Romanian nosh is deliciously distinctive – intriguing stews, tongue-tickling pickles, pick-me-up street snacks. Cabbage and grape leaves are stuffed with spiced meats (sarmale), while garlic and vinegar flavour piquant soups. Danube Delta fish soup is world-class, and there's excellent wine from Dealu Mare and Dobrogea (reds) and Tarnave (white). Home-made plum brandy (tuica/palinca) is so ubiquitous you'll often be offered it for free!
Winter is beautiful in Romania (outside slushy Bucharest) as the white stuff creates dreamlike vistas waiting for exploration with snow-shoes or horse-drawn sleighs. Hit a dozen varied ski trails at Poiana – or ski the wild Lumea Pierduta (Lost World) plateau. Snow also provides a perfect canvas to track the country's iconic big predators, while ice hotels provide truly cool resting places.
Life moves at a human pace here. Horsepower often still means the equine sort, as locals clop around in horse-drawn carts or winter sleighs, happy to carry visitors who aren’t enjoying walking or cycling along solitary back roads. Hay is hand cut with slowly swooshing scythes, cloth is quietly woven, wood carefully carved. You get there in the end.
Romania has over 12,000 caves (pestera). But forget dark dank holes – these are places of wonder. Names offer clues. Pestera cu Oase (Cave of Bones) gave up Europe’s oldest-known human fossil (a 35,000-year-old jawbone). The magnificent galleries of Bear Cave offered skeletons of the extinct cave bear. The Ice Cave glints with Europe’s largest cave glacier. Size important? Then book a tour of the 45km-long Wind Cave, Romania’s largest.
Romania’s mosaic of unspoilt landscape hosts over 33,000 species including Europe’s highest concentration of large carnivores – wolves plus rare Eurasian lynx and wildcat as well as over 5000 bears. But don’t forget caves with Europe’s biggest bat colonies, woodland birds including rare eagles and owls, plus 300 species of water bird in the Danube Delta.
The mighty Carpathians encircle Transylvania with distinctive ranges – Apuceni’s cave-pocked karst formed into pale stony crinkles by aeons of watery erosion, Bucegi’s hiker-friendly plateaux. Gorges and wildflower meadows mix things up, while plentiful cabanas (mountain huts) provide rest and shelter for tired trekkers. Local guides, meanwhile, are happy to reveal local plants used for medicine – and folk magic!
Evocative myth and history are Romania's forte, from the chilling story of Dracula inspiration Vlad Tepes to magical Dacian stone circles erected long before Christ. In between, Greeks, Romans and Saxons battled over a land of soaring mountains and fertile plains. Colourful towns out of fairytale (literally for some) dot the map, watched over by lonely castles and fortified churches. Romania is a cultural mélange too, a colourful mix of Saxon-German, Hungarian and Roma.
Spurious Dracula links distract from a region you really will want to sink teeth into. Transylvania wonderfully combines spellbinding nature with rich traditions combining Romanian, Hungarian and Roma influences. The distinctive ranges of the Carpathians create a hiking paradise of alpine meadows and amazing karst geology, while towns like Brasov, Sighisoara and Sibiu are vivid medieval time capsules oozing vibrant cosmopolitan charm.
Marketing lures gullible types to places like “Dracula's Castle” near Brasov with yarns about the infamous blood-sucking Count. Don’t bite. Dracula was a fictional character created by Bram Stoker in 1897. And his oft-cited historical model – 15th century aristocrat Vlad Draculea (commonly called Vlad Tepes - Vlad the Impaler) skewered his foes in Wallachia not Transylvania.
Once-beautiful historic Romanian cities were blighted by brutalist architectural carbuncles in the post-war decades of communist rule. EU accession in 2007, meanwhile, has seen a dash for modernity that risks further eroding the former architectural charms of cities like Bucharest – a capital whose tree-lined boulevards and Belle Époque architecture once earned comparison to Paris.
Vast numbers of stray dogs roam Romania, and should be regarded with real caution. Many have gone feral, living in packs that have attacked and seriously injured people. And unlike the UK, dog bites in Romania involve a risk of rabies. Romanians are very friendly – don't assume the dogs are.
The fact those petrol-head plonkers at Top Gear once voted this the world’s best road could make it seem a good thing. But as you spew lead speeding through breathtaking mountain scenery, spare a thought for the dozens of forced labourers who died trying to hastily build what was vile dictator Nikolai Ceasescu’s pet project of the 1970s.