Tag Archives: Romania

Sign of Confusion

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“Why is there a red line through the village’s name?” Champa asked our guide as we drove past a road sign while we were touring Romania recently.

Our guide, Florin, who was usually calm and mellow, almost jumped out of his driver’s seat. “I can’t believe you asked me that!” he said, trying not to laugh. “Every foreign tourist asks me this question!”

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The diagonal red line, he explained, indicates you are leaving a village. When you enter the same village, its name appears on a sign without a red line, as in the second photo here.

I confessed to Florin I’d been wondering about this, too, apparently like many other foreign visitors. I felt foolish when the answer turned out to be so blindingly obvious. I wish I’d known how to say “D’Oh!” in Romanian.

That’s the fun of living and traveling abroad. There’s not much “same old, same old.” Even after nearly a year of working in Eastern Europe with the Peace Corps, I am surprised regularly by things I see or hear. Something as humble as a village road sign can unexpectedly spark laughter and cultural exchange.

After we crossed the border from Romania into Moldova, I checked whether they use diagonal red lines on road signs here, too. As Champa had already noticed, the answer is yes. I’m happy to now know this, too. It’s one more fact on my mental checklist about Moldova. Call it a sign of progress.

Back to the Salt Mine

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I used to think “back to the salt mine!” implied drudgery or even slavery. Indeed, when Champa and I visited the Trotus salt mine in Romania recently, we expected to learn about the challenges of working deep underground, as we did at a Pennsylvania coal mine years ago.

Instead, as we descended by bus into the mine shaft, we saw children with scooters and famiies with picnic baskets.

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Things got stranger when we arrived and heard what sounded like a priest chanting. Sure enough, an Orthodox service was under way in what turned out to be a church honoring St. Varvara, the protector of miners. In the video below, you can see the priest giving communion beneath a dome carved into rock salt, with icons set into the white walls.

Just past the church, we came upon kids racing small carts around salt formations. Next we saw playgrounds, a basketball court, a badminton court, a mini-soccer field, a restaurant, a library, even a lake and waterfall. All of this was 240 meters below ground, covering 13,000 square meters.

Located near the small city of Onești, where Olympic gymnast Nadia Comăneci grew up, Târgu Ocna Salina dates its origins back to 1380. Its tourist complex is at the ninth layer of an operation that continues to produce salt for dinner tables and other purposes. Romania has an active salt industry, albeit smaller than in China, the United States and some other countries.

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Many Romanians visit Târgu Ocna Salina for health reasons, especially to breath the salty air to relieve respiratory problems. As we waited for the bus to drive back to the surface, we chatted with a guy who pointed out another potential benefit. “If there’s a nuclear war, we can all survive down here,” he said

Well, maybe. But there’s no denying they’ve carved out a great thing for now, an amazing sight if you’re ever in this part of Eastern Europe.

The next time you hear somebody say “Back to the salt mine!”, tell them you know just the place.

Making Kürtös

Here’s an amazing street food: Kürtös Kalács, a traditional Hungarian sweet cake produced by street vendors in Transylvania. The only thing more fun than watching them make it is eating the kürtös fresh off the fire. This video is also posted on YouTube at https://youtu.be/2ZLCkIPvtHg.

Exploring Transylvania

If I said “Transylvania,” would you think “Dracula”?

Dracula

Transylvania was indeed the home of Vlad Țepeș, or “Vlad the Impaler,” whose bloody reign and hilltop castle inspired the famous vampire novel by Bram Stoker. That’s Vlad in the top-right picture, which we saw when we visited Bran Castle this past week.

Other TransylHowever, as we discovered during our 5-day trip to Transylvania, there’s so much more to see than tacky Dracula T shirts and coffee mugs.

Churches

Transylvania is located in central Romania, west of the Republic of Moldova, which was once part of Romania and retains close cultural ties to it. Romania mapTransylvania has lovely rolling hills, picturesque villages and snowy mountain peaks. Its monasteries are stunning, and more than 150 fortified churches with moats and dense stone walls dot the countryside. Brașov, Sibiu, Sighișoara and other cities combine charm with great dining at low prices.

They are also brimming with history, as you can see from these trip photos. If much of the architecture appears German or Hungarian, that’s because many of Transylvania’s people came from those countries.

Church interiors

Romania’s Western ties have grown steadily since Nicolae Ceaușescu was overthrown and 42 years of Communist rule ended in 1989. Especially since it joined the European Union in 2007, Romania has been prospering, with one of Europe’s fastest growth rates.

Organs & altars collage

Champa and I drove there  with a Moldovan physician we met through an online ride-sharing service called BlaBlaCar. Once in Transylvania, we toured with Florin Ilea, a wonderful local guide who I recommend highly. We stayed in hotels in Brașov and at a great Airbnb apartment in Sibiu located just a block from the historic Bridge of Lies.

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If Transylvania seems exotic to you, let me gently suggest you’re living in the past. I am old enough myself to remember when Prague was considered exotic, too. Now it has become a popular tourist destination for many Americans, as have Budapest, Warsaw and Dubrovnik. Based on what we saw during our visit, I expect Transylvania to join that list soon.

Roof collage

My advice is to visit it now, before everyone else discovers it. As Elizabeth Berkley famously said in Showgirls, a movie even tackier than the coffee mugs: It doesn’t suck (regardless of the vampire legends).

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From top: Brașov, Sibiu and Sighișoara

Video: Dedication Ceremony

Ialoveni celebrated its 580th birthday with its annual “Zia de Hram” event. A highlight was the dedication of a new bust in front of the Consiliul Raional, where I work. The bust honors Ferdinand I, king of Romania 1914-1927, a period when Moldova was part of Romania. I produced this 5-minute video about the dedication ceremony.