Our travels through Romania were winding down. We had hit and miss experiences throughout the country, mostly good (Sighisoara, Sibiu, Bucharest) to middling (Ploiesti, Brasov), and only one really bad experience (Sinaia). Our final stop was to be Cluj Napoca. Good? Bad? Or, indifferent? Let’s find out.
The Romanian Connection
A high school classmate of mine had been following our travels and sent a Facebook message. He married a Romanian woman and traveled in the country before. He said we absolutely must see the Salina Turda salt mine. I was surprised to hear from him after all of these years. I’m pretty sure some friends and I threw his shoes out of a moving car one night back in the ‘80s.
A quick look at Google Maps showed that the Salina Turda mine was only about 40min from Cluj. The travel guides mentioned public buses. Excellent! Sounds like we have a viable day trip on our hands.
A Mine is a Terrible Thing to Waste
So what is so special about these mines? They were initially dug to do exactly what you’d imagine; harvest salt. It was tough work carried out by man and beast. The men would chisel the salt loose, load up carts, and horses would turn a huge winch to bring the loaded carts up out of the mine.
Somewhere along the line, the health benefits of spending time in the cool salty air of the mine became a thing. The mine has ceased harvesting salt, but people visit daily just to breathe the restorative air.
I know what you are thinking. How interesting can people sitting in a chilly, damp, abandoned mine be? Or, maybe you are wondering just how easily amused we really are. Well, the cave and its retrofit are pretty incredible and, as it happens, we are very easily amused.
Getting There is Half the Sport
The guidebook mentioned one location to catch a bus to Turda and an online forum mentioned another. We got up early and went to the nearest location hoping to find our ride. In theory, there was to be a minibus station that had minibusses heading to Turda every half hour. If there was, we didn’t see it.
We had a heck of a time finding a taxi stand, but eventually did and went to the long distance bus station at the edge of town where our Airbnb host told us to go in the first place. We went up to the ticket window and asked for “Turda.” The not very friendly man said something in Romanian. When we didn’t react, he pointed behind us and said “Blue.”
There were a lot of people waiting outside the blue bus and there seemed to be some of them arguing with the driver. They’d chase him around with their bags in tow while jabbering loudly. The driver just kept shaking his head and walking away from them. The bus looked really full so we went back to the ticket window to see when the next bus was due to depart for Turda. Not for an hour and a half. Boo.
We figured we’d give it a go the next day and headed off on foot back toward town. We walked past a taxi and decided to ask how much to go all the way to Turda. It was a reasonable amount, the day was still young, so we jumped into the taxi and rode in comfort to the salt mine. I guess we could have done that in the first place. Live and learn.
Workin’ in a Salt Mine, Going Down, Down
On entering the salt mine we were handed a map and encouraged to don our coats. We entered a long damp tunnel that gently sloped down to the mine shaft. It was quite a bit colder than outside. A huge cavern greeted us with the floor 13 stories below. We looked over the edge and saw tiny people then we noticed they were engaged in activities; ping pong, bowling, mini golf. Some perused items at the gift shop.
We walked down the 13 flights of stairs to the ground floor. People and things appeared their normal sizes again. Alice in Wonderland would know the feeling. The lights were hung in such a way to give the great cavern an eerie, but almost psychedelic atmosphere. A Ferris wheel? Groovy.
There was a large hole at the far end of the cavern. Peering into the hole revealed a lower level, another 10, or so, stories down. The floor of the lower cavern was submerged. A wooden bridge led from the unseen entrance below us out to a salt island covered in decking. At various places along the deck were open structures with places for people to sit and absorb the salt air. Odd fluorescent lights decorated and lit the structures. Trippy.
We walked down the narrow stairs to the lake level. Rowboats phantasmically scudded around the lake. There were a lot of people, yet it was quiet. The hushed tones were like those in a library or place of worship. The people who sat there looked terribly bored. Some played crossword puzzles, others just stared off into the darkness. I wonder if they were sent there on doctor’s orders.
It’s not a proper outing without a picnic and a bottle of wine, so we left the cave and found a public park a few blocks away. Per SOP we covered the park bench with our tablecloth — a dish towel we picked up in Italy — popped open a bottle of Romanian wine, and set out our snacks. It was a beautiful day in a small but inviting park.
Finding the bus to take us back to Cluj was easy and much less expensive than a taxi. We had no idea where we were going to be let off in Cluj so we watched and waited for something familiar. It turned out that we had been very close to where the bus stopped when we looked for the minivans earlier in the morning. There were no minivans and no station though. The bus simply used the regular public bus stops. Oh well, next time we’ll know and now you know too.
The Salinas Turda mine was definitely worth seeing, but Cluj was a very nice city in its own right. The city park was clean and large with lots of benches and food vendors. The botanical gardens were impressive. The city center was filled with restaurants, interesting architecture, and plazas.
I bet you are wondering if we felt differently after we visited the salt mines. We did. When we got back to our Airbnb we felt happy and relaxed. It might have been the cool damp salty air in the mine, or it may have been the bottle of wine we had with our VinoLunch in the park. You’ll have to decide.
Oh, and Mike, I hope you found your shoes.
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