My Bloody Romania: A return to the American Dream – minus gainful employment and money

Does anyone else have perma-smell associations for whole countries? One scent that transports your brain to a specific country, drops you on a random street and makes you dreamily reminisce about the life you could have had with the achingly cute girl that worked at the local travel agency that not so subtly offered to give you a ‘private tour’ (nudge-nudge) and you distractedly turned her down because you had to go review three hotels and two restaurants that afternoon and you then decide that you’re a thick-skulled jackass for not noticing the palpable flirty signs until you thought about it two days later while sitting on the train to the next city and then you wonder how the hell anyone that is so painfully unobservant could possibly be trusted to be a travel writer? Show of hands?

Some countrywide perma-smell association examples: France smells like butter. Italy smells like garlic. Romania smells like a mix of pălincă and grass (with a hint of manure).

So what’s the overriding smell I associate with the US? French fry grease. It’s everywhere. If you’re saying to yourself “Well it doesn’t smell like French fry grease at my house!”, you’re wrong grandma. It most certainly does, you’ve just gotten used to it.

You don’t notice how the US smells like French fry grease until you leave for a while and your nose has had time to forget. You need at least two weeks, but the sensation magnifies the longer you’re away. Get out of the country for like 10 months and you’ll see what I mean. When you return, the instant you hit the top of the jetway the French fry aroma in the airport hits you like a bullet in the kneecap, even if the food court is 100 yards away. If you think an air quality assessment at an airport is unfair, fine, let’s change it up. Arrive in Duluth by boat. Parachute into a third tier suburb of Pittsburg. Teleport into Oklahoma. It changes nothing. Hello French fry grease. Goodbye clear completion.

And have you ever noticed how as soon as you walk through a cloud of French fry grease vapor you’re suddenly starving to death? Even if you just ate? Even if your nose is sealed shut from a bad Eastern European head cold? Don’t try to tell me that stuff isn’t laced with heroin. You don’t even have to ingest it to become addicted. Meanwhile there’s no cure for herpes. Oooeeeoooeee.

On that note, I arrived back in America a few days ago. The trip was fairly disaster-free, but a freak cold I contracted while in Suceava meant that I rarely went more than two minutes without putting a new coating of snot on my upper lip and finger tips. I’d like to take this opportunity to apologize to everyone in Bucharest, Heathrow and O’Hare airports for the Nose DNA that I unintentionally left behind during layovers. There was nothing I could do about it. More material exited out of my nose last week than all my other orifices combined.

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I was seated in the dreaded center row on the longest leg of my journey, with a half-deaf bitty on one side and a Danish Moonie on the other. The Moonie was so large and had so many airplane seat accessories that it took her five minutes of packing, rearranging and grunting to let me out so I could get to the bathroom and refresh my Booger Wad.

Here in Minneapolis, in addition to a stupefying visit to a supermarket for the first time in years (57 kinds of tomato sauce, versus five in Romania and 23 kinds of peanut butter, versus zero), I’ve been hyper-aware of the differences between big city America and my hideouts in Romania and Italy these past few years. The utter convenience and reliability of everything. Free WiFi clouds so profuse that only suckers pay for their own home services anymore. Going to work with more than 30% of your available cleavage on display is considered a bad thing.

This is just the beginning. I’ve got giddying months of reverse culture shock in store for me as I re-establish myself as a resident of this land of wretched plenty. Never mind 57 different ways to enliven pasta. I’ve got 21 new energy drinks to appraise. I have to get up to speed on over four years of TV, movies, music, politics, pop culture and reprobate starlets that ‘accidentally’ expose their private parts in public every other week. I can go to a restaurant and eat breakfast at 2pm, lunch at 10:30am or dinner at 5pm. I can pay my electric bill without it being a two hour, three visit affair. I can turn on the hot water and have it actually work most of the time (we eventually did without hot water for over two weeks last month in Iaşi).

Equally, in America I can’t buy a decent coffee for less than US$4 or wine for less than US$9. Shallots are a pricey extravagance rather than a common ingredient. World news is glossed over for 30 seconds before eight minutes of local sports results. There are dizzying, infuriating rules about when and where one can park a car, drink booze or get nekkid. Worse, you’re often limited to only doing one at a time (unless it’s football game day, when anything goes – God bless America!)

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But coping on the fly with constant culture adjustments is all part of the fun of frequent international travel. You can never be accused of being flaky if you’ve just gotten off a plane from somewhere that has unusual toilets. It’s an all-purpose excuse to get out of bad manners, falling asleep at family meals and low tipping. And my buddies, bless them, are all in on the plot:

“Please excuse my friend. He’s a professional travel writer and just got back from two weeks in Buenos Aires, where they only tip 3%, it’s socially acceptable to be drunk at 10am and ass-grabbing is the highest form of flattery. If we’re lucky, and he remains conscious, he may tell us the location of the only free public toilet in Venice.”

Friends, sadly, this brings to a close my critic acclaimed (yes, just the one) travel series My Bloody Romania. I hope my sarcastic and spotty knowledge of Romania has been amusing, enthralling and mostly factual. Thanks to Justin and Willy at Gadling for the opportunity to prattle, curse and digress at will and special thanks to my regular readers over at Killing Batteries for descending on Gadling and padding my comments sections. Killing Batteries Minneapolis Edition resumes in a few days. Set your feeds and botox treatments accordingly.

Oh, one last kernel of Romania knowledge: the first person to establish import rights for Skippy Peanut Butter into the country is going to be a squillionaire – andale!!

Leif Pettersen, originally from Minneapolis, Minnesota, co-authored the current edition of Lonely Planet’s Romania and Moldova. Visit his personal blog, Killing Batteries, for more unrelated tangents and diatribes when pre-season high school football coverage eclipses reporting on the events in Burma.

My Bloody (Drunk) Romania: Beyond the moonshine

Coming home from clubbing or heading to church? One never knows.People are often taken off guard when I tell them that I’ve spent about 17 cumulative months in Romania. Inevitably, wooden stake at the ready, they start digging about what the hell kept me here so long.

Is it the low cost of living? Initially yes, but with the US dollar tanking and the Romanian lei gaining, I could almost live cheaper in Miami these days.

Is it the scantly clad girls? Well, duh.

Is it the orgy of high-speed file sharing going on that’s better than any software store, CD shop and on-demand satellite service combined? I don’t know what you mean detective.

But, there’s a bunch of non-financial, non-depraved and non-somewhat illegal reasons as well. Though hardly pious, a primary incentive to get good and comfortable here for a while is the availability and shocking low price of decent alcohol, namely wine.

With the exception of parts of Transylvania that inexplicably lean toward German wines, there’s enough Romanian wine on offer here to keep you woozy for months. Big names include Bucium, Cotnari, both based in Moldavia, and Murfatlar based in Dobrogea. Bottles from US$2.50 to US$6 range from one step above table wine (Bucium) to bottles that routinely win awards abroad (Murfatlar and Cotnari).

Prahova will probably sound familiar to UK readers, as it makes up 70% of their Romanian wine distribution. Despite being highly respected (and relatively highly priced) within Romania, I haven’t been able to find the page on their web site that lists their awards. I’m sure it’s just an oversight.

Alternatively, avoid Vampire Wine, a hokey bottle of wine-flavoured poison marketed to vampire fanatics that appears to be acquired from the dregs and ‘oopsie barrels’ from reputable wineries. I’ll admit though, it makes a fun souvenir. But you don’t need to come all the way to Romania to buy a bottle. The winery appears to be owned and operated out of California. You can get a bottle on their web site for US$9.99.

A popular variety of desert wine that I’ve only recently discovered is busuioaca de bohotin made by Vincon Vrancea, among others. Unlike many desert wines, it doesn’t have that syrupy taste that coats your tongue and turns your eyeballs orange after only a single glass. Granted, it’s not the type of thing you want with your fillet mignon, but it was great for multiple glasses later in the evening while we watched a shaky copy of “Superbad” that may or may not have been acquired in an unscrupulous fashion.

Also, not to betray my hosts, but the availability of super yummy and cheap Moldovan wine here in Romania cannot be ignored. Big names like Milestii Mici, Acorex and the self-proclaimed mother of all Moldovan wine Cricova are easy to find in most supermarkets, but keep an eye out for feisty bottles of perfectly drinkable Cojusna that seem to only find their way into tiny, corner shops here in Romania, probably secreted across the border in someone’s hollowed out prosthetic leg.

Closing out the wine category, though it will offend and alarm serious wine drinkers, I have to mention must, a low-alcohol, sweet, fizzy almost-wine concoction that is only available for a few weeks each year after the grape harvest. Some wine makers convert a bit of their stash into must and feed it to their employees to keep them congenial yet still productive. However, must production is big business for some, as tanker trucks of the stuff are enthusiastically gulped down at Romania’s innumerable autumn street festivals, being particularly popular with teenaged girls (and pansy-assed travel writers that don’t dig beer).

Now for the harder stuff. Ţuică and pălincă are two kinds of brandy usually made from plums. Though some people freely swap these terms to describe the same drink, they are, as your tongue will tenderly note, distinctly different. Pălincă is essentially ţuică, distilled twice. Ţuică is about 30-40% alcohol, while pălincă is 45-55%, sometimes dangerously higher. One time I got my hands on a bottle that could’ve dissolved lead.

You’re not going to find these two beverages in most stores as they are in fact that moonshine I teased in the title of this post. Ţuică and pălincă are almost exclusively produced in stills on private farms or in people’s tool sheds. Though this is technically bootlegging, the Romanian government tolerates this production, probably for the same reason that cats tolerate humans: unabashed personal gratification.

Traditionally, a shot of ţuică/pălincă is consumed right before a meal to ‘open up’ (or alight depending on the potency) the palette and help with digestion. Yet, if you ride down the main street of any village in the winter months, taking note of the large number of people who’ve only half successfully dressed themselves, weaving down the road singing folk songs to the neighborhood and you’ll get a sense of exactly how much moonshine gets consumed as a matter of course.

Though a few communities have negotiated dubious production licenses, making moonshine for restaurants and high-end tourist shops (complete with a whole pear at the bottle of the bottle), you’re more likely to find it for sale on folding tables by the side of the road in recycled soft drink bottles along with cheese and honey products. These roadside vendors will probably charge about 15 lei (~US$6) for a 0.5 liter bottle, but I hear tell that if you have the right connections in places like the Maramureş region, you can get a two liter bottle for as little as 10 lei (US$4). If the Romanian parliament is any indication, a two liter bottle of pălincă goes a long way.

On a closing note, while there’s innumerable ways to get happily loaded here in Romania, I have yet to be introduced to any national hangover remedy. Romanians don’t do brunch, so I’m not able to invoke my preferred antidote of an Everything Omelet doused in Tabasco, washed down with three Cokes and a chocolate shake, followed by a two hour nap. I’ve just had to suffer quietly with mediocre coffee, fruit and pastries. If someone would only open a 24 hour breakfast café, this country could be the next freelance writer’s ultimate retreat.

Leif Pettersen, originally from Minneapolis, Minnesota, co-authored the current edition of Lonely Planet’s Romania and Moldova. Visit his personal blog, Killing Batteries, for more ways to tie on a dignified drunk and why that’s OK as long as you emphasize the word ‘dignified’.

My Bloody Romania: Cabbage never tasted so good

Before you read another word, click over to yellowpages.com and locate the Romanian restaurant nearest to your home (if you are actually in Romania, you are not eligible for this exercise).

So, how far away is the restaurant? Depending on your continent, it’s anywhere from 1,000 to 12,000 miles away, right? With the rare, screwball exception (Los Gatos, California comes to mind), you just don’t see Romanian restaurants abroad. Why is that? Some might be tempted to wryly reply “Because if I wanted to eat cabbage, potatoes and cornmeal mush, I’d go back to summer camp in Alabama.”

Certainly, Romanians love their cornmeal mush like few other sentient beings in the known universe, but Romanian cuisine is far more complex and surprisingly savory than most people know.

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Let’s start with that cornmeal mush, or mămăligă as they call it around here (or ‘polenta’ as it’s more popularly known). Admittedly, I don’t care for the stuff. I’ve had 20 different Romanians try to prepare mămăligă 20 different ways in an effort to roll me over and so far its been an unmitigated failure. It’s usually served mixed with cream and shredded cheese, which is certainly an improvement on the sawdust cake constancy and flavor of straight mămăligă, but it’ll never be something that I bolt upright in the middle of the night craving like I do with bacon cheeseburgers and Michelle Hunziker.

Next is mici, or mititei, links of grilled minced-meat composed of a blend of beef, mutton and pork meat, enlivened with pepper, garlic and other random seasonings, served with a side of mustard for dipping. Although very popular, mici seems to be less present as an at-home regular menu item and more of a fixture at picnics and outdoor festivals where its easy-to-carry-around nature makes it wildly popular street food. Ironically, this is customarily where the worst mici is served. Better to try it in a decent restaurant first and judiciously regress from there. In its street form, mici is nearly always served with a giant glass of beer, as most dodgy street food is, to disguise irregularities like pig nostrils and hooves.

Chicken and pork play a big roll in Romanian restaurant menus. Inevitably there’s a lengthy list of subtle variations on simple fillets, usually with a sauce of some kind. These dishes are really hit or miss, ranging from tender and superb to something resembling microwaved brake pads. Price is rarely an indication of what you should expect, so be prepared to gamble. Below is a fine example: grilled chicken breast on the left, a pork fillet under a red mushroom sauce on the right. Although you can add any side dish you want, I usually opt for the ‘countryside potatoes’ (cartofi ţărăneşti), roasted potatoes seasoned with onions, garlic and bits of ham.

Turning the to poor, seemingly un-enticing cabbage. As hilarious as it would be to report that people sit on the front stoop on a Sunday afternoon and eat cabbage raw like a giant apple, it ain’t so. It isn’t even a main course. Like everywhere else, it’s principally used to add substance to dishes, like a stew. Though cabbage is usually seen as a poor man’s meal fortifier, it’s really a kind of light, healthy wonder food when you think about it, since it tends to absorb the qualities of the food it’s cooked with, while adding both weight and a nice texture.

Soups are big in Romania, especially in winter when it’s colder than a vampire’s gonads. Ciorbă, similar to borscht, is a general term for any soup with meat and vegetables. I can’t get enough of ciorbă rădăuţeană, an egg yolk chicken soup with shredded carrots, onions, red peppers and potatoes served with sides of cream and garlic and a jalapeno. This stuff will warm you up no matter how undead you are. Other ciorbă that I’ve liked are ciorbă văcuţă (red soup with beef, green beans, onions, carrots and other veggies), ciorbă cu perişoare (cream soup with meatballs) and an out-of-this-world ciorbă de pui a la Grec (chicken soup, ‘Greek style’, with carrots, pepper, potatoes, onion) that I noisily swooned over at Bella Musica in Braşov.

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to find a good piece of beef here, but if you look hard enough, you can find something that won’t make your face screw up. I had excellent beef in both Sibiu and Braşov, but have yet to find a place in all of Iaşi that can 1) serve a good cut and 2) prepare it correctly. Unless you know the restaurant you’re in will get it right, or you’re just dying for something other than chicken and pork, probably best not to roll the dice on the ‘fillet mignon’. Equally, at about US$9 for a your meal, you can afford to go around town sampling beef in every restaurant until you find a winner.

Finally, probably my favorite dish: sarmale. Kind of like a mini-burrito filled with ground beef (or pork or veal), rice, onions and spices wrapped up in cabbage or grape leaves and baked in a pot of water until the water has boiled away or been absorbed. Some people in Romania deride sarmale and accuse restaurants and guest houses that serve it of trying to pass off ‘cheap peasant food’. This isn’t remotely true. Firstly, sarmale is a delicious explosion of flavor by any standard. Secondly, it’s a very labor intensive meal to prepare. After one goes through the lengthy effort of preparing the beef, cutting up all those vegetables and boiling the cabbage (or what have you), all those little burritos have to be hand rolled, which I can tell you takes hours. I’ve flown from Minneapolis to Norway in less time. When it’s served to you, especially in a private home, know that they’ve pulled out all the stops for you and be suitably thankful.

I’ll close by admitting that you can go wrong, very wrong, with Romanian food sometimes, but it’s really no different than eating out in restaurants in any other country. Some places are phenomenal, others will give you mild food poisoning that requires pharmaceutical intervention to correct. Just don’t allow yourself to get too hooked on this food, because once you get home the drive to your nearest Romanian restaurant is a doosie.

Leif Pettersen, originally from Minneapolis, Minnesota, co-authored the current edition of Lonely Planet’s Romania and Moldova. Visit his personal blog, Killing Batteries, for more information on food he can’t cook.

My Bloody Romania: The Royal (Mud) Treatment

Dateline: A mud puddle the size of Delaware in Southern Bucovina

There’s a hardcore subset of people wandering around Southern Bucovina visiting all the monasteries by foot – backpacks piled high with camping gear, all-weather clothing, muesli and vampire bat spray. I’m not one of those people. I retired from carrying all my crap on my back in 1994 when a chronic back injury combined with a Dr. Seuss caliber over-stuffed backpack aged my spine about 50 years in four months.

I’m a wheelie bag guy now and proud of it. Some backpacker purists feel that wheelie bags are a cop out. These people are dough heads. Furthermore, at the end of the day of wheelie bagging I feel great and I smell divine. At the end of a day of backpacking, most people look like refugees in need of an industrial jet-wash with a mixture of bleach and tomato juice.

The only downside to wheelie bagging (well, some call it a ‘down side’, I call it ‘the best part’) is that you are limited to day trips, like the one I’m taking now: the ‘Prince Charles Walk’ from Putna Monastery to Sucevi?a Monastery.

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Prince Charles went through a Romania phase several years ago. He visited, he jeered plans for a ‘Dracula Land’ amusement park (rightly so) and he ambled the 20km between these two monasteries, an act that compelled people to (unofficially) rename the trail after him, dropping its former title ‘That Super Muddy Logging Road Where We Go to Get the Big Mushrooms’.

The original impetus behind me doing this walk was from Monika in Suceava who wanted to go through repainting the trail’s blue cross markings on the trees which had reportedly not been all that robust in the first place and were now starting to fade. Well, Monika is a busy woman and had to acquiesce to last minute paying work rather than scampering around in the woods with a can of paint. So it came to pass that I took the sadistically slow train from Suceava to Putna with three other eager hostel guests to reconnoiter the status of the trail markings while having a good long hike.

After shaking off the spirit sapping, anesthetizing effects of the two and a half hour train ride, during which we never broke the elusive 25KPH barrier, our band of four crossed the humble village of Putna, stretching our legs and stopping to ogle the monastery. Though Putna doesn’t have trippy, fear-of-God exterior frescos like its more popular counterparts in Bucovina, it still pulls in the (mostly Romanian) visitors by the bus load as it’s the final resting place of Ştefan cel Mare (Stephan the Great; 1433-1504), the closest thing to a super hero that Moldavia has ever had. During his reign as prince of Moldavia, he handily repulsed forces from Poland and Hungary, though his heroic resistance against the Ottoman Empire was what made him venerated throughout Europe. When he wasn’t building a battle record of 34 and two (and fathering over 20 illegitimate children like the jungle-f*cking stallion that he was), he erected 44 churches and monasteries, several of which are now UNESCO World Heritage sites. The name ‘Ştefan’ is landscaped into the hillside just south of the Putna, which, legend has it, was permanently seared into the vegetation after Ştefan let fly with the rip-roaringiest, firehosiest, write-your-name-in-the-snow beer pee the world has ever known.

Realizing that time was getting away from us (Monika would be picking us up at Suceviţa at 5pm), we had to scurry from the monastery without entering the museum or checking out Daniel the Hermit’s Cave in the hills 2km south of Putna. Having not seen any signs indicating the start of the trail while crossing Putna, we beseeched the monastery’s guard for directions and thank Buddha we did. Without his rudimentary, but endearing hand drawn map we’d have never found the first blue cross marking nearly two kilometers into the walk and we’d probably still be out there, rationing a couple chocolate bars and two Altoids while discreetly sizing up which one of us would make the best bear bait.

Walking briskly, but uncertainly, we found the first blue cross with only minor hesitation. From there, though the markings were indeed thin, there was little question of how to proceed. The first hour of the hike was on a well-trodden dirt/rock/mud road, passing far flung homes, occasionally stepping around small-scale logging operations and unintentionally scaring the living ca-ca out of every cow we passed (those bovine can really move when they want to – probably outrun a cheetah for the first 20 meters I bet).

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Just as we were wondering if the entire walk would continue along this pleasant, but tame road the trail unexpectedly veered left and plentiful blue crosses led us up a 50% grade hill that started sucky and proceeded to suck with a dash of mud until we hit the peak much later deep in the forest. We stopped to soak in the dead quiet surroundings. Not even the birds were singing. From here the trail started downhill on a (mostly) well-marked thin trail, winding through unspoiled forest. We occasionally skated down mud slicks with arms flailing and passed ‘rest and smoking’ stations. Not a single trail sign for the first two kilometers, but trail administrators found the energy to erect woodland smoking lounges? You gotta hand it to them, they know their demographic.

When the trail re-joined the logging road the mud worsened and so did our mellow of nature appreciation with the inevitable appearance of Romanian Garbage Cans (read: any flat surface by the side of the road). Though not nearly as bad as it was at the Bucegi Mountains, the sight of this carefree litter-athon nevertheless started the expletives rolling off my tongue.

More diminutive logging sites were passed and before long we were limping down the last 2km on a newly paved road that led right to the front door of Suceviţa. Like the first two kilometers, the last two kilometers were devoid of blue crosses and there was no signage around Suceviţa giving people the slightest impression which direction the walk began. For the record, when departing Putna, take the first right after exiting the monastery’s two gates, follow the somewhat clear ‘S’ curve around the edge of town (except for a few fleeting moments, you should be heading generally south), the road will cross a small stream and continues parallel to the stream for some time before you see the first blue cross on the side barrier of a small cement bridge. From Suceviţa, simply walk straight out of the monastery gate, cross the perpendicular road and continue down the new cement road for two kilometers (ignoring the confusing red stripe markings along the way that lead Buddha knows where). The road will eventually turn to dirt/mud and blue crosses should start appearing soon after.

What with me spending the better part of five months on my fanny, writing my hilarious little heart out, the 20km walk did not do my body any favors. My legs were killing me and my feet felt as if they’d been wailed on by an all star team of Romanian carpet whackers. Even my arms were a little stiff from the violent rowboat spasms I performed to keep from unwillingly sitting and luging down muddy hillsides on my ass, which would have been the height of sucktastically sucky, unless it happened to Prince Charles, in which case I would have wet my pants with delight.

Leif Pettersen, originally from Minneapolis, Minnesota, co-authored the current edition of Lonely Planet’s Romania and Moldova. Visit his personal blog, Killing Batteries, for more provoking of elitist backpackers and further speculation about what a freakin’ stud Stephan the Great was.

My Bloody Romania: One serving of Suceava – hold the syndrome

Dateline: Suceava, Romania

Suceava gets a bad rap, primarily from elitist dorks lacking an appreciation for the delicate art of Cement Feng Shui.

OK, there’s no exoticizing it, Suceava is largely a butt-fugly series of gray streets, buildings and plazas. The city was one of the many victims of Ceau??escu’s systemization initiative in the 1980s and short of bulldozing the entire city (again) and rebuilding to 18th century specifications, Suceava is never going to suffer an excess of aesthetic superlatives.

It would be so easy for Suceava to sit back and succumb to its mind-bending visual tedium, taking out its discontent on a super-sized Ceau??escu bazooka target in the main square, but they haven’t given up the fight. Well, they haven’t given up the feeble effort, at any rate. Being the closest thing to a major metropolitan area that Southern Bucovina has to offer, Suceava serves as the primary staging area for a number of regional day-trips with, by my estimation, the best tourism infrastructure in Romania outside of Transylvania. The civic weight of these minor accolades has seemingly instilled Suceava with a rising feistiness which is currently asserting itself in a variety of modest ways. Most recently, an agreeable landscaping project, consisting mainly of a sea of flowers, has unfolded on their main street (??tefan cel Mare) to beat back what was otherwise an interminable concrete buffet. However, at the moment the flowers are being overshadowed, literally, by the nationwide movement to replace all water mains with new EU-approved components. In their short-sighted glee to move the project forward, multiple streets have been simultaneously jack-hammered into dust creating, among other things, twisting debris storms every time the wind kicks up.

Despite the ancillary dust spittle epidemic, this temporary blow to the air quality is still a huge improvement on recent history. Just a decade ago, the city of over 110,000 had its very own, honest-to-Buddha syndrome (‘Suceava Syndrome’), a respiratory and nervous disorder caused by the byproducts of the toxic pulp and paper works on the edge of town (and in exactly what industrial application is ‘toxic pulp’ used anyway?). In the aftermath of the Ceauşescu regime, where silly things like mass sickness and needless human suffering were an afterthought at best, the realization belatedly crystallized that having the word ‘syndrome’ affixed to the city name was probably not helping P.R. or morale. Eventually the factory (still in operation) was fitted with filters that have greatly reduced pollution. Suceava still maintains a few air quality digital displays though, which usually (and gratifyingly) read ‘normal’.

As far as actual in-town sights, Suceava is admittedly a little weak, but a couple worthwhile items will nicely fill a half day of strolling while you wait for or recover from a marathon monastery tour.

Though virtually every two-donkey village in Romania has an ethnographic museum, Suceava’s has the added novelty of being housed in an atmospheric 16th-century guesthouse with much of the main floor decorated and equipped as if the place were still in business. The second floor is a veritable Peasant Saks Fifth Avenue, filled with racks of colorful folk costumes.

Also in town are St Dimitru’s Church (1535) and the Monastery of St John the New (1522), both of which are quite impressive, but should be seen before touring the Big Four monasteries or they may fall flat thrill-wise.

For the city’s principal mental and physical pulse-quickening, there’s the ruins of Suceava’s Citadel (1388). After a brisk walk through Şipote Park on the east side of town, including a slog up 241 steps, the panoramic view of the rectangular structure’s remains is arguably the highlight of the city’s offerings (and popular opinion is that the long-view greatly surpasses the crowded, unphotographical scene inside).

I’m sorry to report that the once decent food offerings in town have been dealt a nasty blow by new EU kitchen regulations that have caused a few of the better places to shut down. Still open is Latino, which serves passable Italian food and pizza in a subdued, but comparatively classy atmosphere (comparative to the other gruel-slinging options in the neighborhood). Something to avoid is the ‘Mexican’ food at Tacoloco, one of the many establishments in Romania to confuse ‘salsa’ with ketchup, which they provide in charitable, vast, perilous amounts. This is a palette-smashing love affair with ketchup the likes of which I have never seen. Best to stick with the pizza. Or just a beer. Or a second meal at Latino.

Leif Pettersen, originally from Minneapolis, Minnesota, co-authored the current edition of Lonely Planet’s Romania and Moldova. Visit his personal blog, Killing Batteries, to pick the metaphors and smell the sarcasm.