Few outsiders know much about Romania apart from the usual clichés - Dracula and orphans.
Under nearly half a century of Communism, contact between the country and the outside world was strictly limited and monitored. In the chaos since the Romanian Revolution of 1989, when pictures of the dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu waving to the crowds as he slowly realised his regime was crashing down around him were beamed across the world, the country has done little to sell itself abroad.
The upshot of this is that Romania is largely a land undiscovered by tourists. Many people may have heard of the People’s Palace – Ceaușescu’s behemoth of a vanity project - but few will know about, say, the Ateneul Român (Athenaeum), the magnificent neoclassical concert hall. Much of the country’s beauty is similarly low-key. For all the expected creepy Transylvanian castles, there are spectacular mountains ranges, vividly well-preserved frescoes and international-quality (but Eastern European-priced) restaurants. Not to mention the Danube Delta, Europe’s most important wetland, traversed by manifold species of bird. But most of this goes unreported in favour of negative stories about gypsies, monotonous apartment blocks and criminality.
Travelling in Romania is not always easy. Communism left a legacy of poverty, inefficiency and poor service. You may often find yourself baffled by the difficulty of performing seemingly simple, everyday tasks, and it is heartbreaking for a visitor to see the plight of the country’s street children.
But European Union membership, finally achieved in 2007, has given the country new optimism. And it is the people that are likely to be one of the highlights of your trip. Trough their directness may initially make them appear brusque. Romanians have a warm Latin spirit what makes them natural and generous hosts. As a guest in their country, the local people will go out of their way to welcome you – and if you end up in Romanian home, you had better have a big appetite.
This is a country of contradictions and oppositions. While it increasingly embraces the West with its designer labels and conspicuous consumption, there are still wonderfully old-world scenes - the old men’s chess club in the park, the family clip-clopping along the road on their horse and cart, rustic cottages outside which the old women sit and gossip. The ugly Communist block stands next to the chic Art Deco villa. It is this "anything goes" mentality that makes travelling here so exhilarating, even if it is sometimes a little frustrating.
If you visit Romania now, you will see a country on the cusp of change, as it moves from Communism state to modern democracy. It remains different enough that you will feel that you’re experiencing another culture, and yet geographically close enough that it’s just a couple of hours by plane from Western Europe. While they’re aware of its faults, Romanians are proud of their homeland, if still a little surprised that foreigners come here to visit it. Be relaxed about the irritations and you will discover scenic, cultural and gastronomic delights made all the more special by waiting to show you them.