My wife and I discovered long ago that we aren’t very good at taking “relaxing” vacations. We get antsy lounging around swimming pools and reading novels in swaying hammocks. Don’t get me wrong, that’s all lovely—it just doesn’t work for us.
Our favorite travel memories involve hiking on remote beaches and sleeping in rustic alpine huts while drinking too much wine and whiskey to try and keep warm. Often we return from a trip more exhausted than before we left. But that’s usually a good indicator that we did something right.
For my wife’s 40th birthday, she wanted to do something special that fit our ideal travel criteria. It had to involve mountains and hiking, be affordable, have good food and drink, and offer a little adventure. Furthermore, we had to go somewhere where we could both train for our upcoming ultramarathons.
We decided on Romania.
Romania is a country in transition. The larger cities are bustling with tourists and students and lined with outdoor cafes, gourmet restaurants, and magnificent structures taken straight from a fairy tale. But take just a few steps outside of the main squares and Romania’s troubled past comes into full view. Old block-style communist apartments sore the eyes, while the high population of Romanians still living in poverty tears at the heart—the deep contrasts of a country moving forward while still struggling to escape the past.
Further beyond the cities, you’ll feel like you emerged from a time machine. Castles and fortress walls dot the countryside, while many rural villagers—like those in Magura where we enjoyed a most memorable night dancing and drinking homemade wine while feasting on authentic Romanian barbecue—still adhere to traditional ways of farming, dress, and transportation. Here it’s not uncommon to see the roads shared by both BMWs and horse-drawn wagons at the same time.
But what mainly drew us to Romania were its mountains. Photos of exposed ridge lines and scenic mountain chalets sparked our interest, while thousands of miles of well-marked trails (and also the largest population of bears in Europe) let us know that there would be plenty to keep us busy.
Thanks to some great advice from my friend Alex who runs an outstanding Romanian hiking website, we focused our trip on the Transylvania region with plans to run and train in the Carpathian ranges of Piatra Craiului, Fagaras, and the Bucegi mountains. Unfortunately, weather altered our plans to run in the Fagaras range, but nonetheless we were able to log over 125 miles running and walking around this unique and wondrous country.
Our journeys lead us to the magnificent Cabana Malaiesti where we watched the chamois dance along the steep and rocky terrain that took us up to Omu Peak. We ran sections of the Translyvania 100K course and were nervously escorted down the trail by Carpathian shepherd dogs, arguably a bigger threat to hikers and trail runners in Romania than the bears and wolves. We dodged Dracula-seeking tourists who swarmed to Bran Castle like vampire bats at dawn. We ran to Magura Village where our guesthouse had already been rented but we were welcomed to stay nonetheless and spent an unforgettable evening drinking and feasting with locals.
We hiked up to the cragged ridgeline of the Piatra Craiului where we made a wrong turn and descended on our butts down the steepest trail I’ve ever been on. We ran to the charming town of Zarnesti where we were greeted by our sweet host and listened to his stories of serving in the military and years of being a SAR volunteer in the nearby mountains—complete with homemade brandy for my wife and some brain-numbing hooch for me.
We spent time running in the nearby mountains of Brasov—popular with trail runners and mountain bikers alike—then through the countryside and along the cobblestone streets of Sighisoara, one of the most picturesque and best-preserved medieval towns in all of Europe. We ran through the squares and parks of the charming city of Sibiu, and finally back to Bucharest where we shared beers and stories with locals, and did some impromptu speedwork as we dashed across crosswalks spanning eight lanes of traffic.
Along the way we met many amazing people, learned a great deal about a country rich in pride and tradition, discovered how not to use public transportation (we got fined), and indulged in our share of authentic Romanian cuisine like sarmale (cabbage rolls) and papanasi (fried pastries covered in sour cream and jam). All-in-all Romania turned out to be the perfect destination to both train and vacation.
I have more stories to share than I have space to write. But I’ve listed some resources below to get you started if you’re thinking about taking a running vacation to this amazing country. Feel free to leave a comment below if you have any questions about the routes we took, where to stay, or any of the things we learned (like how to properly validate a bus ticket for two)!
Links to a few of our strava runs: