Sunday, October 22, 2006

Contra Costa Times: Targu Mures new Transylvania hot spot

Targu Mures new Transylvania hot spot
Mountainous city sports flamboyant Culture Palace, home to museums and stunning
stained-glass hallway
By Robert Reid

Most travelers heading to Transylvania envisioning wing-flapping vampires first think of Brasov, the cobbled Saxon town near the so-called Dracula Castle at Bran. Or Sighisoara, where the real Dracula (Vlad Tepes) cut his teeth in the 15th century. But lesser-known Targu Mures is Transylvania's new big gateway and up-and-coming highlight.
Budget airline Wizz Air started direct Budapest-Targu Mures service in July (currently $22 each way), making the cool hub of Transylvania more accessible to all of Europe.
Targu Mures' location couldn't be better. Set midway between Sighisoara, the student town of Cluj-Napoca, and Bistrita (where Bram Stoker set his novel "Dracula"), Targu Mures is in the middle of Transylvania's mountainous expanse, where, at times, horsecarts outnumber cars.
When I visited Targu Mures recently, I found it hard to leave. With its population of 150,000 nearly split between Romanians and ethnic Hungarians, Targu Mures evokes an open energy. Locals sometimes say "hello" just because they're happy to see visitors. One boisterous man with a big gray mustache, just back from a year in Canada, led me from a bookstore into his offices in an Austro-Hungarian city council building, pointing out where stained-glass panels had been taken down by communists.
"We don't worry about the past anymore though," he said.
Some of the past is hard to deny. Part of the Austro-Hungarian empire until after World War I (when all of Transylvania switched to Romania's hands), the city center brims with century-old Habsburg-era buildings with steepled roofs and a medieval stone fortress. Less visible is the sad Soviet soldier cemetery, lost under weeds atop the hill overlooking town; on some headstones, the "red star" over the names in Cyrillic has been chipped off.
The city's undeniable landmark is the flamboyant Culture Palace, with its glittering tiled roofs overlooking central Trandafirilor Square's open-air cafes and statues. Inside is a five-floor cultural complex, with brass reliefs in long hallways, gold-and-green floral arched ceilings, and deep Venetian mirrors. Built by Budapest architects from 1911 to 1913, the palace hosts interesting art and archaeological museums, but best is its stained-glass hallway, with 12 windows that retell traditional area folk tales (a cassette explains them in clipped, very Transylvanian, English). In the lovely hall, with its 4,463-pipe organ and velvet seats, I managed to catch a talent contest with kids belting out pop songs to thunderous cheers from classmates.
East of the square is the unlikely twofer Teleki Museum/Bolyai Library. The library includes 230,000 rare books -- including one by Benjamin Franklin -- that stem from an 1802 donation. The adjoining Bolyai Museum celebrates Targu Mures' favorite mathematician father-and-son team: Farks and Janos Bolyai. It's not just geometry, I noticed; portions of the math greats' actual scalps, of all things, are on display too.
Targu Mures makes a great Transylvanian base camp. One interesting day trip, about 35 miles east, visits the leafy historic spa town of Sovata, where you can dip in warm saltwater lakes. The biggest, Bear Lake (Lacul Ursu), is named both for its shape and for the bears berry-picking in the surrounding hills.
Five miles south, in the village of Praid, you can take an apocalyptic bus ride 400 feet down to the underground world of the Praid salt mine, giant caverns filled with swing sets, sculptures, a cafe selling beer and even an Internet cafe. Locals come to linger, as the air is believed to help with various respiratory illnesses. The kids just like it because, as one told me during an intermission of a rogue version of rugby played with a knotted sock, "it's weird."
Robert Reid has contributed to many Lonely Planet guidebooks, including "Eastern Europe," "Russia & Belarus" and the "Trans-Siberian Railway." "Travels With Lonely Planet" is coordinated by Global Travel Editor Don George. You can e-mail him at

• Information: Targu Mures' tourist-information center (011-40-365-404-934; Trandafirilor Sq. and Str. Enescu;; open 8 a.m.-8 p.m. Tuesdays to Thursdays, 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Mondays and Saturdays) provides free city maps and car-rental information. It's on the ground floor of the Culture Palace (admission $1.80; open 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesdays to Sundays).
A couple of blocks east is the Teleki Museum/Bolyai Library (011-40-265-261-857; Str. Bolyai 17; open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesdays to Fridays, 10 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays). Sovata's small tourist-information center (011-40-265-577-421; helps find accommodations and rents bikes.
For information on Praid salt mine, check
• Places to Stay: A few blocks northeast of Trandafirilor Square, the eight-room Pensiune Ana Maria (011-40-265-264-401; Str. Papui Ilarian 17) feels like a home for an Elvis Habsburg -- half Austro-Hungarian country home, half Graceland. Doubles are $37.
On the square, the 34-room Hotel Concordia (011-40-265-260-602; Trandafirilor Sq. 45) is London chic meets Transylvania, with large, stylish rooms with zebra-print chairs and framed fashion prints. Doubles are $140.
• Places to Eat: On the main square, Leo (Trandafirilor Sq. 36-38; open 24 hours) fills its covered sidewalk seats first. The menu packs in pizzas, salads and Transylvania grilled meats (the pork chop with corn grits and fried eggs is particularly tasty). Dishes range from $3 to $10.
A block west, family-run Emma Venegco (Str. Horea 6; open 11 a.m.-11 p.m.) is a quieter Hungarian tavern with $2 borschts and $4 four-course dinner specials, such as chicken with cucumber sauce and polenta.
The $4 business lunches, and mixed drinks, at Hotel Concordia restaurant/bar attract local jet-setters.


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