One Good Day in Cluj, Romania.

Normally, I like to be in a town longer than one day. Being in the middle of an extended journey, this was really a side trip. A passed through the region to see what it was like. I decided that I could stop for a day in Cluj on my way from Bucharest to Budapest. I would spend a day in Cluj. Since I got in on the train in late afternoon, I guess you could say I had a day and a quarter.

Getting to Cluj.

The train station in Cluj, Romania, on a sunny June morning.

The city of Cluj is serviced by both trains and planes. There is an airport on the outskirts of town that provides connection to/from numerous European cities.

The train station is centrally located in the northern part of the city center. As with anywhere else in Europe, if it appears on the rail map you can get there. I took the train to Cluj from Bucharest. The 9 hour journey came in an hour late, but it came in. The Rail system in Romania is solid, but maybe still a little Post-communist by Western European standards.

What Cluj Is Not.

One of the many old buildings the city has repurposed for cultural exhibitions.

If you’re headed to the capital of Transylvania in search of vampires and whatnot, you won’t find it. The city isn’t a warren of mid-evil houses enclosing tight cobblestone street and small squares.

Where it may have been a sleepy little hamlet at one point, those times have long past. There is very little middle-ages architecture, no vampires, and not a lot of old world charm.

Sorry. If you’re interested in Vlad the Impaler and all the vampire folklore (I was!), there are numerous day trip options to the various sites. Sadly, none of them are in Cluj.

What Cluj is.

The Cluj Old Town, as seen from the top of Fortress Hill across the river.

The city of Cluj is a very modern feeling city, with busy streets and throngs of people coming and going. With a population of around 320,000, the current city of Cluj is a vibrant and active place.

The city has a young feel to it. The universities, and its draw to younger Romanians makes it a very trendy city. You won’t find any boiled potatoes or buckets of ale in this town. Countless outdoor cafes, and restaurant give it a Western European feel. The populous, for the most part, is outgoing and friendly.

Exploring the Old Town.

The statue of Matthias Corvinus in Central Square. ST Mathews Church sits quietly in the background.

All that being said, you can have a good time in Cluj, once your objectives have been adjusted.

The old city area of Cluj is compact, well-defined, walkable, and holds most of the historically interesting sites. Your best option is to get out early enough to get a table at one of the outdoor cafes around the central square, where you can enjoy a coffee and views of the very old ST Micheal’s church or the imposing statue of Matthias Corvinus.

After coffee, head east toward the theater and take in the centuries of varying architecture jumbled together along the various street. From the theater area, and it’s impressive Orthodox Church, make your way back down the river to the museum area. They have numerous museums to chose from. They’re all small and quaint by western standards, but their still nice and get you out of the summer heat.

After the museums, find another street-side cafe or bar and cool off with a beer. When you’re ready, cross the river and climb the steps up the side of Fortress Hill. From the top you get good views of the Old Town area.

And, don’t forget to hydrate. The summer sun is surprisingly hot at mid-day.

Thoughts.

Where I would say that no one is intentionally going to Cluj, if you’re passing through Transylvania it’s well worth stopping at. Where Bucharest’s post-communist rot will wear on your emotions after a while, you’ll find none of that in Cluj. It’s clean, modern, and tastefully trendy. If you forgo the language difference, you can easily imagine yourself almost anywhere in Europe.

Drink in the cafes. Walk around Old Town. Check out a couple museums. Then, get on the train. It’s a town that’s worth a stop … if you’re already headed that way.

Now, get out there! Go find new places to see! New cafes to drink in.

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A Quick Bit About the Fortress of Tomar, Portugal.

After thinking about last week’s list and searching through numerous photo collections for the pictures, I realized that I had another spot on the globe which could/should be included. Going to Tomar, Portugal, and seeing the Fortress, is really worth the trip.

I found the small Portuguese town by accident. I was doing Templar research for a novel, and the fortress at Tomar kept appearing, so I figured it would be a likely place as any for a story stop. I it added to the places I needed to research when I went to Europe, and have been happy that I did. The fortress ended up featuring prominently in my novel The Long Path.

Tomar is located about an hour north of Lisbon, literally at the end of a train line. Don’t be shocked if you get off the train and the place is empty, maybe a little overgrown. The train station sits on the edge of the old town section and is an easy walk to wherever you want to go in the city. It seems that most tourists are wandering into the old town section, and the way is well marked. The city of Tomar is basically split in two by the river that bisects it. The old town is on one side and modern Tomar is on the other side. The old town section is well maintained and worth exploring. For the sake of his post, I went to see the fortress, so this will be about the fortress.

The fortress of Tomar, as seen from the old town.

The Fortress of Tomar has a commanding presence over the town and is visible from most everywhere you look. It sits high up on a stone outcrop above the city. There is a well maintained walking path that will take you, at a casual incline, up to the entry gate.

the entry into the fortress of Tomar.

The pathways leading around and into the main fortress are wide and still well maintained. The cobble stone is quite easy to navigate when it is dry. I was there in the early fall, so the weather was accommodating. The walking path out of old town leads you to an exterior car park. You enter from the car park, through the main gate house and under the portcullis, to the wide entry seen above. A further gate secures the interior fortress wall. The whole structure is surprising well maintained.

Where the original Keep of the castle fortress has been destroyed, the monastery and the chapels, as well as the defensive fortifications are all still in good repair. Once a stronghold of the Portuguese Knight Templar order dating back to the 12th century, it was given over to the Knights of the Order of Christ when the Templar’s fell from grace. It became a catholic convent and still holds the proper name of the Convent of Christ.

The charola rotunda of the church at the Convent of Christ.

The stronghold’s centerpiece is the Romanesque round church that occupies a central space in the main fortress area. The round church is said to be modelled after similar churches in Jerusalem, and has wide interior aisles so that the Templar knights could enter the church on horseback and receive their blessings before being off about whatever business commanded the day. Not to overstate the church, it is absolutely stunning.

The tilework in the cemetery cloister.
Tilework inside the Cemetery Cloister’s chapel.

The main church is surrounded by many structures that are remarkable. The grounds hold seven or eight cloisters, and blocks of cells for the monks, along with necessary administrative outbuildings. The open and welcoming nature of the Cemetery Cloister is a recommended stop. The blue ceramic tile that decorates the walls of the cloister and the associated chapel is still of fine quality. If you stay in the cloister for any amount of time, you can feel the Moorish influences that still permeate the region, independent of their current use in a Catholic structure.

the author standing in the doorway of a sentry tower inside the Fortress of Tomar.

The interior of the multi-story structure has many sentry towers and exterior walkways that give excellent views of the surrounding countryside. The rooftop areas of numerous structures are also open, so as to be utilized as outdoor areas. There are only a few sections of the fortress that are sectioned off for no entry. The vast majority of the complex is openly accessible and worth lingering in.

The city view from the ramparts of the Fortress of Tomar.

As seen above, the fortress commands an excellent position over the town and offers great views. I had assumed that this stop would turn out to be a day trip for some good information and photos of the structure. I ended up spending two days at the fortress, just taking in everything it had to offer. These pictures are the smallest of samples. The place is fantastic.

If you find yourself in Portugal, and somehow becoming bored by the Lisbon cityscape, a daytrip to Tomar may be a perfect alternative. It is easy to get to, it has several accommodation options to chose from, and there are many good restaurants in the old town. I stayed in a small boutique hotel by the river. It sat on it’s own little island, and was very charming.

I confess that I didn’t spend any time wandering around the modern sections of Tomar. I walked across the bridge and took pictures of the fire trucks, sitting outside the local fire department, but that was really about it. The old town has much to see. There is also a local tourist office located in the old town, just down the street from the train station, if you need maps or advice.

I found the town to be an excellent stop. Even though I was there was “Work”, I would still say that it’s definitely worth visiting. And as this is a blog for travelers that are not necessarily 20 anymore, the old town is small and easily walkable. The train station is on the opposite end of town from most of the hotels, but in reality it only takes about ten minutes to walk there. the walk up the hill to get to the fortress is relatively gentle on grade and not very strenuous. The restaurants on offer in the old town run the gambit, but it’s easy to find local fair that is above the backpacker pallet. I certainly didn’t have any trouble.

All in all, it’s easy to get to and has a wealth of history. The fortress has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1983. It is well worth your time. or, that’s my opinion on the matter.

Now, get out there. Go see stuff.