Trying to compete with the west when it comes to tourism cannot succeed if the locations and infrastructure are as poor as they are in Romania. Romania’s beaches and ski resorts are promoted abroad even though they cannot possibly compete with what Turkey, Bulgaria, Croatia and Hungary have to offer – not to mention France, Spain and Italy.
This tendency to compete against impossible odds can also be seen in cultural tourism. Ask an educated Romanian what is worth seeing in their country and they will invariably mention the galleries in Bucharest, Bran castle and the monasteries. But ask a foreigner who has visited these places and they will express disappointment: the galleries are a pale shadow of what can be seen in Paris, Rome, St Petersburg or even Budapest; Bran is a fake (it was never “Dracula’s Castle”) and the monasteries are being overtaken by kitsch.
It seems that Romanians still cling to this nineteenth century ideal of imitating French culture – the grand galleries and palaces, the opera and symphony orchestras, a museum and cultural centre in each town. Most Romanians think these buildings represent their “culture” even though it places them in a perpetual position of inferiority: nobody will ever be able to beat the French and Italians when it comes to this renaissance type culture.
I can understand why Romanians get defensive if one is critical of their culture. If their galleries, castles, monasteries and museums are not impressive then what’s left? What is there to be proud of? What is there to show foreign visitors? The answer to this can be found by simply listening to foreigners who have visited your country, by asking them what they did and didn’t like, and why.
Whenever I meet a foreign traveler in Romania I ask these questions. Their replies are usually the same. Most complain about blocked roads, filthy train stations, a chaotic capital city, but Transylvania is rather popular. Any foreigner who has visited a traditional village in Romania will invariably say that it was there they had the best time.
My view is that Romania’s original culture is in its villages, forests and mountains. In the villages you can see original architecture, buildings which have been made from local materials, by local people, often painted in home made colours. Here you can see people working the land as they have done for centuries; and techniques of cultivating, storing, transporting and selling food that has been forgotten in the west centuries ago. You can also meet people who are friendly, open, curious and funny.
For a typical Romanian their rural heritage is a thing of shame, a symbol of their poverty, backwardness and ignorance; something to be ignored, forgotten or disguised with modern building materials. Most educated Romanians are ashamed of the fact that almost half the population live in the countryside, and many are probably glad that most are elderly and millions have left to work abroad. Soon, demographics will resolve Romania’s “rural problem” and the big agricultural investors will take over.
My first experience of a Romanian village was in 1990 and I was stunned by the sustainable way of life that I found. I lived in the village of Virfu Cimpului in Botosani and was deeply impressed how my hosts recycled all our waste, grew their own food and how the courtyard was alive with the sounds of pigs, cows, turkeys and dogs. We had scores of foreign visitors, all of whom shared my fascination with a way of life that vanished in our society many centuries ago. And the more remote and poor the village is the more interesting and hospitable it tends to be.
For the last 17 years I have been slowly exploring the rural areas of this vast and fascinating country. I have learned that the best way to get around is to take my bike and get the sleeper train. I have done cycle tours around Botosani, Neamt and Caras Severin counties. I am planning to discover the remote parts of Dobrogea, the Delta and would love to cycle along the Danube – location of countless forgotten villages.
The other great asset Romania has are its mountains. While the Fagaras and Bucegi ranges are well known to Romanians, they are virtually unknown to foreigners. The Romanian government seems unaware that there are billions to be made from promoting walking routes in the mountains and that there is more to tourism than beach and ski resorts. It is fascinating for us to discover whole communities who live from the forest in a way that is both modern, as in ecological, and also traditional.
Recently I discovered what I am sure is the most interesting mountain in Romania: the Ceahlau Massiv. The geography of this mountain is as mysterious as the Dacian legends that surround it. The mountain is not one triangular peak, like most mountains, but a high plateau with 12 rocky peaks scattered around. It will take a lifetime to explore it properly.
As with all the most interesting places in Romania it is very difficult to find any information, or even a map. Travelling in Romania is an adventure, a series of surprises, a magical mystery tour. The only thing you can know is that you don’t know what will happen next. But this makes for the most interesting type of journey: traveling into the unknown.
A Romanian version of this article was published in Dilemma Veche and it can be seen here.