Chapter 2: A Clujed Itinerary

The difference between Hungary and Romania at the border is striking. The Hungarian landscape was clean, and all of the buildings in good repair. Just over the border, it was like a war zone. Buildings were falling down, old trains and other vehicles, some blackened by fire, were strewn about. Romania has a lot of very beautiful countryside, and many charming towns where the people take great pride in making their homes look nice. This was not one of those places.

Soon enough, however, we left that behind and headed into the spectacular, mountainous countryside of the northwestern Carpathians. This was a part of Romania I knew, having spent rather a lot of time outdoors in it the last time. Much of the landscape seemed quite familiar to me, and I kept having this feeling that we would round a bend and I would recognize some spot I'd been to before.

We were passing through Transylvania, the one area of Romania that most westerners have ever heard of. Years of horror movies have seen to that, but they've also left people with the impression that Transylvania is a town (possibly in Germany) or an entire country. In fact, it's one of the major regions of Romania. The others are Wallachia in the south, Moldavia in the northeast, and Maramures in the north. Depending on who you ask, there are two or three others, but the definition is not terribly formal.

About 7:20 that evening, we rolled into the city of Cluj, just about on schedule. The plan was that Didina and Radu would be waiting for us there on the platform, but after we dragged our tons of luggage off the train, we looked around, and they were nowhere to be seen. OK, we thought, maybe they're waiting on a different platform. The Cluj train station is not very big, but when there are a few trains in, you can't see the other platforms. One of us walked around, looking for Didina (we'd never met Radu, so we didn't know what he looked like). No Didina. We went through the station from one end to the other. No Didina. OK, we thought, maybe they thought the train was due a little later. We waited. Nothing.

As the minutes started to turn into hours, the gravity of our situation began to sink in. Here we were in a country that really doesn't cater much to tourism. It's getting late. We have no transportation. The eclipse, the single event we traveled some 16,000 km to see, was in two days, and we were still over 200 km north of where we needed to be to see it.

We had phone numbers in Bucharest for Radu and one of Didina's relatives. We got no answer on Radu's line, and when we tried Didina's number. The people there didn't speak English. We walked completely around the station again and again. We were REALLY getting nervous now.

Finally, we steeled ourselves to the inevitable, and decided that there had been some horrible miscommunication, and they were waiting for us at another train station, or even another city. In any case, we decided we were on our own, so we resolved to wait until about 10, then find a hotel for the night. The next day, we would figure out how to get a train down to the eclipse site at Ramnicu Valcea, do the eclipse, then beat it back to Hungary, where we would spend the rest of our vacation.

The cutoff hour came with still no Didina, so David and I went across the street from the station to the nearest hotel to book some rooms. The desk clerk spoke a little English, and told us a double room would be 300,000 lei, which included breakfast. The leu (plural lei), or "lion," is the Romanian unit of currency. The thing that gives the first-time visitor a shock is just how little the leu is worth. There has been very bad inflation in the last decade or so, and now 100,000 lei will only fetch about US $6.40. So $19 for a double room, even if it wasn't a spectacularly good one, didn't seem like too bad a deal...but we never got the chance to find out: just as we were filling out the registration forms, I heard a familiar voice behind me, and Didina walked through the door.

Well, it seems that Didina and Radu had had all kinds of problems getting out of Bucharest, and had gotten to Cluj later than planned. One of the cars had broken down--not what we wanted to hear about a car that was to be half our transportation for the next couple weeks--and there had been all sorts of other problems. They had actually been to the station earlier, but said they didn't see us.

In any case, we were now back to plan A. We somehow managed to stuff all our luggage into the two tiny Dacia automobiles that Radu had brought, and we were set...right after we push-started one of them in the middle of the busy street. We then headed over to the apartment of a friend of Radu's, Doru Seineanu and his parents, where we had a very late dinner. We had a very nice eggplant salad and some excellent cabbage rolls stuffed with meat and rice. Doru's cabbage rolls were one of the very best things we had to eat the whole trip. As in Hungary, I found I had nothing to drink except some tepid Sprite, the other choices being beer and mineral water, apa minerale.

We were all hot and exhausted and wanted nothing more than to get to bed, but Doru and his parents were thrilled by the foreign company, and wanted us to stay all night and chat. Eventually, we managed to tear ourselves away, and headed to our lodgings, the apartment of a friend of Doru's. That's how people get along in Romania: networking. Dave & Kathy got the bedroom, Pam and I got the spare room, with the first of many fold-out, one-and-a-half-size couch beds. THIS wasn't in the brochure...

Several days later, after I had suffered through several of these miserable racks (no national insult to Romania intended here, the couch beds in the US are as bad), I was grumbling about this, and Pam said "yes, but you're getting to experience how the people REALLY live." I told her that I got the picture, and where was the Hilton?

The next morning, Radu took us out to explore Cluj. We kept telling him that we REALLY needed to think about getting to Ramnicu Valcea, the eclipse being the next day and all, but he was nonchalant about it, and kept assuring us there would be plenty of time.

A cool eclipse poster, in English. Not for sale.
Photo by Kathy Lindquist
We looked around some churches, looked around some shops, the usual thing. We went looking for eclipse souvenirs, but to our utter surprise, found none, or almost none. I think we found one place that was selling decorative plates with a rather odd image on them that really didn't have anything to do with the eclipse. We thought, "oh, OK, so all the people selling souvenirs are probably down south in the eclipse zone." Hah! Then we saw a really nice eclipse poster in a store window. When we went in and asked how much it was, we were told it wasn't for sale, they only had one. It seems the Romanian tourist bureau had printed these things up to promote eclipse tourism, but was utterly clueless that tourists might actually like to buy them. Note the photo well: the text is in English, as if to say, "please come to our country, but don't buy anything." Ah well, at least the weather had gotten a touch cooler.

Ever since we landed in Hungary, Kathy had been looking for a shop with cheap reading glasses to replace the ones lost on the plane, but with no luck. As we walked down one street, we passed an optometry shop, so we went in to try one more time. No, the clerk told us, they didn't carry ready-to-wear glasses, but Kathy could get an eye exam and have a custom pair made. She said no, she couldn't afford custom glasses, she just wanted cheap magnifying lenses. Then they told us the price: around $20 for the exam AND the glasses...and the glasses could be ready later that day. With such a deal, Kathy couldn't resist, so she headed in the back with the optometrist and Didina to translate.

The orthodox cathedral and the statue of Iancu.

One of our stops that day was the neo-Byzantine orthodox cathedral. Out in front of it, there is a statue. To the casual observer, it may seem like just one more statue, but therein hangs a tale. For centuries, Transylvania (which is the northwest region of Romania) has been ping-ponging back and forth between being a part of Hungary and Romania, and even to this day, the subject raises a few hackles on both sides of the border. For years, Cluj had a notorious anti-Hungarian mayor, and he did his best to erase previous signs of Hungarian rule in his town. For starters, he altered the inscription on a statue of a Transylvanian leader named Matthias Corvinus (the same Matthias that the church in Budapest is named for) that sits in front of St. Michael's church, from "Hungariae Matthias Rex" to simply "Matthias Rex." Then he flanked the statue with six Romanian flags to drive home the point. He even went so far as to start up a worthless archeological dig that would have displaced the statue entirely, if the national government hadn't intervened and put a halt to it. Then he erected an extremely expensive statue in front of the orthodox cathedral of Avram Iancu, the leader of an 1848 revolt against Hungary. He's holding up a hand and seems to be saying, "no Hungarians allowed HERE, pal"

One of the most notable differences between Catholic and Orthodox churches is that the Orthodox churches have no seats; the people stand during the service.

Inside the orthodox cathedral

Later that day, we got back to the apartment, and sat down to seriously plan our next move. We had wanted to get to Ramnicu Valcea this day, and scout around, but that was obviously out now. After looking at the map and accounting for distances and road conditions, we came to the appalling conclusion that we'd have to leave at FOUR IN THE MORNING if we wanted to get down to the eclipse zone in time. When we explained it to Radu, I don't think he was very happy.

That evening, it was back to Doru's for dinner again. On the way, we stopped to pick up Kathy's glasses. We had to park down the street and walk a couple blocks to the optometrist's. Kathy got her glasses, and as we headed back to the car, Radu stopped in a flower shop to pick up some flowers for our dinner hosts. When we got back to the car, Radu patted his pockets, and came up missing the car keys. He thought he might have left them at the flower shop, so he headed back. We waited. And waited. And waited. After what seemed like an eternity, Radu finally showed up. He said that he'd gone back to the WRONG shop, and of course, the keys weren't there. He finally located the correct shop and the keys, and we were mobile again.

The dinner Doru cooked was wonderful again, and he had more of those cabbage rolls. Again, though, he really wanted us to stay, but we had to be up at four, so again we dashed out on the poor guy.

That night, there were thunderstorms in Cluj, with HUMONGOUS crashes of thunder that shook the whole building. Oh swell. What else could go wrong...?


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