Piatra Neamt in Romania is eastern Europe’s tourism equivalent of an undiscovered star, ready and eager to shine on a global stage and just on the verge of being discovered. Follow my adventures in this hidden part of the world and discover just how awesome Romania really is.
Of course when heading to Romania, most people make a beeline for Bucharest, and with good reason of course, it is after all an amazing city. But there is so much more to Romania than the major cities, and exploring the country just that little bit deeper is more than worth the effort.
Off the beaten track Romania.
Neamt County is about as off the beaten track as you can get from any mainstream tourist trail and almost proudly bears its status as one of Europe’s unknown hidden gems, but with a renewed, confident determination to welcome the world into it’s small but impressive borders and new budget airline routes heading there direct from the UK, that off the beaten track status will change very soon. The big question is are they are ready for it?
When I was invited to come and visit Romania I admit I knew very little about it beyond its geographical location, and most people I told about my trip before setting off didn’t even know that. I knew even less about Piatra Neamt, the small county within Romania that I would be visiting. In fact the most common response I got when I said Neamt County was ‘where?’ The most common response when I answered with Romania was a myriad of erroneous stereotypes.
It’s hardly surprising really. Romania is not exactly a firm fixture on any tourist trail. I know this sounds a little strange, but as an experienced traveller, I could not have been more excited about this.
It was genuinely nice to visit a country that hadn’t yet been consumed by mass tourism.
Many Romanians in Piatra Neamt view their ‘hidden’ status as a weakness of sorts, but given that it is getting increasingly difficult as an independent traveller to escape the insidious clutches of mass tourism and packaged complexes, it is seriously refreshing to see a place that doesn’t have any of that. I would say the fact that Romania is a little rough around the edges and a little unpolished in terms of package tourism is one of its biggest charms.
Don’t get me wrong here, visiting Romania isn’t all smooth sailing. Bacau airport was far too small and almost overpowered by the number of visitors already coming through, I would genuinely question if it’s few tiny rooms had the capacity to handle much – if any – more visitor volume at all. Many attractions were not easily accessible to many international visitors and language as always was a barrier.
But as strange as it sounds, these aren’t necessarily a bad thing.
Make no mistake, just because there is no huge tourism infrastructure or industry here that in no way makes the attractions of Romania any less impressive.
Romania has everything you could want from visiting many other European countries and then some. Want to see some stunning natural scenery and national parks? Want to indulge in some serious adventure sports? See some stunning architecture and discover a fascinating culture and history? It’s all here. You just have to put in a little bit of effort.
For fans of history and culture, Romania has both in spades and both are surprisingly easy to discover. I visited more than a handful of small ethnographic and historical museums during my relatively short time in the country, and all gave equally fascinating insights into Romania’s past. There are even artisans and craftsmen still plying traditional trades such as mask making or sculpture at many of these places, and I strongly recommend that you take the time to sit and watch these artists at work if you can. These are traditions and skills that are generations old, and I really appreciated the opportunity to be able to get an insight into the way many Romanian’s are fighting to keep their culture and traditions alive.
It was this dichotomy between the old and the new that really struck me. Of the many younger locals I spoke to, there was a strong, passionate sense of openness, a willingness to open up to and engage with the wider world in ways that have not always been available to them in the past. They wanted to dispel the erroneous stereotypes that still plague them to this day and show off just how much Romania has to offer.
The old and the new.
At the same time however there was a strong desire to both cling to their traditions whilst at the same time throw off the shackles of the past, and this contradiction was clear even after a short visit.
The Orthodox church is still very powerful in Romania, and this has undoubtedly had a deep impact on the culture and – as in many parts of Europe – this has led to some truly beautiful architecture in the forms of churches and places of worship. Just as in British and Irish cultures where this religious architectural influence has had a lasting impact on the tourism industry with churches and cathedrals making up a large part of the UK’s landscape that tourists and travellers want to visit, the beauty of some of the Orthodox buildings in Romania could be a huge draw for mass tourism. Despite this however there is growing resentment of the churches power in younger generations and questions are rightfully being asked why religion should have such a powerful role in state, and why more churches are being built every day than hospitals or schools. It is a fair question and one that demonstrates the conflict between the old and the new here.
During my visit, I was invited to attend the Filmul de Piatra, a series of short experimental films by local students shown in an old cinema. It was a truly unique experience in and of itself and one that I wasn’t sure of at first but was truly thankful to be a part of. I’ll admit the artiness of some of the short films was lost on me, but in many of them I found a starkness, a bitterness, that showed that Romania is still very much scarred by its communist past, much as in parts of Germany where older generations are still very much part of an era that has long past. But again throughout this I also got the feeling that the students themselves, the younger generations had moved on from that and were eager to embrace the future and move forward with a new identity and a new culture.
It is an exciting time in Romania, and there is definitely a feeling of change in the air.
But Piatra Neamt has far more to offer than lessons in history and culture. The raw beauty of the countryside is stunning, with strings of lakes and forests strewn over the landscape. The highlight of my trip here was a visit to Ceahlau National Park, which showed that as well as offering up areas of outstanding natural beauty Romania had the potential to be an adventure tourism destination to rival anywhere in Europe.
Set directly in the Carpathian mountain range, the second biggest range in Europe, Ceahlau National Park is filled with myths and legends, and is home to a number of unique and rare plant and wildlife species, and it provided a stunning, if slightly difficult, backdrop to hike to the top of the mountain. This wasn’t an easy hike. A rough trail had been made through the mountain pass, but was far from tame. There was no easy man made trail paths that you find in some national parks, with flat surfaces and easy steps, this was rough and ready all the way. But again, this was representative of what much of Romania has to offer. Tourism in its rawest form. Unspoilt.
Don’t let that fool you though. Just because tourism is still in an embryonic state in this hidden gem of a country, Romania is far from lacking in comfort and infrastructure. It has some awesome hotels, fantastic world class restaurants and anything you would need can be found. As a traveller you will still find that with a little effort on your part you can get around and look after yourself quite easily and comfortably. But Romania will not hold your hand. It will not coddle you. It will not pamper you with the type of package tourism that has ruined so many other places.
And for that I am thankful.
Watching the sun set and the moon rise at the top of the mountain was well worth every bit of effort made to get there, and that is Romania in a nutshell. It may not be polished. It may not have a fully fledged tourism infrastructure. It may throw up a few logistical challenges to your trip and it may make you work for your travel experiences, but any effort you put into visiting this beautiful part of the world will be rewarded tenfold as a result.
Romania has an opportunity here to build up its tourism industry from scratch, to learn from the many, many mistakes other mass tourist destinations have made in terms of sustainability and balance, and show its many amazing qualities off to the world without letting them become ruined by tourism as a result.
Romania is an amazing country on the verge of major change, with a population eager to embrace visitors to its country and show off its many awesome destination highlights. Visit now and see it for yourself.
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