On Location

Undiscovered Eastern Europe: Romania

with Jennifer Spelman

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Course Description

Romania’s rolling green hills and deep, ancient forests hold tales of faith, love, war, knights, nymphs and vampires. The region’s tradition of storytelling is fascinating with a long history of legends repeated across medieval villages and mysteries woven through magnificent castles. Rich Romanian folklore provides a wide backdrop for our imaginations and images in this photographic adventure led by frequent world travelers, Jennifer Spelman.

We explore cities where remnants of communism are intertwined with the vibrancies of modern life and into the remote Transylvanian countryside where time has stood still for over a century. As we traverse the Carpathian Mountains we experience the old-world hardiness and values of self-reliance that are still visible as we meet with the local farmers, artisans and shepherds.

Romanians are a very friendly people who don’t see many tourists in the more remote regions. They are often happy to sit for a portrait session and curious to have conversations about the West. Our focus is always on creating images with intention. We put aside notions of traditional travel photography and open ourselves to creating more mindful work. By genuinely connecting with local people, traveling slowly and honoring the culture, we discover more poignant and lasting imagery.

After arriving in Bucharest we share a welcome group dinner at our comfortable hotel in the city center. The next morning we explore the Old City and its passageways, Communist structures, lively squares and the old Military Club. A special visit to a hidden train cemetery on the outskirts of town is a true photographic gem. The next morning we depart Bucharest for the friendly town of Sinaia, where we visit the impressive neo-renaissance Peles Castle, situated in the heart of the Prahova Valley. After lunch we continue to the medieval town of Brasov, arriving mid-afternoon in time for a late walk with our cameras. The next morning we explore a quiet, medieval square, to create portraits of a variety of interesting models from Brasov. In the afternoon, we embark on a walking tour of the city, visiting the Romanian, German and Hungarian neighborhoods, including several traditional businesses (bakeries, bookstores, shoemakers and more) for a chance to interact and create portraits. After sunset, we head to Piata Sfatului, the lively main square where evening festivities are always taking place. The next day we drive to the village of Bran and visit the famous Bran Castle*, set on a hill among the mountains. (*If Bran Castle is inaccessible due to renovation we will visit a local traditional craft guild).

Located among gorgeous green forests and traditional farms, Maghura is the perfect place to experience traditional countryside life. We have time to slowly photograph the village and meet its inhabitants before returning to Brasov. The next day, we drive 2 hours to the authentic Hungarian region of Romania called Corund.

Hungarians have been living in the area for centuries and have maintained a unique culture and heritage. After checking in to our traditional guesthouse, we head off for an undeniably special experience. We visit with local artisans who are producing their crafts, not for tourism but for the community’s own use, using only traditional methods of production which includes a black pottery workshop, traditional weaver and a tinder craftsman (tinder is a type of forest mushroom). We learn about these crafts while photographing the people and workshops that keep these traditions alive.

The truly local experience continues as we head up to the remote Fantana Plateau, home to only a few small villages. We meet the friendly locals from this isolated area and create portraits, and then deeper into the countryside we go. We visit a gypsy basket weaving family before heading to the village of Criseni, home to the only Straw Hat Museum in the world. We meet the passionate local founder of this museum as well as other villagers who will definitely be curious about our visit to this remote location. After lunch, we drive to the village of Sansimion, home to the only palinka (brandy) distillery in Romania that still uses a centuries old technique for all production. After a photo session and some palinka tasting, we head back to Corund for a special dinner prepared for us by our wonderful hosts.

The next morning, we visit nearby Sighisoara, considered one of the best-preserved medieval villages in all of Europe. Sighisoara does not see a huge number of visitors, which allows us to walk the cobblestone lanes without crowds. We enjoy a full morning wandering the friendly walled village, which is still completely inhabited, as we visit a traditional wine cellar, an impressive cathedral, the main clock tower and the birthplace of Vlad Tepes (the inspiration for Dracula).

After lunch, we continue through the beautiful Transylvania countryside, stopping in picturesque villages en route to the Saxon city of Sibiu. One of those villages is Biertan, which offers an Ireland-esque landscape, with houses built in an unusual style, all surrounding a 500-year-old fortified church. Upon arrival in Sibiu, we’ll check into our hotel and enjoy a dinner in the old square.

The following day, we embark on a laid-back walking tour of this German-influenced city as we visit its local workshops, charming lanes, photogenic cathedrals and bustling squares full of unique architecture, sidewalk cafes and endless opportunities for photographing everyday life. In the afternoon, you have free time to wander the city even more, relax at the hotel or even climb the clock tower for views beyond the medieval walls.

Today we head back to Bucharest, taking a most unique route, along the Transfagrasan Highway. This mountain road is consistently rated as one of the most scenic journeys in all of Europe as it winds up and over the majestic Fagaras Mountains. We visit small villages tucked away into the nooks and crannies of the mountains, lookout points with sweeping views of the valleys below and we’ll enjoy lunch at the summit, at a restaurant on the shores of a stunning mountain lake. After lunch, we wind back down the other side of the mountains, as the spectacular views continue to impress. We stretch our legs in several places, including a historic Orthodox monastery, the base of Dracula’s ‘real’ castle and at the impressive Vidraru Dam. We arrive in Bucharest in the evening, right in time for our farewell group dinner.

Additional Information


This program is open to photographers at all levels who are passionate about travel and improving their image making.

What You Should Know:

Participants should be technically self-sufficient, as this is not a program to learn how to use your gear or editing software. This a photographic tour, not a photography workshop and there isn’t structured classroom time. There will be an image review session in the middle of the trip and time for help with ideas and techniques on-location.

Participants should be in very good health with good stamina and mobility. While the tour itself is not very strenuous, please note that it can involve the following: somewhat long days, a good amount of walking, being in the sun in potentially hot temperatures, long journeys, steep stairs, uneven terrain, early morning wake-ups and other similar scenarios.

Nature & Landscape, Portraiture, Storytelling, Travel Photography
© Nerissa Escanlar
Jennifer Spelman

Jennifer Spelman is a documentary photographer. She is co-publisher of CubaSeen, a quarterly magazine showcasing photography and writing about Cuba.

Jennifer received her photographic training as an assistant with Santa Fe Workshops, working with some of today’s most preeminent photographers: Jay Maisel, Norman Mauskopf, and Joe McNally.

A sensitive photographer of people, Jennifer strives to create portraits with energy and insight. She is most at home on the streets of Havana and has worked with Santa Fe Workshops across Cuba since 2011. Jennifer is a patient educator who has co-instructed with National Geographic Expeditions and taught workshops in Morocco, India, Turkey, Romania, Mexico, Japan, in addition to Cuba.

A popular workshop instructor, Jennifer is also part of our Mentorship Program »

Instagram: @jennifer_spelman

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