Most South Dakotans love living here, but about this time of year we dream of escaping for a while. I’m escaping by mentally reliving a wish-come-true trip I took last summer. It’s taken this long to absorb all the memories sufficiently to write them down.
First, please imagine creating a country by taking the entire state of South Dakota, plus the southern one-fifth of North Dakota, and carving a line around those 92,000 or so square miles. Let’s populate it with about 18 million people and call it the Republic of Dakota.
Next, imagine living in this country and never traveling outside its borders. You’re not permitted south of Yankton nor north of Hazelton. If you try to cross the boundaries near Dewey or Flandreau, you’d better have your papers with you.
About 95 percent of everything you consume is produced in the Republic of Dakota. Fresh pineapple? Not here. Blue jeans? There’s no cotton in our fields; your pants are made of hemp.
If you live in Sioux Falls, Aberdeen or Rapid City, you spend vacations helping relatives at Buffalo or Grenville, Winfred or Oelrichs, planting gardens, picking apples or butchering hogs.
Washington, meanwhile, casts a long shadow over your republic, hauling away Black Hills timber and mining Dakota minerals for itself.
That’s what it was like in Romania. Punished by the Soviets for providing support to Germany in World War II, their king forced to abdicate, their resources drained by Moscow, Romanians were cut off from most of the world for 40 years. Farmers were imprisoned for refusing to work the land they once owned, confiscated by the Socialists.
Romania has spent three decades recovering from those dark years and is now a friendly, fascinating place to visit, full of modern conveniences juxtaposed with old-world ways.
Last summer I traveled there with my son, who had been studying in France. We found similarities between South Dakota and Romania. We’re on the same latitude; our climate is similar. So is our friendly rural lifestyle – Romanians who live in the city have never lost their country connections.
Some takeaways about traveling there:
• Romania is the only Latin country in Eastern Europe; its language is like Italy’s Sicilian dialect. My son and I thought we’d be able to communicate with his French and my German, but most people shook their heads at those languages, instead speaking English with us.
• Those of us old enough to remember when the Iron Curtain came down might recall the news reports about Romania after dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was executed in 1989. His massive Palace of the Parliament is second in size only to our Pentagon and was built with funds taken from his starving people.
• Traveling deep in Eastern Europe is affordable. The prices at Romanian hotels and restaurants are about half of their American equivalents. Our opera tickets in Bucharest were about $15 apiece, compared with an average of $75 for similar entertainment in Sioux Falls. It’s less expensive to be a tourist in Romania than in Bavaria, for example, but with the same picturesque scenery, comfortable lodging and medieval architecture. Indeed, Romania’s villages, which escaped World War II bombs, still look like they did in two centuries ago.
• On a cold South Dakota day, I warm up by thinking about Bucharest’s 91-degree June heat. From the city, our tour guide drove us to the Carpathians, where the 55-degree alpine breeze was like air conditioning.
• The Carpathian Mountains and Transylvania’s forests are breathtaking. Romanians are amused at the West’s fascination with Bram Stoker’s version of Dracula. Vlad the Impaler, who ruled the region of Romania called Walachia in the 1400s, is known for defending his country from Turkish invasion. Visitors can see the house where he was born in the city of Sighisoara, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Our tour took us to Bran Castle, which evokes Dracula movies but, in reality, is connected with Queen Marie, a beloved Romanian monarch who died in 1938.
• The ruling Communists respected history enough that they left monasteries, cathedrals and castles intact and furnished – though empty of their clergy and royalty.
• It’s common in the countryside to see farmers traveling by horse and cart, shepherds herding their flocks along the roadsides, and cows roaming freely on the highways. Remember those pointy haystacks in the fairy-tale picture books you read as a child? Ever wonder how they are formed? We saw how: By pitchfork, on a cone-shaped wood frame which lets air circulate inside and under the stack.
• The country’s agriculture is not much different than that of the Dakotas. We saw fields of corn, wheat, barley, sunflowers, potatoes, sugar beets and soybeans. Romanian farmers also raise fruit and nut trees.
• A travel agent is worth her weight in gold. I booked our flights with All About Travel, a Sioux Falls travel agency, and paid less than $50 for the services. The agent saved me much more than that in airline tickets.
• I usually plan my own trips, but because I didn’t know much about Romania, I asked Jamie, our Sioux Falls travel agent, to sign us up for a private tour once we arrived in the country. She did all the research so that our travels went smoothly. (And if they had not, she was only an email or phone call away to help and fix.) She booked our Romanian tour with Covinnus Travel, the same agency that Public Broadcasting travel guru Rick Steves once used. Our affable guide, Florin, spoke excellent English and was a veritable encyclopedia who did not sugarcoat his country’s dark history, but also ensured we saw the beauty of its centuries. We appreciated the ease of getting around in a car with Florin as driver, and we saw much more of the country than we would ever have seen on our own. Covinnus will customize tours – indeed, the agency has helped some Americans visit the places where their ancestors lived.
In a radio broadcast, Rick Steves interviewed authors who wrote about traveling in Eastern Europe. Many of Western Europe’s most famous spots are becoming so overcrowded they’re almost unpleasant to visit, his guests said.
By contrast, my son and I felt as though we had Romania to ourselves. Closed for so many years, the country is home to only Romanians and its ethnic minority, the Roma people. There are few if any immigrants. Only once in our six-day visit did we overhear another American on the street. The small handful of other tourists we ever encountered were from Europe or Asia.
Steves’ radio interview was with authors who wrote about travel in Ukraine. “You can fly into Frankfurt and instead of connecting to Munich you can connect to Kiev,” Steves said. “It is so accessible and not one in 300 tourists even considers it.”
I would heartily say that the same applies to Bucharest. “You can choose to have ... adventures by choosing to go places that are just a little beyond the radar,” Steves said. If you can plan a trip, or even if all you can manage just now is to daydream, I can say from experience that he is right. All it takes is a willingness to fly beyond the common tourism radar.