Romania 2024

By Colin McFadden

One wonders how often someone ends up in Bucharest, wondering where the Danube is? I’ll admit, I didn’t know a lot about Romania prior to this trip. And, admittedly, it wasn’t a destination at the top of my travel todo list. This trip was primarily about attending the TRACE conference, which focuses on dendrochronology. I’ve supported dendro research for years, and I was curious to hear what the movers and shakers in the space were talking about. Also, I had been awarded some funding which was going to get swept at the end of the fiscal year. The stars were aligned! I put together a proposal to share some of our work, got accepted, and made my plans.

The conference itself happened in Brașov, a city of around 250,000 people in the Carpathian Mountains of the Transylvania region. Knowing I needed to end up in the mountains anyways, and wanting at least a day to adjust to the timezone before the conference, I hatched a bit of an adventure plan.

A few years back, I got a chance to drive what Top Gear had decreed was the Best Driving Road in the World, from Davos to the Stelvio Pass. However, shortly thereafter, the Top Gear boys decided that actually the best driving road in the world was the Transfăgărășan highway in Romania. Which, conveniently, is located in the Carpathian mountains.

After a mostly easy travel day (Schiphol was a mess, but the lounge made it better), I landed in Bucharest around 6pm. I got my rental, a Hyundai Bayon, and set off. The Bayon isn’t sold in the US, and slots in below the Kona in their lineup. It has less than 100 horsepower, but like all Hyundai/Kia products has a far better tuned chassis than you might expect. And wireless CarPlay! All the ingredients for a good trip.

For my first night, I had basically tossed a dart at a map, selecting a hotel in a town near the base of the mountains and near the Transfăgărășan. After about 2.5 hours of driving, I made it to the Hotel Subcarpati, had a late bite, and went to bed. I got up early and set out for the mountains. While the goal was to drive the whole Transfăgărășan (about 150km), I was pretty sure that wouldn’t be possible. Due to the high altitude and risk of avalanches, the full road doesn’t officially open until July. While I’d heard mixed things about what exactly “closed” meant, I wasn’t looking to push my luck with the Romania police.

Within about 20 kilometers of leaving town, the road started twisting and turning up into the mountains, sometimes literally doubling back on itself at different levels through bridges and tunnels, like an Escher painting made from communist concrete. It passes over a massive dam and then along a reservoir, before gaining more elevation and opening up into higher speed flowing sections. Along the way, the roadside is dotted with brown bears – apparently Romania has half of all the brown bears in Europe, and these populations have a long history of coexistence with humans.

I was able to drive about 100km before reaching a roadblock. While it would have been easy enough to drive around and continue on, I decided not to push my luck. Instead, I headed back down the road and stopped off at the Treehouse Village, a gorgeous complex with a cafe and cabins tucked in the woods. They had a wood fire going, fresh cake, and incredibly fast wifi – a slice of heaven.

So how does the Transfăgărășan stack up? I’d love to drive the full thing someday, as I suspect I missed the very best bits. But even the bit I drove was stunning, and with far less traffic than the Italian roads – an occasional Skoda, and plenty of motorcycle tourers, but no RVs or petrified tourists.

The little villages you pass through driving in the mountains have a real “back in time” quality – Romania is known for its unique church structures, including massive wooden churches, and fortified churches (churches with defensive walls). You see plenty of folks using donkey carts and traditional farming techniques as well.

From the Treehouse, I charted a course towards Brașov with a stop in Bran. Bran is well known because it’s the home of “Dracula’s Castle.” “Dracula’s Castle” has rather little to do with Dracula (either the real one or the fictional one), aside from being a castle in Romania. I wasn’t actually interested in the castle, but Alltrails had pointed me to a hike in the forests above the castle. I’d been hoping to hike around the Transfăgărășan, but most of the best trails were just above the road closure (some only a few kilometers – a shame). The three hour drive to Bran was relatively easy – the roads were barely less dramatic than the Transfăgărășan, except they had logging trucks and tankers. Passing a semi on a twisty mountain pass with a 92 horsepower Hyundai demands a certain level of bravery.

The hike itself was a pleasant trudge up a mountain in a coniferous forest. I was alone the entire time, and made it about 5 miles in before increasing rain and a desire to get down before dark made me turn around. The full hike would have taken twice as long, so I knew that wasn’t an option.

Tree Nerds

I made it to Brașov and got checked into my hotel, then caught up on email and got ready for the conference.

The conference itself was a real delight – about 50/50 between “professionals” (faculty) and PhD students, from 42 different countries. I’ve never been to an academic conference in which every speaker (bar one hilarious Italian) stuck exactly to their allotted time – a real miracle, and it kept things moving. It was also fun to meet people only to have them say “oh you’re the one who did X!” – turns out, some folks know about our work. The three days flew by. Unfortunately, due to some work constraints, I mostly spent my evenings on Zoom calls at my hotel, instead of socializing with the group. But, given that the group was mostly young Europeans, perhaps that’s for the best – somehow they managed to say out until 4am clubbing, and still show up for an 8am keynote. I think I’d be dead.

On the second day of the conference, I did join an evening excursion for a walking tour of Brașov. It’s an interesting city – settled by Germanic folks, it escaped some of the worst architectural atrocities of Romania’s 20th century and retains its historic old town and remnants of its city wall. It feels like it could just as easily be in northern Italy, Germany or Austria, except with more affordable food.

I did skip out on one conference session – stable isotope analysis was just a little too far over my head – and visited the Traditions of Communism Museum. It’s a fascinating space – run by a nonprofit organization, it works to capture personal histories of life under the communist regime. The small museum is filled with objects from daily life, and you’re encouraged to touch and interact – open chests, peak inside suitcases, etc. The walls are covered in personal stories about experiences during those times – struggling to find food, horrific policies aimed at boosting the population size, and building communities in secret. It was equal parts “This is the America Republicans Want” and “This is the Cuba I Just Visited”.

On to Bucharest

Friday night, after the conference wrapped up, I jumped in the car to head for Bucharest. The two hour driven ended up taking closer to four, for reasons that were never really clear – an hour and a half in stop and go traffic, and at the end of the line, no clear cause. I did go through the village where “Wednesday” was filmed – they’re obviously hoping to capitalize on the fame.

I made it into Bucharest around 10pm, doing my best to navigate an unfamiliar city in darkness and light rain. I checked into the hotel (an old mansion, exuding faded luxury) and crashed out for the evening.

Saturday was my day to see Bucharest, and I did my best to get a feel for the place. The first thing I learned is that Bucharest is not a city of early risers (as I later learned, it’s a city of night owls, and apparently very few CEOs). I did manage to find one coffee shop open before 9am, and then got a pastry from a bakery. Romanian bakeries are generally just windows in storefronts – the goods on offer are displayed in the window, and you order from the street. Killing time while waiting for more things to open, I did a lap of the area and did some reading in Cișmigiu gardens.

Around 10am, I was able to get a donut (it was national donut day!), and then started a walking tour via VoiceMap. The tour did a good job of providing an overview of the city – especially its 19th and 20th century history. It was known as “little Paris” in the 19th century, with buildings designed by renowned French architects. The 20th century was less kind – bombings in the wars, and then the communists.

While Romania wasn’t part of the USSR, it was impoverished by the need to pay a war debt to the Soviets. Then Nicolae Ceaușescu took power in the 1960s. Initially beloved by the West for his “communist but willing to criticize the Soviets” attitude, he later became infatuated with North Korea – both the “god emperor” status of the Kim family, and the extreme concrete brutalism. Much of Bucharest was bulldozed to make space for concrete tower blocks, and the massive Palace of the Parliament (second only to the Pentagon for square footage). In 1989, the Romanian people revolted and, on Christmas Day, executed Ceaușescu and his wife.

The walking tour did a good job of covering that history, and the monuments to the various moments in Romanian history. The tour ended in the old town, one of the few bits to escape brutalism. My first reaction was “wow, this place is dead”. Turns out, I was just there too early! One notable feature of Bucharest are some fantastic bookstores – multiple stories, gorgeous architecture, and diverse selections. In the old town, I visited Cărturești Carusel.

After the walking tour, I found some lunch and then visited the Bucharest City Museum, curious to learn more about the history of the city. I felt like there were some echos of our experience in Vilnius a few years back – Romania is clearly still in the process of grappling with its 20th century history, and the city museum had some glaring gaps. Much like Lithuania, Romania had a ..shall we say… nuanced relationship with Germany during World War II. Nuanced in the sense that they were very pro Nazi up until the end, then switched sides in 1944 when the writing was on the wall (somewhat in the hopes of avoiding punishment). Romania provided the third largest army for the Axis, and nearly 400,000 Romanian Jews were killed. The museum mostly skips over those bits. The city does have a newer Jewish museum, but I wasn’t able to visit (closed Saturdays).

On a lighter topic, after the museum I grabbed some cake and explored more of the city, before ducking back to my hotel to avoid some big storms. Fortunately, the storms brought the temperature down – the day started in the 90s and very humid. As I was heading back out, the woman at the front desk gave me a tip about an evening party happening in a nearby park. Every Friday and Saturday, the streets around Unirii park are closed, vendors setup selling toys and food, and everyone just hangs out. The fountains in the park perform a music and light show, people pose for instagram, families have picnics, etc. A nice way to see another side of the city. I also took a stroll back through the old town, which in the evening is totally packed with outdoor restaurants and people partying.

That about wrapped up my visit – I was out of the hotel at 4:30am to make my flight, had a long layover in Paris, and now I’m Minneapolis bound.

Obviously I can’t make any big statements about Romania after such a short visit, but it definitely sparked a lot of interest. There are endless opportunities for hikes, mountain biking, climbing, and so on. And the cities in the north of the country have a real “back in time” feel which would be fascinating to explore in greater depth.

In terms of tourist logistics, everything about the trip was just as easy as traveling in Western Europe – in some ways, easier. Most folks speak good English, the Romanian currency makes things affordable, and European Union money means the infrastructure is robust. I wouldn’t hesitate to point anyone towards Romania for a European adventure without the European crowds.

3 thoughts on “Romania 2024

  • Susan June 9, 2024 at 10:59 am Reply

    Wonderful! I’m so glad you did this trip and can’t wait to hear more. Your photos are amazing — that sure was a lot of sheep! You packed a lot in to just a few days — very nice! I appreciated your historical overviews and the hinted comparison to your time in Cuba.

  • Susan June 9, 2024 at 11:10 am Reply

    PS: I’d love to see your poster sometime. (For those who haven’t scanned through the program, it was called “Building Robots with Robots”.)

  • Deb June 9, 2024 at 1:23 pm Reply

    Love this, Colin! You certainly did a lot…and no leeches! Would love to hear more about your dendocrinology work.

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