This summer, my curiosity took me to Romania, a former communist Balkan country with a notoriously bad rep as a backwards land of gypsies with zero infrastructure for any semblance of tourism. Why do you want to go to Romania?! I was consistently asked in the run-up to our trip. My unspoken answer: to prove you wrong.
So did I succeed in my mission? Did Romania live up to my high hopes?
Village Hopping with Prince Charles
One of the most surprising things in my research, was the discovery of the future King of England’s passion for the Romanian countryside, “the last wild corner of Europe”. He visits Transylvania every year, has his own private retreat in a remote village, and recently opened it up to guests to help promote sustainable tourism in Romania. It is truly a magical place.
He’s often quoted saying the rolling hills of Romania remind him of what Scotland would have been like before it was deforested, or the Cotswolds if time had stopped. He’s not wrong, and I’d add that the untouched landscapes and verdant summer pastures could also rival the scenery in Tuscany or Provence.
Of course, a holiday in Romania is far cheaper– we’re talking both flights and accommodation. It makes the perfect weekend or week-long break, with the luxury of simplicity attainable to all, from micro-budgets of 25 euros a night to maxing out at 120 euros a night.
Far from the tiresome stereotype as the home of “Dracula”, Transylvania is a fairytale escape from city life and truly succeeds in disconnecting you from the stresses of home. Hopping from historic guesthouses to elegant hillside manors, amidst the remote beauty of the Carpathian foothills, this is without doubt, the best-kept secret of Romania. And if it’s good enough for Prince Charles…
Where to Stay
Zalanpatak: Prince of Wales’ Private Retreat
For €128, you can sleep in the Prince’s own historic cottage, sit at his writing desk and borrow his books and straw hats– generally playing Goldilocks at his royal retreat. The hamlet has several guesthouses and cottages, and the price includes breakfast, lunch and dinner (and wine), prepared by the local staff’s cooking reflecting the different Transylvanian ethnicities; Romanian, Hungarian, Saxon (more about the food in Romania later).
You’ll dine with fellow guests at a ‘table d’hôte’ in a converted al fresco barn with a fireplace. We made friends with two Italian couples from Rome and a pair of German students hitchhiking across country who decided to spoil themselves with a night of luxury. On each morning of the week, a different activity is organised for guests; nature walks, horse & cart rides, visits to local craftsmen. The afternoons are for reading, sleeping under the cool breeze, riding a bicycles through nearby villages, or tiptoeing down the river with your feet dipped in the crystal clear waters. Immerse yourself in a forgotten world that most believe has ceased to exist in today’s Europe. My only regret? That I didn’t spend more than one night here.
Rooms start from €128. Transfers from all airports and train stations in the region included in the price. There are daily flights from most major cities to Brasov, which is under two hours from the retreat. Find the website here.
Count Kálnoky’s Transylvanian Guesthouses
A 40 minute drive west, in another historic Saxon village of Miclosoara, you’ll find the guesthouses of Count Kalnoky, a distant cousin and friend of Prince Charles, who is in fact responsible for first introducing his royal highness to the simple pleasures of Romania. It is here that Charles first stayed in Romania, and took long walks with the Count, discovering the region and eventually finding the village that would become his own Transylvanian retreat. Here, you are assigned your own village home, a restored 17th century Saxon house in the heart of the village, furnished with beautiful antiques in Transylvanian style. There is no television or Wifi– the idea is to step back in time, as if you were in a 19th century novel and had come to visit friends in Transylvania’s countryside. (For emergencies, the 4G connection works fine, and there is Wifi up at the main house). Count Kalnoky has a fabulous wine cave, which is the setting for nightly candlelit dinners with fellow guests. The village also has its own pub thanks to the Count. It doubles as a small museum and crafts centre and the Kalnoky Manor, a XVIIth century hunting lodge, is open for a snoop around.
But perhaps the most surprising feature of my visit was meeting the village’s travelling cows in the glow of the evening light, as they returned home, strolling slowly through the village on their own after a day out wandering the pastures. They know exactly which house they belong to, and repeat the routine every day, travelling independently, their cow bells ringing in the distance as they wander home. It’s little things like this in Romania that stay with you.
Rooms from €118 . Transfers from all airports and train stations in the region included in the price. There are daily flights from most major cities to Brasov, which is under two hours from the retreat. Find the website here.
The village of Viscri is another stop on Prince Charles’ Romanian trail and has the highest number of restored Medieval Saxon homes, thanks to the efforts of his foundation, the Mihai Eminescu Trust. You could say Viscri is the hub of this foundation– it’s one of the most beautiful Saxon villages in Transylvania, now designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
It has a wonderful restaurant at the centre, a local café, museum and several crafts shops set up in the farm yards of local homes. You walk around wondering what this place could one day become– or if should it stand still in time like this forever? The shades of blue that you can find on the walls of the medieval cottages here will delight and inspire any creative eye.
I was curious to try out one of the traditional Saxon beds with drawers, so I booked village house number 63, a beautiful blue cottage that historically belonged to the wealthiest family in the village.
Experience Transylvania works with several other villages in the region, and one of my favourite properties of theirs is the 17th century Apafi manor in nearby Malancrav, which was recently restored after it fell into decay following its seizure during communist rule.
Many of the furnishings were crafted by local artisans using traditional methods, and antique pieces were acquired by trust founder Jessica Douglas-Home, who “went door to door,” in search of them.
Apafi looks like a dream villa in Tuscany– except this will only set you back 65 euros per head– breakfast and dinner included. The manor has 5 bedrooms and accommodates 9. You could rent out the entire villa with friends– still at 65 euros per head per night.
Find more information here.
Living up to its name, “Green Valley”, Valea Verde is the country’s most gourmet retreat. Located in an exceptionally beautiful valley, where horses roam the resort, roosters are crowing and hammocks are waiting for you, it’s another place I regret booking only one night. The chef and owner, is likely the country’s most talented and he has a fabulous wine collection– and this is truffle country! So there are truffles on everything, hunted from the nearby forests.
Guests can join on the truffle hunts if booked in advance. The accommodation is more modern than the traditional Transylvania guesthouses, but has a rustic cabin charm. They’ve built a picturesque natural swimming pond, which is a perfect temperature and a little more exciting than diving into another turquoise swimming pool. The staff here are more hands-on that local guesthouse hosts, and will bring you drinks at the pool and whip you up a snack at any time of day. Make sure to ask for a bottle of wine at sunset and take it up to the top of the hill behind the swimming pond for a memorable evening apéro.
Rooms are typically 80 euros a night. Two hours from Cluj airport. Website here.
Where to Eat
Okay, we need to talk about eating in Romania. I won’t sugar coat it. This is where Romania still has a long way to go. Outside of the major cities, finding an above average meal is a challenge, so you have to be prepared. All the historic guesthouses I have recommended in this guide provided nice traditional home-cooked meals, but it’s all about simplicity, local ingredients and basic meat, rice or vegetable recipes with a homemade soup to start and cheese somewhere in the middle. If you’re into exotic cuisine and huge variety, you won’t find it in Romania. Very few villages will have a restaurant, and the open countryside offers none either. Romania doesn’t do roadside restaurants either– at least none you should waste your time trying. But with all that beautiful scenery, I hope it occurs to you that there’s an alternative…
Picnic your way through Romania
Romania is picnic heaven. Rolling hills and sprawling green fields lined with wild flowers– all open and easily accessible– waiting for you to lay down your picnic blanket and tuck into your lunch humming “the hills are alive“. The only thing you need to do is be prepared. Bring a blanket, some tupperware and basic utensils. You can buy foods that will keep at the beginning, but most villages in Romania will have a food shop, where you can stock up on fresh cheese, vegetables, cured meats, bread and condiments for sandwiches, and drinks of course.
Tansylvanian Culinary Gems
Viscri 32 Barn Restaurant
At the heart of ancient Viscri, is an unexpected injection of hip millennial taste. Two lawyers from Bucharest left their city lives to set up their restaurant here in an old family farm house.
A place worthy of travelling to Viscri alone, The Barn restaurant has a charming courtyard with string lights and rustic furniture for pre-dinner drinks and a cozy but spacious and airy dining room, with plenty to look at (or instagram) while waiting for an authentic and organic farm to table meal. It’s open for lunch and dinner, but worth calling ahead to reserve/ check it’s open. They also offer cottage rooms for overnight stays.
Their website is here.
Valea Verde Restaurant
Even if you aren’t an overnight guest here, it’s well worth stopping by for the truffle menu. A wine pairing for three course lunch or dinner will set you back just 20 euros (five course meal is 25 and seven course dinner is 30).
What to See
When you’re not completely disconnecting from the world and immersing yourself in the rustic simplicities of Transylvanian life, there are plenty of day trips within 1-2 hours of all the recommended stays I’ve shared so far. Here’s a few ideas…
A Dictator’s Folly: “The best road in the world”
One for the boys, Ceausescu’s folly was constructed at the Romanian communist dictator’s orders in the early 1970s, some say, as a monument to himself. Jeremy Clarkson called it the “best road in the world” on an episode of Top Gear, but I think I need to make a modification to that. Perhaps the “best road in the world”– except in the summer season. Because if you don’t have Top Gear budget to clear the road, you’re going to be met with crowds and traffic jams to spoil the view– and the ride. But still worth the look, even in peak season.
Romania is home to 60% of Europe’s brown bears. At Prince Charles’ guesthouse in Zalanpatak (recommended earlier), they have a nature hide, where you can spend an afternoon bear-watching. Sightings are a daily occurrence. Most villages and towns near Brasov, also offer bear sighting excursions.
It’s believed that Vlad the Impaler, the inspiration for Dracula, was briefly imprisoned at this medieval Bran castle– although they’re not quite sure– so all the more reason to skip this tourist trap and choose some of the lesser known castles. Teleki castle is my top choice, with a much more “accidentally Wes Anderson” vibe, and Peles Castle is worth a visit for a shot of that mind-blowing staircase alone (just opt out of the guided tour).
Medieval Time Warp Towns
Sibiu, the medieval city that watches over you from the rooftops with its suspicious eyes. Stroll through its colourful narrow streets, stop for a drink at the Bridge of Lies, pay a visit to the old Pharmacy museum and stop for a bite at Syndicat Sibiu, a hidden restaurant in the old town that’s far from the tourist cafés lacking local authenticity. Alternatively, try Jules Bistrot, situated in a pretty courtyard, serving salad, quiche, pasta and tartines.
Sighisoara is smaller medieval town, truly stuck in medieval times– it would make a perfect historical film set.
In my next post, I’ll take you to the ghost town of Baile Herculane, a 19th century Romanian spa town, lost in time. (Stay tuned).
Is Romania worth the visit? Definitely. But you’ll need to be somewhat forgiving with its imperfections. It would be useful to learn a few basic phrases before going and get an understanding of who the people are– hint: this is not a nation of gypsies. Learn up about the history and the hardship its people have faced in the last century and particularly in the last few decades. While Romania still has things to learn, particularly with its food and hospitality services, there are some exciting things happening and some talented people leading the way. It’s a place to time travel and to reconnect with yourself and indulge in the luxury of simplicity– without breaking the bank.
Getting there & around
We flew into Bucharest (which I chose not to include in this guide, as I did not spend enough time there– I have plans to return). I can however, recommend the Grand Boutique Hotel. We rented a car from Klasswagen, a reliable and efficient rental company with shuttles to and from Bucharest airport. We were able to return the car in a different city, Cluj (the other side of Transylvania), where we flew out of. There are also daily flights in and out of Brasov, less than two hours from the Prince Charles Retreat. If you’re curious to see my full itinerary to know what else was on my radar, you can find my map here.