Make Your Next Trip Extraordinary

On April 13-23rd we had an incredible trip organized by Raluca Spiac and her team. This was no ordinary touristic trip. After years of genealogical research, my siblings and I planned a trip to those areas where our parental grandparents had roots. With Raluca’s expertise, an itinerary was developed which touched the many towns and villages where our grandparents and great grandparents were born, lived, worked, and died.

My initial conversation with Raluca was outstanding. She was from Arad, one of the towns where we had some ties, and her parents still live there. Raluca was enthusiastic about our plans and even identified our guide early on, as Alex was a knowledgeable guide who was also interested in genealogy. What a perfect match!

Over the months of planning, I was in touch with Alex, our prospective guide, as he investigated each of our ancestral sites to determine whether there was anything to see at these locations. This research was critical to planning our final itinerary. Raluca was continuously monitoring his work and making sure that he met our needs. The itinerary was finalized and soon enough everyone was traveling to our meeting point: Budapest, Hungary.

Right before we left for Budapest, both Raluca and I had a glitch with which to deal. Our prospective guide (Alex) was going to be unavailable due to health reasons and I had an extra last-minute tour participant! Raluca found us an excellent substitute tour guide (Andrei) and she and I worked out my last-minute addition without missing a beat. While originally disappointed, our new guide, Andrei, was continuously coached by our first guide to make sure everything we had planned happened. There would be no disruption because of this change.

We started our adventure in Hungary in the small town of Aldebro, known to be the Wagner family nest going back to the early 1700s. Raluca put us in touch with an excellent individual in Budapest who not only gave us a fabulous tour of Budapest but made sure we had a good guide the following day when we traveled to Aldebro in Hungary.

Our visit in Aldebro was unbelievable. By pure luck (and perhaps some divine intervention by my deceased grandparents), we were able to meet up with a real relative of ours!!!

We then returned to Budapest and the next day Raluca sent a driver and luxury van to take us to Romania to continue our ancestral journey.

Our first stop was Arad, a large city, and with the help of our guide and driver, we were able to locate both the homes of my grandparents and that of my grandfather’s sister! Then, once again, a fabulous experience occurred. We went to the cemetery to look for my grandfather’s sister’s grave. Our new guide, Andrei, was able to talk to the record keepers and they identified the exact location of her grave! It was overgrown and there was no marker, but it was the right place. Our family of four (all living siblings) brought flowers and candles. (Andrei educated us on the Romanian custom to bring candles and he took us to the marketplace to buy beautiful flowers.) It was a very moving experience for all of us. We had the site cleaned up, removing the overgrown weeds on top covering it. We knew that my grandfather’s sister died alone, her life forever altered by the arrival of communism and the impossibility of travel to Mexico where my grandparents lived. Her many letters went unanswered, unfortunately, and she was unaware my grandfather had had a stroke and could not respond. He died shortly thereafter.

A word about Andrei, our substitute guide. He was wonderful. He was well informed about our goals and had performed the appropriate research. He was continuously in touch with our first guide, Alex, who was making sure there were no missteps. He was knowledgeable about the areas we visited and gave us excellent background information. He laughed over the fact that two of the villages we were visiting, to his knowledge, neither tourists nor locals exactly visited them. “No one ever wants to come to these areas. You are the first!” Andrei meant that comment as a joke, but the reality is that it was true. As a side note, Andrei had a wonderful sense of humor and not only were we learning as we traveled, but he also constantly made us laugh. This made our long vehicle rides traveling from site to site go amazingly fast. We traveled from one end of southern Romania to the other! There was no better substitute guide for Alex than Andrei.

We visited beautiful Timisoara and had the good luck to have Raluca join us. She was phenomenal and so interested in our experiences thus far. She had planned to be with us about 30 minutes but ended up giving us one and a half hours of her time and what fun we had with her! What a great travel agent choice we made thanks to Wendy Perrin’s WOW List of travel agents around the world.

Our next incredible experience was in Petrosani and, specifically, Petrila. We had a 1930s picture of my grandfather and my father at a coal mine and wanted to replicate that picture. Alas, the now defunct coal mine was locked, and we could not access the site. There was, however, one man there and Andrei went to see if we could gain access. While this individual did not have the authority to do so, there was to be a meeting of volunteers with a guest speaker and if we wanted to wait, we might gain access. Sure enough, men started gathering there and the head of this group and the guest speaker eventually arrived. They were astounded we had that picture and, of course, allowed us to take pictures there. We were then invited to visit the small museum in what was previously an office building and the guest speaker insisted on giving us a personal tour. Amazing!

My great grandfather worked for the railroads so, again, Andrei was diligent in taking us to all the sites where my great grandfather had worked and most likely lived. My grandfather was born in one of those buildings!

With the visits to our ancestral sites finished, we then toured many beautiful parts of Transylvania enjoying great food, amazing castles, great historical buildings, and the charming towns of Sibiu, Viscri and then Brasov on our way to Bucharest.

I would be negligent to not include the special effort by Monica in Raluca’s office to arrange a surprise birthday party for all our siblings at a restaurant in Sibiu. We all celebrate birthdays in April-May within weeks of each other. This was over and above the call of duty. Thank you, Monica!

This fantastic trip came to an end in Bucharest, from where we would all depart to a number of different destinations, but there was one last surprise. Our original guide, Alex, joined us for lunch! What a treat it was to be able to meet the individual who had worked so hard on our itinerary.

Overall, there is nothing more superlative I could say about Raluca Spiac and all her staff and guides. Our long-awaited trip could not have been better. Raluca’s personal attention to every detail was phenomenal. Not only her first suggestion of Alex to be our guide, but our substitute guide, Andrei, who was equally as good. Monica was formidable! The hotels recommended were perfect and the restaurant recommendations excellent. Wonderful job!

I travelled to Romania on a last-minute graduation trip with my daughter, Amelia, from August 2 through August 11 2023. We have done numerous trips with Wendy’s WOW List agents before and knew that finding an agent through Wendy was the only way to go. Even the destination of our trip was inspired by articles written by Wendy. Since the trip was last-minute (before my daughter began her new career as an RN) and it was the height of tourist season, we wanted to pick a destination that was less travelled. We chose Romania and Wendy matched us up with Raluca and Ioana. We provided them with a broad description of what we like to do and they took it from there. We love to see beautiful landscapes and the outdoors, enjoy local culture, and not spend too much time indoors in churches and museums. Important to us was connecting with the local people and understanding the country.

Raluca and Ioana went above and beyond our expectations. They set us up with a local guide, Tavi, whose personality matched well with us, which was a good thing since we drove around Romania for 10 days with him. He was knowledgeable, charming, and funny and made adjustments to our plans as he got to know us better. We started in Bucharest, which was great for my daughter to learn what can happen to a country if you vote in a narcissist authoritarian as a leader and understanding what life was like under the latter parts of communist ruling. We had a university history professor give us a tour of an apartment frozen in time from the 1980’s under communist rule. We enjoyed wonderful restaurants, an amazing art exhibit, and historical sites in the city. When we left Bucharest, Tavi adjusted our route so we could travel the Transfagarian Highway. Being from Colorado we enjoyed the winding mountain pass and enjoyed Tavi’s stories of back country skiing the areas around the pass. For our first stop in Transylvania, we stayed in the corner barn of the Bethlen Estates. The bedding was wonderful, the food delicious and the staff was amazing. From here we enjoyed visiting the Cris Bethlen Castle which was literally down the road. It was particularly fun for us since one of our favorite horror movies, The Nun, was shot there. A local man who lives in town jumped in and gave us a detailed tour including side stories on the actors during the filming. We went on an amazing mountain bike ride (about 20 miles) primarily in the hills and forests with some fun single track as well. The mountain bike guide had helped to build the trails which will eventually connect a large portion of Transylvania for mountain bike tours.

We saw wonderful fortressed churches and cities throughout our trip, including the beautiful Sighisoara. Always enjoying them without crowds and with a random local who had the keys to let us in the church or describe some interesting tidbit of history through our guide as the interpreter. We met a local weaver whose family had been doing traditional weaving for generations and who rescued a loom headed for destruction. I introduced her to the Navajo weavers of the US and she was fascinated with their symbols and designs and was planning on reaching out to them. We enjoyed a visit with a local herbalist whose herb garden was expansive and her knowledge of remedies was sought out throughout the area. Here we enjoyed a dinner in her home, again understanding her story and her life and sharing ours. We enjoyed seeing the UNESCO site, Viscri, supported by King Charles and enjoyed the views from the fortressed church over the rolling hills. We moved onto Brasov, staying at the Schuster Boarding House with a good location for walking around town. Here we had a private tour of Bran Castle and after connecting with the guide, had the opportunity to climb into the highest turret to view the mountain pass that the lookouts would use in centuries past. When we expressed interest in a hike, Tavi took us up a mountainside where he helped a friend build a cabin. We met one of his friends, a local shepherd, and discussed bears threatening his flock and how the handling of these bears was different between Colorado and Romania. Again a full in-depth conversation with Tavi as our interpreter.

Bottom line our visit was filled with unique experiences where we connected with the people of Romania and attempted to understand their stories. Romania is a beautiful, relatively undiscovered country with rich medieval history and more recent history of the rise and fall of communism. It is not as restored as other places in Western Europe but its beauty, its history, and its people are wonderful to experience. The smaller crowds allow for a much more enjoyable visit than other European countries. We would not have had the same trip without the guidance of Raluca, Ioana and Tavi. I do not enjoy just visiting a place. I enjoy experiencing it and that’s what Raluca’s team did for us in Romania, they gave us unforgettable experiences. A final shout-out to Raluca, Ioana, and Tavi for coordinating the shipment of some art and pottery we purchased during our trip. They definitely went above and beyond the call of duty and we will have these beautiful items to enjoy and remember Romania for a lifetime.

We had begun planning our trip to Romania several years ago but it was postponed because of Covid. When we were able to depart this spring we found the trip to be even better than we hoped for. Raluca had worked very diligently, with frequent emails and an initial Zoom, to plan our trip around Orthodox Easter celebrations, small village and town stays, and the chance to see spring flowers in the countryside. We knew the latter would be limited somewhat because of early Orthodox Easter.

After landing in Bucharest we left the next morning for Brasov, stopping at Peles Castle on the way. The castle visit was the only crowded time of our whole 2-week trip but very interesting inside and out, and we began learning the complicated history of Romania from our excellent guide Andrei. Our accommodations in boutique inns in Brasov, Sighisoara, and Cluj were all excellent, with a unique combination of traditional furnishing and modern amenities and excellent breakfasts in all. One of our highlights near Sighisoara was an afternoon and evening in a small village with Emese and family, touring her herb gardens, good conversations about her familiy’s history, and having a delicious traditional Easter meal.

Our first small village stay was in Breb, in the beautiful Maramures region, with green fields with haystacks, and distant snow-covered mountains. Our stay in The Village Hotel, a small group of restored traditional cottages, was wonderful with the help of the owner Penny and assistant Andrada. Dinners in a villager’s home were excellent with everything self-sourced. We did not overall visit museums but the Museum of Communism in Sighetu was very powerful and worthwhile.

Next stop was Bucovina area for Orthodox Easter celebrations. We attended midnight service, which involved passing lit candles, walking in and out and around the beautiful painted monastery, and responsive singing, all very moving. Easter Day included more services, with traditional dress, and tradition of cracking painted eggs at breakfast with the words “Christ has risen” and response “He has truly risen,” along with traditional Easter morning and Easter dinner lamb dishes. Our stay was again in an individual restored cottage at Casa Cu Cerbi with unique traditional bed arrangements and furnishings. The painted monasteries including Voronet were another highlight.

Back in Transylvania we stayed in the very remote village of Valea Zanalui in King Charles’ cottage. A very informative walk with a local biologist to look for flowers and discuss the area’s natural history had been set up ahead and very worthwhile. Communication was more difficult here because of the small staff primarily Hungarian, not Romanian, speaking and without our guide and preplanning we would have been unaware of potential available activities in the area.

In our last village Viscri, where we stayed at the very comfortable Viscri 125, we had our best chances to meet local craftsmen including watching a Roma woman making boiled woolen slippers, a blacksmith visit, and a very educational time with a beekeeper who supplies King Charles with his honey.

Lastly Bucharest surprised us with its vitality, green spaces and wonderful old buildings.

Each area we visited was unique with differences in architecture, language, food, and dress due to the complicated ethnic and political history of the country. Because of this and the beautiful landscape, churches, cleanliness, and friendliness our visit was very rewarding and enjoyable.

We would not have been able to appreciate any of this if we had attempted to plan and drive ourselves or been part of a large group staying in nondescript hotels on the edge of town. All of our accommodations were exceptional and we know that Raluca visits them all regularly to reassess. Monica checked once or more daily to adjust the schedule for weather changes, restaurant closings, etc. and made sure everything ran smoothly. Our wonderful guide Andrei was able to determine our interests, physical limitations, and schedule very easily and was always pleasant, reliable, easy to talk to, and extremely knowledgeable about Romanian history and culture. He was also flexible so we could easily add or subtract activities not on our planned list.

We would without question recommend planning a visit to Romania with Raluca.

PANDEMIC TRAVEL  Have just returned from our first trip to Romania and wanted to say thank you to Raluca for a warm welcome to her fabulous country! From first contact we knew we were in good hands. A phone call helped Raluca determine what type of adventure we were looking for and from that moment on, everything ran smooth as silk! Recommendations for sights, restaurants and hotels were all spot on.
Our personal guide, Alex escorted us into the countryside for sightseeing, hikes in the Piatra Craiului Mountains, led a private tour of the magnificent Romanian Athenaeum in Bucharest, and even arranged access for us to services in the beautiful Choral Synagogue. By the end of our trip, Alex felt like an old and well informed friend!
Raluca kept in touch during our visit via email and phone calls just to make sure all was going well. COVID and seasonal changes threw a few obstacles into our plans, Raluca however was on top of everything and adjustments were made without having to miss anything on our agenda.
I cannot give enough kudos to Raluca and her team and look forward to planning our next trip to Romania!

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