For the love of Cluj. Great food, great openness and lovely people

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The days I worked as a journalist for a science and travel magazine were the happiest days I have ever had as an employee. It did not really feel like I was going to work at all. It felt like I was going every day to a lovely writing and photography centre, were I would have a great time getting meaning out of words, editing texts and having debates with other likely minded people. And it was quite a stress-free environment. I do still strongly miss this.
However, lately I got back to this part of my writing which I highly enjoy. It kind of started with Trip Advisor, where apparently my reviews are read by a great number of people (or so at least they want me to believe, maybe it’s just a marketing technique). But I am writing about my or our travels here, on this blog, and it does give me the great satisfaction of still expressing how I discovered and explored different places, even if no longer I have a guaranteed public that a magazine brings.

I will write about a place rediscovered during our summer holiday back in Romania. I have visited this city for the first time seven years ago, when I first travelled there for what was called the Colloquium of Young Writers, basically a bunch of us, mainly under 40, getting together for readings, debates and looong nights staying up drinking and chatting on everything, from the most intriguing books we have read to literary gossip. From the first encounter I have loved this city.
Then I rediscovered it when I met my partner, A., who is originally from a small town close to it. He took me back to Cluj to meet his jolly group of friends, his youngest brother and his grandma. And I love them all.

I can share with you a very dear memory I have about Cluj. We were there in the springtime, staying at his brother’s and A. left a bit early one day to check something on his car with a friend. He left me sleeping in, brother was at work, but I had a key. When I woke up I strolled to the local shop to buy some eggs and then it grew inside me, warm and enveloping and so comforting, the feeling that this was the place I felt I would love to raise a family in. I literally saw myself with a pushchair and our sweet baby in it, going out for a walk in the fresh, clean air of this city placed in the heart of Transylvania, with all the hills and forests surrounding it.
Well, meanwhile we have moved to the UK and we do not have any children yet, but the memory of that feeling is kept safe.

 

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(A small plaza with terrace and church, the big Unirii Plaza, behind Saint Michael Church and a contrasting inner corner)

 

So we went to Cluj this summer for five days. We made the most of them, eating out mainly in restaurants which serve local cuisine and getting together with his friends and practising photography and make-up skills. Not one day passed without us doing some serious photo shoots with the Nikon. Yes, it somehow gave us that air of being tourists, even his friends said it, but we could still feel that one day, maybe one day we could go back, open a business there and live happily ever after.
Cluj does have a lot to offer to a certain type of tourists. If you look for non-stop partying, lots of drinking and going from club to club, I would not really know what you can find there, but I suspect not much in comparison with well-known places in Spain. If you look for big city lights and something completely spectacular, you might be a bit disappointed as well. What it has to offer is the openness of the big squares surrounded by history mirrored in the architecture, and of the big main boulevards, which give you space and perspective. It is, from this point of view, exactly the opposite of English towns and cities, which  have narrow high streets and even the boulevards are somehow tighter.

Then there are of course the side streets and always something to discover just behind the next corner, such as the restaurant Roata, difficult to find without Google Maps and/or a very good knowledge of the area’s fabric. You have to go through a gangway to get to the alley it is placed on, but thankfully there is a panel advertising for it on the road.
We’ve been here on our first afternoon for dinner with one of A.’s best friends and his girlfriend, and they did not know of the restaurant. The very good prices, the rustic décor of the place, as well as the tasty food convinced them to come back one day. The garden and front dining room were quite packed on arrival, mainly with young people, probably due to the great meal deal offers.
Thinking of it back in time it gives me the feeling of being almost like a grandmother’s house in the Transylvanian countryside.

Out meal here came with a treat as well. We did have to wait for it, but then we got Romanian plum brandy and cherry sweet liquor as treats, in the traditional small clay cups, and it was worth even the delay.

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(Roata restaurant, with the Romanian pollenta dish, the brandy and liquor cups and one of the dining rooms)

 

Roata was the restaurant which had it all: a beautiful garden, the right décor, great traditional food and good prices. And a lovely bunch of costumers, which kept the feeling of the place fresh and happy. Another place I could strongly recommend, but lacking a bit in the design department, is the restaurant Matei Corvin, named after one of the most imposing Hungarian rulers of all times, who fought and defeated the Ottoman Empire’s armies, among other achievements, a king worth knowing more of.
The place is located very central, on a very easy to access side street also bearing the same name, from the main boulevard which stretches in front of the Church Of Saint Michael, one of the most representative pieces of Gothic architecture in Transylvania. If you are in front of this big church, facing the 21 of December 1989 Boulevard, you only need to reach the left corner, go across at the traffic lights and there you are, on the Matei Corvin street, leading to the very house where the Hungarian ruler was born, today a memorial building dedicated to him. It also leads to an area packed with restaurants, cafés, pubs and bars very popular with young people, but not only. And don’t imagine you would end up surrounded by a very noisy and boisterous bunch of youngsters, it is actually very touristic and everybody just seems to be chilling out, which makes it quite different from the hectic, yet containing its own charm, Old Centre of Bucharest.

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(Images from the side streets filled with cafes, pubs, restaurants)

 

If you read this and you decide to go and check this place out, try the pork belly soup (that is if you do like fatty soups). It is a dish specific to Central Europe which I hated before trying it in Cluj. My mum loves it, everybody else seemed to be hooked on it, so I have tried it on a number of occasions, one of which I remember as a summer four day trip to the thermal waters resort of Felix, close to the city of Oradea (also in Transylvania). I could not stand it until a couple of years ago, when, while dining out with A. in his home town close to Cluj, and him having it for the 1000 time since we’ve been together, I have decided to taste it again. And oh my! I was completely into it ever since. 
This summer I have finally read the book which one of my all time favourite movies was based on, “I served the King of England”, by Bohumil Hrabal. Among the things that I loved in it was this tinny detail which the character, working in the hospitality industry, mentions: the pork belly soup. It stayed in my mind as it made me realize how popular it is not only with the Romanians, but probably around Central Europe.

I was also impressed with the way we were tended by the staff. The portion of the pork belly soup at Matei Corvin is huge, but I mean humongous! We went to eat there twice in those five days and the waitress noticed me and A. debating whether we should split a portion or not. A. wasn’t very keen on it, of course, being such a favourite dish. Then the waitress suggested she would bring me half of the normal portion in a smaller bowl, as I also wanted to have a bite of mititei (grilled long meatballs).
At the end, when the bill came, there were two whole portions of soup on it. We were again talking and I said I did not mind, anyway at least I did not waste food (which I graciously do while at home… shame on me). The waitress rushed to our table and asked if the bill was right and apologised, saying the lady at the cashier made a mistake and of course we do not need to pay for two whole portions. We appreciated her checking with us and not waiting for us to say something.

Now leaving food aside, Cluj is a great place to be in the summer. The weather is still hot, but then there are plenty of places where you can hide away if it gets scorching: cafés, bookshops (the best is Librarium, on Eroilor Boulevard in Cluj – the one starting at Unirii Plaza, just behind Saint Michael Church – with cosy sofas in a reading room on the first floor), parks and museums.
A friend of A.’s, who now started her doctorate in Arts, took us to this most amazing café, not easy to be found either and unfortunately I do not remember the name of the place. A former colleague of hers apparently owns the place. You have to go through a gangway opposite the church I have previously named, then take the stairs on your right up to the first floor, and you get to this space with the ceiling all painted and two walls completely covered with potted plants.

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(The green bar, the Botanical Garden, a terrace on a very rainy day and my love A. on a narrow side street)

 

The Botanical Garden, not far from the centre, is another favourite spot in Cluj. Taking a nice stroll up the hill you get there in about 20 minutes to half an hour. It might not be comparable, size wise, to the big gardens of Europe, but it is well organised and it has its undeniable beauty. 

The Italian garden is very pretty, and I for one love the Japanese garden, then the area which is filled with vegetation typical for the Romanian temperate climate forests: it’s thick, cool, fresh and comforting. Away from the noises of the city, many people come here to read or even to learn during exam sessions.
And then many come for wedding photography. Indeed if we were to conduct our future business in Cluj, this would probably be the place many couples would request for.

However, we would suggest a completely different space for a photo shoot: the Ethnographic Museum of Transylvania. A. and his best friend in Cluj, V., actually came up with a great idea of doing a photo session here, after I applied make-up on his girlfriend, G., and both of them got dressed in traditional clothing. Unfortunately, I did not get to go myself, as next we had a second session with other people, and I worked for the whole of that day doing make-up and hair. But the results stand proof it was good effort put into it.

 

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(And our friends posing for A. at the Ethnographic Museum of Transylvania)

 

And Cluj is not only a great city with a vibrant cultural scene, so that on a hot weekend you can stumble upon the display of Aida opera for free in the Unirii Plaza, or you can pick and choose on art exhibitions, but it is also located in a lovely area. Only about 33 kilometres South one can visit the town of Turda, a very historical place, where salt was mined from Roman times and later, under Franz Joseph’s rule, the industry went into further development. Today the old salt mines are arranged as a touristic space, with small boats on an inner salt lake, with mini-golf and a small football pitch, and the whole design looks so futuristic you get the impression you stepped on an alien planet. Outside you can go bathe in the salty lakes which formed in the very old pits and you do not even need to be a good swimmer for that: the water will just hold you floating as long as you know how to keep your head out. Just one advice: never, but never gulp the water in the lakes, it is most probablu bacteria free due to the saline concentration, but it will make your throat burn and you will be under the impression you are chocking.
Unfortunately, on this occasion we did not have enough time to go to the salt mines, where I had been for about four hours daily, a whole week, some years ago, as therapy for my lungs after a couple of bronchitis. And it must have worked, as no more such infections in my lungs occurred afterwards. Living at the seaside for more than three years now helped a lot as well.

In Romania we have these caricatures about people from different regions, which always occur in jokes. The image of people from Transylvania is they are hard-working, sensible, very calm and very, but very, very patient. Actually, they are also said to be slow. You know, like they’d rather do something taking the long, slow route, but doing it properly. Or they take a long time to understand anything. Their opposites are meant to be the people in the South, who tend to be quick, witted, but shallow, always trying to cut corners and to avoid any effort. A typical joke sounds like this:

John from Transylvania moves over to his cousin George in Oltenia (in the South). One day, after church, the priest in the village approaches George for a word in private.
– George, don’t take it in a bad way, please, but I do need to ask you something. Tell me, are you taking John to the pub on Saturday evenings?
– Yes, father, but we don’t cause any trouble.
– It’s ok, my son, don’t worry, I wasn’t thinking you were. But while at the pub, do you tell John a lot of jokes?
– Yes, father, you know how I am, I enjoy a good laugh, but we do no harm.
– It’s ok, my son. I am sure you don’t. But could you please not tell him any more jokes after 8 in the evening as he always laughs on Sunday mornings and disturbs the mass.

People in Cluj do come across to me as relaxed, as taking time to do things, to meet friends, to chat and to get together. They seem to still have that bond with the community, to nourish it and keep it as an important part of their lives. It is no wonder, after all, as most reports on Transylvania in reputed magazines such as National Geographic always present the region as very traditional and idyllic not only in the way they do things here, but also in the human relations.
Open, but not overwhelming, calm and welcoming, at the same time respecting your own individuality, this is how I have always found Cluj and its people. And this is why I will always want to go back.

 

 

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