Romania’s sporting pedigree is reasonably strong, thanks largely to the exploits of the tennis player Ilie Nastase and the legendary gymnast Nadia Comaneci, albeit their success came during the 1970s. Sporting triumph in the 1980s and 1990s came on the football field, with notable achievements by both the country’s leading club side, Steaua Bucharest, and the national team, led by the country’s best ever player, Gheorghe Hagi.
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In 1986 Steaua Bucharest became the first team from behind the Iron Curtain to lift the European Cup (the Champions’ League), defeating Barcelona on penalties; they reached the final again in 1989, this time losing to AC Milan. Romanian players were only able to move freely to West European clubs after 1990, and by 1992, nine of the national team were playing abroad; this included the mercurial Hagi, dubbed the “Maradona of the Carpathians” – as much for his temperament as for his magical left foot – who went to Real Madrid.
Internationally, Romania’s finest hour came at the 1994 World Cup, where they progressed to the quarter finals, a tournament at which Hagi was arguably the best player. Since Romania’s last World Cup appearance in 1998, the only bright spots have been occasional qualifications for the European Championships, the latest in 2016.
For decades the domestic game was dominated by the three big Bucharest clubs: Steaua (traditionally the army team), Dinamo (the police and Securitate) and Rapid (rail workers), who regularly carved up the championship between them. In recent years, however, several other, much smaller, clubs – notably CFR Cluj – have muscled in (thanks largely to huge financial investment), winning the national title on the odd occasion. Every town has its stadium (stadion), and you should have no problem catching a game. Matches are usually played on Saturdays from August to May, with a break from November to February, and tickets for league games cost roughly €4–10.
The Romanian countryside lends itself perfectly to a multitude of outdoor activities, from hiking the dramatic peaks of the country’s many mountain ranges and hitting the pistes in Poiana Braşov to tracking an astonishing range of birds in the Danube Delta or wildlife in the Carpathians.
Although two-thirds of Romania is either plains or hills and plateaux, the country’s geography is dominated by mountains, which almost enclose the “Carpathian redoubt” of Transylvania, and merge with lesser ranges bordering Moldavia and Maramureş. Throughout these areas, there are opportunities to pursue several outdoor activities – hiking, skiing, caving and even shooting rapids. The Danube Delta is a totally different environment – of which only one-tenth is dry land – which attracts some three hundred species of bird during the spring and autumn migrations. A wide number of tours and trips are offered by a host of agencies in the UK, and, to a lesser degree, in North America and Australasia.
Crisscrossed by an intricate nexus of forestry tracks and waymarked paths, the beautiful and unspoiled Romanian countryside offers some of the most enjoyable hiking anywhere in Europe, with trails to suit all abilities. Cutting across the country are the sinuous Carpathian mountains – a continuation of the Alps – whose best-known range is the Făgăraş, between Braşov and Sibiu in the south of Transylvania, harbouring more than seventy lakes and Romania’s most elevated peaks, the highest of which is Moldoveanu (2544m). However, it’s the Retezat and Piatra Craiului mountains which present Romania’s most challenging and scenically rewarding hikes, the former spotted with dozens of glacial lakes, and the latter a small but stunning limestone ridge. Nearby, just south of Braşov, the Bucegi massif offers shorter and easier walks among dramatic crags, caves and waterfalls.
Less well known options include the remote and lovely Rodna mountains, near the Ukrainian border in Maramureş; the more modest Bucovina hills – studded with glorious painted monasteries – immediately east; and, closing off the western end of the Transylvanian plateau, the Apuseni mountains, which offer comparatively undemanding hikes and great karstic phenomena such as limestone caves, potholes and gorges. Scattered around all these ranges are cabanas, convivial places offering basic accommodation and sometimes meals.
Although the skiing is nowhere near as advanced as in many other European countries, Romania’s ten or so small, rapidly developing ski resorts are well equipped, efficient, safe and inexpensive. The most popular ski centre is Poiana Braşov, thanks to its superior slopes and facilities; it also has the longest season (Nov–March/April). Elsewhere, there’s good skiing at Predeal, Buşteni and Sinaia, a chain of resorts along the lovely Prahova valley; Borşa in Maramureş (for beginners); Păltiniş south of Sibiu; Semenic in southwestern Transylvania; and Durău/Ceahlău on the edge of Moldavia. Most of Romania’s pistes are rated “medium” (red) or “easy” (blue), but the major resorts have at least one “difficult” (black) run each.
As Europe’s most extensive wetland, and the world’s largest continuous reedbed, the Danube Delta is heaven for birdwatchers. Millions of birds winter here, or stop over during the spring (March–May) and autumn (Aug–Oct) migrations – a unique and colourful concentration of different species, including heron, little egrets, red-breasted geese, the endangered pygmy cormorant and Europe’s largest pelican colonies. The best times for viewing are April to early June and August to early October, but you’ll be rewarded with a fantastic birding experience at any time of year. Agencies arrange boat tours down the main Delta channels, and their Tulcea offices may sometimes rent small boats, which are the only means of penetrating the backwaters where most of the birds nest. Canoes, kayaks or rowing boats are best for exploration, and it’s also fun to negotiate with a local fisherman for a boat (Pot s’închiriez o barcă?) – he’ll probably act as rower and guide.
No less exhilarating is wildlife-tracking in the Carpathian mountains, which typically entails exploration of the forests looking for markings and tracks made by large carnivores. Specially designed forest hideouts are used for bear-watching, and there’s a reasonable chance of catching sight of these captivating animals, though you’re unlikely to have the same degree of success with the magnificent grey wolf.