Alastair Curtis, Chanju Mwanza, Yasmin Duffy and Misbha Mahmood
Romania has long been considered something of an off-the-beaten track destination for tourists, resigned to the keenest inter-railers and the trendiest instagramming gap year travellers. But though it’s early days yet – for some it continues to have the reputation of a backward Communist hangover – tourism is burgeoning in Romania. In 2013 the Institute of Statistics in Bucharest recorded 5.44 million tourists checking-in at local hotels and hostels – an increase of 3.5% from the previous year. And although business tourism accounts for more than 40% of the country’s tourism, city break holidays to the likes of Bucharest, Timisoara and Cluj-Napoca are becoming increasingly popular, thanks to a variety of air connections from other European cities and the growing presence of international hotel chains and hostels.
Romania has an incredibly rich cultural heritage due to its historical legacy and unique position as the meeting point of Central Europe, Eastern Europe and the Balkans. In 2013 top online magazine slate.fr ranked Bucharest as the second ‘coolest’ city in Europe, a modern city in grand European style – but this will not be news to many Romanians. For a long time Bucharest has been held as the cultural capital of Romania and the go-to place for tourists visiting the country: by the Middle Ages the Greeks had termed the city ‘Hilariopolis’ (the ‘city of joy’) and by the nineteenth-century it was considered a cultural firmament second only to Paris. Mainstream tourism in Bucharest incorporates the old and new: the art nouveau and neoclassical architecture riddled alongside massive buildings in the strong soviet style – like the Palace of Parliament, the world’s second largest building after the US Pentagon situated in the centre of Bucharest. The Arch of Triumph is another equally well-known symbol of the city, built in 1922 and commemorating the participation of Romania in the First World War. Belonging to the historical heart of the city, the ‘Central vechi Bucurest’ (Old Bucharest), survived the demolition championed by Nicolae Ceausescu and contains an assortment of middle c19th buildings, churches and medieval courts along narrow stone-cobbled streets. And wherever you are along Bucharest’s streets you won’t have to travel for long before you catch the smell of ‘covrigi’, fresh Romanian pretzels.
But Bucharest is an eclectic metropolis; a blend of old and new, traditional and modern, East and West. Off the beaten track, the Old Centre of Bucharest is particularly popular amongst the young, chicly-dressed tourists: bookstalls, film houses and back room jazz bars are all riddled down the Calea Victoriei, the main artery of the city, and give Bucharest an electric bohemian atmosphere that belies its often bullish architecture. Indeed, Romania has become an increasingly popular place for filmmakers since 1998 with the growth of New Cinema in Romania and the relatively cheap filmmaking opportunities the country offers. Mark Nava, an American playwright holed up in Bucharest, suggested in the city there is a ‘bohemian Moulin Rouge atmosphere’ where you can quite literally ‘feel the ghosts and the romance’. And writing for The New York Times, travel writer Alex Crevar wrote of the Romanian National Theatre, bars like La Motor and Laptaria Enache, all buzzing with university students, artists, musicians and young professionals. Bucharest, Crevar concludes, is a place where the city’s old culture rubs against the new: where a Porsche Cayenne and a BMW X5 roar past the same Central Committee balcony that Ceausescu was booed off in 1989 before his execution.
Tourism then can be self-contradictory in Romania, for it’s also a country of contrasting terrain: a duality that allows for city breaks but also natural tourism amidst impressive scenic landscapes. There is the Carpathian Mountains and wolf-inhabited forests straddled across the centre of the country and popular for nature walks and country treks, and then of course there is the Danube itself (in Romanian, the Dunărea) running throughout Romania before arriving at the Black Sea. A UNESCO World Heritage site dubbed a ‘local paradise’, the Danube accommodates boat trips, sailing and bird watching as it runs through Romania. The mountainous geography surrounding the river and the precarious roads winding around it once necessitated the growth of hundreds of small self-sufficient villages in the valleys, where the peasant productive class developed skills such as bread-making and pottery, tanning and weaving. Nowadays folk museums along the river prove popular amongst tourists in rural Romania, where many old folk traditions are still practised. Folk traditions can date back thousands of years in Romania and tourists can see this in medieval monasteries hidden amongst Romania’s impressive geography, such as in Bucovina and Maramures, or the notorious Brans Castle: the abode of Transylvania’s mysterious vampire, Dracula. You have to venture out of the major cities to see such idiosyncratic attractions as the Merry Cemetery in the village of Săpânța, famous for its colourful tombstones with naïve paintings describing the life of the people buried there.
Tourism in Romania demonstrates how the country is redefining itself from being the centre of an ironfisted regime to a popular point of travel for foreign tourists in Europe. Francoise Pamfil, a professor at the Ion Mincu University of Architecture and Urbanism, described how ‘during Ceausescu’s time, people started not to care about public spaces. If it wasn’t yours, and it was shared, it looked awful’. Pamfil concludes that people essentially ‘forgot to celebrate public places’. Romania’s recent history can be difficult to palate for Romanians, let alone tourist industries. Romania’s dictator was hunted down and shot on television in 1989, after more than 1,000 people lost their lives. But with the country’s entrance to the EU in 2007, Romania has properly opened its doors to tourism. Bucharest in particular has a certain exoticism and mystery without being too removed from any other Western city, a place both recognisable and alternative. In the centre of Bucharest, on the wall of the Amsterdam Grand Cafe, a poster reads: ‘YES to revitalisation of the historic centre. NO to isolation’. Through tourism, Romania is making a strong statement about its future.