Tourism has not been a top priority in Romania during the last two decades. Fresh arrivals in the capital Bucharest cannot rely on any official tourist office, while simple souvenirs or postcards are almost impossible to find. The more provincial town of Sibiu, European Cultural Capital of 2007, shows that a few basic improvements can easily change the tide. Sibiu has positioned itself on the map of international tourism and their strategy is bearing fruit: the streets of Sibiu are full of tourists from Romania and all over Europe. Question of the day: what gave them the idea to come to Romania and how do they like it?...
During the last few decades, Romania has not always been able to show itself from the best side. Visitors from other countries oftentimes returned home with gruesome stories about a giant mess of corruption, crime, chaos, stray dogs, beggars and human aid reserves plundered by government officials. Visiting Romania is still quite an adventure, but more so in the positive sense. The country has not yet been flattened out by huge crowds of indifferent holiday makers. Romania is not far away from the rest of Europe and, for now, still distinctly different.
..are surprised to hear so much German being spoken in Sibiu
Compared to the rest of Romania, Sibiu stands out by its perfectly restyled city centre and also by its history. It is one of the main cities of Transsylviana, a region that has less than a century of Romanian history. It was only seized to Romania in 1918, following the imposed disintegration of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. Sibiu, named Hermannstadt in German, was traditionally inhabited by many ethnic Germans, but many of them chose to leave the Romania during the early years of communism. The ones who remained behind, or returned after the fall of communism, keep the German heritage alive. The mayor of Sibiu is German and many of the road signs are bi-lingual German-Romanian. Also, a big share of tourists come in from Germany.
Arne (22) and Jakob (22, both in photo), who are visiting Romania on a two-week trip backpacking trip, were surprised to end up in a bar in Sibiu where most of the people were speaking German: `We had not expected anything like that, like most of this trip is coming as a surprise. Curious to find out a little more about the Balkan, we spent two weeks traveling from Istanbul in Turkey, through Bulgaria and to Bucharest and Sibiu in Romania. First of all, we did not find Romania as poor as we thought it would be. It`s somehow comparable to Eastern Germany, especially Sibiu.`
Arne and Jakob only had one bad experience during their stay in Romania: `We arrived at the North Station in Bucharest and didn`t know where we would stay. Somebody, not even a taxi driver, offered us a ride to an internet cafe and he seemed very friendly so we accepted. After driving us around for a while, he charged us 100 Lei (30 Euro). He was very difficult about it and we ended up paying half of that, which was still a rip off. But it was also a bit na?ve and stupid to accept his offer. Unfortunately, we only realised afterwards. We were also surprised by old-fashioned border control between Bulgaria and Romania. We had to change buses at the border and the whole procedure seemed very random and inefficient.` During their stay in Romania, Arne and Jakob were further impressed by the amount of 80s and 90s music they got to endure.
Seeing tourists taking pictures in Romania is still a rare sight. Sibiu is putting an end to the absence of photographers in Romanian streets, as is proved by Alin (31) and many of his compatriots. Alin, a Romanian originally from Cluj-Napoca, does not think that tourists who have seen Sibiu will be able to figure out what the rest of Romania is like: `It`s quite different. Sibiu is a nice business card, but it is not very representative for the country. Still, it is one of the most international cities of the country. There are lots of German and Italian companies who manage their Romanian operations from this area. I would recommend tourists to at least visit some other places in Transylvania and also touch on some of the northern regions, which are very attached to ancient traditions, and the Black Sea coast if possible.`
`Romania could definitely use some more tourists. We have plenty of beautiful sites to show and if we had more tourists coming, it would be easier to raise the standard of hospitality as well as the infrastructure. I think we`re still a bit behind on that. For example, we have many mountain resorts that are only slightly less expensive than the ones in Austria but not much better. I know many Romanians who go to Austria for skiing, simply because they get much more for just a little more money.`
Alin is aware that the myth of Dracula could be a good magnet for tourism to Transylvania. `Not so much for the story itself. People might as well read that in Bram Stoker`s book. It vaguely relates to a story about a cruel local governor from the Middle Ages, but the story itself is mostly made up. Still, visiting Bran Castle, presented as Dracula`s home base, is well worth visiting even if you take away the Dracula story.
Around the country
Jeanet (29) from Ireland uses Sibiu as the last stop on the way back to Ireland. `I made a big tour around the country. Romania was one of the countries that still missed out on my list. I had been to New Zealand, to East Asia, to Mongolia and to many places around the globe but not Romania. I used the bank holidays of Sir Patrick`s Day and Easter to sneak away from Ireland for a moment and discover another country. Unfortunately, I`m flying home tomorrow.` Although Jeanet is traveling backpacker-style, she has a rolling trolley for the transportation of her luggage: `It`s more practical here. The road surface is good enough, which was not always the case on my travels in Asia.
Jos?-Maria (28), Jacobo (25) and Samuel (29) from Madrid were also new to Romania before they arrived in Bucharest a week ago. `We first walked around in Bucharest, then took an internal flight to the city of Iasi. We rented a car there and first drove the entire monastery route in the Moldova and Bukovina provinces. Then we descended to Sighisoara and Brasov, visiting Bran Castle, the mountain citadel of Rasnov in the area. We just left the car in Sibiu and will get back to Bucharest tomorrow to fly back to Madrid.`
The Spanish threesome were positively surprised by the language skills of the Romanians. `Even the old people! We could speak to almost everybody,` says Jacobo, who is also fluent in English and acts as a spokesperson for the group: `We learnt some basic Romanian words to get by, but it wasn`t much more than multumesc (thank you), da (yes), please and counting to ten. But we had no difficulties making ourselves understood anywhere. Romanian is a Latin language, so it`s easy to interpret.`
Although they got a much more positive impression of Romania than what they would have imagined beforehand, they will not change their opinion on Romanian people living in Spain. `Those are stealers, it`s probably a different type of Romanians who come to Spain. The Romanians we met here were all friendly. The country did not seem as poor as we had expected. In Madrid, we have people sleeping in the streets. I didn`t see that happen here, even though there was just as many beggars here as there are in Spain. Unfortunately, the country was not as cheap as we planned for. It was not very expensive, especially eating out, but we had the pleasure of booking our Madrid-Bucharest return flights for only 45 euros.`
Maja from Poland (26) and Sarah from the United States (24) came to Romania to visit their friend Constantin (22). `We both live in Switzerland so Romania isn`t even very far away`, they say. Maja and Sarah are particularly impressed by the Transylvanian architecture, with extended rooftops and `towers that seem to have run off a chess board`. `We are happy to be guided around by a Romanian. If we traveled around on our own, we would probably have had an entirely different experience. Now, everything is easy and comfortable. It`s nice to see that Romanians are actually alive. In Switzerland, they move in systems. Everything is organised`, Sarah says. Maja adds that she sees similarities with Poland in the way the cities have transformed into busy places that are constantly in development.
Nora (26) is visiting Sibiu with Ferdinand (33), who are both from Germany although Ferdinand works at the German embassy in Bulgaria. Nora is a fine art student and she has had a very good time in Romania so far: `I love all these villages where people are looking after their houses and gardens. The churches are wonderful and there seems to be a lot of money available for their refurbishments. Many new ones are being built, while older ones are repainted and redone. I haven`t been to Romania before and can only compare it to Bulgaria. I thought Romania was poorer than Bulgaria but it seems to be the other way around. At least, you can walk in the streets without falling over and we have had no trouble driving around in our own car either. Romania is much more alive than Bulgaria is. There are more children and there just seems to be much more going on. And the market square in Sibiu, it makes such a tranquil impression, even with all the people there.`
Christophe (36) met his Romanian girlfriend Daniela (27) during a work conference in Finland. `That was about a year ago, and this is now already my fifth time to Romania. It`s my first time in Sibiu, because Daniela is from Brasov which is where I spent most of my time during previous visits. It`s good to see how much progress is going on. If I look at Sibiu and my home town Dresden, they are just as beautiful. If people in Germany talk about Romania, they think of horse wagons and poor people. They don`t realise who rapidly Romania is changing. But then, only one of my friends had visited Romania before I did. And that was before 1989, so his impression is obviously different from what I see today. Romania lived a history similar to the Eastern German one. With one major difference: East Germany had straight access to development funds from Western Europe, while Romania has had to wait a long time before foreign investment started taking off. But it`s definitely happening now.`
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