When the Olympics Games end the structures built to host them are often re-purposed, demolished, or left abandoned after the closing ceremony. Olympic villages are most often converted into housing, stadiums taken over by local sports teams. In the case of the Winter Olympics, many event-specific constructions like the bobsleigh track can’t be used for anything else but Sarajevo‘s leftover 1984 course was used to host the Luge World Cup – until it became a front in the 1991 Bosnian War.
Carefully walking around the main grounds (the surrounding woods are still heavily mined) in a small park area near one of the largest track turns it’s easy to imagine why the invading Serbian army chose this high point behind concrete barrier to shell Bosnia and Herzegovina‘s capital from for nearly 4 years. Inside the remaining walkable parts of the bobsleigh track you can still see marks left by bullets and holes drilled out for sniper rifles.
Very little of the original structure is left, most of it destroyed by war while the rest is slowly being devoured by the forest. In the meantime, teenagers drink nearby while those of varying artistic ability leave their painted mark on the exposed track.
A youth vastly different than that of my guide from HYH City Tour (which I highly recommend) who, only a few years older than me, lost his childhood to smuggling food and supplies into Sarajevo under siege. Optimistically though we move on to Sarajevo’s former Olympic stadium where the next generation conditions their footballing legs in today what is one of Europe’s safest countries. The 2017 European Youth Olympic Winter Festival will be held in Sarajevo where Torvill and Dean recently returned to the same rink 30 years after achieving the only perfect skating score in Olympic history. Given the passion and people who brought me to Sarajevo that have bid to re-host the games twice in the past 6 years, I won’t be surprised when the Olympics returns to its mountainous landscape.
Located in the middle of Romania along the border of Transylvania, is the statistically unassuming but surprisingly artful city of Sibiu. Considering it was originally the fortified home of vagabond German settlers – then later 1980s playground for the psychopathic son of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu (who destroyed part of Bucharest to build this) – Sibiu’s history suggests it shouldn’t be the vibrant creative center you voted The Best City To Visit in 2013.
Practical pessimists often call themselves realists and while I would say Romanians are characterized by a warm, energetic, and beautifully nerdy nature, they’re generally apathetic about their domestic prospects. In a global satisfaction with life index Romania ranks in the lower 25th percentile and 83% say government is ineffective; resulting in a serious brain drain problem.
At some level most of us can agree that politicians are dishonest to varying degrees and any legislative process is far from perfect. Enthusiasm for government is a hard feeling to cultivate and even more difficult to maintain. It takes a delicate blend of ingredients and the recipe for Sibiu’s bright outlook couldn’t seem less intuitive.
From Nomads To Nicu
Sibiu was founded somewhere in the 12th century by Germanic nomads who named the settlement Hermannstadt. Until World War II, Germans were the ethnic majority in Sibiu; which is fairly odd considering it’s located right in the middle of Romania, nearly 1,000 kilometers away from Munich or Berlin. Germans were a large part of the population right through Romania’s 1989 revolution, which ousted dictator Nicolae Ceausescu – and his horny, alcoholic son Nicu – who lived in Sibiu as the appointed head of the Communist Party there.
But mostly, he spent his time drinking, raping, and terrorizing the local population who eventually convicted Nicu of shooting civilians during anti-government protests in his final days in power. Ironically, all of those distractions may have preserved the distinct look of Sibiu. As aesthetics were under attack in the rest of the country, locals tell me aside from his many other indulgences, Nicu was given free architectural reign. Whether by apathy or choice, it might be why Sibiu still looks a lot like it did 300 years ago.
German Old School
Although I wasn’t surprised many of the people I met were engineers or computer scientists as Romania has the world’s second fastest Internet speeds, I was taken a back at how obvious their optimism was for the future of Sibiu. (Us engineers tend to be especially “practical”.) And roughly 25 years after ousting a dictator, the source of their momentum was a shock.
There should be a saying that you can take a German anywhere, but you can’t take organization out of a German. Although there are only 2,000 ethnic Saxons living among Sibiu’s population of 170,000, one of them, Klaus Werner Iohannis, was elected mayor in 2000. And he’s popular. Very popular. In a country where a politician would seem the least likely catalyst for change nearly everyone I met in Sibiu had good things to say about their mayor. Nationally, it’s been proposed he run for Prime Minister or President on multiple occasions.
Iohannis has brought in foreign investments but much of Sibiu’s success comes from focusing on its artistic roots. Between May and September there are theater festivals such as Sibfest, Red Bull’s Romaniacs Rally is held here – not to mention over 10 parks and museums like ASTRA open year round. All of this means double tourism revenue over the past 10 years [PDF], money for the local economy, and an infectious cycle of hope.
The Common Thread To Spread
As I write this it’s hard for me not to feel giddy about Sibiu, where things seem to be clicking enough that one can’t help but leave with that impression. An effect that may be spreading in nearby cities Brasov, Cluj-Napoca and beyond to Bucharest, where Sibiu’s mayor was just appointed interior minister and deputy premier. Whether or not he can make clocks and New Year’s Eve run on time in Bucharest is to be seen; but the city he comes from couldn’t have a stranger path to success, which should make us all hopeful for tomorrow, no matter where we are today. Thanks Sibiu.
Although I’ve been traveling around the world for the past 6 years, my path to this journey wasn’t an escape from a cubicle. Prior to setting off I developed a framework to focus my travels but in many ways you could say I fit a certain mold for this kind of extended adventure. I began in my 20s and am male (except when watching Finding Neverland) but my live chat guest today proves you don’t have to fit a template to follow your dreams.
After 35 years in careers that paid the bills but brought no joy, Barbara Weibel set out on a 6-month round-the-world trip to pursue her true passions of travel, writing and photography. 7 years later, she is still traveling and writing about her adventures on her blog, Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel.
The chat now closed, thank you everyone for participating!
Barbara will be joining us for three hours today to answer any of your questions about the thrill and difficulties of leaving a long, established career behind to travel the world solo. Also, my friends at Sucre will send the person with the highest voted question or comment your choice of their 15 piece Macaroon, chocolate collection ($32 values), or king cake ($20 value; shipping US-only). We’ll see you in the comments below!
Small towns like Sibiu tend to get overlooked as mere hopping off points that can be skipped over entirely. A statistically unassuming city literally in the middle of Romania, Sibiu is a fortress city that holds its own for travelers heading to mountainous border of Transylvania. Voted by you as The Best City to Visit in 2013, here are the best parts of Sibiu not to be missed.
Where To Stay
Visiting in the middle of winter I had my pick of hotels, hostels, and guesthouses. The one that eventually caught my eye however was Pension Zanzi, a close 5 minute walk from the historic city center. Inside, Zanzi has the cozy feel of a cottage with large wooden beams featuring prominently holding the structure together. The staff also went out of their way to be helpful – in one instance locating a gym for me when I asked and then driving me there on the first day to make sure I would find it.
The rooms tend to vary in quality, but for the rates around 112 Romanian lei ($35 USD) a night, Pension Zanzi’s a bargain for a single room with a more local feeling than the larger hotels across town. Alternatively, if Zanzi is booked up, take a look at the newly opened Welt Kultur Hostel which came highly recommended from knowledgeable locals.
Crossing From Big Square To Little
Sibiu is a small city travelers can mentally organize around the Big Square (Piata Mare) and Small Square (Piata Mica) adjacent to it. Basically everywhere to see is within a 3.5 kilometer radius; aside from the outdoor ASTRA Museum of Traditional Folk Civilization, you can get everywhere on foot. Inside town there’s the Brukenthal Museum – containing paintings by Romanian artists with additional fees to access the second wing of the museum featuring a larger collection of European art.
Though you’ll really have to love portrait paintings or museums to enjoy the Brukenthal, the ASTRA is worth the 20 minute, 1.5 lei ($0.50) ride to the last stop on bus 13. The model homes aren’t anything special – especially if you’ve ever seen one of the countless villages in eastern Europe – it’s the 10 acre backdrop of the lake and forest that will capture your senses.
Entrance is 15 lei ($4.50) to the ASTRA which, doubles as one hell of a jogging trail if there’s no ice on the ground.
- Budget Breakfast – Although its touristy nature doesn’t make it a popular choice for locals, if you’re like me and need lots of fairly-tasty calories in the morning, head to Casa Frieda. For around 45 Romanian lei ($13.50) you can get an omelet, salad, soup, bread, drink, and side dish. Then watch your waitress’ shocked look as you consume it all.
Afterward you might want a dose of caffeine or shot of lung cancer as Sibiu has a glorious cafe culture in a country where 26% of the population smokes. To go along with the sultry fog of carbon monoxide in the air are refreshing waves of free wireless, some of the world’s fastest, available pretty much anywhere.
- Pardon Cafe & Bistro – Quickly became one of my favorite cafes in the world for its ambiance, food, coffee, and wine. Often the managers or owners will be walking around to show you around Pardon, if they do, tell them hello from me.
- Baroc Cafe – Less than a quarter of the size of the smallest cafe in Sweden, I almost walked out because I was confused when I first entered. Baroc holds about 8 people, including the server, comfortably, ensuring you’ll never have to wait for your espresso.
- Bistro Salut – Although the decor is distinct, you’ll notice the similarities to its larger cousin Pardon Cafe right next door.
- Mustache Caffe – A good mix of liveliness, fast Internet, and size for a short coffee break or few hours of working for you digital nomad and business traveler types.
Church Hop To Liar’s Bridge
Much like cafes, there are no shortage of churches in Sibiu to visit. Since it’s not quite as fun to indulge in church-visiting burnout as it to
drunk drink your way around town, you can narrow your selection to these holy buildings.
- Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Cathedral – Despite being one of the largest churches in Sibiu that sits right in Piata Mare, once you’re inside you’ll wonder how such a building can hide in plain sight.
- Holy Trinity Cathedral – Designed after the 1,477 year old Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, if the interior artwork doesn’t grab you, the solemn prayer might draw you in to contemplate more than physical brick and stone.
Unfortunately the impressive Evangelic Chruch in Piata Mica has been closed for renovations for over a year. Rather, wander a bit to find Biscerica Azilului as you cross The Bridge Of Lies. According to local legend, Liar’s Bridge will collapse if a fib is told on it. Given that it’s been standing since 1859, it would seem the residents (or at least, boyfriends) of Sibiu are tactfully trustworthy.
Where To Eat In Sibiu
Visually, Sibiu is a difficult place to discern good, local food. Not that there isn’t any but a casual walk along the pedestrian Strada Nicolae Balcescu showcases overpriced eateries whose clientele don’t know any better than to keep looking. Right beyond the old fort walls of The Citadel of Sibiu is, in my opinion, one of the best places to eat in town.
- Crama Ileana – Authentic Romanian cuisine in a welcoming environment floating just below street level, if you’re in Sibiu, you need to eat in this restaurant that looks more expensive than it is. A large meal, sides, soup, plus glass of wine will run you about 60 lei ($18).
- Tango Grill – A good mix of Romania and Western dishes done very well, its location in Piata Mica – or reputation make – it a bit more expensive than it should be.
Going back to a favorite of mine, Pardon Cafe also has a noteworthy kitchen and pizza oven.
Tiny To Its Advantage
Many said, “Sibiu’s too small” or “you’re visiting at a bad time of year” when I arrived early December in Romania’s 18th largest city. Honestly though, those were two of the aspects I enjoyed most about Sibiu. The Christmas market in the middle of Piata Mare brought the frigged evenings to life. Strolling through the warm lights scented with spiced wines, my surroundings were devoid of other tourists, who generally prefer to visit during the warmer months for festivals, giving the sense I had Sibiu all to myself – which was an honor to have of The Best City to Visit in 2013.