Mihai Catoiu recommends Cluj, Romania
Cluj is one of the most populous cities in Romania, sitting second only to the country’s capital Bucharest. Situated in the western part of the historical region of Transylvania, the city is one of the most important academic, cultural and industrial centres in Romania. It is home to the country’s largest university, Babe-Bolyai University, its famous botanical garden, as well as dozens of nationally renowned cultural institutions.
Having long dispelled the myths of dark foreboding castles and unpleasant creatures of the night, Transylvania has been generating somewhat of a buzz among clued-up travellers over recent years, not only because of its affordability, but also the complex cultural tapestry that is just waiting to be unfurled.
My favourite place
I’m a keen hiker and had been diligently preparing for this trip for weeks, taking beach runs in the morning and spending evenings in the gym. A three-hour drive out of Cluj brings you to the Apuseni Natural Park, a 75.7-hectare protected area situated in the Apuseni Mountains, with the Vlădeasa Mountains to the north and the Bihor Mountains to the south. According to locals, the park is home to several species of wolf, lynx and bear, although thankfully we didn’t fall foul of any on our hike. At nearly 50 metres high, the Valul Miresei waterfall stands as a testament to nature’s breathtaking force, as water cascades down over two steps, while below the ground there is a stunning network of more than 400 caves waiting to be explored. Remember though, special permission must be obtained from the Romanian Academy to access some of the best caves the park has to offer as part of the ongoing preservation process.
Cluj’s heritage can be traced back to the second century, making it any history or achitecture lover’s dream. Union Sqaure offers examples of baroque, Gothic, Renaissance and neoclassical buildings, as well as access to St Micheal’s Church, one of the most beautiful Gothic monuments in all of Transylvania. Beautifully tranquil gardens can be found in and around the city centre and for those with a thirst for knowledge, Cluj offers a formidable number of museums and galleries. Should this prove a little too sedate for your liking, then a trip to The Dungeon comes highly reccommended. Locked in a room in teams of two to four people, you are given 60 minutes to get out, using only the clues you can find around you to find your escape. Adrenaline levels are guaranteed to soar in this unique real-life escape game in which you play the protagonist. If you have time and the inclination, you could always take a trip to Bran Castle, the home of Count Dracula (if you belive the books), only a four-hour journey away.
Owing to its position in the south east of Europe, the weather is not always guranteed in Romania and rapid changes in conditions can be common. If, like me, you want to travel beyond the city limits to experience nature, it is essential to hire a car.
Like most European cities, Cluj has its fair share of shopping malls offering familiar national brands. Thankfully, though, it doesn’t take too much searching to uncover some hidden gems. Try the artisan’s market just around the corner from Museum Square, where you’ll find a plethora of traditional Romanian treats and trinkets, including clothes and jewellery.
Where to stay
As the tourist trade gathers momentum in Cluj, you will find no shortage of places to lay your head at the end of the day. I would recommend the small but charming family run Villa-Hotel Escala. Not only is it close to the city’s downtown area, but the atmosphere is warm and friendly, which makes for a pleasant stay.