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 of the pen of Daniel Silva he has taken me to places I could never otherwise hope to go. Read more
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.
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 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?
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.
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 permanently, but I could surely spend a couple of weeks or so enjoying the 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.
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.
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 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.
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 (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.
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.
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.
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.
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?