouble. Better still, they’re staffed by some of the friendliest, most helpful people I’ve met in Romanian tourism.

•    Best New Night Club: Vinci, in Suceava. Next to Iulius Mall, Vinci hugs the base of an old factory chimney stack, which can be seen for miles. It’s a two-level, dark, music pumping bar, that turns into a club after 11pm. It’s all couches, little tables and red in-wall, in-floor lighting, evoking an atmosphere much like the inside of reactor going into meltdown. Best of all, no smoking! Don’t come here on a first date though, even during bar hours, the music is just a bit too loud for conversation.

•    Credit Where Credit is Due: Tarom Airlines. For years these guys were a one-word punch line for scary, over-priced Eastern European air travel. Well, my last few flights with them have been flawless and I’m hearing anecdotal reports from other travelers who have enjoyed similar experiences. Tarom’s prices have dropped to something approaching a good deal, they’ve been on time, the service has been great and even the food was pretty good. And they’ve pulled this off while most other airlines have been sliding in the same categories. How do you like them apples British Airlines?

And now for a few rants, because I won’t be able to sleep soundly if I don’t exercise the angst:

•    Worst Overall Development for Travelers: the sudden appearance of parking meters and enforcement of unannounced parking rules. One of the joys of traveling in Romania used to be the free-for-all parking situation. It was exhilaratingly lawless. Virtually any car-sized space on any street or sidewalk was fair game. Now meters are everywhere – even in certain unnamed, attraction-starved towns where they should damn well be paying tourists to park their cars – and they’re being zealously enforced. I heard one story of how someone parked their car, went looking for the slightly hidden ticket machine and in the five minutes it took to find it, buy a ticket and return to their car, some lurking swine had tiptoed up and left a fine on their windshield. Furthermore, as I painfully learned on two occasions, there are new, ambiguous parking regulations being enforced despite the fact that no one has gotten around to posting any signs. On one occasion, even locals couldn’t explain exactly what law I’d broken.

•    City Where the Vibe Actually Got Worse: It pains me to report that what charm there was of my former home, Iaşi, has all but disappeared under a sea of construction. Everything of interest or import is either closed or covered in scaffolding and years away from being completed. Honorable mention goes to Sighişoara, where they ripped up all the cobblestones in the citadel at once and are now slowing putting it all back together while tourists slide through mud puddles and dodge construction vehicles.

•    Most Disappointing Site & Most Hateful Staff: Bucharest’s Palace of Parliament. Yes, I know I didn’t actually have to visit them this year, but I’m still pissed off from last year. A few restaurants and train stations aside, I can’t think of anywhere else in Romania where the staff is so incompetent, while simultaneously being so rude.

•    Tourism Clusterf*ck Waiting to Happen: Pretty much all of the Black Sea Coast. Again, I didn’t have to personally visit this summer, but by all accounts, the trends I started noticing in 2006 (skyrocketing prices, static value and quality of service being an afterthought) have continued to worsen. One can only hope that this summer’s sudden drop in visitors will inspire the industry to rethink their outmoded and, quite frankly, imbecile business plans.

Agonizing over travel insurance? Maybe I can help…