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Oct 13-16, 2014: Timisoara surprised me, because I quite liked it. Of course, when I planned to visit, I expected to like it, but after Cluj and Oradea my expectations had been considerably lowered. Then, there was an unexpected hurdle in even getting there, a bad hotel, and to cap it off, two of the town’s three squares were undergoing a comprehensive renovation. So the fact that I still quite liked the place is actually high praise.

The transport problem was particularly annoying, as I could have avoided it, if the Deutsch Bahn website, which I have relied on for years for train timetables all over Europe, had not failed me. Truly, a stunning surprise, although it failed again, later in the trip, in Italy. This time, it told me that I could take a direct train from Oradea to Timisoara, but when I tried to buy a ticket for that train on arrival in Oradea, I learned that it only ran on the weekend! Therefore, I had to change trains in Arad, which I had no interest in seeing, and whose train station turned out to be in the midst of a major renovation of its own. I am sure it will be a great improvement when finished – pieces of the first escalator I had seen since Bucharest were being installed – but meanwhile only the outer reaches were functional.

The hotel I had booked, the Savoy, was convenient for the city center (although not for the train station), but seemed rather tired. Worse, the AC in my room wasn’t working. According to the front desk AC wasn’t working anywhere in the hotel, since they had switched to heat some weeks before. I should open the window…. Right. With the temperatures in the mid 20s and a south facing room, that was a lot of help. The one night I spent there, it took until 23:30 for the room to become habitable. The other central hotels were full, so I moved to a pleasant if dated Best Western out near the train station and learned the bus system.

Walking into town from the Savoy I crossed a bridge, and then could hardly believe my eyes. Timisoara’s Metropolitan Cathedral, rising out its surrounding trees, looks more like a fantasy castle. Or possibly a Saxon version of St. Basil’s in Moscow. Either way, it significantly improved my mood, which was further raised by the delightful promenade (really, not a square), Piata Victoriei.

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Piata Libertatii and Piata Unirii were also on my agenda, but were almost out of bounds for pedestrians because they were being resurfaced. So I spent quite a lot of time on Piata Victoriei, drinking coffee during daylight hours and something stronger in the evening, when the central fountain was bathed in colored lights.

I did do a little sightseeing. The citadel disappointed, having been over-renovated and now housing shops and cafes (maybe a preview of what Oradea’s will look like when finished). The Permanent Exhibition of the 1989 Revolution held my attention longer, once I finally found it. It was unsettling to see streets I had just walked disfigured by tanks, bullet holes and even dead bodies. I considered taking a bus out to the Banat Village Museum, but since I had started limping, rather badly, and had already seen the village museum at Sibiu, I passed. I figured the limp was due to a dip in the pavement I had encountered a few days previously. Of course, I often have foot trouble when I travel, but this time, instead of a side-to-side injury, it was front-to-back. Still meant I was limping, and made going downstairs difficult.

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Timisoara was my last stop in Romania, and I’m glad it was a good one, as on balance I had enjoyed my time in the country. Trains to my next destination, Szeged in Hungary, were not plentiful, and I needed to catch one at 7:30 unless I wanted to arrive in Szeged after dark. I planned to eat a quick breakfast and leave my hotel by taxi just after 7:00. So why, I wonder, did I set my alarm for 6:45 and not 5:45? An internal protest at getting up so early, perhaps?

Fortunately, another part of my subconscious woke me at 6:30, and since I had mostly packed the night before I was actually able to shower, dress, finish packing and eat something by the time my taxi arrived. Fifty minutes after leaving Timisoara I was back in Arad, but this time I got to stay on the train, although we did not go far before we stopped and spent another fifty minutes on passport and smuggling checks. Ten minutes later I was in Hungary.

I had seen no street art, aside from tagging, until I was almost out of Romania, but I finally saw a few examples in Timisoara.

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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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