Circle of Friends–Part 8: Cluj, City of Contrasts

Cluj, City of Contrasts

We drove north to Cluj to visit the newlyweds, Adrian and Carmen.

The Someş River that divides eastern and western Cluj Napoca.

Cluj is an ancient Roman settlement. The word Cluj is derived from a word meaning basin, ravine or river valley.  The official name is Cluj Napoca, the latter part added during the Soviet era, suggesting the name of the surrounding region.  The etemology of Napoca comes from Germanic roots, meaning forest or wooded area.  So the appelation fit our view, driving over a wooded pass, down into a small populated valley, bisected by the Someş River.

The view of the Cluj skyline from our skylight hotel room (which we eventually traded for).  Old four and five story buildings of the downtown surrounded by the new stadium to the right and the modern apartments to the left.

Over a hill and heading down, we saw Cluj for the first time–it was getting late afternoon–the sky was filled with haze–awful air quality.

The GPS took us to the hotel–the room is tiny, but is a block away from a lovely cobbled square and good restaurants.  It’s called the Fulton. We checked in and then walked a short distance to a nice restaurant. It was dark now and a bit too cold to sit outside.

I had a tomato, carrot cream soup and a cold eggplant babaganoush kind of spread on toast.  Both were good. Woody had ribs.

Then, after dinner, we had to find a parking facility.  Boy was that tough! Eureka! After circling around a couple of times, trying not to get lost, we found the lot (W did a fabulous job with finding it) and we walked back to the hotel.

Our hotel on the cafe row.  Parking was a nightmare.  All those skylights on the roof were in our attic room, but the ceilings were only waist height on one side of the room.

The next morning, after breakfast, we went for a stroll through downtown Cluj.  One of the first things we noticed was that Cluj is a young city. Everywhere we went, unlike most of the other places in Romania we visited, young people were staying.  In other places they were abandoning the cities and heading for other European countries. But Cluj was filled with young people of every age.  Rebecca and I saw dozens of groups of kids on their way to school, on a walking field trip, or on their way to lunch to meet friends or just out walking.


Cluj has historic roots that date back to a hundred years after Christ. Roman ruins are visible next to other historic sites from various eras in the town square, showing off the city’s multi-layered tapestry of history.

This University was united in the 1950’s, Babes (Romanian) and Bolyai (Hungarian) in an effort to appease the Hungarian population that was then in the majority, now in the minority.

We agreed to meet Adi and Carmen at a local cafe. They took us for a walking tour to see their central park.  It was full of trees of yellow and light green, and the floor was carpeted with more leaves . Many people were out–lots of young families there, too. I watched three old women eating ice cream cones as they passed us and it made me pause to think how amazing their life transformations have been since 1989–from poor working women in babushkas to fashionable, affluent ones who spend Sundays in the park eating ice cream.  They, all three, looked as trendy and chic as women walking in Central Park, New York. Amazing to me what changes they have seen.


Although Cluj is one of the oldest settlements in Romania, it was declared to be the “European Youth Capital” in 2015.  Immediately, we started seeing and feeling a very energetic vibe wherever we went. We noticed moms and dads carrying infants in back or front packs. Young families were out paddling boats on the large pond in the Central Park.  There was one of those kid car rentals near the lake, as well. As this was an unusually warm early winter day, people were out enjoying probably one of the last Sundays in the year with nice weather.

We saw the new Polyvalent Hall, the largest of its kind in southeastern Europe. It holds 16,000 for concerts, hosting Julio Iglesias and Modern Talking. In 2017, the European Gymnastics Championship took place here.

We walked to a pavilion where there was a coffee festival happening.  We went in and the others sampled coffee. We stopped outside at a gazebo where Adi and Carmen’s civil ceremony was performed two weeks before the wedding and then to a small lake where people were paddling around in boats that looked like swans.

We learned that Eurostat determined that Cluj was judged to be the most friendly city in Europe in the year 2014.  That determination came about by a poll of Cluj natives who responded favorably to the question, “How do you feel about strangers visiting or coming to live in Cluj?”  An amazing 91% of people responded favorably, making this city the most welcoming, statistically. Can you imagine that kind of response in the US to strangers coming to live in your town?

We walked around the lake to a busy road where four or five huge old houses stood.  Most were abandoned, but still quite handsome. One was a restaurant, and that is where we stopped to eat.


I had basil watermelon lemonade and a salad. We sat for over an hour and a half talking and showing pictures from our phones–it was delightful (except for the smoke) I could get used to cafe life.

Carmen and Adi have really done well for themselves. They both went to school here in Cluj, Carmen grew up here and Adi came from Zalau about 100 km from here.  The met in their second year of school and been together ever since. Their huge wedding two weeks before our visiting them here in Cluj seems almost as if a formality. They seem so natural together, one might assume that they have been married for years.

Adi is in Information management and Carmen works in management for an investment firm.  They did not get into the details of their work, but it seemed to us that they were fairly well advanced in their careers for a couple of 30 year olds.

They walked us back to our hotel and invited us to dinner tomorrow night.  We headed upstairs and read and wrote until about nine. Then we headed out for a drink.  We wandered some more, across the main plaza and noticed big crowds. There was a kind of festival that was just ending, it seemed. We saw crowds around a magician, a couple of bands, and some improv actors. Lots of people out and milling around–kids, dogs, elders, students. It was a great place to people watch.

Although we did not go in, we walked by the Kinetic Steampunk Pub.  What it is and what it does was a mystery to me, but the music was loud and the people seemed to be happy.

Later, we settled on a cantina near our hotel. It smelled funny, but looked interesting. We realized it was a place where for people smoking hookahs.  We didn’t stay long, but it was an interesting experience.

The next morning, Woody arranged for us to upgrade to a nicer room, it is called the “Matrimonial Suite.”  It is roomy, on the top floor with skylights and a jacuzzi in the bathroom. For Woody, it has a private, fast WiFi.  I finished writing in my journal and then headed out for an adventure. Adrian and Carmen had told me about a botanical garden that was 1.5 km away, so I set out to find it.  

It was all uphill, and only took one wrong turn.  The entrance is a intricately carved wooden arch that led into the gardens.  Some signs were in English, so I could read a bit about the history. It was first a small garden for a college–mostly medicinal plants–in the 1800’s, but by 1925, it had grown to 13 hectares (about 25 acres) under the planning of Alexandru Borza, for whom the gardens are named.

It was wonderful!  I spent about two and a half hours there.  Some of it was well manicured with flowers planted in patterns of colors, while others were cultivated wildness. The had a Japanese garden, a section of plants of North America, a Roman garden, five greenhouses with tropical plants, and wild lands.

Cobbled stone paths meandered through the park and bridges crossed the creek that flowed through.  The gardens rose higher up the hill and it was a bit of a climb to get to the green houses. There were lots of benches to sit and contemplate the world in leafy shade or sunny meadows. And many plants and shrubs and trees were labeled–I loved it.  If I lived here, I would volunteer just to be able to be here. Eventually, I sensed it was time to go. I was hungry and Woody and I were planning on meeting for lunch. The trip down hill was much faster.

Whenever we ate at one of the hundreds of outdoor cafes, we enjoyed people watching. I got used to see virtual school bus loads of kids walking by, sometimes in large groups with a teacher looking after them, sometimes in smaller, informal groups, and sometimes individuals.  I was amazed to watch children as young as eight or so walking through the busy city completely unaccompanied, on the way to catch a bus or run an errand, completely safe and looking confident of his or her mission.

Where our hotel was situated, the front door let out onto a tiny cobbled street of cafes and small colleges and art studios.  Cluj, we learned, was included in a recent publication, 12 Cities that Will Shake Up the Art World. It seems that Cluj keeps surprising us with its modernity, coming out of a difficult, post-Communist era.

Very often when we ate, we would see two or three art students carrying a large piece of framed artwork.  We imagined that they were taking them to an art festival or juried art show. Or maybe it was a consignment piece on its way to a studio or a commissioned piece on its way to someone’s office or living room.

Later that evening, Adrian came after work to pick us up.  We brought wine we had bought in Timisoara with us. He drove uphill (past the gardens I had been to earlier) and up higher to their new (brand new–not even finished yet) apartment.  It’s on the fifth floor and has a large balcony, big enough to have outside dining.

Carmen made a pasta dish that was spicy and a bit sweet–very good.  We sat and ate and drank wine and talked and watched the sun set. I like them both.They have done a good job starting their life together.

About 8:30, we called it a night. Woody was getting sleepy.  Adi called us a taxi cab and it took us home. I believe he made it just a bit longer–maybe around the block an extra time–but still it was nice to be driven home.

One morning we made our way to the Ethnographic Museum that Rebecca found in the Lonely Planet guide book.  It is called the Romulus Vuia, a park of relocated rural buildings depicting the recent to very old communities in northwest Romania. The park was named after the founder of the museum nearly 100 years ago.

After taking what we thought was the right bus, we got off at the wrong stop, and were left with an uphill walk nearly as far from our starting point would have been without the busride. But the walk was well worth the experience.

Both the guide book and the clerk at the hotel said to take bus 30. We were headed to the Ethnographic Park to see the collection of old houses, mills, farmsteads, and churches that have been brought to this park and reassembled.

We bought a ticket at the kiosk and within minutes, we were on our way.  We took the bus to the end of the line, but that was a bit past the best place to have stopped and it meant we walked about one km extra.  The way was up a steep hill, 10%, the sign said.

At the top is the park on a saddleback of the hill.  They have about 30 buildings and other structures spread out to make it seem like a real village. There were some stamping mills to break up stone to get iron ore, felting stamps, mills for flour and also for seeds to press oil.  We saw a wine press and a board-planing mill. Such cool technology–There Were farm houses and churches and barns and farm equipment. A fun place to explore.

The park had dozens of houses build in a craftsman log cabin style.  I was mesmerized by the intricate joinery.

We followed a group of school kids and their teachers for a bit because they had a guide that opened up some of the buildings that were locked up, and we got to peek inside.  Lovely embroidered pillowcases and table cloths and painted pottery–even a potter’s wheel. There were apple trees all over and we picked a few to munch on–tasty!

It was nostalgic to see kids on a field trip.  Although younger than the students that Rebecca and I taught, it was fun to watch their excitement seeing the farm animals and watch the teachers deal with students’ behavior.  “Kids are kids, all over the world,” we started to comment to each other. We picked out the curious ones, the quiet ones, the attention-seekers, all the various types of students we have dealt with throughout our careers.  And it was fun to not have the responsibility of doing anything about it, just sit back and watch!

Back at the hotel, we got ready for leaving the next day.  Adi and Carmen were planning to meet us at a restaurant for our final dinner in Cluj. They selected a rooftop restaurant right around the corner from our hotel.

They were there waiting for us, Carmen looking chic in her work outfit. The evening was settling in around us as we had a drink and the church bells chimed 7:00pm. Except for the obvious dirty haze of pollution hanging around, it was a lovely view.  

The place brews its own beer and I had never smelled hopps cooking before–I don’t like it much. After our drink, we spotted another table closer to the edge of edge of the building with a better view, so we moved to that table.  We talked and enjoyed the evening.

I had a traditional Romanian dish that is a kind of pasty from Wales and a kind of doughy crepe.  Not my favorite, but I still enjoyed the evening.

View from our hotel room on the last night in Cluj.

They walked us back to the hotel and up the 64 steps to our spacious room but then headed home.  They walked with Woody to the parking lot and helped him get the car out of the parking lot. 100 lei for five days of parking, (about $25–Woody thought it might be more.) He moved it to a spot near the hotel which he would have to move before eight in the morning when tickets are given out.   

We would be heading out in the morning.  We felt that with all the places in Romania that see the exodus of young people, Cluj seemed to have the brightest outlook, the youngest families and a positive prospect for the future.  Both Rebecca and I thought we could imagine living here.


2 thoughts on “Circle of Friends–Part 8: Cluj, City of Contrasts

  1. Looks beautiful indeed. What do most folks do for work? Doesn’t seem very agricultural. Some industry (hence the smog)? Fun to see the reconstructed village. Imagine all that work without power tools! Thanks!!! Oh, and Happy Holidays — tonight is Xmas eve. As you can tell, I’m not much of an Xmas person. Hope you’re enjoying it!


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