16 Mar,2017 By Jagabond
Transylvania is a famous region in Romania. I visited the country years back for a business trip in Bucharest. People told me I probably wouldn’t like it, citing its gritty look and chaotic atmosphere, and maybe because of these low expectations I ended up really enjoying myself. I always said I’d go back, but to a much smaller city as capitals aren’t always the best way to experience the character of a place.
So years later, I booked a trip to Cluj-Napoca, the largest city in the Transylvania region. No, I did not spend ridiculous amounts of money to visit the tourist trap castle that Dracula was supposedly from. Locals blame the legend on a made up story by Bram Stoker, someone who barely set foot in the region. For those of us not vampire-obsessed, I offer the following other things to do in Transylvania that don’t involve bloodsucking.
1. Tour a non-macabre cemetery
Walking alone in a Transylvanian cemetery…what could go wrong? Yes I visited a cemetery while on holiday, and before you call me morbid you must know the perception of death in the Transylvania region is different. Cemeteries invoke sad, somber imagery in the United States, but here they are open walking areas where you celebrate life.
It’s not uncommon to see locals taking an afternoon stroll through Hajonhard Cemetery, one of the most picturesque sights in Cluj-Napoca. The innumerable graves cascade up and down the sloping landscape, and those buried here date back to the 16th century. Most of the grave sites had a religious tone to them, and loved ones primarily left red candles and pine branch wreaths in remembrance.
The cemetery listed the locations of famous Romanians buried there, broken out by occupation. The categories were scientists, doctors, actors, musicians, painters, sculptors, politicians, sportsmen, and creators (e.g. architects/engineers). That seems to cover everything, though teachers might have a legitimate complaint for a category of their own.
2. Take in an opera
I’m a fan of opera, maybe because it takes you into a different world…or maybe because it makes me feel classy like I’m in a James Bond movie. I witnessed outstanding shows in Vienna, Budapest and Munich. How would Transylvania arts and culture compare? I arrived early, took my seat, and then lights, camera…power outage?
Dracula or not, is darkness in Transylvania ever a good thing? Smart phones quickly lit the room. The show began an hour later after the main power supply kicked back on. ‘The Puritans’ detailed a unique love story centered around the English civil war. The opera house itself was pretty to look at, both inside and out.
3. Do some hiking in Turda Gorge
I must need more proof that I’m not the best hiker, because I keep trying it. The town of Turda is approximately 40 kilometers from Cluj-Napoca. This was an industrial center of Transylvania, first for salt then cement during the Romanian dictatorship. A cement factory? How perfectly boring and communist! The pollution from the factory was so bad, people couldn’t hang their clothes outside to dry.
The Turda Gorge gained international recognition for its hiking, rock-climbing, and diversity of plant/animal life. If it looks like a mountain split in two, that’s because it is. The gorge formed when a Hungarian king fleeing battle prayed to God for an escape route…well, that’s the legend. In reality, the River Hasdate eroded and cut into the mountain over time. There are some amazing overhead views as you hike through.
A total of four strategically placed bridges allow you to traverse the river and continue through the gorge. I had the pleasure of encountering the worst bridge ever, and confirmed to myself that the Romanian government has yet to prioritize safety and infrastructure. It reminded me of the bridge in ‘Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom’, a great scene but one I didn’t plan on living out!
4. Tour a salt mine
Turda became well known for salt mining before sea salt became cheaper and the industry collapsed in the 1930s. The ‘Salina Turda’ is now a major tourist attraction in the region, and also a medical treatment center. Locals consider the air within the mine therapeutic, and Romanian doctors actually write prescriptions for patients to visit there. My favorite thing here was admiring the massive salt stalactites hanging from above.
The lowest level of the mine was intriguing, as they had bowling and miniature golf set up for the children, and an underground salt-lake that was built up to be a hangout spot for visitors. Here you could bring some friends, or a book, breathe in the salty air, and they even had boat rides available around the lake. There was an odd futuristic theme here, as the structures looked like something from an alien planet on a Star Trek episode.
I’ve visited two salt mines, and both had salt-carved chapels. The one in Krakow is mammoth, whereas Salina Turda has a much smaller one. A former miner saw the Virgin Mary early one morning appear at one of the walls, and him and his co-workers decided to carve a chapel in her honor.
A neat piece of trivia about this mine? The director, Christopher Nolan, visited here years back as it was considered for use as the Bat-cave in his Batman films.
5. Take a city stroll in Cluj-Napoca
The largest city in Transylvania is also a booming university town. The school, Babes University, is not the title of an adult film; it’s pronounced BA-besh and is one of the top institutes of higher learning in Romania. It was sometimes difficult to find anyone walking the streets older than thirty!
There are some interesting statues scattered about town. My favorite was situated next to St. Michael’s Cathedral, a grand Gothic beauty. King Mathias was born here, and later had a successful career as the king of Hungary and Croatia. On a side note, I love it when I accidentally capture birds in a photo.
There was another statue tucked away at the corner of a main street honoring a famous 16th century military general.
Finally, there was a curious one depicting human twins suckling a she-wolf. This is a replica of an Italian sculpture called ‘The Capitoline Wolf’, and symbolizes the Latin origin of the city’s inhabitants.
Take a walk in central park, and find further evidence that 1) Pigeons are the most ubiquitous bird in the world and 2) There will always be elderly people on a park bench to feed them.
6. Celebrate the Cold War
Why not have a Bloody Mary in Transylvania? Jaxx American Restaurant has an interesting one, with a great mix and two unique ingredients – rosemary and a dried fig.
Walk a few minutes from there to get your dose of communism at ‘The Soviet‘. Comically inspired by the USSR, the drink list includes such novelties as ‘The Stalingrad’ and ‘Bolshevik Island’. The artwork on the walls definitely fits the theme.
7. Enjoy a fatter wallet
I recently listed the Romanian capital Bucharest as one of the cheapest destinations in Europe…Cluj-Napoca might be even cheaper. The rundown: 90-minute massage with 20-minute facial, 40 Euros; three-course dinner with bottle of wine, 15 Euros; Opera ticket, 10 Euros. With these prices one doesn’t have to feel guilty eating out so much, or ordering the higher shelf liquor.
8. Meet some locals
Meeting the locals is typically easier said than done, even for an extrovert. Luckily, Romanians are very friendly people who don’t shy away from meeting outsiders. I’ve listed some major highlights of my encounters below.
Person #1 – I met a Romanian doctor (now living in the U.S.) who was sitting next to me on the flight over. He was older than me, but still had a wanderer’s soul. Early on in life he traveled, somewhat spontaneously, before settling down with a career and family. We talked about how one can move into the family world while still keeping one foot in the realm of travel. I thought his story offered great advice, and when I finally slow down and accept other priorities into my life, I will remember our airplane chat.
Person #2 – While enjoying some pub food I struck up a conversation with a very extroverted woman. She spoke English very well and talked a lot, which was okay because she was interesting and intelligent. After giving me a detailed history of the Transylvania region, she started talking about video games. It turns out she is an ‘event planner’ for video game competitions. I never knew this job existed before, so I was captivated by her dramatic accounts of these gaming tournaments.
Person #3 – My tour guide for Turda was an expert on Romanian politics, and told some gripping stories. Anyone scared of the United States becoming a dictatorship should talk to people who really experienced this, then the notion might not get thrown around so loosely. Ceausescu the crazy leader was an egomaniac with no soul. Secret police would separate families in the dead of night, rural dwellers had their land stripped and were forced into labor in urban factories, and Ceausescu literally had the history books rewritten to fit his world view.
How to get there: Lufthansa has daily flights from Munich, and there are budget air opportunities from Rome. Driving from Bucharest isn’t the best option, as drivers in Romania tend to be a bit…insane.
Where to stay: Not where I stayed, at the Hotel Opera Plaza. This was a 3-star hotel masquerading as a 5-star. It wasn’t bad, just not great and not worth the price. It also is situated across the street from an eyesore military base covered in barbed wire. I recommend finding a place closer to the old town, using St. Michael’s Cathedral as a landmark – the closer to there the better.
Where to close out the night: To finish up the evening, consider O’Peter’s Irish Pub. I’ve been all over Europe, and outside of Ireland, this is one of the best Irish pubs I’ve been to. Romania is the land of friendly people, but the staff here takes it to an extra level and are super cool. There is a massive list of drink options, and I ate here twice and left with a happy stomach. The jukebox consistently blares classics from The Pogues, and I guarantee you will meet some interesting locals here.