29 May 2012

What To Do in Cluj-Napoca

We arrived in Cluj-Napoca on a half-empty train with rain-streaked windows.  That morning we'd crossed the border from Vršac in a Serbian taxi.  The driver was fast, the landscape was a blur of sunrise and outstretched fields.  It had been a glorious day.
On the journey from the plains of the southwest into the foothills of Transylvania, the landscape changed.  Farms were smaller, men mowed hay with scythes, draft horses replaced tractors and, instead of concrete, the houses in the mountains were made of wood.  Romania, in our first glimpse of it, was rural in the extreme, like a gothic fairytale.
But then we got to Cluj-Napoca and spent two damp days floating in a sea of modernity, music and food - the dripping forests, wolves and castles would have to wait.  Above, "Rupa and the April Fishes" - a San Fransisco based band that sang in French and Spanish - plays to a crowd of soggy urbanites.  As we were passing by, a group of young mimes showed up in stripes and facepaint. The mimes danced soundlessly, we felt bemused, the setting could have been anywhere.
We had come to Cluj-Napoca - which is called "Cluj" informally - because it seemed a promising start to a big wilderness.  It was supposed to be our doorway to Romania.  What we found was a separate thing, receiving almost nothing from its surrounds, a kind of island of cosmopolitanism.  After two days we knew nothing about the country and our minds were swirling instead with concert dates and cinema premiers (the Transylvania International Film Festival begins June 1st, there are posters everywhere).
Cluj had been described in our guidebook as a university city, which meant two things to us.  First: the guidebook would probable be out of date.  College towns change quickly, what was new and popular two years ago will be passe by the time we visit.  Second: the town wouldn't be out of date.  If there are students and young people, a city can't help but feel stylish.  Students don't care about how old the town museum is, or the story behind the belltower or what the old mayor said about the Hungarians - they want good places to eat and exciting places to drink.  Case in point: Kaja Tanya restaurant on Inocentiu Micu Klein.  A daily menu, vegetarian options, excellent food, cheap prices, bottles of liquor being passed from hand to hand - it was great, it was fun, we began to fall in love with the city, rain be dammed.
In an old theater space, thin, good looking youths had gathered for an art and fashion fair.  The paint on the ceiling was flaking off, the floor was scuffed and creaky, the whole building felt as though it had just been opened to the world after decades of decay.  It would have felt like Bram Stoker's version of a boutique, but the venue wasn't the point - we were the only ones looking at the light fixtures and crumbling moldings, everyone else was focused on the present.
The clothes were made for very angular people, a few photographers roamed around to document the coming together of Cluj's fashionable set.
The rain never stopped.  We spent two nights and the day between jumping from shelter to shelter, hoping for a break in the weather but never finding one.  What we found instead was exemplary coffee (at Toulouse cafe, the milk was artistically frothed, the espresso perfect) and a cafe crowd that spoke a fluent, easy mix of Romanian and English.
A big stage had been set up outside in the square.  We listened (sipping our second cups) to a full orchestra play for a few umbrella-holding pedestrians, the conductor exuberant, the string section shivering, the audience very meagre.
On a side street, an "international foods festival" was taking place to very little fanfare.  There were some excited customers huddled at picnic tables, but there was a lot of food and few mouths.  Local restaurants had set up tents to dish out hot bowls of ramen and boards of sushi, German sausages, goulash and generic "Shanghai Express."  This man was beginning a huge batch of paella while talking to a reporter - he had his earbuds in and a camera slung around his shoulders.  He seemed excited.
Our best meal in Cluj was at Baracca, a grey-toned box of lights and wine bottles on Napoca street itself.  When we lived in New York, we played (as all New Yorkers do) at being restaurant critics and knowledgable gourmands.  That seems like a long time ago now - it's difficult to find good food in the hinterlands, much less great food.  An elegant, well cooked plate brings with it the thick aroma of nostalgia, an opportunity to dredge up fond recollections and old discussions at different tables.  Now, we talk less about the food we're eating and more about the dim-lit places of the past.  Do we get homesick?  No.  But we often dream of traveling in the New York of our memories.  Was the grilled duck breast at Baracca good?  I can't remember, I was lost somewhere else.
It shouldn't be surprising that a city like this, in Transylvania, is so worldly.  In metropolitan streets, influences and culture jump from country to country, city to city, bypassing everything in between.  What was surprising about Cluj-Napoca was how quickly it had appeared from the pines and hayfields, like a sudden patch of electric light springing up from the 19th century.  Just a few miles away from where we were eating, sheep were being penned in for the night, women were cooking over woodfires.
We finished our last night in Cluj at Old Shepherd Pub on Matei Corvin street, with bottles of Silva beer.  The young owner had spent some time in Britain and insisted that he was modeling his bar after the English pubs he'd grown to love.  He also insisted that we drink his favorite local brew instead of British ale and the cellar space had more of the lost Alphabet City grunginess of the old East village than anything one could find on Avenue A today.
We left Cluj in another downpour, having seen almost none of its sights but feeling that we knew it well - both because its demeanor was familiar and because we'd spent so much time in its boîtes.

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