December 2-4, 2016: Off the Beaten Path in Transylvania

One of my favorite trips has been Romania. I have never heard of the city of Cluj-Napoca, but Will and I found some very cheap flights on Wizz Air from Bologna to Cluj, so we thought “Why not?” It is the unofficial capital of Transylvania. Will confirmed that it is a much more architecturally interesting and charming city than Bucharest. I am so very glad that we went. It was a short trip, just from Friday afternoon to Sunday morning. But we had a jam packed Saturday with two very impressive sights.

For the first time, I took longer at border control than Will. The officer asked me questions and let him go right through. Usually with his Chinese passport, he is the one that takes a while. The border control room at the Cluj airport has bad Chinese office building-style lighting. I don’t really know how else to describe it, but it’s the kind that makes you want to fall asleep. The border agent didn’t know the word sightseeing, and she honestly seemed surprised that anyone would want to tour Cluj. It’s cold and there’s even a little bit of snow. I was very thankful to have gloves. Winter is here.

We had dinner at the Christmas market in the main square. It has lots of lights in a big top shape and a skating rink, a big Christmas tree. There was a live jazz band that was really good singing Rihanna, Esperanza Spalding and Gnarles Barkley. I was very impressed and very happy listening to them while eating. The food is so insanely cheap. It was a total 180 from Geneva. We got a Christmas ham and goulash and Moldovan ribs and potatoes. They do a lot of meat over here. We got all that for around 12 euros. The exchange rate is really good. We had 2 gigantic donuts that would’ve easily cost $5 in the states for just 1 euro. Mine was cookie and cream flavored. The crepes and sweetbread looked really good too. I didn’t know the name of the sweetbread before but they actually do it in the Czech Republic too. It is a roll of bread (like of chimney) sprinkled in sugar. It is really good, and they are huge. One stand closed right in front of us but luckily there was another. They have “susan” flavor, which we learned means sesame. The guy didn’t know how to translate it but he did know Sesame Street, and so he described a children’s show with puppets. And the quintessential Christmas market item is hot wine. Even though everything is cheap, the non-food items are kind of lame. There are no postcards, disappointing souvenirs and the ornaments are kind of lame. An ornament from a Christmas market would otherwise have been a good souvenir.

It’s worth mentioning the parking lot too. There is a bar that blocks the entrance and an electronic sign keeps count of the cars and free spots. Except it didn’t quite work. We could see open spots but the number hadn’t changed yet and so the bar wouldn’t let us into the parking lot. We just waited and waited until it let us in.

The town is full of Christmas decorations. And there are Romanian flags all over Romania. They are on every pole on every block. They look like the French flag in the light. They are very proud of Romania. I’ve honestly never seen so many and such big flags. They are splayed across buildings and in the center of traffic circles. These flags are enormous. I can’t overstate how big they are.

After an early dinner, we drove to Huneadora where we were going to start the next morning. We listened to Christmas music on the radio, which was mostly Western music like what we are used to. There were some Romanian songs, but they were few. At night, the roads were really dark and there are no lights. The trucks get really close to our car. And the highways are mostly not real highways. They are just country roads. We really were in the countryside. And it was a long drive, but it was better than doing it in the morning for time’s sake. It was about a 2.5 hour drive. We drove through a town with a large fortified church but we didn’t stop. I checked afterwards and it is listed as part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as one of several fortified churches in the region. In one of these little towns we saw someone literally carrying all of his belongings in a horse and carriage, like in The Grapes of Wrath. The car got really dirty driving in dirt and snow, but it’s a rental. We didn’t want to touch the handles though, they were kind of gross.

Our hotel was not too bad. We were expecting the worst. I haven’t stayed in a hotel in a while, but we didn’t have too many options in the middle of nowhere. And it was basically the price of a hostel anyhow. It is right next to a church that we wanted to check out. The design looks almost Southern Baptist, but it’s not. It’s definitely Orthodox. The area was really dark and we were about to walk through some trees until we heard a bunch of flapping above our heads. There was a whole bunch of crows in the trees and they were taking flight. It was really scary, like watching The Birds. On the one hand, we didn’t want to get pooped on, but they could also attack us. There were so many of them so close to us moving around. So we didn’t go see the church.

The hotel is pretty old looking, like it came from the Soviet era. The architecture throughout Romania kind of looks like that. Will says it’s a communist thing. Parts of Shanghai look like that too, apparently. The TV certainly came from the Communist era. By the way, the Romanian versions of The Voice is terrible. I didn’t sleep very well. I had a bad dream about this really aggressive pickpocket. And that’s all I remember. We had breakfast in the dining room, which had interesting bold blue painted walls. The chandeliers weren’t crystal, but made of plastic or something. The dining room had this strange feeling to it. It’s not bad, but I guess you could say cool.  They don’t make dining rooms like that in the West. The server stood by the buffet table and lifted the lid for us as we approached so we could get some scrambled eggs. I could very well lift it myself, but he was there to help. I forgot what it was like to be served.

Our first destination was Corvin Castle, which was amazing. There’s not too much going on in the reason. This castle is the only reason you’d stop here. There used to be factories in the old Soviet days, but they have since been abandoned. What remains are shells of factories. We found a large, very intact one that we wanted to check out, but there were some seemingly stray dogs that came out and looked like they wanted to attack us. So we took pictures from the car and didn’t get out. The window was dirty though, so we didn’t really get the shot.  Will pointed out a cute little Lada, an old Soviet era brand that you most certainly never see on the streets of New York.

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But the castle is enormous. And very tall. The level you enter from is already very high up the castle. That means there was a good proper moat. Like a real castle. From our first glimpse we were just awestruck. We spent 20 minutes just outside. And we basically had the whole castle to ourselves for the first half hour. We got there pretty early in the morning and there were no other visitors. The first few rooms are all torture chambers, complete with full size mannequins, just in case you couldn’t figure it out with your imagination. The whole castle is basically a torture chamber. They were really into that in Transylvania.

For us, it was like an authentic Game of Thrones castle. I know they film in Croatia, but they really have to get out to Romania. They could do some incredible CGI and make it look even more badass. There is a room with furnishings that looks like something actually from Game of Thrones with the throne-like dining chairs and long tables and stone walls, tapestries and flags with symbols. It’s a real life Transylvanian castle. There is a deep well where they definitely threw people in to die. There is a pit where they kept live bears to devour people. And then there was the usual less exotic hangings. This castle is legitimately one of the coolest places I’ve ever been. You have to get a little off the beaten path.

The drive back towards Cluj wasn’t particularly exciting. It is mostly empty waste land. We had a quick lunch in Turda before heading to destination number 2: Salina Turda. It is an old salt mine that has since been abandoned and converted into a theme park. I know, right!? This would never exist in the States. It is so dangerous and uniquely Eastern European. It’s really an incredible sight to behold. It is 120 meters underground. You descend down this long hallway and some rickety stairs and then you take a long elevator ride down. The staircases are quite narrow but they go both ways. It is a pain to navigate. All the walls are basically salt. The lowest point has a salt lake, in which we rowboat-ed. There is a therapy center down there, cause I guess the salty air must be a treatment for something. The water makes cool patterns on the walls and ceilings. We’re actually in a mine shaft. They hung cool lights up in the mine and put in a ferris wheel, mini golf, bowling, ping pong, etc. It’s a really cool place. We were surely the only foreigners there. Everyone was Romanian. I’m really glad we found this spot though. We wanted to buy postcards of the place but were having difficulty. I don’t think I was really able to capture the environment in pictures cause it was kind of dark and too expansive to get in a photo. Most of the stands outside the venue didn’t sell postcards, or only sold postcards of the outside, which is nothing. The only good pictures are the ones you see online.

We went back to Cluj for the night and we stayed in a hostel, just because. We started looking on Airbnb and it was about the same price. It was actually pretty nice. Will and I shared a room with two other Romanian guys. We got our own bathroom with hot water and good water pressure. The bathroom things were made of wood and so it had a smell to it that reminded me of Ecuador. Our roommates came in very late and there’d always be a cold breeze when they opened the door. One of them came back earlier and then went back out. He had apparently been doing that the last few nights going out. Cluj is a university town with lots of young people. They have a partnership with the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia (UniMoRe) where Professor Gestri is from. One of them came back in the night and let in a cat into our room, either knowingly or unknowingly. But I was awakened at 7am by a cat licking my face. I freaked out. Will was like, oh it’s just a cat. And the other guy was like, oh it’s the hostel cat, as if that makes a difference! It’s a cat, I don’t care where it came from. There should not be a cat in my room. This was really my first real hostel experience. I stayed in one in Japan, but I think Japanese standards are quite a bit higher than Europe. It was going fine until this stupid cat thing.

We explored the Old Town of Cluj a bit more—it doesn’t really have much. It started to snow, giving us an authentic winter in Transylvania experience. But I think the winter weather was doing a number on my skin. It started to crack and now still hasn’t really healed. We went back to the Christmas market and got crepes. I had a really cheap duck confit to top off a perfect Saturday in a café next to the main square. Our waitress was really nice. She recommended a Romanian red wine. The café had a Brooklyn kind of vibe to it. I think Brooklyn is in here. Because the next morning we had breakfast in a different café that had the same kind of look.

We walked into the big Catholic Church in the main square and it was very plain, unlike the Italian Catholic churches. It wasn’t cross shaped either. The coolest thing was the stained glass windows. But for the most part, the church was empty despite the ongoing mass. On the other hand, the Orthodox church was full. Standing room only. We could hardly fit inside there, and we certainly didn’t belong there when it was already so difficult to get in. They even broadcast the chanting outside. We walked in and walked right out. We hardly made it 5 meters into the church. We got a glimpse of the Byzantine art.

Lastly, we drove to the park to get a panoramic view of the city. From the top of the hill, we could see the soccer stadium and churches. It is the soccer team that Will knew about Cluj. At the top of the hill is also a hotel that has that same communist look. It’s hard to describe but you know it when you see it.

We tried to return the car but the guy from Enterprise wasn’t there on Sunday. You would’ve thought he’d tell us this when we met him the first time. But instead we had to call him to see what’s up and he told us to just leave the key in the box outside the door. I don’t think that’s how car rentals usually work, because he didn’t get to inspect the car. It was a very large deposit too: like $1000. It’s like a high barrier for car rentals in Romania so they only get a specific subset of renters. The airport stuff is expensive, or regular priced but expensive in comparison to the rest of Romania. It’s that export tax. The security was overly complicated for such a small airport. They were using microscopes to inspect liquids. The airport is also way too small. Who would’ve thought the Cluj airport would be too small for the traffic that goes through Cluj? Ever since Wizz Airlines, a Hungarian airline, started flying to Cluj, it has greatly expanded the number of flights daily. It’s a healthy discount airline. And when I say discount, they have some really cheap tickets. It’s bringing a lot of business to Cluj, I’m sure. But the airport hasn’t expanded. It’s only 3 gates. It was not built to accommodate more than that. So the airport was packed. It had a considerable amount of seating and we couldn’t find a seat.

We got back to Bologna pretty early on Sunday, so I picked up my computer once I got home and went straight to school to study. After a really cool weekend, it was time to go back to the books.

Check out my album: https://goo.gl/photos/vT2YTWE96ZTFZmZq6

(Will definitely has better pictures and pictures of me from his camera)

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