Romania travel guide: Europe's most underappreciated destination

If you're going to drive from past to present through Romania, start in the 15th century at Sighisoara, one of the continent's best-preserved and still lived-in citadels. The hilltop town is dominated by a medieval clock tower above houses jammed inside defensive walls studded with towers. Climb the clock tower and you'll find signs pointing to various distant cities. Sydney is 15,438 kilometres away.

Romania is far from home, off the edge of familiar Europe's map, and beset with out-of-date notions of vampires, dictators and dismal orphanages. Yet what you'll actually find is a spruced-up, optimistic country of cultural density and lovely landscapes, far from the tourist tumult that overwhelms many European destinations.

If it were in western Europe, Sighisoara's winding alleys would be clogged with tour groups. Here in central Romania, you'll encounter only individual travellers. As night falls, Sighisoara's crooked old town is quiet but for the occasional bar that spills chatter and aromas of roasting sausages across the cobbles.

Sighisoara sits in the heart of Transylvania, and is irresistibly associated with Romania's most famous character, Count Dracula. He was born in 1431 in a building in the old town that has since been transformed into a restaurant. Staff will give you an amusing fright if you ask to see Dracula's bedroom. You'll find a statue of the fellow (properly known as Vlad Tepes, Prince of Wallachia) behind the nearby church, complete with his trademark, flamboyant moustache. To Romanians, he's a hero of resistance against Ottomans and avaricious overlords. The myth that he was a bloodsucking vampire originated largely in the 1897 novel Dracula.

No need to carry garlic and a wooden stake with you in Romania. A GPS would help, though. Sighisoara might be the most challenging drive you have, thanks to its confusing one-way cobblestone streets that twist like rollercoasters around the hillside and are narrow enough to take off a wing mirror. Otherwise, driving is an easy way to get around Romania, with main cities linked by new highways and motorways. Romanian is written in the Roman alphabet, unlike neighbouring Eastern European languages, making signs easy to read. It's only when you stray onto minor country roads that driving becomes difficult. Expect potholes, carts and pedestrians, little signage and no night-time illumination.

Why would you want to drive at night anyway? The scenery is lovely. Head south from Sighisoara and the Carpathian Mountains sit behind flower-filled meadows and hillsides capped with churches and castles. Turreted Bran Castle is tucked into a valley fold on the southern edge of Transylvania and once belonged to Dracula. It has the appropriate brooding, medieval exterior, but the interior is more Victorian country mansion, since this was the summer residence of Romania's last queen.

From Bran Castle, Brasov is only a half-hour drive over the hills and through industrial suburbs filled with Soviet-era flats. The town became prominent under German knights in the 13th century and was later a wealthy trading city of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The now elegantly renovated old town is delightful, with yellow and pink buildings that span the medieval and baroque eras. Locals linger in superb, fountain-splashed Piata Sfatului square in the evenings, slurping Betty-brand ice creams and chatting in cafes.

On the hillsides above town, an elegant Esplanade supplies views over chimneypots and steeples. Retirees gossip on park benches. Enjoy a beer on the terrace of the tennis club, where you can gaze over the old town and its bulging Black Church. Anywhere else in Europe this would be a Disneyland, but Brasov retains a lively local buzz and comfortable, provincial charm with prices to match – your beer will cost $2.

Drive another few centuries into the future and you'll arrive in Sinaia just under 50 kilometres south of Brasov. The alpine resort was the late 19th-century summer retreat of Romanian aristocracy, whose fine former hotels and pastel-coloured villas sit among the pine trees. Among the sights is the 1920s home of the great Romanian composer George Enescu, where you can listen to scratchy recordings of his music as you wend your way through antiques and memorabilia. A cable-car ride up 2500-metre Mount Busteni mountain provides glorious vistas and good walking, demonstrating why Romania's posh set were so enamoured of the fresh-air resort town.

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Peles Castle is Sinaia's highlight and not to be missed, despite the castle fatigue that can overtake you in Europe. Built in a faux-German, medieval fairytale style between 1892 and 1914 by King Carol I, the castle provides a fabulous sensory overload of Tiffany glass, Art Nouveau sculpture, the latest turn-of-the-century furnishings from Vienna, Bukhara carpets, Meissen porcelain and enough wood carving to make you feel as if you're walking through a giant cuckoo clock. Outside, formal terraces and statue-cluttered gardens dissolve into meadows and forested mountains.

The 120 kilometres south to Bucharest brings you from Carpathian peaks and on through vineyards into the sprawling Romanian capital. It's the only unpleasant drive you'll endure in Romania, on a road clogged with traffic and pushing through grey suburbs until you reach central Bucharest's wide, Paris-inspired boulevards and fine Belle Epoque architecture.

The 20th-century Communist era dominates, though, especially along monumental Bulevardul Unirii and at the grandiose Parliament, one of the world's largest buildings, where tours provide a lively insight into Communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu's megalomania and liking for marble-and-silk excess. Piata Revolutei square was at the epicentre of the revolution that overthrew Ceausescu in 1989. It has a monument to those events and has preserved the bullet holes in some of its surrounding buildings.

Your journey should rightly end in the 21st century in this capital of a resurgent Romania that's now part of the European Union and slowly overcoming its historical and economic problems. Bucharest is once again a lovely city in places, dotted with restored monasteries and 19th-century buildings, full of good museums and leafy parks.

It buzzes with youthful energy and restaurants, and tempts with nights out in the opulent Opera Romana or jazz clubs along Strada Lipscani in the heart of historical Bucharest. Lipscani district has a party atmosphere in the evenings. Rental car returned, you can crack open the champagne and join the celebrations.

FIVE MORE ROMANIAN MUST-SEES

SIBIU

It's easy to add Sibiu to a Romanian drive, as it's only 93 kilometres from Sighisoara. It has no single standout but is a pretty medieval and baroque town of pastel colours, frequent cultural festivals and busy cafes, and has been nominated a European Region of Gastronomy for 2019. For vibe, it might be Romania's most pleasant destination. See turism.sibiu.ro

NATIONAL VILLAGE MUSEUM

This excellent, child-friendly open-air museum in Bucharest brings together historical buildings from across Romania, spread out in an almost rural setting. Explore farmhouses, barns, windmills and more. On weekends in particular, you can watch demonstrations of cow milking, horse shoeing and other rural skills. See muzeul-satului.ro

PAINTED MONASTERIES

The medieval monasteries near Suceava in north-east Romania are World Heritage listed for their colourful Biblical frescoes, which adorn both interior and exterior walls. Eight monasteries are scattered through the lush Moldavian countryside – the 1438 Voronet Monastery is most famous – making a car useful for getting around. See romaniatourism.com

DANUBE DELTA

The Danube finishes its long journey on Romania's Black Sea coast, where it forms Europe's best-preserved and second-largest river delta, a vast wilderness area of reed marshes, wetlands and wildflower meadows that are home to 300 bird species. The river port of Tulcea makes a good base for exploration. See romaniatourism.com

TIMISOARA

The drive from Bucharest to Budapest is a delight, and this city in eastern Romania is the perfect stopover before crossing the Hungarian border. It's particularly notable for Art Nouveau architecture, which extends to whole streets of apartments and public buildings. Piata Victoriei is one of Eastern Europe's loveliest squares. See timisoara-info.ro

TRIP NOTES

Brian Johnston travelled at his own expense.

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traveller.com.au/romania

romaniatourism.com

FLY

Emirates flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Bucharest via Dubai. See emirates.com

STAY

Pretty villa Grand Boutique Hotel transports you to Bucharest's 19th-century heyday and has a restaurant serving Romanian cuisine. See grandboutiquehotel.ro

Casa Wagner is on Brasov's baroque-era main square. Its 12 rooms are all different, and staff are friendly. See casa-wagner.com

Boutique hotel Casa Georgius Krauss in Sighisoara's old town has nine individually decorated rooms and a romantic cellar restaurant. See casakrauss.com

See also: A spectacular but little-visited European country

See also: The world's 28 most underrated destinations (and seven most overrated)

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