I like “slow travelling” in all the cities I visit. This term means that rather than a few short days in each place to do some sightseeing and then to move on, I spend a few weeks or a few months in each city, getting to know local people and experience the city in a way that allows me to learn about the culture a little deeper and make lasting friendships. Like my 1-week trip to Kyiv, when I visited Romania I tried the quick tourist route for the last two and a half weeks, covering much ground and seeing several cities and mountains. I definitely felt a bit rushed since I just got an overview of each place and didn’t get to spend so much time with the people I met. But even so, I met many incredible people and really enjoyed my short visits and long train rides between cities. I spent the first week visiting cities and the second-week hiking in the mountains, so this post will be about the cities.
Timișoara in Western Romania
I was expecting the city to be small and quaint, but the first thing I saw when I stepped off the bus and into the main square was a women’s weight lifting match. People crowded around and cheered, and I joined the crowd with my big backpack and hiking boots, cheering for my favourite, who won in the end. Actually, the city is lively and the third-largest city in Romania, with about 320,000. There are three main squares, especially in the summer; many events are going on throughout the day and into the night.
I watched an open-air theatre show done by a Polish company called W Zdrowym Ciele Zdrowy Duch, which means, In a Healthy Body, Healthy Mind. After the show, I asked many people around if anyone understood Polish, but unfortunately, no one did, so I was unable to discuss it very thoroughly with anyone. But it started out with people running on treadmills at the gym, all cheerful, listening to music on headphones. One by one, people stopped running, waved to their friends and left the stage. Then it turned into a war and had many images and scenes showing people being bombed and drowning. The pictures on the screen and the lighting made it very emotional. Finally, in the end, the people were back on the treadmill, but this time they were running in the war, from the shooting and fighting. One by one, they fell from the treadmills, waving to their friends and leaving the stage until just one person was left.
After the show, I met Catalina and Alex, two students who came together from a smaller town (I forget the name) to study. One is a psychologist and one an artist, with big plans for their careers when they graduate. I spent the evening with them. First, they showed me all around the town. Then, they took me to try Ciorba de Burta, a traditional soup of Romania, made of cow stomach. After that, we talked about their university, music, tv shows and Romanian history. American artists are very popular in Romania, so we had many music tastes in common, but they also told me about a few Romanian artists to check out. I was so happy to meet both of these new friends; they are kind and intelligent, and I can tell they will make a big difference one day.
I also met Istvan, my waiter, at a restaurant. He left his nursing career to follow his true passion as a waiter and sommelier. It was exciting to feel his love for what he does, learn a little about wine and talk about life in Timișoara. He said it is possible to build a life for yourself there as long as you are willing to work hard for what you want. Istvan’s family is Hungarian, but he was born and raised in Arad, a small town a few hours away. I think when someone lives in a country other than their place of origin, it can be challenging to figure out their identity, balancing a desire to keep your heritage and native language but also wanting to embrace the culture in the place where you are living and to be a member of the life there as well. Istvan expressed some of this from the place where he grew up, but said that since he has been living in Timișoara, he has met so many people from other places, has spoken Romanian, Hungarian, English, etc. and has realised that while it is important to remember one’s heritage and use their native language, it is also valuable to have an overall sense of community with everyone, no matter where they are from. Actually, Timișoara is predicted to become the multicultural capital of Europe by 2021, so this city is a great place to spend time and immerse yourself in that kind of environment.
A stop in Oradea
My next move was a sixteen-hour train ride to Bucharest, with a stop in Oradea, where I hung out for a few hours. There I met really kind people curious about where I was from and where I was going. They all wished me a pleasant visit and suggested to me their favourite places in Romania. When I first rolled into Oradea, I thought, this place is the middle of nowhere. And then I realised I really like being in the middle of nowhere. I can always find someone interesting to observe, a unique photo opportunity, and experience a piece of local life uninterrupted by the tourism industry. When I first left to travel, I expected it to be a whirlwind of excitement, colours,s and bright lights. While some of it is like that, a majority of my time is spent sitting and waiting. Waiting for the train or bus, waiting in a line, waiting for a bed in a hostel…and I have found these to be the prime situations for writing inspiration or talking to the person next to me and hearing a snippet about their life. It’s one of the most unexpectedly beautiful experiences that I’ve found while travelling.
Bucharest: the Capital of Romania
In Bucharest, I met up with my friend Christian who I had met in Bosnia, as both of us were travelling there at the same time. He is a super generous guy who always has a lot of thought and research to back up his opinions. He works in IT and said that is definitely the most successful field in Bucharest. He and I became good friends. He took a week’s vacation from work and showed me Vama Veche, a popular seaside destination where you can camp in tents and swim in the Black Sea. At night it’s like a festival with different music stages all along the beach. We checked out a Romanian folk station and spent some time dancing to traditional songs. It was fantastic to see people of all ages letting loose and singing, linking arms and dancing in a circle, everyone smiling and being friends.
I spent about five days in Bucharest, which has interesting architecture because of the mix of monasteries, churches, and communist buildings. The most interesting is the Palace of Parliament, the heaviest building in the world because of all the bronze and marble. My favourite place in the city was the square outside the National Bank, where I sat several times watching tourists and local people walking through, selling art and performing. I was never bored there. My other favourite was Carol Park, which surrounds a lake, has great running paths, areas of peace and quiet, but also restaurants and bars.
There are many book shops in Bucharest, and I saw many people sitting and reading in the city. I bought a book of philosophy by Emil Cioran and got to know the girl at the bookstore in the meantime. Bucharest is full of people who came from smaller towns and villages as it is the capital city and holds the most opportunity for good jobs. I’d like to visit again and spend time experiencing the art and music and getting to see the way the city ticks and to feel its comings and goings.
Stay tuned for my hiking stories!