Day 1 – arrival in Cluj-Napoca
The outskirts of Cluj are more sprawling than I had imagined and between the traffic and numerous junctions it felt a long drive from the airport, even though it’s only around 15- 20 minutes.
The urban sprawl is quite built up, with a few pockets of tower blocks. One you get into the old town it feels more like the type of chocolate box kind of Central / Eastern European town you expect to see with bars, outside eating and lots of differently coloured buildings lining cobbled streets.
I was expecting a sleepy little town, but it was really buzzing for a Sunday night, possibly because of the Transylvania film festival which is held in the last week of May…or because Romanians just like to party on Sunday nights.
Dinner time meant my first local beer, an Ursus (Bear beer!). It was fairly pleasant but won’t be making my list of the best beers of the world (to be published shortly). We sat outside while a band played at the other end of Piata Muzeului.
Day 2 – the Carpathian Mountains
My first full day in Romania started with a walk around the centre of Cluj. We headed to the main square Piata Unirii to see the town’s 14th century St. Michael’s Church which towers over the square despite the vastness of Piata Unirii.
The inside is plain but impressive with stained glass lighting up the apse and some remnants of 14th – 15th century frescoes survive in the nave and the Scheyling Chapel.
It’s a pretty walk around Cluj which is a jumble of colours and architectural styles. My itinerary didn’t allow for much longer there so I didn’t explore any of the many, many museums on offer or get to sample any more of the restaurants. I was left with the impression you could easily spend a couple of busy days there.
After an hours walk around the town we hit the road for a 200km jaunt across Transylvania, crossing the Carpathian Mountains through the Borgo pass (Tihuta pass to Romanians), made famous by Bram Stoker’s Jonathan Harker, who crossed the winding and rocky pass in Count Dracula’s mysterious carriage.
The first half of this journey is disappointingly congested (vs expectation…not on the scale of London!) And lacks any seriously stunning monuments or views. However, you pass through a number of larger towns where you can stop for something to eat or to explore. The route takes you through Bistrita, a Saxon town of cobbled streets and a 14th century cathedral. It would make a good base to break up the journey to Moldovita if you have some free time.
Having expected the Carpathians to be dark and brooding like their portrayal in Dracula, I was surprised to find what was more a rolling alpine hillside dotted with cutesy wooden houses and sheep than the stuff of nightmares.
It was, however, a spectacular journey of winding roads with amazing views across the valleys. The roads are in pretty good shape (not so for the rest of the country we were soon to discover), and while it’s slow going zig zagging up and down mountains, it wasn’t nearly as treacherous as I had hoped! Perched at the very top is the Hotel Castle Dracula, positioned where the castle stood in the book. We didn’t look around but it sounds like a kind of Disney does Dracula affair, albeit with breathtaking views.
After more twisting and turning we finally made it to the tiny and pretty little town of Moldovița where we would stay for the night as a springboard for our tour of the Bucovina painted monasteries.
We stayed in a little wooden pension, the Vila Crizantema. Our host was great and although she spoke little English, was inviting and helpful and cooked us some great food. I wholeheartedly recommend staying here for the food, nearly all of which- butter, cheese and ham- is homemade.
Dinner was a delicious chicken soup (a sour soup typically called a ciorba or a borscht) followed by some pork with a tomatoey gravy and potatoes. Everything was laden with butter – amazing.