A Traveler In The Foreign Service: A Guys Road Trip To Transylvania

In the Foreign Service, it’s easy to calculate who your best friends are. They’re the people who will come visit you in places like Khartoum, Yekaterinburg or Bujumbura. Diplomats who get posted to London, Paris, Rome and a handful of other cushy places find themselves running informal bed and breakfast operations, as marginal friends and distant relatives come out of the woodwork to claim a free place to stay.

We had several friends tell us that they planned to visit us in Macedonia but none made the trip. I expected an uptick in business when we moved to Budapest, but my first visitor wasn’t interested in the typical grand tour of Central Europe.
“I was thinking we should go to Romania,” said Ian, a good friend from St. Louis who had never been to Prague, Germany and a host of other far more celebrated European destinations.

“Why Romania?” I asked, more than a little surprised.Ian’s logic was that he could easily visit Prague or Vienna with his wife and perhaps even their three small children, but Romania would be a tougher sell. So we made a vague plan to spend a weekend in Budapest and then take a four- or five-day road trip to Transylvania and Ian was on our doorstep weeks later.

As we motored through the grubby, Americanized suburbs of Budapest on a Monday morning in March, heading east toward Transylvania with no set itinerary, we both realized what a rare treat it was to have a men’s getaway.

“It’s Monday morning and instead of being on my way to work in St. Louis, I’m here driving through Budapest on my way to Transylvania,” Ian remarked. “I like it!”

Our progress east was slow, on a two-lane road clogged with slow moving trucks, passing through forlorn little towns with homes built seemingly right on the road with no setback. As we neared the Romanian border, we passed ramshackle gypsy settlements and saw a few haggard looking prostitutes working the side of the road. I felt lucky that our greatest concern in life at that moment was who the Cubs would choose as their fifth starter for the upcoming season.

We were two married American men in a Toyota with diplomatic plates slowing down to get a better look at roadside prostitutes near the Romanian border on a Monday afternoon. Good times.

Romania had just joined the European Union less than three months before our visit and it was still a matter of speculation whether hordes of Romanians would vote with their feet. We saw many of the same major European chains present in Hungary, but the roads were dicier, there were a lot more farmers poking around on horse drawn carriages and there were plenty of old Dacia’s left over from the communist era sharing the road with souped-up Mercedes’s and BMW’s piloted by kamikazes who thought nothing of passing on blind curves, shoulders or simply right into oncoming traffic.

The roadside villages en route to Oradea defined unremitting rural poverty, but the soul crushing Soviet era apartment blocks that dominated the gloomy outskirts of Oradea seemed even worse.

The center of Oradea looked more promising, but even the colorful baroque buildings all seemed to be in need of a coat of paint. Oradea had been part of the Kingdom of Hungary until the conclusion of World War I, when Hungary lost a massive chunk of its territory, and as recently as the 1960’s, there were more ethnic Hungarians than Romanians in Oradea. But on this day, I didn’t hear any Hungarian speakers.

We had lunch at a garish looking Italian restaurant and on our way out of town, a gypsy gave me the finger after I took a photo of him hollering at his recalcitrant son.

It was dark by the time we reached Cluj-Napoca, a thriving metropolis once known as the Hungarian capital of Transylvania. We stopped at a shady looking hotel and a short young man in a vest showed us a cold, depressing room that was outfitted with what looked like prison furniture. According to our guidebook, the place featured an “erotic show” in the basement.

“What time does the show start?” I asked, even though we had no intention of checking it out.

The young man appeared confused so I re-phrased the question.

“What time do the girls start dancing?”

“No, no,” he said, “We don’t have girls here any more.”

A second hotel seemed even worse and they wanted 80 euros – a princely sum for a dump in Transylvania. We finally landed at a surprisingly posh hotel in a residential neighborhood that also provided some sort of vague “business solutions” and “consulting.”

“Where can we find the boyhood home of Gheorghe Muresan?” Ian asked the pretty girl at the front desk. “You know the basketball player, I think he’s from Cluj, Gheorghe Muresan!”

She eventually registered that Ian was referring to the bizarre looking, 7-foot-7-inch Romanian giant, who is one of the tallest and least talented players in NBA history.

“I think he lives in New Jersey,” she said.

We had read that Cluj was a happening town with 70,000 students and a thriving club scene; but we didn’t expect much on a Monday night. The first bar we hit was a stylish place that would not have looked out of place in Berlin or New York. It was about nine o’clock and the place had a smattering of customers.

“What time do you close?” I asked the barkeep.
“Six,” he said.
“Six?” I repeated, “As in six in the morning?”
He nodded his head.
“And does it get busy on a Monday?”
“It is getting busy all of the days,” he remarked.

We hit a stylish basement bar on the recommendation of a group of young women we met on the street and as Ian and I were chatting about our respective lives in St. Louis and Budapest, a woman came over to the booth and, before I knew what was happening, kissed us both on both cheeks, greeting us as though we were long lost friends. It took me a moment to register that it was one of the young ladies who had recommended the place to us.

The most outgoing of the group, named Adriana, wanted to know why we were in Cluj. It was a good question that I had no coherent answer for.

“In America hardly anyone parties on Monday nights,” I said. “So we had to come to Cluj.”

Adriana looked puzzled.

“I would think in the States you could party every night,” she said. “People have more money there than here, so why not?”

“Well, we could go out every night, but we just don’t,” I said before entering into a rambling discourse about how many channels most Americans get and the high cost of beer.

Ian and I hit another bar and somehow managed to stay out until almost 4 a.m. The place was still going strong when we left and I’m quite sure that the students danced until sunrise, if not later. An ordinary Monday night in Cluj is a lot like Mardi Gras in New Orleans, without the beads and flashing.

In the light of day, Cluj seemed like a city in transition. Sidewalks were being torn up, students and beefy gangsters in matching sweat suits hung out in trendy looking cafés, and we felt that it probably wouldn’t be long before the city became a popular spot for backpackers. Yet just minutes outside of town, there was no escaping the Old Romania and the generation that still made its living off of the earth, plying their trade with ancient looking farming instruments and horse drawn carts.

We had no reservations for Sibiu, our next stop, and were shocked that the first two hotels we tried were both sold out. We finally found a motel on the outskirts of the old town but had to park the car several blocks away, after trying in vain to navigate the city’s ancient street plan.

Sibiu is a strikingly beautiful town that is set right in the heart of some incredible Alpine scenery. It had just been named a European cultural capital and much of the town’s historic center had received an impressive face-lift.

The atmospheric streets all seemed to radiate out from a colossal square that was dotted with colorful Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque style buildings in keeping with the town’s Saxon heritage. Unlike Cluj, Sibiu was dead at night. Each night we ended up at the only place that seemed to be open late, a little street side kiosk that sold cold drinks and phone cards.

An enterprising young college student named Elena, who sat bundled up in the cold booth, worked the overnight shift.

“I work here at night because I’m saving up to buy a computer,” she explained.

“But when do you sleep?” I asked.

“I go straight from here to class in the morning, and then, if I can, I try to sleep after classes, if I don’t have too much work to do,” she said.

Ian and I were taken aback. In our culture, if you want something, you just go out and buy it. We pledged to return the following evening with a small contribution toward her computer purchase, but we returned the following night to find that she had the night off. The older woman who was there in her place seemed suspicious when we asked how we could contact her.

We thought about leaving the cash with her but decided not to because we didn’t want her to get the wrong idea about why two American guys were leaving cash for a young woman.

As we left town the next day, we talked about Elena and I felt like her willingness to stay up all night in a freezing cold kiosk was a reminder of how lucky we were to be American men on the loose in Transylvania with no reservations or responsibilities.

[Photo credits: Dave Seminara, CamilG on Flickr (Sibiu)]

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My Bloody Romania: Sibiu, slippery when wet

Dateline: Sibiu, Romania

Sun, warmth and temperature perfection; that pretty much sums up the first 48 hours of my Vladling road trip in Transylvania. At exactly 48 hours, one minute and 15 seconds, Romania suffered a freak, only-when-it’s-me, inclement weather zap. The temperature dropped 20 degrees Fahrenheit, fog rolled in and it rained like hell. Parts of eastern Romania were under water in a matter of hours. Nothing dreadful like that happened in Sibiu, but it was still a cruel turn of events after all that driving.

Our driving day between Târgu Mure?? and Sibiu could have gone smoother. Romania’s lethargic commitment to signage, accurate or otherwise, turned a two hour drive into four, including a maddening, looping tour of Sibiu’s commercial district while trying to outwit signs and deviously placed one way streets that circled the historic center, but never actually led to where they promised.


The Little Vampire and I frittered away the vast majority of the 30 minutes of sunshine that Sibiu enjoyed on our only full day in town lingering over coffee and following around a German couple carry my LP guide to Romania and Moldova – the first sighting of the book in a non-controlled setting. After that brief encounter with comfort and dryness, we exclusively saw the city from the insides of cafes and restaurants, darting and shivering from patio umbrellas to covered building entrances and generally wishing our little hearts out for it to stop pouring just long enough for us to run back to the car (it never did).

Nevertheless, Sibiu was nice to look at – all polished and redecorated for their spotlight year as a European Capital of Culture. Had we the proper cold and moisture resistant clothing, the city certainly looked primed for a good stroll. A police presence stronger than I’ve ever seen in Romania was out, manning virtually every street corner and wandering the plazas in twos, waiting for someone to make their collective days. And when no one did, they actually made themselves useful, directing traffic and even helping drivers find parking spots. Seeing as how my history with Romanian police mainly consists of them staring a hole into me as I drive through town, scanning my driving/car for any excuse to pull me over and shake me down for a bribe, seeing all this goodwill was a little creepy quite frankly.

When it’s not hypothermia weather, Sibiu deserves two full days to take in its worthwhile sites and architecture, including the abundance of the city’s atmospheric ‘eyelid’ windows. The trifecta of plazas – Piaţa Mare (Large Plaza), Piaţa Mica (Small Plaza) and Piaţa Huet (The What Now? Plaza) – are newly cobblestoned and enriched with artistic flairs like modern art and creative landscaping. The southeast remnants of the lovely 16th century city wall are a time travel trip, if you can ignore the Dacias and Peugeots parked alongside it. A number of sights, including the Brukenthal Museum, “the oldest and (likely) finest art gallery in Romania”, the City History Museum and the Franz Binder Museum of World Ethnology are all excellent. We gave it a miss due to the weather and since I’ve already seen several just like it, but the Museum of Traditional Folk Civilization, 5km south of town, has a staggering 120 traditional dwellings, mills and churches painstakingly trucked in from around the country. And though I was barred entrance by God’s Securitate, it’s probably safe to assume that the tourism office is first-rate.

Oh right, possibly the main reason everyone was on their best behavior was that Sibiu had been overrun by a Caucus of Organized, Devout Non-Atheists. The Non-Atheists verily locked out the remainder of Sibiu’s tourists for the week, commandeering the tourism bureau, filling every bed in town (we were forced to book beds in a village 15 kilometers away), monopolizing all worthwhile sights and even somewhat rudely turning us Non-Non-Atheists out of the warm and dry Evangelical Church, without so much as a glimpse of the ornamentation or the 1772 organ with 6002 pipes, into the freezing pouring rain, while they slaughtered goats or whatever it was they were doing that required total privacy and air-tight security.

Lastly, a small health problem was finally addressed in Sibiu. After dining in Restaurant Leo in Târgu Mureş (LP-listed, by the way) two days previous, I’d started on an involuntary strict regimen of racing to the toilet every 90 minutes to do unspeakable things that rhyme with “doop my ducking drains out”. When it became clear that this was the kind of food poisoning that doesn’t just eventually work itself through the system, I made a stop at a pharmacy to buy an antidote (‘Furazolidon’ for those of you who find yourself in a similar situation on your next trip to Romania). And, for the record, when the pharmacist asks you how many you want, she literally means how many pills. If you say “five”, she busts open a package, whips out a scissors and cuts up the tabs. Try that at Wallgreens! I was instructed to take two pills right away, which turned my pee a delightful color of reddish-orange. ‘Delightful’, that is, if it were being served in a heaping glass of ice next to a pool on Mallorca. Rather alarming when it comes out of your doodle. Ultimately, the pills did the trick and I was never forced to take an emergency poop by the side of the road, which I’ve never had to do in 37 years and hope to avoid for another 37.

Leif Pettersen, originally from Minneapolis, Minnesota, co-authored the current edition of Lonely Planet’s Romania and Moldova. Visit his personal blog, Killing Batteries, for expanded coverage on his gastrointestinal peculiarities and further groanings on why, oh why, is it so f*cking difficult for Romanians to put up a sign? Just one bloody sign, for Christ’s sake? I’m not asking for the world here, just an effing sign pointing to the center of town! I mean do these asshats want tourists to visit their damn town or what? Mother of God…