By Malcolm Ginsberg
Visitors have often fallen in love with the sweeping scenery of Romania – its rugged Carpathian Mountains, ancient forests and picturesque meadows – and I was no exception.
We travelled by easyJet and travellers already familiar with its Luton (and now Gatwick) services to Israel will be aware the service on board is typically friendly and helpful – and the fares are competitive, too.
The Jewish community in Romania has roots dating back to the 2nd Century AD and grew to around 750,000 by the outbreak of the Second World War.
Today, there are but 3,000 registered Jews in the country, with an active synagogue in the centre of the capital, Bucharest.
The city’s most praised eatery, the Michelin-starred Joseph Hadad restaurant, has a religious Moroccan Jew as its chef and owner. Some of the major hotels also offer pre-ordered kosher meals.
The largest of the Balkan countries, Romania has dramatic mountain scenery and a coastline on the Black Sea to the east, and Hungary to the west. It has seen numerous empires come and go, from the Roman to the Ottoman.
A Latin country, it gained independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1877 and it fought with the Allies in the First World War. At the start of the Second World War, fascist dictator Ion Antonescu sided with the Nazis, but was overthrown in 1944 with the Russians marching in soon afterwards.
King Michael (now aged 92 and a resident of Bucharest) was deposed and it was not until the downfall of Nicolae Ceaușescu in 1989 that the process of true democracy began.
Since then, Romania has made rapid strides. Today, it is a member of NATO and has been a member of the European Union since 2007. Over the past decade, the country has seen good and bad economic times, but you get the impression with new motorways, the latest cars and clean, well-maintained streets that the country is for the most part leaving the bad times behind. English has overtaken French as the number two language.
It was straight from the very modern Bucharest Otopeni airport to the Conacul Dintre VII, in Urlaţi, which calls itself a mini hotel with just 22 rooms. It is just one hour’s drive and seemingly in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by farms in a totally rural environment. For the summer, an outdoor swimming pool is available.
Our first destination was Sinaia, known as the “Pearl of the Carpathians” and a ski resort in the winter, but more famous as the summer retreat of King Carol I, a 19th Century monarch, whose amazing palace, Peleș Castle, is one of the greatest in the world and not to be missed.
Perched on a hill overlooking the small town and river that runs through a valley, it was completed in 1883 after 10 years and included central heating, electricity, personal elevators and a vacuum cleaning system – all of which were unheard of in those times.
Sinaia is about two hours from Bucharest with a direct train service and an excellent new motorway. Bucharest itself has been described as the ‘Little Paris of the East’, a title fully justified and vindicated by the Triumphal Arch (Arcul de Triumf) situated in the city centre, which appears more French than Roman.
Economically, Bucharest is the most prosperous city in Romania and is one of the main industrial centres and transportation hubs of Eastern Europe. It has first-class convention facilities, educational institutes, cultural venues, traditional shopping arcades and the latest multi-franchise malls, plus some excellent parks and recreational areas. It also has a fine modern Metro system.
Our two-night lodging was the excellent five-star 59-bedroom Grand Hotel Continental laid out in a classic style and with all the latest facilities including free wi-fi. Sited in the centre of the city, it was quiet and easily recommended. easyJet Holidays have two night breaks including flights from £140 per person.
We enjoyed dinner at the Hanu’ Berarilor Casa Elena Lupescu, once the home of the mistress of King Carol II, and very well-restored. It ranks as one of the ‘in’ places to eat in Bucharest.
The ‘Dimitrie Gusti’ National Village Museum (on the Metro) is a cultural complex showing a world that has passed. Pleasantly sited on the shore of Lake Herăstrău, it dates from 1936 and is a collection of 80 houses and infrastructure dating from the 17th Century. Each region of Romania is depicted along the paths that connect the buildings, many of which are accessible.
The highlight of our trip was a visit to the Palace of Parliament, said to be the world’s second largest building after the Pentagon.
Created by the discredited President Ceaușescu, it is nevertheless a fitting tribute to the skills of the Romanian workforce that put the project together over a 10-year period, during which a revolution brought in a democratic government. The 12-storey Palace measures 270m (890ft) by 240m (790ft), 86m (282ft) high, and 92m (302ft) underground. It boasts 1,100 rooms and two underground parking garages. Today it is the home of both houses of the Romanian Parliament, while its massive reception rooms are also used for commercial presentations.
As our trip came to an end, we had time for a short stop at Caru’ Cu Bere, a brash and breezy beer house in the heart of the very lively old city. The food isn’t bad, either.
Hanu Berarilor Casa Elena Lupescu www.hanuberarilor.ro/en/
Grand Hotel Continental, Bucharest: http://continentalhotels.ro/Grand-Hotel-Continental-Bucuresti/en/