May 31 – June 28, 2019 (Summer)
Currency: Leu (lei)
Visa: 90 days in 180
Cost of living: Low
Romania is becoming something of a default choice for us. Low cost of living, good quality of life, easy to get to and around, and (as of 2019) still outside the Schengen Area. Cluj-Napoca is arguably its most international city outside the capital of Bucharest, and the high concentration of universities (and good employment opportunities) makes it one of the most educated and wealthiest hubs in the country. Prices are high by Romanian standards, but still lower than almost anywhere else in Europe.
We took a big gamble staying so far south for summer, given our aversion to high temperatures. Our only hope was an unseasonably cool June. That wish kinda sorta came true – temperatures only occasionally crested 30°C, and impressive thunderstorms (cool and cooling!) were a near-daily occurrence. But we had it much better than the poor souls sweltering through waves of 40+ days in Paris and other parts of Western Europe. In the end we counted ourselves lucky. Anyway Cluj was more than charming and welcoming in its own right, quickly matching Timișoara↗ as our favorite stay in Romania.
Where we stayed
The city of Cluj-Napoca is long and narrow, spreading to fill the Someșul Mic river valley. That means most of it is either far from the Old Town core, or a significant trek uphill from it. We opted for far. But with a tram stop right in front of our Airbnb↗, we had no trouble getting where we needed to go. Well, that and walking.
Though it didn’t come with air conditioning, our fourth floor perch brought a bit of cooling breeze. It lacked window screens though, save in the kitchen, and with plenty of bugs to contend with we had to be judicious about taking advantage of it. Mosquitoes were present but not carnal. The bigger concern was leaving the windows open too late into the evening and ending up with a swarm of swamp bugs around any light source in the house. We also had two decks for a little more air. Unfurnished, but still nice for toasting a glass of wine and watching the sky turn twilight.
Unlike the last couple of months, this kitchen was large with actual, real, live counter space. The major downer was that the oven turned out to be decorative rather than functional. One of the neighbors came by to clean once a week, a lovely perk.
Cluj is a college town – the park across from us was actually university sports fields. Several of Romania’s top-rated colleges are here, and our stay overlapped with multiple graduations. Robed students surrounded by well-dressed families were a common sight. Likewise the bar and cafe scene is pretty robust. Luckily our neighborhood was more residential than raucous, with mostly apartments and a scattering of small shops and restaurants. The nearest large grocery was Kaufland, which our host recommended as the cheapest spot to stock up.
What we did
Cluj-Napoca, as is common in Romania, is a city of parks. Central Park is just west of the Old Town along the river. In summer, festivals pop up here nearly every weekend, from the Beer Crafters Fest to the World Experience Music Festival to the Sports Fest. On ordinary days it still manages to gather crowds in the unique dedicated hammock zone. Some parts of the Someșul Mic have popular walking trails along the banks. A stretch near our us hosted ‘Produs de Cluj’, a festival/farmer’s market and celebration of Transylvanian goods. The grandest park in town is Alexandru Borza Botanical Garden. It isn’t free, but the admission fee (10 lei/person, about $2.37) supports a beautiful complex. Central Cemetery isn’t quite as shady and green but is even larger and charges no admission.
The Old Town boasts a few other attractions. There are plenty of churches, Orthodox and otherwise. A small section of the city wall survives, largely ignored on a side street. And as in Sarajevo↗, climbing the hills behind it is a good way to get an impressive view of it all.
Quite a few museums also dot the town. The Art Museum is small and broken into two sections, one older and the other more modern. The Transylvanian History Museum was worth a quick stop, especially for old images of the city and a couple of great dresses. The Zoological Museum is tucked away on a university campus. Ring the doorbell to get in. It seems a little stand-offish from the outside, but the attendant was more than kind and gracious to us inside. It is very much a taxidermy menagerie in the classical style similar to the national museums in Dublin↗, with creaky wooden floors, display cases full of specimens, formaldehyde-jarred sea creatures, and stuffed critters of varying levels of realism and accuracy. One floor below is the Vivarium, home to a handful of (slightly) more active reptiles and birds. The Ethnographic Museum also comes in two parts – a regular museum downtown and an Ethnographic Park at the edge of Hoia Forest. It was the first of its kind in Romania and inspired similar parks in Timișoara, Bucharest↗, and elsewhere. The open-air collection of real architecture and in situ art and furniture was our favorite way to experience a bunch of the country’s personality and history at once.
The biggest event of our stay was TIFF, the Transylvania International Film Festival. For a little over a week, all the city’s cinemas – and many exhibit halls and public spaces – are given over to screenings and celebrations of the art of film. Most showings cost just a few dollars to attend (some public ones are even free) and tickets are easy to come by. We stopped by a local theater to see Baikonur, mostly because space. It… wasn’t really about space. But the strange and off-color premise – Kazakh peasant kidnaps crashed amnesiac astronaut and convinces her she’s his fiance – was funny and human and kept us entertained and out of the heat for a couple of hours.
Thirty minutes south of Cluj is one of Romania’s premier tourist attractions: Salina Turda, an ancient salt mine-turned-amusement park. From above ground, it’s inconspicuous; just a few snack shacks and souvenir stands crowding a parking lot. The silvery dome off to the side is actually the entrance. We were glad to get inside (air-conditioning!). But as we set off down the stairs and ever-lower tunnel, the air temps sank along with us. We stopped and put on our zip-on pant legs and coats to stay comfortable.
The first thing we noticed were the gorgeous zebra-stripe swirls that characterize every surface. We ventured deeper. The surface level is mostly given over to artifacts of the mining operation. The highlight is room with a pair of shafts that make one of the world’s best echo chambers. Another level down, hundreds of feet below the surface, we rounded a corner to find ourselves suddenly hanging more than a hundred feet in the air. Our legs suddenly a lot less sure of themselves. We made for the stairs to descend to our new floor. Halfway across the walkway it dawned on us that the boardwalk we were on was just pegged into the wall. Gaps in the floor showed only air under our feet.
Thirteen flights of stairs down to the floor were narrow and slippery from the damp and salt. Nerve-racking is a good description. On the ground level of this mine are ping pong and pool tables, a (toddler-sized) bowling alley, and a pretty large Ferris wheel. One last elevator trip even further down and we were finally at the bottom. Water fills the lowest echelons and rings a small island of salt and debris. We rented a boat and paddled about the lake, admiring the whirling black and white layers in the walls and myriad stalactites overhead. All while trying to forget just how far we were underground.
Food & Drink
It isn’t always easy to find ingredients for our favorite staples in Romania, so the best option is to simply lean in to the local flavor. Mici, little skinless sausages akin to cevapi in Bosnia, are an obvious choice. Typically a blend of pork and beef, we found some tasty variants with lamb or other meats mixed in. They’re made to be grilled but we found they also hold up okay in pasta sauce or whatever. Transylvania also has a huge Hungarian influence. We took the hint and made several tasty helpings of goulash. This straightforward stew is loaded up with cubed pork or beef and root vegetables (plus a whole heck of a lot of paprika).
The single best food item of the stay was a cheese, garlic, and sour cream langos we ate at Salina Turda. The fried dough was light and delicious, even on a hot day. Gogosi, basically deep-fried donut holes topped with sugar or Nutella, are another seriously tasty snack option.
Our groceries usually came from Kaufland, Cora, and Mega Image. Lidl has a presence in Cluj, but they were too far to reach frequently. Shame, because they were the best place to find cheap duck. We noticed that Mega Image carried the same wonderful frozen veggies that we found in France, but at more than twice the price.
Spicy food – other than that flavored with paprika – was hard to come by. So as was any sort of hot sauce we could use to patch the deficit. Even the chips were bland. And zacusca, the local mashed vegetable condiment, doesn’t hold a candle to Croatia’s ajvar. Thankfully the wafer cookies are quite good, especially the chocolate-covered ones layered with coconut cream. Moritz Eis, across from Piata Unirii, might have the best ice cream in town, though groceries and minimarts were stocked up for summer. Baklava from the Beer Crafters Festival proved another choice dessert. Plus it came in a dozen different iterations. Nobori sushi made for a nice anniversary dinner.
The big brands in Romanian beer were a bit of a disappointment, as usual. They often come in 1- or 2-liter jugs in a misguided attempt to make up for quality with quantity. However, smaller breweries are taking hold. Hop Heads is local to Cluj. They have quite a few styles to choose from and had some good stuff. We barged in while they were bottling up a batch, but they were still kind enough to sell us a variety pack so we didn’t waste the trip. We also popped into Beer’s Point to gather a craft cross-section from other breweries. Hop Hooligans’ Slice of Pie has flavors of cinnamon and peach and took the
cake pie as the perfect drink for a steamy summer afternoon.
As we’ve mentioned in previous posts, Romanian wine tends toward sweet. We combat this by specifically seeking out ones labeled ‘sec.’ The most interesting wine we had was a ‘Freedom Blend‘ of Romanian, Ukrainian, and Georgian↗ grape varieties. The best local wine we had was fetească neagră from Caloian. But even cheap bottles from the local produce market were acceptable and generally high-quality.
We flew in to Cluj. Getting from the airport to downtown is easy – head out of the terminal and work your way to the street in front of the building, then go a little bit right and there’s the bus stop. A ticket machine takes both cash and credit cards. Bus and tram drivers do not sell tickets on board. A two-ride ticket costs 5 lei (~$1.20), and needs to be validated when entering the bus or tram. We transferred to a tram stop, but made the rookie mistake of putting too much stock into Google Maps (not for the first time). Believing we needed the 101 tram, we let three 102s pass us by before realizing it was basically the same route. Ah well.
Our day trip to Turda was easily accomplished by minibus. Buses for Turda pick up along Piata Mihai Viteazu near Ion Popescue Voitesti and the river. A one-way ticket costs 8 lei and can be bought from the driver. Buses are scheduled every 15 minutes through most of the day and the trip takes just over half an hour. From there we walked to the salt mines, but would have been better served by taking a local city bus (and did on our return that afternoon). Cluj has plenty of other bus and train connections throughout Romania and Europe. These can be hard to locate online, but asking at the tourist office or using autogari.ro↗ for buses or CFR↗ for trains is a good bet to find schedules. The folks at the tourist information center were also a great help getting us headed in the right direction.
Uber↗ is available in Cluj; transit was easy and frequent so we never needed it.
Stuff of interest
This month’s SIMs↗ were holdovers from our short stay in England. We used EE in the UK and they worked just fine in Romania as well, with an adequate allotment of data and talk. Once those were used up – just a few days before the end of our stay – we switched to Vodafone for the rest of our time in Romania. For less than $7 we got a SIM loaded with talk and text and a frankly ridiculous amount of data. Our iPhone did not register to network quite right (calls worked, but not data). Thankfully a quick reset at the store got it going.
This corner of Romania traditionally had large Hungarian and Austro-Hungarian influences. In some cases there are still two state institutions, like operas and theatres, one for Romanian speakers and the other in Hungarian.
What we learned
This was the first time we’ve gone to a doctor and walked out without being charged a thing. It was mind-blowing. We’re tired of the excuses back home. If Romania (GDP per capita: $12,482) can afford universal healthcare, the United States of America (GDP per capita: $65,111) can too. It’s time.