Friday, October 26, 2012

Welcome to Cluj!

Orthodox Cathedral in Cluj
We bid a sad farewell to Munich, Frank’s favorite city in the world, with a vow to return again soon.  The next leg of our trip was a short (1 ½ hr.) early morning flight from Munich to the city of Cluj (pronounced: Kloowdj) in Romania.  We flew a Lufthansa flight once again (although the plane was much smaller).  The friendly crew offered us a breakfast pastry and the usual juice, coffee and tea.  But then they asked if we wanted champagne. Was there ever any question?  Lufthansa may have just become our favorite airline!
The tiny Cluj airport was easy to negotiate, and Passport Control was a breeze with no visa required.  We hit an ATM and got our first look at Romanian currency (known as lei or RON).  Weird bills!  The currency looks typically European, but it’s made of plastic – it’s like the stuff has been polished with furniture wax; it’s slippery to handle.  The plastic construct lasts longer and is supposed to be harder to counterfeit; and it does not deteriorate like paper money; you can actually run it thru the washing machine with no negative effect on the money.  Outside the airport, we looked for a taxi to take us into the city and had our first encounter with “unscrupulous Romania.”
Statue of Baba Novac, a famed warrior
who was nicknamed Baba (grandmother)
because he lost all his teeth in battle
A cab driver approached us, and we showed him a piece of paper with our hotel address carefully printed.  He said he could take us but when pressed, finally gave us a price of 45 euros!  That’s the equivalent of $58 American dollars.  What a rip!!  The hotel had advised us that a typical price was 5-7 euros.  Anne snatched the piece of paper out of the cabbie’s hand and said, “No, thanks.” He was clearly disgruntled and mumbled some (undoubtedly) unkind stuff in Romanian as he walked away.  We weren’t sure what we would do now, cause he didn’t even offer an alternative lower price – guess he figured he could wait for the next foreign sucker.
But now what? We stood there uncertainly until a nice-looking older man came over and asked us (in good English) if he could be of help – and offered to drive us for a fraction of what the other guy wanted. It turned out that “Pop” (pronounced: “pope”) was a friendly guy who taught us our first Romanian word multemesc (mool – tse – mesk) which means “thank you” and even gave Frank a beer recommendation (more about that later).  Pop drove us straight to our hotel and true to his word, only charged us 20 lei (about 5 euros).  Frank gave him a generous tip, gave Pop accolades for his honesty, and we were all happy.
Hotel Alexis, where we are staying, is a new hotel in Cluj, and our room is amazingly spacious – more than twice the size of our Munich hotel (and half the cost).  Romania is cheap, with lots of bang for the buckaroo!!  Welcome to cheap Europe!  We also got the “Romantic Weekend Package” which meant a basket of fresh fruit, a bar of Romanian chocolate, and a bottle of Romanian champagne.  This is becoming quite the bubbly trip.

Love that Ursus beer!

A five-minute walk from Hotel Alexis brought us to the center of town where we found a restaurant called “4 Amici’s” (four friends), and they even had a nonsmoking section, just for us. Unfortunately, smoking is rampant here, and we will have to work at protecting our lungs from the second-hand smoke issues.  The smokers even light up in restaurants clearly marked “no smoking,” despite the restaurant’s insistence to the contrary.  

We ate pizza, ciorba (soup) and salad, but the big hit of the meal was the Ursus beer.  Ursus means “bear,” and Pop, our cabbie, who had recommended this Cluj hometown brew, told us that Romania has lots of brown bears from the Carpathian Mountains.  These bears are protected so the Romanians can’t hunt them; and according to Pop, this is a big problem because these bear eat sheep and other farm animals.  Ursus beer is the best beer in Romania (at least according to the Clujians) – and it definitely tasted good to us.
Taking confession in the middle of the church
The following morning we met Andrei, who will be our guide for the next week.  Today he gave us a walking tour of his hometown Cluj.  Cluj actually has many elegant buildings, and it is obvious that much has been recently restored. (Unfortunately, Cluj also has many ugly concrete constructions built during the Communist days under the despot Nicolai Ceausescu).  We visited several churches and viewed a portion of the old fortified city wall – Cluj is fortunate to have an intact old city.
We were lucky enough to witness a Greek Orthodox baptism while in Cluj.  The ceremony begins with the mother taking confession right in the middle of the church aisle (with the priest’s robe draped over her head).  There are no confessional booths, so this is the way confession works with everyone. 

One of the triple baptismal dips!

The big finale comes when the tiny unsuspecting infant, totally naked, gets entirely imersed via a triple dunk into a basin of holy water! None of that pouring of a few drops of water on the head, like they do in similar ceremonies here in America. Our little guy went for an unrequested swim in some deep holy water!!  He handled it remarkably well, and you could see how proud the family was.
Cluj has been occupied by other forces repeatedly and churches have changed hands too sometimes from Jesuit to Protestant Reformed.  Being close to the Hungarian border, Cluj has a large Hungarian population – their protestant churches tend to be quite plain (in fact, they plastered over the old Catholic frescoes!) except for the ornate organs and the elaborate pulpits.
St. Michael's pulpit of carved wood that
gleams like gold and copper
Unfortunately, we had one more experience with “unscrupulous Romania.”  We don’t want to dwell too much on this because overall the people of Romania are kind and friendly, but you need to be a savvy traveler here.  We returned to a small neighborhood grocery store near our hotel to buy more bottled water.  When Frank got his change, he realized the young woman had shorted him 5 lei.  She said, “Oh sorry,” and immediately gave him the 5.  That's OK; mistakes can happen, we thought. 

However, later when he checked over the purchases, Frank realized that she had also overcharged him for one of the items!  Note that bar codes are nonexistent here, so prices are entered by hand.  It wasn’t much money, and we know these people are poor, but nobody likes to be cheated!  It’s just the principle.

The swarming black crows of Cluj

One very Transylvania aspect of Cluj were the hordes of large black crows that flew into the city center parks each evening at dusk (and back out at dawn to dine in the outer garbage dumps). 
These big birds looked like ravens (and we are not sure they weren’t), and added to the mystique of the Transylvania legend.  Hundreds and hundreds of black “crows” came flapping slowly along the main street each night, as tho there was another "thoroughfare" at about 100 feet above the main road, cackling at max decibel level right past our hotel window.  They were like creepy Hollywood Dracula-movie props, adding to the mystery and allurement of this part of Romania.  Haaaa!!  What a set up for Halloween! 
Happy Halloween from Transylvania!

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