A number of friends and family expressed interest in my recent trip to Romania so I thought I would post some comments and observations in a folder entitled “European Travel”. One of the benefits of living in continental Europe is the proximity of so many European countries, including former Communist bloc regions. Cities such as Berlin, Warsaw and St Petersburg are only a short hop away. At three hours, Romania is a bit further, although odds are you will have to connect through major hubs such as
Frankfurt, Munich or Vienna.
I arrived at Henri Coanda Airport in Bucharest and was immediately struck by the size of the airport. Despite being the primary gateway to a country of almost 22 million, it is extremely small, handling only 2.5 million passengers per year. By comparison, Copenhagen (1.9 million) handles over 20 million passengers per annum.
Infrastructure and economic stability are not built overnight and Romania is only 20 years removed from a calamitous century it would rather forget. Despite their attempts to remain neutral, the country was decimated over the course of two World Wars followed by four decades of Communism, the last two under the iron fist and erratic rule of Nicolae Ceaușescu. Even Romanians my age recount the harships and fear they lived in during the latter part of his reign.
Economy and Infrastructure
The effects are still felt to this day. Outside of Bucharest, the country has no major highways and train service is limited and unreliable. Membership in the European Union (2007) has resulted in an influx of capital (both EU as well as institutional) but limited time coupled with the effects of the 2008 Financial Crisis have hindered the country’s ability to upgrade its infrustructure.
Economically, the country is still an emerging economy with GDP of only $11,600 (€8,000) per capita. By comparison, Canada has a per capita GDP of $39,400, the US $47,200 and Denmark $56,000. Colleagues said that average after-tax income is only €500/month ($720) and that the average person may spend upwards of 65% of their income on food.
Despite arriving in Bucharest, I did not spend any time there. Instead, we immediately headed north to Brasov, the southern gateway to the almost-mythical region of Transylvania. The only catch in traveling to Brasov is that the Southern Carpathians stand in the way. The Carpathians are a rugged mountain range extending in a giant arch from Poland in the north-west to Romania in the south. Towering up to 2,500 meters (8,200 feet), the Southern Carpathians, or Transylvanian Alps serve as a natural barrier between the plains of Wallachia and Bucharest to the south and Brasov and Transylvania to the north-west.
While getting through the Alps can be a challenge, imagine attempting the same in a country of 22 million with no highways. Now picture cars, trucks and horse and buggies all jockeying for position on the same road. It quickly became apparent that a TDI engine mated to a 6 speed standard is man’s best friend in Romania. I must say I experienced many white knuckles over the course of my stay and was glad for the hand grip on the passenger’s door. I often found myself halting conversations mid-sentence for what I assumed was imminent doom and was thankful I was in the experienced hands of my Romanian colleagues.
Despite my white knuckles, the trip from Bucharest to Brasov is truly spectacular, particularly between the city of Ploiesti and Brasov. Travel up through the mountains involves countless switch-backs as you climb the Prahova River Valley and I was frequently left breathless (and weak-kneed) staring at the river hundreds of meters below.
The crown jewel of the trip up to Brasov is Peles Castle in the resort town of Sinaia. Despite its recent history, Romania was once a prosperous country with its own monarchy. Some of its most prosperous days were during the rule of Carol I of Romania (1866-1914) who led Romania to independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1877. In addition to obtaining independence, one of his enduring legacies was the construction of Peleș Castle
in the mountains above Sinaia. Almost a century later, Romanian’s speak of him with a tremendous amount of affection, despite the fact that he was actually German. My colleague was able to drive me up for a quick look at the castle which is today a museum.
The trip over the pass from the Prahova River Valley down into Brasov is equally impressive and nerve-wracking. Brasov itself is cocooned in the crook between the Southern and Eastern Carpathians with the hills of Transylvania rising to the north-west. The city center is dominated by Tampa, a rounded monolith some 900 meters (3000 feet) above sea level. Despite being Romania’s 8th largest city (population 400,000), it is likely the best known after Bucharest and from my impression, also one of the wealthiest. A strong industrial history (trucks, heavy equipment, helicopters, etc) combined with stunning natural beauty and its location as the gateway to Transylvania help support a robust economy.
Unfortunately, I did not have much time to see all of the sites and attractions that Brasov has to offer. Although I did visit Council Square (Piata Sfatului) and was able to stroll the pedestrian-only shopping street Republicii, I was unable to visit the “Black Church”, so named because it was nearly destroyed by a fire in 1689. For film buffs, the movie Cold Mountain was shot in and around Brasov and the nearby ski resort of Poiana Brasov.