When we arrived in Cluj, evening was about to settle in – so we headed straight for the campsite. There’s two – one that we’d been told was the best site in the country, but a good distance out of town; and one that was handy for town. So, of course, we went to have a look at that one first. It had kerb-appeal, so we stopped in to have a better look. Yep, it looked quite pleasant. It wasn’t deserted – there was a Dutch caravan just being set up. No sign of any staff, though. By the time we did meet the management, it was too late to back out… He was, umm, a character – let’s just say that he’s clearly no stranger to a bottle. Still, when he saw us sat at our camping table, as the sun started to set, it was clear to him that we needed a little extra something. So out came the chequered tablecloth and a large vase of flowers – presented to us with all due pomp and circumstance. We’ve had a laugh at some of the fridge-freezer campers, with their camping pot plants and tablecloths – now, we were they!
In the morning, we headed into town – the second biggest in the country. It’s a very livable sort of place, just big enough to quickly acclimatise to, but with plenty of life buzzing around. There’s not much in the way of big-name sights to see, especially on a damp Tuesday morning, but we quickly decided the pharmacy museum sounded worth a visit. A pharmacy since the 16th century, the first two rooms show off many of the jars and shelves that would have stored the lotions and potions across the centuries. From one of the rooms, there’s a narrow and almost vertical set of stairs downwards… into the days before pharmaceutical companies, when the pharmacist would have needed his own laboratory to prepare the medicines. As our eyes acclimatised to the gloom, a series of arches turned out to contain a myriad of implements and glassware.
Our wander through the rest of the town took us round the usual selection of attractive old buildings and cathedrals – the Orthodox cathedral, facing the monumental theatre building down one end of the centre of town. The main square with a large Catholic cathedral and (apparently, we couldn’t find ‘em anywhere!) a series of stone columns remembering those who’d been shot in the 1989 revolution. Off to one side of there, a series of pedestrianised squares and streets contained some pleasant restaurants, cafes and bars.
Towards the border, Oradea was our next and final stop. After another thoroughly mediocre campsite at the nearby spa of Baile Felix (Happy Spa – which it certainly didn’t seem), a quick once-around of town found a much more pleasant place. We parked right on the main square, just as the majestically over-the-top city hall sounded the hour with a series of chimes to the tune of an anthem to Romanian national hero Avram Iancu – a bit of a subversive act when the hall was built, whilst the country was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. A meander round the centre found the Orthodox cathedral, known as the “Moon Church” due to the lunar phase clock in the middle of the facade. Just up the square from there, the Black Eagle building contains a sinuous and beautifully Art Nouveau glazed passageway – but, unfortunately, building work meant it was closed except for a quick peek in at the far end. Continuing our bimble around the back streets found more beautiful “Secession” architecture and detailing.
And that was Romania. A month which Ellie’s summed up in another post, but we’ve absolutely loved.
Our final mission before leaving the country was to get rid of our last Lei cash – easy enough, the van always needs a drink. Except after a very awkward moment leaving Croatia, when I managed to miscount what I thought was left, put more fuel in than we had cash for – and was only saved by finding another coin in the bottom of a pocket – I thought “I know, I’ll fill it, and pay part-cash, part-plastic.” Nope, that didn’t wash. So we had to pay on plastic, and were left with too much cash to really want to keep as souvenirs. As we approached the border, thinking that what we needed was a shop so we could just stock up on beer, wine and other non-perishable consumables, we noticed huts at the side of the road advertising Hungarian road vignettes… We’d heard, half way through our time in Romania, that vignettes were needed there – but no sticker or other physical evidence was issued, the purchase was just logged on a database. The one dealing we had with a Romanian traffic policeman just confirmed our belief that there was little risk of being called to account for it. Hungary, however, we thought would be better organised and equipped. As it happened, a quick visit to a deeply nicotine-stained PVC conservatory-cum-bedroom revealed that the minimum vignette purchase was almost exactly the amount of cash we had left.
With the exception of all the trucks being filtered off into a monumental queue on one side, and a semi-derelict series of huts with a desultory passport glance, there was little actual evidence of a border. We were in Hungary. Ahead of us, Budapest – but only after several hundred kilometres of the Great Plain. If ever there was a region which lived up to the name, it’s the Great Plain. It is huge. It is flat. It is the same big, boring flatness that we’d met almost as soon as leaving Zagreb and which we’d crossed all the way to Belgrade. Whilst the physical border infrastructure was easy to miss, the effect on the human landscape was impossible to miss. Instantly, we were among industrial-scale agriculture, with massive monotonous fields almost as far as the eye could see – and farm machinery to an appropriate scale. The one (and not altogether welcome) relief to the tedium was rapidly developing toothache.
Perhaps, to British eyes, the most glaring and interesting change in crossing into Hungary, though? A Tesco in every single town. For most of the trip, we’ve been bouncing up against the same few predominately French supermarket chains – Carrefour, Leclerc, Auchan; and the ubiquitous German embassy (Lidl) – all the way from Spain and Portugal, through Tunisia, to Romania. Now, for a change – a British supermarket chain! I’m making no comment as to whether this is a good thing or not… but they didn’t have Cheddar, and whilst they did have teabags (and just in time, too!), they’re not exactly Yorkshire.