Thursday, July 26, 2012

Bucharest and Cluj-Napoca * Tuesday, July 10

amazing building front
I spent several hours on our first night in Romania trying to reach my bank, the one that I had informed oh so carefully that I would be withdrawing ATM funds while in three different European countries, until Benja came to the rescue by arranging a conference call with Customer Service.  The next morning, after eating an uninspiring breakfast at Flowers B & B, Lucyna and I set out according to the clerk’s directions to the nearby ATM.  We walked a long block, discovering elaborately designed apartments and lovely quality restaurants at the end before realizing that we had not followed the directions from the get-go. When we finally reached the ATM, the paper notes blessedly came out of the machine when prompted.  We went back to Flowers, paid the clerk, and went on our way to the synagogues that were close nearby.

Choral Synagogue, from S. Katz photo
Choral Temple is one of the grand synagogues of the Bucharest Sefardic community.  It was built in 1856 and reconstructed in 1933, and here it is in a photo I found online, all golden and shiny.

restoring the synagogue exterior

memorial with words from Genesis
  But it has been under reconstruction for some time, so all we could do was peek into the interior, and the room was swathed in plastic sheeting and dust, with workers digging up the floor.  Outside it was all covered by workers on scaffolding. The memorial in the courtyard was sad and angry: it quotes God scolding Cain for murdering his brother Abel.  Germans didn’t march into Romania and kill the Jews – the Romanians did it themselves. 

Jewish veterans from Romanian
war of independence and WWI

It didn’t seem to matter that the Romanian Jews were so patriotic that the names of their previous war dead were honored on the outside synagogue walls.  In a glass case we read fliers about Jewish community classes and an announcement of the regular prayer services that would be held at the main synagogue called "the Great Synagogue," and we strolled off to find it. 

inside the Great Synagogue

On one side of the Great Synagogue was an abandoned, garbage strewn area, including a rotted out car strewn with filthy clothing laid out to dry in the sun, and we spied Bucharestian dogs under a car trying to hide from the blazing heat.  We arrived at the same time as an Israeli family who had pre-arranged their visit with the synagogue.  We listened to the talk and guide by an old, Romanian Jew who knew well all aspects of the 20th century history of the Bucharest community.  Its demise during the Nazi era was displayed on the walls just beyond the pews, taken from newspaper articles and enlarged photographs of memos and government orders.  Really awful stuff.  The easiest deaths occurred right away, when community leaders were brought out to the park in mid-winter, all dressed up for the cold in their winter coats, and shot.  The thousands of other deaths were prolonged and utterly cruel.

We walked back to the neighborhood and turned our attention to more pleasant matters.  We made an effort to eat in the kosher cafe we had spied earlier, but it turns out it is just a grocery store filled 
which lovely color to paint?
awesome salad
with Israeli foods.  I bought hummus and we went to the beautiful restaurant we had spied in the morning.  We were cooled by a fan that was attached to a little spray of mist.  Here in Romania the quality places make lemonade very nicely: cold mineral water sweetened with sugar, squeezes of lemon juice and slices of lemon floating in the water – you can also have lime and mint added.  I had a terrific arugula salad, with very thinly sliced eggplant and zucchini that was roasted, along with sun-dried tomato.  Yum!  Greens!  I had a hankering for the hummus, though I discovered it had been frozen and all I could do was grind away some from the sides and the top.  Lucyna gave up on being a vegetarian and had some meat. 
stick your head in it
Time to fly to Cluj-Napoca, the capital of the Transylvanian region, nestled among the Carpathian mountains and hills.  We went back to Flowers and got a new cabbie, also a crazy person.  The B & B owners said it would take one to one and a half hours to get us to the airport.  This guy got us there in 30 minutes by taking streets through the neighborhood, driving way too fast and intruding into a round-about and nearly crashing into someone who had the right-of way.  We were treated to the Romanian version of road rage.  Our driver made lots of hand and finger movements and grimaces, and he then after he'd gotten his way and sped through, he turned around to us and said, with great contempt, so we’d understand, that the other driver was a gypsy. 
The airport was hot and set up to be unaccommodating to client needs.  Not enough seating or eating areas, etc.  After checking in, going through security, then checking in at the gate, we were boarded onto a bus and just stood there in the heat.  People finally got out and stood outside on the tarmac where it was slightly cooler.  Eventually we got onto the plane, I snoozed, and we flew one hour north into the Carpathians to Cluj-Napoca.  This hyphenate is either a marketing trick or a result of indecision: Cluj is the modern name, Napoca is in reference to its Roman past.  We took a cab into the city to Hotel Melody, a grand old hotel that overlooks the main square.  
in Cluj-Napoca town square

busy town streets
The desultory desk clerk was no help, and we walked out and found the Cluj municipal tourist information office.  A depressed young man gave us lots of good advice about car rental and places to go on our car trip.  We went to a traditional Romanian restaurant he suggested, Cafe Andalusa, and the food was great.  Lucyna was once again a vegetarian and we ate roasted vegetables and terrific eggplant spread, which is a staple here, with baked apples for dessert.  There was Romanian music playing in the background, with one melody sounding like a Sefardic Adon Olam melody and another reminding me of one of the folk songs from the Yishuv, though I eventually realized that these two songs were the only ones being played, over and over again.  We got complimentary vodka, and Lucyna sang its praises and I sipped about a quarter of mine. 
It certainly helped me fall asleep instantly when we got back to our rooms.  Its effect was not long-lasting though.  Hotel Melody was built in the horse and buggy era, but now its melody is the sound of trucks and cars zooming around at all hours of the day.  Neither of us slept much, and the next morning we found another hotel before starting off on our car trip. 

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