Posts Tagged restaurant

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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Disappointing, but still loved

Two days in Bucharest, then we took a very early train to Timisoara, my home city, the place where I had spent almost 20 years of my life. How I loved it and thought I would never, but never move away! Still, I first decided to move to Bucharest, after my first big step out of my planned life story, out of my comfort zone – spending one year as an Au Pair in the US, an experience which to this day seems somehow surreal to me. Then it was the UK, thousands of kilometres away and a life experience which I never really thought I would have, even considering my unrealistic dreams of being a volunteer working with children in Africa (I could never have afforded it, nor could I today, still).
Back in Romania the best option for traveling, other than to rent a car (which costs just as much as it would here, in the UK), is the train. Flights are too expensive. By train you also get to actually see the country, although it is a long journey from Bucharest to Timisoara, about 600 km in 8 hours. I would not really recommend a coach, as they take almost the same time and you don’t get much more comfort sitting on the same narrow chair. On the train, as not all the seats are taken, you can stretch your feet, put them up on the one in front of you or next to you, and even take a good nap if you are able to. Luckily I can always sleep in trains, and sometimes in the most difficult postures, like crouching on one seat with my head on the back or arm rest. I probably look very silly, but don’t quite care about it.
On this travel I did take advantage of the rain and slept for a good 3 hours. Unbelievable, but true: Romania turned for one summer into England and the other way around, at least weather wise. We had some very rainy days there, and although I am not very up to date with the news, according to Facebook it seems the rain recently caused some floods all over the country, including in the area where my parents live (close by, they are on higher ground) and in Cluj, where my partner is from.

A very rainy morning, but no loss, passing through the fields in the South, not much to see, the landscape gets exciting as you approach Drobeta, the city situated on the Danube river, on the Eastern end of the defile where it pierces the Carpathian mountains. While we were getting closer to this city, I woke up. I must have my inner clock set to wake me at about this point of the journey. Seeing the big river that defines Central Europe, its waters mirroring the greatness of the kaiserlich und koninglich  power of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, its flow mirrored in Strauss’ waltzes, is always a must. And not for the history it has seen, but for the natural beauty. In the area called Cazane all you can see is the mountains slopes covered by dense forest, the slightly wavy waters of the river, the viaducts built for the railway and roads, the Portile de Fier (Iron Gates) Dam, and the town of Orsova spread up the hill at the end of the defile. In its narrowest place, this crossing dug by water through the mountains measures 230 m in width (about 250 yards).

Our five days in Timisoara have been thoroughly planned, but the weather and some other factors made us change part of these plans. We haven’t managed to see my friend Liana Toma and her family, this amazing lady who is a house mum, a poet and an independent chef at the same time, and who keeps the loveliest of the loveliest cooking blog. It is in Romanian, but you can activate a translation function and trust me, it’s worth it. Once you have went on translation mode, however, your only worry would be keeping things in control and not diving completely into the culinary heaven it inspires.
Those of you who tasted my spinach and salmon roll, the biscuits I served on my good bye day at work with Allied Care in New Milton, or the almond rolled cookies I served on our Secret Santa day last year would be pleased to know the recipes are now available. This way, I’m trying to make up for my sins of forever postponing sharing them with you. Shame on me.

 

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What we managed to do is visit my cousin’s family in a typical village for Banat region, with big gardens and large backyards with lots of poultry and other such animals which don’t come as pets, but for consumption. On Sunday we got in my brother’s car and went on to have a barbecue afternoon, which lasted for some good 5 hours. 
I won’t bore you with all the family stories, although Anka, this cousin of mine, is quite amazing, a recent mum to two adopted brothers and a passionate biker, only about a week after we left she completed the Transalpine trip in Romania, riding her bike on the serpentines  high in the mountains of Fagaras. But what I will say is that visiting for the first time their old house in the countryside (the family used to live in the city until the grandparents passed away) I found a piece of my childhood there.
The scent of a typical traditional house in Banat was the sweet perfume of the day. If I were to describe it, I would say it’s the combined whiff of old wooden floors and furniture, of local dish
es and pork products smoked in the household, of homemade jams and compotes and drinks, and the gentle scent coming from the gardens and fields. It’s the flavour of calcimine inside accompanying the coolness of the walls in the summer and the engulfing warmth in the winter days. It’s the smell of hay, of straw, of vines and of vegetables. The smell of new cement and of old bricks.

It’s probably how I can best describe my home region at this time.

 

And this brings something else into mind. One lazy afternoon I took my foster brothers out in the back yard to lay down in the sun and play cards while catching a tan. They lasted for a bit out there with me, but I guess after half an hour they got bored and left me to it. As I was laying there in the blazing light, sweat all over me like a second, liquid skin, I could hear and see the world from the height of the grass blades. Some bees were buzzing around the tiny wild flowers, some pigeons were lazily cooing, chicken were walking around in their yard faintly cackling of boredom as well, sweet nothing to do on a summer afternoon in the Romanian countryside. The sun rays were sweeping over the roof of the house, framed by the trees’ green, the whole world seemed to purr softly, half asleep, and still so vibrant, pulsating alive through its every pore.

After all the delights of the countryside, which I deeply cherish, as being raised there, we did take two trips to Timisoara. This time I was slightly disappointed with the city I hold so dear. First, the most beautiful square in the city, Piata Unirii (Union Square) is dead for this summer. They have closed it all, replacing the old sewage and plumbing systems, which is a positive thing. However, the way they have done it, killing completely for the season a place which used to be the heart of the whole historical centre, full of restaurant and terraces, buzzing every evening with the sounds of the people sitting around with a drink or some sweet treat to enjoy, was probably not the best idea. It almost makes you wonder if there is any economic personal interest to bankrupt some local businesses.

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Our old pizzeria, Cora, located on one of the streets coming from Piata Unirii, by the most beautiful    and still functional synagogue in the city, is still there, still pretty and they still make great food. It’s a   shame, however, that while in Timisoara, if one wanted to find a fine restaurant with local cuisine they might face an uncomfortable challenge. Who goes to Timisoara to have pizza and pasta?
There are Casa Bunicii restaurants (Nana’s House), easy to find on Tripadvisor. On our first evening in the city we went to one and enjoyed a meal on the terrace, late at night. Still, I was slightly disappointed: while my pork chop and sauce were tasty, it came cold. I was so hungry I didn’t send it back. My partner’s skewers like in Bucovina, set on fire under our own eyes, for a deep pleasant chargrilled flavour, were just as good as the ones I tasted in the winter. The sour cherry liquor hit the spot as a dessert drink.

 

 

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Then we took the kids to the city, a trip which has become tradition. Going around in the Children’s Park, a place I used to visit a lot in my own childhood, well decorated and arranged, with lots of small rides, swings and slides and fancy objects, was very enjoyable. For years the park had been partly abandoned, in the way that there was no new investment, but recently they have renovated it all.
After the kids had a good play and climb and jump around, we went to have lunch just across the big Intercontinental Hotel, the first building with automatic sliding doors in the 70s, if I’m not mistaking (a story I know from my father). The restaurant Curtea Berarilor (Beer Brewer’s Court) had been recommended to us, and as we entered the inner yard it looked really nice. We had a sit and waited forever to be served, so we started to play a word game with the kids as we were all starving and bored to death. When the food came… my chicken wings were the blandest thing I have ever eaten, the soured cream and garlic sauce had no garlic in it. Not nice at all. We tried not to make a big thing out of it as it was a day for the kids to enjoy out in the city. The dessert we had at Cofetaria Trandafirul (The Rose Cake Shop), another place I used to go regularly to since a child, made up for the bad experience with the restaurant.

It could have been better. We could have enjoyed Timisoara more, if only Piata Unirii and the streets around it didn’t look like a war landscape, if only the restaurants were better, if only. But then my old city can still make it up to us next time when we go to visit.

I left Banat with the feeling that it is all still there, just as I knew it, content that everybody at home is doing well, my grandmothers are still in good health, and everything is as I used to know. On the other hand, it doesn’t seem to have more to discover for me, all as expected, nothing fresh and unexpected.
I still love my home region and would recommend people to visit it. When they are going to finish with renovating the streets and the square, it will be much better. As for restaurants, Tripadvisor should help. And if you haven’t been so used to how everything is around there, the risk of being bored dissipates as well. It’s a region full of history, and an inquisitive eye and mind would most certainly be happy to explore it.

(Foto 1: made by me. Fotos 2 and 3: Attila Vigh)

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