Posts Tagged Transylvania

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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A journey to Romania

From the 25th of June to the 9th of July, we have put together more than 1500 kilometres travelled by train, thousands of photos, a good bunch of great friends, a few disappointments in Timisoara and some seriously good food eaten in Cluj, in other words, our welcomed Romanian holiday, which shouldn’t have happened to start with.

Starting 2014, we had other plans, which we are meticulously puzzling together. Going to Romania wasn’t in the cards. Then I found out that a friend of mine was getting married, and this was a great opportunity to be in the wedding of one of the most fascinating women I have ever known closely. And when I say this, I mean really being part of the event: we offered to do the make-up and photography for the wedding, as a gift for the bride and groom. But just about a month before our flight I’d got the news she wasn’t getting married after all, wrong decision.
Still, the whole travel turned out to be an experience we needed. We came back tired, but refreshed, more relaxed and with that feeling that life just goes on for all of us, friends and family, and there’s no room for nostalgia, but for contemplating and taking part, when possible, in what our friends and family do and experience as well. At the same time, we have taken the opportunity to work with people who modelled for us, which made our holiday this spicy mix of leisure, business and getting together as well.

First, it was Bucharest. We have landed there as our initial plan was, for a trial make-up and photo session with the bride to be, which we did not do, obviously. It was, anyhow, much more convenient regarding travel times (flights at a more reasonable hour rather than 7:00 in the morning) and cost. We stayed there for a day and a half, then took an early train (yes, 5:45 am!) to Timisoara.
How did we find Bucharest? Same old, same old, it was us who were more detached now, relieved of the everyday madness to succeed in a city without rules, where being tough, unscrupulous and knowing the right people is a must. I can’t but admire my friends who still work in the Romanian central media, such as Mugur Grosu, poet and artist (visual arts are also his field), one of the people most pleasant to listen to in the whole wide world, whatever it is he is talking about. And yes, he does talk a lot, but it’s fascinating, his speech is like a journey taking you to some awesome places, a ride on a magic invisible carpet. He has been working for 3 years now for this architecture magazine called “Zeppelin” which keeps publishing in a city where major newspapers were closed one after another and only a couple of tabloids thrive.

(Photos by Catalina George and Attila Vigh. In photos: 1. Mugur Grosu. 2. Silviu Dancu. 3. The whole group while Silviu was telling and acting a story from his travels)

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We had to get together with Silviu Dancu, my most fascinating writer friend on Facebook (and in real life) who posts on a daily basis on the social media platform the best short texts on whatever draws his attention. His Facebook writing is instant literature, philosophy and journalistic reporting, all in one, like a hot coffee, a cold ice cream, a drop of alcohol, served with a discrete candle aside, burning essential oils. This guy, an old friend of Mugur’s as well (they come from the same seaside city of Constanta), apparently manages to freelance in Bucharest on cultural contracts of organising events and PR services. And he’s not the bachelor who couldn’t care if one month he’s out of money for drinks, he’s got a family, managed to buy a flat and is doing pretty well in that harsh and unforgiving city. True, he has got an impressive CV: worked in the past for the Romanian Cultural Institute under the best management it had ever had, as well as for the Polish Cultural Institute in Bucharest. I am but amazed myself at how well these people are doing in a place where, in the end, I decided I didn’t fit in anymore.

Landing in Bucharest gave us a chance to meet these great people we are still in contact with. One of them is also my former editor-in-chief Ionut Popa, from “Terra Magazin”, a monthly publication on science, history, geography and travel, and while he is the same great guy I have known for some good years now, I could see disappointment in him. It’s a sad story that, after I was made redundant, the whole team who used to make this magazine, the best and oldest Romanian publication of its sort, has been removed. While all of them did find good jobs, I guess we will all carry with us the regret of something we loved doing being snatched from us just like that, with no good reason, and turned into a pitiful thin journal with lots and photos and silly toys to make it sell better, apparently… I have seen it on a newsagent’s shelf and felt like I was looking at a brochure of a questionable taste.

On the other hand though, this guy, Ionut Popa, has no long ago published a great travel book about his journey to Lake Baikal, on the Trans-Siberian Railway, and his writing, while being based on the exactness of a scientific approach (the author is a Doctor in Geography), is also very poetically personal. It was, after all, the personal experience of a man, not only a scientist, on the long and strenuous journey to the Island of the Shamans (Okhlon Island), not through direct physical effort, but through the effort of being confined to a small space in a train compartment for days, while the wild landscapes just rolled under his eyes.
And indeed the book ends with the most poetic epilogue, which has even taken me by surprise, and I know this man, I used to work next to him (literally, desk by desk), debate, laugh and rake our brains together for ideas for more than two years. What he is involved with right now is something most successful in Western countries, judging by the amount of books and magazines centred on this: travel writing publishing. A book like his “Baikal, a Deep Blue Eye” would for certain sell very successfully in a country like the UK. In Romania, he is at the moment investing effort in this uncertain field.

If I have kept you reading to this point, you are most probably asking yourselves, well, what about the city? Is this an exclusive account on my friends, who might be great people, but whom you will probably never meet, or was it meant to be a story on our recent travels through Romania?

True, I have written a few good long fragments about these people I know closely and admire, testing your patience at the same time. In a way, I had to do this. If I am telling others about my country, what can be more important than to let them see the people I know there, the way I know them? In a sea of grotesque images about Romanians, watched through a lens set to only show the ugly, the dirty, the unfit, the messy and the meager, talking about beautiful Romanians can be the missing pieces of the whole picture. 
And how much it is missing still!

Landing around lunchtime on the 25th of June, we got out of the airport and on the bus to face a confirmation of one of Bucharest’s realities. On the one hour ride to Union Square (Piata Unirii), so many long sad faces around us, so many unhappy and tensed expressions, dry grey glances, bitter and doubtful, made us remember the roughness of this place. However, over our holiday this feeling not necessarily faded, but took a few steps back, allowing others to come into light.
When one visits Romania, be they one of the nationals established abroad or a foreign traveller, they will most certainly have strong feelings towards the place and its people. Some might see mainly the poverty, the misery, the struggle, and that expression of tensed resignation. Or on the contrary, they could notice Romanians chatting lively, local young women having a really nice figure, with a sensual or really provocative attitude, very feminine or very aggressive, chic or cheap imitation (yes, it is possible) of today’s pop culture kitsch. Depending on the part of the country they find themselves, they could manage to distinguish that sweet waved Transylvanian accent or the sharp cut, loud Bucharest one.
In a crowded place such as Centrul Vechi (the Old Centre) in the capital some may be tempted to try and avoid too much contact, as the streets and terraces full of people who are mainly out drinking and chatting (not so much for eating) can give you a sense of agoraphobia. In Cluj-Napoca’s big open squares, where your sight isn’t blocked by so many crammed buildings, the plan and details of the architecture are more obvious, give you the feeling of being in a very historical place, as well as time and space to explore at leisure. The hotchpotch of buildings from different periods of time in the centre of Bucharest can get the visitor dizzy and will require a sustained effort of observation to make sense of it all and to be able to see its hidden beauties.

At times… or even most of the time it can be difficult even for somebody who has lived in the Romanian capital to see these treasures. The reason does not stay only with the eyes of the beholder, unfortunately it means that the communist conspiracy against all that was built in the late 19th century, early 20th, has almost succeeded. It was in the old regime plans to cover it, hide it, even destroy it if possible. Little is known of fake buildings or architectural feints meant to keep away from the onlooker the edifices built in the 20’s and 30’s or even earlier, in times when the local monarchy was loved and their governance appreciated. Even after about 10 years in this city, my partner A. did not come to like it in too many ways and he is not a big fan of the way the place is built. On the night before the last in Bucharest, at the end of our holiday, we took a longer stroll with Mugur and Silviu on the backstreets of the central area, where most people don’t go regularly, unless they are looking for more cultural, alternative cafés and bars. Talking about the city and what makes it beautiful and worthwhile, a passionate debate started: A. was stating that its beauty is lost due to neglect, so many buildings left to decay and almost becoming a threat to safety, while Silviu explained how it is all due to the poor laws, subject to corruption, in the same time affirming his love for Bucharest. He used to hate it as well, until he fell in love with the place.
I myself tend to agree with Silviu, although A. brings good reasons into the topic: the greed, corruption and egotism of so many so-called rulers in our country tend to shadow its charm, its history and its values, cultural, human and natural. But then here we are, some of us still trying to uncover them, to remove the dirt, the refuse, the claws that cling on anything that can be sold, used, transformed in money and up to date Western luxury.

And there is still much to uncover, to clean, to polish and to bring out into the light. It takes effort, eyes to see and inquisitive minds to be able to reach the realities behind the harsh surface of daily, mediatized Romania (on all fronts).

(to be continued)

 

 

 

 

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