Monday, December 04, 2006

Arizona Daily Star: Transylvania's Targu Mures a gem

Transylvania's Targu Mures a gem
Tucson, Arizona Published: 12.03.2006
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, or Vlad the Impaler) 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, horse carts 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.

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 numerous rare books, including one by Benjamin Franklin.

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. Five miles south, in the village of Praid, you can visit the underground world of the Praid salt mine, giant caverns filled with swing sets, sculptures, a cafe selling beer and even an Internet cafe.

Information: Targu Mures' energetic tourist-information center (www.cjmures.ro/turism) provides free city maps and car-rental information. Sovata's small tourist-information center (www.sovatatravel.ro) helps find accommodation and rents bikes. For information on the Praid salt mine, check www.salinapraid.ro.

http://www.azstarnet.com/sn/allheadlines/158559.php

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