We’d had our fill of big cities.
Having spent the last month of our trip hopping from one great metropolis to the next. Oslo, Stockholm, Helsinki, Saint Petersburg, Minsk, Kiev, Krakow. We needed some fresh air and open spaces. We needed mountains. We needed oceans.
But mostly, we needed time alone in a car away from other people.
Angela and I are at our best on a road trip. Insulated from the rest of the world in our own tiny bubble while we watch the towns and fields and forests stream by. Playing a choose-your-own-adventure game when we come to equally inviting forks in the road. Laughing uncontrollably at anything and nothing, or simply riding in comfortable silence, absorbed in our own thoughts.
A road trip is often our way to recharge, to simplify the travel, to recenter on the importance of sharing this journey with each other. So, upon our arrival in Romania, we rented a car at Henri Coandă International Airport and immediately set out for Transylvania and the Carpathian Mountains to the northwest.
Yes, I’m talking about that Transylvania, the actual home of Vlad the Impaler and the very real setting for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Like so many other storied locations in the world whose names have become synonymous with the emotions and images they evoke: Shangri-La, Zanzibar, Kathmandu, and Kashmir, Transylvania conjures a half-remembered nightmare of barren trees and gothic romance gone horribly wrong, wildly exotic to the point of being fictitious, yet as real as the road beneath you or the black mountains looming on the horizon.
We chose the long route to get to Bran, Romania, traveling along the Transfăgărășan Highway, a thrilling drive with hairpin turns and precipitous drops that snakes its way through the southern Carpathians. Dubbed the “best road in the world” by the British television show Top Gear, we found that it delivered in white-knuckle fashion and had to stop several times to admire the vista, settle our nerves, and allow the curve-hugging roadsters to zip past us.
Dotted with Catholic shrines, ominous road signs, and dilapidated picnic tables, the road follows the frenetic path of the white, boiling Argeș River, interrupted only once at the impressive Vidraru Dam and its man-made mountain lake.
In its stark, worn, and often neglected way, the Transfăgărășan is beautiful. And fragile, like an antique that must be handled with care or it will crumble to dust. Driving this route is worth the trip to Bucharest, regardless of any further Romanian itinerary, and we counted it as one of our favorite road trip segments, ever.
After a few days of taking our time and winding our way through the mountains, we settled in the shadow of Bran Castle at the Brandeberg Pension and Restaurant. With an excellent dinner menu, a spectacular inclusive breakfast, and generous drink pours, we found the Brandeberg to be the perfect home base for visiting the home of Vlad.
Although the marketing people play up the sinister side of Bran Castle, we found the site to be charming and quaint, if a bit underwhelming. If you will pardon the expression, Bran Castle has very little bite. It’s well worth the €8.50 ($9.66 US) entrance fee. But, honestly, the Bran Castle website, the original gothic furniture, the tourists taking selfies, and the spiked chain we found around the perimeter of the grounds were more terrifying than the castle itself.
After experiencing the surprisingly beautiful Carpathian Mountains, we turned the car east and drove toward Moldova. Unfortunately we had dallied too long in central Romania and only had enough time to spare a day trip through one of Europe’s least-visited countries.
Moldova is currently ranked as the poorest country in Europe, with a per capita GDP of just under $2000 US. Although recently-implemented economic reforms are beginning to show some progress, the country still feels like it’s recovering from collapse. A Soviet-era mentality, cautiously wary of outsiders and afraid to smile. We entered at the border crossing in Oancea and spent the day exploring the Moldovan city of Cahul before driving south along the river border and re-entering Romania at the shipping town of Giurgiulești.
Although Moldova could sorely use our love and our tourist dollars, we had no more time to give on this trip. Promising to return for an extended visit in the future, we drove southeast toward an inland coast.
In Constanta, Romania, I realized a lifelong dream to touch the Black Sea.
It’s a body of water that has long fascinated me. A sometimes controversial geomorphology that has, at times, sought to provide a scientific explanation for events of Biblical proportions. Namely, Noah’s flood. And, while I don’t pretend to understand the geological forces that shaped the place, I couldn’t help but be moved by the weight of history and historic speculation that pervades that coastline and lies hidden, just out of sight, beneath the march of waves.
In another life, I would have been a marine explorer. And I would have made the Black Sea my life’s work.
But, for now, for this life, I had to be content with seeing it, touching it, tasting it. And, like so very many locations on this trip, I had to put a bookmark in this place and plan to explore it again in the future.
We ended our Romanian road trip where it began, at the airport just outside of Bucharest. And, although we never really visited the capital city, I believe our week in Romania gave us an accurate feel for the country, for its wonderful people, for its small towns, and for the beautiful, empty spaces in between.