What to See in the Cultural Capital of Romania: Iaşi (Iasi)

As I have been exploring Eastern Europe in recent years, I have begun realizing how much I enjoy visiting secondary towns in these countries (Krakow in Poland; Plovdiv in Bulgaria; Braşov in Romania; etc.).  The capital cities are worth seeing but what I loosely refer to as secondary towns hold a charm that is different, perhaps precisely because they don’t carry the weight of being a capital city…  I guess being away from the business of a capital city or a tourist mecca (e.g., London, Rome, Paris) draws me.  I can’t say capital cities are not “real”; I mean, people live there and do the normal things people do.  Is it just that these secondary towns anywhere are more charming because they are not busy trying to be important?   Iasi, or Iaşi in Romanian, Romania afforded me another chance to confirm this preference – here I share the main sights I saw in Iaşi.  Before that, you may be asking:

Why visit Iaşi of all places?

As I planned my visit to Romania and my side trip to neighboring Moldova, Iaşi (pronounced yash) was brought up to my attention as an interesting town from which to leave Romania to enter Moldova.  I was curious as to why it was suggested so I did some research.  I was already going to hit Braşov as the base for my Transylvanian Alps hike so I certainly could see another town.  Well Iaşi is referred to as the cultural capital of Romania and that was all I needed to hear for my curiosity to now require satisfaction!

Sometimes my approach to visit new places is flying by the seat of my pants and I may miss some neat little museum or site of local historical meaning.  But I like exploring, for the most part, without a pre-defined script.  My visit to Iaşi was like that.  I did get a map, I did read what were supposed to be THE main sights to see but, for the rest, I just meandered around town.  And it was very cool to be in a city that most tourists never get to see.  So before I get to what to see in Iaşi, let’s look at how you can get there from Romania’s capital…

Getting to Iaşi from Bucharest

I considered taking a train from Bucharest as it is oftentimes a good way to see the countryside but I had very limited time so I would have only been in Iaşi for an evening.  So I decided to take a very cheap flight to maximize my time in the town.  As with most airports, the domestic flights terminal in Bucharest was much “simpler” than the international flights terminal.  Don’t count on the ATM working on the domestic terminal…  And the airport in Iaşi?  Thanks for asking!!

The airport in Iaşi, Romania

The Iaşi airport – tiny!

The TAROM plane in which I flew from Bucharest to Iasi, Romania

My plane into Iaşi

I landed at around 11 AM which afforded me an entire afternoon of walking around.  I got into a taxi at the airport and $5 later, I was in town.  Though Iaşi is not a large town, it has plenty of monasteries in and near town that could have been great to visit but I decided to focus in the town itself to keep it simpler.

My hotel in Iaşi in Unirea Square

As usual, I used TripAdvisor to find a hotel that sounded well-located and that was well-reviewed by other travelers.  The Traian Hotel sounded perfect:  located in the Unirea (Unity) Square, it was within walking distance of many of the places I sought to visit.

View from the Unirea Hotel at the same-named square in Iasi (Iaşi), Romania

From the top floor bar at the Unirea Hotel, looking at Unirea Square with the Traian Hotel on the right

Interesting architecture of the Unirea Hotel in Iasi (Iaşi), Romania

Interesting architecture of the Unirea Hotel

The Traian Hotel was built in the 1880s by Gustave Eiffel of Eiffel Tower fame, a few years before he created the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower!  It has hosted the Romanian government (during WW I), famous people (like Greta Garbo), etc.  It was one of the first buildings in Europe to be molded on a metal frame.  The hotel was pretty inexpensive for an American pocketbook.  The lobby was not much and the spacious room was simple but it offered cable TV, a modern bathroom, and yet decorated to reflect its period/heyday.  It also included a free and very nice buffet breakfast at its restaurant.

Traian Hotel in Iasi (Iaşi), Romania designed by Gustave Eiffel of Eiffel Tower fame

Traian Hotel in Unirea Square

Room at the Traian Hotel in Iasi (Iaşi), Romania

My room at the Traian

I had read that there was a tourism office right by Unirea Square.  However, it was not on it but on one of the main streets going through it right after it exited the square.  I am glad I persisted in finding it as they were very helpful, providing me with great information not only what to see in the town but also in neighboring regions of Romania and Moldova as well.  I thank the the folks at the Department of Tourist Development of the Iaşi Municipality and Delia for their help with the map and the info!

View from my room at the Traian Hotel in Iasi (Iaşi), Romania

View from my hotel room (could not figure out what this building was)

Old cinema in Unirea Square in Iasi (Iaşi), Romania

Old cinema in Unirea Square (right around the corner to the right is the tourism office)

Walking around beyond the Unirea Square

I walked down to the Palace of Culture, built between 1906-1925, a beautiful piece of neogothical architecture and the image of Iaşi.

Palace of Culture in Iaşi, Romania

Palace of Culture in Iaşi, Romania

The Palace of Culture hosts several museums but I was more interested that day in walking the town, exploring its streets rather than museum-visiting so I walked around and ran into a festival area where the smell of sausages cooking and large tents from Timişoreana beer (Timişoara is a city in western Romania).  The festival was seemingly starting that evening but I took advantage of the setup to have some good and VERY cheap lunch!

Sausage and Timisoreana beer in Iaşi, Romania

Yum

I visited churches and monasteries and that will be the subject of another post.  Besides those impressive places, I also walked past the imposing School of Medicine and Pharmacy and other university buildings (it is a university town after all).  The National Theater was also a beautiful structure (wished I had gone inside).  Here are those buildings and a couple of other neat sights around town.

University building in Iasi, Romania

Interesting architecture in a university building (note the construction; it seems the EU is pumping good money for improvements in infrastructure in Romania)

School of Medicine and Pharmacy from the Unirea Hotel in Iasi, Romania

School of Medicine and Pharmacy from the Unirea Hotel

National Theater in Iasi, Romania

National Theater

National Theater in Iasi, Romania

National Theater detail – dig the “mask” at the top

Movie theater, or cinema, in Iasi, Romania

Tram in Iasi, Romania

Iaşi was definitely different than Bucharest and even Braşov (which is not a capital city and of which I will write later).  Perhaps being further away from the capital of modern Romania and closer to Moldova and the Ukraine gives it an influence lacking south of the Carpathians (where Bucharest is).  It did not feel a rushed place. And it did not seem to have a café culture as other European towns have like Paris, Rome, etc.  or even Bucharest with Old Town or Braşov with all the cafés around the town center.  I cannot say it was incredibly beautiful like Salzburg, Krakow or others.  However, Iaşi felt more accessible and “real”.  It also allowed me to -yet again- experience how non-capital, non-touristy cities offer the visitor a different experience – and it was certainly worth it.  Hope you get to visit and see the sights in Iaşi.


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Photo of the Week – Poetry in Motion in Romania

Near the School of Medicine, in Iasi (pronounced yash), Romania, I learned what poetry in motion could mean…  Call me. MAYBE.

Gypsy woman in Iasi, Romania architecture

More about my trip to Romania?  Check out the hike I did!  Or “static poetry” here.  Or how the trip evolved from the hike to a few more things!

 

 

How to Plan a Trip – and then Increase Scope: The Desire to Travel!

When I decided earlier this year on doing the trek in Romania, little did I know how a one week trek was going to become a 16-day trip – but I am talented that way:  plan a vacation and then add more than originally intended to practically double its duration and scope!  Let me share with you how that happens to me using this trip as an example.  I will also use this post to lay out the overall trip to Moldova and Romania so that, as I write about it, readers can see how it all comes together…

Note:  I hope you subscribe to the blog (if you have not already done so) so you can keep up with the writings and read as you have the time.  The trip was incredibly different for me and I hope what I share helps give a better glimpse into these countries!!

First Things First:  What Led Me to Take a Trip Now and to Romania?

Fine questions!  As I announced in a prior post, the main purpose of this trip was to go on trek with Trekking for Kids to help an orphanage in Romania by raising funds for projects to improve the orphanage and also to just be with the kids and bring them something different from their day to day.  More about the orphanage part of the trip later but I will say now that if you want to help children around the world and tackle some great mountains (Everest base camp, Kilimanjaro, Machu Picchu, etc.), you should look into Trekking for Kids.

Trekking for Kids

An Itinerary Takes Shape, with Some Randomness

On to how I planned my itinerary….  The trek was about a week so I knew I had to take advantage of getting to that part of Europe to see something more.  Can’t waste a good and dear trans-Atlantic crossing…

Among the choices was a return trip to the Greek islands (for R&R after the hike; something I would have really enjoyed), or visiting any of the countries that surround Romania.  Of those countries, I had already gone to Bulgaria so that left the Ukraine, Moldova, Hungary and Serbia – none of which I had visited.  I eliminated the last 2 as I felt those are easier to get to from places like Austria, Croatia, etc. so I w0uld be more likely to see them in the future.  That left the Ukraine and Moldova. Moldova started peeking my curiosity as it is so much less known to me and, likely, to my compatriots.  As I researched the country, it sounded like it had some interesting things so that became the destination.

My plans then were to land in Bucharest and go to Moldova ahead of the hike part of the trip.  I proceeded to research hotels in Chisinau, the capital of Moldova (pronounced KISH-now).  I had not yet figured out how I was going to see the country and what it had to offer.  As I read reviews in Trip Advisor for hotels, I ran into a comment that a reviewer from the UK had made about a guide he hired for a one-on-one tour of Moldova.  I sent the reviewer a few questions and with his strong endorsement of this guide, I proceeded to contact the guide, Dumitru, to see what itinerary he would recommend for a 2-3 day visit and what the costs would be.  Dumitru offered several options and mentioned, in passing, that he could pick me up in Iasi, Romania if I wanted.  Immediately curiosity kicked in as I wondered why he would think I would go to Iasi.  There had to be a reason…

So off I went to research Iasi.  Turns out it is considered to be the cultural capital of Romania and that it had a hotel designed by Monsieur Eiffel himself.  That was all I needed to hear but now I had more logistics to research and more time on my vacation calendar to slice off.  (I will say here and likely repeat in a future blog how great Dumitru was!  Should you need a guide in eastern Romania or Moldova, hit me up for his email.)

Researching Trips Rocks

If you are thinking to yourself “this guy must love researching stuff”, you would be correct.  Doing research for me is the beginning of the trip:  I started learning the moment I started studying the maps of Moldova and Romania, or when I read some bloggers’ writings about these places, or when I chatted with a fellow Twitter friend about his trip through the Transniestra…

Figuring out the Logistics…

In any case, I decided due to my arrival date in Romania and the start of the hike that I could not afford taking the train from Bucharest to Iasi.  While distances are not long some times in Eastern Europe, what I consistently found out or heard was how artificially long the train rides are; case in point, a 6-7 hour drive from Chisinau to Bucharest could take twice that by train!  So I decided to fly to Iasi the morning after arriving in Bucharest foregoing looking at the landscape as I traveled.  Once in Iasi, I would have that afternoon and evening to explore it (almost enough time).  The next morning, I would be picked by my Moldovan guide, and then fly back to Bucharest from Chisinau, Moldova 2 days later.

My 3 days in Moldova would mostly be centered in the middle region of the country given where most of the key sites are but a trip north was planned to visit an important fortress in the town of Soroca on the Ukrainian border.

Romania

Once in back in Romania, the situation required less planning as most of it was handled by the trek organizers.  I only needed to take care of my hotel after returning from Moldova and plan my sightseeing the day after.  The trekkers would spend one night together in Bucharest before heading to Transylvania (the town of Brasov – prounounced BRAH-shov) where our trek and orphanage work would be “headquartered” for the next week.

The Travels I Did – A Map

I find a map helps visualize things so I quickly marked on this Romania/Moldova map the key travel routes and the method of transport I ended up using.  Clearly, I did not see all that Romania has to offer.  I hear Sibiu, Timisoara and Cluj-Napoca are well worth seeing too.

By the way, as a footnote, there is some kinship between Romania and Moldova.  In fact, the languages are practically the same and there are many cross-border family ties as, at some point in history, they were both one country.  Apparently, it is still a topic today (reunification or not), but I do not know enough to explain the situation here… Suffice it to say that Moldova has, itself, a region in the east that wants to separate from Moldova (it’s called the Transniestra and it was in the news in the 1990s due to civil war-like clashes with the Moldovan government)!

Romania Moldova Map

Final Itinerary and Key Activities in Romania and Moldova

To sum it all up and serve as a guide to writings I will create (I will add links here as the writings are published), here is a detailed itinerary of the trip…

Day 1 – Depart Atlanta, connect in Amsterdam, and land in Bucharest at midnight local time.

Day 2 – Depart Bucharest in the morning and land in Iasi in the morning.

Day 3 – Be picked up by my Moldova tour guide in Iasi and cross the border into Moldova.  Visit the Frumoasa and Curchi monasteries.  Brief stop in Orhei.  Visit Chateau Vartely, have lunch, and sample the wines.

Day 4 – Tour Chisinau, and travel to Soroca.

Day 5 – Visit the Milestii Mici winery and the Capriana Monastery.  Fly to Bucharest.

Day 6 – Sightsee in Bucharest, including its Palace of Parliament, and meet the hike group.

Day 7 – Travel by road to Brasov (3-4 hrs).  Explore Brasov and visit the orphanage.

Day 8 – Begin the hike on the Wallachian side of the Carpathian Mountains.

Day 9 – Second day of the hike into Transylvania via the Strunga Pass.

Day 10 – Third day of the hike.

Day 11 – Final day of the hike and night out in Brasov.

Day 12 – Explore more of Brasov.  Afternoon and evening at the orphanage with football (soccer) match included.

Day 13 – Hike with the kids.  Return to Bucharest.

Day 14 – Depart for Paris.

Day 15 – Hang out with nothing seriously planned in Paris.

Day 16 – Fly back home!

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If you can relate to this approach to trip planning and/or have stories of your own, I’d love to hear them!

Into the Land of the Dracula Legend (Or Is It?) and Moldova

So my trek to Romania is fast approaching.  I shared here about the hike in Romania in support of a local orphanage (donations welcome at www.trekkingforkids.org; mark me as the trekker!).  I have been preparing and planning to visit the Alps in Transylvania, made famous (or better known) by the story of Dracula…

The Hike

The hike will take place over 4 days where among other places we will stop at the castle that inspired the story of Dracula (Bran’s Castle).  We will staying in chalets or other accommodations in the area and we will visit other castles in the area.  We will be hiking for 5-6 hours every day and ascending to upwards of 9,000ft above sea level.  I have done 3-4 hr hikes in Kennesaw Mountain, about 20 minutes north of Atlanta, along trails they have up and around the mountain.  I have also been relying on the treadmill doing hour-long walks at 10% incline or more.  I sure hope this and my overall general fitness level help make this hike something less than a painful experience!

Pre-Hike Visit to Moldova

I don’t generally miss an opportunity to see a new place so I thought to myself that if I am going to Romania, I needed to do something in addition to Romania in this trip.  In terms of Romania, I get to see Bucharest, Brasov and the Transylvanian Alps so I was leaning to go somewhere outside of Romania.

The Greek Isles definitely beckoned but the lack of direct flights to the islands (taking into account all the stuff I will be lugging around for the hike) made me -sadly- kill that option.  A strong contender was neighboring Serbia.  But as I looked at the map more, there was one obvious candidate destination that I may otherwise not get to… the ex-Soviet Socialist Republic of Moldova.  I hear it still feels somewhat Soviet but I have also heard great things about fortresses, monasteries and wineries so it makes sense for me to explore it.  I decided to make it there before the hike.

Through a recommendation from someone in TripAdvisor, I contacted a local guide who will take me around for the 3 days I will be in Moldova to explore this -to me- mysterious country.  The local guide recommended I see Romania’s cultural capital, Iasi (population ~350K, inhabited since 400BC!), very close to Moldova on the west and that he could pick me up there.  So Iasi got added to the itinerary though I will spend less than a half a day there unfortunately.

Iasi, Romania

Iasi (photo courtesy of: RomanianMonasteries.org)

Chisinau, the capital of Moldova, will be my base those three days.  I have decided to stay at the Best Western Flowers which seemed well located and got good reviews in TripAdvisor (one of my preferred sources).

Map showing my tour of Moldova (based in Chisinau)

Map showing the areas I will explore on the three day visit

I am excited to get to explore one of the smallest and lesser known European countries and enjoy its charms before I do the hike.

Getting to Romania

I wanted to use frequent flyer miles to get to Bucharest but, as everyone has heard, airline miles keep losing value.  I had hoped to make the trip business class as I never get to do that on international flights.  However, what used to be a 90,000 mile business class seat can be now over 200,000 miles!  Inflation of awards outpaces any normal inflation metric…  Clearly a mental note has been made to earn points where possible outside of frequent flyer accounts (Marriott, for example, has a great and valuable rewards program).

Sure enough, I couldn’t get anything under 200,000 miles.  I had more miles than that to use but I refused to spend that many miles.  I tweeted in frustration, promising I would diversify my airline choices in the future.  A direct message came in from the airline asking if there was anything they could do to help.  I replied, rather skeptically, explaining further and adding “if you can get me there on business class for much less, I’d take it”.  Long story short, that person contacted me 2 hrs later (after various exchanges clarifying date flexibility, etc.) with an itinerary that was 150,000 via Amsterdam (trans-Atlantic leg with KLM! but 8-hr layover…) BUT it could not get me out of Bucharest to the gateway city (Paris) – I’d be on my own for that.  I was quite pleased.  I realize 90,000 was a dream especially in peak summer season so I understood  that I got as good a deal as possible.  My itinerary though does require 2 stops going over and 2 coming back BUT on the return I have to overnight in Paris anyway so I will make it a 2 night/1 day visit (I lived in Paris for 6 months many years ago so getting to stop there is like going home for me).

Getting to Moldova

Now, the only item left was getting to Moldova.  Trains are a great way to see more of a country but I was trying to maximize time in Moldova and the train ride was not a short one.  Since Iasi, Romania seemed worthseeing, I was going to fly there from Bucharest and then just return to Bucharest to join the hike group by flying out of Chisinau.  I land in Bucharest from the US at around midnight on the night of the 15th of July and catch my flight to Iasi at 11AM the next day.  Clearly I will not have time to unpack and repack for this 4 day trip so I will have to pack my bags in the US so it is a matter of leaving my hike luggage at the hotel in Bucharest and take one smaller bag for the Moldova trip.  (I am scoring a room at the JW Marriott for practically nothing!  I will stay there again the night I come back from Moldova.)

But heaven help me if the Romanian airline’s (TAROM) website wasn’t a royal pain the rear!  After many attempts, I ended up just going to good ole Expedia to book my flight and end the non-sense.  I hope the experience with TAROM is not a sign of things to come!

Bucharest

Sadly, I will only have one good day to see Bucharest so I will book some sort of tour to be efficient about seeing the key sights.  I hate not getting to spend more time and get a feel for the city but checking Iasi and Moldova out seemed more off the beaten path and that will always trump other options!

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So with less than 2 weeks to go, I am slightly daunted by the logistics of packing up all the right things for a hike in the mountains:  do I have all the things I need (they gave us a gear list but still trying to decide what to buy, what to borrow, and whether to buy cheap alternatives or the real things…), which bags are the ideal bags (my huge backpacker backpack, a duffel bag, etc. considering the multiple plane changes and the darn hiking poles), and how to strategically pack my bags.

However, any anxiety or eagerness to resolve all these pales in comparison with the excitement about the hike, the orphanage we are working with, and the sights and sounds I am about to experience in this corner of Eastern Europe!

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