How much do you really know about the history, cuisine, art, and culture of Romania? A country often defined by the legend of Dracula and a handful of medieval castles, Romania is so much more than that.
The nation fell under the reigns of communist dictatorship and only broke free in 1989. Romanian cuisine is a powerful blend of Greek, Turkish, Persian, and German, as is its architecture.
Essential Books to Read Before you Visit Romania
The true history of the man behind the myth of Count Dracula is gripping and terrifying. Reading a few Romania books is going to give you that wonderful insight into the nation’s history and culture, so here are ten books on Romania to start with before you visit.
Bottled Goods by Sophie Van Llewyn
Let’s start with some beautiful contemporary Romanian literature by a woman longlisted for the Women’s Prize 2019. Sophie Van Llewyn grew up in a little-known part of Romania and currently lives in Germany. Her novel, Bottled Goods, is set during the communist era of 1970s Romania.
This period was a dark and brutal time for everyone in Bucharest who wasn’t friendly with Nicolae Ceausescu, and Bottled Goods captures the suspicion and paranoia which plagued everyday people. Centred around a woman, Alina, and her husband who have come under threat after the husband’s brother defects.
Reminiscent of the writing of legendary German author Hans Fallada, Bottled Goods is one of the best Romania books available right now, and is a thrilling novella that feels especially relevant in today’s political climate.
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A Stake in Transylvania by Arabella McIntyre-Brown
This is an interesting one. At the time of writing, A Stake in Transylvania is only available in English at bookstores in Bucharest, but it should hopefully be available worldwide soon. We picked it up at a bookshop in Bucharest, read the blurb, and thought, “This sounds great. I’ll get it on Kindle later,” only to find out that it’s not yet on Kindle.
All of that aside, A Stake in Transylvania will, eventually, be a book very much worth reading. Its author, Arabella McIntyre-Brown, is a British writer who spent decades in the UK working as an author and magazine editor before eventually going to too many funerals and feeling deadened by life in Britain and so escaping to the Transylvanian wilderness.
The book is a log of her life, her travels, and her experiences in the Romanian countryside. A wonderful and colourful portrait of a land untouched and undiscovered by those outside of Transylvania.
In Europe’s Shadow by Robert D. Kaplan
On your hunt through a sea of Romania books, if you’ve been searching for a history book that examines the complex history of Romania from the ancient to the modern, In Europe’s Shadow is the book you’ve been looking for.
This book also lays out clearly the bleak Communist years of the late 20th century, as well as the events of World War II before it, and even more besides.
Written by a man with a 30-year love affair with Romania, In Europe’s Shadow blends Kaplan’s personal experiences in Romania, from the 1970s onward, with an examination of capital-C Communism through a historic, a political, and a philosophical lens.
It’s a book that explores the complex medieval history of Romania and paints a distressingly vivid image of the most viscerally evil dictator in Europe: Romania’s Nicolae Ceausescu.
There is so much covered here, and so many perspectives laid out and darted between. It’s a book of intense knowledge and fascinating exploration that you will absolutely devour. One of the best Romania books available.
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Blue River, Black Sea by Andrew Eames
Blue River, Black Sea is a travelogue which doesn’t exclusively deal with Romania but is still one of the best Romania books out there because it paints Romania beautifully into the landscape of Eastern Europe, with the Danube as its brush.
Eames’ journey takes him along the Danube, from Germany, across Eastern Europe, and into Romania. It’s a book that shows us the varied and rugged landscape of Romania, with its traditional Roma gypsy population, its Saxon villages, and its people’s reliance on medieval methods of farming and transportation.
This is the travel book to show the world how rural Romanians live and thrive.
Revolution 1989 by Victor Sebestyen
1989 was the year the Iron Curtain fell across Europe. The most famous example being the Berlin Wall. Romania was one of those nations locked behind the Iron Curtain, with its leader Nicolae Ceausescu being one of Europe’s most sickeningly ruthless dictators.
On Christmas Day 1989, after a mock trial, Ceausescu was the final Romanian to ever be given the death sentence. Killed by firing squad after a people’s uprising, his death paved the way for a slow but gradual political reformation of Romania which led to the country eventually joining the European Union.
Revolution 1989 is a book which charters the fall of the Iron Curtain across Europe at the tail end of the 20th century, Romania included.
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Dracula by Bram Stoker
It might be predictable to include Dracula on a list of books about Romania, but the book’s contents and the inspiration that Bram Stoker took to write it are both intrinsically tied to the world’s perception of Romania today, and the book does serve as a great starting point for digging into the real history of the man.
Dracula is one of the great gothic novels, written by an Irishman who spent the majority of his adult life in London and never actually visited Romania. He took inspiration for the book’s setting from descriptions of Bran Castle, a castle which the real Dracula never had any real connection to, though it did exist while he was ruler of Wallachia.
Dracula cemented the image and the mythology of the blood-drinking, night-dwelling immortal vampire for decades, and is still to this day a well-paced, punchy, gripping, and terrifying novel that should be read by every lover of classic English literature.
Vlad by C.C. Humphreys
Bram Stoker’s Dracula took the real Vlad Dracula and turned him into an immortal vampire who seduces and feasts on humans, but the man behind the legend was as real as you and me.
Born in Sighisoara, Transylvania, son of Vlad Dracul ‘The Dragon’, and ruler of Wallachia, Vlad Dracula became a myth thanks to his love of impaling people on enormous wooden spikes, and some clever propaganda from the Transylvanians.
Vlad by C.C. Humphries is a novelisation of the life of the real Vlad Dracula. If you’re interested in something that dispels the myth, but you also don’t want to dive into a dense and dry history text, this novel is exactly what you’re looking for. It keeps the true history of The Impaler intact while at the same time transforming it into an engaging and thrilling novel about a ruthless and bloodthirsty medieval leader.
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Dracula’s Wars by James Waterson
From the myth of Dracula, to a novelisation of the real Vlad, and now to a non-fiction account of the world that Vlad Dracula lived and ruled in: 15th century Romania. Dracula’s Wars is not a novel, but rather a gathering of facts and accounts that weave together a vivid tapestry of the land that Dracula ruled.
While Dracula’s Wars does flesh out and add dimension to the man behind the legend, it also adds an awful lot of context. It brings to life the medieval Romanian landscape that built Vlad Tepes and the people he ruled.
This is a book that serves to bring that history to life in a very vivid way, and one of the best Romania books to add context and real history to the myth of Dracula.
Journal 1935-1944 by Mihail Sebastian
The 20th century was not kind to Romania, and Bucharest especially. In the decades before World War II, the city was a hub for poets, artists, and intellectuals. It was a fashionable capital enjoying prosperity and beauty. But the war changed everything, and opened the gates for fascism and dictatorship to come later.
Mihail Sebastian’s Journal 1935-1944 is a real diary of events before and during World War II in Romania, a country whose war history is seldom taught in the English-speaking world.
This is an invaluable insight into the lives of people who lived in a Bucharest that no longer exist, as well as how the events of the war affected Romanian Jews and intellectuals (two worlds which Sebastian himself was a part of).
Note: Apologies for not naming the translator for this book. For the life of me I can’t find out who it is; if you do know, please let us know! This is one of the most important Romania books out there and it deserves more recognition.
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Adventures in Immediate Irreality by Max Blecher
Translated by Michael Henry Heim
While Mihail Sebastian captured in writing the real world of a pre-war Bucharest, Max Blecher was another Jewish Romanian contemporary of Sebastian’s who shone bright and died prematurely.
He is often compared to Franz Kafka in both his method of painting the world through his words – an unseen, obscured, often more true version of reality – and also in that he died young and never enjoyed the success that his literary genius should have granted him.
Adventures in Immediate Irreality is a new English edition of Blecher’s work, translated by Michael Henry Heim, a legend in the world of translation who actually learned Romanian just to have the chance to translate Blecher’s work.
The book itself is a fever dream populated by characters who don’t observe nor adhere to the usual rules of logic and behaviour. Written from a hospital bed, this is a deeply personal novel that grants us a glimpse into a world that only Blecher himself knew.
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