I’m a nature lover, and every time I have spare time I venture in the countryside or high up in the mountains for a portion of fresh air and the chance raise the optimism level with the delightful natural scenery. And not least, is a good occasion to discover new routes, that can be transformed into new ideas for tours for my futures guests. This is how I came up with the idea of a new tour, mixing walking in nature, wildflower and birds watching, and local food.
It is also an opportunity to meet the people of the countryside in their own environment. And it’s interesting to chat with them, as for them is a little bit weird that a stranger like me is interested in wandering like a lunatic from one village to another, when is so much work to do in the fields. After the first phrase ( and probably from the first glance), they understand that I’m from the city. And when I’m telling them and I’m organising guided tours in Transylvania their curiosity is mounting, as they want to know why a foreigner from the other corner of the world is interested to visit their land.
But is not only the interaction with the locals. As you walk outside the villages, you find yourself surrounded by a rich variety of wildflowers and birds that can be spotted by the curious eye of the nature lover.
Some wild animals ( deers, foxes, rabbits) can be seen too but is preferable not to stumble on bears or wolves. From the fauna, the easiest can be seen the birds, as their trill is revelling their position, but you need binoculars, to see them in the tiniest detail.
Regarding vegetation, Transylvania is blessed with a wide floral variety, as some of the meadows from the plateau and mountain pastures are either used for grazing ( mostly sheep and sometimes cows and buffalos) or for hay ( which is mowed by hand with scythes).
The best moment to spot the explosion of colours and scents is late spring – early summer (May -June). I prefer to wander mostly in May, as nature has that lush green colours, and the weather is still not very hot. Bonus: nothing can be compared with a walk in the edge of a blossoming acacia tree forest. The delicate perfume of the flowers is sensuous, and it is especially searched by honey bees.
June has its charm as well, as the number of wildflowers is at the peak, from the low Transylvanian plateau meadows to the fresh alpine pastures. Is the moment when the hay season starts, and the landscape is adorned with perfectly arranged conical haystacks, waiting to be transported in the barn.
The tracks I’m usually following aren’t very long, as I want to keep a leisurely pace, giving time to admire the scenery at its maximum. So, I habitually walk between 8 to 15 km, depending also on the difference in altitude and the difficulty of the terrain. I either walk around villages or following marked trails in the mountains.
The title of this blog post sounds like a google search query. And the answer to the query is as genuine it can be, as it’s the way we ( me, my friends and family) are celebrating winter holidays.
For one part of my family, winter holidays start with preparation. Namely, 40 days before Christmas, with the fasting. Fasting means switching to a vegan diet, but not only this. It also means trying to be a better person, to forgive and forget. For the rest, winter holidays start on November 30th, when we celebrate St. Andrew’s day. Is not that much a religious holiday, but as Saint Andrew is considered to be the Patron Saint of Romania, is also a non-working day. And it’s just before the National Day of Romania, December 1st ( Unification Day). 2 Days in a row without the need to go to work, that’s a good way to start celebrating winter. And, if it’s the weekend is close to these 2 days, here’s how we got ourselves a mini vacation. Tip for this day: try not to stay away from the main touristic attractions ( Prahova Valley for example, as you may spend half of your vacation stuck in traffic).
Then the winter celebrations are continuing with Saint Nicholas Day. The gifts frenzy starts with this day ( December 6th). Normally only the kids are receiving gifts on this day, usually sweets left during the night by the Saint-Nicholas ( aka Mos Nicolae = Old Man Nicholas) in their boots. So, in the evening before, the kids are polishing all their boots, hoping to impress “Mos Nicolae” to bring them as many gifts as possible. There is also a risk in all of this. The kids who didn’t behave well through all year will receive nothing but a stick. And usually, this is not going to happen, as every one of them was a good boy ( or girl) and the sticks are only for the adults.
In the countryside of Romania, a few days before Christmas ( usually on December 20 – Saint Ignat Day) people are starting the preparation of the Christmas Dinner by slaughtering the pig. If they are farmers the pig is from their own farm, if not, it is bought from the pig farmers in the area. It’s needed to do this in advance in order to give time the bacon, sausages and other pork goodies to mature and be ready to be eaten at Christmas. Every respectable man and women in the Romanian villages has to be also a skilled butcher, so every piece of the pork is transformed in mouth-watering delicacies. Christmas dinner is considered incomplete without the carnati – homemade sausages, sunca or slana- bacon, jumari- cracklings, caltabos – blood sausage, toba – a dish made from pork skin, intestines, meat and spices boiled together, and then stuffed in the pig stomach. Is not a Christmas dish, but it is worth mentioning: “carne si carnati la garnita” – a dish which is prepared in winter for the summer. If we want to be fancy we can call it pork confit, and it actually is a sort of it, but the Romanians will not call it this way, for the sake of God’s name. Basically is smoked pork chunks and sausages fried in lard at a small fire for at least an hour, put in jars or small buckets, all together with the lard. Is an easy way to preserve the meat, as it can last until the next summer if stored in a cool dry place. From all the pork dishes this is my favourite one.
Christmas carols are an inherent accessory to winter holidays. In the countryside, it has mostly kept its traditional charm, but in the cities, it became a seasonal business, omnipresent on the shopping malls, streets or ar radio. In the rural part of Romania, the carolers will announce the Jesus birth a few days before and during Christmas time, and they will be rewarded with apples, walnuts and “covrigi”- the Romanian version of the pretzel.
Christmas in Romania is a family celebration, and normally on this day or on the eve, the whole family reunites together for the festive dinner, exchanging gifts and smiles. Besides the pork dishes presented before, for this special occasion, 2 other dishes are always present: sarmale – cabbage rolls stuffed with a mixture of minced meat and rice, and “salata de boeuf” – or the Russian salad made from chopped boiled potatoes, carrots, green peas, meat, pickled cucumbers and peppers, all mixed together with mayonnaise. For dessert, my mother always bakes the “cozonac” – a type of sweet bread, with cocoa, walnut, raisins or Turkish delight filling.
Until New Year’s Eve party, the body has some time to recover from the heavy Christmas feast. New Year’s Eve party is celebrated among friends, either at someone’s home ( the old school or the cheapest way) or at a fancy restaurant or hotel. Like everywhere in the world, the passing between the years is marked with a glass of champagne and the fireworks show. The party last until the early morning, and usually continues the next day ( or days). We have also for this occasion specific carols, like “Sorcova”, “Plugusorul” or “Capra”. In some parts of Romania, the carolers are dressed in hideous costumes or in bear’s skin with bells, in an attempt to keep the evil spirits away or to bring good luck and fortune for the house they are visiting. It worth mentioning that the carols who are marking the passage of the years are not from a Christian origin, and they may be from a pagan origin, appearing in this land before Christianity.
The winter holidays are ending in January the 7th, on Saint John’s day, preceded by the Epiphany, on the 6th, where the Orthodox priests are preparing and giving to the worshipers the Holly Water (agheasma) which is believed to have curatives and protective properties, if drunk in the morning, before eating. On the Epiphany’s day, in some parts of Romania, a cross is thrown by the priest in a freezing river, and a group or young men is swimming to retrieve it. It is believed that the one who returns back to shore with the cross will be absolved of all sins and will have good luck for the entire year.
For our guest who will want to have a first-hand winter experience in Romania, we can suggest checking the options of our Transylvanian Winter Tour. It can be a longer trip, for a thorough authentic experience, or a shorter one, with only the highlights.
If you are a foreign tourist who wants to feel the beat of a country, I think you need to try as many experiences that will bring you closer to the daily life of the locals. You can look for accommodation in family owned guesthouses, search for restaurants popular among locals, but unknown to the outsiders, you can explore the remote villages off the beaten paths or you can visit the local markets, flea markets or fairs. Or you can hire a private guide who will introduce you to all of this and facilitate the interaction with the locals.
Today, I guided 2 guests from China who wanted to see some old castles, traditional villages and nice nature view. Difficult? Not really. 🙂 The area around Sibiu gives you large variety of possible destinations for tours. So I just adjusted the Corvin Castle Tour and added some sights that are usually part of “The villages tour”. So we started early in the morning, with a visit to the villages from Marginimea Sibiului. And because it was Saturday, we were able to explore the weekly market of Rasinari, the largest village from the area.
We arrived there at 8 am and the area on the central square and around the church was already very animated.
One of the narrow cobbled streets near the church was the place of the small flea market: old and rusty metal tools, second-hand clothes and antiquities.
The usual market place in the main square was occupied whit stalls selling local cheese (Marginimea is the capital of cheese in Romania), meat cuts (sheep and pork), vegetables and fruits. The type of cheese seen below is obtained from sheep milk, it is usually matured in sheep stomach or sheep skin, it has a strong flavour and slightly soft and crumbly texture. It is a perfect match to polenta.
The street near the river was the place of the cereal merchants (mostly corn, but also wheat or sunflower seeds). It was interesting to see that the measurement unit for cereals wasn’t the kilogram, but an ancient type of wooden bucket of around 20 liters in volume.
My guest perfectly matched the decor. Dressed in a shirt with Romanian traditional motifs, posing in front of the gate of a house in the village:
Romania is a touristic destination open all year round. Situated in Eastern Europe, with a temperate continental climate, Romania is an area with four full seasons: winter, spring, summer and autumn. Each person has a particular preference for a season or another, so this post will not try to convince you to visit Romania in a certain period. From my experience, I can tell you that the decision for the specific season to come to Romania is depending also on the corner of the World my tourists are coming from. For example, travellers from warm climate ( like Brasil or South East Asia) would choose to come in Romania in winter, in order to experience snow or cooler temperatures they might not find in their countries. And also, each seasons has its charm: winter is about snow and Christmas, spring is about nature rebirth and Easter, summer is by definition a holiday season and autumn is about crops, wine making and an explosion of amber colours in the forest.
But, if I would be a tourist planning to come to Romania, I would choose 2 intervals for my vacation in Romania. First I would choose the second part of May and mid October. In these periods, the temperatures are mild, ranging around 20 to 25 degrees during the day, the chances of 2 continuous days of rain are slim and nature is at its best. More than that, is the low season in tourism, so, besides the higher chances of better prices, you don’t have to worry about spending to much time queuing to enter at the most important touristicattractions.
First, the end of May: the landscape is lush green, the air is fresh and scented with spring flowers ( insider tip: search the places with acacia trees: you will be mesmerised by their perfume). There is still some snow covering the mountain caps, so a great chance for photo opportunities. And, let’s not forget the seasonal fruits: cherries and strawberries.
Second, mid October. I already argued in another blog post about this period of the year as the best time to see the autumn colours. More than that, the atmosphere is perfumed with a perfect combination of dried leaves and fruit aromas coming from orchards and vineyards. And let’s not forget October fest! 🙂
Easter is one of the most important and most beautiful holidays of Christianity. Romania is predominantly a Christian country, Romanians belonging in their great majority to the Orthodox Christian rite, so Easter is a special event, who gathers friends and families together. The church is playing an important role in the community, a fact that can be seen every Sunday morning, when the churches are filled with worshipers.
Fasting. The preparation for Easter starts with 40 days in advance, with a period of dietary restrictions ( only vegan foods, with a few exceptions, when fish is allowed) and spiritual improvement . Although people are considering that only the diet is important, one of the most popular voices of the Romanian Orthodox Church, the father Necula from Sibiu, is telling us that “Fasting means talking less, working harder, loving each other more carefully, being more attentive to everything God has given us”.
The light – symbol of Resurrection, the light is the essential element of the Easter holiday. During the Easter mass, on Sunday, at midnight, the priest comes from the altar with a candle and share the flare with the worshipers, who are trying to keep their candle lit until the end of the mass. Most families keep the candle remaining after the mass and light it during the year if they have a great deal of trouble.
Funny fact. When the Romanians discovered text messaging via mobile phones, it become a tradition to send a SMS wish to all the agenda. 99% of the messages begun with ” May the light of….” .
Easter eggs. The egg is a symbol of rebirth, adopted by early Christians as a symbol of the Resurrection of Jesus at Easter. The usual color of the painted egg is red, symbolizing Jesus blood, but in some regions of Romania the eggs are painted with very intricate designs, including floral and geometrical motifs. A common game on Easter Day, not only for children, is to tap hard boiled eggs with each other to see which one has the strongest shell. Two eggs are tapped together, the first person saying, “Christ is risen,” and the second person saying, “Indeed He is risen.”
Food. After 40 days of fasting, the Easter lunch is eagerly awaited. In Romania, all families are having lamb on the menu, cooked in different ways: from roasted lamb to soup, or “drob” a dish similar to haggis, made with lamb organs, eggs and season green onions. Pasca, is a sweet bread made with cheese and raisins, prepared only once a year, specially for Easter.
The sprinkling of girls. On the second day of Easter, in Transylvania, boys and men are visiting girls and unmarried women and spray them with perfume or cologne. The boys carefully choose the girls they sprinkle with perfume. As a rule, they visit the girls they like the most and strive to impress them with an expensive perfume. The initial tradition, was to sprinkle the girls with water, symbol of purification, and is still used in some villages in Transylvania.
If your name is John and you live in a small village near Sibiu, it’s very likely that you’ll get wet on January 7th. And, even if the water it’s freezing cold, no one is upset, on the contrary, everybody is happy and cheering. Actually, is an old tradition it the village of Talmacel, 20 km from Sibiu, where on Saint John’s Day, every person whose name is John, or derivations, is bathed on the small river who is flowing through the village. Well, not the whole body is immersed in the freezing water, just the tip of the boots. And after the ritualistic bathing, inspired by the facts of the Saint John the Baptist in the Bible, every one has to take a sip of “palinka” – a strong plum brandy that will heat your body instantly.
On St. John’s Day, preparations begin early in the morning, and the central points of the village are the households where the allegorical chariot and the horses are adorned. The chariot and the horses is adorned with fir tree branches, traditional carpets and tablecloths made by the women from the village. The decoration of the carriage takes a few hours and engages a large number of male and female participants.
The Johns are dressed in the morning of the feast, putting on traditional costumes prepared in advance with great care, before going to the church. They also receive some incense bead, to protect them against the evil eye.
At noon, after the religious service has ended, the colorful cortege starts from the household where the carriage has been adorned to the creek. At the creek, the whole community is gathering, and everybody tries to find a place as good as possible to view the ceremony. The first to be bathed is traditionally the priest of the village, followed by the mayor, the deputy mayor, then the lads and the girls whose is name John and then the remaining locals bearing the same name.
The bathing of the Johns is the same for all: the Johns are taken on the arms of two or three lads and are sank with their feet in the water of the stream. The operation is repeated two or three times, and to make the ceremony more engaging, the boys pretend to slip them in the water. After all the Johns have received their baptism, the boys, girls, locals and tourists head for the central point of the village: the square in front of the church. Here, the traditional dance takes place, according to the well-known order: “sârba”, “învârtita”, “haţegana”, “jiana” and “hora”.
Planning a visit to Sibiu is easy: there are so many sources of information that sometimes the biggest hassle is to know how to filter it. Lonely Planet, Rough Guides, National Geographic, Tripadvisor. All of these guide books are doing a great job in giving you an introduction in Sibiu most valuable touristic attractions. But what if you want something different, out of the beaten path? Here are my tips:
See Sibiu from above. The easiest way is to climb the council Tower in the main Square of Sibiu. But if you want a wider view go to Gusterita Hill on the Eastern side of the city. For its position was used during the WWI by the German troops. Or, if you’re passionate about hiking, choose Paltinis to meet the mountains. There are several places from you can enjoy a breathtaking view of Sibiu from 1400 m. My favorite one is the observation point from the Oncesti peak, easily accessible with chairlift.
If you’re on Sunday morning in Sibiu you have to act like a local. Go to the church, preferably the Orthodox Cathedral in Mitropoliei Street. Romanians are quite religious and on Sunday morning the churches are filled with worshipers. If you’re for the first time in an Orthodox country, participating at the Sunday Mass can be a very good introduction in the rites and culture of Eastern Christianity.
Also, for Sunday, don’t miss the flea market. You would be probably the only tourist there, but even though you don’t want to buy anything, it worth to check on the antiques part of the market, where you can find all kind of usable and unusable stuff, from coins to old toys or metallic tools. Also, while you’re there, you don’t want to miss the best “mici” in town. If you don’t know what mici are, well, mentioning that they are the most popular barbecue dish in Romania is enough?
If you’re in Sibiu on Saturday morning, you must go to the Farmers Market near the Sporting Hall. Don’t have breakfast before, as you’ll find there every thing you need for breakfast, lunch or dinner: all kind of local cheese, sausages and cold meats, home make cookies, and fresh bread, greens, vegetables, honey, fruits, all from the villages around Sibiu. In 2018, Sibiu will be the European Gastronomical Region, and the Farmer’s Market will be one of the places where a lot of events related with the local cuisine will take place.
In Romania, autumn is consider to be the period between September to November. The weather in September is pleasantly warm with high temperatures ranging between 25 to 30 degrees Celsius ( 77 to 86 F) , and low temperature ranging from 0 to 15 degrees Celsius ( 32 to 59 F) during the night. September is the month when the leaves from the treas are starting their transition from green to rust, but the clorophil is still existing in large amounts in the foliage, masking any other pigment that might dare to challenge its supremacy in the melting pot of colors.
In October, the weather it’s starting its shift to cold season, with some nights with freezing temperatures, but with still a lot of warm and sunny days. The predominant color is green at the begging of the month, but the signs that it is starting to loose the battle with the army of amber are more and more present.
But the wonder of autumn is starting to appear in mid October, when the battle between emerald tones and orange hue is ending with an explosion of a stunning array of browns, pinks, oranges, auburns, yellows and ochres. Is the period when the leaves are still decorating the trees, and the joy of life doesn’t show any sign of weariness.
November is the month when winter is waiting at the corner, the night are freezing cold, the mornings are bathed in mist, and the trees are naked, with the leaves resting at their feet, like a rusting blanket.
So, if you want to tour in Romania, for admiring the autumn colors, my suggestion is to choose the mid October. Look for the forest with different type of trees ( linden, birch, walnut, beech, sycamore, maple, oak,) in order to get the whole array of colors. There are good chances of pleasant weather in this period (this year for example we had 2 weeks of Indian summer ).
A tour on Transfagarasan in this time of the year gives you the opportunity the contrast between the birch trees and the fir trees on the north side, or the kaleidoscope of orange, red and brown of the deciduous forests from the South side. A tour in the country side would be also a good option, as you’ll find there a lot of walnuts, linden or acacia trees.
For more information about fall colors, you can also check this blog post from our partners.
I’m always wondering how many days you need to see Transylvania. The answer is as simple as it is complicated: as many as you need or as many you as have. Two days tour is possible too short, 7 days can be too long. For this reason I designed a tour that gives to the tourist interested to see the essential places of Transylvania in 4 days: http://sibiutourguide.com/complete-transylvania-tour-private-guide.html
The tour can start in Bucharest, but the optimal starting point is Sibiu, due to its location in the heart of Transylvania (and the local airport has very good connections with Munich, London or Vienna). The hub for exploring Transylvania can can be Sibiu or Brasov, as from those cities is easy to reach the most popular touristic attractions of this part of Romania. And the charming set of the medieval old towns of Sibiu and Brasov is also an important element to take into account when the travel plans are made. If you decide to start in Bucharest, you have to take into consideration the option to finish the tour in Sibiu or Cluj, so you can save half a day that you would otherwise lose on the road back to the capital of the Romania.
So, the introduction being made, what are the places not to be missed when visiting Transylvania? First the castles: Bram Stoker’s Dracula made Transylvania a top destination on the touristic map of the world, so the castles are coming first on the list. The best known is BranCastle, due to it’s links with Dracula, but the truth is that Dracula never lived there, as Dracula is a fictional character! But there is another castle, less known as Bran Castle, however much more impressing and important: the Corvin (Hunedoara) Castle. You will need two days to visit the 2 castes, and the best place to do this is from Sibiu, located at almost equal distance between them. Number 3 on the list is Peles, not because is less important, but because, if you have seen Bran and Corvin, you will not consider Peles a castle. In my views, Peles is a palace, and in term of architectural richness, elegance, originality, history, preservation and background scenery is the first touristic attraction of Romania. And, if we want to be very strict, Peles is not in Transylvania, but is just a few kilometers south from the former border with Wallachia.
Then, there are the cities. I mentioned before Sibiu and Brasov: vibrant cultural cities, with romantic squares and rich history in their CV. We have to add to the list Sighisoara, a charming medieval town, listed on the UNESCO World heritage list, which has preserved basically untouched its medieval walls and defense towers. Add to this the pastel houses and the cobbled streets and you have the perfect recipe for enchantment. I usually visit Sighisoara, when I’m on my way to Sibiu from Brasov or vice versa. I don’t recommend to spend a night there, if you are in a hurry as 2 or 3 hours can be enough to explore the citadel. If you are on extended visit to Transylvania, you can add to the list Alba Iulia ( due its extremely important significance in Romanian history and the Vauban fortress) and Cluj ( the largest city in Transylvania).
The fortified churches: an unique architectural phenomenon that appeared due the geographical and historical circumstances of Transylvania in 15th-16th century. There are around 150 villages with fortified churches, spread around Transylvania, and 7 of them are listed on UNESCO World Heritage list. I will not recommend to see all of them, if you aren’t an architecture and medieval enthusiast, but I strongly recommend to see at least Prejmer, Biertan or Viscri. All of them are near Brasov, Sighisoara and Sibiu, so is not difficult to put them on the travel map.
The landscape: mountains, countless flock of sheep, horse driven carriages, rolling hills, remote villages lost in the past, lofty fortresses, this is Transylvania! A must do experience is to drive on Transfagarasan, the mountain road that connects Transylvania with Walachia, over the Carpathians mountains. In summer time, Transfagarasan can be an alternative to drive to Bucharest, if the plan is to leave Romania from the capital city.
This is what Transfagarasan road trip is about: flocks of sheep flowing on the slopes of the mountains, cars moving like ants on the meanders of the road laid over the Carpathians, briskly streams, rushing to the valleys, and at the end, the sky converging to the Transylvanian plateau.