Under construction

I’ve gotten presents that have been extravagantly beribboned and expensively wrapped and yet failed to live up to my expectations. I’ve also had the most amazingly appropriate gifts wrapped in newspaper and tied with a piece of string. Ya never know what you’ll get.

Oradea (Nagyvárad) is a little like that. Once the cultural capital of the Carpathian region, it’s still the cultural capital of Transylvania, if not the whole of Romania. Just 8 km from the Hungarian border, for years the city was passed back and forth between the two countries. And while the bus station and the 30-minute walk into town are nothing to write home about, when you turn the corner into the old town, even if it is under construction, it’s jaw-droppingly gorgeous.

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When I say ‘under construction’ I mean it. But not the sort of construction site that is closed off to the public. One where pedestrians get to walk alongside the JCBs and get up close and personal with the pneumatic drills, stumbling to their heart’s content, taking their lives in their hands as they do. But it’s worth the dust, and the stumbling, and the dicing with death because when it’s all done it is going to give other European squares a run for their money.

Moon Church (Biserica cu Lună)

Moon Church (Biserica cu Lună)

Unification Square, as it’s known, is home to myriad churches and a palace. Moon church is quite unique and with its astronomical clock that depicts the phases of the moon. Inside, it too is being restored. Oradea’s facelift runs deep.

The  Baroque Palace (Palatul Baroc) is built in Viennese style and has a total of 365 windows. Originally built in honour of Maria Teresa, up till 1945, it was home to the local Roman Catholic bishop. But then the Communists came and borrowed it, not returning it until 2003. 

Baroque Palace (Palatul Baroc)

Baroque Palace (Palatul Baroc)

 

Black Eagle Passage (Pasajul Vulturul Negru)

Black Eagle Passage (Pasajul Vulturul Negru)

Black Eagle Passage (Pasajul Vulturul Negru) is another gem undergoing renovations. And it’s still open for business. The numerous bars and cafés beneath the glass-roofed arcade are still plying their trade and the crowds keep coming. Parts of it are covered in builders’ plastic and scaffold but that doesn’t seem to bother anyone. The bits still to started on are magnificent. A night here alone would be enough to entice me back – I didn’t stumble across it until a few hours before my train so it needs to be revisited. Mind you, the jury is out as to whether Vultural means eagle, vulture, or hawk…  but no matter which bird it’s called after, it is something to be behold. 

 

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The Crișul Repede river divides the city in two and the other side is no less beautiful with its theatres and museums lining a long pedestrian street.

The Oradea State Theater (Teatrul de Stat Oradea) is one of over 100 theatres designed in Europe by two Austrian architects whose names I have yet to track down. A busy pair these two. [Note: from the inimitable IZ – the lads were Hellner and Fellner but apparently this one was designed by others due to some sort of money issues.]

And it was right across from here that we stayed. In the fab Astoria Hotel. Had I a trunk full of evening dresses, I could have stayed a month. 

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2015 Grateful 17

A late afternoon decision and the almost miraculous appearance of a local shark (illegal taxi driver) saw us heading towards Stana (Sztána), one of nine villages in the commune of Almaşu (Váralmás). As we bounced (I kid you not) along a dirt and gravel road, I realised why the Romanian map feels the need to show three classifications of road: main roads, asphalt roads, and dirt roads – the latter are well-travelled. Given that most rental car agreements would ban travel down such byways, it must put half of the country out of reach of tourists, which might explain why strangers in the more remote towns and villages are such a novelty. Transylvania is one part of Romania that would be a perfect home for a Rent-a-Wreck franchise.

IMG_0772 (800x600)IMG_0763 (600x800)Stana is Romanian for sheepfold. And there were lots of sheep and a few people and a nest of houses, and a church, two shops, and, strangely enough, lots of new-builds. Yep. Seems like EU money is pouring into this tiny community with a massive guest house going up on the outskirts of town. I’d heard that one of the conditions for getting these EU grants is that you have to undertake to have an indoor recreation area – which is why they have a table-tennis (ping-pong) table in the cellar. Go figure.

We were the only guests in the Kék Iringo, an old house that has been renovated to within an inch of its life. A shame really. But hey, we were treated like royalty and looked after like we were the last two women on Earth.

IMG_0761 (800x600) (2)A wander around the village included a beer outside one of the two shops – this would seem to be what passes for entertainment. There’s a lot to be said for passing the evening in the company of neighbours on the village streets – but were I living there, I’d wonder on those nights I stayed away whether I was the topic of conversation. That they build seats into the gateways and porches says so much for a tradition of meeting and mingling. I had thought it might be a bus stop but then remembered that there are no busses.

IMG_0647 (800x600)A few days earlier, while driving from church to church, we’d passed a number of sheep stations. Our driver warned us about the dangers of marauding sheepdogs, who do their  best to ensure full employment for walking guides. The shepherds, apparently, make cheese on the spot. And, when I think of the age I’ve reached without ever questioning where ewe cheese comes from, I’m shocked at how surprised I was to think of sheep being milked. Sometimes I really doubt my own intelligence.

IMG_0795 (600x800)We’d planned to walk over the fields to the next village of Petrinzel (Kispetri) in time for a Reformatus service at 10am. In the distance we saw a horse-drawn cart ferrying other churchgoers from village to village in a scene that could have been plucked from The Little House on the Prairie. So much so that I could have sworn I heard the theme tune as Laura’s freckled face flashed in front of me. We could see the church in the distance and the path was relatively well-worn. We’d not get lost.  But then we saw the sheep and later we saw the dogs (all three of tIMG_0797 (800x600)hem). The shepherd obviously didn’t see us as no amount of waving would get him to look our way. And dressed as I was in my Sunday best rather than usual hill walking gear (if I had any), I did sort of stick out. The sheep seemed determined to thwart us. Just as we thought the coast was clear, the dogs came back. Three attempts we made, walking a little further each time before doubling back. Eventually, at 10am, just as the service was starting, we gave up.

Everyone carries a big stick when they walk further than the village. Kids can play in the streets but not venture out into the hills. Which is a shame, given the gorgeous countryside they have as a back garden. Traffic, which is practically non-existent, doesn’t keep you awake at night – but howling dogs do. And just when you get off to sleep, the roosters start crowing. Were I to live here for any length of time, I’d go demented. I need my sleep. And on the rare occasion that I fancy a walk, I’d like to be able to walk from A to B unaccosted.

IMG_0781 (600x800)We all live different lives. Yes, there might be overlaps and similarities, but each life is unique. Every now and then it’s nice to get a new perspective, to get a  glimpse of how other people live. It’s fun to play what if and imagine how well I might fit in, how I’d adapt. If nothing else, it makes me appreciate what I have. And while living the experience is wonderful, and being treated like royalty is something not to be dissed, the simple joy of sleeping in my own bed is one I’d not trade for the world.

Yet again, I’m grateful for the wanderlust, for the need to see new places and experience new things. I hope it’s something I never grow out of. As Mae West supposedly said ‘you only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough.’

 

 

 

 

Headscarves and padded bras

If this trip to Romania taught me anything, it’s the need for patience. We turfed up at the guesthouse to find it empty. Not a sinner. No one around. We walked about, hollered our howayas, and then tried to explain our quandary to a toddler who didn’t speak either Hungarian or English. Some time later, a woman appeared, very surprised to see us. A phone call was made and it turned out that yes… we had booked in. Oops. That’s Romania. You take it as it comes. There’s little point in fussing or getting upset. It makes no difference.

IMG_0717 (800x600)IMG_0720 (800x600)Răchiţele (Havasrekettye), our home for the night, is the birthplace of the Romanian Prime Minister Emil Boc. I didn’t know this then, and even if I had, it wouldn’t have enticed me into the village. And no, I didn’t see the waterfall, the village’s one main sight to be seen and the one thing that everyone asked us if we’d seen when we mentioned we’d stayed the night there. I was tired. For some reason my sleep was restless and my dreams zapped me. I was sleeping but waking up even more tired than when I went to bed. So I took the afternoon off and worked, giving thanks, yet again, for having a job that only needs an Internet connection. With regard to seeing the sights, I contented myself looking at the colourful houses across the road. IMG_0715 (800x600)IMG_0716 (800x600) (2)Later that evening, after discovering the joys of a local blueberry liqueur (a bottle of which I managed persuade the woman of the house to part with so that I could take back to Budapest), we popped next door to the pub. Women don’t really go to pubs in this part of the world but there was only one chap in there and he didn’t look much like he cared. I might well have been in Ireland, in an ould shebeen. Where else could you by a shot of brandy or a pair and a rubber gloves at the same time.

The plans the next day were fluid. We’d decided to get the bus to Heudin (Bánffyhunyad) at 10am and catch the market. The lady of the house called the bus driver and told him that we’d be waiting. There are no bus stops. You’re very much dependent on local knowledge. So there we were on the side of the road, waiting for a bus that never came. It would come at 11, they said. So we decided to chance walking and hitching – again. And this time, it didn’t work. No one stopped. Perhaps we looked a little too strange. Perhaps we were a little too far from anywhere. Perhaps we looked like trouble. So we tossed a coin and doubled back and waited. And the bus came: a blue transit van that had a couple of benches in the back. The neighbour across the road was waiting to pick up some motor oil the bus was delivering (it doubles as a courier service) and he assured us that yes, it would take us to where we were going. Along the way we picked up more people, stopping randomly wherever someone was waiting. All pre-arranged it would seem. I didn’t read this in the guidebook (that said though, I didn’t read a guidebook at all).

IMG_0734 (800x600)IMG_0733 (600x800)Back in Heudin (Bánffyhunyad) the best of the market was over. The ladies with their embroidery had left already and what was left … well, think fruit and veg and clothes and everything you could need from a fishing rod to a padded bra. Clothes on the second-hand stalls were going for 25c a piece. What appealed to me most were the people – little old head-scarfed dears in from the surrounding villages selling their veg and their cheeses. Tough women. Women who have had a tough lives. Women who know what hard work is. I was suitably awed to be in the presence of the sisters. And wished I had some way to talk to them. They seemed like a feisty bunch.

IMG_0739 (800x600)IMG_0730 (600x800)Those who were selling sold. Those who were buying bought. A steady stream of conversation. Perhaps it was the only time that week that they would have something to chat about. Market day seemed to be at the epicentre life, a day out for many. I wondered if there was an age when you got to wear the headscarf – did you have to be 50 or 60 or older? And when I voiced this thought I was told that these women would have worn them all their lives. They even have a Sunday scarf, one they use for going to church, and in one of villages in the area, a woman hand paints them. Now there’s a job. A craft, like so many others, that is in danger of dying out.

IMG_0748 (600x800)IMG_0746 (600x800)We stopped at the local church to have a look-see (and the regulatory three wishes) and once again, there are few words that can properly convey how stunning these places are. The ceiling was hand painted, what looked like ceramic tiles of some sort. And the decoration this time wasn’t made of wheat but of flowers, cleverly crafted to look like a  bell. The church doors were open and it was empty. It looked like we had just missed a service. Someone had left their laptop open  on a table in plain sight. I can’t think of anyplace else I
IMG_0752 (600x800)know where this might happen.

Plaques and pictures had embroidered frames, this time in black and white. So simple and yet so stunning. A traditional take on what the Jazz Bar in Cluj had done by framing their flat screen with a large, old, ornate wooden frame. I don’t think I could ever tire of these churches and well impressed so far, I had no idea that the best was yet to come.  Huedin is on a direct train line to Budapest – there’s no excuse for me not to go back.

 

 

 

2015 Grateful 18

For the last month or so, I’ve been keeping fairly constant company with a lovely man who has the most amazing green eyes and even more amazing hands. He’s in his mid-fifties, Jewish, Israeli, and absolutely and utterly fascinating. He goes by many names but the one I like most is his real one – Gabriel Allon. Born from the pen of Daniel Silva he has taken me to places I could never otherwise hope to go.

He works for Israeli Intelligence on the dark side of the dark side. And he’s one of the top four art restorers in the world. He’s taken me through the history of Israel/Palestine and has helped me understand a little more of what’s behind what’s going on. He has spent pages describing his work  restoring some of Bellini’s famous church art in Venice. And the insider view of the Vatican has me wondering. Getting kindle versions of all his books was one of the best birthday presents I received. They’re an education.

IMG_0661 (800x599)IMG_0662 (800x600)It was Allon who came to mind when our driver that day in Romania took us to see a monastery in the making [it’s somewhere between Magyarvalkó and Bélis in the middle of nowhere]. The building of this Orthodox church began in 2001 and it’s now in the process of being painted by a team of 12-18 young artists from the University of Theology in Cluj-Napoca (Koloszvár)  under the guidance of Alexandru Nicolau, a team chosen apparently by open contest. Money is tight so they work when they have it. Each of them is a religious scholar in their own right and they live their lives in accordance with the Orthodox creed. I know this because we were befriended by a visiting student from the University who showed us around. He’d come to the monastery to clear his head, to enjoy the peace, to paint.

IMG_0672 (800x600)IMG_0681 (600x800)It was a change from the centuries-old churches we’d seen earlier in the day and it’s newness was a little hard to take. To see paint brushes and tins of paint, scaffolding and blank walls, a few radios and the occasional bottle of water – there was a little  of the Mary Celeste about it all, and it was hard not to think of a life interrupted.  The style – Byzantine apparently. Russian Orthodox churches prefer more realistic depictions of their icons, whereas Romanian Orthodox goes more for showing the transfiguration of the saints in its style. I wasn’t quite sure what it all meant – Allon’s teaching stopped at the Old Masters – but I was suitably impressed, both by his telling of the story and by his reverence.

IMG_0674 (800x600)IMG_0686 (600x800)I’ve never before been in a church in the making. And while I’m a great fan of old stuff, I was fascinated by the newness of it all.  And in particular by the depiction of the three wise men as angels. That’s something I’ve not come across before.  I searched the walls, those that had been completed, and looked to see if I could find any more familiar scenes. I wouldn’t swear to it, but part of an image on a side wall looked remarkably like a human portrayal of the three wise monkeys who hear, see, and say nothing. I could be wrong. It was hot that day.

IMG_0676 (800x600)IMG_0691 (800x600)He also mentioned a movie that I want to watch – Andrei Tarkovsky’s epic film, The Passion of Andrei Rublev (1966) – in which an old iconmaker who has lost his faith meets a young boy, the son of a bellmaker. Together they go to the Trinity Monastery where one paints icons and the other makes bells and the whole ‘love thy neighbour’ wins out. We could do with a bit more of that these days. It’s on my list.

Of course, now that I’ve seen the new monastery, I want to see the old ones, too, the painted ones, in Bukovina. After these few days in Romania, I’m really grateful to have had the chance to visit and even more grateful to have it so close to me. I’m already scouring my calendar to see when I can possibly go back. There is so much to see and do, so much to experience. I am blessed to have the freedom to travel and even more blessed to enjoy it as much as I do.  I’m grateful too, that I enjoy losing myself in a book or a movie and have an unchartered curiosity about people and places that gets me up off my ass and out there.

Holy stitches and sunken churches

When you see a map of a country that has the dirt roads marked clearly, and then you read the fine print in a car rental agreement that seriously limits where you can take the car, you soon realise that many places will be off-limits. And that’s where the locals come in. Their cars are well used to it.

From Sâncraiu (Szentkirály)* we decided to find a man with a car, a man who had access to places we would never get to on our own. And we found him. He picked us up at 10 am and was ours till 2pm, charging by the kilometre and by the waiting time. And he had an agenda.

His Opel Corsa had a couple of dings and the inside had some very strange brown splotches all over the roof. The scented interior was more an eau d’body than an eau d’cologne but I soon made like a dog and stuck my face out the open back window. Amazing what you can get used to.

IMG_0580 (600x800)First stop was Văleni (Magyarvalkó), where after borrowing the key from the vicar, we made our way up a hill into this fortified Romanesque Reformed church dating back to the mid-fifteenth century, a church which still serves as a place of worship for about 150 souls today. We wandered around the outside noting the plum trees laden with fruit hanging over the graves in an almost surreal visualisation of the cyclicality (did I just make up that word?) of life. [Apparently this year will be a good year for the plum pálinka.]

IMG_0600 (800x600)IMG_0597IMG_0593 (800x600)The walls were decorated with lovely examples of Írásos (written) embroidery marking confirmations, weddings, births, and other occasions noted by the parishioners. Even the bible covers had been embroidered. From the magnificent painted panelled ceiling hung ornaments made from wheat. At first glance, they looked like big pieces of fur hung as lampshades but no… it was dried grass.  This has to be the oddest thing I have ever seen in a church – and I’ve been inside my share of houses of worship.

IMG_0594 (800x600)But it was the ceiling that did it for me – the wood panelling under the gallery. All hand painted eons ago, the paint was still clear and the patterns visible. So much time and work went into this church and even though it was decorated to within an inch of its life, it was done by hand, simply. Compared to some of the gilt and glitter of even the simplest of Catholic churches, this stood out. It felt as if it had been made by the people, for the people – and is that what a church should be?

IMG_0601 (800x600)IMG_0619 (800x600)IMG_0644 (800x600)The next stop was another church. This time in Mănăstireni (Magyargyerőmonostor). And another Reformed church (think Calvinist) so no prizes for guessing that our Romanian driver was Hungarian-speaking rather than Romanian.  Apparently most Romanian Transylvanians are Orthodox and we didn’t get to see inside any of those that day.  I liked the exposed brick on this one but couldn’t decide if it was by accident or design. Again, I was stuck by the simplicity and although slightly more prepared for variations on the same interior theme, it IMG_0623 (600x800)was the same, but different. Less rustic. More ordered. More planned. If the church had an Interior Design magazine, this one would probably feature.  Again the embroidery but less of the home-made feel. Were the first a collection of villagers each contributing what they did best, this was more like a coordinated effort by a management committee run by someone who knew exactly the look they were going for. Still beautiful. No doubt there. And had I seen it first, I might have been more awed.

IMG_0624 (800x600)IMG_0631 (591x800)But the painted door, tucked away at the back, saved it from being simply more of the same. I’m quite partial to effort. Give me something that someone has put the hours into and I’ll cherish it, appreciate it, marvel at it. Give me something that stands the test of time and I’ll do likewise. And doors like this one have me seriously thinking about the need for a cottage in the country – somehow I can’t seem to fit it into my vision of urban living. Some might think it kitsch and perhaps it is a tad folksy, but it wears well.

IMG_0626 (600x800)IMG_0635 (600x800)This particular ceiling was quite plain but the wooden panels skirting the walls contrasted nicely.  And their intricacy was offset in turn by the relatively simply patterned wooden posts. There was a curious mix of the simple and the complicated. And it worked. The whole saga of Mary and Martha came to mind – the talker and the doer.

These two churches we’d never have seen on our own. We wouldn’t have found the first one or known where to pick up the keys for either of them. Them the blessings of having a local driver. There was one more church to see but that deserves a blog of its own. Am still gobsmacked by it. Still processing what I saw. And the church isn’t even finished yet.

IMG_0706 (800x600)IMG_0707 (800x600)So, having had our dose of religion, he then took us to the lake. To Beliș Lake (Béles tó) But in keeping with the day’s theme, told us that there was a church buried beneath the water – one that is sometimes visible.  The dam was quite impressive, too. As was the prospect of spending a few days in one of the two local hotels. Nothing to do but swim and read. And perhaps fish. Magic. And noted for future reference. It’s not my first time in Romania and yet it feels different. There was snow on the ground last time and I was in a different part of Transylvania then, too. I loved it then. I love it now. But this time it’s more real. There is so much to do and so much to see and so much to come back and do and see again… and again.

*Hungarian names for these towns given in ( _ ) as requested

On the road in Romania

Horse-drawn carts are not an unusual sight in Romania, where for many they’re a familiar mode of transportation. But the sight of two lipsticked, middle-aged women pulling wheelie suitcases along a country road … that’s a little more rare.

We wanted to rent a car but there wasn’t a car rental place to be found in Cluj-Napoca (Kolozsvár)* that (a) had a car and (b) opened on a Sunday. So we booked the next best thing – a car with a driver. We’d agreed by email on 100 lei, which is about €22, for him to pick us up at the hotel and then drive us about 60km to the village of Sâncraiu (Szentkiraly)- where villagers once needed a passport to work in their fields, scattered as they were back then between two countries – Hungary and Romania.  Then we called to confirm and it had gone up to 120 lei. And then he arrived and said 200 lei minimum. Now, I’m all for paying a fair price and had it been 200 lei from the outset, that would have been grand. But I hate to feel that I’m being taken advantage of. So we decided to take the train to Heudin and hitch from there as there are no taxis and buses don’t run to the villages on a Sunday. Or so we were told.

IMG_0523 (800x587)Walking up the main street of Huedin (Bánffyhunyad), with an amazingly decorative (and quite empty) tin-roofed house sitting across from an equally wowy Orthodox Church, a couple of people stopped and asked where we were heading (suit-case-dragging strangers are IMG_0520 (800x600)obviously not run of the mill on an early Sunday evening). Both were helpful with directions. At worst, we had a 5km walk ahead of us. At best, we’d get picked up. And we did. An old chap was dropping his mate home and said he’d take us along – for 10 lei. A bargain.

He dropped us in the middle of the village and from there it was a case of wandering like lost sheep with the intention of asking everyone we met where Erika’s Pensiunea was. ‘On the second hill’, the first old dear said, pointing vaguely into the distance beyond the church. So we walked some more. ‘I’m Erika’s mother’, said the second. Happy days. Could it get any better?

IMG_0551 (800x600)IMG_0539 (600x800)IMG_0537 (800x600)IMG_0535 (800x600)IMG_0561 (600x800)Apparently the village was razed by fire back in 1848 with only one house surviving. It was rebuilt since then and now has some beautiful examples of the region. But I swear, for a population of about 1500, I saw just one huckster shop, one bar, and two churches. No post office, no restaurant, no café. Every house has a bench outside where elderly villagers sit and watch the world go by. They aren’t half backward about coming forward and quite happily give you the third degree in stares – curiosity mostly. Nothing like feeling like a tourist. I suppose it’s fair play really – they must be sick to death of being photographed (and no, I didn’t dare).

The village fete was on that evening and so we had to go and have a look-see, as that’s where all the life had gravitated to. We had our wine and our langós and sat for a while listening to the local Country and Western band do their thing and then we left them to it. Too much excitement for one day.

Romanians mightn’t have much, especially those living in the villages. The average monthly wage clocks in at about €345  ($400) Sâncraiu (Szentkiraly) has at least 22 B&Bs and this is how many make their money. They’re happy to cook for you, too. Simple food, but good food. In order to get the most out of the experience, you have to leave your wants at home and simply accept that this is how life is in this part of the world. This is what’s done. No wonder there’s no need for taxis if any local passing  by will pick you up for petrol money. And who needs TV when you have tourists to watch and talk about. It really is another world, one that trundles along at its own pace, making the most of the occasional agritourist and passing stranger.

IMG_0564 (800x600)IMG_0573 (600x800)Most of the houses have a best room – a parlour of sorts – where they keep their old traditional costumes and linens. It’s not for living – it’s for show. [That takes me back to my granny’s day and her parlour or sitting room with its tablecloths and fiddedly ornaments.] Their gardens are a treasure trove of times gone by.  The detail in the wattling on the walls. The abundance of wild flowers. The fruit trees. The woodsheds. The quiet. Acres and acres of silence with nothing but the odd passing car to disturb you. I don’t think I could live there pIMG_0568 (800x600)ermanently, but I could surely spend a couple of weeks or so enjoying the IMG_0574 (800x600)disconnect.

I was struck by how connected I think I need to be when I stupidly locked myself out of my phone and had to do without for day – not even a day – a night. I was so pissed off. And then I thought – those who need to know, know where I am and those who don’t could find me if they tried hard enough, so what was I worried about?

The network of cables visible in Cluj-Napoca (Kolozsvár) is also on show in the villages, an ugly reminder of progress. An irritant. A blight on what would otherwise be a little slice of picturesque heaven. That said, after a while, like everything else, it sort of blends in. A shame though. And speaking of progress – I’d trade their BBQ for the best Webber has to offer any day.

IMG_0559 (800x600)*Hungarian names given in ( _)

2015 Grateful 19

Sometimes things just ain’t what they seem. Sometimes our expectations let us down. Sometimes, though,  we can be pleasantly surprised. So much of it depends on patience …

Cluj-Napoca (known to Hungarians as Koloszvár) has been on my list of places to visit for a number of years. And yet I never once thought to read up on it, check it out, or do any sort of research at all. I was just fascinated by the name and by the fact that it’s in Transylvania in Romania.

IMG_0402 (800x600)IMG_0397 (800x600)Some 7.5 hours by train from Budapest, the journey itself doesn’t help much. As we passed over the Hungarian-Romanian border, I woke periodically (it was a 5.30 am train) to see it alternate between heavy industry, rural poverty, and urban richness. I was particularly fascinated by the ornate tin roofs on some of the houses. Quite surreal. A little Vegas’y without the ding ding of the casinos. It all added to the mix of expectations that were being raised and dashed and dashed and raised to the point that I IMG_0403 (800x585)gave up and stopped wondering at all.

The city, which sits in Central Romania, is home to some 340 000 people and has been inhabited since 200 BC. Okay, so I was sort of expecting an old town wonderland – perhaps the best bits of Prague and Budapest combined – but when we arrived outside the train station, it was like stepping  into a  construction site. The first thing that struck me were the cables and the wires. Everywhere. It’s like the whole city is plugged into one socket. Mad. The juxtaposition of old and new is something I’ve come to expect so it didn’t phase me. But the lack of footpaths did. And the crazy driving.

IMG_0416 (800x600)We stayed in the Hotel Belvedere, a leftover from the days of Communism when the hoi polloi would stay on the hill overlooking the city. The 253-step climb  took some practice but we eventually got it down to 7 minutes. The hotel itself, a *** venue, was a delight. So like the Kyviec in Bratislava IMG_0481 (800x600)IMG_0411 (800x600)(or how it was before the renovation – I’ve not been back to see it since). The marble-floored massive open plan lobby complete with the regulatory six clocks showing various time zones over the elevators and the mad chandeliers just needed Brezhnev or one of the boys to walk across it to complete the feel. Wedding guests passing through decked in gold bow ties, purple suits and pink loafers (and that was just the men) lent it a move-set feel. And all for the princely sum of €45  a night, including breakfast.

IMG_0442 (600x800)We wandered downtown that evening, just to have a look-see, as you do. And once we’d navigated the rubble and made our way into the heart of the city itself, I was surprised. Shop windows had stuff I’d come back and buy. Bars were inviting. Menus were creative. And the Jazz Club was dead cool. The city has style.  Hearing Hungarian so widely spoken and yet being somewhere that is so not Hungarian was a little odd. Budapest has its charm but the bar/restaurant scene has a certain sameness once you get used to it. Cluj has variety. I was seriously impressed. So impressed that it now warrants a full weekend on its own instead of just one night. I’d need at least two lunches and three dinners to do it justice, there were that many places I wanted to visit.

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There are plenty of churches so I lit my share of candles and made my litany of wishes. There was a bit of a faff  back in 2013 about the number of new Orthodox churches being built (something like 10 a month) given how relatively poor the country is. And they’re still going up.

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IMG_0508 (600x800)My vote went to  the Reformed Church and its magnificent organ made all the more special by the simplicity of the Gothic interior. So far removed from the gilt and gold of the Cathedral or the iconic innards of the Orthodox Church. It is a lovely, lovely space. And, I wondered, as I’ve wondered before, how many more prayers are said without the distractions. I had to look up the religion though as I didn’t realise that Reformed mean Calvinist. Seems like I learn something new every day.

IMG_0437 (800x600)Outside sits the somewhat famous statue of St George killing the Dragon. I came across something similar in a painting in Bulgaria a couple of weeks go – and this after years of never happening upon the boy at all. Am just waiting for him to show up a third time sometime soon.

We ate, we saw, we wandered. The wine isn’t much to write home about, but if that’s the sum total of my whinge, it’s not half bad. Will definitely be back.

This week, I’m grateful for so many things. For new beginnings, new discoveries, and new experiences. What’s not to like about my world?

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The best of two seasons

If you’ve ever driven the Richardson Highway between Valdez and Anchorage, Alaska during the couple of weeks when the leaves turn, you will know what I mean when I say that the scenery is like a painter’s palette. I’ve heard of people going to New England for the Fall to see nature’s mesmerizing display and since Alaska, while I’ve seen nice autumns, I’ve not experienced anything quite like the drive through the forests of Tranyslvania.

For a thousand years, up until WWI, Transylvania was associated with Hungary. Back in the 10th century, the Hungarian Székely settled in what is still called Erdély (‘beyond the forest’ – the literal meaning of Transylvania). With two-lane roads wending their way through the mountains, the colours were breathtaking. Passing few cars and seeing no-one but a series of lone, chain-saw wielding men, it was as if we had the place to ourselves. The higher we went, the colder it got and then we crossed over – from autumn to winter – that wonderful moment when it is neither one nor the other but a bit of both.

Given the choice between hot and cold, I’d go for cold any day. There’s a limit to the amount of clothes you can take off and if you’re not near the sea or a substantial body of water, heat is miserable. But cold – especially contintental cold  – that’s more than doable.

We were trying to get to Saint Anna lake but as we dodged fallen, snow-laden branches, pragmatism won out. The lake will have to wait for another day but the legend, and its swans, reminded me of the Children of Lir.

Way back when, even before the 13th century, two brothers lived in the area. One day, a stranger, driving a beautiful chariot with six horses, called to one of the brother’s castles. They had a party and in a gambling game of some sort (probably dice), one of the brothers won the stranger’s chariot and horses. The other brother, not to be outdone, found a better chariot and went to the village to find the 12 most beautiful women, to pull it. [I wonder if this might be the source of that Irish saying – she’s a horse of a woman?] But the chariot was too heavy for them. They couldn’t move it. The brother became angry and started beating them to death. Before she died, the most beautiful of them all, Anna, cursed the castle. A terrible stormed brewed and the castle sank into the earth. A lake appeared in the crater and on it swam 12 swans. When the birds touched land, they changed back into girls and all but one went back to their village. Anna stayed and built a small chapel and stayed there til she died.

Pilgrims still come in their droves and many young people come in the hope of finding a partner. Again, I’m reminded of Ireland and that childhood prayer: Holy St Ann, holy St Ann, send me a man as fast as you can. Definitely worth a trip back in the spring.

 

Making coal from wood and hats from mushrooms

Well, you learn something new every day. There was I thinking that coal came from the ground – as in the famous Castlecomer coalmines in Co. Kilkenny. I had never heard ‘making coal’ until a recent visit to Transylvania exposed me to a whole new world.

From as far back as the 19th century, the process of ‘wood charring’ was practically a home industry in this part of the world. Piles of cut wood (boksa) are covered with soil and leaves. The hollow inside is filled with dry branches. The boksa is then lit from the top and burns very slowly for about a week and half. Then the soil is removed and replaced with coal powder and left until the fire goes out. And voila – you have coal. Or more technically, charcoal. You can even do this at home!

Now, if this wasn’t enough for my mind to take in, we stopped in the village of Corund (Korund) where apparently 5000 craftspeople make their living from pottery. And 90 families make their living by making ‘things’ from mushrooms – hats, bags, magnets, toy mice, ties – it reminded me a little of the cork craft in Portugal but this is a lot more like leather/suede. Simply amazing.These craft traditions are handed down from father to son, mother to daughter, and despite the growing amount of kitsch that’s appearing alongside the handcrafted stuff, it’s pretty impressive. Although like so much of the craftwork in this region, because the same patterns and colours are used, it looks a little mass produced even if it’s made by hand.