Back in 2012, after a fairly manic family Christmas, I barely had time to re-pack my bags before boarding a flight to Bucharest to celebrate New Year’s Eve with Liviu.
While I’d met Liviu when he was living in London, in 2012 he’d moved back to his hometown of Dabuleni in Romania.
‘There’s nothing to do in Dabuleni…’ Liviu had declared decisively, so we’d arranged to meet in Bucharest — a four hour bus ride for him and a short flight from London for me.
I was on a late flight from Heathrow, so Liviu met me at the airport and we took a taxi into town to the Radisson Blu hotel where we’d booked to stay our first night.
This was my first visit to Romania and, I’ll be honest, my knowledge of the country was fairly limited. It’s Europe’s twelfth largest country (by area) and has the seventh largest population on the continent (c.19m people). As a political entity, the Romanian state is a relatively recent creation — emerging from the unification of the principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia in 1859; independence from the Ottoman Empire was granted in 1877; its borders were expanded to include Transylvania after World War I.
Liviu likes a sleep-in, so it was a slow start to the day but eventually we went for a walk around the old town of Bucharest — architecturally it’s an interesting combination between grand, imposing buildings and Communist-era constructions.
We walked past a stern-looking woman having a loud conversation on her phone — Liviu looked a little perturbed as he translated what she was saying: ‘She said “did you kill her or just beat her?”’ We walked quickly on.
Romania fared badly during the second World War — the military dictatorship in control at the time initially sided the country with Germany, but (after some internal upheavals) Romania switched sides as the war drew to a close. Following the war, Romania remained within the sphere of influence of the Soviet Union, only beginning a transition towards democracy and an open economy following a revolution in 1989. Romania joined the European Union in 2007, but still faces a challenging economic outlook.
Asking for directions in Romanian seems to be a long drawn-out process. You first have to say ‘don’t be upset’, then the person you’re asking will normally reply ‘I won’t be upset’ or ‘go on and ask me’, then there’s a lot of discussion and hand-waving. Each time Liviu went off to ask for directions it seemed to take at least five minutes of animated conversation before he would come back and point: ‘It’s that way…’
I don’t imagine Bucharest would be a particularly easy city in which to be gay — I never felt threatened or in danger in any way, but public displays of affection would definitely have been out of place.
That night we caught the train to Busteni, a mountain resort town, where we would be spending a few days and celebrating the New Year. The railway network across Romania is comprehensive and efficient. It was a two-hour train ride through the dark of the early evening, so it was difficult to get any sense of the countryside that we were speeding through.
We checked into our hotel then walked into town for dinner at a local restaurant, Casa Ancutei. We ordered the traditional Romanian dish Tochitura Romaneasca (pork stew, served with polenta, egg, and cheese) and drank local wine Murfatlar Cabernet Sauvignon. I had my eye on some spectacular desserts that were being dished out — Papanasi.
‘Is that a traditional Romanian dessert?’ I asked Liviu (as I would have had to try it on that basis).
‘No, it’s just donuts…’ he replied matter-of-factly. Disappointed, I settled for a coffee.
The brilliant sunshine of the winter’s morning revealed the most spectacular views from the balcony of our hotel room. The soaring Caraiman mountain dominated the skyline — at night the illuminated cross at its peak a beacon for the region.
Breakfast at the hotel each morning was surprisingly good — the friendly young guys running the kitchen were dishing up really good omelettes. Liviu opted for the traditional Romanian breakfast platter — bread, cheese, peppers, raw onion, pig fat, and two types of pork offal sausages. I won’t lie to you, not my choice for a delicious way to start the day, but Liviu was very happy.
This region is a popular holiday destination for Romanians — Busteni was busy with families and groups of friends making the most of the festive break. There’s a small amount of skiing here, but it mainly seems to be more a place to just hang out and enjoy the snow and the mountains. We took the tele-cabin from Busteni to explore the peak of the Bucegi mountain — a good excuse for some mulled wine.
The following day was New Year’s Eve, we caught the train from Busteni to Sinaia — just nine minutes away by train. Sinaia is another mountain holiday town, slightly larger than Busteni. The highlight was the Peleș castle — built in the late 1800s, this is one of the most famous and beautiful Romanian castles.
Apparently it’s a Romanian custom to touch a lamb at New Year’s for good luck in the year ahead — this explained the numerous children wandering around the streets holding bewildered looking young lambs in their arms, imploring us to touch for just a small amount of money. It’s also good luck to wear red on New Year’s Eve — not normally a colour that’s in my wardrobe, fortunately I was able to share the pair of red socks that Liviu had packed for the occasion.
There were a range of New Year’s parties on offer, but we opted for a quiet dinner in Busteni and then drinks back in our hotel room, dancing to Romanian MTV which plays a good combination of international hits and local artists. Asif Avidan’s hit One Day was really popular, as well as Loredana with Apa (Liviu described her as the Romanian Madonna).
As we counted down to midnight, the shooting rockets began to illuminate the sky — there’s something magical about watching fireworks with someone who adores you.
After a slow start to the first day of 2013, we caught the train to nearby Brasov (one hour away on a slow train). It’s a big city but has a pretty old town — predictably though, most things were closed for the holiday. It was such a cold day we alternated between short bursts of exploring and long stints in cafes warming ourselves with coffee and mulled wine.
Before we knew it our Romanian mini-break was over and we headed back to Bucharest to go our separate ways. Fortunately that wasn’t the end of the story and there were plenty more fireworks ahead.
Where to stay in Busteni
- Hotel Iri: Basic but nice. Views out over the iconic Caraiman mountain with it’s illuminated cross at the top.
Where to eat in Busteni
- Casa Ancutei: We ordered the traditional Romanian dish Tochitura Romaneasca (pork stew, served with polenta, egg, and cheese) and drank local wine Murfatlar Cabernet Sauvignon.
Where to eat in Bucharest
- Caru cu Bere: A beautiful old space where this really busy traditional Romanian restaurant (busy with locals mainly) gave us a really special last night to mark the end of our Romanian adventure.
Where to stay in Bucharest
- Radisson Blu: My flight from Heathrow into Bucharest didn’t land until 23:00 local time, so by the time I’d met up with Liviu and we’d caught a taxi into town we were pretty shattered. This is a nice hotel though — big and spacious, high-end as far as Radisson Blu’s go. We ordered too much room service — club sandwiches and local Ursus beers — watched a bit of a Romanian MTV, and crashed out on the enormous and comfortable bed.
Food and drink
- Romanian food is interesting — we started each day with a traditional breakfast of bread, cheese, peppers, raw onion, pig fat, and two types of pork offal sausages. Other meals are mainly pork or chicken — usually grilled or stewed, served with potato or polenta.
- Romania produces a surprising amount of wine, and the reds that we tried were pretty good. I also liked their beers (and happily drank Ursus; Silva; and Ciuc), although Liviu was dismissive of them and opted for German or Italian imports.
Things to do
- There’s a lot to see and do in this region — we took the tele-cabin up the Bucegi mountain to explore the peak and take in the spectacular views; we caught the train to nearby Sinaia to visit the beautiful Peleș castle; we also caught the train to Brasov, an old town that is the gateway to the Transylvanian castles that inspired the myth of Dracula.