Difference between revisions of "Romania"
Revision as of 20:55, 3 February 2006
Romania (România) is located in between Central and Eastern Europe. With a Black Sea coast to the east, it is surrounded by Bulgaria to the south, Serbia and Montenegro to the southwest, Hungary to the northwest, Moldova to the northeast and Ukraine in both the north and the east.
While its southern regions are usually seen as part of Southeastern Europe (Balkans), Transylvania, its largest region, is in Central Europe. Despite being regarded as a relatively backward tourist destination in the 1990s, it has recently begun to reinvent itself as a must-see on the European tourist itinerary, due to the fact that it is so diverse and unique. This is because, in one country, a tourist can see stunning mountain scenery, historical cultural sites such as the painted monasteries, beach resorts, and medieval towns. The country is also enjoying its highest living standard since Communist times, with foreign investment on the rise and the economy one of the fastest growing in Europe. This has given way to a series of technological developments. Therefore, we can see a fast-changing, booming Romania, and you will be amazed at how civilised, advanced, clean and of quality it is. Of course, along the way, you will be met with experiences that you are sure to remember for a long, long time.
Regions and Cities
The main destinations of tourist interest in Romania are:
The following are some possible itineraries for Romanian travelling:
Soviet occupation following World War II led to the formation of a Communist "peoples republic" in 1947 and the abdication of the king. The decades-long rule of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, who took power in 1965 and his Securitate police state became increasingly oppressive and draconian through the 1980s. The dictator was overthrown and executed in late 1989. Former Communists dominated the government until 1996, when they were swept from power by a fractious coalition of centrist parties but after failed reforms were replaced by the Social Democratic Party. 2004 elections brought to power an alliance formed of the historical National Liberals and Democratic Parties. They currently govern with the support of most minority parties in Romania. Compared to other countries in its region, Romania might seem to be quite well, with low unemployment and a higher standard of living than Ukraine, Moldavia or Bulgaria. However compared to Western Europe, Romania is still fairly poor.
Getting to Romania is easy from nearly all parts of the world, due to its position, as well as the fact that it is served by an array of transport types and companies.
Entry requirements to Romania in the past few years have been liberalised, and consequently, citizens of the European Union, United States of America, Canada, Japan and Switzerland can stay up to 90 days with no visa. Nationals from Turkey can stay up to 60 days in Romania, while those of most former-Communist Eastern European countries can stay up to 30 days.
These visa requirements are fairly stable, and are not set to change dramatically in the next few years, even though there is sure to be a change into visa requirements to countries that are joining the EU in 2004 and 2007. Romania will most probably enter the EU in 2007, and if it does, it is bound to change its entry requirements.
To make sure, check http://www.mae.ro/index.php?unde=doc&id=5466&idlnk=3&cat=5 before you travel - official visa information provided by the Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Romania has 17 civil airports, out of which currently 9 are served by scheduled international flights. Depending on you destination, you may choose to fly to Timisoara, Cluj-Napoca, Oradea or Sibiu (Transylvania); Bucharest, Constanta (southern Romania); Bacau or Iasi (eastern Romania). There are two important Romanian airlines: 1. Tarom, the Romanian flag carrier is based in Bucharest Otopeni and offers many international and domestic flights (www.tarom.ro). 2. Carpatair, based in Timisoara, connects this city with eight Italian and three German destinations, and also has collector/distributor flights to the following Romanian airports: Cluj-Napoca, Constanta, Oradea, Sibiu, Iasi and Bacau. See www.carpatair.com
Travelling inside Romania or to and from Romania by train is a fascinating experience, because they are one of the glimmering gems of this country. Train travel is usually comfortable, even though, on secondary lines, there is still rolling stock operating which is not up-to-standard. Most trains are increasingly becoming more punctual. A very new fast train called the Blue Arrow (marked as IC on timetables) is also available to most Romanian cities.
There are many international train services in Romania, including direct ones to Budapest, Belgrade, Sofia, Thessaloniki, Istanbul, Chisinau and Warsaw. Also, Romania is fairly well-connected with the European network. It is not generally advisable to travel by train to Bucharest from other countries, especially those in Western Europe, because of the huge distance of crossing Romania. However, international trains to Romania include EuroCity trains which are of a very high standard and night trains, so you will generally find yourself having a very comfortable journey. Also, trains are the ideal way of reaching cities such as Brasov, Sighisoara, Oradea or Cluj-Napoca from other parts in Europe. In 2003, Romania became a part of the Eurailpass offer so for non Europeans tourists it will be even easier to get there.
Travelling by car or coach is the easiest way and a vast majority, over 60 percent of foreign tourists use this way of transport. The steering wheel is on the left and European driver's licences are recognized by police. For Americans, a passport and valid US driver's license are sufficient for car rental. The vast overwhelming majority of all highways are only 2 lanes, but some national roads have 4 lanes. Usually, national roads connecting major cities are in good shape due to recent investment in national infrastructure.
Romanian drivers are very temperamental; they break every possible rule of driving. On the hightways, there are often 3 cars per lane of traffic - one in the left side of the first lane, one in the middle of the first lane and one in the right side of the first lane. Essentially, many drivers find it necessary to behave aggressively because it can be the only way to pass semi-trucks (lorries) on the 2-lane highways. City traffic is also typically chaotic because faded paint makes it nearly impossible to determine street lanes and local residents tend to drive aggressively. First time visitors who drive cautiously may initially find it difficult to adjust to either highway or city driving.
The traffic in the centre of Bucharest can be infernal and you may find it easy to waste time in traffic jams. While in Bucharest, seasoned travelers recommend walking, taxis, or the subway which has recently started a process of upgrading. The subway fare is still very cheap. Honking (tooting) is usual in Bucharest and other cities.
If you have a good car and you also like speeding be aware that Romanian police have recently bought very modern radars to catch speeding motorists. Speed limits are generally 100 km/h outside of a city and 50 km/h within a village. Some police cars are modern, while others are old Dacia cars. Although rare, some highway patrols have BMW bikes. On major roads, motorists in the opposite direction will sometimes flash their headlights to warn they recently passed a radar trap which may be just ahead of you. Highways and national roads can also be discretely watched by Police Puma helicopters, produced also in Romania. (Note: Americans will notice Romania substantially less highway patrol than the US.)
There is just one fully functional motorway, Piteşti - Bucharest, and a second one partially in operation, from Bucharest to Constanţa, to be completed in 2007. The Bors - Brasov motorway, also called the Transylvania Motorway, is currently the largest road project in Europe; it will connect the Hungarian / Romanian border with Oradea, Zalau, Cluj-Napoca, Targu Mures, Sighisoara and Brasov.
Most paved highway roads were once wagon trails which go straight through the center of many villages. Passing while driving is the norm rather than the exception as slow moving trucks, slower moving horse drawn carts, and non-moving herds of cows often frequent the major roads. Travelers joke that if you haven't experienced a possible head-on collision then you haven't been driving in Romania. Road closures and traffic delays occur frequently due to construction, rock slides, car accidents and the return of the cows from pasture to the villages.
Even though Romania has not been traditionally seen as a 'bus country', buses are becoming a more and more popular way to reach the country from overseas, especially from the Balkans and the former USSR, but although from Western Europe, e.g. Germany and Switzerland. Even though trains are still the most popular way of getting to Romania from Central Europe, due to good service, train services to the Balkans and former USSR are of a considerably poorer quality and are less frequent (mainly because railway infrastructure in these countries is a lot poorer than Romania's infrastructure). For this reason, a slew of private bus operators now provide quicker and arguably more comfortable coach services to and from cities such as Chisinau, Kiev, Odessa, Sofia and Istanbul.
A general rule of the thumb on whether you should use bus or train is this: if trains are available just as frequently, and at around the same price, and take around the same amount of time, then definitely use them. Otherwise, consider the buses.
Cruises on Danube are available, very expensive though, starting from Passau or Vienna and having a final destination in Danube Delta. These cruises will stop in every major port along the road, in Austria, Hungary, Serbia and Romania. There you can travel by rapid boats, fisherman's boats on endless channels to watch huge colonies of pelicans, cranes or small migratory birds. You can enjoy a local dish, fishermen's borsch, prepared using different species of fish, but take care, they use the Danube's river water!
Getting around Romania is relatively quick and efficient for the great distances that have to be covered in this country (this is after all, the second-largest country in Central Europe, after Poland). The transport infrastructure has been improving quite significantly recently, even though roads remain a weak point. The national roads have been upgraded but is far way till the highways that are still in project will be completed. Train travel, however, has improved dramatically.
The easiest, most comfortable and most rewarding way of travelling between cities is by train. Romania's railway network is one of the largest (the 4th in Europe) and most dense in Europe, with trains servicing every town and city in the country, and the vast majority of the villages.
Trains are run by the state carrier, Caile Ferate Romane, abbreviated as CFR. You can get tickets at the railway station or at a CFR agency, which can usually be found in the city center. For trains which require reservations (e.g. InterCity, Rapid) you can get the ticket for the same day only at the railway station and not earlier than 1/0.5 hour before the departure of the train. Tickets for train services on a future day are only available at the CFR agency, not at a railway station.
All CFR train services, except the "Personal" trains, which stop at every station and are awfully slow, are of an relatively high quality. The "Personal" trains stop at every station and are your only option when traveling to small villages, and, even though they do make for very original and memorable experiences, are usually not so comfortable and very slow, albeit very cheap. The other train types, which are, in order of quality, "Accelerat", "Rapid" and "InterCity" are usually of a high standard. If you can, use InterCity trains, which connect the hubs in Cluj-Napoca, Sibiu and Bucharest to other major cities. These trains are of a Western European standard and are incredibly clean and modern, with automatic doors, futuristic ecological toilets, air conditioning, ergonomic seats, free newspapers and all the other bells and whistles. Also, they are reasonably cheap and are increasingly used by Romanians (and tourists) on business trips. The "Rapid" and "Accelerat" trains should be your second choice - they stop at more stations, but serve more destinations, and, although being a little bit more traditional, are still comfortable, especially in first class. If presented with a choice of Intercity trains (Classic or "Sageata Albastra" - The blue arrow) it is advisable to choose Classic, as these are faster, more comfortable trains. Sageata Albastra are small 2-car diesel trains with slower service (120 km/h top speed in regards to 160km/h), In winter due to harsh climatic conditions(snow storms) huge delays are possible so avoid traveling by train or at least watch the weather forecast. In summer the trains and cars can run slower because the rails can be deformed by heat but delays are rather insignificant. The country is investing in upgrading its railways and railway stations. In some mountain cities the rail fans can travel by a small ecartament rail train, but these trips are only available for small groups and not for individual tourists. Groups can also rent the former Romanian king's personal train or Ceauşescu's private train but these trips are rather expensive.
If travelling by rail with a rail pass in Romania, it is compulsory to purchase a reservation on all "InterCity", "Raid" and "Accelerat". While cheap, they are only available starting from 60 minutes prior to the trains departure time.
For up-to-date timetable information, see the CFR Web site.
Travelling between towns by bus can often be the fastest and least expensive method. In the Romanian towns and cities, you can usually find a main bus station (autogara). There, buses depart for the the towns and villages in the nearby area as well as to other cities in the country.
Buses inside the cities are often crowded. This gives pickpockets good opportunities. The pickpocket problem seems to be not essentialy worse than in any other European city. Please, pay attention.
Taxis are relatively inexpensive in Romania. It costs about 30 Euro-Cent (1 leu/RON) per km or less, with about 1 leu/RON starting! The driver will try to cheat you if he sees you are a foreigner. Insist that he will use the meter, or have a romanian guide with you. Don't negotiate the ride fee in advance, as it may be 2-4 times higher (even more) than the real fee (even if it would seem cheap to you).
Hitchhiking is very common in Romania, although public transport here is cheap, so hiking is not worth it unless you want the experience of meeting new people. Romanians often use hitchhiking for their daily trips to the next village, town or city. It is customary to give the driver a tip to compensate for gas (petrol) costs. Usually it would be the fee you would give for a maxi-taxi on the same route; as of 2003, 80,000 lei/100 km was considered a normal price. It is possible to convince the driver to take you to a speciffic destination, but he may ask for a big fee, which you can negotiate.
Usually TIR trucks don't ask money (they're driving for their boss), and they tend to cover long distances. But you have to stand out as a foreigner, because many locals are also hitchhiking for short distances. Many drivers speak German quite well. Border crossings are good points to get their attention, as paperwork takes a lot of time. Numberplates have an indication of where the cars is coming from (or going to).
The official language of Romania is Romanian, limba română, which is a Romance language and the closest contemporary spoken language to Latin. Italian is the closest relative of Romanian, so speaking Italian would be of great help. Minority languages spoken in Romania are Hungarian, German and Romany (the language of the Roma, or Gypsies). English is fast growing in Romania, and most people, especially the younger generation, speak it with a considerable deal of fluency, both in speaking and writing. A well educated Romanian who graduated from an average university can speak English and another european language. Prior to 1990, French was the most common foreign language known in Romania, so someone over 40 will most likely understand French.
If you want to find out some common phrases/words in Romanian, see the Romanian phrasebook.
The national currency of Romania is the leu (plural lei), which, literally translated, also means lion in Romanian. On July 1st 2005, the new leu (code RON) replaced the old leu (code ROL) at a rate of 10000 old lei for one new leu. Old banknotes and coins remain legal tender until the end of 2006, see here for further information.
Romania is relatively cheap by Western standards - one US dollar buys about 3 lei and a euro buys nearly 3,5. With this, you can buy more in Romania then you can in Western Europe and North America, especially local products. However, be warned that although you can expect food and transport to be inexpensive in Romania, buying import products such as a French perfume, an American pair of sport shoes or a Japanese computer is as expensive as in the EU or those respective countries. Clothing, wool suits produced in Romanian under German Steilmann brand, Braiconf shirts, Gerovital cream, cotton socks made in Sibiu, a huge range of Italian shoes, white and red wine bottles, Capşa chocolates, Poiana Jacobs Suchard bars of chocolate, Sibiu salami, a wide range of local cheese, inexpensive Cisnădie leather jackets or expensive and fancy fur coats are possible good buys for foreigners.
Romanian transactions generally take place in cash. Although some places will accept Euro or USD you will generally be charged an additional 20% paying by this method and it is not advisabile. The best method is to pay by local currency - lei (RON). Credit cards are accepted in large cities, but only in hotels, restaurants, hypermarkets, malls. Do not expect to use a credit card at the railway station or at the subway. Gas stations and a great number of other stores accept Visa and Mastercard. Yet, you can find easily ATM machines all cities and sometimes even in larger villages.
When changing money, it is extremely advisable to change at change bureaus or to use cash machines (which will provide ready access to most foreign bank accounts). Absolutely avoid black market transactions with strangers: in the absolute best of cases, you might come out ahead by a few percentage points, but that rarely happens. Most apparent black marketeers are actually con men of one sort or another, who will either leave you with a bankroll that turns out to be full of worthless Polish zlotys or will simply engage you in conversation for a few minutes, awaiting the arrival of their confederates who will pretend to be the police and try to con you into handing over your wallet and papers. (This con game is known as a maradonist.). Exchanging money in the street is also illegal and in the worst case scenario, you might spend a night in jail as well.
You should shop around a bit for good exchange rates, some exchange offices in obvious places such as the airport may try to take advantage of the average tourist's lack of information when setting the exchange rate. Also, prior to leaving for Romania take a look at the official exchange rate on the National Bank of Romania's site for a rough estimate of what exchange rates you should expect (typical exchange offices should not list differences larger than 2-3% from the official exchange rate). Also, when picking an exchange office, make sure it has a visible sign saying "COMMISSION 0%"; Romanian exchange offices typically don't charge an extra commission apart from the difference between the buy and sell rates, and they are also required by law to display a large visible sign stating their commission, so if you don't see such a sign or if they charge something extra, keep going. Choosing a reasonable exchange office, which is not hard to do with the data in this paragraph, can save you as much as 10%, so this is worth observing.
Inflation has struck Romania in many places, and some prices are as high as those in Western Europe, but this is often reserved to luxuries, accommodation, technology, and, to an extent, restaurants. Salaries for Romanians have increased faster than inflation, resulting in an increased standard of living for them, but, for tourists, Romania is becoming increasingly pricey (luckily, with this comes higher quality as well). However, food and transport remain relatively cheap, as do general shopping, especially in markets or outside the capital Bucharest. Bucharest, as every capital in the world, is more expensive than the national norm, especially the city centre. In the past 2-3 years, Bucharest has become increasingly expensive, and it is expected to do so for some years.
Supermarkets & convenience stores
The best places to shop for food are farmers' markets. Food sold here is brought fresh from the country, and, by buying it, you are both supporting local farmers and consuming something that it fresh and in the overwhelming majority of the cases natural and organic. However, some tourists can't resist Romania's hypermarket temptation, especially in Bucharest. Hypermarkets are a relatively new thing in Romania, but this ensures that nearly all of them are so modern and sparkling clean, with brightly lit aisles, neat shelves and smooth-gliding carts, that you may find it hard to look away and head for the markets!
However, shopping in supermarkets is usually expensive, and not half as fun, as you don't have the chance to haggle. Despite this, all Romanian supermarkets sell products of European quality, and usually make for a very quiet, clean and white shopping experience that can best be likened to duty free shopping in airports at night.
Remember, however, to not confuse supermarkets with ancient food-stores called 'alimentara' - nowadays, 'alimentara' also refers to supermarkets, but there is a difference - supermarkets are usually large and brightly lit, with electronic checkouts and trolleys, while 'alimentara' are dim, old Communist-era shops that are a bit cheaper but a lot less fun to use. These shops, which can best be compared to cornershops, may be your best hope if living in the suburbs or in smaller towns. But, despite their seemingly poorer appearance, they sell good-quality food, and besides, most of them have been renovated anyway to the point that they are still not as aesthetically-pleasing as supermarkets but just as wide-ranging, modern and functional. In 'alimentara', expect strange systems of payment or selection: you may not be able to take items off of the shelf yourself, or one person may tally up your total before another handles the cash, etc. However, you may find that some of these are non-stop, so it would be the only place to buy something at 2 A.M. (yes, in romania there are shops open after 8 P.M).
Romanian food is distinct yet familiar to most people, being a mixture of Oriental, Austrian and French flavours, but it has some unique elements. The local dishes are the delicious sarmale, imported from Turkey, mamaliga (polenta), friptura (steak), and cozonac (a special cake bread baked for Christmas or Easter). Other dishes include a burger bun with a slice of ham, a slice of cheese and a layer of French fries, cow brains, ciorba de burta (sour tripe soup), an onion salad - diced onion served in a dish, tomato salad - diced tomato with cheese, pig skin - boiled and sometimes in stew, and drob(haggies) - a casserole made from lamb internal organs. Bread comes with almost every meal and dill is as or more common than salt as a flavoring.
Generally, there is good street food, including covrigi (hot pretzels), langoşi (hot dough filled with cheese), gogoşi (donut-like dough, coated with fine sugar), mici (hamburger patties in the shape of sausages), and excellent pastries.
Most restaurants in Romania, especially in more regional areas, only serve Romanian food, even though it is similar to Western European food. Especially in Bucharest, there is a wide variety of international food, especially Turkish, Chinese, Italian or French. There are also fairly plentiful international fast food chains. The interesting truth about these is that they are just nominally cheaper than restaurants, with the quality of the food being of an international standard but quite much lower than that served in restaurants. Therefore, go for the restaurants when you can - they provide a much more authentic and quality experience at prices that aren't too much higher.
The strongest alcohol is palinca, vina ars originated in Hungarian palinka, with roughly 60 percent pure alcohol, the next is ţuica (a type of brandy made from plums), approximately 40-50 percent, then comes the Romanian wine (Romania is the fifth world producer of wine, the best wineries being Murfatlar, Cotnari, Dragasani, Bohotin, etc.). Beer is also widespread.
Accommodation is available throughout the country in five star hotels in Bucharest and Mamaia or Predeal from famous chains like Intercontinental, Marriot, Athenee Palace Hilton, to 3 star hotel rooms well furnished and with rather poor service.
The oldest Romanian university is the "Al. I. Cuza" University of Iasi, founded in 1860. The University of Bucharest was founded in 1864. Bucharest, Iasi and Cluj are considered to be the largest and most prestigious university centres, with newer centres of education like Timisoara, Craiova and Galati emerging as cities with an increasingly larger student popultion.
The public education system is quite good, even though tuition is not compulsory. Universities have started to reduce the number of subsidies so students will, increasingly, have to pay the tuition. Highschools are public and provide good education, free of tuition. Elementary and middle schools are supported by local authorities budget. As with most nations, teachers complain about small salaries. Literacy is nearly universal. In urban areas there is quite of large number of people who have access to cable TV, Internet, people read newspapers and one in every two Romanians owns a mobile phone.
Emergency phone numbers
Romania uses the pan-European standard number 112 for all emergency calls since December 2004. Therefore, this is the only number you will need to remember for police, ambulance and the fire department.
Corruption is a relatively big problem in Romania in comparison to other European countries (though not in comparison to the world). Many visitors can possibly experience corrupt policemen and customs officials (Ofiţeri de vamă) first hand, even though this seems to be a declining problem. While it may be tempting to pay a bribe (şpagă) to smooth things along on your visit, you should avoid doing so as it only contributes to an already terrible problem. Also, corruption does not mean you can commit crimes, small as they be, in Romania, since not ALL people or policemen are corrupt, and you may be caught.
A piece of good advice for when you find yourself in the situation to be asked to pay a bribe (or just suggested) is to vehemently reject the proposal, stating clearly that you would never do that. Don't adopt a defensive attitude trying to explain the offender why you won't pay or trying to be too polite. Don't look or act embarrassed! A swift, determined and inflexible attitude, combined with the threat that you will immediately call the police, will almost surely make whoever is asking for the bribe stop and leave you alone.
Conditions in Romanian hospitals may vary from the very clean and sparkling, with all the latest technological utilities, to the downright drab, dark and cold. They are usually not worse than public hospitals in other parts of Eastern Europe, the USA or Australia. Some hospitals, however, may be, as aforementioned, uncomfortable, with dimness, temperature problems (hot in summer, cold in winter) and outdated equipment, although medical staff is usually experienced. Usually, however, you will not face problems such as significant lack of cleanliness, rats, etc. Also, hospitals are safe, in the sense that there is a very reduced risk of getting Hepatitis C or AIDS in blood transfusions (again, however, like in all countries, this does occur, but it is not a problem particular to Romania). Food served in hospitals is safe to eat, even though not particularly pleasing for the tastebuds (again, depending on the hospital).
Remember that your travel health insurance might prove to be insufficient if the medical condition is severe. In this cases, you will be asked to pay for the medical services, and prices are not very low compared to Western Europe.
Many people are prone to give "tips" because it betters their experience, enabling them to gain cleaner conditions and better service. However, again, tipping contributes to the problem of corruption and it should not be done - if no-one did it, the problem wouldn't be there. Remember that as foreigner the tip cant help you in a hospital, since at the end you will be asked to pay, if the medical condition was severe.
Dental procedures in Romania, especially those in private clinics, are of an excellent quality. In fact, many Western Europeans come to Romania to have their teeth done for the quarter of the price they pay in their home country. Quality is particularly high in clinics in Transylvania and Bucharest.
Romanians are quite hospitable. In the countryside and small towns, they welcome foreign tourists and, occasionally, they might even invite you for a lunch. As common in balcans, Romanians will insist when offering something, as no doesn't always mean no, they just thing it's polite for you to refuse, and polite for them to insist. Don't worry unnecessarily but still you should take some normal precautions to study your host first. In adult circles, men sometimes show their respect towards women by kissing their hand, a possible shock to some. It is common for friends to kiss both cheeks upon greeting or parting. Respect towards elderly is highly appreciated inside buses and subways. The phrases used to greet friends and strangers alike is "Bună ziua" (Boo-nah Zee-wah) which means "Good afternoon" or "Good day."