Thursday, July 30, 2015

Romania - a country of contrasts and communication challenges: Part 1, Cluj Napoka and a train ride to remember

On Tuesday last week, Koos and I flew to Cluj Napoka in Romania. Our purpose? A week's exploration and wandering to experience the Romanian culture and scenery courtesy of the Hungarian budget airline, Wizzair. Oh and yes, to take a few photos too - as one does, of course.

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 actually only spent one night in Cluj as our real destination was Timisoara. We'd decided to go by rail, which meant departing at 3:45 in the afternoon giving us most of the day in Cluj, which was a bonus. But the journey to our next stop became its own adventure and for me, it ended up being the highlight of our trip.

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….


20 comments:

  1. Sounds like a lovely trip to Easter Europe! I can relate to finding friendship and camaraderie in the train car. The highlight of my business trip to Vancouver last week was the conversation with my airplane seat buddy. An interesting conversation that prompted some research and a subsequent surprising discovery.
    You and I would make great travel buddies, as I quite enjoy making the most of whatever situation I encounter in my travels. Lovely photos, too, Val!
    :) xx

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    1. I also think we would be good together on the road (or rail), Dale! So glad you liked my account.xx

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  2. Wonderful, Romania is on my bucket list - looking forward to reading part 2.

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    1. With your adventurous spirit, I know you'd love it, Jackie! There aren't all that many navigable waterways, though, which makes it more of a train or road trip than a barge adventure.

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  3. I have never thought of visiting Romania - but it looks and sounds very interesting. Surprisingly hot, though! The city of Cluj does look very attractive, with the river going through to cool things down. And your train journey sounds like lots of fun. Looking forward to the next episode :)

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    1. Romania is a really different experience, Patricia, but I loved it! And yes, it is very hot in July. It was even hotter in Timisoara than in Cluj.

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  4. What a lovely, relaxed place to visit as part of your travels Val. The buildings look beautiful. Train journey sounds great - I love train travel - look forward to reading your further adventures.

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    1. Thank you, Jane! It was a lovely trip and I enjoyed the feeling of being somewhere really different - in both culture and terrain. A great experience.

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  5. After having read your blog Val, it appears that regardless of your pre-conditioning. Romania enforced you to go with the flow and attain the laid back stance, which I hoped you enjoyed :)

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    1. I did, Mel. It suited me just fine :)

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  6. I had no idea that Romania was such a lovely place. I don't envy you the heat on the train journey.

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    1. It's quite old-fashioned in many ways, Anne. Although the heat on the train was tough, it was also part of the adventure!

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  7. What a fabulous account, Vally. It all comes back to me now. Embracing the heat because hating it was counter productive. Oh and the last bit of the train ride behind an electric locomotive at such a speed we felt derailment coming up. Must have been around 100 miles/hour!

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    1. It certainly felt like it, didn't it? Maybe it felt even faster because it was dark...and the rails were more than slightly uneven 😉

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  8. How fascinating, and how well written! You make me feel as if I want to go there myself now. I love laid back places, although I imagine I'd go mad if I actually had to live there. I didn't realise it was so hot in the summer. In fact, I realise how little I know about Romania at all. I will look forward to your next instalment. -

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    1. It was a gift, Jenny. Just what I needed. I've never been anywhere quite like it, except perhaps Africa! It had many of the same contrasts.

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  9. You are such an adventurer. Love the pictures....

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    1. Adventurer? Hmm, I rather think I just go with the flow and see where it takes me, CarolStar. So glad you like my pics!

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  10. My first giggle was at "Wizzair." I was also amused that the very, very late train was only 30 minutes late -- it shows where you come from! And I didn't even know it could get that hot in Romania. I think I wouldn't have enjoyed the train journey as much as you, even given the amazing camaraderie.

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    1. Thanks so much, Laura. I'm glad it made you smile...yes!! We come from a country with efficiency as it's second name, so we're not used to trains being so delayed without any warning :) Wizzair is a great name, isn't it? As for the train journey, the camaraderie was what made it bearable, but you're right, it was uncomfortable!

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