It´s been six years since my family and I last hopped on our Tabbert trailer together for a roadtrip. In 2014 we ventured to Bulgaria and Greece, and had one of the best family vacations ever. So when the pandemic hit and travelling abroad was put on hold for a while, a trip to Romania already sounded like bliss. So when my mom suggested we take advantage of me being home and do another trip together with our 30 something year old trailer, I was totally in. Because my parents are awesome and super flexible, they let me draft the itinerary. And so I chose to head north, to the infamously beautiful Maramures area. On our way there, I pinned some objectives, let some room for improv and what came out was one week of reconnecting with nature, breathing fresh air, swimming in clean lakes and walking up and down green (and soon turning brown) mountains. Here´s where we went, what we loved most, what disappointed us, what we learned and how much it all cost.
Our itinerary took us from Transylvania, to Bucovina, Maramures and back to Transylvania over the course of one week. Unfortunately we forgot to check how many kilometres we did in total but according to my calculations, we should have driven about 1100 – 1200km. If you know Romanian roads, especially the ones in Maramures – you´ll know that that is one hell of a bumpy ride. We started off in my hometown of Sibiu where we left on a Saturday at around 10 am and first drove to Sighisoara.
Sighisoara is a wonderful medieval town in the heart of Transylvania. It is a fascinating blend of Romanian, Hungarian and German (Saxon to be specific) cultures. One of the (not necessarily obvious) attractions is the house where Dracula (real life Vlad Tepes) lived until he was 4 years old. The house in itself is not very impressive, if anything I´d call the upstairs even kitchy – for 5 RON (1,1€) a short, middle aged man with a belly will welcome you dressed as Dracula, jumping out of a coffin. The store downstairs, however, has some really beautiful merchandise. You can buy hand painted potteries, hand carved wooden spoons and wonderful scary masks. Other places you´ll actually want to visit in Sighisoara: 1. the Monastary´s Church – the entrance is less than 2€ and while the church is small, it went through a lot and can really use your donation to be restored to its former glory. Even though the church is evangelic, it displays a collection of Islamic prayer carpets – something I found quite beautiful, 2. the Clock Tower – we didn´t go up this one but I expect a beautiful view over the city, 3. The Church on the Hill and the graveyard – simply put, once you´ve reached the upper city, you can walk up another 175 stairs to get to the hill (the hill on the hill?). On top of the hill there´s a German school, a church and a beautifully serene graveyard. The church is super impressive, but if you don´t want to pay the 2€ entrance, do yourself a favour and at least take a walk through the graveyard. The tombstones are super old, bear German names and you can make up the stories of the people buried there for yourself. My brother and I did a competition for who finds the oldest tomb stone. I won as I discovered the tomb of a former mayor of the city, dating back to 1732. If you think this sounds morbid, just google some pictures of it first and if you find it as serene and pretty as I did, give it a chance and visit it.
Now that you know where to go and shop, what remains is the food – and that´s pretty important since a lot of restaurants are tourist traps in Sighisoara. A place I always return to (despite the service being pretty slow) is Casa Cositorarului. It´s at the foot of the hill, the food is nice and the place is simply beautiful. If you´re in a hurry and can´t make it until there, just grab a langos to go – they´re a yummy Hungarian deep fried flatbread, best served with garlic, sour cream and cheese and they´re pretty good in Sighisoara! If you´re still up for dessert after that, get yourself a Kürtőskalács – the Hungarian chimney cake.
2. The Teleki Castle
The Teleki Castle is a castle many have probably unfortunately driven by without giving it a second thought. It´s located in Gornesti and we stopped there at the recommendation of a friend of mine whose friend works there. There are guided tours every hour and the ticket is 20 RON (4€). What struck me most during our tour was the nostalgia in our guide´s story. The building itself is not in bad shape, but it´s almost entirely empty as along the times it´s been robbed almost completely by pretty much everyone – the Germans, the Russians, even the villagers. The Russians even made beds for their horses out of the books in the library. It seemed almost painful for our guide to tell us these stories, and we only realised a couple of days later why – our guide was Count Teleki himself. The castle was his home. One that has gone through a lot through the centuries, but somehow always found its way forward. There are surely more impressive buildings than this baroque castle stripped of all its insides, but few need your contribution as much as this one.
We spent two nights close to Reghin at a dear friend´s place and only explored the city very briefly. Since my friend Bianca is an architect, I got to see the city through her eyes. Beautiful (and mainly forgotten) building façades waiting to be restored to their former glory, a central park that will soon be redone to its true function- a market, Saxon (unfortunately slowly fading) and Hungarian heritages and beautiful people. I have to be frank and admit that I would not have added Reghin to our itinerary hadn´t it been for my friend, Bia, but I am glad I passed by even if briefly.
4. Lake Colibita
One of the things I miss most about living in Romania are our lakes. They´re just so refreshing, usually surrounded by mountains and oftentimes wild animals. Some lakes even “close” at a certain time – meaning the shift of the rangers ends at that time and there´s no guaranteed protection against bears and other wild animals. But scary stories aside, I really love my lakes. I had only recently heard about the Colibita lake and initially had no clue where it was on a map but as I was researching this trip I remembered about it and it fit perfectly into our itinerary. North East from Reghin, towards Bucovina you´ll find this huge lake – 13 km in length, 65 mil m3 and 270 ha. I always knew we had a beautiful country but man, if you forgot, this lake hits you in the face with its beauty. The road around it is pretty bad and yet we drove until its very end, parked our trailer and went down the hills until the water where we jumped into the lake´s blue waters and swam enjoying the sunset. It was perhaps one of the most perfect moments of the trip. Should you not want to venture on the road as far (I would indeed not recommend you do unless you have a jeep), you can try and stop just before the Fisherman´s resort – we saw a little lagoon there where people were swimming too. The resort is quite popular but I´ve seen some bad reviews and the main attraction point seems to be the swimming pool facing the river. I personally don´t see why you´d want to swim in a pool when the lake´s water is so inviting, but maybe that´s just me.
5. Bucovina and the Calimani Mountains
On our way from Colibita to Maramures we looked for a camping in Bucovina, one of the most beautiful regions of Romania. And so as we left Colibita we called Eco Dorna Camping and booked a night at their place. The trip there was absolutely breathtaking, and somewhere along the road we stopped at a restaurant to have a traditional soup from the area – ciorba radauteana. We arrived at the camping at night so couldn´t quite grasp how pretty the surroundings were but in the morning we woke up surrounded by green hills and fresh air. Our host was super nice and gave us plenty of brochures and directions of what to explore for one day. And so we set ourselves on the way to one of the mastiffs of the Calimani mountains – Varful 12 Apostoli, at about 1800 m height. The road there reminded us yet again of how bad Romanian roads can be. It´s unpaved and steep enough to make even the most agnostic of us say a prayer or two. Take a jeep. As you arrive at the top you´ll see how worth it it was. There are a couple of trails starting from there and even though we didn´t do a full trail, we enjoyed the warmth of the mountains for a while, picked wild raspberries and got back some of the zen we lost on the way there. As we left the mountain and the camping we headed towards Maramures. Passing through the villages of Bucovina one can admire the intricate designs on the facades of the houses, the porches adorned with flowers and the kind faces of the people of this region. I´m definitely going to come back and stay longer, but this time we headed to our next camping – Camping Barsana Bradova.
6. Barsana and Its Monastery
The Barsana area is apparently most famous because of its monastery but I have to say I loved its hills and tiny churches as much as its gorgeous monastery compound. The camping we stayed at had some seriously beautiful views over said hills and so each morning here was a piece of heaven. The monastery itself was a short drive from the camping and worth spending a couple of hours in. It is an UNESCO world heritage site and albeit quite new as you see it, it has a history dating back to the 14th century. There are several buildings, all in the Maramures style – high wooden roofs and intricate woodcarving. You can choose to visit the museum and buy some memorabilia, the little cemetery or the church – it seriously has the most beautiful wall paintings I have ever seen. The church was actually only moved to this site some 200 years ago and legend says that the dead from the cemetery next to the old church also moved underground with it to be close to their beloved church at the new site. I have to say I was a bit skeptical when my mom suggested we take an hour to visit the monastery but am really glad I went for it in the end.
7. The Mocanita from Viseu de Sus
One item I was really looking forward to, was the mocanita ride. The mocanita is a tiny steam train, with partially open wagons, that rides a very scenic route through the Maramures mountains. I had seen pictures of it and it looked like so much fun that it´s been on my wishlist for years. The tickets felt a bit expensive – they were a little under 20€ per person, but I knew it might be a while until I´d return so I went ahead and booked them in advance (highly recommended as they sell out pretty fast). There are a couple of trains, leaving in the morning, always some thirty minutes apart and as far as I could tell, always full. The trains themselves are quite old so not very comfortable, many of the seats being wooden. The trip is long. And I mean looong. It will take about 6h to reach the destination and come back, one of those six hours being spent at the destination (aka in the valley in the middle of nowhere near a river) where one can enjoy a nice, yet severely overpriced meal. You will need a full half day for this experience. My recommendations: bring warm clothes as the trip through the hills can be quite chilly even in summer, dress comfortably and bring some food and drinks with you. I personally found the experience a bit disappointing as it was too long, a bit monotonous and the end station was not that big of a deal. The scenery is pretty but gets a bit repetitive after an hour and for that price I don´t think I would do it again. Curious if any of my readers has done this before and what you thought!
8. Sighetu Marmatiei
Sighetu Marmatiei was one of the few urban destinations from our list and we basically went there because my dad was really looking forward to going to a famous museum there – the Memorial to the Victims of Communism and of the Resistance. We ended up spending many hours in it and none at all in the city as we squeezed the Merry Cemetery visit in the same day. The Memorial was utterly fascinating though. I think I could have easily spent a full day there although I imagine it must not be as interesting for someone who is not Romanian. Much of it is also not translated and it´s very text intensive. I would however recommend it, even just for the building itself, that is an old prison. As I walked in I realised I had never been in a prison before and that felt quite overwhelming. The different cells of the museum touch upon different topics ranging from the educational reform to imprisoned writers, fraudulent elections or the kitch of the communist era. It is soooo rich in information, and also so emotionally draining that one will get out of it exhausted. I had tears in my eyes for much of the time I was there and would recommend it to everyone, but especially my fellow Romanians. On a slightly unrelated note, I cannot imagine anyone visiting this museum and not feeling a deep civic duty to go and vote for a better tomorrow.
9. The Merry Cemetery in Sapanta
The Merry Cemetery is another one of those landmarks that I´ve been wanting to visit for years and that I also often google to show my friends when talking about uniquely Romanian things. We drove there from Sighetu Marmatiei and got to visit the cemetery (also an open air museum) on a beautifully sunny day. The thing that makes this cemetery so special (and not creepy to visit) are its beautifully blue tombstones. The first one dates from 1935 and the artist, Stan Ioan Patras has painted hundreds of them in his lifetime. After he died one of his disciples took over so that the tradition wouldn´t die. The tombstones are unique in the world, as is the blue shade they are painted in – albastru de Sapanta. They have naive drawings and often funny epitaphs reminding of the life – and often the death of the people buried there. Just read through one of them:
Under this heavy cross
Lies my poor mother-in-law
Three more days should she have lived
I would lie, and she would read (this cross).
You, who here are passing by
Not to wake her up please try
Cause’ if she comes back home
She’ll scold me more.
But I will surely behave
So she’ll not return from grave.
Stay here, my dear mother in-law!
This final day of the trip to Maramures, spent at the Merry Cemetery was simply wonderful and a fantastic end to an epic roadtrip. Make sure you add it to your itinerary and bring cash – there are plenty of salespeople outside of it selling colourful clothes, gorgeous carpets and strong booze.
On our way back we drive down to Dej, a city in Transylvania which we didn´t visit, but camped nearby to then slowly head back home to Sibiu where we´d fondly discuss of our adventures for the coming days.
Had you been there you might have seen a pattern – we´ve booked our campings kind of last minute. Truthfully, they didn´t really need booking but we did like to call ahead and make sure there was space. Which is kind of funny because we were pretty much the only guests in all the campings we stayed at. We did do some research before leaving on the trip but couldn´t find all the information we wanted online, nor were the pictures always very good and telling. So we took some risks. The prices ranged from 100 RON to 60 RON – Camping Eco Dorna costing 100 RON per night (fully worth it, it was the cleanest camping of all, with all amenities you could ask for and the water alone in that area is divine; the owner himself loves camping and has a trailer and wanted to build a camping according to Western standards; we got honey as a little welcome gift). Camping Bradova Barsana (60 RON per night) was probably our favourite in terms of location – as you walk outside of its gates you are surrounded by beautiful hills, a tiny little church and zen in its truest form – Maramures really is something else (here we got palinca – a strong Romanian schnapps as a welcome gift). Camping Het Zwaluwnest close to Dej (60 RON per night) is owned by a Dutch – Romanian couple and was also very nice, but we stayed in it very little and the morning in that area was sooo cold that I can´t really evaluate it properly. You will probably not find all the information you want online so better call ahead if you can – in high season the campings are said to be much busier than we experienced in September.
The first thing I should mention is that we definitely saved a lot by having our own trailer and not having to rent one. We camped for four nights in official camping places, and spent two nights at a friend´s house. We drove for cca xx km. Our total spendings (for a family of four, all included) were of 451€ – so roughly 115€ a person. We spent 136€ on gas and drove a Land Rover. The campings were 60€ total, with the most expensive one costing us 20€ a night. The biggest expense was food and even that only cost us 143€ total, as we did a combination of eating at restaurants, barbecuing and buying stuff from the supermarket to eat some cold snacks at the trailer (especially in the mornings). Entries to museums and other touristy objectives were 72€ total and souvenirs were 36€. My parents are much better than I am at budgeting, but I have to say that when they set a budget of 450€ for the trip, I feared we´d have to come back early as we´d soon run out of money. As such, I am super proud to see we actually made it all within budget and without depriving ourselves of anything. Travelling by trailer is definitely the most cost effective option next to traditional camping!
This section will probably sound a bit random but I did want to finish off with some learnings. First and foremost I learned not to let four more years to go buy before taking another family trailer roadtrip – they are amazing opportunities for bonding and spending quality time with my favourite people in the world. Secondly this trip has reminded me about the importance of flexibility. I love controlling everything (and everyone often haha), but sometimes the best things come unexpectedly to you. Also, some of the things I had looked forward to since years (like the mocanita ride) might disappoint, while some impromptu actions like hiking on the 12 Apostols peek (which I had never heard about before) will be the nicest surprises ever. Finally, pack a screwdriver – it will fix 99 out of 100 problems you might encounter on a roadtrip. 🙂