Travel in Romania is an rewarding as it is challenging.
The country's mountain scenery and great diversity of wildlife, its cultures and people, and a way of life that at times seems out of the last century, leave few who visit unaffected.
However, although not as impoverished as Albania and most of the countries of the former Soviet Union, it is still one of the hardest countries of Eastern and Central Europe to travel in.
The regime of Nicolae Caeusescu drove the country to the brink of bankruptcy, and Ion Iliescu's efforts to provide tangible fruit of 1989's revolution further disrupted the economy; as a consequence Emil Constantinescu's government had to embark on a savage austerity programme which has led to big cuts in real earnings. Coming here on a package deal - to the Black Sea or Poiana Brasov, or on a "Dracula Tour" - will effectively shield you from such realities.
Travelling independently will have its frustrating moments, balancing inclinations and plans against practicalities. However, it would be a shame to let such factors deter you from at least a brief independent foray. Much of Romania's charm lies in the remoter, less-visited regions, and it's the experience of getting there that really gives you an insight into the country.
Rather than expecting an easy ride, try to accept whatever happens as an adventure - encounters with Gypsies, wild bears, oafish officials and assorted odd characters are likely to be far more interesting than anything purveyed by the tourist board. Romanians (the country's largest ethnic group) trace their ancestry back to the Romans, and have a noticeable Latin character. They are generally warm, spontaneous, anarchic, and appreciative of style and life's pleasures - sadly, in contrast to the austerity with which they're saddled. In addition to ethnic Romanians, one and a half million Magyars pursue a traditional lifestyle long since vanished in Hungary, while dwindling churches their ancestors built in the Middle Ages to guard the mountain passes.
Along the coast, in the Delta and in the Banat there's a rich mixture of Russians, Ukrainians, Serbs, Slovaks, Bulgars, Gypsies, Turks and Tatars. Bucharest has lost much of its charm - its wide nineteenth-century Parisian-style boulevards are choked with traffic, once-grand fin-de-siécle buildings are crumbling and the suburbs are dominated by grim apartment blocks - but it remains the centre of the country's commercial and cultural life.
Many of Romania's other cities are blighted by industry and best avoided, but Brasov, Sibiu, Cluj, Oradea and other historic towns still show glimpses of past glories. To the north and west of the country, Transylvania and Banat are the provinces that are most western in feel and allow the easiest travelling, with private hotels, buses and taxis, and information more readily available.
Coming from the capital, Brasov is the gateway to Transylvania; just twelve kilometres from the ski resort of Poiana Brasov, its medieval old town is a good introduction to the Saxon architecture of the region, which reaches its peak in the fortified town of Sibiu and the jagged skyline of Sighisoara. Further north and west, the great Magyar cities of Targu Mures, Cluj and Oradea have retained a wealth of medieval churches and streets, as well as impressive Baroque and Secession edifices. All these cities are served by international trains from Budapest, and any could be your first taste of Romania if you're arriving overland. The best of Romania, though, is its countryside, and in particular the mountain scenery.
The wild Carpathians , forming the frontier between the province of Transylvania and, to the east and south, Moldavia and Wallachia, shelter bears, stags, chamois and eagles; while the Bucegi, Fagaras, and Retezat ranges and the Padis plateau offer some of the most undisturbed and spectacular hiking opportunities in Europe. In contrast to the crowded Black Sea beaches along Romania's east coast, the waterlogged Danube Delta is a place set apart from the rest of the country where life has hardly changed for centuries and where boats are they only way to reach many settlements.
During spring and autumn, especially, hundreds of species of birds from all over the Old World migrate through this region or come to breed. Few countries can offer such a wealth of distinctive folk music, festivals and customs, all still going strong in remoter areas like Marmaures and the largely Hungarian Csango and Szekelyfold regions. Almost any exploration of the villages of rural Romania will be rewarding, with sights as diverse as the log houses in Oltenia, Delta villages built of reeds, watermills built entirely of wood in Marmures, and above all the country's abundance of churches, which reflect a history of competing communities and faiths. In medieval Transylvania four religious (Roman Catholic, Reformat, Lutheran and Unitarian) and three "nations" (Saxon, Hungarian and Székely) were recognized, a situation stigmatized as the "Seven Deadly Sins of Transylvania" as the Romanian majority and their Orthodox were excluded.
In Moldavia and Wallachia Orthodoxy had a monopoly, but the clergy were as likely to be Greek as Romanian, and as late as the nineteenth century held services in incomprehensible Slavonic rather than the native tongue. This religious mix, together with the frequency of invasions, accounts for Romania's extraordinary diversity of religious architecture . In Moldavia and Wallachia masons and architects absorbed the Byzantine style and then ran riot with ornamental stone facades, most notably at the monastery of Curtea de Arges and Iasi's Three Hierarchs church, and in Oltenia, where the "Brancovenau style" flourished, with its porticoes and stone carving derived from native woodwork motifs. The frescoes so characteristic of medieval Orthodox churches reached their ultimate sophistication on the exterior walls of the Painted Monasteries of Bucovina, in northern Moldavia, which are recognized as some of Europe's greatest artistic treasures. Fine frescoes are also found inside the wooden churches of Maramures, with their sky-scraping Gothic steeples.