My first road trip in Romania was stuffed with the most extraordinary adventures I could possibly imagine. Hunting for Dracula, falling into some pretty obvious tourist traps, being stuck on the Transylvanian highway for 6 hours, breaking into an abandoned bohemian palace, drinking the best white wine ever, experiencing bumpy roads in a white DACIA, and playing Harry Potter in a salt mine – to name just a few of the adventures.
The trip to Romania was special also because it was literally the first time I went somewhere with a group (altogether we were five people) and SURVIVED it. It was also the first time that I travelled with COLLEAGUES. YES. You can’t say it’s common for people who work in a team to also willingly spend extra five days in their own company.
Those five days were so intense that before I write about the things I did in Romania and places I visited there; let me first tell you stories about the best, worst, funniest moments from my first time in Romania.
Meet my travel buddies for the road trip in Romania
The last thing I want to tell you about before I share the best, worst and funniest moments from this trip, is introducing my travel companions.
Aga – one of the MOST warm-hearted and caring people I know. In her job (or shall I say vocation?), she saves lives of new-borns. Also, a very graceful model. You will see quite a number of snapshots of Aga posing casually in front of colourful Romanian gates and windows.
Michał – Aga’s husband, avid driver (going from Poznan do Berlin with his care gave me a heart attack at least once, but later on I noticed he actually is a very good driver), the other person in this group who kept me company while taking photographs. From Monday to Friday he sits literally 3 meters from me and pulls the best faces ever.
Kasia – (scary as fuck) makeup artist, avid sleeper (adventures of me trying to wake Kasia up in the mornings in Romania will yet appear on this blog, this was hilarious); and my absolute meme-companion. Initiator of this whole trip, agenda maker, the logistics planner.
Kamil – beginnings were hard, but now we make a good team at work. Kamil is famous for his unusually lame jokes (:D), some of which are actually sharp as a knife and very funny. Kamil is also that type of person who believed me when I said that “enter somewhere else” in Spanish is “entero somewhere elso”. Now you got the whole picture. 😀
A bitter welcome in Romania – paying through the nose for car insurance
The way a new country welcomes you can put either a positive or negative film on how you perceive it later on. Romania welcomed us in a bitter-sweet way. Shortly after landing, Michał and Aga went to a nearby car park to collect the car we had booked a few weeks before our trip. It seemed to be a pretty good deal, the car was really cheap and had insurance included. Kasia, Kamil, and I decided to wait for Aga and Michał at the airport. This was supposed to take a maximum of 15 minutes.
In the end, we waited close to 90 minutes while Michal and Aga were trying to find out why we suddenly had to pay extra for the car insurance that was already included in the booking price. Arguing, reasoning, negotiating proved unsuccessful – the folks from the car hire company said that either we pay or look for another car. While Aga and Michal were trying to make the best decision, we quickly checked the prices of cars at the airport and they were between 300-500 Euros for five days – totally beyond our budget. In the end we paid the extra insurance and got the car after some 90 minutes of arguing and waiting. Not a cool start of the trip, was it?
My strong negotiation skills at a hostel in Cluj-Napoka
Once we finally arrived in our hostel in Cluj-Napoka, I quickly noticed we were the ONLY guests there. It was the middle of the week, off-season and clearly the hostel was empty. I suddenly got an idea to use this fact to our advantage. After providing our passports and before paying for our stay, I decided to try my luck.
- Do you have any discounts for groups? – I asked the receptionist.
- Yes, we have, for large groups. Larger than yours. – He replied looking at me in a funny way. And I felt this case was lost.
- OK. – I replied and my “negotiations” were over.
My awesome travel companions kept laughing at this situation for a few days afterwards and when they occasionally remember it now, I still have to experience this again.
The first and last night out in Cluj-Napoka
Undeniably, the best place to eat and drink in Cluj-Napoka is Roata, a local restaurant run by warm-hearted and hospitable people who know how to cook perfect Romanian cuisine and have a good selection of the best Romanian wines. We spent there our first and last nights in Romania and I can’t imagine a better place to spend time at.
On the first visit, we were greeted with a welcome drink, shots of delicious flavoured vodka for the ladies and Rakia for the gents. We ate delicious meals and drank tasty wine while socialising and relaxing after weeks of hard work. What surprised me a lot, was that we didn’t discuss work even for a minute. There were moments when we were all literally crying with laughter. One of many reasons for that was that Aga made a funny tongue twister and instead of saying “party hard” she said “harty pard”, a phrase we kept using throughout the whole stay in Romania.
Harty Pard with bouncers in a swimming dancing club in Cluj Napoka
You know what happens once you’ve drunk a bottle of wine per person, right? At least in my case, I start feeling an irresistible urge to go on some party. It turned out that it wasn’t only me feeling that need, so after spending some nice time in Roata, we went to Janis, a very peculiar club in the centre of Cluj-Napoka.
Janis is a combination of a pub, dance floor, and …. a swimming pool. It was middle of the week and still there were a few people having fun there. We found a free standing table near the main entrance and were drinking some cocktails and dancing nearby.
At one point, a group of young folks approached Michal and started offering him money. They basically took out a bunch of notes and were trying to cram the money into his hands. They mistook him for the bouncer and I actually wasn’t surprised about that. Michał was wearing a hoodie and standing with his arms crossed which could make an impression of being the pub’s bouncer. The same situation repeated a few times with other people entering the pub. Shortly before we were leaving the pub, another group approached us and was trying to pay Kamil for letting them into the pub. This was a really funny course of events.
Breaking into an abandoned Bohemian palace
The thing with me is that I hardly ever let adventures pass unnoticed. It was the first full day in Romania and we were just leaving Cluj-Napoka behind. We still didn’t know that we would be stuck in traffic on the highway for 6 hours and were enjoying the ride in very good moods.
On one small road, we noticed a large Bohemian palace which looked abandoned. I can’t remember who suggested slowing down so that I could take a photo. The result of this “slowing down” was that I got out of the car with my camera and felt an urge to ENTER this palace.
I also can’t remember if anyone joked that we should break into it, but I quickly found myself tampering with the gate. To my utter surprise, the tall, rusty, heavy gate opened with a loud creak and I entered the front yard of the palace.
Surely I wouldn’t stop then! I just remember that Michał was following my footsteps while the rest of the team was hesitating in the distance. Not thinking much, I climbed the stairs of the palace and pushed the door handle. It opened.
In the next minutes, all of us enthusiastically but also trying to stay silent, entered the palace. It looked magnificent! Huge hall at the entrance leading to multiple rooms leading to other rooms. Richly ornamented kitchen, sleeping room with a huge canopy, golden mirrors, marble stairs, brightly coloured tiles. This was like a journey back in time. I wanted to explore every nook and cranny of this magical place and decided to climb the stairs and see the first floor.
Now that I think of it, I can’t remember where my courage (or carelessness???) came from. There could have been some people unwilling to have visitors and yet, I was so excited to see that palace, that I didn’t care.
Luckily there was no one on the first floor and we saw yet other brightly coloured rooms and terrace-like passages between them. I must say that even though there were some kitschy parts in this building, it actually looked pretty good. Not like a place I would normally like to live in, but for holidays? Why not!
We decided to leave the palace once we heard a dog barking nearby. We closed the doors behind, locked the gate and drove away taking only photographs.
The longest day in Transylvania – stuck in a highway for 6 hours without water and food supplies
Our first full day in Romania started pretty well. Yesterday’s wine proved to be of really good quality – I didn’t have a touch of hangover. The weather was absolutely brilliant. The sun was shining and it was pleasantly warm. We went to eat breakfast in the hostel, which turned out to be extra small, but still, it was the only meal that helped us survive later on.
We set off shortly before 10 am. The plan was well-developed. This was the day of the hunt for Dracula. We wanted to first visit Sibiu and see its old cobbled streets and medieval atmosphere, then go to Bran and visit Dracula’s castle, and finally reach Brasov, where we wanted to spend the night and half of the next day. The thing with plans is that they can get ruined and knowing that, when I travel solo, I simply don’t make plans.
When travelling with a group of people who need a bit more security to stay comfortable, I had to compromise. So we set off around 10 am and initially everything was going well. Once we reached the main Transylvanian highway, we saw a huge traffic jam. This was not an ordinary traffic jam, though. At a gas station, Kamil and I approached two policemen to ask what was happening and the news wasn’t too optimistic. Truck drivers were on strike against the increase of insurance prices and they simply blocked the complete highway and were intending to block all nearby roads. Transylvania was paralysed and no one knew when the strike would be over.
We changed the route only to omit the traffic jam and added a lot of extra kilometres to our trip. The good thing about that was that we saw a lot of cute little Romanian villages that we would normally miss if we had used the highway only. Once we were close to Sibiu, we had to use the highway once again. The beginning of the highway was nearly completely empty and everything looked fine – up to a point.
When we noticed cars driving backwards on the highway, it dawned on us that the blockade is complete and there might be no way out. Therefore, we also tried going backward to reach the entrance to the highway, but we had to stop once we noticed police on our backs. Paying a fine for driving backwards on a highway would ruin our budget.
So what happened then? We got stuck on the Transylvanian highway for over six hours. Since we were planning to cover the distance of only 160km, we didn’t have many supplies. One pack of cookies, two half-drunk bottles of water for five people, a pack of raisins was all we had.
The advantages of this situation? When you get stuck in traffic for so many hours, communities begin to emerge. Michał, Kamil, and I went on a walk between the cars to chat and get some reliable information on what was going on. When the strike was finally over after 5pm, it took over an hour for the congestion to loose. Before we actually started to move again, we nearly took part in deconstructing the highway with some locals and also showed magnificent middle fingers to the strikers who were passing by. By accident, we also showed “fuck offs” to the police… ;P
This experience was both the best, the worst, and the funniest. I was actually proud of us. None of us was in a really bad mood; there was no blaming and not much complaining. I was actually having time throughout the day because I don’t stress over things I can’t control anyway.
Asthma and an urge to get some solitude
Before I made the decision to go to Romania with my friends I had some serious thinking moments. I know myself very well and am aware that every now and then I need absolute solitude to recharge myself. I was actually worried that I might spend this trip feeling uncomfortable, wanting to break free and travel solo.
There was only one moment throughout the whole trip when staying in company proved to be too difficult. I am allergic to some foods but the problem is that my allergy activates when some conditions combine. That time, eating pizza, drinking beer, and being tired after a whole day proved to be too much for me and shortly after late night dinner, I felt my bronchi getting way too tight. When I realised I left my medicine in the hostel, I knew troubles were coming. Within minutes, my breath became wheezy; I got a runny nose and felt exhausted. Luckily, there was a big event taking place that night in Sibiu and there were emergency services near the city centre. We went there and I got my medication pretty quickly. Nevertheless, always when I get an asthma attack, I feel extremely exhausted afterwards.
Even though I appreciated the help I got from my travel companions, the only thing I was dreaming of was taking a bath in the hostel and going to sleep. And that no one says anything to me. I needed solitude. And so I decided to disconnect from my friends and went to the hostel. This was not the most sociable behaviour ever, but if I had stayed longer that night, I would either collapse or kill everyone in my vicinity.
At the same time, when I was walking back to the hostel, I realised I didn’t have its address! It was Aga and Kasia who booked it. I literally had no idea what street the hostel is located on so I couldn’t even put any data into GPS. I also accidentally used all money from my phone and couldn’t either call anyone or receive any incoming calls. I walked back to the hostel remembering the way we covered the other direction a few hours earlier. This experience made me feel quite proud – I proved to myself that my memory of the new place and orientation skills are actually pretty good. 20 minutes after I bid farewell to my friends, I was entering the hostel.
Falling for tourist traps in Sighisoara
Who hasn’t done it at least once? I thought I would be clever after that time in Turkey when I got tricked into riding a camel, but apparently I had forgot the lesson. When we were exploring the old town of beautiful Sighisoara, I noticed a board inviting to see the Torture Museum. Kamil and I got interested in the idea of experiencing some gloomy history of this town and decided to give it ago. Michał and the girls weren’t convinced.
We entered the museum and paid for the tickets. The entrance was in a small white room where you could buy some souvenirs as well. Actually, you can buy souvenirs everywhere in Sighishoara. It’s a beautiful town but very touristy. I entered the proper museum room expecting to see many objects used for torturing poor people in the medieval times. At least that’s what the advertisement said.
And what did I see? A small, dark chamber with THREE objects. A hangman’s line, a few black and white printouts hanging on the walls and one wooden machine used for stretching people. And this was when I got into a fighting mood.
I poked my nose out of the museum chamber and asked the guy who sold us the tickets:
- Excuse me, where is the torture museum?
- This is the torture museum! You are in torture museum! – He replied in a louder voice than necessary, making a wide movement with his hand to show the space of the museum.
- Aha, OK. So where is the REST of the torture museum? – I asked in the most innocent voice I could make.
- There is no rest of the museum. This is the complete museum. – The guy responded getting visibly angry.
- But there are only three things in the museum. Is this supposed to be like that? – I asked again. I thought that paying for the ticket to see almost nothing is not really fair especially when you advertise yourself as something very scary, very big and impressive. It was not impressive at all.
Lesson? When you visit Sighisoara, don’t feel tempted to visit the Torture Museum. It’s really not worth the money and time.
The worst dinner you can imagine – yet another tourist trap in Sighisoara
Sighisoara as such is a beautiful town and I would recommend visiting it to everyone. However, since it’s very popular among tourists, there are plenty of traps that you should be aware of. Apart from the Torture Museum, there’s also a restaurant called San Gennaro and it has two entrances from two parallel streets.
When we were looking for a nice place to have dinner, we saw a completely empty restaurant with two waiters lingering at the entrance. The waiters’ looks were totally uninviting, despite a large number of visitors to the city, the restaurant was completely empty so we decided to look for another spot.
We entered another street, parallel to Piata Cetatii where the uninviting restaurant was located. And we saw a nice place, all covered in green plants. It wasn’t crowded, but there were a few people inside. We decided to give it a go especially that we were all starting to become hungry and Kasia was rebelling against walking even more – she went for the looks more than for comfort and was wearing pretty shoes on thin sole and walking on cobbled streets wasn’t the most comfortable for her.
Once we sat down, a waiter approached us. He seemed to be extremely tired. Or high – I still can’t tell. I went for something traditional – some meat dish that was supposed to come with a salad. The guys decided to go for a Romanian dish called polenta. At least judging by the description, the food was supposed to be good.
When we finally got our plates after long time of waiting, it was hard not to be disappointed. My dish turned out to be a small piece of dry meat laid down on a not-so-fresh leaf of salad. Given that the plate was large and the piece of meat small, this looked quite depressing.
However, what Michał and Kamil had to eat was simply disgusting. It’s difficult to describe the taste of that polenta, but according to Kamil it was similar to the cow’s udders. Lukewarm, smelly, sticky, resembling cream of wheat more than anything else. I ate my piece of meat and ordered French fries (which were so soaked in fat it was also not pleasant to eat) and the guys left the restaurant completely unhappy.
The advantage of this situation was that we kept laughing about that for the next hour or so. Can you imagine? Doing everything to avoid a certain place and enter it from the back door? 😉
Off-path trekking near Tarnita Lake – in the land of shepherds
It’s no secret that I love all sorts of trekking. Hiking in Romania was my main reason and motivation to visit this country. The fact that we spend one whole day just stuck in a highway made it impossible to do a long, whole-day hiking trail, but Michal found some really good alternative.
Near Cluj-Napoka, there’s the Tarnita Lake and a dame. There are plenty of hiking possibilities around this area and we chose one which was most off-path.
The beginning of the trail was really difficult. We actually had to walk uphill in a semi-empty river bed until we reached a small meadow overgrown with high grass. Covering this initial part took us quite a lot of time and we got a bit stressed that we won’t be able to finish the 12-km hike before it got dark.
Therefore, we kept a pretty brisk pace (which I like) but we also took time to take photographs. Michal and I were basically the only people in the group taking care of documenting the trip. Michal – to have memories, me – to have memories and show them to you on this blog.
Once we climbed the tough part, the more pleasant part of the hike started. Vast spaces, green meadows, forests, mountains were just the beginning to what came next. The best and most scenic part of the hike was once we reached the elevation of over 1200 meters above the sea level and we found pastures with sheep and cows. There were also a few shepherds taking care of the animals, but apart from that, no one else. We were literally the only tourists there. Once we were on top, the sun was slowly starting to set and the light was just perfect. I still have that image very vividly in front of my eyes.
The descent was quite pleasant as well. We were trekking mostly through the forest, but there were also parts where we literally had to fight with nettles and all sorts of little insets and spiders. I am used to that, but it was a real challenge for Aga who is scared of such things and I still feel proud of her facing her fears and completing this challenge.
Once we were back after some 4 hours of trekking, we stopped by the Tarnita Lake on the dame, to catch the last rays of sunshine. It was simply perfect. This is the Romania I was longing to see.
Strong negotiation skills – episode two in Salina Turda salt mine
It was last our penultimate day in Romania and we had lots of interesting things to do. The first one was visiting a salt mine – Salina Turda. Once we’ve arrived on site, I approached the ticket office and felt an urge to bargain yet again. Maybe this time it will go better than in the hostel?
After I approached the desk, I politely asked the lady:
- Do you have any discounts for students? – Not sure why I asked about that, given that I am no longer a student. I had this wild idea that maybe my outdated ID will be enough to get a discount.
- Sure we do. Are you a student? – Lady asked smiling. And yet again, I felt this case was lost. I am unable to lie to anyone especially in cases like that one. So even though I felt like I wanted to chat a bit more and play the bargaining game, I replied after a few seconds of silence:
- Ekhm, I was a student. Some time ago. – And smiled brightly at the lady. I didn’t care about the discount; I cared more about some interaction with Romanians and was seeking contact in all strangest ways. Asking for discounts not being a student including.
AUS! – How old German tourists treated a young Polish tourist
I must admit I don’t feel comfortable writing about this; such a situation happened to me literally for the first time EVER in my life and I am still amazed at it. Once we were finishing our visit to Salina Turda, we stood in a queue to the lift. We took the stairs the other way and now wanted to take a lift and see the views from the other side of the mine.
The lift could accommodate only 7 people or a certain amount of kilograms. Aga, Michał and Kamil managed to get to the first “batch” and Kasia and me had to wait for another round. Once we got to the lift, there was still a lot of free space left – we were not heavy. And then three elderly, fat German tourists entered the lift. We were now altogether five people, so still below the limit. However, they were actually so overweight that the kilograms exceeded the acceptable limit.
Do you know what happened next?
One of the Germans pointed a finger at me and said “AUS”. Initially, I thought he was saying something else, because my brain refused to accept the fact that someone can be so rude. Well, I realised this was actually happening when he started barking at me in German, repeating “aus, aus” showing me the way from the lift to the waiting queue.
I was so shocked that not thinking much, I simply LEFT the lift. Now that I recall that situation, I wish I had “barked back” at this rude man, but some good ideas usually come to you once the stressful or unusual situation is over. So I left the lift and it went back to the acceptable limit by a mere few kilograms. The lift went up with only four people in it and I was waiting for the next round feeling awkward and shocked.
Have you experienced any other situation like that?
Summing up, this Romanian road trip was a really cool experience. For most people, travelling somewhere with a group of friends would be the standard way, for me it meant leaving my comfort zone to some extent. I had to negotiate with myself a few things, such as being more patient, changing my way of experiencing a new place, decreasing the time I usually spend just lingering in the streets taking photographs or chatting with the locals, but what I got instead was lots of laughter, funny adventures, and long talks with people I really like and feel good with. What is more, after we came back from Romania, our relations remained good, if not even better. Travelling with someone makes people show their true colours and in this case, those colours were inviting.