Step back in time in Romania's Danube Delta
There are countries that you might know many people from, but about which you know very little, and Romania was one of those places for me.
When the chance came to visit, I was eager to see this land steeped in history and myth, with names like Transylvania, one that conjured up pictures to the gory-minded little boy I used to be, of phenomenal castles and a ruler who enjoyed steeping forest-loads of his enemies in their own blood.
Romania is a country I also knew to be in the midst of a socio-economic facelift not too dissimilar to the one Ireland has undergone, and who will take over the EU presidency next year. But essentially I was arriving in a place about which I had few pre-conceived notions and which I was keen to discover from scratch.
The first thing that took me by surprise was the heat - in early June, it was 35°C. Bucharest, the capital, is perhaps the country's best known tourist destination and there is a lot to like. From the get-go, it was a pleasant surprise - the architecture is an interesting mix of old and new, a 1950s' version of the future. It's a country that has known many influences throughout its history. It gained independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1878, there was a brief time of constitutional monarchy, much complicated by the country's location during two world wars, after which it was annexed by Russia and was under direct Soviet control until the 1950s. It was then taken over by Nicolae Ceausescu who ran things until the revolution in 1989.
This complex history is visible in Bucharest's architecture. The Arcul de Triumf is a good example, it was first built in 1878 as a wooden structure to commemorate Romanian independence, rebuilt in more solid form in 1922 and then again in 1935, the version of which is still in existence today.
Unquestionably, however, the city's most remarkable building has to be the Palatul Parlamentului or the Palace of Parliament which is, after the Pentagon, the second largest administration building in the world. At 330,000sqm, it took 13 years to build and was Ceausescu's pride and joy, even if he didn't live to see it completed. Regarded as a perfect example of Totalitarian Kitsch, there are guided tours and they really are worth it. The building houses, among other things, the Senate and several museums. It costs about €6m a year to heat and light - equivalent to a medium sized city. From the outside it is so big that it is all but impossible to get a meaningful photograph of it.
Bucharest is perhaps best known as a party town and this reputation is not unearned. There's a very busy nightlife with lots of bars and strip clubs, and like any big city, you do need to be careful of pickpockets.
Eating and drinking is good value and there is a huge range on offer. Romania is the sixth largest producer of wine in Europe, and the wine is good. It also specialises in a plum brandy called tuica, which is strong - and an acquired taste.
Inevitably, because of its location, right at the junction of eastern and western Europe, and indeed northern and southern Europe, Romanian cuisine is a real blend of influences. Ciorba are the traditional sour soups, the more exotic to our tastes made with tripe and calf's feet, and soured with either lemon juice, sauerkraut juice or vinegar. Pork and polenta, potatoes and cabbage are also common ingredients, but there is Turkish, Hungarian and Slavic food too. Eating out is good value and apparently there is no need to book in most restaurants.
There is, of course, far more to this huge melting pot of a country than just its capital city. Romania joined the EU in 2007, though its currency is the leu. However, the country has yet to have reap the full rewards of infrastructural investment.
Our next stop was one of Europe's best kept natural secrets, the Danube Delta. By road it took six hours, a trip that offered great views of a country in flux. Someone suggested it was like Ireland pre-EU, I am going to suggest it might be a bit further back still in parts of rural Romania. And this is part of its charm. We passed people on the road travelling by horse and cart, there were visions of old meets new in small rundown-looking villages where groups of old men gathered to smoke while sharing space with young women on mobile phones and dressed for a glamorous night out. It was like remote globalism.
The Danube Delta is the second largest river delta in Europe. We visited Murighiol where we boarded motorboats to explore the river. Each boat takes six people and in the wide open stretches, they do go quite fast, which is good fun. You need to allow a whole morning or afternoon for the trip and day trips can be booked to include travel to and from Bucharest. Lunch is included, and fish, obviously enough, makes up a large part of the menu. The main competitors for the fish that we were presented with were the pelicans which nest on the banks. There are many bird species and also beautiful lily pads when you get to the open water. May and September are considered the best months for this lovely trip but at any time, sunscreen and insect repellent are a must.
During lunch, a group of women in traditional dress sang to us. They were joined by children who soon took centre stage and displayed impressive core strength as they danced. These were Lipovans, members of one of the 17 ethnic groups who live in the Delta. Originally from Russia, they fled to the area, then still part of the Ottoman Empire, more than three centuries ago. They have lived peacefully alongside other ethnic groups and each set of traditions still survives. It's a timely lesson for us all maybe about how when you live and let live, everyone thrives.
Romania is a country full of surprises with a rich history. It really does make for an unusual trip, something quite different, it's both beautiful in places and an interesting journey to where the past meets the future.
A full range of destinations and tour options within Romania can be found at romaniatourism.com
Packages available include Bucharest Visit package, two-nights' accommodation, transfers and city tour from €84 per person.
If you wish to travel further afield, the Romania - Land of Wonders tour departs on selected dates in 2019 and costs €598pp sharing for seven nights.
Flights to Bucharest from Dublin are operated by several airlines. Options can be found at skyteam.com
Ryanair also operates flights direct from Dublin to Bucharest from €21.99 pp one way. See ryanair.com
This feature originally appeared in The Sunday Independent.
Sunday Indo Living