Imagine if you were a little kid and you loved a certain brand of goldfish crackers sooooo sooo very much that you got out your trusty Pencil And Paper and decided to draw an example of your very fine snack, swimming from right to left.
Well that’s what the country of Romania looks like on a map – a very shaky, freehand drawn fish. I believe if you click on the map picture to your left, you will get a much larger version, but I left it relatively small on purpose because you don’t need it to understand a few basic things about Romanian geography.
Romania essentially has four separate regions, which are incredibly distinct from one another, both due to geography and terrain as well as to the historical fact that up until 1920, there was no such thing as the modern Romania we know and love. Each of these four regions had a different history under different rulers and with different outcomes.
The first region is Transylvania (Romanian: Ardeal) which on our map would be the brown area composing the head of the fish there. Cluj-Napoca, where I live, would be more or less where you’d draw the eye of the fish, and is the capital of Transylvania.
Transylvania was under the control of the Hungarian Kingdom (later Empire) for almost 1,000 years so it has a very distinct history because of that. Almost all of the Hungarians still living today in Romania are in the “head of the fish” region on your map.
Most of Transylvania is either mountainous or quite hilly (the brown portion on the map).
The second major region is Wallachia (Romanian: Tara Romanilor) which would be more or less the “belly” of the fish. It’s not quite as much land, geographically speaking, as the other major regions but Wallachia is important because it’s where the capital is located (that’s Bucharest, but you knew that, right?) and because it’s where Romanians had more independence and self-rule throughout history than anywhere else. In fact, Tara Romanilor literally means “Land of the Romanians” for that very reason.
Most of Wallachia is fairly flat, in terms of terrain, and at lower elevation and therefore tends to have overall warmer weather than the rest of Romania. It is also, unfortunately, where most earthquakes happen in Romania. Luckily there haven’t been any bad ones for a long time but they do get the occasional temblor and there are fault lines in this area.
Vlad the Impaler (aka Dracula), the most famous of the historical Romanian princes, was the ruler of Wallachia during the times when he was in power.
The third major region is Moldavia (Romanian: Moldova) which would be the upper right hand body of the “fish”, sort of where you’d sit on the fish if you were an imaginary merman riding this fish as your “sea horse”.
The name is a little confusing because there’s a country right next door called Moldova in English but Romanians call both the Romanian region “Moldova” and the country “Moldova” (or Republica Moldova). Why? Because through history, the (now Romanian) region of Moldavia and the (now) country of Moldova were one and the same. Geographically they’re about the same too, ethnically they’re about the same and culturally they’re about the same. It was only due to World War 2 politics that the eastern 2/3 of this region (called Bessarabia) became part of the Soviet Union and the western 1/3 became what is now the Romanian region known as Moldavia in English.
I’m going to use the term Moldova here because 1) nobody except people writing English-language guidebooks ever say “Moldavia” and 2) because Romanians will have no idea what you’re talking about unless you say “Moldova” and 3) because the entire region has the same nature and characteristics.
Moldova is where all the wonderful wine comes from and is a mostly hilly, rolling terrain with lots of other agricultural production. It’s also a much more Slavic region, both with the influences on the food as well as the way people pronounce words and the vocabulary they use.
Generally speaking, it’s one of the poorest regions (in terms of income) and mostly agricultural, with the very large exception of the city of Iasi, the capital of the region, which is Romania’s second-largest city and an amazing place to visit.
The fourth major region of Romania is Dobruja (Romanian: Dobrogea) which would be the tail of our fish there on the map.
This is the part of Romania that connects to the Black Sea and is therefore where all the wonderful beaches and seaside resorts are. It’s also where all the fishing and that sort of thing takes place. Constanta, the capital of this region, is also the major port city where maritime cargo is loaded and unloaded.
The famous Danube rivers terminates in the upper portion of the “fish tail” area and spreads out into a large area known as the Danube Delta (Romanian: Delta Dunarii), a vast terrain of swampy, semi-flooded land that looks very similar in many ways to the swamps of Louisiana. Due to the kind of habitat, it’s also where a lot of migrating birds head to for their birdly business and therefore makes for quite a spectacular sight.
Because this region is on the coast, it has had its own special unique history with a lot of different influences than the rest of Romania, including a large Greek influence that isn’t found anywhere else.
There are some other, small regions which are quite distinct unto themselves and worth a mention here.
The Banat is basically where the leading edge of the “nose” of the fish would be, said nose butting right into the crack between Serbia and Hungary today. It’s a very flat, arid area but has an extremely strong German influence. The Romanian spoken in the Banat is also quite distinct.
During the Communist era it was also the one place very close to a relatively “free” country (then Yugoslavia) and so received television and radio broadcasts that were a lot less censored. The 1989 Romanian Revolution began in Timisoara, the capital of the Banat, and Romania’s third largest city.
Maramures would be the flat top of the head of our “fish” and is… hm… it’s sort of like the one part of Romania that time forgot. This region is a valley completely enclosed by mountains and so therefore got left alone throughout most of history, escaping a lot of the fighting and empire-building and all of that.
Maramures is where all of the old, traditional Romanian ways of doing things are largely still intact – where people still dress in the old way and still retain all the knowledge of how to do things like shoe a horse and build a wooden carriage and spin wool and all of it.
Baia Mare, a small but very lovely town, is the capital of this region and is completely modern in every way and a great place to base yourself if you’re going to explore this region.
The region of Crisana would be more or less the “forehead” of the fish and is a small but very proud region. It run along a band of geography, both in (modern) Hungary proper and southwest Ukraine that has a lot of ethnic Hungarians and so Crisana tends to be very balanced between a Romanian identity and a Hungarian one, which is pretty unique.
Oradea, the capital of this region, is a small but very modern and beautiful town that seems to me to be one of the most forward-looking and vibrant places in the country.
Oltenia is where a lot of the extremely heavy industrial production goes on, especially in the city of Craiova (the capital of Oltenia), where all Romanian cars are made as well as train engines and the like. Oltenia is also where you’ll find a lot of coal mining and other rough trades as well. People in this region are the only ones who continue to use a form of the past tense for conjugating verbs that is no longer used anywhere else.
Muntenia, besides being where the nation’s capital is located, also is where most of the country’s oil production is located and a lot of general industry as well. The easternmost part of Muntenia tends to be poor and more agricultural and is where the movie Borat was filmed.
A few other terms you might hear:
Bukovina (Romanian: Bucovina) is a sub-region of western Moldova that was once much larger. The northern 2/3 of this region now lie in what is the country of Ukraine while the southern third is centered around the town (and county) of Suceava. This is where all the world-famous painted churches can be found.
Mangalia is the term Romanians use for the region of the Black Sea right along the seaside and is where all the resorts are.
So there you go, these are the regions and your brief geography lesson for the day. Yay! One thing to keep in mind is that Romania is a very large country. It doesn’t seem that way if perhaps you’re from the United States but in terms of both traveling from one side to the other and in comparison to many other European countries, Romania is quite large.
To give you an idea, traveling from Timisoara (the nose of the fish) to Constanta (the tail) is about 700km or 434 miles, none of it in a straight line or on high-speed “interstate” style highways. If you plan on doing some major trekking across Romania, plan ahead!