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Romania, You Can Fool The World With Your Smiles, But Not With Your Heart.

Romania had one hell of a way to welcome us. We had dragged ourselves out of the flight after 20 hours in transit, when 3 burly ashen-faced men stopped us the moment we stepped into the airport. Passport, they demanded. Confused and intimidated by these casually-dressed men, we dug around in our bags. A little police badge on their belt was our only solace. They examined us well, comparing our passport photos with our faces for what felt like an eternity, and finally let us enter a country that would stop us from judging people by their stern expressions and lack of smiles.

Fifteen minutes later, while figuring out how to get into Bucharest city, we saw the same men again. They were off work for the day, drinking beer, chilling. Want a ride? one of them asked!  Still a bit shaken, we nodded no and headed towards the tourism information desk, where we found ourselves face to face with two people sitting in a completely dark cubicle. I mumbled a question, and was almost surprised to get an enthusiastic response.

When the bus finally dropped us in the city, we got into a cab to find the neighborhood we had booked ourselves into, but the dilapidated house at which the driver stopped looked nothing like our BnB. He quickly took our backpacks out of the boot and got back into the car, leaving us on a dark isolated street. A glance at us in his rearview mirror must have changed his mind. He returned and called the accommodation, sorted the directions, gave us a ride and charged nothing extra.

Romania photos, Sibiu photos

A flavor of life in Romania.

We gradually got used to people not smiling back at us. One of our Romanian hosts recalled that things had been different before the country fell prey to communism, because you were looked upon with suspicion if you were outwardly happy in those days. In fact, I distinctly remember one of my first conversations with Elena, who ran our BnB in Bucharest. When I told her that we had transited through Turkey, she sighed. Turkey is amazing, she told me. Romania was too, but then communism happened. People are different now. I smiled at her honesty then, but 20 days in Romania later, I want to write to her and tell her that she’s wrong. People in Romania are pretty darn amazing too.

We were rather unprepared for our first tryst with the Romanian countryside in Magura (Also See: Snapshots from Romania); we didn’t expect to see people work so hard on their farms, using scythe and pitchforks to gather hay, rearing sheep and chicken, living in a village with unpaved roads within a national park. We didn’t expect there to be no ATMs in the vicinity either. When time to came to pay at our homestay with a village family, we were short of lei (the Romanian currency) and asked if we could pay the balance in USD, of which we had enough. Some of our explanation got lost in translation, and our hosts, assuming we didn’t have enough money for the taxi ride and the rescued bears sanctuary we planned to visit enroute, stuffed my pocket with fifty lei. Just like that!

Romanian people, Romanian culture

With Lucia and Bebe, our hosts in Magura.

But it was the northern region of Maramures that absolutely blew us away.

In Sighet, the gateway into Maramures, we alighted from the bus on a rainy evening. There were no cabs in sight (cabs in Romania are really cheap, so we took them everywhere), so we asked the first local we saw on the sidewalk where to get one. He told us in broken French to follow him, and pulled out his own vintage car to ferry us and our backpacks to our hotel for the night.

In the traditional wooden home of a little village on the outskirts of Sighet, we were the first guests of our Romanian hosts to not have a car (thanks to a crazy rule for Indians driving in Romania). Adela and Teo went far out of their way to ferry us to bus stops and intersections we could hitch rides from, but more touchingly, they welcomed us into their lives with a love and honesty that we hadn’t yet experienced in the country. If it wasn’t for Teo’s passion for Maramures, a region that little has been written about, we would never have ditched the touristy steam train in Viseus de Sus and instead, journeyed on a rickety logging train with loggers, shepherds, sheep, axes and a lot of palinka, into remote settlements high up in the Carpathian mountains.

Amazadil house Maramures, Maramures homestays

Our traditional home with Adela and Teo in Maramures.

On the countryside of Maramures, we spent our days hitchhiking across villages with locals, in their ancient cars, trucks, even tractors, and though the norm is to leave them some gas money for a ride, they mostly refused ours, always saying cu plăcere, you’re welcome.

One Sunday morning, we found ourselves in the cemetery of a 14th century wooden church, attending prayers alongside the locals of Harnicest village. By the time we reached Sat Şugatag, women in their traditional dresses and headscarfs were out and about, catching up on the village gossip, while the men sat around drinking beer and playing folk music. One elderly lady came and sat next to me at the ornamental gate of the bus stop we waited at. I was too tired, so I tried to resist her attempt to small talk in Romanian by explaining that I spoke none. She flashed a rare smile, and didn’t stop talking. In broken French, Italian, Spanish, English, Romanian, sign language and laughter, we chatted for an hour!

Maramures photos, wooden church maramures

Sunday prayers in the cemetery of a wooden church in Maramures.

Romanian women, Romania people, Romanian culture

With my newfound friend at the bus stop in Sat Sucatag.

On our last day in Maramures, we hurriedly made it to the bus stop in Sighet in time to catch a bus for our flight later that evening. As we waited anxiously, someone asked where we were headed. Satu Mare, we confidently answered. It turned out there were six bus stops in the little town of Sighet (phew!), and there were no buses coming to this one that day. The kind (burly) man made a few calls, found out where the next bus was to come, hailed a taxi to ferry us and told him not to charge us anything. Just like that.

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Have you travelled to Romania? Share your stories.

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Any contributions to my travel fund (in kind or otherwise) will be highly appreciated!

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Snapshots from Romania!

It all began one night, when a friend and I sat staring at the world map. I had landed a fat assignment and finally reached my savings goal for a long overdue trip out of India. After turning down many drab international 3-4 day FAM trips that offered nothing immersive or even remotely exciting, I craved a mix of the east and the west, interesting food and the chance to experience a culture I knew little about. Romania seemed to tick all the boxes. Flights were booked, visa hurdles painfully crossed, and off we went. Into a world that continues to delight and surprise me.

I’ll let these pictures give you a glimpse of our time so far in Romania:

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1. A SURREAL GLIMPSE OF EASTERN EUROPE IN BRASOV
, a big city where time has almost forgotten these Soviet-era cars and homes.

Romania photos, Brasov photos, Brasov Romania

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2. AT THE CONFLUENCE OF THE EAST AND WEST
with dome-shaped churches that almost resemble mosques – the Baroque style of architecture.

Romania churches, Romanian architecture

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3. STROLLING ALONG THE STREETS OF BRASOV
taking in the traditional architecture and modern way of life; a blend that can perhaps be found only in Romania.

Romanian architecture, Brasov Romania, Brasov photos

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4. MY HOME IN A COBBLED YARD
in a restored 100-year-old house called Casa Matei in Brasov.

Brasov Romania, blog Romania

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5. PEOPLE WATCHING AT A CHARMING LITTLE CAFE
called Bistro del Arte, in the old town of Brasov.

Brasov photos, Brasov Romania

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6. INDULGING IN VEGETARIAN ROMANIAN FOOD
available everywhere in Romania. Orthodox Catholics in the country observe a vegan fast twice a week or for 6 weeks before Christmas and Easter, so every local resto offers marcare de post (fasting menu) featuring veggie dishes without eggs or dairy. This zakuska (dips of mushroom, eggplant and beans) was a real treat.

Romania vegetarian food, Romania food

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7. TRANSPORTED TO A DIFFERENT ERA
with dinner in a wine cellar and a live violin performance.

Brasov photos, blog Romania, Brasov Romania

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8. A STRIKING IMAGE OF EASTERN EUROPE
caught on a train ride through Transylvania.

Eastern Europe, Romania photos

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9. DEEP IN THE CARPATHIAN MOUNTAINS
a glimpse of the Romanian countryside, in the charming mountain village of Magura, located within a national park.

Romania countryside, Romania villages, Magura Romania

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10. HORSE CARTS FOR PUBLIC TRANSPORT
as though we’ve time-travelled, and not merely taken a train an hour from Brasov.

Romania countryside, Romania villages, Magura Romania

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11. LIFE IN RURAL ROMANIA
where sheep breeding is the primary occupation, men still use scythes to cut grass, and people collect hay in the summer to feed their cattle in winter. Yet, everyone has modern cars and traditional houses equipped with central heating and other urban comforts.

Romania countryside, Romania villages, Magura Romania

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12. MY WINDOW TO THE WORLD
; our attic in the village home of a Romanian family in Magura.

Magura Romania, Romania villages, attic

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Has Romania made it to your wish list yet? 

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Join me on FacebookTwitter and Instagram for live updates and stories from Romania.

Any contributions to my travel fund (in kind or otherwise) will be highly appreciated!

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ALSO READ:

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Travel Contest: Win an Epic Trip Through Kashmir and Ladakh!

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Jullay from Leh!

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