Cluj-Napoca, the Heart of Transylvania

Cluj-Napoca Mural, Romania

We had finally arrived in fascinating land of Transylvania, Romania. We had been eager to visit for quite some time, even more so after speaking with Gabor, a big fan of the Transylvania region, back in Budapest. In my head I was imagining haunting castles perched on mountaintops, farmers still using traditional tools, and horse drawn carts rattling through towns; a mysterious, romantic country tucked away on the edge of Europe.

We found a workaway host in Cluj-Napoca, a cultural hotspot in the middle of the Transylvania region. Adela and Dan had made huge changes in their lives over the past few years and have created an wonderful community space for themselves. Their creation, Casa de Cultura Permanenta, is an open, cultural space that welcomes all people, all backgrounds, all ideas. The first floor, previously a café, is now an open space where people can host events, meetings, or simply come to hang out. They had a beautiful philosophy for those of us who stayed there: you are welcome to help in any way, so long as you truly feel like you want to contribute. Isn’t that lovely and genuine? Nathanael and I felt ourselves instantly relax into the welcoming atmosphere of our new home.

Casa de Permanenta Cultura, Cluj-Napoca, Romania
Family at Casa de Permanenta Cultura!

Our time in the house was filled with a variety of fun projects, such as sorting seeds for  an upcoming seed swap, setting up the space for upcoming events, and sifting through an extensive letter/postcard collection in search of those sent during WWII. In the evenings we had cultural nights (Polish and an impromptu Mexican evening, fantastic!), bread making (I learned how to love/nurture a sour dough culture), pasta making, movies, and even a little concert given by a young, German woman passing through town. Cluj is definitely a cultural hub in Romania, and our community was right in the heart of it.

Cluj-Napoca also had a lot more than I imagined to keep us busy. Not long after we arrived we got wind of a play being performed deep inside the nearby Salina Turda salt mine! We have gotten a lot of flak from people for not seeing the Wieliczka Salt Mine in Poland, and this sounded too unique to miss so we jumped aboard the bus with a few of our new friends and away we went. The play was a familiar story, Jonas and the Big Fish, so we understood the gist of what was going on even though it was in Romanian. The setting was what made the preformance for us though. Soon after entering the old mine you plunge down, down, down through a couple of tunnels to reach a massive, domed cavern, the Terezia mine. The Terezia cavern is flooded, and the owners of the mine have built a series of bridges and seating areas. The sole star of the play slowly poled his raft out into the lake, and we watched the story unfold with the his words echoing all around us.

Terezia cavern, Romania
Stairs down into Terezia cavern.
Terezia cavern, Salina Turda
“Jonas and the Whale” in Terezia cavern.

A huge highlight of our stay in Cluj-Napoca, without a doubt, was visiting the National Ethnographic Park. Established in 1929 by Professor Romulus Vuia, the park has slowly accumulated historical buildings from across Transylvania. Yes, they literally disassembled the original buildings, moved, and reassembled them piece-by-piece here in Cluj! The oldest building was originally constructed back in 1678, and the collection includes homesteads, pottery studios, blacksmiths, churches, and more. In fact, one church, collected from Cizer-Salaj, is said to be the most beautiful, wooden church in Transylvania, and weddings are still officiated in it to this day. That particular church was actually my favourite building we visited in all of Romania. The painted ceilings are still intact enough to make out the stories, although it was so cold inside I can’t imagine sitting for too long. In the summertime, the museum also hosts annual fairs and cultural events. Admission is very affordable, so don’t forget to visit!! These places are unique and need support to ensure they can continue to care for these collections of cultural treasures.

One of the craziest things we saw in Romania was the extravagant tackiness of the colloquially named “Gypsy Palaces”. The words “impressive” and “gaudy” simultaneously sprang to my mind the first time we saw a gleaming, silver-tiled, multi-towered/tiered/domed rooftops reared up on the horizon. Once you get past the initial shock, they actually look pretty cool! The palaces are every shape/design you can imagine, and the owners obviously have big imaginations that aren’t daunted by our so-called “building conventions”. Then again, according to this article, they aren’t daunted by most building and safety codes either (check out this National Geographic article, interesting stuff!).

Gypsy Palace, Romania

We had a wonderful introduction to Romania with our family in Cluj-Napoca, thank you guys for all the fun times! We didn’t think Cluj-Napoca would be a place we’d go out of our way to see, but the downtown was beautiful, the ethnographic park was one-of-a-kind, and the people we met were heart-warming. So with many goodbyes and lots of hugs, we ventured deeper into Transylvania, home to vampire legends… wish us luck!

Family at Casa de Permanenta Cultura, Cluj-Napoca

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