Cluj-Napoca is a Nice place

Cluj-Napoca is a Nice place

Of the three main cities I visited in Romania, Cluj-Napoca was my hands-down my favorite. Transylvania’s capital city is perhaps one of the nicest undiscovered secrets in Eastern Europe, and completely shreds the image of a region with a reputation bordering on the comically theatrical. In fact, the regions whole vampire and Dracula shtick isn’t even remotely accurate. For starters, vampires are a Serbian invention; secondly the infamous inspiration behind Dracula – Vlad the Impaler – never even ruled Transylvania. He in fact lorded over Wallachia, though I guess Bram Stoker figured that Wallachia doesn’t sound quite as spooky as Traan-syl-vaaaainya.

Today, Cluj sits as the nations largest university city and a former city of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, from which it gets it name, style, as well as a great deal of it’s ethnic make-up. Transylvanians in fact consider themselves a separate entity to regular Romania with a great deal yearning to be recognised as a separate nation. In any case, I found the people here to be among the friendliest I’ve yet come across, even giving the Caucus Georgians a run for their money. Taxi drivers, bouncers, waiters and waitresses, and random strangers in bars all engaged me with a genuine fondness and jovial good nature that I’ve rarely seen anywhere else. This is a social and cosmopolitan city that belies the gritty, gothic facades that line much of the city. Bars and trendy cafes make up a great deal of the centre and there is somewhere pumping every night of the week thanks to the cities enormous student population. It’s super also, and I could easily have spent a lot longer just chilling in Cluj, soaking up the ambience. Speaking of chilling, on my last night there, me and an American from my hostel wandered upon probably the coolest Hookah pipe place on the planet – The Samsara Chill out and Tea House – which features a range of themed rooms from Deep Sea Ocean to Moroccan Riad, with an impressive list of water pipe flavors with exotic teas to match. I’d go so far as to say it’s a must go place in Cluj. I wished I’d found it sooner.

Me being me, I couldn’t help but engage in some more reckless fun after falling in with multiple groups of locals. On Friday night, I attended a drum and base event in the underground car park of the cities stadium. It cost 5 euro to enter upon which cigarette promo girls would also hand you a free packet since the typical Romanian consumes as much tobacco as oxygen. Inside it was unusually easy to make friends and a mixed group of aspiring DJ’s were soon inviting me to join them for a line of ‘charge’, a local, quasi-legal ‘lite’ version of speed. I tried a little and it certainly buoyed my night, thankfully with no untoward side effects. Another night I thought to try a ‘Sambuca flambarta’ shot after seeing a local do one at Janis Club. This is essentially a more audacious version of the traditional flaming Sambuca shot, where you pour the shot into your mouth – without consuming it – tilt your head over the counter, and allow the barkeep to set the contents in your mouth alight, followed by salt shaken overhead to create a dramatic visual effect. Then you swallow it, fire and all. Other than slightly tingly lips, it went down as easy as anything else.

Underground lake in the Turda Salt Mine.
Underground Lake in the Turda Salt Mine.

 

The one disappointing aspect of my tenure in Cluj was a day tip I signed up for with Retro Tours, that proved to be both underwhelming – and a rip off. There were three planned stops to the surrounding region, each one being irratatingly less interesting than the last. The Turda Salt mine was the first and only interesting stop, followed by a monetary (that looked as though it had being built yesterday) and the touted showpiece – an underground glacier and ice cave. This was truly disappointing. Promotional images showed an underground wonderland of gigantic ice formations and breathtaking caverns. Except that no tourist was actually allowed in that area – we were restricted to a small, dank and featureless cave. I think our small group collectively uttered ‘Is this it?’ at one point, though our day guide seemed oblivious to any discontent. On top of that, none of our food or entrance fees were included in the 35-euro price tag. My irritation was exacerbated by the fact that I’d come home early the previous night (3am) to be up for it, when I could have stayed on and probably sealed something with a cool local girl I’d met. You can’t pick ‘em right all the time though. Cluj still rocked.

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