My long, difficult day of travel from Breb, Romania to Cluj-Napoca began when I hitched a ride with two Romanian-Americans who were making their annual visit to family. They dropped me at the train station in Baia-Mare, where I hoped to score a ticket with my first class Eurail Global Pass. With the exception of scattered chunks of plaster that had fallen off the walls, the circular waiting room was completely empty. I stepped up to the sole clerk standing behind an iron barred window and asked for a ticket to Cluj. My only option was a 3:30 p.m. train that would arrive at 8:30, a five hour ride for a drive that could be made in about 2.5 hours. The clerk muttered “autogare” (bus station) and pointed back the way I had come. I was learning what every Romanian has known for decades: in this part of the world, buses are often a much better option than the inconveniently scheduled trains.
With bus ticket finally in hand, I lugged my suitcase out to the bays to find my coach. Neither the bays nor my ticket were numbered and I saw no bus marquee with my destination, so I began querying everyone in sight by saying “Cluj-Napoca?” Finally, a young woman named Mikhaila, who spoke perfect English, came to my rescue. Since her elderly mother was taking the same bus, she showed me the correct bay and promised to stay around until we were both safely aboard. Curious, her mother asked my age. Mikhaila translated my answer: 61. Her mother’s eyes crinkled at the corners as she beamed and grabbed my hand. Her seat was directly in front of me and we spent the next couple of hours communicating with giggles and sign language. Too soon, she signaled that her stop was coming up. She gathered her things and took a few steps two toward the front of the bus, then turned and walked back to my seat. Leaning down, she planted kisses on both my cheeks and give my hand one last squeeze. She was still waving and blowing kisses as we pulled away.
An hour later the bus pulled up in front of the Cluj train station and I hopped out into 90 degree heat and worse humidity. I was exhausted but still had a mile to walk. Bedraggled and soaked in perspiration, I finally located my hostel, checked in, struggled up two flights of stairs with my luggage, and collapsed on the bed. And that’s where I probably would have stayed until morning…if I hadn’t been so hungry.
Groaning, I forced myself to shower, change clothes, and go in search of food. I didn’t have to look very far. Three blocks away, just beyond Unirii Square, with its burbling fountains and stately Saint Michael’s Cathedral, I found Boulevard Erolior (Heroes Boulevard), a quasi-pedestrian mall lined with shops and restaurants. The signboard touting gourmet coffee at Olivo Cafe caught my eye and I settled into an overstuffed leather banquette just inside the front door, where I could people-watch as I ate dinner.
Sidewalk tables filled up as people met for drinks after work. Couples strolled by arm in arm and families pushed baby strollers down the wide Promenade. Everyone seemed relaxed and happy. After a rest and a delicious meal, rather than return to my hostel I decided to explore. Boulevard Erolior led me to Avram Iancu Square, anchored on one end by the Neo-baroque Romanian National Opera and on the other by Dormition of the Theotokos Cathedral, a Romanian Orthodox church with a main dome inspired by the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul and four side towers designed in Romanian Renaissance style.
The square was full of people listening raptly to the deep, rich call and response between cantor and congregation emanating from the church. Serendipitously, I had arrived on August 14th, the eve of The Assumption, which celebrates the body of the Virgin Mary being taken up to Heaven at the end of her earthly life. Known in Orthodoxy as the Dormition of the Theotokos (the falling asleep of the Mother of God), this service is one of the highest holy days in this cathedral of the same name. Tentatively, I wriggled through the crowd in the darkened nave and leaned against the back wall, trying to be as unobtrusive as possible. Somberly dressed men stood on the right-hand side of the nave, while women stood on the left. Before me, a sea of tiny flickering candles, cupped reverently in the hands of worshipers, illuminated careworn faces wreathed in head scarves. One-by-one, parishioners solemnly made their way to the front of the nave to kiss the holy icons. The energy was so palpable that the hair on the back of my neck stood up. I slipped quietly away before the end of the service, surprised to have witnessed such an intense exhibit of devotion.
But it was not the last surprise that was in store for me. To my delight, I learned that Cluj-Napoca, commonly referred to by the locals as Cluj, is a university town, which explained the city’s strong cafe culture. One morning I whiled away a couple of hours at a coffee shop on Unirii Square in the heart of the city; on another afternoon I discovered Insomnia Cafe, the oldest pub in town, where none of the furniture matched and everything was painted in riotous colors.
My most delicious meal during my four-day stay was at Ursus Restaurant and Micro-Brewery, located in a restored beer factory on Museum Square, the city’s oldest and most historic square. Homemade brown bread, baked polenta with cheese, and a thick cream of broccoli soup with heavy cream drizzled on top set me back $8. In fact, I never had a bad meal during my four days in Cluj, and no meal cost more than $10.
Cluj offered more than just good food and drink. This second largest city in Romania is home to the a botanical garden that features a Japanese garden and a Roman garden built around archeological remains from the Roman colony of Napoca. I spent a pleasant afternoon walking along the Somes River and Simion Barnutiu Central Park, where local Roma boys posed for my camera. The city is surrounded by forests and the Turda Gorges, located to the southeast, are absolutely stunning. Castles like the Bontida Bánffy Castle, sometimes referred to as “the Versailles of Transylvania,” dot the surrounding countryside.
Museum aficionados will find no less than ten institutions to explore, including the Cluj-Napoca Art Museum, housed in the former Baroque-style palace of the count György Bánffy; the National Museum of Transylvanian History; the Ethnographic Museum; the Pharmacy Museum; the Water Museum; museums of Babes-Bolyai University; the Mineralogy Museum; the Museum of Paleontology and Stratigraphy; the Museum of Speleology; and the Zoological Museum. From hot springs to ski resorts, this little-known area of Romania appears to have it all.
After four days I’d sampled most of what Cluj had to offer, but I couldn’t leave town without a second visit to the Orthodox Cathedral. With so many people attending the Assumption service, I’d seen very little of the interior and I suspected it was magnificent. I was not disappointed. Every square inch of the walls and ceiling are painted with portraits of saints and religious scenes, and the screens that separate the sanctuary from the nave hold scores of gold-framed icons, surrounded by gold filigree embellishments. Shrines on either side of the nave glitter from floor-to-ceiling murals composed of millions of glass mosaic tiles. Brass lined enclaves glow golden with the flames from hundreds of small candles lit in remembrance of loved ones. Above it all hangs an enormous chandelier, so heavy that it has to be braced by an iron framework; even the carpet is a piece of art.
On my final evening in Cluj, I sat down with Raluca (Ralu) Ciobanu, a young woman who recently opened a travel agency in the city. The day before I arrived she’d discovered my Facebook Page and read that I was bound for Cluj. She shot me an excited email, offering to meet up and I was delighted to spend time with a someone who was an expert on the local culture. Over refreshments at the newly opened Boema Pub, I asked why Cluj is not a more popular tourist destination. On average the city receives only 700,000 tourists each year, many of whom stay only one day. She explained that most Romanians earn so little that they cannot travel extensively, and most international travelers are more focused on the well known destinations such as Budapest in Hungary or cities in Romania such as Brasov, which has capitalized on the legend of Dracula, despite the fact that Cluj-Napoca was the historical capital of Transylvania.
As a new business, to date Ralu has been forced to concentrate on offering tours that are more in demand, but I believe she was infected by my enthusiasm. Her final comment before parting was that she was going to put together and market tours for Cluj-Napoca. I wish her great success, because frankly, Cluj was my favorite destination in all of Romania. It’s a gem in the heart of Transylvania, just waiting to be discovered.