I’ve had the pleasure of visiting Romania twice on business, with both trips lasting a week. On the first trip, I spent time touring the city of Cluj-Napoca and the area immediately around it (where I was visiting for work), and on the second trip I rented a car and decided to see more of the country. This blog post is going to be about the Cluj portion of the trip.
I didn’t know a lot about Romania before my first trip. I understood the country was still recovering from their years under Communist rule, and that their economy was still growing. I had heard the countryside was stunning (I remembered reading that a lot of the scenic shots in Cold Mountain were filmed there), the food good, and the culture varied. Other than that, I assumed there’d be some combination of gypsies and vampires (for the record: saw gypsies, but no vampires).
Romania is a fascinating country, in large part due to the colorful and varied influences throughout the nation. The cuisine, languages, culture, and traditions reflect a mix of Hungarian, Austrian, Ottoman, Greek, Ukrainian, and other Eastern and Central European nations. Although their history dates back to 2,000 B.C., Romania was not a country unto itself until after they had their independence from the Ottoman Empire ratified in 1877, and the Kingdom of Romania was born. Of course, this only lasted until 1944 when they were forcibly merged into the Soviet Union, where the country remained until until the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989. Thus, “traditional Romania” is really a blend of all the many cultures that played a part in the nation’s history.
The city of Cluj-Napoca is the second largest in Romania, with just over 300k residents, and lies in the northwestern part of the country, in the province of Transylvania. Driving through the city, the architecture pulls you through through multiple time periods: the older, traditional buildings in the city center, such as St. Michael’s Church; the rows of bleak Communist-era cement apartments and offices; and finally, the newer offices and skyscrapers built in the past 10-15 years during the economic recovery. Although you see a blend of history in most cities, what makes this stand out to me is the way it all comes together, in a bizarre juxtaposition. You see blocks and blocks of government issued apartments, across from beautiful landmarks and new offices. It is a reminder that the country is still changing, and that they still have a ways to go before they can put everything behind them.
Romanian is the native language, but most people born in the last thirty years or so also speak English. Many also speak French, Italian, and German as well. In fact, one of the reasons my company did businessin Cluj was due to the language capabilities. I worked with some folks who spoke 5-6 languages!
The cuisine is varied, and you can get everything from traditional Romanian food, to Hungarian, Italian, and even Chinese. People in Romania enjoy a full four courses with their meals, including lunch, so I ate incredibly well (or not so well, depending on how you look at it!). I was fortunate enough to be able to sample quite a few great restaurants in Cluj, and enjoyed all of them. Surprisingly, I even ate some of the best Chinese food I’ve ever had! Fair warning: fried lard (both cold and hot) is served as an appetizer in many places and is considered a local favorite. It’s not as bad as it sounds, but I imagine your heart would disagree!
There are two restaurants in particular that offer stunning views of the city, from different vantage points: Aroma, and Panoramic:
The best part about mealtimes was not the food, however, but the company. Dinners often took several hours due to the great discussions. Often when you are visiting with co-workers you feel the need to maintain a certain degree of aloofness, but here I felt like I was sitting with family or long-lost friends. Everyone was so warm and welcoming, and they surprised me with their willingness (and even eagerness) to talk about life under Communist rule, which was a subject I had been so curious about but afraid to ask about for fear of seeming rude or insensitive. I learned more from our dinner talks than I had ever learned from any history lesson.
Depending on how much time you have, there’s quite a bit to see in Cluj. Much of it can be seen in the city center, in Union Square and the surrounding blocks. At the center of it all is St. Michael’s Church and the statue of Matthias Corvinus in front. In the surrounding blocks there are a number of old homes and churches, including the Franciscan Monastery. The Banffy and Palaces are in the square, and there’s even a street (dubbed Mirror Street) where the architecture on either side provides an exact mirror image of each other. It’s the only place I’ve ever seen that. You can also visit the birthplace of Matthias Corvinus.
The Ethnographic Museum of Transylvania was one of the neatest ways to get a feel for the way Romanians lived over the years and across the country. It’s an open air, outdoor, living museum of old homes, churches, and functional buildings that were removed from their original location and relocated here, with some of the structures dating to the 17th century. It also includes original objects and artifacts as well. It’s neat glimpse into a time and place where life was much simpler.
A quick drive from Cluj takes you to the town of Turda. There are things to do and see in town, but we ventured there to explore the Turda Salt Mines (Salina Turda) that date back to the 11th century and were in use until the early 20th century. I realize that touring a salt mine sounds less than interesting, but it was surprisingly fascinating. The temperatures are kept in the low 50s year round, and many people journey there for salt treatments (breathing in the air is said to be good for respiratory issues). Descending down into the mines can be done by either some very narrow and old wooden stairs (no thanks) or an elevator that often has a bit of a wait time. The bottom of the mine has, on one side, a small lake filled with designs that appear to be right out of Star Wars. There are even little boats you can ride around in the dark room (creepy). The rest of the bottom of the mine is filled with children’s games and rides (including a ferris wheel), with all the creepiness of a fallout shelter. Parents bring their children there to play while they take in the cleansing air. There is also an amphitheater where they occasionally hold concerts.
I suppose I would be remiss if I didn’t mention vampires. There are signs everywhere for vampire bars, hotels, tours, etc but its a subject of some embarrassment for locals. Of course, the legend of Dracula is associated with Vlad the Impaler, who was a ruler of Wallachia (a part of Hungary that is now part of Romania). Funny enough, there are no contemporary (or current) sources that ever insinuated that Vlad was ever a “vampire,” and the only connection is Bram Stoker’s work, and the reference is more of a loose inspiration. In other words, it is obscure at best, but it helps keep tourism alive in Romania.
I never expected to fall in love with Romania, but I was completely drawn in by its history, culture, and people, and it holds a special place in my heart. It’s one of the few places I’ve been on business travel that I would pay my own money to return to and spend more time at. In the next Romania post, I’ll delve into some of the sights a little further out from Cluj to give you a taste of the wider country.
- Carry cash. Very few places take credit/debit (only hotels and nicer restaurants).
- Speaking of cash, things are ridiculously cheap there. I had the equivalent of $100 USD in cash and didn’t spend all of it in a week.
- If taking a cab, get an estimate up front. As with a lot of places, cab drivers here will look for ways to take advantage and get a higher fare. Having said that, cabs are still pretty cheap. Never take a cab that doesn’t have the company name on the side, as there are a lot of “scammers.” (Note: The airport is full of them). Also, most legit cab drivers won’t come up and solicit you directly.
- If you’re flying out of Cluj on the earliest flight of the day (which is about 8 or 9 AM), don’t bother getting there two hours early; while the airport is “open,” none of the airport workers show up until around 7, so you you’ll just be sitting there twiddling your thumbs. I think I checked in about 30 minutes before my flight left.
- Driving in the city is more hectic than anywhere in the US, but less hectic than, say, India where traffic laws are hardly obeyed at all. If you’re comfortable with aggressive drivers, renting a car isn’t so bad. However, if you have challenges parking in small spaces, you might want to think twice. No such thing as “roomy” parking here. This includes at hotels (in fact, most hotels don’t have very many parking spots; the last time I went I had to park between a wall and a dumpster and I had to sweet talk the bellhop into doing it because I knew I did not possess such skills).
- A “five star” hotel in Cluj is probably equivalent to a nice 3 or 4-star in the states. That said, the room sizes are larger than what you typically find in Europe.
- Don’t expect a lot of people over the age of 50 to know English; it was not common for English to be broadly taught until the 70s.
- I felt relatively safe after dark in Cluj, but I still recommend taking all necessary precautions (not walking into dark, less populated areas, not carrying a lot of cash, carrying your purse and wallet close to you, etc). Pick-pocketers are common enough here as they are anywhere.