Dinnertime in Cluj-Napoca

Do you know that feeling, at the end of a great, but exhausting day abroad, when you’re deeply excited to be in a new place…but in your heart of hearts, what you want more than anything else on earth is just a good meal and a solid night’s sleep? That’s how I felt when I arrived in Cluj-Napoca.

My train trip up from Sibiu took just over seven hours (the drive will take less than half that when we are on tour!) and required three trains. Luckily for me, the Romanian countryside had been its usual soothing succession of late season sunflower fields, huggable hay stacks, and tidy villages. I’d even enjoyed my stopovers. For it’s part, Cluj had been on my list from the beginning, and the walk to my cubicle of a room had previewed an energetic university town, the historic streets bustling with sidewalk cafes and evening strolls. I couldn’t wait to see more of it.

Except I kind of could. My body felt heavy, eager to lie down, like my fuel tank was sliding across E. Normally it feels almost irresponsible to walk less than a couple miles before choosing a place to eat, and you surely can’t just take the first place that comes along. But when I found quiet outdoor seating right around the corner? I sank into the seat with a sigh of relief.

My Romanian food vocabulary was coming along well enough, but when the friendly waitress asked if I would like to hear about the menu, I said a grateful yes, please. “Da, mulţumesc.”

Expecting just a list of entrees, I was surprised by the phrase “farm to table” and a description of the providers who had grown the vegetables, ground the polenta, and raised the animals. At home I am nearly vegetarian, driven away from meat by the ethical, environmental, and nutritional consequences of industrial factory farming, but this was entirely something else. So I ordered the pork ribs.

When the wine came, I was unsurprised by its perfect flavor, since that cat was well out of the bag by this point in my trip, but my first bite of the ribs had me reaching for my phone. Normally I leave technology well away from my meals, but this needed international acclaim. And a bit of bragging to my foodie friends. The meat was falling off the bone at a tap from my fork, and the sauce was the perfect balance of spicy, savory, and sweet. Even the baked potato was perfectly baked, basted, and seasoned.

I grew up watching Garfield, and always felt a little envious of the way he could eat a leg of chicken and leave only a clean bone and a satisfied smile. That night, I was Garfield abroad. 

Delighted by the meal, I thanked the waiter, sent my abiding love to the cook, and stood for the short walk home. But something was different. My back felt strong again, my legs renewed, and my feet were downright eager to explore. So I went the other way instead, and for dessert indulged in an evening stroll through vibrant Cluj-Napoca, stomach well fed, eyes devouring details, and traveler spirit nourished by another great night in Romania.