Bit of background. When we told friends that we were going to Cluj Napoca, most of them said ‘Where???’. Less than two months ago, I admit, we had not heard about Cluj Napoca, or in endearing short just Cluj. So, what brought the city to our radar?
We have been discovering Eastern Europe, one thing leading to another. First it was a day trip to Tallinn from Helsinki, then Riga over Christmas. It was while flying to Riga from London Luton courtesy Wizz Air that I heard several cities being called out which I had never heard about. So back from Riga in early January 2022, a short search of where else Wizz Air flies to for cheap, trying to cover 3 days of annual leave in March (still unplanned) threw up Cluj Napoca, a return for £17.99. Okay, this would include only a 6 kg backpack but for 3 to 4 nights, that is entirely manageable.
A bit more of digging and Cluj appeared on our google searches as a pretty city with dignified buildings, majestic statues, food, and history. A bit more of research and we were suddenly struggling to fit in everything doable from Cluj in 3 days. So, what was initially planned as a relaxing city break for cheap, turned out to be our usual hectic, rushing around, trying to see as much as we can travelling. But absolutely no regrets on that. This is just a taste of Transylvania, a starter course.
We ultimately did two nights at Cluj and one night at Sibiu. Then returned to Cluj to stay in a hotel near the airport before we took an early flight back.
So here are the basics:
Flights: Wizz Air with no extras from Luton to Cluj and back.
COVID: In March, no tests PCR or Lateral flows needed in Cluj or UK. Passenger locator forms on both sides. Masks in airport and on the flight. No checks on entering property or restaurants in Cluj/Sibiu on vaccinations (this was strict in Riga in December 2021)
· Casa Aria in Cluj Napoca, Strada Paul Chinezu, nr 8.
· Hotel Marabella in Sibiu, Strada Tragul Pestelui nr 13, Sibiu Old Town.
Happy with both choices. In most of our travels recently I have tried to book as close to centre and sights as possible. It works out well if you are not driving around, since you do not need to worry about parking.
Absolutely painless. We got registered taxis from the queues which ran on metre, were safe and organised. We used Bolt on the last day simply because it was very early morning, and we were not near a place with a taxi queue.
Connections and availability were not great. However, for the routes we were booked on, they were cheap, and we got our tickets online. Very effective booking system. The trains are not luxurious, but they were comfortable and the scenery beautiful. For a short period of time renting a car and driving around is possibly more effective, but we wanted a break off driving and using public transport is something we find makes us feel more connected to the people and landscape.
Local bus from Hunedoara to Deva was frequent and cheap. We had read mixed reviews on Fany but the bus we got from Sibiu back to Cluj was comfortable and quick. Perhaps something for this bus- it was steaming hot! I get it that it was quite cold outside but inside we were cooking.
Absolutely surpassed expectations. Grilled spicy sausages, cheese stuffed flatbreads, goulash, papanasi, vargabeles, sarmale served with sour cream and polenta, malai cake. Food is very reasonably priced. We also punctuated our long walks with flavoured coffee and cake to accompany.
Some of the places worth mentioning from our travels are:
· Rhedey Café. Right on Piata Unirii
Reminded by our receipt, our orders were:
Ø Ciorba ardeleneasca
Ø Tocana de vita cu galuste
Ø Hot apple ginger
We began our trip here, so as to speak of, with a late lunch, just after we had checked in and walked to Piata Unirii. So, it was a great introduction. The portions were large, so much so, that we skipped a full dinner and simply shared a pizza.
· Sarmalerarie SRL, Str, Cotita Nr.1 Cluj Napoca
Bulz and sarmae vegetariene for lunch at this tiny place. Takeaways are popular. We were the only ones sitting at the single table and bench.
· Roata, Strada Alexandru Ciurea 6, Cluj-Napoca 400000, Romania
Dinner on our second night in Cluj. Possibly our best dinner. Mince rolls, goulash soup, spiced sausages and to end- papanasi.
· La Cuptor, 9 Mai 7, Sibiu 550201, Romania.
This was our only dinner in Sibiu and a memorable one. The dessert was an elaborate one with ice-cream served in a thin acorn shaped chocolate hollow surrounded by a myriad of flavours.
· Zama, Strada Napoca Nr.16, Cluj-Napoca 400009, Romania
Last dinner in Romania for this trip. A hearty meal of meat and roast potatoes and vegetables. And more goulash!
There are also lots of hearty and flavoured soups, breads, and cheeses. Romanian cuisine is not spicy on an Indian tongue, but it is still full of flavour, colourful and varied.
And finally, the sights: An outline of the itinerary:
o Early morning flight. Reached Cluj around 1 pm. Quick immigration. Bus number 5 to the city. Tickets can be a bit confusing.
o Found hotel with google maps.
o Lunch at Rodhey Café.
o Boulevard of Heroes. No free tour at 6 PM on Unirii square as expected which was disappointing.
o Walked up to churches on own.
o Pizza for dinner.
I honestly cannot envisage getting around without google maps. How did we even manage in the past? We got our bus from the airport into old town of Cluj Napoca, found our hotel (Casa Aria) and made our way to Piata Unirii to find Rodhey Café. With goulash stew, soup and vargabeles cake, washed down with hot apple ginger beverage, we were ready to explore.
We aimed to take the free walking tour at 6 pm from Unirii square but we still had an hour to kill. We walked down the Heroes’ boulevard, taking in the ornate buildings, reaching Avram Iancu square on the other end. So on one end Piata Unirii has the Gothic St Michael’s church and the imposing statue of Matia Corvin, and on the other the Piata Avram Inacu with the orthodox church and a statue of Avram Iancu. Across the road from Piata Avram Iancu is the National Theatre.
We returned to Unirii for the tour, but no one turned up until 6:20 pm. I met a Ukrainian woman who was on her way to Poland, passing through Cluj. Her mother-in-law and son were at a hotel while she had ventured out to discover a beautiful city, she had never heard about before. We spoke for a few minutes. Fighting tears, she told me that they hoped to return home one day, but in the meantime, there was no harm in discovering the beautiful world we live in. She had come for the free tour as well, hoping to immerse herself in history and culture to take her mind off what was going on in Kyiv. We hugged as we left.
The free tour was not happening, so we continued to explore on our own.
We walked to Cluj Parcul Central, with its tranquil lake and benches, flanked by the brilliant white semi-circular Cluj Casino on one side and the Chios Social Lounge restaurant on the other side. We caught a distant glimpse of the Cluj Arena.
Finally, back to the old town centre, we decided a pizza and fries would do for dinner. It was time to turn in.
o Walked around Cluj
o Still no free tour
o Museum of art, Banffy palace
o Sunset from Citatuia hill
There is no dearth of bakeries to find a tasty breakfast in Cluj. Oh, and we passed by the Matthias Corvinus house, frequently as we left Casa Aria or returned. It was just around the corner.
We tried the free walking tour at 11 am but there was still no guide at Unirii square. We got to the tourist information centre who told us that the tour had to be pre-booked at least 24 hours in advance. So, we were on our own with a city map and guide-book.
We decided to spend some time in the Museum of Art housed in the 18th Century Banffy Palace. We then decided to spend the rest of the day simply walking around the city following our map.
We walked up the Franciscan monastery on Str Emile Zola and the obelisk Carolina opposite it. (We did enter the monastery later that evening when it was open). These were around another small piata- the museum square. The museum of natural history is nearby. The area is also concentrated with beautiful university buildings. Curving in a wide arc towards the right, we found the statue of Mihal Viteazu and the old city walls and Turnul pompierilor. In fact, I will admit, we saw so many beautiful buildings, I have lost count and total account of everything our cameras have captured. Cliché as it sounds, the meandering labyrinth of the old town (like any other European city), is a place to get lost in, to breath in the decorated arches of multi-coloured buildings, the shining copper of church spires, the line of shops selling heavy gold jewelry.
We turned back towards Casa Aria for a short rest in the late afternoon after lunch at Sarmalerarie SRL, Str, Cotita Nr.1 Cluj Napoca. Then we made our way up the Citatuia hill for panoramic views over Cluj. It brought it all together, the churches, piatas, ornate buildings, all spread before us like the map we had been following.
A late evening coffee at Bistro and we decided to pack and rest before dinner at Roata. The papanasi is one thing I intend to try again when we return to Romania. One time at Roata, was just not enough.
o Early train to Simeria
o Local man got us taxi for 60 leu to Hunedoara
o Corvin Castle (better on outside than inside)
o Found the bus stand
o Bus to Deva
o Then up the fortress
o Train to Sibiu
o Reached Sibiu late and dinner
We checked out early and were at the railway station in time for our 7:40 train to Simeria. The scenery changes hour to hour. First it was low rolling hills with farmsteads and woodlands, then hills get higher until we were passing by townships with a distant background of snow-capped mountains.
4 hours later at Simeria, we looked for transport to Corvin Castle. A bus was waiting but the driver told us that it was bound for Deva. However, he very kindly came with us and negotiated a taxi for 60 leu. The trip to Corvin Castle takes around 30 minutes.
The castle is more impressive on the outside than inside. The views from the balconies can be dramatic as well but the rooms are bare, many of them under renovation currently.
After around 2 hours in the castle, we found our way to the bus station in Hunedoara, (near its old railway station). En-route we also found a tiny tourist information centre where a young woman gave us a map of the area. The town itself is very stark. At the bus station, we found a local bus to Deva.
At Deva, we stopped for coffee and cakes in the only shop near the bus station that we could find open. Trying to time our return to Simeria (we had a 6 pm train to Sibiu), we realised that the IR75 passed through Deva. So instead of taking a taxi/bus to Simeria, we simply needed to extend our train journey and buy a ticket for the Deva to Simeria section.
The lady at the ticket counter, spoke little English (like most people) and trying to explain to her that we wanted a ticket on the IR75 to Simeria at a particular time, was tricky. At the end, a combination of hand gestures, our existing tickets and some English, worked. She got us perfect tickets, even ensuring that the same seats had been booked.
We still had time and managed to walk all the way up to Deva Fortress and back with more views from the top. Like a lot of monuments, Deva Fortress was also undergoing renovations and the funicular was not working. However, very satisfied with our walk, we made our way to the railway station, just in time. Then we realised that the train was late. All announcements were in Romanian, but a co passenger we had spoken to, to make sure we were on the right platform, kept coming up to us to give us updates. Without him, we would have been quite in the dark, not knowing what was happening. The station is currently being renovated. There are no signboards and the announcements as I said, were all in Romanian.
We ultimately reached Sibiu after 9:15 pm, walked to La Cuptor for dinner and reached Hotel Marabella after one more very long day.
o Sibiu old town
o Climb up council tower for views
o Strolling through the 3 squares of the town
o Walk to Muzeul Astra- open air museum
o Bus back to Sibiu centre, light lunch. Had sweet and savoury from stall near the main square
o Got a bus Fany around 16:00 to Cluj
o Another great dinner but very busy place, Zama
o Taxi, very efficient and easy from Unirii square to an apartment near airport
After breakfast at the hotel, we set off to explore the compact old town centre of Sibiu. Easy to navigate, in around two hours or less we had strolled through the Large, Small and Huet squares, crossed the Bridge of Lies and got lost in the pretty streets lined by its pastel-coloured houses. Eyes stared at us from each house, the feature that Sibiu is famous for. They are wavy ventilators from the attic which look strangely like eyes. We climbed the tower of the Council house which costs 2 leu each. It was an easy climb with many intermittent storeys with displays from the town. On one stage several hand painted clocks were for sale. These were painted on vinyl records. We bought one for 150 leu and it now graces our living room. The views from the top floor are from four windows in each direction. The direction from where you see the Fagaras mountains can be difficult to tear your eyes from.
With a lot of time on our hands, we decided to walk to the open-air Astra Museum. It gave a view of Sibiu outside the old town. We walked through residential areas and a large park dusted with fine snow from a recent fall (we had brilliant weather btw).
The Astra Museum exceeded all expectations. We spent around 2 hours strolling around the site which is positively massive. I had expected it to be like any other ‘model village’ we have visited in different countries, but this is impressively well made. There are hundreds of traditional houses from old Romanian history built to real size, which can be explored inside out. Various occupations are represented alongside the village church, lakes, windmills, and a gorgeous view of snow-capped range in the background to add to the drama of the unfolding scene. If we had more time, I think we would have spent a full day here.
We took the bus 13 back to the old town, walked through the squares again. The squares and the roads which link them are lined with bakeries. We just picked one to buy cheese stuffed fried flatbread (langosi) and malai cake.
Then it was time for the bus stop where we aimed to get the 4:30 pm Fany bus back to Cluj. We had enquired earlier and been told that we could buy tickets on the bus, and it would leave from Bay 8. We duly waited at Bay 8 when a Fany bus arrived around 4 10 ish and parked just outside the bus station. After 5 minutes I suggested that we go up and enquire. ‘Cluj?’ we asked and were promptly sold two tickets for 50 leu and boarded the bus. The bus never entered the bus station and bay 8 remained empty. Around 4:25 pm, the bus pulled away and started its journey to Cluj.
On the way back we were rewarded with more views of snow-capped Carpathians, and then a spectacular sunset as the sky turned paprika red. The townships around us glowed to light like jewelled necklaces as we drew into Cluj a little over 2 hours later.
From the Fany bus terminal, which is a bit out of the way, we took a taxi back to old town where we had our last dinner at Zama. It was really crowded, a testimony to well-deserved popularity but that did result in some waiting to be served. However, we got a table without reserving beforehand, so I should not complain.
And then one more taxi to our apartment close to the airport.
Early morning taxi (Bolt, book through app, like Uber) and flight back to UK. Painless and quick check-in at the airport. And after arriving back to the UK, breakfast at Oxford with our daughter before driving back to Leicester. 😊
So, what are the highlights, the memories which cross my mind reminiscing about Transylvania? Cluj spreading out below us from Citatuia Hill, the red roofs and the spires of its churches, the ornate buildings bordering its piatas; the food-goulash, spicy sausages, papanasi those soft balls of cottage cheese floating in thick cream and raspberry jam, cheese and sour cream with crispy pork, the cafes. Sibiu with its quaint eyed buildings. The Transylvanian landscape opening out from our train windows, the snow-capped Carpathian Mountains. The cobbled streets of old towns. The aroma of baking wafting from cake and pastry shops. The history emanating from statues which grace the main squares.
But mostly a Ukrainian woman with a map in her hand, trying to discover more of the world-its beauty and history, when the world she has grown up in has crashed all around her.