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It seems that we as North Americans are blind to certain things. Certain histories aren’t taught when you reach beyond the boundaries of western Europe. Do you know much about the Byzantines? How about the Ottoman Empire? If you do, congrats on being curious, but if you don’t you’re not alone. “Eastern” culture is something we just don’t seem to have time for in curriculums. That’s a shame, because so much of what we see in the news today in troubled parts of the world has roots in this hidden history. Eastern Europe tends to be misunderstood and almost forgotten.

It is with this idea in mind that I ask, what do you know about Romania? I can hear your thoughts: Communism, gymnastics, Dracula. That’s about it, no? The name alone seems to conjure up the idea of a backwards “old country” that people mostly emigrate from. As I roll through the colorful countryside, lovingly manicured and dotted with charming homes, I need to tell you, everything you think you know is wrong.

Romania is a country of 20 million people, set on the eastern fringes of Europe. It’s bordered by Ukraine, Moldova, Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary, and the Black Sea to the east. Being so deeply buried within the east, it’s no wonder that it isn’t at the top of many traveler’s lists. Aside from Bucharest, most people would struggle to name another city. 

The country of Romania is a relatively new concept, being only about 100 years old. Prior to the 19th century, it was three major kingdoms: Transylvania, Moldavia, Wallachia, with these last two being under a “Voyvode” or ruling prince.

So let’s go back a bit in history to get a broader picture of how this place came to be. As usual, we must start with the Romans. The Romans ruled all of Europe with Rome as the center until Constantine moved the capital in 330 AD. The Roman parts of Romania were called “Dacia” and you’ve probably seen the newsreels from its conquest in 106 AD—the Column of Trajan in central Rome.

When the new capital is established in Constantinople, a split between eastern and western empires begins. Politically, the east becomes ruled by the Byzantine emperor and the west by the Pope and later the Holy Roman Emperor (long story, gross simplification but you follow me?) in the west. The unifying element between east and west is Christianity, which Constantine was the first to not only decriminalize but also to make the state religion. Eventually, the church fractures over some pretty technical issues (another long story for another time) and then we have two churches, the Roman Catholic church and the Eastern Orthodox church.

East and West drift apart over time from both political and religious points of view, but also culturally. Eastern Byzantine culture is a monolith and direct descendent from ancient Rome, while western culture, lacking a strong central government, breaks up into regional cultures.

This split of Roman culture into east and west plays into our idea of a “dark ages” because the “light” was simply not on in the west. The money was near the Emperor in Constantinople, so that’s where the culture was. For 1000 years, this was the dynamic of east and west. But things change in 1453. The Ottoman Turks arrive and capture Constantinople, picking up most of the lands previously considered Byzantine territory. Many people will flee to the west, especially the educated or wealthy…Renaissance anyone?

This quick and very condensed history sets the stage for why you know nothing about Romania. To start with, Byzantine history is not taught in schools, typically. Just consider what byzantine means as an English word—exotic and needlessly archaic and complicated. The second factor is that Romania was one of the territories taken in part by the Ottomans. Of the three major regions in Romania, two, Moldavia and Wallachia, fell under the rule of the Ottoman Empire and became servant states, paying taxes to the east but allowed to retain their religion. Ottoman history, by the way, is not taught in our schools either, but studying it really explains some of our current political problems.

The one part of Romania you do know about is Transylvania. It means “over the forest” because it’s a region buried deeply within a ring of forests. You know about it because it was the frontier between east and west, but happened to be acquired by a western power, namely the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This allowed it to develop in a slightly more western way, although being on the distant fringes kept it separate, especially from the 19th century Grand Tour and early tourism paths.

The country as it exists now comes from the division of Europe after World War I, unifying a common ethnic group that spoke the same language. Even though the Romans had left the area 1500 years earlier, Latin took hold and developed into a new language that blended in surrounding elements of Slavic languages. Romanian language is a tiny bit understandable for anyone who speaks good Italian or Spanish. Especially after a couple shots of palinka, the local liquor.

So why don’t we generally have Romania on our maps? Because it’s the frontier between east and west. Being a frontier means that it isn’t one or the other, making it neither. Making it invisible. As travelers, these invisible places offer not only the opportunity to be the only foreigner around, which is increasingly more difficult to do, but also to meet cultures that have blended the cultures around them. It’s impossible to miss the hybrid of Byzantine and Gothic artistic styles of the painted monasteries. The architecture features Austrian-style onion domes on top of Greek church plans. The great marker of Romania seems to be the way it takes cultural elements from everything around it and turns it into something new.

As we drive through beautiful, bucolic landscapes, passed by horse carts and babas in traditional costume, I can’t help but to think of all the invisible places there are left out there. Maybe there aren’t many left, but those that are can be found on the fault lines between civilizations, teetering on the cracks between cultures, and quietly sitting it out in the shadows, ignoring modern life. 


Authentic Romania is waiting for you!

Step back in time to this mysterious land. Travel around the country’s heartland of Maramures where local traditions live untouched and dinners turn into feasts. Traverse through villages frozen in time and experience the traditions of rural life, handicrafts and folk music. Visit the magnificent painted monasteries of Bucovina, known as the Sistine chapel of the East. Dine with the locals, distill Romanian brandy and learn the old recipes of the Romanian kitchen. Get a taste of the medieval in historic Transylvanian cities while hunting down clues to the real Dracula in castles and atmospheric citadels.

Sarah Murdoch

This post was written by Sarah Murdoch, founder and director of Adventures of Sarah. Sarah has been guiding around the world for 20+ years, after catching the travel bug while studying in Italy in 1995. Between guiding she is also a journalist, travel guidebook writer, occasional architect, and full-time mom to Nicola and Lucca. Click here to find out more about Sarah.


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