Thursday, August 18, 2011

Romanian Road Trip - Day 2&3 Sibiu

From Turda we went to Alba Iulia for a short visit of the Citadel. i will write about it in another post because it is really worth the time (for me to write and for you to visit). This was the second time we visited and we stopped because our friend has an interest in Vauban fortresses but also because we enjoyed the beer we had last year, inside the Citadel.

Our target was to get to Sibiu before nightfall in order to visit a bit as well so I booked a room in a pension, just to be sure we don't waste time looking around. Next time I will chose something more central and quieter but still, it was ok, the choice is quite varied, as in all the cities we visited on the trip.

We visited the center a bit and ate at the first restaurant we found, in the Small Square or "Piata Mica", it wasn't a bad choice but the concierge had a better advice, oh well. We wandered around the medieval streets of the downtown Sibiu, it felt almost like in a fairy tale or a RPG.

Most of the visiting was left for the next day. Around 11 we came to town, found a parking lot, very easy to find but a little more complicated to pay for as the vending machine was not working but luckily the lady at the boutique just across the street had the tickets on sale.

The center was booming with people of all ages, despite the bitter wind. The weather didn't stop us either: we bought some pastries at a local boulangerie with lots of choice for few dimes (at least for us, tourists), fresh fruits and orange juice completed our brunch on a bench in the Piata Mare or the Big Square.

I am sorry I didn't take a picture of the little girl chasing a pigeon on her pink bike. She was fearless and determined but got scolded by her mom. We smiled, thinking of the pigeons from the restaurant in Cluj.

We continued our stroll and headed towards the Bridge of Lies and I told them the legend behind it. And the bridge is still there! Going towards the Huet Square we found some antique and souvenir shops. They were interesting as well as warm and we found some gifts.

 This time we also visited the Evangelical Church (I hope I am right about this, religion is not my forte). It was warmer than outside and we felt good about giving 1RON for the restoration because they were doing a great job at it, a part of the Church had already been restored and it was marvelous. Last year we had seen a French guy doing some woodwork in the Garden, he was singing a little known song and we found it funny to sing a long. Below, the Cript.

As we went out of the Church, I saw the sign of a Julius Meinl coffee so we headed inside for some Viennese delight. From there we had a great view of the roofs and the atmosphere was very Interwar.

 We wandered around town some more and then picked up our stuff at the pension and left for the open road our destination was Busteni, on the Prahova Valley, with a small stop over in Brasov, another cool place to visit and maybe even to leave in. So far our list of Romanian cities to live in includes Sibiu, Cluj and Brasov.

The road from Sibiu to Cluj passes through a very beautiful region and there are many places to see. Last year we went on the Transfagarasan road which climbs up to 2000meters but we decided against it this year, the visibility was again poor. Instead, we took the traditional road which is very well kept and which offered us a surprise. Halfway to Brasov fe felt hungry and decided to stop somewhere and have a picnic. And just then we saw a sign to the Ruins of Carta Monastery and decided to leave the main road.

The ruins have an out of The Alchimist feel and were a great choice for the picnic. Someone in a house nearby was playing the piano. It was almost magical.

We stopped as well in Brasov, but we had already visited the year before and it was already late so we headed to Busteni where we had a Romanian homemade dinner and lots of tuica or plum brandy. To be continued...

Monday, August 15, 2011

View of Plzen

From a coffee shop on the 16th floor.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Romanian Road Trip - Day 2 Turda

After Brunch on Sunday morning in Cluj, I forgot to mention, we only had brunches, never once breakfast, during this trip, so after brunch, we sat out on the road again. Day 2 included a vizit at the salt mine in Turda, a passage through the Vauban fortress at Alba Iulia and a stop at our destination of the day, Sibiu. About the latter two I will tell you more later because I visited them last year.

Romanians probably know about the salt mine from the news. It was rebuilt and it's well worth a visit. As stated on the website of Salina Turda, you can do lots of stuff inside: bowling, ping pong, football, raw boat, etc The place is huge but the only think you cannot do is eat inside the mine and that is a pity in my opinion. There is however a restaurant outside, ice cream stand and boiled corn sellers.

 Spending time in the mine is beneficial to your health and fun. The entry hall is modern and once inside you are in a long corridor. You can chose to go down inside the mine either by a lift or by the stairs at either side of the gallery. The lift was crowded so we decided to go all around the gallery and down the stairs, taking pictures.

The way down was long but we didn't mind, besides, doing some sports is good inside the salt mine and after the great meal we had had the night before, we needed the exercise.

 There was a man playing music one sort of electronic organ, not my kind, but it did give the whole place a more unearthly atmosphere and made the experience even more strange. I liked it.

 The first big gallery has all the important attractions, including the wheel, the sports grounds and the amphitheater. This is just the football/ping pong court.

 We decided that if we had to chose, than we wanted to go rowing on the salt river, one lower. Going down the shaft of the stairways is not for the faint of heart, it was crowded, very crowded.

The second level is actually an island on the 7m deep lake and you get there by a wooden bridge. All around the mine there are wooden structures and lots of light. We rented a boat for 20 minutes and had a blast going around the island.

If you are wondering, the lake is very salty so no, they don't provide life jackets, no need for that.

The walls of the mine are just beautiful, in layers and sparkling. And that music was everywhere, I felt like in Abyss.

I was very tired going out of the salt mine, so the treatment worked.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

It was heavenly

As I've already told you, the whole Road trip 2011, revolved around finding good food. And we found just that, in Cluj Napoca, in a restaurant called Baracca, I found about here.

The first day of the road trip saw us in Oradea and Cluj. We were already a bit tired so I had made a reservation for 8pm because we were also very hungry. After looking for free hotels in town, we ended up in my back up, near the city center, which proved to be an excellent choice. Not to mention it was close to the restaurant. So we did some sightseeing before going to eat. Here is a proof of that: some weird finger like statues coming out the pavement. What you see between them is a bride being stolen from her wedding. A bit early in the evening for this tradition but what the heck, she was having fun.

Anyway, the restaurant was not very far so we located it easily. We went inside and I thought for a second that I shouldn't have reserved: only two tables were full so we got to chose were we sat. Hint: the white chairs are more comfortable. The restaurant has a very nice design, many quotes on the walls, bottles of wine, it was very cozy, you could see the pizza chef working next to the oven, quite posh. I was a fan.
The boys became fans of the waitress who brought us the menu, you can find the list on the site as well. I will not comment on the prices more than this: it's not a lot more than a regular place but this one here is well worth the price difference. We decided to go the Full Monty starter, main course, desert and the wines to go with that, plus a digestive. The wines were selected with the help of the very friendly waitress, who also spoke French and English, so the boys were more than happy. We had a Prosecco for the starters and a French red, both perfect for what we had.

First, the rabbit with carrot puree, warm goat cheese between two layers of pain d'epice. Divine. And the rabbit goes perfectly with the carrots.

Then foie gras with creme brulee. The tomato confit next to the foie gras was delicious, I want the recipe.

Both boys had the pigeon on a nest of vegetables with a delicious sauce. It was the first time I tasted pigeon but not the last, that's for sure, it has a more prominent taste than chicken so it can be very interesting.
I had the chicken. It was roasted in a way that reminded my of my grandma's cooking. The polenta was sweet and matched the chicken and the sauce in every way. It didn't seem like much but it was, for lack of a better word, heavenly.

I was quite full by now but when the words home made and desert reached my ears, my mouth said Yes! So I had one of the best ice creams ever: raspberry, vanilla, chocolate. I can still feel the chocolate.

The opera cake was awesome, I liked the chocolate again.

And the apple pie with a creme brulee crust. The waitress recommended it and it was a great choice.

Romanian Road Trip - Day 1 Cluj

When I made the planning of the trip, I knew I had to go here. I didn't know about other places of interest around Cluj, but this restaurant was on my list after reading this about Mazilique's favorite restaurant. You can say I built the whole trip around this central point. I chose to enter Romania via Oradea because it was closer to Cluj, we then went to Sibiu via Turda where we visited the salt mine because that was close to Cluj as well and so on.

What is there to see in Cluj, you might ask, because I will make you wait a bit until the best part. To be honest, I hadn't researched Cluj Napoca as much as I did Oradea before leaving, maybe because I already knew for some years that I wanted to visit Cluj, a vibrant city, with a strong presence of students due to the many excellent universities and with an important Hungarian minority.

The city spreads around the two squares: one with the Church of St Michael and the Statue of Matei Corvin, king of Hungary of Romanian descent, born in the city and the other with an Orthodox Cathedral consecrated to the Virgin and a Statue of Avram Iancu, hero of the Revolution in 1848. You can see both squares here, first in a picture from the afternoon, notice the clouds again and the second in a picture from that night.

I also like to observe people in squares, more about that later, and try to imagine how it is to live in a certain town and people from Cluj seems more relaxed than folks from Bucharest, maybe it's because of the reputed calm of Transylvanians.
Other sightseeing points of interest surround this center such as the Botanical garden, with a beautiful Japanese garden, the Central Park, the Palace of Justice etc. The many universities and associated nightlife venues, are close but not directly in the center. As the hotel manager in Oradea warned me, the center of Cluj Napoca is not very compact, he was right once again.

Nevertheless, Cluj Napoca made it on the list of the cities I wouldn't mind living in, if and when I decide to "expatriate "myself back home.

Our hotel was on the street connecting the two squares and we could have found many restaurants and pubs there but we already had a target.We spent some of the evening after the restaurant in town, going to a bar or two and it was fun. I've heard that the night clubs here rival the ones in Bucharest but we were already to tired and haven't sampled that. Maybe next time. 

Come back for the pictures of yumminess.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Romanian Road Trip - Day 1 Oradea

I'm back after a wonderful week spent on the road in Romania. It was tiring but well worth it. The three of us (me and two French guys, lucky me), left From Prague on Friday around 2pm and we reached the Romanian border town of Oradea at 1am, local time. We got back last Sunday so in total we spent 9 days and a half on the road. The trip to Romania was quite Ok, except for a bit of a traffic jam in Hungary and the fact that the highways are not well indicated and I have a feeling there was a slightly shorter way to get to Oradea. The two drivers took turns behind the wheel and I did the navigating part, including the sandwiches and so time flew by.
When we arrived in Oradea, the hotel manager was already waiting for us. This was the only booking I made in advance because the trip was only roughly defined: I had in mind the general points of what I wanted to do and see and back ups to my plans so that the guys could also have a say in this schedule. The room was clean but the downside was the noisy street. We were still very much awake from the trip so we had some beers before going to sleep at 3am. In the morning we had brunch in the room: smoked Italian ham and salad and headed out to visit Oradea.

The usual gateway into Romania is Arad, at least for me, because the roads are better and the highway now passes Szeged and goes almost all the way to the boarder. But we had already been to Arad before so we wanted to see something new. And not to mention Oradea is closer to Cluj, you'll see why soon :) . Oradea is a charming town with many baroque and Secession style buildings and even, as the hotel manager told me, a pedestrian street. So keep this in mind for when you will visit Romania.

We started our visit on the pedestrian Republicii street. The weather was not very friendly, raining and unusually cold for this time of the year. The pedestrian street is a very nice touch, resembles a bit what we had already sen in Brasov, bars, restaurants and shops on both sides and bar tables in the middle. It would have been pleasant if it weren't for the rain. Here you have some views of the street, it was not very crowded yet, maybe because of the rain, but we soon found a lot of foreign tourists and some lively places. 

Oradea seemed to me to be emblematic of a trend in Romania: many thinks have been done to improve the quality of life but there are still many things to be done and the vision of the future is lacking. Behind the shabby facades you could see that the boarder town was once glorious. Indeed some buildings have already been restored to their former beauty, some are undergoing reconstruction work while others are still waiting. But Oradea is on the good path, maybe it's the western influence since many people here work in Hungary.

Since it was raining quite a lot, we hoped into the first bar we saw: The "retro lactobar bistro" as advertised by the cow outside. I  will talk about it in another post, the place certainly had personality and it was great fun, together with the pubs and discos around our hotel, I think the night life here must be at least worth a try. This proves that the airplane magazine that lead me to even consider Oradea as a stop over, was right: there is life outside Bucharest.

When we finished our coffee it was raining less and we managed to find enough courage to go outside. and wandered around the  beautiful Ferdinand square. We passed the State Theater, one of the best theaters in Romania, according to my artistically inclined friends.  Periodically there are theater festivals and the tickets are cheap compared to the quality of the artistic performance. 

Some more buildings in the area are nicely restored or under restoration. In a few year, when they'll finish the restoration work, the city will be splendid, as I'm sure it was during the Hapsburg. 

Actually, Oradea was meant to resemble Vienna, so many buildings here are in the same style as the ones in the capital of the Empire and were been built by Austrian architects.

The map I had had for free from the hotel pointed me towards the other side of the Crisul Repede river, where the center of the town lies as well as the citadel of Varadinum. 

Over the bridge, the Town Hall is looking along the river. Along the Crisul Repede river there are many green spaces, parks and other recreational spaces

As I said before, the proximity to the West is beneficial to the town which has good links to the rest of Europe: the highway in Hungary goes to Debrecen, not very far from Oradea, there is an airport here and the airports of Cluj and Budapest are not very far either. It took us 10 hours to come here from Prague, by car.

The main square with a Statue of Michale the Brave, the first to unite the Romanian provinces. I found it interesting to see a statue of him here, he is more of a symbol for the Southern part of Romania. 

With better weather, it's a nice place to sit down and watch the passers by but this was an atypical summer as you can see from the menacing clouds in the background. This is where we saw our first wedding of the day: with all the rain, there will be at least 5 lucky and rich couples.
The Black Eagle Palace, shopping gallery in the Art Nouveau style, named after a stained glass ceiling depicting a Black Eagle. Close by is the Church with  the Moon, where one can find an interesting astronomical clock which follows the phases of the moon. Interesting fact: the first Meridian was considered to pass by Oradea, long before it was established in Greenwich.

According to Wikipedia, there are over 100 sites of  religious service and many of them are in and around the square: Roman Catholic, Franciscan, Orthodox, Evangelical, Jewish, Baptists, all are represented and sometimes in close vicinity as you can see below.

The citizens of Oradea are 70% Romanian and roughly 28% Hungarian (some Roma and others make up the rest) for a population of over 200 000 people, a large town by Romanian standards. Don't be surprised to hear Hungarian spoken a lot here, as in other cities in Transylvania.

Oradea is not without it's importance in the history of Europe, having suffered hoards of invaders from the Mongols to the Ottomans. The ruins of the citadel testify to it's troubled past. 

The bastion fortress is being restored, much in the same way as the one in Alba Iulia has already been restored. When we were there the site was under heavy reconstruction but still some wedding parties were taking pictures in the park.

This is were we ended our walk around Oradea, we got back to the hotel to have a tea before heading towards our next destination, Cluj. There are more things to see and do in Oradea such as the Muzeum of  the region or "Tara Crisului", a baroque Palace with 365 windows. Just 5km South of Oradea is the spa town of Baile Felix with a beautiful waterlily reservation (again, the hotel manager proved to be a great source of information). If you want to make a detour, there is also the glacier cave of Scarisoara in nearby Alba County. But we had to be in Cluj by nightfall and you'll understand why soon.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

From the sky

I know, I've gone AWOL on you, I haven't said much for the last two months but that doesn't mean nothing's been going on in my life. Quite the contrary. I've been to two or three weddings (I'm loosing count) and this meant a lot of travelling so I do have some photos for you.

Yes, food again, call me obsessed. I just had to capture this because I was surprised to have such an unconventional meal (usually is a very safe bread ham cheese sandwich) and it tasted fairly good. It was a chicken wrap with a nice sauce. One of the best in flight meals I've had and I think my top 3 includes only Lufthansa food. I'm flying a lot with Lufthansa these days because they have good prices on flights from Prague to Bucharest, even if they stop in Germany.

On the return trip I had another wrap, veggies this time, but not quite as good, still decent and better than the usual; and an apple juice, healthy leaving.

A picture from the sky, just to say good bye and sorry for being late :p

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Some kind of magic

The story of my day in Gastronomical Heaven continues with the main meal. I'm sorry but this will be a long and picture heavy post.

The menu was presented to us while in the garden, maybe in order to get used to the idea that we'll have something special. The menu card was very simple, with a pastel by one of the owners on the cover. Naturally I kept it. The waiter explained every course to us and answered all our questions and asked if everything was alright for us or if we wanted to change. My French Boy would have liked to change the escargot and fish dish, go figure, but in the end I think he was happy he kept them, it was our favorite! He told us we'll have the menu waiting for us on the table when we decide to go.

When we were ready, we made our way from the garden to the main pavilion, the staff wished us a good meal. Everyone was very attentive, stopping whatever they were doing to say hello or ask if we needed something. Like we were the only and most important guests! The boy had told me I'd get used to the special treatment but as I was going to the second part of the lunch, I still felt like Cinderella.
The same lady who welcomed us earlier, showed us to our table, asking if the Champagne and the terrace were to our taste. She even adjusted my chair and my cardigan to the back of my chair, saying she will leave it here because I might get cold, but that it will get warmer during the meal. I was thinking: OMG, I might get used to this treatment!

The butter arrived on a stone plate: a mound for regular butter and a cone, the salty variety, both from St Malo, as the waiter specified but I did not retain the name of the producer. I noticed once again the attention to detail: the monogram of the family was on the butter. I looked around a bit, but found no bread. Well, I didn't have time to turn my head back to the butter that another waiter came, offering us 3 or 4 different types of bread on a basket. I chose the one with tomatoes and olives and it was a great choice, perfect with the butter.

I almost wanted to finish all the butter (in Bretagne they say that the sweet one is just grease, so imagine which I prefer after a whole year in Nantes?!) but luckily they brought in the next dish.

A 85 year old gentleman, Mr Jean-Paul Haeberlin, came by himself to say hello and wish us a good meal. He went to all the tables, but next to us was a group of pure blood Alsatians he seemed to know quite well, they said they were coming to the Auberge since the 70's and remembered the time Mr Haeberlin, a now retired painter, was mayor of the village. I looked at the menu, he had painted the watercolor on the cover and I would have liked to have it signed.

Back to our table, for a starter we had lobster salad with green mango on a bread of basmati rice with different types of dressing and Kombawa leaves. The harmony of taste was perfect but I hated destroying the nice arrangement they made with the ingredients. Was it good? I'll let you guess from the pics.

Next came the dreaded fish knife. I actually love fish but some have a hard time using the knife, ah well. It was grilled perch in leek reduction and escargot between two thin bread patties with herbs. We asked one of the (many) waiters about the name of the wine, a Marsagnant, it was a white delight that accompanied the fish perfectly. Delicious. The boy loved it despite not being a fish fan.

By this time I had to go powder my nose as they say in the movies. And that is when I saw the chef, standing in the reception area with the big hat and all and he too smiled as if I was some important figure. Cool. The powder room was coming from a movie as well, luxury details everywhere and a vanity desk I would like in my room. When I came back at my table I had a fresh new towel all folded in front of me, and to think I had barely used the old one...

The main dish was a beef cut called quasi, the best it seems, cooked in a low temperature for a long time, with tarragon reduction and a wild mushroom flan. The beef melted in your mouth, a delight that was perfectly matched by the red Languedoc wine.

I was already in heaven by now and I had not even noticed the time fly by, this 3 star lunches are so long, it was already half past one when a waiter brought us some sweets before the dessert.

A family was canoeing on the river in front of us, reminding me of ducks swimming. I was thinking Alsace is such a perfect region for all sorts of activities: good food, sports, culture and history in nearby Colmar, a great destination for holidays.

The dessert, a milk cream perfumed with lime, rhubarb and strawberry compote with a a soft ice cream came with a funny flake, apparently a Swiss tradition. I find rhubarb a bit sour sometimes, but here, they found a way to make it sweet. Rain had started in the garden outside and I was watching the drops of water on the plants outside.

Coffee came by and another waiter brought a huge plate with mini sweets of all sorts to chose from, telling me I could take as many as I wanted. Hard choice!

Perfect time to relax, put some sugar in the coffee. God, even the sugar looks different here: big lumps of brown or white sugar that seemed hand made or small, amber bonbons, even at the end of the meal you know that you are in a special place.

I looked around, at some tables they were bringing the cheese, a very wide selection on a refrigerated cart presented by two waiters. I was almost happy not to have had cheese, choosing must be difficult and besides, I couldn't eat one more bite, I just wanted to retain the taste of that day.

If you ever get the chance to have such a treat, don't hesitate! A culinary trip like this one is a must do and I think that I will never see a restaurant with the same eyes.
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