Bucharest is full of surprises - not least the weather.

We flew in on the last day of February expecting to be wrapped up against the cold.

Instead it was 20 degrees, warm and sunny.

No need for the thick jumpers, hats and gloves.

The second surprise was just how beautiful this city is. The Romanian capital was heavily influenced by the French.

It has wide radial boulevards, its own Arc de Triomphe (Arcul de Triumf) and even a Gara du Nord railway terminus.

In the 1930s Bucharest was known as the Paris of the East as people flocked here for its arts and culture.

Even the hated Nicolae Ceausescu got in on the act.

He built his gargantuan Palace of the Parliament (second only in size to the Pentagon) and insisted that the avenue in front be one metre wider than the Champs Elysees.

Older residents of the city still remember vividly how Ceausescu razed a huge swathe of Bucharest to the ground for his vanity project, which is right at the top of the guide book sights.

Three hours by air from London, Bucharest is not on the tourist trail to anywhere near the same extent as places like Budapest, Prague and Bratislava.

But its popularity is growing.

There are plenty of fabulous restaurants, cafes and coffee shops to break up your exploring. And there's lots to admire in this striking city of neo classical, Bauhaus, Art Deco, communist era and modern architecture.

Revolution Square, the Athenaeum and Old Town must be on your walking tour.

Post-communism, Bucharest (and indeed the rest of Romania) enjoys its freedom of expression.

Around 300,000 people gathered to protest peacefully about proposed corruption laws in February and the government backed down.

Such opportunities for giving politicians a bloody nose are not to be missed says our guide, Tudor Blaj, a boy during the 1989 revolution when Ceausescu was executed.

"He died of lead poisoning," Blaj jokes.

And what of the Russians. "Our brothers from the East? We hate their guts."

Romania is a huge and diverse country around 230,000 square miles, the size of the United Kingdom. One third of the land mass is covered by the Carpathian Mountains.

To the south is Wallachia. To the north, Transylvania and Moldova.

We cross the snow-covered mountains to visit the beautiful town of Brasov and then Bran Castle, supposedly the inspiration for Bram Stoker's Dracula. Although Stoker never came here.

Bran is the most popular tourist attraction in Romania, mainly because of its links to Dracula.

Legend has it that an enterprising Communist party apparatchik came up with the idea of linking the castle to the vampire to get more tourists in.

Now owned by prince Dominic of Habsburg, the castle is in any case fascinating for its royal history.

This area was once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Transylvanian Vlad the Impaler rode by a couple of times but that's about it.

Vlad (1524-1567) was one of the good guys apparently, despite the painful looking torture methods.

In the vast woodlands of Transylvania (some of the largest areas of unbroken woodland in Europe), other options include tracking wildlife bears, hiking and skiing.

The Carpathians are like a highway for bears lumbering from Ukraine down to Serbia.

Criss-crossing the countryside, many towns and villages have both a German and Romanian name. The country had a sizeable German population in the nineteenth century and between the two world wars. Most Germans went back after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when the borders re-opened.

This region is notable for its churches, heavily fortified against the Turks and Tartars.

The small town of Viscri, where Prince Charles stays, has a beautiful Lutheran church with just 17 remaining parishioners, protected by UNESCO.

The stunning medieval citadel of Sighisoara is not to be missed, it too is a World Heritage Site.

Equally at the resort of Sinaia, the beautiful Peles Castle is a breathtaking, neo Gothic, neo Renaissance structure, built in 1883 for King Carol 1 and returned to the Royal family after communism.

In the main, Romania had an unhappy and troubled 20th century.

Judging by the brief visit to the beautiful, vibrant, intriguing and friendly nation, it has much to look forward to.


Andy Martin travelled with Explore and British Airways from Heathrow.

Explore offers an eight day Winter Adventure in Romania trip that costs from £970 per person.

This price includes return flights, four nights’ hotel and three nights’ guesthouse accommodation on a bed and breakfast basis, three other meals, transport and the services of an Explore leader, driver and local guides.

Explore (explore.co.uk, 01252 884 723)