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Romania Spotlight

Savvy travelers are turning east to Europe's next gem

By Gretchen Kelly (with David Farley)

October 26th, 2006

One of the first things you notice at the Henri Coanda Airport in Bucharest is the scores of Gucci- and Prada-clad Italians in the European Union national arrivals line. This is a sight few could have dreamed up before Christmas Day 1989, when Romanians gave their iron-fisted dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, a parting gift by violently sweeping him from his behemoth Palace of the People. The winds of change, however, blew lightly, as Romania struggled for over a decade to join Europe's modern economy.

That was then. Ask any businessman in Bucharest or hair stylist in Sibiu about their country today and you'll hear murmurs that something is happening here. And then you look around. The outdoor cafés are buzzing, the restaurants are serving creatively prepared local cuisine, as well as global fusion dishes, and you'll even spot some recognizable shops: Hugo Boss, Escada, and Estée Lauder, just to name a few.

One reason so many Italians are making themselves feel at home here is that Roman soldiers in Trajan's army brought their Italian culture to Romania in the second century. They are responsible for making this country, as the common saying goes, an "island of Latins in a sea of Slavs."

Epicures can enjoy the fine cuisine that shares ancient culinary traditions with not only Italy, but also Germany, Hungary, and even Turkey, in everything from salt-of-the-earth taverns to high-end restaurants for half the cost of a similar meal in Western Europe. The Romans also brought a wine-growing culture, which produces high caliber vintages that are affordable (and delicious) enough to inspire ordering another bottle.

And with the country getting itself in shape for its long-awaited entry into the European Union (in 2007), it's never been a better time to visit. The currency, lei (L2.75 = $1 at press time), will be giving way to the euro in a few years, and the younger generation of Romanians is embracing English. But learning a few Romanian phrases will quickly win you friends. Start with these: buna (BOO-na): hello; multumesc (moolt-soo-MESK): thank you; la revedere (lah reh-veh-DEH-reh): goodbye; and vorbiti engleza (vor-BEETZ eng-LEH-zuh): Do you speak English?

So, give a nod to the fictitious Count Dracula, and then submerge yourself in the rest of the place: cruise cobblestone streets, explore castles, and peek inside the famous Painted Monasteries. Indulge in the country's intriguing mix of bucolic countryside and budding cosmopolitanism. Romania is finally on the rise.

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