See, Taste, Touch, Smell, and Hear Your Way Through Romania

by Mouna Mounayer for Fathomaway.comRomania Cincsor Church Tower in Transylvania, Romania. Photo by Warren Singh-Bartlett.

As we consider where future adventures should take us, the road less traveled remains as appealing as ever. Romania, a country known as much for its legends as its attractions, is not on the radar of many American travelers. And that’s too bad! Mouna Mounayer, filmmaker and consultant on the creative board of the bespoke travel agency Beyond Dracula, shares five reasons Romania should top the list of places to discover.

Why do we go on holiday? There are as many answers to that question as there are places to visit and things to do. Eighteen months of fear, anxiety, and lockdown made me think hard about why I would want to travel again and where to go and still feel safe. For rejuvenation — or so the health professionals tell us — we need to stimulate our five senses.

A few years ago, while searching for a lost ancestor, I found myself in a place where the past and present collide in a juxtaposition of innovative sophistication and wild nature. I immersed myself in the art, music, and culinary delights of vibrant cities. I danced to a gypsy drumbeat. I slept in a prince’s bedchamber. I kayaked the intricate waterways of the Danube Delta, ballooned across an ancient landscape of medieval fortified towns, and raced the wind on Transfgārāsān. I hiked steep gorges and trekked virgin forests ringed by brooding peaks steeped in dark legend and bloody history. I fell in love… with Romania. So in love, I joined the consultancy board of Beyond Dracula, the travel agency that created my spellbinding journey.

Here are five ways Romania will lift your spirits, relax your mind, rekindle your joy for life and adventure, and stimulate your senses.

The Danube Delta. Photo by Cristina Marin.

Sight: The Danube Delta

If you’ve ever wondered what the Garden of Eden looked like, wonder no more. It’s the Danube Delta, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Mist floats above still waters as your kayak glides along tributaries tinged pink by the rising sun. All around, egrets, pelicans, and cormorants, flit and flap, as they sound the dawn chorus. Legend has it that if you’re tired or sad, river fairies appear to grant you a boon. A tad fanciful perhaps, but this protected paradise, teeming with wildlife, ancient sites, and rustic villages is a blessing not just for the eyes and ears, but also for the heart.

Razvan Popovici plays for a crowd. Photo courtesy of Razvan Popovici.

Sound: Meet a Romanian

If I had to describe the sound of a violin as a taste, it would be chocolate. Sometimes the melodies are sweet and soft as velvet, and other times they are dark, raw, and astringent. It all depends on your mood and, of course, the musician. Violinist and director of the SoNoRo Festival of music Razvan Popovici is the perfect introduction to the classical music scene in Bucharest.

But music is not his only love. He is just at ease discussing Romanian architectural styles and heritage as he is talking about art or the latest best-seller. Meeting and talking to interesting people is an integral part of visiting Romania, whether they are artists or Michelin-starred chefs, ancient nobility, or gypsy blacksmiths.

A detail from the Romania on a Plate feast by chef Alex Petricean of Noua. Photo courtesy of Noua.

Taste: The Rich Romanian Menu

Glistening roasted wild boar sausages, roast peppers, dumplings, and polenta are a few of the ingredients that make up the repertoire of Romanian traditional cuisine. Influenced by Eastern, Slavic, and Central European herbs and spices, Romanian cookery is being reinterpreted by the likes of chef Alex Petricean of Noua restaurant. His Romania on a Plate entrée is one of the reasons the country has become a top food destination in Europe. Each delicacy is presented on a simple wooden platter in the shape of the region it comes from. The tasting begins with Ciuline de Baragan, thistle from the steppe-plain of Wallachia, seasoned with wild garlic, followed by a salad of potatoes, sauerkraut, and caviar. I won’t spoil the rest of the meal. You can discover it on your own.

But it seems every major city and town boasts at least one young chef pushing the culinary envelope. Of special note are two women who were recognized as best in class by Gault & Millau in 2019. Woman Chef of the Year Oana Coantă of Bistro de l’Arte in Brasov serves an edgy take on traditional fare. Ana Consulea, Pastry Chef of the Year, makes light-as-air confectionaries at Zexe Braserie in Bucharest.

Pungent Nāsal cheese is the stuff of legend. Photo by Kartinkin77 / Shutterstock.

Smell: Nāsal Cheese

Romania is a land of legend, from the Jidovi, gentle Carpathian giants, to the blood-sucking Strigoi of Dracula fame, to cheese. Yes, you read that correctly, cheese, and specifically Nāsal cheese, a rare, yellow, pungent cheese found only in one of the Taga Caves in Cluj in Transylvania. Legend has it that a wicked count once starved his people. Angry and hungry, the people stole his white cheese and hid it in a cave, whereupon it turned yellow and smelly. But the count got his revenge, took back his cheese, and appropriated the cave.

We should be grateful the bad guy got the cheese and the cave because Nāsal cheese is now a national treasure (as only an excellent cheese can be) that’s best paired with a Fetească Neagră, a dry red local wine. And if you see any bats hanging from a stalactite, a whiff of garlic should do the trick. Or so the legend goes.

The Prince’s Room. Photo courtesy of courtesy of Zalán Valley.

Touch: The Prince’s Retreat

Have your fingers ever itched to touch the exhibits in a museum or art gallery? Touch triggers oxytocin, the love hormone, no matter what you’re touching — a lover, a friend, a child, or an antique sculpture. Touch plays a primary role in our mental and physical well-being, connecting us to each other and to our surroundings.

If you’ve ever wanted to see how the other half lives or wake up refreshed in the bed of a prince, you will find the ultimate destination for rest and relaxation tucked into the meadows and hills of Zalán Valley (Valea Zālanului in Romanian). Saxon authenticity meets Transylvanian charm at The Prince of Wales’s Guesthouse, which is open to visitors when Prince Charles is not in residence. You’ll want to glide your fingers over the beautifully restored and exquisitely comfortable furnishings — and no one will stop you touching in this private royal home.

Why does the future king of England have a home in Transylvania? Because he fell in love with the country thirty years ago. And in that way that all European royalty seem to be distant cousins, he can trace his ancestry, through the Romanian royal family, back to Vlad Tepes — Dracula himself.

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