For the first time in nearly a year, we could see our breath. The weather was changing quickly and it was a cold morning as we walked to the bus station in Targu Mures. Though we weren’t entirely prepared for it, autumn was upon us.
We had just spent the past couple of weeks adjusting to city life once again after our road trip through Maramures, as well as basking in some proper hotel life during this time. However, it was now time to move on and we sat in the cool air waiting for the shuttle to Sibiu, and back to the budget accommodation we were used to.
Though what was to come of this experience was much more than we could have ever expected.
Our First Romanian Bus Experience
It felt like we had been transported back to Central America, El Salvador or Nicaragua perhaps, for those two brief hours. We’d heard stories about bus travel in Romania; real bus travel I mean, not the fancy tourist buses. Stalling twice before leaving the station, the beat-up old shuttle, though probably no more than 5 or 6 years old, resembled something left over from the Soviet era.
Driving in typical Romanian fashion, our captain drove the sardine-packed van at full speed, seemingly ignoring any conventional road rules. We stopped to pick up anyone who would pay.
Chaotic as it was, everyone smiled and seemed to enjoy the ride; the driver chatted away with the passengers en route.
The Dog and his Bear
Upon arrival in Sibiu, we walked the short distance from the centre of town to the apartment that we’d rented a room. Greeting us with a warm smile, our host welcomed us happily and showed us where we’d be staying.
Apollo, her ageing Labrador, followed close behind with his beloved teddy-bear in his mouth.
Catching Up on Work before Exploring Sibiu
After settling in, we spent the next while quietly in our room, catching up on a few things before heading out to catch the sunset in the Old Town. The same cobbled streets and fantastic architecture we’ve grown accustomed to during our time in Europe greeted us as we passed the archway.
Unfortunately, much like the rest of Europe, once we entered the centre of town, prices jumped considerably. Thankfully, due to the rather shaky ride in, we hadn’t been able to eat much on the bus itself, leaving our travel snacks for our arrival.
Instead of sitting down for a large meal, we stopped at a Super Mama, a local fast food chain we’d heard was actually quite good. We heard correctly. We sat down and enjoyed a platter of chicken shawarma with some pickles and fries with a shocking amount of that delicious mystery garlic sauce that appears on only the finest kebabs.
Back Home to Talk about Cheese…
Back at the apartment, we enjoy some drinks and chat with our host. Though Romanian by blood, she spent 23 of her years living in Jordan with her husband. I have the feeling from speaking with her that she almost considers herself more Jordanian than Romanian at times.
When the topic of food inevitably arose, following with Kylee and I being two chefs, the conversation changed no more. Our lovely host was passionate about food, though admitted that at one point she could cook almost nothing at all. It was during her time in the Levant where she developed her love for cooking.
Upon her eventual return to Romania, she tried desperately to share her new found techniques with those from her homeland, but couldn’t convince their conservative minds to open.
“Cinnamon with chicken!?” They would say with confusion and disgust, “Cinnamon is for strudel!”
While on the topic of Romanian cuisine now, she mentions a traditional polenta dish that we’d heard about when we first arrived in Timisoara. It’s something we’d wanted to try quite badly, yet hadn’t found the chance.
“In that case,” she said, “I will make it for you tomorrow!”
To the Market We Go
The following morning, back into the city before the crowds, we wander the streets and soak in the beauty of Sibiu. Of all the bigger cities we had been thus far in Romania, Sibiu might be the most picturesque. The colourful, pastel shades of the old stone buildings, spreading out away from the monstrous tower in the centre of town, gave it a very medieval fortress vibe. The famous “sneaky eye” windows looked on as we moved.
We had agreed with our host the night before that if she was preparing lunch, we would contribute. The polenta required Brânză de burduf, a very specific sheep’s milk cheese that could only be purchased from the local market near the river. Mass-produced varieties could be found in the supermarket, but pasteurization and processing left true flavour to the imagination, she said.
The cheese itself was relatively easy to find, there is an entire wing of the market dedicated to dairy products, and every stall proudly displayed the local specialty. Not seeing a plethora of foreign visitors in these parts, let alone in the local cheese market, the sellers were more than excited to proudly hand over large chunks of their tasty treats, from the end of a long knife.
Brânză de burduf has that same characteristic flavour common to all sheep-milk products, though it’s quite unique overall. The semi-hard cheese has a little more acid and funk than we’d encountered so far in the country, something we were quite pleased to find!
Romanian Cuisine Leading to Something More
Kylee chatted about life with our host as she explained the process of preparing the polenta. I chimed in occasionally but was mostly preoccupied with Apollo. Once the time-consuming polenta base was complete, the rest of the dish came together quite quickly.
It was a simple dish, essentially composed of polenta, half-cooked eggs and the deliciously sharp and funky cheese. Fresh cracked pepper on top was the final touch before we sat down to enjoy. It was nothing short of perfection in its simplicity; rich, creamy, gooey and seasoned with the saltiness of the cheese.
Later that evening, we sipped our drinks while listening to wisdom pouring from our host for hours. We had met this lovely woman only the day prior, and she was spilling her vast knowledge of life and perspective and appreciation as if we were old friends. She detailed some of her own travels, and of her time in Jordan; of the people and the way they lived and loved.
She spoke from the heart, every word full of passion. Whether about food, life, her old dog, friendships, or the past, present and future; she was in love with existence.
Prior to us heading to sleep, she asked what time we had to leave the next day. As our only plans involved picking up our rental car nearby and the two-hour drive to our next destination, we had little for a set schedule. She asked if she could cook for us once more before we parted ways. Our talk of and a shared appreciation for food made her want to prepare one of her favourite dishes from her time in Jordan.
How could we say no to that?
Last Minute Details
As we finished packing our bags the next morning while simultaneously getting some work done, our host took Kylee for a walk. Though the bus stop was only a few short blocks away, she felt the need to show us specifically where and how to reach the car rental, just in case.
Along the way, they passed a woman selling fresh vegetables and herbs from her large garden. Parsley playing an important roll in the salad to come, our host stopped to purchase a bunch. When Kylee offered to pay, seeing as it was the least we could do, she politely told her that it was out of the question.
“This is my gift to you, there is no need for you to always give something in return.”
Upon their return, we made our way through Sibiu to the airport on the Western edge of the city. Following the typical formalities, we hopped into our Dacia Logan and drove through town back to the meal awaiting us.
Our host was just putting the finishing touches on the platter as we entered the flat. It was massive. Maqluba, as it’s called, translating to “upside-down”, is a lightly spiced and wonderfully flavoured mixture of rice, chicken and roasted eggplant.
The eggplant was like butter, I’d never had the vegetable prepared so well in my entire life. The chicken was so fantastically moist and tender, with the subtle hint of cardamom and strudel spice. The rice had the consistency of sticky rice, yet remained somewhat fluffy in some bizarre and magical way.
The salad was a simple lemon based vinaigrette tossed over onions, fresh tomatoes, and that bright green parsley picked only hours before. The bright, acidic salad was in perfect contrast with the rest of the plate. As well, a tzatziki-like yogurt and cucumber sauce accompanied the meal.
Once too-full to move, dessert was brought out. This time a Romanian treat. Whole plums with cinnamon and sugar are wrapped in a potato-based dough. They’re boiled before being fried in butter and tossed with more of the seasoning mixture. The warm dumplings burst when bitten into, sweet, sticky juice gets everywhere. Though we’re too full to continue, we still find a way to down a few of these before leaving.
Apollo laid on the floor, teddy in mouth, looking up with sad eyes as we brought our bags to the door. Our host smiled widely as she hugged us, mentioning that we always have family in Romania. As a final gesture before we stepped outside, she handed us a bag of dill and cheese filled crepes she made for us while we had been packing the car.
The parting felt as if we’d been living there for weeks or months. Though we’d only arrived two days ago, we were truly sad to be leaving. It’s so strange sometimes, how such a connection can form in such a short time.
Though it was time for us to move on once again, these two short days in Sibiu will not soon be forgotten.