SIBIU -- During the past 40 years, as communism and then capitalism descended upon Romania's rural villages, Corneliu Bucur preserved the details of life tied to the land.
It was natural enough, then, that as he wandered wooded trails in an outdoor museum he helped create, passing a woolen mill transported from mountainous Transylvania and a windmill from the flat banks of the Danube, Bucur considered Romania's current course in cultural terms.
"The great question of the moment is identity," he said. "To lose it is the biggest danger, the biggest catastrophe."
Bucur, general director of the ASTRA National Museum Complex outside Sibiu, knows there is plenty to preserve in Romania, a nation not quite 150 years old, but in a place that, according to fossils found in a bear cave, was home to Europe's oldest humans some 38,000 years ago. In more recent millennia, locals felt the push of Romans, Huns, and Ottomans, the rule of Austro-Hungarians, and the domination of the Soviet Union. Struggling after the violent collapse of its own communist regime in 1989, Romania has been more sheltered than most Eastern European countries. With its entry to the European Union on New Year's Day, it continues to open further.
So it is a compelling time to visit here, traveling at ground level to feel the toll of history in isolated villages and pulsing city streets. For his part, Bucur wondered what his compatriots will make of these critical years ahead.
"Can we establish a political framework to guard our values, to convince Europe that we have something to offer?" he said. "It's the only way to be in the EU, with our head high, not on our knees."
There is perhaps no better place for an outsider to enter this ongoing dialogue than in the three sturdy stone squares of central Sibiu. The city was settled in the 12th century, an outpost of Saxons come from Germanic lands in western Europe to Transylvania. Future generations were later pushed out as Sibiu became a center for ethnic Romanians.
While differences still run deep in Romania -- home to ethnic Hungarians, Roma (Gypsies), and others -- Sibiu is ready to celebrate its future. Throughout 2007, the city will serve as a Cultural Capital of Europe, an honor it shares with the capital of Luxembourg. Sibiu's historic squares have been renovated; concerts, exhibitions, and festivals will lure Western European tourists only a direct flight away in Rome and Munich.
Not that they haven't been coming already. Consider the guest book at Casa Luxemburg, a four-room guest house set between a 15th-century Lutheran church and a string of local cafes that are full on weeknights with twentysomethings. The book contains musings from guests in Italian, German, English, Portuguese, Finnish, and Arabic.
"What a beautiful city! Loved it!" wrote Michelle, from Australia.
Sibiu, of course, is more than central plazas long on historical charm. From atop a clock tower at the edge of Piata Mica, the smallest of the plazas, modern Sibiu sprawls beyond red tile rooftops to wide boulevards lined with anonymous communist-era buildings. Beyond them, fertile fields run toward the Fagaras Mountains of the Carpathian range.
It is a clear view over a land more often known from the outside for things dark (the legend of Dracula), and darker (crowded communist-era orphanages and one of Eastern Europe's most corrupt modern governments).
Recently, the country earned another questionable credit: Glod, a central Romanian village, made a cameo as the filming location for a fictional Central Asian village in "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan," the mocking comedy starring Sacha Baron Cohen. Villagers, many of them poor Roma, have claimed they were duped by the Borat crew into taking part in humiliating scenes; some filed a lawsuit, saying the crew told them they had come to document the hardship of their lives.
Romania and Bulgaria, the newest members of the European Union, have two of its lowest per capita incomes. Workers earn less than a third of the European average, with many relying on family farm plots to round out meager salaries and pensions.
Beyond Sibiu's stone streets, then, waits a nation in which 22 million people straddle extremes, between luxury condos in the capital, Bucharest, and unplumbed farmyards in remote mountain valleys.
Americans who visit Romania each year usually arrive at the international airport north of Bucharest, or by river boat, descending the Danube River on a cruise through Hungary, Serbia, and Bulgaria.
It is worth wandering Bucharest's historic center, once site of a 15th-century citadel and still home to the high arches of "Caru cu bere," an ornate beer hall popular among locals and tourists. Cross the Dambovita River to the staggering Palace of Parliament, a product of Ceausescu's oversized ambition that is said to be among the largest buildings in the world. In September, classical orchestras from across Romania and Europe, including Paris, Dresden, and London, will fill concert halls as part of the bi annual festival in honor of Romanian composer George Enescu .
Most often, though, it is better to escape the urban crush, for the countryside is home to some of the most traditional life in Europe. Head north through the Prahova Valley, where feteasca neagra grapes grow deep red, and into Transylvania. There fortified churches anchor villages between the historic Saxon towns. Continue through a region dominated by Romania's Hungarian minority and on to southern Bucovina. The tranquil border province and its painted churches are pilgrimage sites for Romanian Orthodox faithful and travel destinations for increasing numbers of French, Italians, Japanese, and Americans.
Toward Romania's border with Hungary stand the wooden churches of Maramures, their Gothic spires rising above gates engraved with Orthodox symbols and those of earlier, pagan beliefs. Toward the Black Sea opens another world: the Danube Delta, its acres of marshland home to millions of birds, many traveling from Russia to Africa and back again. Just south, sunbathers flock to Black Sea beaches, where three-star resorts cater to those who have found fortune in capitalist Romania, and communist-era outposts linger for those who have not.
The rewards, whether venturing among villagers or vacationers, come at unexpected turns. One arrives a few miles east of the Transylvanian city of Sighisoara, where a side road leads among a cluster of small homes, including that of Ioan Nistor, a leather craftsman. Nistor, bald and stocky, uses a century-old sewing machine to stitch strips of leather for hand-made horse whips and saddles, women's handbags, and men's bracelets. He works alongside the kitchen where three generations of his family gather for meals.
Nistor travels regularly to Brasov and Bucharest to peddle his wares at traditional craft fairs. But his small shop, thick with uncut leather, offers the reminder that it all comes from somewhere.