Cluj Napoka's airport is surprisingly close to the town. I imagine this is because it is in something of a valley between the Carpathian mountains, so there is limited space there for an airport. Further evidence was provided by the pilot who made a nail bitingly fast descent to the runway. No one else seemed to notice, though, so maybe that was just my paranoia kicking in.
In any event, I can say that everywhere you look in the city, the mountains are visible in the distance. Cluj is an ancient university town and the second most populous city in Romania. It is a gorgeous place with beautiful, informal but gracious suburbs. Gardens front nearly all the houses: some are glorious and spill over with flowering shrubs; others are simply shambolic. The atmosphere in the centre is lively, friendly and embracing. It is full of contradictions too: the old station is the new one and vice versa.
|Everywhere you look, the mountains are visible |
in the distance.
|A gorgeous city|
|The old station (newly built in the seventies but out of use)|
|The new station (the original, older, much larger station, |
renovated and back in use)
We found the general attitude to be laid back with a capital L and loved it. Walking to our hotel via the long route (we got lost), we entertained ourselves by watching a group of road workers. Five were sitting on the pavement having a smoke, one was working and one was supervising the one who was working. No one seemed bothered, least of all the one who was doing the work. We speculated that maybe they take it in turns.
|Life is laid back with a capital L|
The evening was when the city came to life, though. While we meandered through the old centre, a saxophonist played lilting melodies that filled the warm balmy air. During the day, it was hot to the point of exhaustion, but a welcome riverside café on the Somesul Mic river that runs through the city was a safe haven. We watched men hanging from cables high up on an old building, painstakingly working on its restoration. It was 34 degrees in the shade and the heat was climbing. I thought that at least they would land somewhere cool if they fell off. The water looked much more inviting than being suspended in mid air over it.
|A waterside cafe: safe haven from the heat|
|Workers restoring an old building. Rather them than me!|
|Lively, charming Cluj|
We arrived at the station in good time, but the train was late, very late - apparently normal for Romania. When it finally arrived and eventually left, it was half an hour behind schedule, but then it had already come more than five hundred kilometers through the mountains, so we had to forgive it.
We seemed to crawl the first hundred and fifty odd kilometres through stunning mountain scenery. Crawl, because the engine was old, diesel powered (or under powered) and lumbering. The carriage windows were grimy, filthy even. And condensation was trapped between their double layers making it almost impossible to see out. For me, this added to its exotic charm. It felt like going back in time, especially as we had those old-fashioned compartments with a passage up the side. I felt like a child again.
The temperature, however, was almost unbearable. If it was 35 degrees outside, it must have been well over 40 in the train. Sweat poured off us and we took our cue from the others in our compartment by making fans out of anything we could find. For me, it was our map. We also spent much time alternating with fellow passengers in the passage, almost hanging out of the openable windows. Then someone had the bright idea of opening a carriage door to have a smoke…a practice that is apparently not unusual, even if not actually allowed. Our fellow travellers in our compartment trooped along to follow suit and we joined them. This proved great for contact and conversation. And friendships, however ephemeral, were formed. As we were returning to our places, a female conductor saw us. She realised immediately what had been happening at that open doorway. 'No comment' was all she said, with a smile. It was too hot for admonishments. The carriage door remained open.
|A Romanian locomotive|
After Oradea, the terrain flattened out as we followed the Hungarian border south first to Arad and then on to Timisoara. The train picked up a bit of speed, but stopped at several villages. I was fascinated by the stations. They looked like private homes and had platforms of just a few short metres of wooden boards. Most passengers had to climb down onto the grass and walk to the station yard across rough terrain - they made do with what they had and helped each other over the humps. Clearly, Brussels has not reached Romania yet. As for Health and Safety, well we won't mention that.
By now, we had our own club in our compartment: sharing water, snacks and illicit smokes at the open door. The heat provided the cohesion, quite literally. At Arad, we changed from diesel to electric locomotive. Sadly, we also lost most of our fellow passengers there. 'So nice to meet you,' they said with big smiles and handshakes before leaving the compartment. So friendly. Such courtesy. I don't think I've ever enjoyed a journey as much; nor ever been so hot and sticky. But somehow the latter physical discomfort contributed to the former emotional satisfaction. Odd, but true.
By now I was getting concerned about the time. This train was scheduled to take four hours. We were already close to five and we'd left late too. I phoned the hotel from the passage, but the noise from the uneven rails was too much competition so I couldn't hear a thing. I just shouted an estimated ETA and hoped for the best.
Two remaining passengers - young Romanian students - kept us entertained for the rest of what ultimately became a six hour ride. They were at university in Timisoara, and wanted to tell us all about their country and their city. This was something we found throughout our trip. Romanians love their land and are very keen to tell you about it. One of the pair was studying psychology, but he looked more like a top tennis player - one of those outrageously handsome ones, you know the type. 'If you could have a choice between living inside someone's head for a day, or flying for five minutes a day, which would you choose?' he asked. It was that kind of conversation.
We arrived to a hot, humid night in Timisoara six hours after leaving Cluj. It was 10:30 pm and still around 30 degrees. Our students led us to a nearby taxi rank ('if you catch one outside the station, it will be twice as much,' they said). The taxi driver spoke German - of a sort. He told us what the fare to the hotel would be - no meter, we were to understand, but no receipt. It sounded like a big favor, but the price was more than we'd already been advised to accept, so we asked him to put his meter on. He made a show of tapping it, but it didn't change throughout the ride - a minor, but friendly rip-off. At least we knew. And he knew that we knew too. He then told us with great enthusiasm that he would take us to Belgrade for €1000, a bit startling when we'd only just arrived and hadn't planned on going anywhere else that night, least of all across the border into Serbia. It also took us a few moments of shocked awe to realise he meant a hundred and not a thousand. As I said, it was German of a sort.
What mattered though was that we'd made it, we'd arrived and within five minutes of leaving the station, the hotel owner received us with a warm welcome.
We were ready for phase two of our adventure.
To be continued….