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A Rest in Oradea

Oct 10-12, 2014: I went to Oradea to see Art Nouveau buildings, and I did indeed see some, although not quite where I had expected. However, I’m not sure the town was worth the hassle of getting there and away, and it certainly wasn’t worth the three nights I gave it. But they were comfortable nights….

I almost never stay in US chain hotels outside the US – I much prefer local places. But I just couldn’t resist the $50 a night deal that booking.com offered for the Doubletree by Hilton, even though it was a little further out of the center than I would have preferred. On the other hand, I had a great view of the river, when it wasn’t too hot to leave the curtains open. Was it a typical Doubletree? No idea, first time I stayed in one, but it seemed to be a standard intercontinental hotel – very clean, very comfortable, and totally generic. Although I did dock it a TA star because the AC wasn’t working when I checked in, and half the too small closet was taken up by a stand for the iron. My excellent rate didn’t include breakfast, and after one so-so buffet at an excessive (for Romania) 40 lei, I picked up supplies at a massive Carrefour sprawled behind a fancy mall three tram stops south of the center.

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My previously good opinion of the Romanian train system took a severe hit on the Cluj to Oradea leg. The train arrived at Cluj station early, and I was happy to board and find a seat. But then it didn’t leave. It just sat there. Inside, the passengers were getting hot. And still it didn’t leave. And we got hotter. We finally pulled out a whole fifty minutes late.

Apart from a few Art Nouveau buildings and one gently decaying arcade, the main excitement in town was a big festival occupying much of a nice central park (Oradea gets points for its parks). The helpful young woman in the T.I. office told me that it was a ten day affair, and it concluded my last day in town, with a solemn wreath laying ceremony at midday, and a massive fireworks display at midnight. I had taken a look at the food and souvenir stalls, and chosen to eat at my hotel instead, and if I hadn’t had the river view room I would have missed the fireworks entirely. As it was, I enjoyed a marvelous, grandstand view of a stellar display, in perfect comfort. I didn’t even get a crick in my neck.

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I did try to take a look at Oradea’s citadel, only to find that it was undergoing a major restoration. At least, I will be charitable and call it a restoration, but it looked more like they were building some kind of conference center inside the walls. Outside, a pretty park had already been completed.

Aside from the fireworks, the best part of my stay in Oradea was the massage I treated myself to at the hotel. Unlike the breakfast buffet, the price was reasonable for Romania, and the masseuse was reasonably skilled (not up to the wonderful woman I see at home, but she is exceptional). Afterwards I relaxed on a lounger overlooking the swimming pool with a cup of green tea.

The trek to Timisoara would undo much of the good the massage had done.

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Oct 8-9, 2014: The train connection from Targu Mures to Cluj-Napoca was no better than the connection from Sighisoara to Targu Mures, so I took the bus. The bus station turned out to be a long way south of the center, justifying my taxi, and the bus only cost 25 lei ($7.00 US). Waiting for it to show up, I talked with a woman from Manchester who had been using Sighisoara as a base, which I thought rather an odd choice.

Arrived at Cluj-Napoca’s train station I decided it was too hot to walk to my hotel, and since it proved to be uphill I was glad I had persevered in my search for a taxi driver who would use his meter. (In more expensive countries I walk or use public transport, but this taxi cost me all of $2.00 US!) I did walk to and from the town center, which took me a good ten to fifteen minutes, uphill one way. My hotel, the Escala, was trying hard to become the number one small hotel in all of Romania on Tripadvisor, It is currently number three, and it showed. My room was clean, comfortable and nicely decorated. The chairs weren’t the most comfortable, but the sitting areas downstairs, both indoors and out, more than made up for them. The owners were full of helpful information, too, which is how I wound up at the Botanical Garden, as I had forgotten that friends who visited in the spring had recommended it, and it was not listed in my guidebook.

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Of course, October was not the best time of year for gardens: the roses were clearly on their last legs, and the Japanese garden was inauthentically overgrown, but the dahlias were doing well, and I was very glad of the peace and quiet under the trees. Cluj turned out to be big, bustling and noisy, and not really offering enough sights to make up for it. The Ethnographic Museum would have been a bit of a disappointment even without the hideous noise made by the piano tuner in the main room. I may be virtually tone deaf, but even I could tell his services were needed! There was one room of costumed mannequins that kept me occupied for a while. The Minerological Museum was closed the days I was in town.

I did find a few interesting buildings to photograph, and a couple of reverential statues – one quite overpowering the cathedral behind it. The main square was largely occupied by the tents of a major book sale. This seemed to be part of a festival, but although my hosts assured me there would be music, every time I went through there were speeches instead. They were also enthusiastic about an early evening trek up the hill to the citadel to admire the view. I did not actually find the citadel, just a large hotel and a large cross, and I didn’t stay until dark because I wasn’t sure how much light there would be for getting down. The views weren’t bad, but didn’t justify the exercise or the strain on my aging knees.

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My hosts’ restaurant recommendations, on the other hand, worked well. The vegetarian restaurant, Samsana, at the bottom of their hill, served me excellent mushroom soup, although their take on falafel was bizarre. The Reata, suggested as serving authentic local food, was down a dark side street, but gave me a non-smoking table, reasonable mushrooms stuffed with sheep’s cheese, and very good venison stew, served in a small iron pot hanging over a votive candle. I dined one night at a packed place on the main square, Toulouse, on good duck salad, and enjoyed a conversation with a Swedish woman on a business trip at the next table.

Best hotel in Romania or not, I doubt I will return to Cluj-Napoca.

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Oct 6-7, 2014: Sibiu to Sighisoara to Cluj-Napoca? Sighisoara to Sibiu to Cluj-Napoca? Stop off in Alba Iulia (from Sibiu)? Stop off in Targu Mures (from Sighisoara)? I knew nothing about Alba Iulia or Targu Mures until I looked them up in Lonely Planet. Then a reference to an Art Nouveau building decided me on the Sighisoara – Targu Mures – Cluj-Napoca route, but how long should I spend in Targu Mures? An afternoon? An over night? I’m not fond of one nighters but I figured I could handle one (nowhere else on this trip was going to be less than three nights). Then I added the night I cut from Sighisoara to Targu Mures.

Looking at the map it made perfect sense to go via Targu Mures, but the railway engineers didn’t agree with me. I was going to settle for the bus or a maxi-taxi, but the driver I used for my afternoon excursion from Sighisoara made me an offer I was willing to accept, so I arrived in Targu Mures in style. The owner of my pension, the Ana Maria, offered me a choice of three rooms, and kindly carried my bigger bag up and down the stairs to the bedroom plus sitting area I chose at the top of the building. Her English was limited, so we communicated in French, with a little help from the translate app on my smart phone. (The phone wasn’t new, but my T-Mobile contract was, and I was finding the unlimited low speed data useful.)

Turned out that for my purposes – the Art Nouveau building – one night would have been fine. But Targu Mures was a lively town, with a festival setting up along its beautiful central promenade, a symphony orchestra practicing outside the concert hall, and a castle area undergoing serious renovation. Its population is mixed Romanian, Hungarian and Roma, and I saw signs in both Romanian and Hungarian, and a number of Roma women in bright flowered skirts and head scarves.

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The Culture Palace, my target, held my attention both inside and out. Inside a whole series of stained glass windows illustrated Hungarian folk tales, and I liked them enough I actually bought a set of postcards with descriptions. The last time I bought that kind of souvenir was at the Alhambra, ten years ago. Outside I took plenty of photos, finding a number of other buildings of interest.

Wandering away from the central promenade (officially Piata Trandafirilor) I found the remarkable Teleki-Bolyai Library, founded in 1802, with an eclectic collection of rare books and maps and including 52 incunabula. Count Teleki specialized in scientific volumes but several other libraries were added over the years.

I took advantage of some down time to catch up on sleep, laundry and my journal.

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Sighisoara: So Cute

Oct 4-5, 2014: The train ride from Brasov to Sibiu had been enlivened by some good scenery, and a young women taking beautiful orchids to a hundred year old friend who had moved to Sibiu from Bucharest. In contrast, I had a solo seat on the train to Sighisoara, which traveled a somewhat roundabout route through flatter and less interesting scenery. Very good for agriculture, of which there was plenty, not so good for sightseers.

When I emerged from the station at Sighisoara it was to see a lone taxi disappearing up the road. Happily, I found a few more a little way away, as I was staying in the old town, which occupied a much more serious hill than the one in Sibiu. I trekked up and down without a case but would not have wanted to try it with one, especially as the pavement in the old town consisted mostly of uneven cobblestones.

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Sighisoara’s hill was steep, and its old center was small. Too small for the many day trippers – there was really no way to escape them without going down to the more modern town or waiting for evening or early morning. Or possibly Monday. The sights, none of which I thought worth visiting, were closed on Mondays, and the hotels largely empty Sunday night – at least out of season. Visiting the newer town wasn’t necessarily a bad idea: it had some nice Hapsburg era buildings, and new-looking Orthodox church by the river.

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While I didn’t pay to climb up the clock tower, for instance, I did have a lovely time wandering around and admiring the buildings. I even made it up the 172 steps of the covered stairway to the 17th century church on the town’s highest point (subsequently discovering a less-challenging route down). If someone were designing a small medieval town for a film set, they might have produced Sighisoara. The tourist influx is entirely understandable, but I wouldn’t want to visit at the height of the season. Nor would I want to visit at any time of the year if I had difficulty coping with steep and uneven pavement.

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I had scheduled three nights for Sighisoara, but cut it to two. That gave me an afternoon for the town, and another for a visit, with car and driver, to some of the surrounding villages and their churches. I admired the one at Biertan, was unable to enter Richis’, and was surprised by the run-down state of Copsa Mare’s, with its pebbled floor. The villages seemed uniformly poor. After the fall of Communism (as the overthrow of Ceausescu was referred to by all the Romanians I talked with), the collectivized land was split among the villagers, but that didn’t necessarily produce viable farms.

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Unfortunately, my visit was marred by a particularly bad B&B. The bed was up three not very safe steps, apparently so that one could see out of the glazed (but uncurtained) arrow slits masquerading as windows – if one stood on the bed. My main complaint was that there was nowhere comfortable to sit. The two wooden and backless stools were too small and hard and in any case were needed to put things on. Normally I would sit on the bed, but at the head there was a big gap before the wall, mostly occupied by fragile looking lamps, so the only option was cross-wise. Since the bed was narrow (the room was set up as a double, but I hope any couple using it are on very good terms) and there was a ledge rather than wall to lean against this was also a problem.

Additionally unhappy about hitting my head when using the toilet, the unpleasant brown water issuing from the hot tap in the evening and the permanently wet shower curtain, the insect bite that woke me at 3:00 am was the last straw. Unable to go back to sleep, I revised my plans instead, and left after breakfast. My second night, at the Casa Wagner, was infinitely better, and 20 lei cheaper.

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So-so Sibiu

Oct 1-3, 2014: Somehow, I just never warmed to Sibiu, European City of Culture or not. Maybe it was the weather. Maybe it was my hotel. Or maybe it just couldn’t match Brasov for charm.

The weather was mostly cool and grey, with actual rain some of the time. My room at the Levoslav was really a suite, with two big rooms, two TVs, two desks, two armchairs…. Trouble was, the furniture didn’t fill the space, and the decor had an industrial feel. The overall effect was stark, plus the shower was very awkward to use and breakfast was poor. And, when Lonely Planet told me it was walking distance from the train station if might have mentioned that half of the walk was uphill. In Brasov the Saxons had lived behind the walls, here they lived on top of a significant hill.

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The upper town was built around three “squares”, but I didn’t find them welcoming. The two biggest were so big they effectively swallowed the cafes, and there were no fountains and few benches. Some parts of the old walls remained, but they were just walls. The History Museum was seriously disappointing, aside from some guild artifacts. The Art Museum in the Bruckenthal Palace owned a lot of rather bad paintings and a few interesting Turkish rugs, plus a couple of Rubens, but its star exhibit consisted of paintings retrieved after their forced transfer to Bucharest under the Communist regime. These included a brilliant, and brilliantly lit Brueghel: “The Slaughter of the Innocents”, but I could hardly see the rest, the lighting was so dim. (I should also put in a good word for the Greek Orthodox cathedral, and its massive iconostasis, and there were one or two quirky buildings I liked.)

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The best part of my stay in Sibiu was a visit to the ASTRA open air museum just outside town, a good substitute for the museum I had missed in Bucharest, and apparently the second largest in the world. In season, it looks like a lot of demonstrations and activities fill the buildings, but I was there off season, and little was happening. Still, I enjoyed wandering around under the trees and beside the big lake, checking out the churches, houses, barns and mills, and even a small flock of sheep. I did notice that the gates from Maramures were all inferior to the elaborately carved ones I had seen in situ.

I didn’t eat particularly well in Sibiu, but I drank rather better than I ate. The desk clerk at the Levoslav said he didn’t drink coffee, and couldn’t recommend a cafe, but the very helpful T.I. sent me to the Cafe Wien, with a view down to the lower town, and good coffee. So, after Brasov I found Sibiu a bit disappointing, and it is firmly on the “glad I went, no need to return” list.

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Sep 29-30, 2014: Around Brasov, the only site that seemed to be open on Monday was Bran castle. Never having read Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”, nor seen (as best I remember) a Dracula movie, and having no interest whatever in repairing those omissions, I nearly decided to skip Bran. However, some visitors reported that the Dracula connection was played down in the castle itself, and I figured that I had had plenty of practice in ignoring souvenir stands.

Before setting off, I trekked up to the Black Tower, part of Brasov’s 15th century fortifications, enjoying a beautiful clear morning. Then I stopped by the T.I., which had finally opened, to confirm the transport information in my Lonely Planet, and by the T-Mobile store, which kindly explained that my data access would only work if I turned data roaming on. Duh…

Neither the T.I. nor Lonely Planet had mentioned that the bus to Autogara 2, where I would catch the bus to Bran, only ran once an hour. I took a taxi to the bus station, which cost about as much as the bus. (All of 7 lei, around $2.00 US.) Once we cleared the suburbs (modern Brasov is quite big) the rural scenery was enlivened by snow-capped mountains.

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Before tackling the gauntlet of souvenir stands, and the trek up to the castle, perched on the top of a short, steep hill, I ate lunch. The omelet wasn’t bad. The park at the foot of the castle hill was quite pretty. The castle itself I considered a complete waste of time. Unlike the pseudo-castles at Sinaia, it had been a proper defensive castle, originally built in 1382, and supposedly visited by Vlad Tepes (reimagined as Dracula) in 1462. The castle was handed back to the descendants of the Hapsburgs in 2006, and its curators put more emphasis on that connection.

If you haven’t seen any other castles, I suppose this one might be impressive. Its location, what can be seen of it, certainly cries out for a castle. But you have to tackle a lot of steep, narrow and claustrophobic stairs in order to visit a sequence of sparsely furnished, white-washed rooms of minimal interest. On the way back I had a good view of Rasnov castle, also built as a defense against the Turks. That might be a better choice than Bran: it should at least be less visited. I was lucky, perhaps because it was the end of the tourist season, but there are plenty of postings on TA from people who had to queue to get in, and then couldn’t see anything because of all the tour groups.

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The centuries of Turkish threat resulted not only in castles, but in fortified churches. The villagers would retreat inside the walls, taking their provisions with them, and wait until the invaders gave up, or a relieving army appeared. My last day at Brasov I visited a prime example at Prejmer. I couldn’t help thinking, looking at the 4.5 meter thick encircling walls, honeycombed with 272 rooms including a school, that many people today would be ecstatic if they could find similar protection. Unfortunately, modern artillery has rendered Prejmer obsolete. I ate a lunchtime sandwich in the shelter of the walls, before climbing up and down the galleries and finally walking around under the roof, where I could peer out through the arrow slits and murder holes. I rather liked the church, safely in the center of the site, as well.

I had had some difficulty locating the bus to Prejmer, which didn’t leave from either of Brasov’s bus stations, but from a stop some distance from the main one, on the other side of the road. Once I found the right stop, I had a lengthy conversation with a woman who lived in Prejmer, and referred to herself and her husband as “the last of the Saxons”. Presumably she was just talking about Prejmer, rather than the whole area, since the mayor of Sibiu, in the running to become President, is a Saxon. Still, apparently many of the Saxon settlers, whose ancestors had arrived in the 12th century, moved back to Germany after WWII.

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Tensions still exist between the Hungarian minority and the Romanian majority, and must have existed for centuries between the Saxons, living behind the walls of the upper town in Brasov, and the Romanians living outside, beyond the Schei gate.

When not visiting castles, palaces and churches, I continued to wander around old town Brasov. I visited the Schei gate, at the south end, although I was unable to enter the nearby synagogue. To the the north I took a look at the park I had noticed on the way in. No wedding party (they seemed to be confined to Saturdays), but plenty of men (no women….) playing chess and backgammon. After I bought my train ticket for Sibiu, I put Brasov on my “should revisit” list.

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Scintillating Sinaia

Sep 28, 2014: While wandering Brasov’s streets the afternoon of my arrival, I had located the nearest bus stop, and the kiosk for buying tickets, so I had no trouble getting to the station for the train to Sinaia. On the bus I chatted with a Welsh woman about my own age, mostly about the Scottish independence referendum, and on the train I chatted with a young local woman. I had thought the train ticket reasonably cheap, but going back on a train of lesser status (but a comfortable double-decker) I paid only a third as much. Budget travelers take note!

I went to Sinaia to visit two palaces. Officially they are castles, but since they were built long after castles served any military purpose whatever, and were designed as residences, I refuse to misuse the term. Peles, the one with the crowds, was built as a summer residence for King Carol I between 1875 and 1914. While he was spending money on buildings (lots of it) he had Pelisor built nearby for his nephew, the future King Ferdinand, and his wife Marie. Both King Carol’s wife, Elisabeta, and Marie were talented women, authors and artists.

From the outside the palaces look similar – fairy tale collections of turrets and spires – but the interiors could hardly be more different. I had read that Marie had decorated Pelisor in Art Nouveau style, and as I am a huge Art Nouveau fan I naturally started there. Following a tip from a Fodor’s poster I took a taxi up, and when I got out I turned left for Pelisor while almost everyone else turned right for Peles. Aside from an easily avoided small tour group, and a very few independents, I had the place to myself. And it was drop-dead gorgeous.

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I suppose, if you’re not interested in Art Nouveau, you might not be as enthusiastic as I was, but I can’t imagine anyone disliking the place. Even the tutor’s and governess’s rooms were thoughtfully decorated and charming, and the gold room, literally covered with gilded leaves, was stunning.

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In between Pelisor and Peles I ate an indifferent sandwich in what I thought was a restaurant. Later I discovered that it was just a cafe, and the restaurant was behind it.

I do admit that from the outside Peles is picture perfect. However, I found the inside far too dark and ornate for my taste. I did avoid being officially part of a group – I noticed that you could rent an audio guide for an independent visit – but I caught up to one of the groups anyway. Having paid extra to take photos at Pelisor I didn’t do so at Peles, and I didn’t regret it. It may have been a summer palace, but if you want pomp and circumstance Peles is your palace, if you want charm and elegance, pick Pelisor.

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I wandered down towards the town past a collection of souvenir stands, and found, largely by accident, the Sinaia monastery. Here I first noticed the Romanian practice of stationing large black boxes outside churches, labeled Morti, apparently for people to light candles for the dead. Unfortunately, to me this set looked a lot like barbecue cookers. The monastery had a newer, more ornate church in the outer courtyard, and an older, more peaceful one in an inner courtyard, which I preferred. I took a rest, soaking up the peace.

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Peace didn’t last long. After I managed to find my way down to the town proper, I discovered a major festival in progress. The main drag was filled with booths, many of them selling food, much of it cooked on real barbecues, or in iron pots hung over open flames. I had thought Peles rather crowded, but the real crowds were down in town – the place was packed.

In among the expected stalls, I found one for an anti-fracking organization, and commiserated with the activists. I checked out the souvenirs, but as usual I wasn’t in a buying mood. I was more taken with a light-hearted umbrella installation, floating above the crowd.

My lunch time sandwich hadn’t been very filling, and rather than street food I opted for pizza and wine in the Irish pub, before catching my local train back to Brasov, where I spent more time admiring the main square.

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