We entered Romania in late June, 2003, from the north eastern portion of Hungary. The Danube River drains the entire country except for the Black Sea Coast and covers 2,850 kilometers in its run through the country. The land mass of the country covers 237,500 square kilometers (147,575 square miles). About a third of the country is occupied by the Carpathian Mountains, another third by hills and flat land with orchards and vineyards and the final third is a crop growing plain - we saw lots of corn and wheat being grown in addition to hay and straw for the animals.
We were told that there is a lot of wildlife in Romania but all we saw were the numerous stork nests that were built on top of platforms that people had erected on the top of telephone and electric poles. Each nest that we saw had at least one and usually two chicks in it. We last encountered this number of stork nests when we were in south eastern Spain in 2001. The Delta region to the east also had a fair number of birds as we saw flocks flying overhead.
Our first experiences in Romania made us feel like we had entered a time warp. Our first impression was that the country was similar to Mexico. The condition of the roads is one thing that lead us to feel this way as most were very worn with lots of potholes. We drove through a couple of villages off the main road that had never been paved. Communities along the main roads were aligned along the road for the most part and rarely had side roads. When there were side roads, they were not paved unless it was a city.
One thing we noticed about Romania is that motorcycles are not very prevalent. During our first week of travel in the county we only saw five other motorcycles - three from Germany and one from France. Only one of them had a Romanian registration. We did see about a half a dozen scooters during the week.
The next thing that was obvious was the number of horses (and oxen and donkeys in some areas) in use to work the land and haul people as well as farm products between the fields and the homes. In our first two days we covered just over 400 kilometers and we saw two tractors. We gave up trying to count how many horses were on the road pulling wagons - not to mention all the horse excrement that was all over every road we traveled on. The people we saw working in the fields were usually cutting the hay with scythes and using plows pulled by horses or oxen. Whole families were out in the fields turning the hay with homemade rakes and the dried hay was thrown by pitchforks onto the wagons. We saw only a handful of people cutting hay with a gas-powered cutter. The day we rode through the central part of Romania we counted 20 tractors being used, the most we saw the whole time we were there.
It was common to have cattle and horses freely grazing along the road, often not tethered at all. Fencing was rare and animals were prevalent. Chickens, ducks, geese, dogs, sheep, horses and cows could be expected at any time. In many areas people put a lead on their cows and walk them along the road to eat the grass - we assume these are people who only have enough land to feed themselves, so must take the animals elsewhere to graze. And they would often walk great distances to do this; we often would see a man or woman leading 2 or 3 cows grazing along the road and we could not see a dwelling anywhere nearby, then would come upon a small community several kilometers down the road where they must have come from. Imagine doing that every day so that your livestock get enough to eat.
Then we had the opportunity to meet the people. The first town we went into after crossing the border (which was very easy and took less than one hour for the formalities and the purchase of green card insurance for the bikes - no visa required for holders of American passports) was Satu Mare which is just 10 kilometers from the Hungarian border. When we stopped to purchase our insurance after we crossed the border we were inundated with locals who all wanted to see and touch the bikes. This is something that continued everywhere we went. We stopped at a bank in Satu Mare to exchange some Euro (there was no exchange at the border) and Verna got to entertain the local kids while Jim went into the bank to exchange €150.00. When he returned the kids all left Verna and came to him but it did not phase him at all. He felt like a million, quite literally, because his €150.00 brought him 5,658,000.00 LEI. At 37,720.00 LEI to €1.00 you almost need a large shopping bag to carry the local currency about. As we drove through the villages people stopped and waved, especially the children. Everywhere we went, the people were warm and friendly, admiring the bikes and wanted to know how much they cost (our pat reply: “too much”). A surprising number speak English, especially the young who learn it in school. They were all surprised we came from America because it is so far away, but they have good feelings for Americans because of the trade help we gave them for so many years.
Our first meal was a pleasant surprise as the food was tasty and the two of us ate for about $4, drinks included. While we continued to get good value for our money throughout our stay, we soon tired of the same fare being offered everywhere we went. You can have your pork, beef or chicken served fried, breaded or grilled. The potatoes were almost always French fries. For salad you can choose tomatoes, cucumbers, tomatoes and cucumbers, sour cabbage, or pickles. Very little herbs and spices were used and cooked vegetables were almost nonexistent. At the Black Sea we tried an upscale restaurant our tour book suggested, but actually found the same food at higher prices. They did have some quite a few fish dishes, mostly carp (which, by the way, is spelled “crap” in Romanian).
Most restaurants served the typical Romanian fare and sometimes a few pasta dishes. We found few restaurants of other cuisine (we did have one Chinese meal). Several fast food chains were present and seemed to be popular with the locals. We even checked in a McDonalds and found the Big Mac Meal Deal to be 85,000 lei (about $2.50) which sounds like a bargain to us, but is still fairly expensive to the average Romanian. And no, we didn’t eat there, we just checked the prices.
One problem we had in the restaurants was that they almost always brought us more food than we ordered. This is partly because Jim usually orders only an entree while Verna usually orders only a salad. They then bring us 2 salads and 2 entrees, assuming we each wanted both. At first we just accepted it, then began being very explicit in our ordering. We still got 2 of each, so we had to send it back. But it was so prevalent, we believe they were doing it to sell more food. We also had one instance where we were not presented with a bill, just a total amount that was well over our expectation. Jim called him on it and he immediately lowered the price by a 1/4. It was still a bit too much, but we didn’t feel like haggling over it.
The markets are small and have the basics, but not much variety (except in the area of sodas and snacks). We could always get fresh bread and cheese but fruit was either nonexistent or very poor quality. In some areas your best bet for fruit was to buy it along the road where residents were selling cherries or apricots from their trees, or raspberries they had picked from the wild.
We understand that Romania is hoping to join the European Union in 2010 and therefore is working hard to bring everything up to the EU standard in time. Part of the reason we wanted to visit at this time was to see Romania in its “natural” state before all the changes occur. After visiting, our impression is that there is an awful lot of work to do to bring the infrastructure and business practices up to the EU standard. However, we learned they are determined to have the roads improved by 2005 and we are hopeful that the business practices will follow suit. As one Romanian told us: “Come back in 5 years.” It is good to hear that type of optimism from the residents.
Our Lonely Planet tour book for Eastern Europe says that Romania has been referred to by many as a, “...best value destination for the adventurous budget traveler...”. We agree. It is a beautiful country that is best appreciated now for its natural and varied beauty. A visit here will remind the visitor of the way life used to be, then you can decide if you think we are better off now with all our modern conveniences.
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