Updated: Oct 12
By 2021, I had fully settled into the new normal of eastern European lifestyle. In mid July, I traded Serbia for Romania. At this point into the pandemic, there were only a handful of countries that didn’t require quarantine on arrival or have other strict measures in place. This was an extremely fluid list that could drastically change on a dime. And it did, frequently. After crossing paths with more and more travelers during that time, I came to a realization. Regardless of our travel plans, we were all on the same trajectory. With the advent of a society being flown at half mast, arose an unspoken covid trail. By default, we were all adapting in real time to an unfamiliar landscape. Over drinks, we would share travel tips and rattle off countries that were recently opened to tourism, as well as others that had just closed their gates. Looking back, the entire scene was very Mad Maxian. It seems now, we would all like to collectively pretend as if nothing happened. A fleeting moment in global trauma bonding. As I write this now, I do not feel as if the pandemic ever truly ended. We all certainly went through varying states of loneliness and experienced trauma of our own. Maybe we can address it properly at some point, but currently, the focus on getting "back to normal" outweighs any time for reflection. And who could blame us? Alright friends! Enough of all that. Let’s get into the land of vampires during covid times, shall we?
Red, White & Bloody
Growing up in the states, the idea of Transylvania being an actual place on planet earth seemed almost unheard of. One of my all-time favorite video games as a child was Castlevania, released in the mid 80s via the first Nintendo console. In the game, you play as Simon Belmont. Simon comes from a long line of vampire slayers and carries a whip twice his size as his weapon of choice. Traversing Dracula’s castle, you proceed to take on an onslaught of mediocre vampires. Eventually, reaching the main undead ghoul himself at the end of the game. One of the most basic of video game tropes for certain, but the aesthetics of Castlevania remain iconic to this day. Don’t even get me started on the Blade film franchise. There probably wasn’t a single teenage boy in America that wouldn’t have given anything to be Wesley Snipes, circa 98. The commodification of Transylvania was so deep in the American psyche, it even tapped into the breakfast cereal market. Of course, I’m referring to Count Chocula, which was more or less an all chocolate version of Lucky Charms. The cover of the box boasted a cartoonishly goofy Dracula, peering into a bowl of spooky processed sugar and milk. Notably, he repped a dull set of buck teeth that lunged out from a silly grin. This was no doubt a successful marketing ploy to defang the villain for all the nagging children in the breakfast aisle, pulling at their parent’s pant leg. All this to say, when I look back on how the US portrayed Transylvania, it's a bit cringeworthy.
Cut to my very first meal after touching down in the capital of Romania. You guessed it. A vampire themed restaurant called iDracula. The entire aesthetic was the equivalent of an Olive Garden chain, if their slogan was “When you’re here, we suckin’ that blood.” Medieval regalia hung in castle window carve outs on the walls. Blood red colored table cloths rested over rustic wooden tables, with matching casket-esque cushioned chairs. The only item missing was a mini “wooden stake” toothpick for after the meal. I can’t really blame them for capitalizing on all the vampire fanfare. After all, it is one of the more badass cultural mainstays that a country could have under its belt. Even if it is fictional window dressing, draped over an actual historical figure. The embarrassment I felt over how cartoonishly America had approached their culture prior to getting into Romania, instantly washed away after realizing how much it is very much embraced and celebrated by Romanians. Flipping through the menu, I squinted to make out the Olde English font. One dish in particular jumped out at me: The Wild Boar steak with Hribi, or Romanian style mushroom porcini. I’d never tried wild boar, so I figured, what the hell? I ordered the dish, along with a popular Romanian lager, Ciuc (pronounced chewk). After getting excited about trying out my first local beer, I discovered that it’s owned by Heineken. It was drinkable, I'm not mad at it. The wild boar, however, was incredible. Served with a side of fresh mozzarella, tomatoes and in-house horseradish sauce, I was blown away. iDracula was only the first of many blood sucker tourism spots that I would encounter in Romania, and I love to see it.
After staying in Bucharest for a month and some change, I began drawing up my plans for moving north. To my surprise, Transylvania is not actually a city, but a region with a handful of cities sparsely peppered throughout the mountainous landscape. On the southeastern side, the Carpathian Mountains (a.k.a. the Transylvanian Alps) draw a natural border. To the west are the Apuseni Mountains, stretching all the way up to the bordering Ukraine. After considering a flight up to Transylvania, I noticed it was possible to travel by train. It would be roughly ten hours into Cluj-Napoca, the old capital of Transylvania. If you don’t mind long train rides, I would recommend this option, as you get to see a much more intimate portrait of the local terrain. There were a couple of factors at play with my decision to kick off in Cluj. One of which, being that it’s the second largest city in Romania. The real reason being that Cluj is home to an iconic and haunted forest that had been on my radar for a long time.
I contacted my host about planning to head north and threw some essentials into a small backpack. During my first stint in Bucharest, I had inadvertently booked an apartment that was considered to be in a Gypsy ghetto. The neighborhood itself was a bit sketchy on the surface, but I never had a single issue with the local folks in the area. The only difficult scenario I found myself in, centered around the elevator in my building. It was a single person elevator and appeared to still be running from the 1950s era. You had to manually pull a slotted steel cage door in order to gradually ascend up into the building. One day, it just stopped working about halfway down from my apartment on the 6th floor. The top of the elevator hung roughly a head’s length above the hardwood surface of the 3rd floor. In a panic, I gave a few shouts for help. The nearby tenants had seemingly already left for the day, as my cries were met with deadening silence. The interior of the elevator was ornate and wholly crafted from wood. Even while fully functional, it felt similar to being in a fancy European casket. I began messaging my host to contact a maintenance person. Finally an hour later, the buttons on the slender elevator lit up as it carried me down to safety. My host had been busy with work and missed my initial messages, but reached out immediately to the building’s maintenance staff as soon as she caught them. Outside of the elevator incident, I never felt in any danger in that part of town. The folks in my neighborhood were mostly Romani Gypsies, that had migrated to Europe centuries ago from Northern India. All of which were nothing but embracing towards me as a new face in the neighborhood. The idea of their nomadic spirit resonated with me far more than the other locals in the city did.
The main train station in Bucharest is called the Gara De Nord, or the Northern Railway Station. Arriving at the Gothic-Stalinist era structure via taxi, I made my way toward the ticket booth. As I entered the hangar like station, it was clear that this was a no frills type of operation. It was easy enough to navigate as a foreigner, so I certainly couldn’t complain. On the way, I noticed a slew of signs with large arrows pointing to an area where they were administering the Covid vaccine. Jumping at the opportunity, I booked a later departure and tried my hand at seeing if I could finally get the jab. For context, I had made multiple failed attempts previously in Turkey, Serbia, and Kosovo. Each country had their own reasoning behind not providing the vaccine to foreigners. In Turkey, you needed a resident’s permit. I barely missed a cut-off shortly after landing in Serbia, where they had been vaccinating foreigners. In Kosovo, they just laughed and said nah.
Look. Depending on how you feel about the pandemic in hindsight, it may seem funny that I was literally country-hopping in search of the vaccine. To be honest, I was taken aback that these governments had no issue, allowing tourists like myself to traipse across their country completely unvaccinated. Not to mention, coming from god knows where. Spoiler alert, it was Asia (gasp!). Need I remind you, the global death toll resulting from the virus had long been extremely apparent and in the news. Google shared weekly death toll numbers that I eventually had to stop keeping up with. I remember my heart dropping into my stomach after reading about the situation in New York, in April 2020. Hospitals had run out of body bags, resorting to using forklifts in order to transfer corpses to makeshift morgues. My intentions are not by any means to trigger anyone by these nightmarish reminders. As humans, we tend to have the memory of a goldfish, especially when it comes to highly traumatic events. Many friends of mine are now downplaying the horrors of the pandemic. Perhaps because they simply didn’t experience the same loss that many around the world had to endure. So, yes. I waited patiently in line to see if I could finally get the vaccine, and wouldn’t you know it? As I reached the front of the line, I was told by the nurse that they could not administer the shot to non-residents. I shrugged and found my way to the platform.
The journey up north was indeed a long stretch, but certainly not without its breathtaking scenery. The train would, of course, periodically give off a bellowing gasp of smoke as it came to a halt. Loads of interesting folks would file in just before the train kicked off again. Some would argue with one another about who had stolen whose seat that they had rightfully purchased a ticket for. You might make a new friend during the trip up and meet for drinks somewhere down the line. People watching had easily become one of my favorite past times in the years that I’ve been lucky enough to experience new places and culture in the ways that I have. Long train trips also gave me a solid excuse to continue a book I’d been long been putting off. My travel plans for Transylvania really only consisted of a beginning point and an end point. Starting in Cluj-Napoca, and ending in Brasov. Everything in between was left vacant by design.
If I were to give any travel advice, it would be to keep things as open-ended as possible. You might have loads of meticulous planning in place, only to arrive somewhere and realize that it wasn’t at all what you thought it would be. You could alternatively fall in love with a town and decide to extend for another week or two. The approach that has worked for me is this: choose a handful of interesting places in said location. If only a fraction of that gets checked off, I would still consider that a win. The truth of the matter is that the bottom will inevitably drop out from time to time. Factoring this into your travel plans might enable you to laugh into the void rather than to throw a fit and be “that guy” when shit does, in fact, go extremely sideways. Another bit of advice would be to choose a primary hub when you plan to stay in a country for an extended period. In Romania, my primary hub was Bucharest. If you manage to find a solid host, make a genuine effort in establishing a friendship with them. Don’t be fake, by any means. But go out on the town and grab some drinks with them. They’ll also have a wealth of information pertaining to the area you’re in, well beyond what google might throw your way. They might even be keen on holding onto your heavier luggage while you explore other parts of their country. I lucked out with an amazing host in Bucharest and they did all the above, enabling me to travel light with a single backpack while I headed north.
Cluj - Napoca
Leaving the Cluj Central Train Station, I stretched my legs and made my way into the old city. The mixture of Gothic and Renaissance architecture with modern street art gave the city an immediate and unique charm. This is not to say that the capital of Romania is without its own character, of course. I would say Bucharest shares a similar grimy appeal with the likes of New York City. Cluj, on the other hand, has an otherworldly, almost haunting Grimm’s Fairy Tale look about it. Founded by German settlers back in the thirteenth century, they took the name Cluj from the citadel originally used to protect the city, or the Castrum Clus. The additional name “Napoca” wasn’t actually tacked on until the 1970s, perhaps to add a Romanian touch to an otherwise German namesake. There you have it. Cluj-Napoca.
Before I could even think about getting settled into my new home for the weekend, I had to find something to eat. I brought a few snacks on the train ride up, but for a ten-hour trip, it was a laughable amount in retrospect. Spotting a modest-looking restaurant packed with mostly locals, I sat down and ordered a beer with a plate of Sarmale. My Romanian friends will hate me for this, but Sarmale is basically Romanian egg rolls. Healthier, of course, being that it isn’t breaded or fried. The exterior is a sour cabbage, tightly rolled and folded with mincemeat and rice on the inside. Topped with fresh sour cream and paprika, Sarmale is, in fact, the stuff of dreams. I finished up eating and stuck around for another beer. While scrolling through my GPS, I searched for some quick sightseeing that I might catch before sundown.
Heading further into the heart of the city, I arrived at a massive statue resting in the center of Old Town. It was the Raven King himself. King Matthius Corvinus sat in full body armor upon his horse, compassed by two pairs of soldiers with raised flags in his honor. This statue, in particular, piqued my interest, the more I dug into the lore surrounding this larger-than-life figure. Matthius was crowned King of Croatia and Hungary during the fifteenth century, at the wise age of fourteen. Oddly enough, he became one of the most enduring figures in Hungary’s history. For one, he would disguise himself as a peasant to get a better glimpse into what was happening on the ground floor of his kingdom. Because of this and a series of successful battles with the largest standing army at the time (The Black Army), he also became known as the people’s king. The Raven mythology is based on a tale of a raven delivering a ring from Wallachia (modern day Bucharest) to Prague. Via the raven, his mother informed him that the moment had arrived for him to be crowned king. The word corvinus is also the Latin term for raven. So, perhaps we should take the raven mythology with a grain of salt, although I am into it. Either way, I will not take away the fact that he was for certain the Raven King. So why was the king of Hungary and Croatia set as a mainstay monument in the heart of Cluj? During that time, Transylvania was very much part of Hungary’s territory.
The Bermuda Triangle of Romania
I continued to walk off my dinner, eventually flagging down a taxi as dusk fast approached. Thirty minutes outside the city, a younger couple had rented one of their spare rooms out to me for the weekend. Their apartment was only a brisk walk from what is said to be one of the most haunted forests in the world. Hoia-Baciu, also referred to as the Bermuda Triangle of Romania. The legends surrounding the forest range anywhere from the paranormal to the extraterrestrial. Being that Hoia-Baciu is reportedly over 55,000 years old, how could it have not amassed a few strange tales along the way? That’s plenty of time to get weird. One of my favorite stories that it boasts is regarding a young local girl. At only five years of age, she allegedly ventured into the forest one day, never to return home. Five years passed after her disappearance, when she was spotted walking back into town as if nothing had happened. Not only had she not aged at all, she was also wearing the same clothing that she wore on the day of her disappearance. Upon being asked where she had been for half of a decade, or what had happened during that time, she responded confused, having no recollection of the ordeal at all. This is one of many legends surrounding the mysterious forest.
Another tale of a strange disappearance tells of a shepherd that had once passed through the forest. Leading roughly two-hundred of his own sheep, the shepherd and his entire flock were allegedly swallowed up into whatever vortex sits amongst the crooked trees. Unlike the young girl, our shepherd and his entourage were never to be seen or heard from again. Perhaps now is a good time to note the physical layout of Hoia-Baciu. Spanning merely three square kilometers of land, it's unlikely to get lost here for too long before finding a border and returning to civilization. However, what Hoia-Baciu lacks in acreage, it makes up for in its otherworldly lore. During the 1960s, a flurry of claims began to emerge that the forest was teeming with extraterrestrial activity. Two widely known sightings occurred just a few years apart from each other. First, by a biologist named Alexandru Sift, who had initially visited the forest to study its unique vegetation. And later, by a military engineer named Emil Barnea, who had gone camping on the forest grounds. Both men, respected in their fields, left Hoia-Baciu with bizarre claims and providing photos of what appeared to be a UAP flying above the trees. I am by no means endorsing any of these instances as fact. Nevertheless, having read up on all the mysteries surrounding the forest. I had to see for myself what truth, if any, the lore holds.
It was dark by the time I arrived to check in. Already a long and arduous trip up to Cluj, I was ready to pass out. Making my way up the stairs to the apartment, my hosts had seen me arrive outside and were waiting to greet me. I would be staying in a guest room that doubled as a music room for her husband whenever it was vacant. It was a pleasant surprise to have a classical guitar in arms reach during my stay. Placing my backpack on the bed, we moved to the kitchen and talked for a while. They asked if I had booked the room specifically to visit Hoia-Baciu. I nodded. Most of the travelers that passed through their home were interested in the haunted forest. I received mixed responses as to their thoughts on the subject. His wife laughed heartily, exclaiming that any supernatural lore surrounding the forest was nothing more than a hoax to drum up tourism. Even still, she chose to err on the side of caution and avoided the forest altogether. Her husband, on the other hand, had frequented Hoia-Baciu on many occasions. He mentioned hearing whispers in his native tongue while hiking alone in the forest. The most unnerving aspect for him was the overwhelming sense that he was being observed. The reverence in his voice reminded me to balance my skepticism with a level of caution. His only advice was to stick to a day trip if I planned on going in solo. I agreed, although I had originally planned on making a day and a late-night hike into the woods. With a teasing grin, his wife wished me luck. With that, we turned in for the night.
The alarm from my cell phone convulsed rudely next to my pillow. Was it already 6 am? Of course it was. I wanted nothing more than to sleep in, but I also knew that getting into the forest early would heighten my chances of having it to myself. Stretching a bit, I forced myself out of bed in the hopes that a shower might give me the jolt that I needed. I packed minimal supplies for the trek: a large bottle of water, an umbrella, my cellphone and a charger. For safekeeping, a hidden zipper pocket in the interior of my backpack housed my wallet. It never hurts to add a couple barriers of entry when traveling alone in precarious locations. While the threat of the paranormal carries its own weight, a much more valid concern would be crossing paths with a couple meth-addled fellas wielding baseball bats. Deep in a forest, no less. In the event that you find yourself in a fix such as this, having your wallet in a secret stash pouch could buy you enough time to make a much needed juke move.
Passing through a vacant construction site, I found myself at the entrance to the forest. I crossed over the dirt threshold and entered Hoia-Baciu. The surrounding air was as rich as it was dense. Glancing up at the leafy green exterior of the forest, I admired the effort to which each tree put forth in weaving its tapestry on high. Sky blue glints made themselves known in the rare absence of the luminesced leaves. For a cursed space, it was breathtaking within the forest walls. And just as I had hoped, it was twenty minutes into the trailhead without a soul in sight. I began to come across the oddly shaped trees that appeared in photos I’d seen online. Crooked and cursed in their appearance, I could see how folks might get the impression of something demonic at play. Encountering any strange rustling or voices in this setting would certainly send me flying towards an exit.
I forgot to mention that I did have a specific destination in mind. My plan was to head west of the forest to an ellipse referred to as the Poiana Rotunda. A circular opening in Hoia-Baciu where, for unknown reasons, the trees are unable to grow. Another piece of forest lore tells of Romanian peasants that were murdered in the forest long ago. Paranormal investigators have reported a high level of activity within the Poiana Rotunda, which they believe is connected to the spirits of the murdered indigents. Would I find myself face to face with these temporal specters, reenacting their brutal demise on a doom loop within the rotunda? More than likely, I would not. However, it seemed like an interesting enough focal point for the hike. The terrain began to dip drastically. I hadn’t yet veered from the trail, so I chose to follow it further down. It led me into a mini holler of sorts, which in Appalachian speak, means a dip or a valley in between mountains. Reaching the bottom, I spotted a couple of used burn pits made up of various colored stones. Previously, I’d read that a lot of folks enter Hoia-Baciu specifically to perform ceremonial rites. This could have been the remnants of that, or it could have also been from brave campers the night before. Either way, it wasn’t worth sticking around to find out, so I pressed back up to higher ground.
I was roughly halfway to reaching the Poiana Rotunda. There was still no one around, as I began to hear the sound of sticks snapping and other unsettling movements not too far from the direction I was heading. I thought perhaps it was my mind playing tricks on me, or simply harmless wild life existing in its own habitat. Standing as still as I could, I pulled the bottled water from my backpack while quietly surveilling my surroundings. The rustling subsided, and I continued on the path. Fifteen or so minutes later, someone or something began sprinting through the forest. The sound grew louder as it got closer. My body froze momentarily, while I tried to see what exactly was approaching me in such an aggressive manner. I spotted what looked like three monstrous dogs rushing in my general direction. Possibly more, but that was all I could make out in my line of vision. I could hear them snarling and making heavy grunts as they made their way towards me. Hurriedly, my body shifted gears into fight or flight mode, of which I chose the latter. I leapt over curled branches resting on the forest floor and maneuvered my way around the serpentine trees, completely flushed with adrenaline. Prior to leaving the states, I had begun marathon training. In that moment, it seemed the muscle memory in my legs began tracking once more. Perhaps I was charging towards a ravine, or maybe just deeper into their territory for all I knew. One thing was evident. Their intentions were not at all friendly, and the creatures were still very much trailing me. While I was able to make decent headway every now and again, in my blood, I could feel the sea change in the forest’s overall demeanor. Eventually, I spotted what looked like a break in the forest. Fucking christ! It was an exit! I made my way out of Hoia-Baciu and continued at full speed. Seemingly, I’d lost them, but it wasn’t at all clear how invested the feral dogs were at that point. So much for visiting the Poiana Rotunda. Finally, I found myself in a residential neighborhood. Stopping for the first time to catch my breath, I listened quietly. Only the sound of passing cars on the nearby freeway. What breed of dogs were those? They certainly weren’t anything I’d ever come across, whatever they were.
I purposely refrained from mentioning the incident to my hosts when I arrived back at the apartment. It was more that I didn’t want them to view me as a liability. Back safely in my room, I immediately started looking into the wildlife that resides in Hoia-Baciu. These were most likely not large dogs at all, but a pack of wild boars, or sounder. Usually traveling in a group ranging anywhere from six to twenty boars, with the ability to reach up to thirty kilometers an hour. These are aggressive creatures that can also be highly territorial when it comes to other species intruding on their space. While I didn’t have the opportunity to engage with the supernatural in Romania’s Bermuda Triangle, I was fine with just making it out alive. Sitting upright in my bed, I picked up the classical to play around a bit. I thought about the iDracula restaurant in Bucharest and my first time tasting wild boar. Perhaps Hoia-Baciu was giving me a glimpse into how it feels to be on the menu. Having one more night’s stay in the apartment, I spent my remaining time researching options on where to head next. By train, Sighișoara would take no more than five hours. Still, I felt like there was more that I had yet to see in Cluj. I chose to extend my stay and move closer to the city.
Back to Old Town
I booked another shared apartment in Old Town, Cluj. This time, my host was a young guy named Vlad. We ended up sharing similar tastes in music and a few of his friends played in a local thrash band. Almost instantly, I had fallen into a group of like-minded folks to hang out with and explore the city. Vlad mentioned to me that there would be a big festival that week called Electric Castle. Although all the bands on the roster were well known, none of them were on my radar because they were all based in Europe, which made it even more interesting. He told me that if I was to stick around for another month in Cluj, there would be an even larger festival called Untold. However, there were some strange stories surrounding the festival runners. A large van with the Untold logo would drive around Cluj, picking up people that might be interested in acquiring a free day pass. Inside the van, they would draw a pint of your blood in exchange for the ticket. Which they would extract from you while the van made its way through traffic, dropping you off wherever you needed to go. Apparently, everyone assumed the festival runners had something sketchy in mind for all the blood they were gathering. Out of curiosity, I asked Vlad if they would accept a recent receipt from a local blood bank instead, but apparently it had to be donated in real time from within the van. I suppose some folks in Romania take the vampire trope a bit more seriously than others. Adding to the festival’s lore, Vlad recollected seeing a series of large crystals lining the perimeter of each stage from the year before. The crystals were meant to absorb energy generated by the audience. Rumors spread that the crystals were used for ceremonial purposes after the curtains came down. Sadly, I knew I wouldn’t be in Cluj to make Untold, but it was good information for future reference. Clearly, they know how to party.
Subterranean Sodium Labyrinth
An hour south of the city center is an ancient salt mine, called Salina Turda. Dating all the way back to the fifth century, during antiquity, it’s seen some shit. The first known written record of the mine dates back to the Middle Ages. It was ultimately shuddered by the 1930s, but had remained active up to that time. Perhaps for safety measures, who knows? During WWII, Salina Turda was resurrected as a bomb shelter and a haven to store war planes. After the war was over, the Romanian government made the decision of a lifetime. They repurposed the ancient salt mine into an enormous underground refrigerator, to house the country's cheese stockpile. Whenever I feel down, I sometimes think about the Transylvanian cheese mine. In the early 1990s, the space was unofficially being used for Halotherapy sessions. This is a type of alternative medicine that involves inhaling salt particles for folks with lung issues. Pseudo-science? Yes. Either way, it’s an excuse to go down into a salt mine and get zenned up. Luckily for me, the Romanian government invested millions of Leu into renovating and reopening Salina Turda to the public as a massive attraction in 2010.
The bus down to Salina Turda was quick and painless. Food stalls lined the exterior of the mine entrance parking lot. Although the weather was perfect out, I made sure to dress warmer for the chilly atmosphere that awaited. Already full from breakfast, I took a mental note to hit a food stall later on. Entering the space, I had absolutely no idea as to the full gravity or scope of the underground cavern. Every square inch of the mine was made up of marbled salt, taking on the psychedelic appearance of fossilized lava lamp swirls. I stepped across a narrow walkway with slender fluorescent bulbs lining the walls. Peering down below, into what could only be described as a theme park that only Phillip K. Dick himself could dream up. In the center of the cavern stood a massive Ferris wheel, gradually carrying patrons up and down its iconic loop. A series of thin black electrical cables protruded from the ceiling. Each one providing soft lighting, via glowing tubes. To my eyes, they appeared more like luminesced versions of the cylindrical containers you might use to make a deposit at your local bank drive-thru. Nevertheless, I couldn’t have been more on board already.
The moment I reached the bottom of the staircase, I decided to give the Ferris wheel a go. It’s not every day that you get to ride a Ferris wheel in an underground salt mine that dates back to the Roman Empire. From the top of the Ferris wheel, I could see all the activity and goings on below. I had chosen quite a high traffic day to venture into the mines. There was a football court, with a handful of kids kicking a ball around. I watched as people swarmed multiple billiards and foosball tables, waiting their turn. Apparently Salina Turda even boasts an in-cave bowling alley and a mini golf course. None of the above piqued my interest, but it was interesting to see what measures they had taken to make this the pinnacle of a revenue generating tourist trap. At 120 meters deep and roughly 70 meters wide, I say go big or go home you salty gatekeeper.
Continuing throughout the mine’s many long and winding salt ducts, I was thrown at how surreal it was. The texture of the tunnel walls varied wildly from tunnel to tunnel. Contributing to the overall sci-fi feel of the cavern, some were coated in a reflective outer glaze. Other areas were completely frosted over, with abandoned centuries old wooden mine ducts, still in place. Just when I thought I might have been lost, I came upon a towering lookout point. It felt like something straight out of Castle Grayskull. If you know, you know. Below it was a yawning reservoir, with a lake of salty water acting almost as a moat. This was the Mina Terezia, or the Theresa Mine. Catching movement in the water, I noticed people in canoes peacefully wading through the depths of the cavern. Centered above the murky waters was an illuminated art installation that guests could pass through, via small bridge systems. All five wooden structures in each installation leaned heavily into a post-apocalyptic, IKEA-esque aesthetic. Illuminated by the same fluorescent bulbs found throughout the other mines, my OCD shadow self nodded in agreement with the cohesive designs at play.
I had two options to make my way down into Terezia. Option one was to go by foot, hoofing it down fifteen stories in a cramped wooden stairwell. Also known as free. Option two was to buy a ticket and take the elevator down. Not to be outdone by the other modern additions in Salina Turda, this was no ordinary run-of-the-mill elevator. In true cartoon villain fashion, this was a sleek chrome container, enclosed by industrial and well-lit scaffolding. An outer glass casing provided full visibility for the tied up protagonist to watch as you rub your palms together, descending into the sodden tomb. I went with the villain premium option, naturally.
Exiting the doom elevator, I passed through a series of wooden triangular support beams framing a small bridge. Myself and other tourists slowly made our way, single-file, onto the main platform. It looked as if the installations had recently been given a fresh coat of snow. Moisture from the surrounding saline water rose up, crystallizing every surface area within the cavern. Aside from the accumulation of salt, the wooden installations had also been rudely scrawled upon in various colored inks. No matter how sacred or pristine a site may be, this tends to be typical behavior among humans. I don’t particularly believe in hell, in the biblical sense of the term. But if there were such a bardo, I would like to think at the very least, there is a dull purgatory reserved for these assholes. No sooner had the thought crossed my mind, when I noticed a bit of scribble in particular that really irked me:
“If you believe in your heart that Jesus is lord and that god raise him from the dead you will be save. Roman 10:9”
Now. Is attempting to proselytize, via defacing property in a fancy ancient salt mine, lazy? Wildly. However, that’s not even what got under my skin the most. How, my friend, do you expect anyone to believe you when you don’t even believe in basic grammar? I swear to god. Moving along.
There was a small ticketing area near one installation where they were renting out canoes. Weighing out whether it might be worth snagging one, I noticed there weren’t any tunnels in Terezia where you could explore. I’m sure it would be nice and peaceful, but floating around in a circle for an hour didn’t strike me as terribly interesting. I made my way back into the doom elevator and up to the lookout point. For a couple more hours, I proceeded to get wildly lost in the tunnels and passages of Salina Turda. The subterranean novelty of it all eventually wore off and instead began to feel more like stagnant, salty air. Besides, I had worked up an appetite. Ready to once again feel the warmth of the sun, I found an exit and resurfaced.
Back in the parking lot, I spotted one of the food stalls that had caught my eye from earlier. Above the stall was a giant sign that read “Lángos Traditional,” with a picnic table backdrop. Lángos is actually Hungarian comfort food, but luckily, history tends to echo far off into the distance. Being once a Hungarian territory, the snack exists today as local Transylvanian fare as well. Lángos is a traditional fried dough topped with garlic and oil or sour cream and cheese. Here, it was the latter and I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect victory snack after exploring Salina Turda. Waiting for the bus to take me back into Old Town, I started getting excited for the festival that would cap off my time in Cluj. Before I knew it, I would be on my way to Sighișoara.