1. For brash Bucharest
On the surface, the Romanian capital is not one of the country’s most obvious destinations, thanks mainly to its monstrous – though oddly compelling – Socialist-era architecture. But patience is a virtue in this noisy, chaotic city, so seek and you’ll find: much-loved ancient churches and monasteries, lush parkland, lakes and a clutch of top draw museums.
Gastronomically, Bucharest has upped its game big-time recently, manifest in a flourish of sublime new restaurants, such as The Artist and Beca’s Kitchen, as well as a coterie of hip artisan coffee shops serving up the finest caffeine fixes this side of the former Iron Curtain – for starters, check out Origo or Steam. The city’s nightlife, too, pulses with an energy unrivalled anywhere else in the Balkans.
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2. For wonderful wildlife
From bears to birds, Romania rates some of the continent’s most memorable wildlife. Thousands of brown bears roam the Carpathians, and while it’s not inconceivable that you’ll chance upon one if out hiking (not the ideal scenario), you’re better off joining an organised bear-watching trip.
There are both lynx and wolves, too, but good luck trying to spot these notoriously elusive creatures, though you will see red deer and chamois.
Meanwhile, the wonderfully remote Danube Delta, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, offers up an array of winged fauna unmatched anywhere else in Europe; expect egrets, herons, red-breasted geese and white-tailed eagles, but best of all, the superb great white and Dalmatian pelicans. Even if you’re not here to twitch, these stunning wetlands merit several days’ exploration.
3. For marvellous music
If gypsy music is currently one of the hottest sounds on the planet, then the Romanians have a lot to answer for; from the mesmerising polyphonic grooves of the Taraf de Haidouks, to the blistering brass beats of the Mahala Rai Banda, this is one sonic experience that you don’t want to miss.
Try and catch a concert or, better still, visit a music village, such as Clejani, where, for a few leu and a couple of beers, you should be able to find a group of musicians willing to bash out a few tunes.
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4. To seek out ecclesiastical treasures
First port of call for most visitors are the gorgeous painted monasteries of southern Bucovina, in particular Suceviţa, Moldoviţa and Voronet, all of which look utterly resplendent with their imposing, fortified walls and dazzling medieval wall frescoes.
The outstanding, eighteenth-century wooden churches of Maramureş, meanwhile, are flamboyant, Gothic-inspired works of art, distinguished by steeply-pitched shingled roofs and fairy-tale spires; those at Bârsana and Surdeşti are perhaps the finest examples.
Then there are the fortified Saxon churches of southern Transylvania; usually set atop a hillock and quartered within a ring or two of walls, these erstwhile strongholds are occasionally austere but always impressive; the churches at Hărman, Prejmer and Mălâncrav are particularly fine specimens.