When Kiwi photo journalist Amos Chapple set out on a two-week adventure into this little visited European country, he wanted to show Romania from a new angle
With picture postcard villages and vistas, unspoilt resorts and more castles than Walt Disney – Romania might just be the dream European holiday destination you've never considered.
Romania is perhaps best known as the fictional home of Count Dracula and having spent from 1945 to 1989 behind the Iron Curtain of the Soviet Bloc and Nicolae Ceausescu – but for most travellers they have little experience of the country outside of fairy tales.
Nowadays it is within a few hours' drive from Europe's tourist hotspots, such as Vienna or Budapest.
In spite of easy access via EU's free movement agreement and a very competitive exchange rate only around 3770 Kiwis visited the country last year from a quarter million who travelled to Europe.
However, looking at the country through Chapple's seriously impressive drone pictures, it's easy to see why this is rising fast on the list of destinations for travellers in Europe.
The former Herald photographer spoke to the paper about his aerial adventure, and his advice to Kiwis planning their own Romanian road trip.
Looks like you took a huge number of pics on your Romania trip - do you have a particular favourite?
The picture of the mountain hut next to the rock is definitely favourite for me. It sums up why it's such fun to work in Eastern Europe: If that hut was in New Zealand or the U.S. it would be one of the most famous wilderness spots on earth. But because it's in Romania no one (not even most Romanians) have ever heard of it. I love that.
You're originally from New Zealand. You must be the only Kiwi for miles! Where was home over here, and what brought you to eastern Europe?
I grew up in Devonport, Auckland. I was originally sent to Russia while working on a photography project in 2016. I fell in love with that country then and promised myself I'd one day go back to live. Finally in 2012 I went back there with the plan of teaching English, saving money, then going on the kind of photo adventures I always wanted to do. That led to a freelance photography career, that eventually led, in 2006 to being offered a job with Radio Free Europe. They are largely focused on Russia and the former USSR, but are based in Prague, so I am too.
Most Kiwis probably have a limited exposure to Romania as a travel destination. (Maybe something about Dracula and perhaps some idea that it was part of the Eastern Bloc, but very little real exposure.) What were your expectations for a trip round the country? Were they correct?
It was a daunting prospect. The country is huge, and there's very little info out there on its really interesting spots. I spent a lot of time digging through the Romanian language internet trying to uncover places people didn't know about, then finally, when I was ready I asked work to give me one week to shoot at my own expense. That was in winter, then this spring I was given funding to shoot for one more week.
I expected rural poverty in some of the more isolated places but was really amazed by what the farmland actually looked like. People seemed happy and wealthy, while the landscape looked like something out of the middle ages.
You have little chapels on hilltops & rolling pasture dotted with hay bales, but the roads are sealed, and modern cars shared the road with people walking their cattle home in the evening. There were lovely little cafes, and "social club" type places set up for the young people there. It really felt like the best of the modern and ancient European world. That region was so lovely, I had just a few hours there but would go back in a heartbeat to properly explore it.
I enjoyed your description of how long it took to drive through Romania. What was your route, and how long did you spend on the road?
Oof, my route would be very hard to retrace. The way I usually work is by first preparing a Google map for the country I'm working in.
I had nearly 50 sites identified and marked on that map so I was just working day to day – I knew some places would look ok in rainy, gloomy light, others had to have sunshine. I could shoot some places inside cities in the evening, rural areas had to be shot in daylight.
So the route was just me looking at the map, checking the weather and the drive times, then planning just the next few sites at a time. And it went wrong often. The worst was driving around 6 straight hours through tiny village roads to get to the city of Lasi to shoot its Palace of Culture. By the time I got there, at sunrise, the weather was grey and dull and the photo just didn't work. So I had no choice but to just get back in the car, growling in frustration, and head back the way I'd come.
Was it easy to get round and do you have any tips for a Romanian road trip?
Yeah I think it was. The most surprising thing was how freely available wireless internet was. Most of the petrol stations have wifi so, even in very isolated places I could just pull into a Lukoil station, and see exactly where I was on the map on my iPad. That was a huge help.
If you did the drive again, is there anything you'd want to go back to or miss out next time?
Probably the most famous place in Romania is the Transfagarasan road but trying to shoot that was another big fail. In May when I was shooting there was still snow in the mountains. I took a cable car up to the road, but it was just covered in dirty old snow. I would love to go back in July or August when that's open and green, it would be spectacular.
As for place I'd skip. . . I personally wouldn't go back to Peles castle. There is a military base nearby so it's a risky place to shoot. But for normal tourists – it's an amazing place!
Would you recommend a trip to Romania for Kiwis in Europe?
Absolutely. Get out of Bucharest and there are very few tourists. The people are lovely and the history is so rich and complex.
Especially the story of Nicolae Ceausescu. I wrote a
. I think it's vital for Kiwis to see that kind of history to realise how precious our freedoms are and how firmly we must hold onto ours, even from people who believe they're doing the right thing by removing them.
Are you planning any more trips and where can people see more of your work?
Yes! So many. My long term goal is to photograph all 50 countries that are geographically within Europe. For that reason my wife has resigned herself to only taking holidays within places where I haven't yet photographed. She can't complain too much though – next trip will be the beaches of Croatia!
People can check out my work at www.amoschapplephoto.com