Many travelers who consider visiting Romania find themselves bombarded with an abundance of misinformation about the country. Backpackers who have never laid eyes on Romania love to wax poetic about the third-hand rumors that they heard from a “very reliable source.” Most of this so-called knowledge is absolute hogwash.
We aim to dispel some of the more popular myths and give you the real scoop on the last hidden gem in Europe.
1) Romania is dangerous – FALSE!
Backpackers love to tell tall tales and generously exaggerate details to enhance the already impressive nature of their stories. One such tale, which has been retold so many times that it has earned Romania an undeserved stigma, is that the country is dangerous. It is not uncommon to hear backpackers traveling through Europe assuring one another that if you go to Romania you risk being robbed, mugged, or kidnapped. Poppycock!
The truth of the matter is that the crime rate in Romania is below average compared to Eastern Europe and countries abroad. According to a crime study based on INTERPOL data, it turns out that the overall number of crimes in Romania is 39% lower than Japan, which is considered to be a country with a particularly low crime rate! The overall number of crimes in Romania was a whopping 75% lower than the United States – a country which, despite the stereotype that every American man, woman, and child runs around with a gun in their hand, does not suffer from the same misguided stigma of being a “dangerous” country.
It holds true anywhere on earth that if you run around ostentatiously displaying buckets of money in public, you may attract unwanted attention. Savvy travelers who are aware of their surroundings and who don’t flash their cash around will have nothing to worry about. Especially in Cluj-Napoca, you can enjoy a night time stroll, explore the city under the moonlight, duck down every back alley and side street you find, and you still won’t have to constantly check behind you for felons. If you do happen to cross paths with strangers, they’re probably students hopping from one party to the next.
2) Romania is full of vampires – FALSE!
One of the most well-known Romanian figures in popular culture is Dracula, the subject of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel bearing the same title. Bram Stoker, who some assume was a Romanian author due to the setting of the book, was actually Irish! And much to the dismay of teenage girls everywhere, Dracula, like all vampires, was only a work of fiction and never actually existed.
The character of Dracula was based loosely on superstition and folklore, and given the face of Vlad Tepes, who was a ruler of Wallachia (a region in the south of Romania) from 1456 to 1462. Tepes is credited with defeating the Ottoman Armies and stopping their advancement into Europe and said to have impaled the heads of his enemies on wooden poles, earning him the nickname Vlad the Impaler.
Bran Castle in Brasov, commonly known as Dracula’s Castle, is believed to be the former home of Vlad Tepes. It has become one of the biggest tourist attractions in Romania, but its history, like Dracula himself, is purely fictional. Vlad Tepes never lived in the castle, but may have spent some time imprisoned there following a dispute with his cousin, King Matei Corvin of Hungary and Transylvania. The castle was actually the Customs control point for people crossing the border into Romania, where import taxes were issued for commercial goods. Under Communist rule, Bran Castle was chosen for its appropriate look and close proximity to the touristic city of Brasov, then arbitrarily designated as “Dracula’s Castle” in an effort to give tourists what they wanted to see. Any connection to Vlad Tepes, Count Dracula, Bram Stoker, or anything else related to vampires is utter bullocks. But don’t let that stop you from checking it out, because it’s still pretty cool!
3) Transylvania is a fictional country – FALSE!
Many readers believe that Bram Stoker invented the country of Transylvania. While the legend of Dracula is total bunk, his homeland of Transylvania is a real place! Once its own country, Transylvania is a historical region in the central part of Romania, with Cluj-Napoca proudly serving as its capital for much of its existence. The name comes from the Latin words “trans” and “silva” meaning “across the forest.” This distinguished title came from all the way back in the days of the Roman Empire, whose border from the northeastern most reach of their massive dominance lies just 80 km from Cluj.
In ancient times Transylvania was part of the Dacian Kingdom. In 1526 it became part of the Eastern Hungarian Empire for the next 400 years. In 1918 control of Transylvania was taken from the Austro-Hungarian Empire and incorporated as a region of modern day Romania. Due to its luscious history, the population of Transylvania is quite diverse from an ethnic, linguistic, religious and cultural point of view.
The city of Cluj-Napoca flourished during the Roman rule. It was proclaimed the capital city of the colony. Later on, it was chosen as the capital and eventually the university and cultural center of all of Transylvania.
4) Gypsies come from Romania – FALSE!
Films like Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame and musicals like Carmen (or even popular songs by Shakira) tend to glorify the perception of the Gypsy lifestyle. The common opinion of this nomadic group across Europe, however, is quite a bit less glamorous. There is a strong stigma against Gypsies, frequently characterizing them as thieves and delinquents. Many countries in Europe incorrectly associate these societies, known in their native language as “Rroma,” with Romania. Compound this mistake with the fact that the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu imported Gypsies to work in factories during his Communist rule, and it seems quite understandable that people would think that Gypsies come from Romania.
The truth about the origin of this group is quite different, however. Originally, the Rroma, or Gypsies, migrated from India. The Romani are generally believed to have originated in central India, possibly in the modern Indian state of Rajasthan, migrating to the northwest (the Punjab region, Sindh and Baluchistan of modern-day Pakistan and India) around 250 BC. The physical characteristic and brightly colored traditional clothing of today’s Gypsies still reflect aspects of their native home and its culture.
5) Romanians speak Russian – FALSE!
Many of the countries in Eastern Europe were occupied by the Soviet Union from 1944 to 1989, and as a result many people in this part of the world do, in fact, speak Russian. Romania managed to escape this occupation, however. “How?” you might ask. In short: by kissing ass. Thanks to the steadfast support of the Soviet regime by President Gheorghe Gheorghiu Dej, Romania was spared from total occupation. The Soviet leaders were so confident that Dej would follow their commands that they deemed their military presence in Romania to be unnecessary and pulled their soldiers out of the country. Pretty sweet reward for brown-nosing, right? Consequently, Romania managed to maintain their own language and culture, largely untarnished by the influences of the Soviet world.
Incidentally, most Romanians are quite skilled linguists. The Romanian language is the closest living language to Latin, which is the basis for today’s romance languages (French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian). In Transylvania, which was ruled by Hungary for nearly 1000 years, many people also speak Hungarian. And luckily for backpackers, almost all television and cinema from around the world are played in the original language with Romanian subtitles, allowing many young Romanians to learn English through popular culture and develop impressive skills in the language.
6) Romania is so poor it’s practically free! – FALSE! (sort of)
While it’s true that to some foreigners, coming from countries where the average wage is 3 to 4 times higher than in Romania, find the prices here quite attractive, that does not imply that the country as a whole is full of slums and people starving in the streets. What you can find in a considerable amount in Romania are deals – for food, for drinks, for just about anything! We care about our people that way! For instance, even in such big cities as Cluj, you can still find a consistent lunch menu for 15 lei (about 3 euros) right in the center of the city at a proper sit down restaurant (Casa Ardeleana). Fast food shops are also a favorite among those who either don’t have the time or the money to cook or eat out. A kebab is 7 lei in Cluj and contrary to popular belief, it’s made from actual meat and will leave your stomach feeling full and at peace rather than give you nasty food poisoning. A cup of coffee is generally 6 lei in a café, the same goes for a pint of good beer in any pub/bar (try the local brew made at a genuine beer factory: Ursus). Bottom line is, even though you won’t be able to pull off this stunt and buy yourself a hotel for a nickel, you’ll get your money’s worth in Romania!
7) People use horses and donkeys instead of cars – Kind of FALSE!
Alright, seeing as most of the things you thought to be true about Romania couldn’t be further away from the truth, this particular statement is only partly false. Admittedly it still holds true in some areas of the country, like just outside the city limits. It’s not uncommon to see signs as you enter a city forbidding horse drawn carriages on the roads. Anywhere that’s industrially developed though, (a.k.a. all the cities and towns), you’ll find the same transportation as everywhere else in the modern world. We have so many cars in fact that in the major cities you may even end up in a traffic jam. How exotic!
Occasionally though, if you’re lucky enough, you just might come across one of these nutters . But unless you remember to bring your four-leafed clover on your travels, you’ll have to be content with your regular gas-powered vehicles cruising the streets of Romania.