Practical Romania and Bulgaria
( Mark and Vicki are halfway through 6 months in Europe. The information below is presented assuming you have guidebooks but also want the tips to make seeing the places by camper easier. More details are at their blog www.roadeveron.blogspot.com.)
The guidebook we are using for Romania is the Lonely Planet (LP). It is okay—but the authors seem very young in their viewpoints. As we had heard lots of negative information about the Romanian roads I will try to address that issue extensively.
We entered Romania at Oradea having taken the motorway from Budapest to Debrecen. We had read at ThornTree Forum (LP) that the road 19 (E671) was extremely bad, so even though we were headed for northeastern Romania, we went the long way round, first to Cluj-Napoca and then up to Baja Mare. Having driven the roads now for 11 days I would have taken 19 unless someone locally told me it was bad. What we have found is that the E roads have all been pretty good, patched, but overall okay. This may be in part because it is early September and the road crews have had all summer to make repairs. We have seen lots of wash outs—Romania has had extensive, unseasonal rain the past few weeks. But they have all been well marked. The worst drivers we have encountered have been those on the road from the border to Cluj-Napoca. This is a heavily traveled truck route and everything you have heard about passing on blind curves, speeding, overtaking, is true. We have driven in Europe 13 months in the last year or so and saw the aftermath of 3 accidents; in 11 days in Romania we have seen 7. There are a huge number of horse carts, bicycles, pedestrians, and tractor trailers on the rural routes that you must constantly keep an eye out for. Luckily, though the roads have little shoulder they are uniformly wide enough for two vehicles. Under no circumstances would we drive these roads after dark though.
Wild camping in Romania is legal according to a border guard we spoke with and on-line sources. However, it is not very easy to find good places. Most of the trucks stop at large restaurants—we asked permission one night and stayed for free. But of course, being on the road, it was noisy. Also Romania has a huge feral dog population. Few have been aggressive so far, but several places we have stayed have had dogs barking and fighting much of the night. Campgrounds in northern Romania are few and far between., many down unpaved access roads or the camping is in a field. After getting stuck in a field in England we have very leary of those kinds of situations. We do not have a camping guide for Romania but did download the ACSI sites into our computer and Tom Tom—that has been very helpful in the more touristy central area.
The first place we visited was Sapanta and the Merry Cemetery in the Maramures. We spent the night right outside the cemetery on a side street as the only campground was down an unpaved road and it was raining. After Sapanta we wanted to head east to see the Painted Monasteries and before them the wooden churches of the Maramures villiages. Our first stop was Sighetu Marmatiei. We visited the birthplace of Elie Wiesel, author of Night, and we also crossed the border into the Ukraine. We decided to do this on foot as we had read the lines coming back by car were long (true). It is easy to park at the border bridge (would have been a good place to spend the night, too) and walk across. There is nothing really to see in the Ukrainean village but it was Sunday and at least we could buy some “Russian candy”--they accept Romanian lei. The road to Sapanta and onward are seconday roads. Okay, but heavily patched and bumpy. Being from Montana and used to frost heaves and potholes, we didn't find them as bad as feared, but it depends on what you are used to. We were on Rt 18 headed for Borsa. Unfortunately, all the good villages are in the valley south of Rt 18. TomTom does not have all the Romanian roads or towns, and we had missed the turn off. We had not bought a map of Romania and were using an undetailed map we had gotten at the ADAC office in Germany. We definitely should have bought a better map in Budapest.
So just before Borsa we turned around and headed back. We spent the night on the road in a monastery parking spot—small and noisy. However, we had lucked out in one way as the next day was Monday and market day in Bogdan Voda. Highly recommended in LP as one of the last traditional peasant markets. We were there on the first Monday of the month so I don't know if it is always so big, but it was amazing. (see blog for pix and details) We visited several of the wooden churches—the one in Ieud was down a very potholed road so we didn't go further to others.
Back on the road we headed east through Prislop pass and the road was fine. At the top we stopped to take pictures and couldn't get the camper door shut again as several Roma children wouldn't let us without giving them money. A lei a piece ($ .30) satisfied them, so be prepared. They seemed quite willing to sacrifice digits if necessary. The last few miles before heading north on E570 you enter Moldava and the houses on this road are more traditional and picturesque than the others you will run into later.
We stopped in Campulung to use the Internet at the library and to talk to Tourist Information. They said the road to Voronet was very bad, so we decided to skip it. We visited the Humor Monastery, where we spent the night in the parking lot (the ladies selling handicrafts there had the best selection of all the monasteries.) The next day we visited Moldavita (very small parking lot) and then spend two nights in the parking lot of Sucevita. We enjoyed all of them. The road to Sucevita was described in LP as a long, winding mountain road. It was, but plenty wide and not bad at all after having driven through the Alps!
Heading south we had a late lunch and spent the night in the parking lot of Hotel Castle Dracula (they said no problem and gave us the wifi code for free.) We were on night 6 of wild camping which was great for saving money, but we were low on water. No place we had been had any available. Be sure to have a full tank and maybe some extra before touring northern Romania. By the way, beginning in Budapest we had started using our Steri Pen for all our drinking water. We do have a filter but LP and others recommended not drinking the water in Romania and Bulgaria.
On to Sighisoara where we camped right downtown at Camping Aquarius for $12 with free wifi. It is small, so get there early if high season. We loved Sighisora and spent two nights. We visited the wonderful fortified church at Biertan and drove south towards Brasov. We drove back towards Viscri to see that church but the bridge was washed out and the temporary replacement was not big enough for our rig, so we had to go back to the main road and dedided to skip it. Driving on to Brasov we spent two nights at Camping Darste south of town. Somewhat overpriced at $20 but free wifi. No bus to town but taxi only about $5 for trip. Brasov was somewhat of a disappointed after Sighisoara and could easily be seen in half a day. We didn't get to go up the cable car as it, and most of the museums, are closed on Mondays. There is a huge Carrefour with a McD's and plenty of parking between Brasov and the campground.
Our next stop was Sinaia where we parked in the large downtown parking lot on east side of road. (not on bypass road) It was $6 per 12 hours and we stayed two nights. We walked up to monastery and Pelles Castle. Decided not to go in but after reading more about it later, I think we should have. Mark took maxitaxi bus from train station to Busteni to take cable car to plateau and hike. We were able to get free wifi so I just stayed in the camper.
We drove back to Brasnov and took the road to Bran. Loved the castle at Bran. Loads of good information in English, and it is a neat building. Allow at least two hours. Missed the one at Rasov as weather was very hazy and we could barely see it on the hill. Continued on through Campulung headed for Curtea de Arges. The cutover road south of Campulung is 25 miles and the first half was the worse road we were on in Romania. Lots of unfilled potholes, but we went slow so it was doable. Curtea is actually a fairly good sized city; we couldn't find parking, so didn't see the stuff there. Instead we headed north to Vlad the Impaler's castle ruins. Road was okay. There is a Camping Dracula but since it was early evening we just parked at the foot of the steps to the Castle. It was fine though a family of Roma also parked there for the night and slept in the back of their open truck. Not much traffic as just beyond the Castle is the start of the Tranfagarsan Highway. I didn't climb the 1480 steps but it only took Mark an hour and a half for up, back, and his visit. The highway didn't look too bad so we decided to drive it a ways—only got about 3 miles before we decided to turn around and skip it. Lots of bridges where you could see the concrete crumbling, lots of huge logging trucks. We were just not in the mood. Road south from Curtea was fine. We had decided not to go to Sibiu as it seemed more of the same things we had already seen.
We missed the exit in Bucherest on the motorway for Camping Casa Alba and so drove through lots of the city center. Not fun. Casa Alba is near a nice park but expensive at $24, electric included. Free wifi was not working and no washing machines. We read through the info on Budapest and almost decided to leave the next morning, drive by the parliament, and skip the rest. But instead we took the bus in only planning to spend a couple of hours. We spent the whole day and enjoyed it immensely and I GOT TO EAT LUNCH AT PIZZA HUT. Mark's blog for September has the details. It was a Saturday and there were 4 free concerts—we only heard some of the aftenoon bands as we toured around on foot. Too tired to stay for the evening having left the campground at 9:30 am. However, at the Parliament Building (one of the outside concert venues) there were multiple Romanian handicraft booths. Absolutely the best quality and prices we had seen in shops or stands throughout the country.
Last stop in Romania was at Vama Veche on the Black Sea Coast. The coast is pretty quiet in September though the beach was crowded when we got there Sunday afternoon. By 6 pm we could drive down right to the beach and wild camp. Most of the restaurants, bars, and hotels were already boarded up and the campground south of town was closed. (September 20) We spent five nights enjoying the free parking, long walks on the beach, free wifi (after Mark bought a drink at the Sunset Beach Restaurant and got the code). We needed time to catch our breath and plan for Turkey. Highs were in the mid 70s with a nice breeze so even without shade it wasn't too hot. Fairly clean beach after trash pickup Monday morning, some feral dogs, and some naked bathers. This is a clothing optional beach, and I don't mean just topless. By the way, a local told us that June-August this beach has 5,000 drunks a night camping on it!
Originally we had planned about 5 days for Bulgaria. However, we reviewed our Rick Steve's DVD and the Lonely Planet Eastern Europe chapter and decided to drive straight through at the coast. Most of the “sights” were monasteries, Orthodox churches, and rural villages. It sounded like a Romania repeat. We had heard that Bulgarian roads were worse than Romania. The first 25 miles or so south of Vama Veche were patched and potholes but doable. As we neared the resort beach towns north of Varna they improved. We stopped in Burgas and followed the signs to the Carrefor to stock up on pork and bacon. We stopped for the night at the beach in Primorsko. GPS about N42 16” 41” E27 45' 06” (I recorded the GPS alittle while after we left the beach area .) Keep going a little further north following signs to Thracian Sanctuay. Beach was posted no camping at one end so we parked at the other. Since it was off season, we figured it would be okay. We wanted to visit the Sanctuary and followed the road to the end of the pavement. It was still 1.3k on dirt which we didn't want to do in the camper and it was too late in evening, to walk so we skipped it. It looked like a place one could wild camp if the beach wouldn't work.
The road from Carevo to the Turkey border is rough and potholed and has virtually no population. There is a large town near the border, Malko- but the road bypasses it and it looked very run down. We passed only 1 gas station. We had filled up gas and water and used the rest of our Bulgarian money (which we got at Carrefor in Burgas) in Carevo. This is a good idea as diesel in Bulgaria was $1.50 L and it is $2 L in Turkey. There are lots of places to pull over in the wooded mountains before the Turkish border if you want to wild camp—but no campgrounds at all after you leave the coast. Once you pass the sign “Border Area”, you will probably run into the Bulgarian border police. We were stopped at two checkpoints to see passports and look into camper. This is a pretty wide area of at least 10 miles before the border. I don't know if it would be a good idea to wild camp in this border area. We were glad we stopped the night before in Bulgaria because it would be difficult to drive from Romania to Istanbul in one day as we had planned. I will talk about the border crossing into Turkey in my Turkey write up.