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Steve and Emma's Travel Tales

New Year Break in Cluj and Turda

ROMANIA | Saturday, 16 January 2021 | Views [122]

After a quiet Christmas in our flat in Timisoara we opted for a change of scene and headed north to Romania’s second biggest city for a short city-break. Cluj, or Cluj-Napoca to give it the full Sunday-best title is another lovely medieval Transylvanian city with a rich history. It is also one of Romania’s main cultural centres with lots of museums, art, music and film festivals. Plus it’s home to one of the best universities in Romania and therefore it boasts some of the best nightlife in the country. Of course, due to covid restrictions we wouldn’t be able to indulge in all of this but we looked forward to exploring a new city. We appreciate that we are lucky to be able to travel within Romania during the pandemic and were looking forward to the trip.

We left Timisoara early morning on a very modern train. It turned out to be by far the quickest train we have been on so far and it even told us how fast we were travelling and when we were approaching the next station. The route took us north along the border with Hungary to Oradea and then we turned into the interior rattling along beside a river through a beautiful valley. The sun was shining and the scenery stunning so the journey passed quickly and we were soon pulling into Cluj station not long after lunch time.

We had an apartment booked for 4 nights right in the heart of the old town and it provided us with all the comforts we needed for our stay. We got settled in and then set off to explore the old town. Union Square is the centre of the city and is dominated by the ginormous St Michael’s Cathedral. It is a lovely square with beautifully restored buildings on all sides. The festive lights and Christmas tree were up which added to the atmosphere. The only downside is that there is a very busy road on two sides of the square which detracts from the ambiance. We wandered around admiring the exceptional architecture but was a bit dismayed to see only one restaurant on the square that was open and it was packed. Never mind, we wandered away from Union Square and meandered down a narrow cobbled pedestrian street and ended up in a lovely part of town. One of the oldest buildings here is Mathew Corvin’s house, a famous king of Hungary, and it is a lovely well-restored gaff. There were more restaurants spilling out onto the streets in the area around Museum Square but again they were all pretty much full. It seems most of the restaurants are closed and with only being able to eat and drink outside, seating was at a premium. Museum Square is a lovely small enclave with a church dominating it of course. After exploring this part of town we had worked up a thirst so bagged a table in Shadow Bar. We ordered a couple of bottles of Ursus Beer which is brewed in Cluj and watched the world go by. Shadow Bar felt like a student pub but it was a lively, friendly place with decent music and cheap beer so we were happy. After a couple of scoops it was starting to get chilly so we headed back to the apartment via the supermarket to make our evening the meal. Renting an apartment where you can cook a meal is the way to go in Romania during a pandemic as it is too cold to eat outdoors at night in the winter even when places have heaters.

The next day brought bright blue skies and sunshine so we set off to explore more of the city. We headed out of the old town across the river to Cetatuia Hill. The sun was actually quite warm as we trekked up the hill which was the site of the old citadel. Unfortunately, there is not much left of the citadel except one gate which is disappointingly covered in graffiti. However, it is well worth making the trip here as it is a nice green space and when you get to the top you are rewarded with a magnificent view of Cluj. You really get to see how St Michael’s dominates the town centre and you can see the mountains surrounding the city. We could see the futuristic Cluj Arena in the distance so we made that our focus for the next leg of the stroll via central park.

Crossing back over the river via a footbridge adorned with padlocks, we assume they are placed there as a sign of love or friendship as they are in Bakewell in the Peak District. We were soon in central park which is a lovely green space running parallel to the river. Plenty of people were taking a promenade through the tall mistletoe trees. Mistletoe seems to be a big thing here for New Year and plenty of people waft mistletoe in your face as you walk around town. I guess they wanted me to buy a bunch rather than kiss them, social distancing was my excuse! At the far end of the park we arrived at the impressive Cluj Arena, a silver, space-aged stadium home to University Cluj football Club. I had assumed that CFR Cluj (the railway team) would play here as they are current champions of Romania and have graced the Champions League in recent years. But, they play in a smaller stadium across town while the second division university boys get the swanky new ground.

In order to have a meal out we decided on a late lunch back in Museum Square in order to beat the cold. Once again most of the restaurants were heaving but we waited around until a table came free at Casa Veche. This was a good choice and we enjoyed a lovely traditional meal of samarles ( pork mince wrapped in cabbage) and  chicken leg stuffed with bacon, all washed down with a bottle of rose, very civilised and it had been another great day exploring Cluj.

We were lucky the next day with the weather again and we decided to explore the east of the city. We took in the botanical gardens ( 7 Lei) which are lovely gardens and even though winter is not the best time to visit it was still very nice to wander around despite the lack of flora. We also explored the areas around the old walls and along to Avram Iancu Square with the orthodox church at one end and the impressive National Theatre, built in 1904 at the other. We also chanced upon St Michael’s Square which was a lovely surprise with yet another man on horse statue. Shame about the communist block dominating one end but Cluj probably has more beautifully restored buildings than any of the places we have visited so far. It is a lovely city and well worth a visit, it was a shame that we could not enjoy all the museums, culture and restaurants due to Covid but still grateful that we could visit.

We stocked up on supplies and saw the new year in at the apartment, a low-key new year indeed due to the 11 o’clock curfew but we stood on the balcony to welcome in the new year to the sound of a few fireworks and hoped for a better 2021 for everyone. Can’t be any worse can it?

After a lazy New Year’s day we decided to extend the trip for another couple of days by moving on to Turda, a town about an hour south of Cluj. We hoped to do some walking around the Turda Gorge which sounded lovely and a good active start to the new year. We got a bus from Cluj and were soon dropped off at the bus station in Turda. The town didn’t look very promising with lots of communist blocks and it turned out the apartment we had booked was in just such a block. However, despite the outside not having kerb appeal the inside was fantastic and very modern and comfortable. The host was also lovely and had fantastic English having previously lived in England.

We set off the next morning for Turda Gorge, the weather looked like it was turning against us but we decided to head off anyway as it was the reason we were here after all.  The guide book said it was a nice walk of 7km to the gorge and then there were several trails through the gorge to explore. So we made a picnic and set off to walk to the gorge following google maps. The guide book also said that we would pick up red trail markers from the town just near our apartment so all was good. We didn’t find any markers but we were soon tromping over fields on the edge of town in the general direction we thought we should be going. It was very chilly but at least the fields were solid underfoot so we started to enjoy the walk. That was about as good as it got.

Every farm we passed we were assaulted by yapping hounds defending their sheep and property from the marauding foreigners. It got a bit tedious after a while and was against the spirit of a tranquil country walk. We arrived in a small town and we were now heading up the road instead of across fields. This is where we started to see red markers on lampposts. The road goes to the gorge why do we need markers now? The rain also started to fall. We trudged up the quiet road and the rain got heavier and heavier and the gorge seemed to get further away. The fun was starting to abate by now unlike the rain. But we ploughed on not to be defeated and we eventually came to the turning off the road down to the gorge. Here was shelter and a foggy view of the gorge. We huddled up to try and keep warm as the rain bounced down on the tin roof. We ate our picnic and decided to cut our losses by heading back as even though the rain had eased it would not be much fun exploring the gorge. We went the same way back hoping a kind driver would pick up two sorry souls. Not one car passed us on the whole way back, typical. We took another route back to Turda over the fields and by now with the rain it was a complete mud bath. We were slipping and sliding all over the place and the going was slow. However, we carried on and finally slouched back into Turda, cold, wet and muddy and in desperate need of a hot shower and a warm brew. Safe to say not our best walk but I’m sure the gorge would be lovely in better weather.

Turda is world famous for its salt mine, come on, of course you have heard of ‘Salina Turda’, no? Well salt had been mined here for over 200 years until it closed down in 1932. It is now a tourist attraction so we had to check it out. The weather the next morning was looking dodgy again so we played safe and took a taxi instead of walking to the salt mine. It looks quite futuristic from the approach, a bit like a concert venue or convention hall, most unmine like. We paid our 40 lei (£8) entrance fee and headed into the mine.

Turns out to be one of the most bizarre tourist attractions we have ever been to, and considering we queued up to see an embalmed Uncle Ho in Vietnam, we have experienced a few. On one level, of which there are many, it being a mine, it is a fascinating history lesson, on another it is an incredible natural formation albeit dug out by man and thirdly it is also an entertainment complex. And all this is set in a Bond villain’s secret mountain lair.  I loved it, well except for the ten pin bowling.

You enter the mine along the Franz Joseph Gallery, a long narrow tunnel with not a piece of artwork in sight. This gallery was used to transport the salt out of the mine on a train track. Off the gallery were various ‘rooms’ with artifacts from the mine. There was a mine of information describing the history of the mine in Romania, Hungarian and luckily for us English. One of the rooms was where they brought the salt up from deep down in the mine to the gallery. Horses pulled a wheel round to winch up the bags of salt but they only survived two weeks before they went blind. Think about that when you are putting salt on your chips! We made our way to the main chamber and it is massive. The patterns made by the salt on the walls are incredible and like a piece of art, maybe that is the gallery bit. From the top looking it down it looked a very long way but we had to go down so we descended via a rickety wooden staircase. In this main chamber there is the ‘fun’ aspect to the experience. There is a Ferris wheel, ping pong tables, mini golf, a bowling alley and I kid you not, a boating lake. Amazingly, despite the pandemic all of these were open (for an additional charge of course) for your enjoyment. We passed on the entertainment and instead marvelled at the sheer scale of the mine and the wonderful patterns. We got the great glass elevator from next to the underground lake back to the top. We then carried on along the tunnel for a kilometre or so as we were promised an exit, and we were eventually spat out of the back door. Wow, what a bonkers place.

Turns out the trades man’s entrance is only a short walk from the old town of Turda so we wandered back despite the foreboding skies. We hadn’t explored this part of Turda and it was a nice surprise. The main square is small but surrounded by some nice old buildings and of course a few old churches. It was really cold so we stocked up on supplies and headed back to our apartment to sit out the winter weather for the rest of the day. As the weather was against us and the forecast not promising  we decided to head back to Timisoara the next day. There was a direct bus and five hours later we were back in our cosy Timisoara apartment after an enjoyable trip to Cluj and Turda.


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