2017-08-24 07:32:02
Personal Journeys: Cobblestones? Check. Castles? Check. Budget? Check. Why Romania Is Worth the Trip.

It rained almost the whole time, a bone-chilling drizzle. We lost our rental car reservation because my husband and I showed up without our driver’s licenses. I cracked my ribs on a waterslide. But in the end, Romania was our best family vacation yet.

Last fall we decided to pack up our three elementary-age children for a week in Bucharest and Transylvania. We mapped out a journey that included a couple of days in the nation’s capital city as well as a road trip to Brasov and into the Carpathian Mountains.

Why Romania? That’s the question all of our friends asked, those who bothered to give voice to what their raised eyebrows were already saying when we told them our destination. To them, it seemed an odd spot for a European vacation. But we wanted something a little off the beaten path, and we were in search of more time in nature than we thought destinations like London or Madrid could offer.

But the chief reason we picked Romania: It’s a bargain compared with other countries on the continent. Romania is the T. J. Maxx of European vacations. You can find British-looking cobblestone streets, old castles that rival those of the Loire Valley and Alpine-like snow-capped mountains. Designer attractions at a third of the price of its western neighbors.

We also needed to appease the most demanding of customers, our three active and difficult-to-impress children.

Coming up with the perfect family vacation had eluded us. We had dragged the kids to Rome and Athens on a 10-day self-guided tour of museums and archaeological sites that, judging from their whining, had fallen flat. They loved the gelato in Italy and found parks and playgrounds they happily tore through in Athens. But the crowds in what one of my daughters called the Sixteen Chapel were tough to navigate. The audio tour for young people at the Colosseum lacked the kind of lion-eats-man details to hold their interest. And in Greece, they loved the food but the hike up to the Parthenon was a slog, unlike the Athenian high jinks of the children’s Greek mythology graphic novels and Percy Jackson DVDs.

My husband diagnosed the problem as an urban one. Children need to roam free in nature, he argued, insisting that for this vacation we spend more time outdoors. As long as we did not have to sleep in a tent, I was game. A colleague of his had just returned from Romania and told him about mountain hikes, hearty meals and hotels that did not kill his budget. My thrifty husband was sold. That we could visit a Transylvanian vampire castle said to have inspired the Dracula story was a bonus for our 10-year old son and 8-year-old twin girls.

Our plan involved a quick stay in Bucharest and a drive through the Carpathians where we would hike, wander through castles and, for a grand finale, go on a bear-watching trek.

Our trip started to go sideways almost immediately. But it wasn’t Romania’s fault.

We landed in Bucharest and soon realized that my husband had left his driver’s license back home. I was of no use. My license had been stolen the week before, when I left my wallet on the seat beside me at a cafe in Berlin. Don’t judge; I’m the West Africa bureau chief for The New York Times and travel a lot, which means I sometimes let my guard down when I get tired.

At the airport, we tried sweet-talking and then arguing with the car rental workers who were not willing to bend the rules. The agents were unimpressed by the printout of my temporary driver’s license. We panicked. Our whole trip was in trouble.

Then it came to me: One trick we had learned was that splurging on a hotel after a red-eye flight seems to make everyone happy. The plush bathrobes. The chocolates on the pillow. The powerful Wi-Fi signal. And guess what fancy hotels are good at? Making guests happy.

We had booked a room at the Grand Hotel Continental, an opulent 1800s-era hotel, and the lovely receptionist was more than pleased to help us right our rental-car wrongs. Soon enough, I was sitting in the marble lobby across from a man in a black leather jacket who rented me a town car after unquestioningly accepting a license that looked as if I had typed it in my mom’s basement. Perseverance triumphed. And the hotel was wonderful — old and ornate but not rundown, and the rate was a relative bargain compared with the snazziest hotels in Vienna or Berlin.

Automobile secured, we spent the afternoon in the drizzle wandering old Bucharest and stumbled into the Caru cu Bere restaurant in the district of Lipscani. We had no reservation and what seemed like a school-field-trip number of children in tow compared with the rest of the clientele, all childless. The tall ceilings adorned with stained glass and dark wooden balconies made it resemble the nave of a chapel more than the late-1800s belle époque bar that it is. My children thought it was gorgeous. The patrons slurping tall beers at the bar cringed at the sight of us.

We were quickly ushered into the basement, where service was slow but the food was hot and heavy, just what we needed after the cold rain. We nibbled cuts of pork, including cheese-stuffed pork sausages, hearty pork and bean soup, all for a fraction of what a similar traditional French meal would have cost us in Paris. We staggered back to the hotel happy.

The next morning we headed for the mountains. As the only licensed driver among us, it was up to me to get us there, a daunting task if you believe the online reviews of traveling in this country.

“If you’re going to drive in Romania, the first thing you want to keep in mind is that it’s not driving so much as it’s like being in a nightmare carnival arcade,” read one.

But I’m here to tell you that if you’ve ever been behind the wheel on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway in New York, you can handle Romania. The biggest problem along the Dambu Morii Highway outside Bucharest involves drivers who are fairly aggressive at passing. Once you catch on to that, driving is a piece of cake. Even in a car that resembled something out of the detective unit at Brooklyn’s 77th Precinct.

We whizzed by snow-haired women who looked as if they had walked out of a painting of 1600s-era peasants, selling chrysanthemums and moonshine roadside. Their home brew was toxic; it tasted like rubbing alcohol with a splash of prune juice.

After about an hour of curves that devolved into hairpin turns, we started seeing signs for castles and decided to pull over at one, Peles Castle, near a town called Sinaia. King Carol I, Romania’s first king, had scouted the site for its mountain views, according to tourist websites. A thrifty guy, he built the castle with its pointy towers on a budget, rejecting the first three blueprints as too expensive. The castle has served as summer residence of Romanian royalty.

We wandered through light rain up a steep, slippery hill to the entrance, where we joined a group of Chinese tourists on a guided walk through some of the 160 or so ornate rooms, many themed after European countries. The children loved the Turkish room with its intricately colored tiles and lanterns. The thrones and crowns and chandeliers along a mirrored hall were another big hit.

We drove to our Airbnb rental, a lovely three-story home with a fireplace tucked at the base of the mountains outside Brasov and a less than five-minute walk from the trail head of Seven Ladders Canyon.

Our children are closeted lovers of hiking. They loudly protest the mere mention of going on a hike, but once they’re out and moving, they enjoy the freedom of running ahead on a trail, splashing through rivers and finding sticks to commission for sword fights. The real key for them is having a goal to reach on a hike. We weren’t sure what the Seven Ladders were, but they were enough of a mystery to motivate them.

We took advantage of our only sunny morning to set out on the trail, where we watched shepherds guiding huge flocks across the impossibly sloping sides of mountains. The meadows were speckled with mounds of mud, signs of wild boars that had been rooting around for food. We were careful to avoid run-ins with protective sheepdogs and piles of bear poop that were just about everywhere.

The Seven Ladders were just that: long, steep ladders propped alongside raging waterfalls that sprayed cold water all over the freezing steel rungs, making them difficult to hang onto. The children loved the thrill of the climb and we scurried up the circuit, and then did it again before our hands cramped.

For dinner we drove our mud-splattered car into Brasov, where we wandered the old town square before settling on a Mexican-Romanian restaurant, because it sounded weird. We were escorted into the basement, again, for a dinner of mediocre guacamole and pork-based soup in a soggy bread bowl. But it was toasty warm in the candlelit cavelike room, and the ambience made the food taste better.

The next day we set out through the rain to Bran Castle, of Dracula lore. The actual tie to Dracula is a bit elusive. Vlad the Impaler, sometimes considered the inspiration for the Dracula character, is thought to have been briefly imprisoned in the castle. The structure itself fits the description of Dracula’s Castle in Bram Stoker’s writings: high above a valley atop a rock with a flowing river below.

We hadn’t wanted to freak out the children by inundating them with vampire tales. When reading them the story of the castle as we prepared for our trip, I had even censored the part about the belief in the existence of evil spirits called steregoi in the villages near Bran. Even so, the kids were a little nervous about setting foot in Dracula’s castle.

It turns out the castle isn’t that scary, and it’s not that much of a castle. It looked like a fancy old mansion. The interior was a little beat up but not in a creepy way. Signs posted throughout offered reminders that vampires were imaginary and cautioned of the building’s weak official ties to the Dracula story — until the top floor, which was papered with giant posters that lend credence to the story of Dracula and vampire legends. It left us all a bit confused.

We decided to ditch the spiritual world for the natural one. We got in the car for a long drive past speeding Mercedeses and clompy horse-drawn carts to an eco-lodge where we had reserved a guide to take us to see the brown bears of Transylvania.

The odds of seeing skittish animals in the wild while traveling with three noisy youngsters seemed slim. By the time we reached our guide, the kids had been cooped up in the car for a couple of hours. To make things worse, our trek was scheduled to start during the witching hour, 5 p.m., when children are worn out and getting hungry.

We scarfed down an early dinner and arrived at the site right at dusk, when the temperature was quickly dropping. The guide cautioned us to be quiet as we splashed through the wet fall leaves to what looked like a poacher’s stand, a stilted old wooden structure. We climbed the stairs and were instructed to install ourselves on a bench and remain as silent and still as possible behind a viewing window and wait.

“It could take a couple hours,” the guide said.

You’ve got to be kidding me, I thought. Two hours of stillness and silence with our own set of squirmy wild animals? The kids tried their best but it seemed as if every time they exhaled a foggy breath, the structure let out a loud creak. Forty-five minutes of whispered fights passed slowly.

And then suddenly three blobs stumbled into view — a mom and her two adorable cubs. We watched as they rummaged through the grass, the babies tumbling over each other — and gasped when we spotted a huge male bear stalking the little family from the hill above. He tore down the mountainside but the mom gathered her cubs just in time to sneak away. A happy ending to our very own private nature movie.

The next day things did not go so well. We had no real agenda and a long drive back to Brasov ahead of us, so we decided to go for a hike in a nearby gorge. The children were not pleased. At the trailhead they mutinied, refusing to budge. I could see their point. It was cold and raining and we didn’t really know where we were going.

After a forever-seeming 10 minutes of whining, hollering and tears, we led them on a forced march along an abandoned gravel road winding through the fog-wrapped trees. Bright orange and yellow late-fall leaves poked through the low clouds on the distant mountainsides like beams from a distant flashlight.

We piled into the car to head for what would be the best part of the trip for the young ones: Romanian thermal baths.

The descriptions sounded dreamy. Mineral pools, massages, water of varying degrees, all inside a temperature-controlled, weatherproof biospherelike dome, and outdoor hot tubs, too. The kids were intrigued by the mentions of a huge pool and water slides. It turns out Romanian thermals are all things to all people. The one in Brasov included a lap pool, a high-diving board and an outdoor pool where you could soak as the freezing air collided with the hot water, the steam rising around you.

Our children went straight for the tall, coiling water slides. In an act of solidarity, I promised to go with them. A sign at the top of the covered slide I chose was written in Romanian alongside a photo of a person sitting upright. The opening of the tubed slide was small, and I thought I should lie down to avoid whacking my head.

I later learned the sign was intended to ward off lying down, because that would be dangerous. This was confirmed by the rate of speed at which I hurtled downward. I nearly flew off the tall sides at the bottom and had a spectacular crash landing as my body crushed against one final curve before the beast spat me out into the pool.

When I came to, all I saw were the wide-open mouths of my family and a lifeguard, yelling that lying down was forbidden.

The kids were having too much fun for us to abandon the baths, so I gingerly went from pool to pool, trying to ignore my throbbing ribs. It was still pretty wonderful. There’s something satisfying about sitting in a warm pool watching the raindrops that had pummeled us the whole trip slide off the plastic bubble that enveloped us.

The next day, we rolled into Bucharest at dark, joining commuters at a bakery where we bought pretzels, apple pastries and cream-filled doughnuts. We spread them out on our hotel beds, the reward for a family vacation we finally got right.