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Transylvania - Travel and visas
UK and other EU citizens, together with citizens of Canada, the US, Australia, New Zealand and Japan, do not need a visa to enter Romania as a tourist for stays of up to 90 days. EU citizens may enter the country with their National Identity Card; all other visitors require a valid passport. Passports need to be valid for at least six months from the date of entry.
Holders of passports not exempt from visa requirements must obtain a visa from a Romanian embassy outside Romania before travelling, and on arrival will also need to show that they have a return ticket, and at least US$100 for each day that they intend to stay in the country. You can check whether you are exempt from visa requirements at www.romaniatourism.com/entry-requirements.html.
Anyone who intends to take up temporary residence in Romania (for business, teaching, press activities, church or humanitarian aid projects) is requested to present themselves to the nearest Romanian passport office within 15 days of their arrival in the country. The passport office will register status and issue a residency permit, valid for a maximum of one year.
This can be extended at the end of this period. Spouses and children of those applying to regularise their status in Romania must also apply at the passport office in person. Heavy fines have been introduced for foreigners who do not have the correct visa or whose visa has expired. In addition to fines, an exclusion order may be imposed preventing a foreigner from returning to Romania for a specific period of time.
Romania has 35 international road crossings – of these 11 are open only to citizens of the relevant neighbouring countries. There are 17 rail crossings from the surrounding five countries (Ukraine, Moldova, Bulgaria, Serbia and Hungary) into Romania. Transylvania is situated right in the heart of Romania, surrounded by Romanian counties on all sides of its regional borders.
Transylvania has a natural horseshoe-59 shaped border of the Carpathian Mountains on three sides and the Apuseni Mountains to the northwest. Until recently, travellers have been of the more adventurous nature, taking part in special hiking tours, nature study trips and wildlife-watching tours, to name a few. The ski resorts of Poiana Braşov, Predeal, Buşteni and Sinaia are growing in popularity after positive exposure in the UK press.
Transylvania has three international airports (Cluj-Napoca, Sibiu and Târgu Mureş) although many travellers use Bucharest’s two airports: Otopeni’s Henri Coanda (usually scheduled and national carriers) and Aurel Vlaicu, usually known as Băneasa (mainly low-cost airlines), as a convenient gateway to Transylvania.
A new international airport is currently under construction near Braşov (northwest of the city centre at Ghimbav) and will be a major boost for business and tourism in the area. You’d do well to choose the Romanian national carrier, Tarom. According to the latest performance and punctuality figures from the Association of European Airlines (AEA), Tarom boasts one of the top on-time departure records and the lowest number of cancelled flights.
It’s more expensive to travel to Transylvania by train (tren), but you can stop off en route, take your time, admire the view and feel good about decreasing your carbon footprint. The shortest train journey London–Bucharest takes about 36 hours, but you can choose from a variety of routes. Begin in style with the Eurostar (www.eurostar.com) from London’s glorious St Pancras International to Paris, then go via Munich, Vienna and Budapest.
You could also try getting off the Eurostar in Brussels, stocking up on chocolate and beer, then choo-chooing via Cologne, Munich, Vienna and Budapest. From Budapest the train to Bucharest stops in Cluj-Napoca so you could get off there. It’s a lovely, historic version of the trip as the railway leaves the flat plains of Hungary and crosses into Transylvania in wild, forested hill country alongside a rushing river.
A possible journey from London to Bucharest could be to take the Eurostar to Paris, then the overnight train to Vienna, a day connection to Budapest followed by an overnight couchette ride to Cluj-Napoca. A standard second-class ticket should cost around £360. Remember to always make reservations for sleepers.
It is possible to drive from the UK or continental Europe to Transylvania and do some sightseeing on the way. The journey from London to Bucharest (as the crow flies) is 2,103km (1,307 miles) while London to Târgu Mureş is around 2,200km (1,350 miles). Border crossing between Romania and its western neighbours is just a formality. When renting a car in Europe please check with the car-rental company about its policy regarding taking the car across national borders (for example, some Budapest car-hire firms will not agree to their cars being driven into Romania).
Insurance can be purchased at any Romanian border crossing point. Documents required by Romanian customs are the vehicle’s registration, proof of insurance and a valid driving licence from the driver’s home country. You will need to purchase motorway windscreen stickers for toll payments, particularly in Austria and Hungary. See www.viamichelin.co.uk for route details.
From western Europe, drive to Budapest. To reach Transylvania, keep on route E60 eastbound from Budapest (E60 runs Budapest–Szolnok–Oradea–Cluj-Napoca–Târgu Mureş–Sighişoara–Braşov). For Sibiu and the rest of southwestern Transylvania, take the E81 southbound from Cluj-Napoca. Cluj-Napoca is 335km (208 miles) southeast from Budapest.
Public transport in Transylvania is well intentioned and cheap, but the bus service can be patchy in isolated areas. Although Romania has the most dense train network in Europe, there are still mountainous districts where only logging railways reach. The network has some idiosyncrasies and when I was there in 1997, almost every train appeared to go via the nightmarish rail transport hub of Copşa Mică.
In many places, the public transport is so unreliable or missing altogether that anyone with a tractor is commandeered into becoming an impromptu bus driver. Many locals of all ages have to hitchhike and stand waving their arms wildly at bus stops.
Most towns and villages can be accessed by public transport in one way or another. Sometimes bus is better than train and sometimes vice versa. However, public transport (where it exists) is efficient although very crowded. Many regions are best explored by hire car, or consider going on an organised tour and letting a local negotiate the bumpy, pot-holed roads.
Tarom (www.tarom.ro) Daily except Saturday flights from Bucharest Otopeni to Sibiu and weekday flights to Cluj-Napoca. Tarom flies from Bucharest Otopeni to Târgu Mureş four times per week. Carpatair (www.carpatair.ro) Based in Timişoara, Carpatair flies all over Romania and links the Transylvanian city of Sibiu with Bucharest Otopeni.
Romania’s railway network, CFR (www.cfr.ro), is the densest and one of the largest in Europe. It has trains servicing every town and city in the country, and the many villages. The fastest trains in Transylvania are the Intercitys running on the Bucharest to Cluj-Napoca route. Only the Săgeata Albastră (Blue Arrow) Intercity trains linking Bucharest, Braşov, Cluj-Napoca and other cities, have loos appropriate for the 21st century.
Drum bun! (bon voyage! – literally ‘good road’) Nowhere is the dichotomy of modern Romanian society better illustrated than on its highways. Shining, expensive silver BMWs whoosh past horse and carts clip-clopping at a snail’s pace or cattle meandering alongside a main road with all the time in the world. Whether you hire a car, or use public transport, you will be left with one abiding thought: it takes a long, long time to get anywhere in Transylvania. The speed limit might say one thing, but the average driving time will always end up as 50km/h, often slower.
Even if you get the most luxurious and expensive hire car you will still have to share the road, such as it is, with tractors, lorries, ancient Dacias, meandering cows, wild bolting horses, staggering drunken farmers, over-enthusiastic hitchhikers, horse-drawn overloaded hay wagons and – the worst of the lot – Romanian drivers.
Drivers also need to be alert for horse-drawn carts and livestock, especially at night when they are not always clearly marked. Some villagers driving horse and carts wear fluorescent yellow waistcoats and some strap a fluorescent yellow triangle to the back of the cart. However, this is not the norm and many overloaded hay wagons are extremely hard to spot at night in villages where there are no street lamps and on winding country roads where it can be pitch black.
The government is responsible for the roads between the towns and predictably neglects some of the roads in counties with a large Hungarian population, such as Covasna and Mureş. The local council and town hall has to repair the roads in settlements with very little money from the government. Thus, you could be driving along on a relatively smooth highway, then turn off into a village and be faced with a dirt track and a virtual impasse. The roads were built for a 1970s capacity and now cannot cope with the huge increase in traffic. Cluj-Napoca sags under more than 11,000 cars a day.
Transylvania has no motorways (autostrada), but the first four-lane super highway (www.autostradatransilvania.ro) is now in construction. The 415km stretch of the motorway will pass southeast to northwest across the whole of Transylvania, taking in the cities of Braşov, Făgăraş, Sighişoara, Târgu Mureş, Cluj-Napoca, Zalău and Oradea (Bihor County). Completion is scheduled for 2013, though work looks set to go on for longer.
Taxis get a very bad rap in Bucharest and, while my personal experiences have always been good, it does make sense to be on your guard. Avoid taxis with the telephone number ‘9403’ on the side of the car, as these are dodgy independents impersonating trusted car companies. Three prices are displayed in taxis: Pornire is the basic price for choosing that taxi; Pret km means the price per kilometre.
This should be 2–3.5RON per kilometre. Some dodgy firms have been known to charge as much as 8RON per kilometre, so pay attention. Stationare is the waiting price when stuck in traffic. Rates should be displayed on the side of the taxi, on the front door.
Pedestrians should approach busy roads with care. Car drivers are unwilling to stop at zebra crossings, so step off the pavement at your own peril and never in front of an approaching car unless you’re following a nun, a heavily pregnant lady or a tiny child. In towns, the traffic lights have useful time counters attached to the pole up by the lights allowing both pedestrians and drivers full view of the number of seconds left before the lights change from green to red via amber, or red to green (with no amber in between – so run).