This was something of an adventure!
Many of us in Uppsala were invited to the wedding of two of our Romanian colleagues in Cluj-Napoca in July 2015. None of us had been to Romania before, and we were all keen to make the most of the opportunity to explore a country which we’d have very few reasons to visit otherwise. Cluj lies roughly equidistant from both Budapest and Bucharest, both cities I was interested in visiting, and in the end we decided on starting in one and finishing in the other, staying a couple of nights in each place, travelling on Romania’s famously slow trains, and attending the wedding mid-trip. We also planned a couple of nights stopping over in Brașov, mostly to break up the extremely long travel time (>10 hours! For ~350 km!) between Bucharest and Cluj, but also because Brașov is a good base from which to do some hiking in the mountains. In the end, 8 of us made the complete journey, with 2 others joining for parts of it. Given the amount of travelling with friends and assumed lack of decent opportunities for photography, the D610 felt like overkill so I left it at home, and took the trusty Canon S100 instead.
As usual, all the photos will expand if clicked on.
We’d arranged to stay in an apartment-hotel (Orhideea Residence & Spa) close to the Gara de Nord station – very nice accommodation, spacious apartments and a very good breakfast buffet, but in a curious location, hidden among some abandoned industrial buildings and with a commanding view of what looks like a disused coal power plant.
You therefore quickly get the impression of the contrasts that make up Bucharest, with modern buildings next to old, concrete Communist architecture and of course the monumental remnants of Ceaușescu’s time, particularly the almost-abandoned Dâmbovița Center and the Romanian parliament building. As I understand it there are frequent guided tours of the parliament building, but unfortunately we didn’t have the time to take one.
Luckily I was able to catch up with an old karate friend from Southampton (thanks again Alex!), who showed us the good eating and drinking spots in Bucharest’s old city, of which there are no shortage, especially if you like thumping loud music even on a Monday night. And drinks at ~ 1/5 of the price in Sweden is very appealing, too.
The following morning – after a good breakfast and some coffee to shake off the late night(!) – we followed a recommendation to go explore the large and impressive Herăstrău park, to the north of the city centre. Angry-looking clouds threatened to soak us, but thankfully we (more or less) got away with it.
We later walked back towards the old part of the city down Calea Victoriei, on which you can find various interesting buildings – museums, libraries, old churches, statues, and so on. We finished the evening, again, in the old city, at Caru’ cu Bere (“the beer cart”), a well-known but quite touristy restaurant, watching traditional dancing while feasting on huge, meaty dinners…
The following morning we made the roughly 2 1/2 hour train journey up to Brașov, at the foot of the Southern Carpathian mountains in Transylvania. The train takes you through some spectacular mountains before arriving in Brașov, especially near the town of Sinaia. Unfortunately I didn’t take any photos of my own of these mountains, but there are plenty of great photos (example...) elsewhere on the internet.
Brașov (formerly “Stalin City”) itself is, for the most part, nothing special, but does have a nice old Saxon centre, complete with huge 14th century church. The old part of the city is pinned in by steep hills, particularly the hill known as Tâmpa, atop which sits Brașov’s own take on the famous “Hollywood” sign. A cable car runs from the old part of the city up to the top of the hill, and on our second day in Brașov we went to the top of the hill, and hiked the ~20 km distance across the hills to the nearby town of Râșnov. On the way, we saw Romania’s most popular ski resort, cattle-herding, a Saxon fortress, horses and carts driven through towns, and Râșnov’s own Hollywood sign!
20 km on from Râșnov is Bran, site of the famous Bran castle, the supposed home of Dracula in Bram Stoker’s book. We didn’t get the opportunity to go, but reports from friends who did were that is very touristy. I would be more interested in any future trip to visit the nearby Poenari castle, the now ruins of the home of Vlad the Impaler, who was supposedly Bram Stoker’s inspiration for Dracula. Poenari castle also overlooks the Transfăgărășan, the best road in the world according to Top Gear – so a rental car is on the list for the next trip too…
After 2 nights in Brașov we were on the train again up to Cluj-Napoca, with the wedding we were travelling to taking place the following day. The distance between the two cities is only about 200 km as the crow flies, but something like a 330 km winding train journey which took almost eight hours (yep – Romanian trains are very slow, and they are actually slower now than they were in the past, somehow). The trip took us through endless rolling hills and fields, but without any of the stark pointy mountains we went through on the way up to Brașov, since we were travelling through the middle of the giant horseshoe-shape the mountains make on the map. Cluj is Romania’s second-largest city, with about 400,000 inhabitants, and a city with a mixed history and people – it was part of Hungary until 1947, and still had a majority Hungarian population until the 1960s (Hungarians are now 16% of the population of Cluj, according to Wikipedia). The mixed cultures are still visible, with a mixture of churches (Hungarians are largely a mix of Catholic and Protestant, and Romanians are largely Orthodox), and the Babeș-Bolyai University, Romania’s largest University with 50,000 students, formed from the amalgamation of Romanian and Hungarian universities named after the Romanian physicist Victor Babeș and the Hungarian mathematician János Bolyai respectively. Despite large parts of it currently being dug up for some reason, Cluj does have a nice city centre, and especially a huge botanical garden apparently with over 10,000 species of plants. No pictures from the wedding on here of course, but suffice to say it was a great party, with plenty of food, and no shortage whatsoever of pălincă…
We left Cluj at 2am on the night train to Budapest, for our one-night stay there before flying back to Sweden. In retrospect taking the daytime train and having an extra night in Budapest would have been better, but as they say, hindsight is 20/20. It might not have been so bad, but as the train pulled into the station, we realised that the carriage our reserved seats were supposed to be in (we had booked the tickets while in Bucharest) was not actually part of the train! After a few confused minutes trying to find out from the guard where we were supposed to be, our group of nine was split, with 5 of us being moved to first class, and the rest in one of the second class carriages.
Doesn’t sound so bad so far, but being on a group ticket with only one real ticket, this caused persistent confusion with the non-English speaking conductors (especially after crossing into Hungary), who looked at our almost-blank counterpart tickets, insisted we get out of first class, but then eventually relented once the actual group ticket was retrieved from the other half of the group. This happened three times, and twice in Hungary – with the first Hungarian conductor obviously uninterested in what the Romanian conductors had told us to do (“this is Hungary!“), and the second conductor completely ignoring the note his colleague had written on our ticket on the first check. So we were all a bit unimpressed, and coupled with two long border checks about 30 minutes apart, I had had about 90 minutes total sleep on the eight-hour ride by the time we arrived in Budapest.
Not that I was surprised, I expected not to sleep much if at all on the trip, which, along with some more lovely low prices by Swedish standards, was one of the motivations for booking ourselves into the fabulously decadent Corinthia hotel for the night – by far and away the best hotel I’ve ever stayed in and likely ever will. After a bit of sightseeing during the morning, we visited the famous Széchenyi baths – the largest spa in Europe – in the afternoon, which was a cool experience. Again unfortunately I didn’t take a photo, but thankfully, again, one can find excellent photos elsewhere on the internet.
There are three outdoor pools – the one closest in the above photo being a lovely 38 °C – and many more smaller indoor pools, ranging from 16 °C up to about 40 °C, and various saunas and steam rooms. I didn’t particularly like the saunas – the best one in terms of heat had steam rising from the seats themselves, which ended up burning my feet and legs! The following morning we visited the spa in the Corinthia hotel – free for guests of course! – which was great… with saunas much more like the Scandinavian sort, without foot-burning steam rising from under the seats…
Unfortunately, with only 1 night in Budapest, I didn’t get to see as much as I would have liked, but I really liked what I saw of the city. There’s a lot of history, interesting architecture, nice atmosphere, good food, and things to do – I will definitely try and come here again in the not too distant future.