#962. A Romanian road trip

By John Shingleton | Travel Photography

Feb 06

This is not a story about an undestination but about Romania, a country which is visited by many tourists but which is far from being overrun by them and which, for me in Australia, is most definitely not front of mind as a holiday destination.


Like many East European countries Romania has had a turbulent history in the past 100 years. It joined world War 2 on the Axis side but switched to the Allied side in 1944-which must have confused the locals and which meant that the unfortunate Romanians were subjected to the brutality of both sides. The Soviet Red Army “liberated” the country but they stayed until a full communist state was in place. As was so often the case the communist state was a total disaster and it collapsed in 1989. Since then Romania has joined the EU and the economy is now growing at a brisk pace but it still has along way to go to catch up with the living standards of Western European members of the EU.


My wife and I visited in September 2018. We flew into the capital Bucharest after the long-haul from Australia via Doha in Qatar. The guide books are guarded about Bucharest and rightly so. I would not go to Romania to specifically visit Bucharest. It is OK but not special. Much of this can be blamed on the communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu who had a large part of the old, and apparently beautiful, city demolished. His plan, apart from his monstrous palace which ironically is now the city’s major tourist attraction, was to model the new Bucharest on the North Korean capital Pyongyang. Enough said. Ceausescu and his equally obnoxious wife were executed on Christmas Day 1989 for their many crimes, including having appalling taste in town planning and architecture.


The good news is that once you are out of Bucharest the country is a delight. Out of their cars, the Romanians are generally friendly and Romania is wonderfully cheap — apart from the petrol.


Very fortunately, although I am now aged over the biblical three score and ten, I am still able to drive briskly and on the “other” side of the road without any qualms. This is just as well, as the Romanian rental car company warned that “driving in Romania is not for nervous drivers”. An understatement if ever I heard one.


The problem is not the many horses and carts. It is the Romanian drivers who have a total disregard for speed limits and road rules generally and who overtake everywhere. When I say everywhere I mean everywhere — on blind bends, approaching pedestrian crossings and even nearing the crest of a hill. Never get between a Romanian driver and the open road. It is little wonder that Romania has the highest per capita rate of road accident fatalities of any European country. It is comparable to driving in India except in Romania the head on crashes occur at a higher speed. The good news is that away from the few main highways the traffic is very light. I survived without mishap.


Being able to self drive means that we are able togo at our own pace, see what we want and have only to put up with our own company. It also means that I can photograph what I want and for me one of the reasons to travel is to take photos. I dread the day I am not able to drive myself but I guess I will have to accept it one day.


For me, photography is a solitary pursuit. I very rarely take worthwhile photos when I am in the company of others. The idea of a “photo walk” in a group or, worse still a camera club outing, fills me with horror. Well, the very idea of a camera club fills me with horror but each to their own so Iwon’t go there. I find that my camera is good company and even when I am with my wife I often slip away to take photos and I always get up very early to walk and catch the golden hour and to see places without crowds. Or, as I experienced in Romania, without any people at all.


Romania is still a very rural and poor country and although many young people have migrated from the villages to Bucharest and other cities, or are working in the UK, rural depopulation is not as obvious as it is in say France and Portugal. Everywhere we drove there were people cutting hay — it was harvest time — or tending their animals. With the horse and carts it was like travelling back in time.


We avoided the many Dracula’s haunts – of course he’s fictional and the Romanians grossly overplay the Dracula card- and visited the places with real history of which there are many.


One of the big tourist attractions of Romania are the wooden, painted churches and monasteries in the north of the country. Romania is a very religious country and it must have more churches per 100,000 population than any other country. I was surprised by just how many wooden churches there are and by the remarkable preserved state of the painted interiors. There are so many wooden churches that in those that we visited there were rarely any other visitors.


For me Romania had a soft, mellow feel and I tried to reflect this in my photos. Having been a keen photographer for nearly 60 years I have picked up and retained frugal habits from the filmera including not taking many photos. Over the 1370km 16 day road trip I took just 206 photos, of which I have selected 47 as “keepers”. I was astonished to read on another photography blog last year two photographers who both said that they had taken over 10,000 photos in the previous 12 months. Extraordinary. A small selection from my Romanian “keepers” is included here.


All the photos were taken with my Leica Q.


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  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Fascinating photos, John! Another perfect example of the sharing we enjoy, on DS. I’m also over 3 score plus 10 – well past, actually – and it’s highly unlikely that I’ll ever make it to Romania. The nearest I’ve come so far, is that my local newsagent was recently sold by the delightful Indian family which has owned it since forever, to a young Romanian lady – but of course that’s not the same as going to the country.
    Your photos give an insight into the life and times of the country which is a wonderful substitute, for someone like me.
    I particularly like the ones with the horses – as a kid, I had an uncle who had given up on “tractors” and gone back to ploughing the paddocks with a team of Clydesdales! One shot shows a registration number plate on a cart – I’ve never come across that before, although I suppose some countries do have such things for non-motorised vehicles.
    I remember the days of film only too well, having spent half a century with similar issues. But I have found digital very liberating and I’m wildly unlikely to limit myself to so few photos in such a fascinating place! It’s now nearly 70 years since I first started photography and way back then I had to severely limit myself – this is much more self-indulgent!
    And being ambidextrous – if not slightly left handed – I’ve never had a problem with “driving on the wrong side of the road”. If anything, I find it easier to drive on the right side of the road (Euro style) than the left (as we do in Australia).

  • Sean says:

    Hi John,
    This is a wonderful overview of your sojourn into Romania proper – it’s people within a non-urban setting , not some cliched tourist quarter sprooked by a travel company’s pamphlet. Your article and accompanying images are a respectful reveal of where the real ‘salt of the earth’ exists, in regards to Romania and its people. And yes, your images do project the observation you have made, and I quote you “… For me Romania had a soft, mellow feel and I tried to reflect this in my photos…”. Well done.

  • Bob Kruger says:

    John, I enjoyed your post Immensely, especially your comment about your parsimonious approach to taking pictures. I also share your aversion to camera clubs. To paraphrase a quote from Woody Allen – I never wanted to be a member of a club that would have me for a member.

  • John loved your photos and admire you for taking so few. I was in the Balkans at about the same time with a Globus Tour. It wasn’t perfect for photography, but it worked. Most of the time I could go off on my own and take pictures. My Flickr link for some of my Balkans pics are here: https://flic.kr/s/aHsmuTaDCb. I hope it works. if not find me at Albert W Erickson on Flickr the Balkans album. Thanks for sharing.

  • Dallas says:

    John another excellent collection of photos and a narrative on a place many of us know exists but thats about all. I’m one who took around 10,000 images last year. I commend you on your keeper rate.

  • Jean Luc says:

    Wonderful post about a country with a tough history. I « visited » Romania some years ago and your photos are showing the real people. I have one mémorable story : being stucked while climbing an icy pass road behind a horse carriage with two guys throwing sand and salt on the road. Congratulations for such a great photo story about that country.

  • Dan says:

    As a Romanian i can say that your pictures reflect the Romanian village world perfectly.

    However, this is a disappearing world. I am not sure if anyone noticed that the pictures in a village setting show only old people. The younger generation left and there will be nobody to replace them when they will be gone.

  • Kristian Wannebo says:

    Thanks John for sharing this!
    With a good read and very good photography
    you’ve certainly given me an impression of rural Romania!

    ( The farming photos remind me of my childhood in Sweden in the 1950s – as you say, a journey in time – the tools and carriages are the same, but not the architecture.)

  • Alan says:

    Very nice and definitely mellow. I very much appreciate your emphasis on people instead of things. I should do more of it.

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