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Romancing Romania I

Discovering Scărişoara

It was briefly mentioned in Lonely Planet's Romania guidebook. Google resulted in some pretty pictures and some interesting information. It was to become a confirmed item in our Romania itinerary. And so, even when we arrived late in Cluj, and our schedule a little off due to a fantastically screwed up train journey, we were still determined to see Scărişoara Ice Cave.

As with most organised day trips, since the journey is often long, other interesting attractions are included along the journey so as to break up the trip into smaller manageable segments. Hence, our day trip included a trip to the Turda Salt Mine, as well as a visit to a Romanian Monastery.

The Turda Salt Mine turned out to be quite an interesting feature. I didn't have any expectation of it, and that's the beauty of it. At the entrance, our guide Radu told us that students enjoy a cheaper ticket, and so, we became students for the day :).

The moment we stepped into the tunnel leading into the mine, there was already a saltish tinge in the air. The short walk in was a little surreal, starting with crumbly salt-caked walls slowly changing to smooth, slick, blackened walls, like walking in some alien tunnel. Where the walls meet the floor, salt deposits gather like snow gathering at the side of a walkway. Whether walking in mines or anything underground, I soon lost my sense of direction and scale. My fascination, however, were still abound.

We were surrounded totally by salt. In some distant past, this area is likely to be under sea but since in the 12-13th century, it was already a salt mine. Salt mining stopped in 1932, and only became a tourist attraction in 1992. Besides attracting tourists, locals also like to come here, but for a different reason. The caverns and tunnels have a steady mix of temperature (10-12 deg C) and humidity, and with the ionization of the air, the microclimate is deemed very beneficial for our health. That explains why I see a few old ladies just sitting in the huge cavern, while their grandchildren were running around!
Tunnel in the salt mine
Everything that remains standing in the mine are salt encrusted. Machinery, tools, railings, stairs - nothing is spared. Besides witnessing what was it like before, some of the caverns were innovatively used. One was used as an art gallery, showcasing some paintings on the walls. Another section was used for an echo playground. You could shout and count the number of echoes coming back! Neat!

Old machinery used for transporting salt
Salt encrusted!

We spent easily more than an hour at the salt mine before leaving Turda. We made a quick stop to look at Lupa Monastery, an old monastery built in the 14th century. Its main sight - the beautiful painted frescoes. There are many such monasteries and churches in Romania, and traditionally, all of them are made from wood. In Maramureş region, where we will be heading in our second part of our trip, we are to encounter more of these monasteries and churches. More of that when we come to it.

Radu contemplating on the paintings!

To get to the ice cave, we have to take a short 2hr hike from the village of Garda de Sus. As we stopped our vehicle at the trail head, you could see a wide grin on my face that could rival the Cheshire Cat. The autumn landscape is simply stunning! I asked Radu, and he pretty much affirmed that this is the peak autumn foliage! Our hike could barely get underway, as we were busily clicking away on our cameras in all conceivable angles. It was to be a really really slow hike....

Hiking trail under beautiful canopy
Daily life
Autumn country

Pictureque setting!
Walking deep into the forests of the Apuseni Mountains, we were embraced by the colours of nature. Although there was an uphill trek, we took the opportunity to fully savour the surroundings. A few tentative steps, an awed scrutiny of the scene around us, followed by generous triggering of shutters like a kid discovering photography. This lasted a good while with Radu looking back constantly with an amused look on his face. He must have thought that we are the slowest group he has ever led...

The yellows, reds and greens are constant in our views. Breathing in the cool crisp autumn air, I felt more alive than I ever felt in Singapore. The space that I spend 5 days a week of my life in Singapore was air-conditioned, but that must have been a misnomer. No air can be "conditioned" to taste so sweet and invigorating as that from Mother Nature! And along the journey, country life passes us by - horse-carts trotting along its way, old grannies herding sheep, farmers harvesting potatoes for the coming winter. I wondered if this lifestyle will remain unchanged, but irregardless of the answer, I was so glad to have glimpsed it.

We reached the park station where the entrance ticket to the ice cave is to be bought. As we descend a series of steep steel staircase to the cave entrance, the air noticeably went down a few degrees colder as well. Protected by its natural surroundings, the cave is able to sustain its temperature, even during summer. The Scărişoara Ice Cave is the biggest ice cave in Romania, and the second largest in the world (the largest being in Austria). Formed since the Ice Age, it is 3000+ yrs old, 720m long, 105m deep and contains 75000+ cubic metres of ice. Unfortunately, tourists are unable to see the full scale of it and are only allowed access to certain sections of the cave.

Even more unfortunate is the fact that being in autumn, most of the ice stalactites and stalagmites have melted during summer (even though temperature would be hovering around 0 degrees), and the interior of the cave was not as I've seen in the pictures on the internet (which was probably taken in winter). Cold, hungry, and alot less to see, we did not stay that long....

Inside the ice cave

Best meal in Romania!
Our 2hr hike took more than 3+ hrs due to our ultra leisurely pace. "Lunch" which was supposedly scheduled at 2+pm was of course at 4+pm. Radu took us to a country house where a family had cooked us some traditional Romanian fare.

To start off, on the table, was a nondescript bottle of ţuică, or Romania fruit brandy. Home distilled, typically from apples or plums, this powerful drink is consumed in every household. Commonly containing 50+% of alcohol content, the version on our table was distilled from berries and had "only" 30+% alcohol! All the better as it was sweeter and more flavourful, and just coming out from a cold ice cave, it was a welcoming drink in every sense of the word! And oh, the food! Succulent pork, no doubt from the pig fattened last winter, that melts in the mouth. Home-made sausages from meats that is hormone-free. And the potatoes is out-of-this-world! Somehow, Romanian potatoes have this texture and taste that just make you beg for more! It was to be the best meal we had in Romania!

Living in the country means self-sustaining. So the wonderful meal we had were completely home grown, and home made. Even the sour-cream is self-made. As guests, we were made to feel comfortable, but behind the scene, I can't imagine the amount of work needed to put that ţuică in the bottle, the sausages on the plate and the sour cream in our soup. And as we began to leave, our host handed some local produce to Radu, which he tried to decline. Apparently, he had brought some medicine to little Dragus, our host's son who may have caught a chill, and she wanted to pay Radu for it. It was a short exchange but the whole episode moved me. The simpleness and ernestness of life here seems so welcoming, so unpretentious, which sadly, I find lacking in many aspects of my modern society. I wonder....

Our host and her son
Homeward bound!

The return journey was to be via a different longer route, but as we were seriously late, we had to return the way we came. But we walked away happy (and full). The day trip was to visit the Scărişoara Ice Cave, which we spent probably the least amount of time. Instead, I found the salt mine interesting, the hike exhilirating and the country meal gratifying. Sometimes, the soul of a trip is determined not by the destination, but the journey through it. Well, come to think of it, so is life, isn't it?

Coming Soon ..... Romancing Romania II : Living Maramureş

Photos & Text © 2008 Wu Swee Ong