Sauntering through Sibiu

Usually when I write about cities – or when others do – blog posts end up including things like “The five best cafes” and “The ten top attractions”. The truth is, however, that no amount of time is enough to do a beautiful city justice and it is therefore nigh impossible to get to know its true character in just a couple of days. This certainly applies to the seductive Saxon city of Sibiu (sorry for the alliteration, couldn’t help myself), which I visited late in September, when the CibinFEST was in full swing. So what I’ll do this time round is just take you on my walks through the city and tell you what I encountered. Perhaps you’ll want to try for yourself afterwards!

I have a confession to make first. When I arrived in Sibiu I was so hungry that I settled for the burger bar opposite my apartment (which had a door that didn’t lock properly, so I moved to another place which turned out to be just two doors away on Strada Nicolae Bălcescu). Actually, it wasn’t bad for a burger place, even though it was just an upmarket version of McDonalds, which I swore I’d never enter again. So this was a bit sinful really. But if you feel like sinning in an affordable way you could try Harley Burger Bar.

Another confession: I don’t much like museums and guided tours and stuff. I prefer to just walk around and soak things up. So after I had fed myself and slept, my wanderings started. I walked south on Strada Nicolae Bălcescu, then turned right and walked along Parcul Astra. I discovered Capsicum, which looked so good from the outside that I decided I’d have to order dinner there that night. Unfortunately, I found it closed when I went back. Twice. Which is a shame because it had good reviews and the photos looked rather mouthwatering. So I’ll just have to try again at some future occasion. I ended up having a pasta at Enzo, which was good but nothing extraordinary. The side salad was massive and came with lots of parmesan though, so that was pretty nice.

I continued my aimless wanderings and directed my steps towards the old centre again. I suddenly found myself in Piața Huet, at the foot of the rather impressive-looking Lutheran church. Organ music seeped out the doors, so I couldn’t help but seat myself on one of the benches in the square and soak up the sunlight and the music. There was a man walking to and fro exclaiming in a loud voice to his friends that he already paid enough taxes in Switzerland; therefore he would not pay the entrance fee to this church. I was more than willing at this point to enter the church though. As it turned out, an organ concert was scheduled for that night. I bought a 10 RON ticket with which I could enter the church, climb the tower and attend the concert (last of a series!) that night. The many vertical sculpted gravestones in the gallery made me wonder whether all these people had been buried upright, or whether these slabs had been taken from their graves and put on display – and whether that meant their graves were more or less naked now. I still don’t know the answer. I should have asked. I remain intrigued, so will have to return and find out.

Up the tower I went. On the top floor I could walk around and open tiny windows to take pictures through. The view was stunning. Piața Mare and Piața Mica below, the Făgăraș Mountains shimmering in the distance. What a glorious place. I happened to descend down the stairs at precisely 5 pm, past the giant bells. I was unaware of the time though, so when the bells got hit by their mighty clappers that gave me a bit of a fright.

The concert was wonderful. Very Bach, very Lutheran. There were three variations on Vater unser in Himmelreich by a Dutch composer, Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck. And variations on Bach’s choral Aus tiefer not schrei ich zu dir by a Norwegian composer, Fridthjov Andersen. As the host said, the music united the north of Norway and the south of Transylvania. It was a very restorative experience.

Things get a bit fuzzy here. I can’t remember quite what I did and saw on which day, so I’ll give up on the chronological order, although perhaps I’ll continue pretending it is there. Descriptions will become a bit more impressionist from here.

So, on what I think was the next day, I had to find a place to replace the battery of my Suunto heartrate belt, which I couldn’t possibly do myself because they put these impossible screws in it – to keep it waterproof, I suppose. Mihai from the ProAlpin outdoor shop pointed me to a watchmaker in an alley off Bălcescu street – this one turned out to be away on concediul – holidays. So I climbed the steps to Bijuteria Flandra – partly because I was intrigued by the name, partly because I thought maybe they could help. They couldn’t, but sold beautiful old jewellery (another reason to come back – when I’m rich), but the lady behind the counter more ore less ordered an old man to accompany me to Mr Corneliu, which he gladly did. As we slowly walked down the stairs and into the street again, he proudly proclaimed he was seventy-two. I told him it was respectabil for which he thanked me. Mr Corneliu turned out to be located in an alley just across the street. Hidden behind a bright green door, I found an impossibly small workplace, with three elderly people queueing. As I tried to squeeze myself in, my ass bumped into some things – presumably ancient clocks – behind a curtain. Something fell. No-one commented. The workplace was remarkably dark for a watchmaker’s, but there was a small bright light on the desk. Mr Corneliu swiftly helped the three customers ahead of me, and then started examining my Suunto sensor. For this, he used a special looking glass that he squeezed in front of his eye. (My husband says this is quite ordinary, but I thought it was intriguing.) I started to not so secretly take pictures of the man. A young couple entered. Mr Corneliu asked me what the little device was for; I explained and he told me to test it to see if he’d done his job right. I asked what I could pay him. Upon which he asked me whether I was a student or worked in Sibiu; I told him no but that I was writing a mountain guide about Romania. This greatly pleased him and he said I didn’t have to pay. He was very happy I was writing about his country – it has plenty of beautiful sides, he said, but, you know… In fact, I can’t remember exactly what he said, but the gist of it was that he and the young couple agreed with me that Romania needed an outsider’s eye to put it on the (touristic) map.

After this encounter, I walked down to a Carrefour outside the centre because I couldn’t find sesame bars anywhere in the centre and I had to have them. On my previous hike, I had gotten very sick; I couldn’t eat anything but I knew I could have eaten sesame bars had I still had them. Fortunately, I found them, and got an interesting walk outside the city centre into the bargain.

This post is getting lengthy… Word count says 1173. Not good. Your attention span is long gone. Still, I write for my own pleasure as much as yours, so I will continue despite what all the laws of blogging say. The next thing I took a note of in my well-worn notebook is the people who passed me by. There was a rare muslim girl clad in black from top to toe. Minutes later, a nun in very similar attire. Which made me wonder how I could make the distinction in the first place. There was a mother tying her daughter’s hair into a ponytail. The girl was clearly relishing the experience. A mother with a toddler and a dog in a pushcart. A man reading books from what was presumably his own bookshop under the Turnul Sfatului, the Council Tower; at the same time a little girl casting her shadow on the tiny houses this shop and some others resided in, asking her parents ‘What are these houses for?’ in the brightest of voices. I think it was around this time I needed the bathroom – and lo and behold! Sibiu has public toilets that are both free and clean. They are located below Piața Mica, on the road that passes underneath the Liars’ Bridge.

Sibiu is lively and quiet, spacious and compact at the same time. Lively and spacious because of the big squares – quiet and compact because of the many courtyards. Both times I rented a room, they were in one. It means you can stay right in the city centre but not get bothered by any noise. (And there was a lot of that during the CibinFEST – lots of brass bands in the big tent on the main square.) The courtyards are occupied by translators, tailors, solicitors and jewellers. And the occasional watchmaker.

I’m going to wrap up. A few more impressions that I can’t elegantly connect to any of the other ones:
Romanians seem obsessed with air fresheners. In my first room, I could hardly breathe because the lilies of the valley had been sprayed around lavishly just a minute before. In the second, there was an automatic spraying thingy that would spray as soon as it detected movement. And then there are all the cars with scented trees, smileys and what not hanging from the rear view mirror. Sometimes as much as six at a time. You never know when someone’s going to let out a fart, after all. Sadly, they are more obsessed with air fresheners than fresh air itself. Romanians are notorious for closing each and every window, no matter the temperature – because everyone knows a draft is going to kill you in an instant.

Oh. Jules Bistro. Go to Jules Bistro. Elegant and quiet, outstanding food. At least, my carbonara was. And the portion was huge. They have a lovely courtyard too. I had breakfast at Cafe Wien on my last morning – because I craved a croissant and a roll. Romanian breakfast usually involves an omelette, and much as I love eggs, I need a break sometimes.

I haven’t mentioned shoes yet. Sibiu is shoe city. (Yikes, more alliteration. Unintended this time.) The shoe shops are just countless. Another reason to come back – when I have more money and less baggage. Attitude Garage on Strada Tribunei looked pretty awesome. As did the ballet shoe shop next door, which had a slightly frustrated-looking sign in the window saying ‘We don’t do repairs anymore’. (Is that perhaps a veiled way of saying ‘Please buy new shoes from us’?)

I sort of forgot to explore the Lower Town. Apparently this is worth it. So I’ll have to go back. How many times have I said I have to go back? And I will. I’m almost done with my hikes for this year, but I have the beautiful prospect of continuing near this gorgeous town next year. I’m looking forward to discover many more narrow alleys through thick walls, interesting people in courtyards and belly-filling, soul-satisfying meals. La revedere, Sibiu!

PS If you do want a list-type post about Sibiu, check out this one.

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