Romania is a wonderful destination for wildlife, and is one of the most important biodiversity hot-spots in Europe.
Mammals – in particular large carnivores – are well represented, and as well as deer, chamois, wild boar, polecat and marten there are significant populations of brown bear and grey wolf. There are also European bison in the Vânători Neamţ reservation, and small numbers of the endangered Eurasian lynx, primarily in the Carpathians.
The Danube Delta Biosphere Reserve is one of Europe’s great wetland wildernesses. In spring and autumn, it is a natural stop-over point for thousands of migratory birds (well in excess of 300 different species have been identified in Romania) and year-round provides a home for the many indigenous birds, mammals, fish, reptiles, insects and amphibians that can be found there.
Consequently, besides the chance of encountering or seeing evidence of much wildlife whilst out hiking, there are plenty of opportunities for specialist birdwatching trips as well as bear watching and wolf- and lynx-tracking excursions.
So, whatever your level of interest in the native flora and fauna, Romania is more than capable of delivering!
Particular favourites of ours were the ubiquitous but nonetheless delicious Supă Gulaş (Goulash soup), Sarmale (stuffed cabbage leaves with a variety of fillings), Zacusca (a tomato-and-onion relish with roasted aubergine and peppers) and Papanaşi, the soft-cheese-filled doughnuts served with jam and cream sauce. We had a go at making our own Zacusca, with pretty good results!
A number of authentic, mouth-watering (and often filling) Transylvanian recipes can be found in the English language book 'A Taste of Transylvania' by Maureen Carnell and Tony Redman. It seems to be out of print at the moment, but may be found on auction sites.
Food & Drink
As with many countries and cultures across Eastern Europe and the Balkans, food plays a huge part in Romanian traditions, hospitality and celebrations, and mealtimes are often convivial affairs that cement friendships and family bonds.
The mainstay of Romanian food is simple, uncomplicated recipes derived from peasant dishes, which are big on flavour and home-grown and/or organic produce, with potatoes and root vegetables in winter and fresh salads in summer. There are influences from Romania’s diverse past, including Hungarian, German, Slavic and Turkish, and these vary depending on whereabouts in the country you are visiting.
In general terms, the cuisine is dominated by soups and stews, meat and fish, cheeses and big deserts, and there is an emphasis on “comfort food”. It’s good food, though: we tried a variety of dishes during our trips and they were all flavoursome and delicious – you just need to pace yourselves a little!
In terms of drinks, Romania has a wide range beers and wines, with some of the wines being pretty good. Most of the beers in bars and restaurants are " international" Pilsner-style lagers, so are refreshing enough on a hot day but a bit bland otherwise. In contrast, there are a few Romanian brewers producing much more interesting and characterful dark beers worth trying, such as Silva.
However, the chief tipple is the schnapps-like fruit brandy, Ţuică. Often served at the start of a meal, it is typically made from plums (but sometimes uses apricot or pear). The similar spirit Palincă (often called Horincă in Maramures) may also be served, and can be very strong at up to 50-60% alcohol. These near-lethal spirits are often home-made and innocuously clear in appearance, but it is matter of honour amongst makers to serve a "good one" to guests – so watch out!
Folk culture remains strong in Romania, particularly in Maramureş, parts of Transylvania and Wallachia. Each craft shows much diversity across the country: patterns, materials and production techniques may vary from region to region, and each area has its own unique combinations of colour and design.
Traditional skills of pottery, textile weaving, needlework and woodworking still thrive and are making something of a resurgence - just look at the woodwork, carpets, fabrics and frescos that can be seen in the wooden churches of Maramures as evidence.
Romanian folk music is also thriving. At one of the places we stayed, the husband was a musician in a folk band and so busy performing we barely saw him!
Common at weddings, holidays and celebrations, there are a number of traditional instruments and musical forms employed, and the doină – a solo improvised love song – was recently included in the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage.
Many songs also have an accompanying dance, such as the sârbă, the hora and the brâu.
The tradition of Romanian folk music is deep-seated, and its influence has spread far – traditional instrumentation and folk rhythms/melodies have even been incorporated into the music of Romanian heavy metal and hip-hop acts.