Travelling (and cycling) in Romania

Introduction Accommodation
Climate and geography: mountains and plateaus Safety
Regions and cities: where to go and what to see Cyclist’s and hiker’s safety
Minorities Getting in and out of Romania
Language Borders, visa and customs
Travel guides EU visa policy consequences for Romanians
Maps Money and prices
Roads, traffic, police, cycling and hitching a ride Buying food and other stuff
Driving habits Bikes on trains
Weather Bicycle holiday diary (the '1300 Romanian kilometres' page)
The bike, spare parts Travel links (on the Romania link page)
Back to the Romania page or to Jeroen's  homepage
Please note: Since I wrote this page, I have also written the free online city reference guide Bucharest In  Your Pocket. There you will find even more detailed information about travel in Romania. Lucky you!


After having lived in Transylvania for a few months in 1995, I returned to Romania many times. On these trips I often promised myself to come back on a bicycle; to travel free from the restraints of bus timetables or the quality of the roads. In September 1997 my girlfriend and I toured through Northern Romania for a month. Information on travelling (and especially cycling) in Romania is scarce. This site is meant for those considering going to (and maybe cycling in) Romania.
In a way Romania is the one country where things go differently than you expect. It’s definitely not a suitable destination for those looking for luxury, planning for weeks in advance or counting on first-class service. My experience is that if you travel with an open mind and are prepared to change your programme, the changes are nearly always to the positive. This is why I believe Romania is one of the most surprising and beautiful destinations of Europe. It is an agricultural society foremost, even though there are quite a few beautiful and interesting cities. The villages and village life are very attractive, so don’t be scared off by large areas without cities.
Romania unfortunately has quite a bad image in Western Europe, mostly caused by biased reports in the media after 1989. Do you remember: the violent and bloody revolution; they grey and weary people; the appalling scenes in the orphanages? And do you remember the more positive stories about other Eastern-European countries doing so well in comparison to Romania? The circumstances have been unimaginably terrible in the last few decades. Most of all in the 80s, the consequences of repression and state terror were mentally and physically (in towns and villages) devastating. Set these images of Romania aside while travelling there, and you’ll notice that your own impressions will be much better. I believe that this dark image is the one of the main reasons that Romania isn’t a popular holiday destination yet. The Romanians and their country know how to surprise you. The hospitality and curiosity for new things is disarming. In the Rough Guide the authors advise you not to let schemes and long-term plans define your stay; let yourself be taken away by Romania, enjoy the unexpected and have a great trip.

Climate and geography: mountains and plateaus

Romania comprises three distinct areas. Transylvania in the north-west, bordering Hungary and Yugoslavia; Moldavia in the East, bordering Ukraine and the Republic of Moldova; Wallachia in the south, bordered by the Danube river with Bulgaria on the other side.
The arms of the Carpathian Mountains embrace Transylvania to the west. The Carpathians start at the city borders of Bratislava, Slovakia and reach eastwards to the Low and High Tatra’s, which sneak into Romania via Ukraine. Here, they make a narrow, sharp turning near the city of Brasov before leaving Romania in the southwest. On the other side of the Danube, the mountain range continues as the Balkans through Serbia and Bulgaria.
Compared to the Alps, the Carpathians aren’t very high, with summits up to 2500 metres. However, the highest summits are spread out over the whole length of the range: in the Retezat mountains (the widest part of the Carpathians) near Targu Jiu; near Fagaras in the Southern Carpathians (also known as the Transylvanian Alps, with steep northern slopes and less steep southern ones); near Brasov in the Bucegi mountains and in the wild Rodna mountains in the North.
The central area of Transylvania is a plateau with small hills. West of here are the Apuseni Mountains, also known as the Bihor Mountains or the Western Carpathians. These are not so high, but are special because of the many karst phenomena. Along the border with Hungary, in Moldavia and in Wallachia are flat and extensive lowlands. Things get more interesting near the Black Sea, with a geologically ancient hilly range and the famous Danube Delta. The Delta is a wonderful area for nature lovers (especially for bird watchers), but is a no-go area for hikers and bikers as there are no roads at all. You’ll have to get around by rowing.
Romania has a continental climate, meaning lang cold winters (with lots of snow) and long warm summers in general. It can rain throughout the year; spring is the driest season. In summer, showers and thunderstorms are common, especially in the mountains. Average monthly temperatures (highest/lowest) are:
January 2/-3C (36/27F) July 29/17C (84/62F)
February 5/-2C (41/28F) August 28/16C (82/61F)
March 10/2C (50/36F) September 24/12C (75/54F)
April 17/7C (62/45F) October 16/8C (61/46F)
May 23/11C (73/52F) November 9/3C (48/37F)
June 26/15C (79/59F) December 4/0C (39/32F)

Selected regions and cities: where to go and what to see

Places you shouldn't miss when you go to Romania. For more information also take a peek at my bicycle tour diary, which covers many areas and sights mentioned below.
Bihor- or Apuseni Mountains: A nice area for starting: the foothills are reached a few hours after cycling over the border. Not too high (tops to 1300 metres), but large and very peaceful. There are plans to make this area a national park, which is a good idea. There are (literally) thousands of caves (mostly unexplored) and beautiful karst-phenomena like underground glaciers and enormous sinkholes (dolinas). The famous Moravian karst area north of Brno, Czech Republic, is nothing compared to this! These attractions are relatively easily reached from the hut at Padis or the beautifully situated campsite at Poiana Glavoi, both situated on the plateau, a few hours of sweat from the foothills. Padis and Glavoi are accessible by car, but make sure it’s a sturdy one as there’s no asphalt on the steep access road. The campsite is very basic (no water except for the stream flowing through the valley, no toilets except for the forest), but there usually is a small ‘bufet’ (also one at Padis) selling drinks and sometimes bread.
South of the Aries valley is the area of the Motz people. They seem to be related way back to the Kelts, and I have seen a churchyard cross that you might also find in Ireland to prove it. The Motz live isolated in their small villages in nearly mediaeval circumstances. Some houses have no electricity, phone or TV, most lack running water. Some villages are only accessible by foot, bike or 4x4 car, so it’s a great place to hike or bike through.
Cluj-Napoca: the nice ‘cultural capital’ of Transylvania. Good museums, restaurants and cafes. Unfortunately the centre is noisy and dirty because of traffic. ‘Napoca’ was added to the name of Cluj by Ceausescu, who wanted to emphasise that the origins of the city are Roman (that is, Romanian…). The large Hungarian minority, until the 1960’s still a majority, now has to live under a democratically re-elected right-wing mayor.
Maramures: this region in the north between Baia Mare and the Ukrainian border is extremely worth visiting. Nowhere else in Europe have the traditions survived modern life so well. Maramures offers beautiful wooden architecture (unique churches, houses and water mills in practically every village), a rolling hilly landscape full of ploughing, sowing or reaping peasants, extremely friendly people, traditional folk clothes (often also on weekdays, and not yet only worn for tourists) and many age-old festivals and traditions. Near Sighetu Marmatiei there’s the Merry Cemetery of Sapinta; accessible for cyclists and hikers over the forest track northwards from Baia Mare.
Borsa and the Prislop pass: this must be what Canada looks like. Rough valleys, high mountains on all sides and endless dark pine forest. Borsa is a rough-and-ready town of mineworkers and lumberjacks. The road to the Prislop pass (1400m) is reasonably quiet with good asphalt. When we did that in September 1997 it was only 5 degrees Celsius; the first snow was on about 1600m. Even more beautiful on warmer days.
The monasteries of Bukovina and Northern Moldavia: More eastwards, at the world famous painted monasteries (UNESCO monuments), the landscape calms down to lower hills with beautiful beech forests. The monasteries are typically situated in dead-end valleys, but are connected by trails that bikers and hikers can use to reach others. Lake Bicaz and surroundings are beautiful: climb up to the mythical home of the Gods (mount Cehlau), or go to the deep Bicaz gorge and Lacu Rosu, a drowned valley with tree stumps still sticking out and a boat rental service.
(Baile) Tusnad: a spa town at the foot of an old (inactive) volcano. Steam still comes out of the mountain, and the former crater is now a lake, protected because of the special plants and wildlife.
Brasov and around: lots of traces of the German minority survive in former Kronstadt ('Crown city'). The picturesque baroque old town is situated between the foothills of the Bucegi Mountains. Most mediaeval walls and defence towers still stand. Going up the cable car to mount Tampa will provide a marvellous panorama of the centre. Only 13 kilometres away is the ski resort Poiana Brasov, from where you can take a cable car up to about 1800 metres, otherwise you can ski right down into the old town of Brasov!
Mighty fortress churches, Saxon village architecture, ‘Dracula’s castle’ (at Bran) can be seen north and (south-)west of Brasov in what was known once as Siebenburgen (Seven Fortresses; the area Germans settled in the 12th century). Don’t forget to visit the fortress town Sighisoara (supposedly the best-preserved mediaeval town since Dubrovnik was bombed in the Yugoslavian war), perched high on a hill. Wonderful hiking possibilities in the Bucegi, Fagaras and Piatra Craiului Mountains, all within easy reach of Brasov. Cycle or drive along the road from Brasov to Sibiu (and see the Fagaras range [2550m] tower up to the left of you), and turn left at Cirtisoara onto the Transfagarasului road, the highest (2000m) asphalted pass in the country. Halfway up, at 1400m, you can hop on to the cable car that will take you up to the pass over the stunning valley. This road is yet another crazy project of dictator Ceausescu, to link ‘rebellious’ Transylvania to Wallachia (and also so he could build another villa for himself). It cost millions to build, is covered by snow half of the year, and has to be repaired at great costs again and again. Enjoy it now it’s here.
Sibiu is another Baroque German town. Apart from the old centre, the village museum and the mighty German fortress churches of Cisnadie en Cisnadioara are definitely worth visiting.
For hikers, the Retezat mountains southwest of Sibiu are fantastic: a high (2509m.) and large alpine area with many glacier lakes. Other than the Fagaras range, which is basically a long ridge, you can walk in all directions here. If you’re cycling, you could bike through the foothills on the track westwards from Targu Jiu/Vulcani passing the mining area, a gorge, the pass and down the Cerna valley, ending up in the chic but derelict spa of Baile Herculane. Just south of Baile Herculane, the Danube squeezes through the Kazan gorge (separating the Carpathian and Balkan ranges) after having meandered peacefully on the Hungarian plain. The gorges are impressive, but used to be nicer before the gigantic joint Yugoslav-Romanian dam tamed the river.
Cities that definitely are worth visiting are: Cluj, Oradea, Brasov, Sibiu, Timisoara and Sighisoara. Also nice, but with less priority: Arad, Iasi, Vatra Dornei, Targu Jiu, Targu Mures and Constanta. Bucharest and most other cities in Wallachia and Moldavia aren’t really beautiful, but always interesting at the least. Still, to get in touch with the real Romania, get out into the rural areas!


Romania is inhabited by scores of nationalities, next to the majority of ethnic Romanians (see also the minority page of these Romania pages). Among them are Hungarians, Roma (known better as gypsies), Germans, Jews, Serbs, Armenians, Russians and Greeks. This makes the country very interesting from a cultural viewpoint, especially in Transylvania where the largest concentrations of Hungarians, Germans and others can be found. The different ethnic groups and peoples that were or are in Romania have left quite a legacy for the visitor. Dacian (pre-Roman), Roman and Greek ruins, German mediaeval fortress churches and walled towns, Romanian 17th century woodwork (churches, houses), Hungarian Jugendstil architecture, Russian and Ukrainian churches (Moldavia and the Danube Delta), Turkish mosques near the Black Sea coast, etc.


Romanian is, other than all other Eastern-European languages, a Latin language, similar to French and Italian. If you speak some French you’ll be able to get around and read the signs. Often you can communicate with older people in French, German (which some people learnt during the war, while in camps) or Russian (also learnt in camps or force-fed at school). Most young people have enthusiastically learnt foreign languages (mostly English) in the past few years, and are eager to try it out. In some areas, like Maramures in the north, schools have chosen to teach the kids French first, and not English like in most other areas. German is spoken mostly in Transylvania, as is Hungarian. The German dialect spoken in Southern Transylvania, ‘Saxon’, originates from West Germany and Flanders (Belgium) and surprisingly has a lot in common with Dutch. If you take the trouble to learn the numbers and a few phrases, you’ll win hearts easily. See also the languages page for more information.

Travel guides

At the moment there are a few good guides about Romania available. Recently, the Rough Guide Romania (second edition) and Lonely Planet Romania and Moldova (first edition) appeared. Personally, I prefer the Rough Guide because of more extensive information, more on smaller villages, regions, towns, campsites, and a clearer classification. Also, walking trails and mountain areas are specified better. The Lonely Planet, however, provides more and better details, addresses and phone numbers of accommodation possibilities and restaurants. Both the LP and RG teams have visited Romania in the spring of 2000; expect updated versions of both books by early 2001.
Many cities have some kind of city guide, but the best in Romania are the two In Your Pocket guides currently on the market. Beware: I'm heavily biased because I'm the author of both guides! The full content of Bucharest In Your Pocket and Southern Transylvania In Your Pocket can be found at Find out all about accommodation, where to eat and go out, more about arriving, the latest on the visa situation, the cultural calendar of events, and much more.
If you’re interested in hiking through nature foremost, get the Hiking guide to Romania (1993, second edition 1997) by Tim Burford. The publisher, Bradt, should have a homepage, but I can't find it. This book has lots of detailed trails in scores of areas, but also has a 'normal' guide section.
Here’s some extra information for Dutch-speaking people: Inmiddels zijn er enkele Nederlandse gidsen over Roemenië op de markt. In het Nederlands heb je die van Dominicus (1993) en van Kosmos (1999). De Dominicus is hopeloos verouderd, en op automobilisten en de doorgaande grote wegen gericht. Summiere informatie; soms zijn hele streken niet behandeld. De Kosmos is veel beter, maar heeft door de rare alfabetische indeling weinig samenhang.


The maps featuring Romania together with Bulgaria aren’t the best you can get. The Marco Polo map of Romania (1:750.000) is the best I’ve found until now; this features a lot of the smaller villages too. The best map for travelling in Transylvania is the Erdely (= Transylvania in Hungarian, pronounced air-day-eeh) map, published by Dimap, Báthory utca 104, 1196 Budapest, Hungary, tel: 177-7908. The scale is 1:500.000 and it features all villages and towns in Transylvania in the three main languages spoken there: Romanian, Hungarian and German. Very useful for asking directions in this multicultural region, although some nationalists are less happy with the idea of a multilingual map. The Erdely map also covers quite a large part of Moldavia and Wallachia. It can be bought or ordered in the better travel or map shops in the West, or in bookstores or stalls in Hungary (sometimes) or in Romania (very sometimes...). You could also try getting it 'online' via the Department of Cartography of the Eötvös University in Budapest: just mail to
For even more detail, you can purchase the Atlas Turistic Rutier (1:300.000) for about 20 DEM / 10 USD at street stalls in Romanian cities. This is the best Romanian ‘map’ around. It’s full of small mistakes, falls apart quickly, but is worth buying if you’re heading into the wild. Apart from all villages, towns and roads (with a dubious asphalt-quality indication), it has the maps of all Romanian towns. Very useful for getting through ugly suburbs quickly.
Maps aren’t very reliable in this part of Europe. Directions, locations of villages or junctions and distances can be wrong. When in doubt, don't hesitate to ask around for directions. When buying a map of Romania, see how old it is by looking up the town of Stei, near Beius, south of Oradea. If it’s still called Dr. Petru Groza, you have an old map. It’s advisable to get your maps and guides in advance; in Romania you may not find what you’re looking for. The Lonely Planet has tips on where to get them in the West.

Roads, traffic, police and hitching a ride

In Romania there are different types of road surface, which can alternate randomly. Keep in mind that a perfect, new stretch of top-quality asphalt can turn into a nightmarish crater-landscape in seconds. The large roads (coded DN or E) have good asphalt and are wide enough for all traffic. So if you're just driving through Romania, there's no need to worry about the well-being of your car. These DN or E roads are the first to be repaired after frost damage. They are sometimes very busy with trucks and speeding idiots though, and this can damage your good mood, your sense of humour or your car. Taking smaller roads can sometimes be more relaxing.
Encounters with the Romanian police can be very funny. After the revolution of 1989, most policemen were discharged and replaced by fresh recruits from rural places, as the police was very slow to choose the 'side of the people' (other than the army, which has a very good image). This means that some officers haven't had much education, and that the police are the subject of millions of jokes (Q: 'Which animal carries its genitals on its back?' A: 'The police horse'). Even so, remember to wear your safety belts outside cities and towns (strangely, it isn't obligatory [but would be a good idea] inside towns too), and watch your speed. When I lived in Transylvania in 1995, I was stopped regularly by police for a checking papers. This is done because the European Union is concerned about stolen cars ending up in Romania. Romania wants to make a good impression, so the police stops foreign cars. If you're driving a stolen car, policemen are easily recognised kilometres in advance by their obvious white hats. By the way, once I was flagged down by a couple of policemen only to be asked if I could take a collegue of theirs to the next town!
After quite some bumpy rural car-rides, I expected to get an equally bumpy ride on my bike. However, cycling turned out to be much more comfortable. On the bad roads you’re able to avoid holes on a bike better than on four wheels, so you can even take over cars (and frustrate drivers, ha ha). Even so, some deep and unexpected holes could finish your bike and your holiday without warning.
On our trip, we cycled maybe only 20 kilometres on the large DN- or E-roads; that was sufficient to convince us to use other categories of roads for a more enjoyable time. The secondary roads (asphalt, or at least kind of surfaced) are kept in quite a good shape, so you can look around while pedalling. On unsurfaced roads the holes are not as bad as on surfaced ones; they’re easier avoided and not so abrupt. To the sides there’s usually a narrow smooth sand track without bumps, holes or stones. Ideal for bikes. In the mountains your speed will be constrained by stones or rocks. These roads are peaceful to say the least, and mostly deserted.
In cities roads are sometimes terrible. Expect lots of holes, uncoordinated traffic and bad surfaces. Getting into a city on a main road can be rather depressing, but sometimes you have little choice.
The holes, the lack of lights (along the roads, but also on vehicles) and the driving habits of Romanians are three good reasons not to cycle in darkness or twilight. On a main road in Cluj-Napoca I once narrowly missed a hole that was half a metre deep. Adding layers of asphalt had raised the road level, but apparently there was no money for also raising the drain. Lids of sewer manholes sometimes aren’t closed properly, or even have disappeared. Sometimes a tree is then put into the hole to warn the traffic… but not always.
It’ll be handy if your condition is good: the nicer routes cross the mountains, and roads sometimes go upwards for longer than you would consider to be fun. The steepest we encountered (in the Bihor/Apuseni and the Rodna Mountains) were about 14%, but a road of more than 7% is unusual. For a really fast descent I can recommend the quiet and steep road from Poiana Brasov to Risnov and Bran.
A bicycle trip will be relatively easy if you confine yourself to the Transylvanian plateau or the eastern or southern lowlands. If you venture into the mountains (the best reason for cycling in Romania) it’ll get tougher. The roughest trips would be the ones continuously crossing the mountains and using unsurfaced (steeper) and higher roads.
Hitching a ride is fairly normal in Romania. On the outskirts of towns you'll often see scores of people (from teenagers to old ladies with shopping bags) waving you down. If you take someone along, you'll probably be offered money (the equivalent of what the trip by bus would have been), which is so little that you'll probably refuse it (and bring old ladies to tears). For many Romanians, however, this is a way of keeping petrol costs low. So when you hitch yourself, remember to give the driver a few thousand lei for the trouble. Of course, hitching alone is not recommendable as elsewhere in the world. In Romania I covered quite a few kilometres by thumb quickly and efficiently, and never encountered trouble. Be careful, anyway.

Driving habits

Driving habits of Romanians are all right in general. Often there’ll be a short honk when you’re approached from behind, which could get irritating after a while. Usually lots of space is given when taking over; cars always use there blinkers to warns others that there’s something alongside the road (be it a bike, a cow, chickens, a piece of wood or a drunken person). When the asphalt allows it, speeding is common. The number of casualties must have risen dramatically after 1989 because of the deadly combination of powerful Western cars, inexperienced drivers, the reckless Latin nature of Romanians, and their love for alcohol and curving roads. So make sure you’re visible... or off the main roads.
In weekends the minor roads get busy with families on a day out picnicking or collecting mushrooms and berries. The car is then parked in a stream for washing, and a tree is killed for the campfire. Romanians are just like us Dutch: when the car is out of sight, they panic. That’s why outside a radius of a few hundred metres of the road you’ll be on your own again.
Romania is ideal for mountain biking. Near Poiana Brasov downhill races are organised in summer. More information on these at the bicycle clubs and shops.


Cycling in winter is not recommendable, as temperatures can drop to -30 degrees Celsius in the mountain areas and the depressions in between (in Harghita for instance). Roads are slippery as salt is unavailable. Sand or sharp gravel has to keep cars on the road. Snow can linger until April or May in higher areas, and the first cold nights are back in September. For the mountains, summer is the best time to go, even though this is a period with much rain. Showers can come unexpectedly, but are short. I have the impression that in the summer thunderclouds gather in the late afternoon, so getting up early is advisable. In the month (September) we toured around, we only cycled through rain for two hours, although we did have to wait for dry weather in the mountains a few times. At the end of September it was cold up in the Carpathians (snow at 1600 metres), but warm around Bucharest.
The nicest time to go is in spring, when flowers seem to burst out of the ground everywhere. Also autumn can be great when the forests turn into all colours between yellow and red.

The bike and spare parts

My girlfriend made the trip on a hybrid mountain bike (UTO, 1990); I managed well on a hybrid touring bike (Cannondale, 1997). A sturdy bike is recommendable, see the part about roads above. Thin tyres are okay for the main roads, but elsewhere you may need tougher ones. We needed most of the 21 gears we had, so take them along too.
Spare parts for bikes are hard to find in Romania, but things are changing fast. In 1995, there was hardly a (mountain) bike to be seen, but in 1997 I saw significantly more. Also, quite a number of bike and outdoor sport shops have sprung up in the streets of the wealthier towns. In Transylvania I noticed good shops in Oradea, Cluj and Sibiu (the latter two offering repair service as well as parts). Here and there you’ll find stuff like lights, chains and Shimano-type gears in unlikely locations (e.g. audio stores). The number of bike part outlets is bound to mushroom in the next few years, given the wishes of the hip Romanian youth, the abundance of possibilities in Romania and the money that is slowly becoming more apparent in this country. Contact the bike clubs in Romania for the latest details (see the travel links). Even so, it’s wise to bring along certain essential things, like inner tubes, chain, brake cables, lubricant, etc.
As soon as a technical problem strands you, your holiday gets really interesting. In rural areas you’re never far from a SMT, one of the tractor bases that belonged to the former collective farms. Here there will surely be someone handy enough to bend your frame back in shape, or to weld or lubricate something. Otherwise ask around in any village for the local smith. Above all, don’t despair: in my experience bad luck in Romania is always followed by a disproportionate amount of good luck combined with hospitality and liquor.


Compared to other Eastern European countries, campings aren’t thick on the ground in Romania, except for near the Black Sea coast. This doesn’t really matter, because the campings that do exist, are usually not really worthwhile. Toilets are often grubby, seldom is there warm running water, and often the neighbours are loud. Some campings I know of are in Dutch hands: Eldorado (halfway Cluj and Oradea) and Benelux near Medias. They have good services (western sanitary, guards, information, excursions, and friendly reception), but you pay a higher price for that. So, campings could be interesting for some, but there are much better ways to sleep cheap.
Camping wild is a good alternative, and is allowed as long as you don’t make a mess of it, and ask for permission if you’re on private property. Asking will also assure you that someone in the neighbourhood knows that you’re there and may keep an eye out for you. If you’re lucky, you might even be invited in for food or the night (be prepared to counter the hospitality with something like coffee, chocolate, a genuine-sending-a-photograph-offer, etc).
Most cities, towns and tourist highlights have cheap hotels . The tariff asked for Westerners (Romanians often pay much less for the same room) is often more than the services on offer are worth. This is especially true for the state hotels, recognisable by the sour receptionist and cold water showers). Expect to pay a maximum of USD 10 for a night in one of these. Private hotels (recognisable by the presence of smiling people, friendly service and sometimes warm water) are always preferable to state hotels (also, your money will end up in the place you’re staying, and not in the deep, dark state treasury account). Making a reservation is not really necessary, except for in busy periods in ‘trade market towns’. Mostly you’re one of few guests in a hotel.
If you’re travelling low budget through the cities in summer, you can also consider staying in one of the student housing complexes, which sometimes are open for tourists. For a few bucks a night you’ll have a bunk bed in a dormitory.
The best accommodation options in Romania are the Bed & Breakfast addresses in rural areas. You can sleep in a separate room in a farmhouse or camp in an adjoining field, have delicious farm meals or even help out the farmer. I guess this is the best introduction you can get to Romania. ECEAT, a Dutch organisation for eco-agro tourism, annualy publishes the Green Holiday Guide Romania and Bulgaria, featuring all their addresses (mainly in Transylvania): just check out ECEAT’s (English-language) website and order online (or mail to, or write to PO box 10899, 1001 EW Amsterdam, tel: +31-20-6681030). The Romanian ANTREC organisation offers pre-booked accomodation in villages throughout the country (see also the links page ). The French/Dutch Operations Villages Roumains also has a booklet with 18 addresses in Transylvania and Maramures, available via Mrs G. van Rijen, Heuvelweg 10, 4641 SC Ossendrecht, Holland, tel: +31-164-673703. OVR also has offices in Romania (Cluj, Sibiu), mentioned in the Lonely Planet.


This is an important topic for Romania, a country that badly needs to shake of its image of third-world horrors. Let me start by saying that during all my trips to Romania, nothing was ever stolen. Only once have I witnessed a tourist being robbed of her bag, by pickpockets in Brasov. Would I surprise you if I said that I think that walking around in Romania as a tourist is much ‘safer’ than in many places in Western Europe? Even though crime has risen dramatically since 1989, Western standards have not been reached yet. And other than in Bulgaria, Ukraine or Russia, Mafia-type activities have not really effected Romania. Of course, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t take the usual precautions: spreading cheques and plastic money over different places, wearing a good wallet underneath your clothes, and not flashing your video camera around all the time. I’m just saying that you shouldn’t let the usual cliché horror stories keep you from visiting this beautiful country and its friendly people. During our cycling trip in 1997, my girlfriend was in Romania for the first time, and felt safe all the time (except once when she walked into the bar of Gheorgheni railway station that was full of drunks).
I can imagine the concern for safety in Romania. The image of the country is not positive, to start with. Then, mentioning that your destination is Romania in other Eastern European countries will evoke warnings and jokes about getting your shoes stolen under your feet. Finally, even in Romania locals will keep insisting that you should look out for thieves (always tsiganes, or gypsies, of course) and watch your things. You may start to think that every Romanian you pass is out for your money or your life. Of course, the warnings are meant well, but after hearing 1000 of them, you could start to feel uneasy. Well, don’t. Just go to see for yourself. Romania deserves better.
The only places that are well known for disappearing wallets and cameras are the shopping streets of Bucharest and Brasov at busy hours. Here, pickpockets have perfected the art of robbing inattentive tourists without being noticed. Methods: thronging around you, cutting open the bottom of small rucksacks, etc. So in these places keep your bags within sight (rucksacks on your belly), and your wallet out of sight. Keep your eyes especially peeled when a few people, who act as if they’re also looking at a shop window, suddenly surround you. Don’t expect much sympathy from the Brasov police if you do get robbed. A few years ago they refused to register a bag as ‘stolen’ in their report, but insisted that it was ‘lost’. I guess they want to clean up the crime statistics in their city. For more tips on scams and safety, visit Bucharest In Your Pocket.
Finally, the ethnic composition of the country could be a perceived source of insecurity, bearing in mind the recent war in multi-ethnic Yugoslavia. Don’t worry, thankfully the Romanian situation is different. The ‘tensions’ in Romanian society certainly exist, but are usually misused on a national, political level that is far from the real life situation (see also my minorities page). Unfortunately, these are the images exported to the West, adding to the bad image of Romania. Until recently, the government was composed of an impotent cocktail of extreme right-wing parties. In the November 1996 elections these parties were pushed aside by the democrats, who have been in power since. In practice ethnic tension is not so evident. A ‘Bosnian situation’ would be very improbable in Transylvania. The topic is surely very sensitive, as generations of Romanians have been told to distrust Gypsies and also ‘the Hungarians’ (by no means a homogenous group) who ‘wish to separate Transylvania from Romania and rejoin Hungary’. The Hungarian-eating, right extremist mayor of Cluj openly testified that ‘the Hungarians were armed and ready to invade’. He’s still in power, and still making stupid statements. Read this to get a quick impression of his line of thought. Personally, I think the mix of Romanian, Hungarian, German, Jewish and Gypsy culture are the greatest asset of Romania, and make it the interesting place it is now. Actually, I’ve experienced that Transylvania, Moldavia and Wallachia have their own cultures, and the inhabitants sometimes identify more with the regional culture, instead of their ethnical culture. Nationalists hate that, because it shows they’re wrong.... and dumb.

Cyclists and hikers safety

If you’re biking around, it’s wise to keep an eye on your set of wheels at all times, and to remove small loose objects like the speedometer when parking. Taking the bikes up into hotel rooms never caused problems, and sometimes we could park them in a small room in the hotel or at the camping reception.
As a biker, the biggest threat you’ll encounter are the dogs. Don’t be alarmed when a swarm of small snappers follow your ankles when you cruise through a village. Waving with something big (bicycle pump), threatening to throw a stone, throwing the stone, barking back or simply retracting your legs will usually avert the danger. Be more careful with the sheepdogs in the mountains, as these can really get menacing, especially if they’re in groups. Here the stone trick or calling for the shepherd (make sure he sees or hears you before the dogs do) will have to save you.
Other animals you might like to avoid in Romania are bears, wolves and wild boar. The latter are the most realistic threat in Romania, but only if you’re bungling through their habitat in the denser woods and threatening the well-being of the kiddie boars. Bears and wolves have been stigmatised as vicious animals, but are usually extremely shy. The chance of bumping into one is pretty remote. Romanians seem to be scared stiff of them and always have a horror story ready to convince you too. Even so, camping rough near some mountain passes in Northern Romania is inadvisable in certain seasons. Also watch out for ticks on your skin after a days slogging through forest or grass, they can give you Lime's disease or something even worse.

Getting in and out of Romania

Planes arrive at Otopeni Airport, north of Bucharest (some also in Constanta or Timisoara).
If you’re heading for Transylvania, it may be much cheaper and quicker to fly to Budapest in Hungary, and take the train for the remainder of the journey. From the West it’s easy to reach Budapest by train or bus (check out Eurolines’ site via the links page). From there it’s three hours by car or train, or three days by bicycle to the Romanian border over the flat pusta. Trains leave Budapest for Oradea - Cluj - Targu Mures (in Transylvania) and (from a different station!) for Arad - Sibiu - Bucharest (Southern Transylvania and Wallachia). Cheapest is to buy a ticket to the last station on the Hungarian side, and to buy a ticket for the Romanian stretch from the Romanian conductor with the money you change at the border (see border/customs). Cycling over the border is a nice way to ‘feel’ the time zone. From the western-feeling Hungary, you’re set back years when heading into Romania. Here you clearly see that Romania is ‘Eastern Europe’, and Hungary is not. Bear in mind that the track to Wallachia (Bucharest) crosses at Lokoshaza, where there is no road crossing. Get off earlier at Gyula or Bekescaba and head east.

Borders, visa and customs

The main border crossings from Hungary into Romania are Bors and Szeged. The former is on the main rail and asphalt routes to Transylvania (Oradea is just 10 km away), and can be busy.  The latter is only accessible for trucks; cars, buses and cyclists are supposed to cross at Battonya/Turnu, 40 kilometres to the north. More to the north are the Varsand - Chisineu or the new and peaceful Gyula/Sarkad/Salonta crossings. North of Bors you can also enter near Debrecen (H) or Satu Mare (R).
Visas are required for most foreigners. Dutch people can buy one easily (pay, wait for the stamp and leave) at the embassy in The Hague. At the borders (road, train and airport) visa are also available for the same price (September 1997: DEM 61 or the equivalent in USD); pay in cash. On road crossings, pay first to receive a small stamp, and then go to the customs officers to get the actual visa stamp. In the train, the customs officer drops by. The snag is that these visas are valid for one month only. For a three-month visa you’ll have to go to the embassy. If you want to lengthen your stay or if your visa expires can buy a new one for the same price in one of the district capitals. Romania was planning to stop issue visas at the borders; fortunately, thy didn't carry out the plan, so you can still get your visa at the border (updated May 2000). Ironically, it's the European Union that wants Romania to make passing the borders more difficult. They're worried about Romania becoming a transit country for drugs, weapons, refugees and the like. Hands up all who think that stopping issuing visas to tourists at the border will help. Also interesting are the rumours that 1) Romania is considering abolishing visa for EU citizens and 2) the EU is also thinking about abolishing visa for Romanians. Now that would be nice.
Crossing the border is usually easy and quick. In summer the colons of Turks going home for summer holidays can cause long delays. Cyclists can simply skip the lines and arouse no suspicion at all. Changing money is possible at good rates at most crossings. Don’t forget your receipt. The customs officer that sells you the visa in the train can sometimes also legally change money with you.

EU visa policy consequences for Romanians

For Romanians, the European visa policies are quite disastrous. Out of a popular fear of a horde of impoverished Romanian barbarians invading Europe, Euro-commissioner Van den Broek keeps the EU firmly closed. Apparently Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks and Poles already have reached the required level of civilisation (and thus can get into the EU without problems), but Romania and Bulgaria have to wait.
Romanians have to go through a hell of bureaucratic procedures before they can acquire an EU visa. They need an invitation from someone who’ll guarantee to pay the costs if the Romanian causes trouble, have to pay an impossible amount of money for the visa (half a months wage), and have to go to Bucharest several times to arrange the paperwork. Until recently, Austria also required a transit visa including an insurance so that Romanians, who of course are all potential criminals, wouldn’t blow up their country.
All irony put aside, the effects are serious. Romanian youngsters can’t have a look over their own borders. Most people in Romania have never set foot outside their country and as a consequence the ignorance about life and society in the West remains. You could say that, just as in the eighties, the TV series Dallas is the main source of information of how people live outside Romania. Therefore I wasn’t surprised to meet a group of racist youth in 1996, who had genuine nazi sympathies: homophobe, anti-Jew, anti-gypsy, and full of dumb conspiracy-against-the-Romanian-nation myths. The ‘strange’ thing was that they had never seen a black or gay person in their life, and had never crossed the border. I’m convinced that more glasnost from the West could prevent such ideas from growing. And of course, everybody knows that the people that really want to cross the border (criminals, refugees, drugs-couriers, politicians, etc) will get across anyway by bribing the utterly arrogant and stupid border guards. So this is a piece of European policy to be really proud of…

Money and prices

The easiest way of acquiring Romanian Lei (singular: leu) is by taking bundles of cash money into the country (exporting lei is forbidden, so you can’t buy any in advance... it would be stupid too, because it devaluates all the time). It’s wise to take new USD or DEM bills (crumpled ones are sometimes refused). Don’t take other currencies like Dutch Guilders, French Franks, etc, because USD and DEM will have a much better exchange rate. For some obscure reason you still always have to show ID when you change, and will have to keep the receipt to show authorities that you haven’t changed illegally (which is very risky and won’t get you more money, anyway).
Travellers Cheques are accepted in quite some banks and exchange offices, but you’ll have to pay for the transaction by means of a commission or a bad rate. Prepare for a long wait, as lots of documents have to be signed and countersigned, and maybe you'll have to pay double commision: one for getting the amount in dollars, and again for changing to lei. Avoid!
Since 1996 a growing number of cities (by now all big ones) have ATM’s (or bancomats) where you can extract money safely, at the rates of the National Bank. Dutch PIN-cards (featuring the Maestro, Cirrus or EC logo) work on every bancomat, but I don’t know about the American VISA system. See the link page for locations.
Romania is a cheap place to visit. Most of your expenses will be on the visa and accommodation. Food is very cheap, as long as you stick to Romanian products. Imported yoghurt, deodorant and batteries are just as expensive as at home. Markets are the budget places to get fresh fruit, veggies and other things for a bargain. Restaurants in Romania are cheap, but the choice is sometimes limited, as is the creativity of the cooks.

Buying food and other stuff

Getting food can be a small problem in rural areas. There are not many shops, as most farmers are self-sufficient and don’t need to buy anything but salt, sugar and sometimes bread. Asking around in a village may lead you to someone who is willing to sell something. The markets of towns and cities are the best place to get vegetables and fruit, that tastes much better than what we can get in Western Europe (well, Holland anyway). In Romania the cucumbers and tomatoes taste like something more than water. Or try the light green peppers (‘paprika’, or ‘erdei’) to go raw with bread, unions, sheep cheese and tomatoes. Don’t forget to take some bags when you visit a market, you don’t always get one. In cities the shops have a wide range of food and other products on offer (other than before 1989 and in the first years of ‘democracy). Jam, pasta and vegetables in glass pots are widespread (maybe they just don’t get sold?). Western makes of camera films are now widely available in the cities. Mind the expiring date on the package when you buy, though.
After rain, whole villages are mobilised to gather mushrooms and other forest products. The harvest is then laid to dry on car bonnets, and used as a replacement for meat. Look out for these delicious mushrooms at local markets, or gather them yourself. Make sure a Romanian get a look at your findings before you eat them, as there are some quite poisonous mushrooms that look a lot like the yummy ones.

Bikes on trains

Travelling on trains with your bike is easy and cheap. Even with a bike a trip of a few hours won’t cost more than a few USD's or DM's. Officially, you have to be present hours in advance (or, in case it’s an early train, deliver the bike the previous evening), but in practice showing up an hour before departure is fine. At small stations, you buy your ticket and two slips of paper for your bike at the same time. In larger places you may have to go to a separate baggage room for the bike-tickets. You give one of these papers to the baggage-person when loading your bike onto the train, the other is meant for getting your bike back (losing this will cause a lot of problems). Usually, you’ll be requested to remove your bags and loose things like speedometers. Officially, you can only use trains that have a special baggage carriage, but a little goodwill from the railway personnel, an impressive plea stating you’re all the way from outside Romania and/or a small extra fee for the conductor will do the trick nicely. The timetables should state which trains have these carriages, but these are not always correct. In that case, make a fuss. If there’s no carriage, two bikes fit neatly in the first or last doorways.

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Last modifications: 14-5-2000