May 2014

Inside Transylvania (Part 1) – A trip to Cluj-Napoca

This March we had the opportunity to “win” a few days of vacation in Cluj-Napoca, the former capital of Transylvania. Our Hungarian tutor, who oversees the internship we are doing at the University of Pécs, was invited there to give some lectures on Fitzgerald and Joyce, and in a moment of incredible kindness she offered to bring us along. So, on a Sunday morning, too early even for the roosters, we jumped in her car for a strange road trip through the Hungarian Puszta towards the mountainous region of Transylvania, that once was a part of Hungary.

After a 10-hour drive, a different time zone, a fine for high speed given by policemen stationed in the middle of nowhere, and 515 km, we were finally in Transylvania, Romania. The trip itself was amazing: when people say that Hungary is “the Plain of Europe,” that is not a metaphor. Miles and miles of meadows and bright green, almost fluorescent fields, underpinned by hawthorn hedges and bushes in bloom against a turquoise sky (ah, spring!) Occasionally, we could spot groups of tiny one-floor “postcard” houses, typical of these areas, with colourful walls and roofs, surrounded by pink cherry trees and multicoloured tulips (there were so many tulips that it seems to be in Holland!). The most amazing thing? The storks! In Italy I’ve never seen them, but here they are almost as common as our blackbirds. They made giant nests on top of the concrete pylons along the road and lightened up our trip with their elegance.

Our last stop before arriving in Romania was the King’s Pass. Beware of the regal name, this place is simply a clearing on top of a mountain, entirely occupied by restaurants. To the eye of the inexperienced and ignorant stranger (meaning he who ignores how to read the bilingual signs in Hungarian-Romanian), the Pass may seem insignificant, a place as any other along the way, but actually it holds a delicious secret. As our tutor said, and here I’m simply quoting, “you have to pay homage to the Transylvanian sausage.” And we were happy to oblige! The King’s Pass offers the weary traveler dishes of tasty, super spicy grilled sausages, accompanied by whole loaves of bread still warm from the oven and bowls of mustard. What more could you want from life? It was surreal. The sun was high above the mountains, around us there was pretty much nothing, and we were eating junk food with our teacher in the famed land of Count Dracula.

Crossing the border was quick, and after a few meters a solitary flag stuck in the middle of a roundabout welcomed us in Transylvania. After that, we were struck by the ruinous shame of what had once been a factory complex in perfect, as well as sad, “regime style”. Welcome to Oradea or, as some call it, “the little Paris”. From what we gathered, at least when it comes to border towns, everyone calls them in a different way. And so what for the Romanians is Oradea, for the Germans is Großwardein and for the Hungarians is Nagyvárad (remembering the times when each of them took turns in governing the city). After the bleak greyness of the industrial zone and the periphery, Oradea seems to be very pretty.

Our stop in the town was remarkably short, just long enough to take a stroll through the beautiful gardens of the Bishop’s Palace. The building itself is not particularly impressive, but the gardens of magnolia trees that surround it are magnificent. We passed in the middle of two different photo-shootings, munching Pretzels while, distracted by the flowers, Silvia managed to bump into the only knee-high pole in the whole avenue.

After having chocked back the tears, we departed once again. Last stop: Cluj-Napoca.

End of the first part.


When everything is illuminated: Buda by night

The Buda side of Budapest, that is the “old city,” is my favourite especially at night, when a fairytail-like atmosphere completely surrounds this magnificent area.

The Fisherman Bastion is even better than any fabled princess palace and way cooler than the postcard-like “Disney” castle of Schwangau. During daytime it’s almost impossible to visit, it’s so crowded that walking, let alone exploring the bastions, is a difficult task. Moreover, during the day you have to pay an entrance fee (€3), while at night is free. Indeed, after the sunset people start leaving and within little time the whole area is emptied. This is the best time to visit, you have the entire place to yourself, and standing on the top of the bastions you get the greatest view of the illuminated Parliament on the opposite side of the Danube. Just stunning!

Buda Castle is only a few minute walk from the Fisherman Bastion and though it looks more like a fancy Baroque palace than your usual castle, it’s spectacular! It used to be the king’s residence since the Middle Ages, now it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site that hosts the Budapest History Museum, the Hungarian National Gallery and the fantastic Széchényi Library, the national library of Hungary with its amazing collection of medieval manuscripts and codices, and the rare pieces of what once was King Matthias Corvinus’s personal library.

The gardens are lovely and standing on the Pest side of the city, by the Chain Bridge, the view is simply enchanting!

The Whale of the Danube

There’s a big, seriously huge, colossal whale on the banks of the Danube, on the Pest side of Budapest. It’s made of sparkling glass and it’s really an odd addition to the old, regular landscape that characterises this part of the river. Especially at night, when all the glass structure is lightened up, it really stands out.

So what’s a whale by a river for? Another weird exemple of a too modern art/design/architecture? Maybe, but it’s incredibly awesome. The Balna (“whale”) has been compared to Paris’ Eiffel Tower and London’s Covent Gardens. I’m not sure if the comparison is appropriate but the Whale is definitely a landmark of the city. It doesn’t serve that high of a purpose, indeed, it is simply a very cool shopping mall. It hosts an art gallery, sometimes it serves as a cultural center, and offers a large varieties of shops (from folklore objects shops to regular boutiques), pubs, restaurants and cafés. One, located in the “mouth” of the whale, has the apt name of “Jonas”! With a stunning view of the Danube (if you climb to the top), it’s the perfect place to rest and have a nice cup of coffee! And even if you don’t want coffee, go for the building, it’s fantastic!

Going to the theatre not for the show: Budapest National Theatre

The plans for the construction of Budapest National Theatre have been going on since the first half of 1800. It had to be great, it had to be impressive, it had to be perfect. At least, this was how Count Szechenyi envisaged it to be when he proposed to the City his plan, with his pamphlet “On the Hungarian Theatre.”

After that, a first theatre was built (1837) on the Pest side of the city, but unfortunately it didn’t last for long. After it was destroyed in 1913, a second building was temporarily rented out in the 1960s to serve as National Theatre but, again, it had a short life. Demolished to make space for a new metro station, several buildings were used to host shows and performances until 2000, when a new project for a permanent National Theatre was submitted. In less than two years the new, incredible building was erected on the banks of the river Danube.

Taking advantage of this year’s Easter Holidays, we went to Budapest on a more strategic visit than last time, as we had already did almost all the “must-see, must-do” touristy things. We loved it, of course, but it was time to explore some other sights, less visited but definitely awesome, and the National Theatre is surely one of these!

The architecture is a weird, though charming in its own peculiar way, fusion of a futuristic glass structure with decorative elements of the classical era. On the façade there are reproductions of the nine muses, the roof should remind that of a dome and the courtyard, for some mysterious reasons, is in the form of a ship, half submerged in a huge pool/fountain in which there’s a beautiful, as much as impressive, sinking façade of what looks like a Greek temple (it’s actually a copy of the old façade of the People’s Theatre, now demolished, so it’s kind of a memorial pool…).

The gardens are large, there’s a maze and a tall ziggurat that offers a great panoramic view of the area and of the Danube. All around the park there are many bronze statues of the greatest Hungarian actors “at work.” I remember a Richard III somewhere around the main entrance.

The maze garden with the ziggurat”/> –> The maze garden with the ziggurat

Is it worth a visit? Sure! It’s cool, it’s impressive, the park is lovely and the “ship-courtyard-pool” is awesome. Taken singularly, all elements are fantastic, plus the location along the river is very nice. However, on the whole, for the more sphisticated, it might simply look like a mix of every style, epoch and stuff even vaguely related to the idea of theatre. I like weird, I love expensive tackiness, the more showy, the better. To me, it’s a definitely must-go!

How to get there: the National Theatre is far from the city centre. After a nice 40-min walk on the Danube banks from the Liberty Bridge, it’s right in front of Petofi Bridge. You can also take the suburban train from Boraros tér to Lagymanyosi tér (Boraros – Csepel route), or special bus N°2 to Milleniumi Kulturalis Kozpont station.


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