A crowd gathered and took their seats in the courtyard of the Elie Wiesel Memorial House. Postcards with historical images of Jewish Sighet and others with different culinary Yiddishms lined the trees, stretching alongside the picket fence separating the museum grounds from the sidewalk.
“Don’t eat the challah before saying the blessing” reads one with a picture of a presumably naked woman covered by a challah. “If you’re going to eat pork, eat it till your mouth drops” reads another. My favorite? “When a thief kisses you, count your teeth.”
Guests listened attentively to the evening’s hosts. They were giving a background on Jewish food, explaining basics like the laws behind kosher eating.
But I was busy in a makeshift outdoor kitchen, cooking up some kasha varnishkes. I couldn’t remember if I volunteered or was asked to help, but it didn’t matter in the moment. I had a professional chef next to me watching curiously, asking me about the dish and how to make it. I couldn’t screw it up.
This trip, my visit to Sighet, had been a long time coming. I originally planned to visit in May of 2020 after learning that my great-grandmother, Bertha Lax, was likely born in the northern Romanian city back when it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. I’d been looking forward to it ever since my first Jewish heritage trip to Bardejov, Slovakia.
Then, the pandemic happened, and leaving Germany for any kind of travel beyond an emergency seemed like a bad idea. When countries started to open back up the following year, I determined to make it happen knowing how quickly things could change. I booked a flight to Cluj-Napoca, took the bus up to Sighet, and spent the better part of a week in town before taking the overnight train from Sighet to Bucharest.
The overnight train from Sighet to Bucharest isn’t the fastest way to cross the country. But for me, the 15 hours on the train overnight beats driving 9 hours––by a long shot.
The overnight train leaves Sighet once a day, departing at 4 pm and arriving in Bucharest at 6:30 am the next day. Train schedules will make it look like there’s a transfer in Beclean pe Someş in the middle of the night, but the train simply changes its service name. You don’t actually get woken up to switch trains.
My ticket for a private cabin was 292 RON or about €59 / $67. That’s about what I was spending for my lodging in Sighet and Bucharest per night. For me, it was worth it to ensure privacy, especially since it was still pandemic season and the prospect of sharing would’ve been exceptionally unappealing.
Poland in and of itself is a country that I think gets unfairly overlooked by travelers. But if you want that quintessential European aesthetic of cobblestone streets and gorgeous centuries-old buildings without lighting your wallet on fire, then you go to Poland.
Warsaw and Krakow are a couple of the first cities to come to mind (though some, unfairly I think, deride Warsaw’s old town as a Disneyland for tourists). But those towns are just the tip of the pierogi, if you will. In fact, one of the most impressive cities I’ve seen––across Western and Central Europe––is Gdansk, a seaside city where you can get your fix of Polish culinary classics alongside fresh fish and Baltic beach access.
Hankering for some pierogis, Baltic beach, and a train ride, we hopped on Deutsche Bahn Eurocity’s EC59 for a lumbering six-hour ride through western Poland and into Gdansk.
You learn quickly that history and how it’s told is an especially sensitive matter in the Balkans. It reminded me of traveling in places like El Salvador and Chile. People wanted to make sure that we knew their side of the story.
It’s impossible to start with the headlines you might be vaguely familiar with from the ’90s. You want to talk Tito? Milošević? Yugoslavia? Fine. But you have to eat your veggies first––2,000-plus years of Balkan history. Even when I said I was interested in learning more about Yugoslavia and its downfall in the late 20th century, the response was, “Okay, so 500 years after Christ…” referring to when Slavic tribes first started moving into the Balkans. That’s as early as anyone was willing to start the story.
If we’re going to start that far back, I better grab a snack.
Südtirol. Alto Adige. South Tyrol. It’s a border region of Europe that confuses and makes complete sense. You don’t know if you should say “Danke” or “grazie” to show appreciation for a meal, but it all comes together when you dive into the history.
But I first dove into the region by the rails, grabbing a morning high-speed train from Berlin to Munich where we transferred to an Austrian line that runs through Innsbruck and down to Bologna. I’d ridden it before to Verona, taking note of the Dolomites outside of my window and vowing to return.
And so I did, this time spending most of my time in Brixen / Bressanone before an overnight in Bozen / Bolzano––the capital of South Tyrol.
A trail race conveniently scheduled after the first month of training for the 2021 Berlin Marathon called us down to the Dolomites. I signed up for and ran the Ladinia Trail 29-kilometer race with nearly 2,000 meters of climbing––the most I’d ever done on my own two feet. But before and after the race, there was plenty to see and do in town.
Last Fall, just days before the big shutdown started, I went on one last trip to run the Märkischer Landweg trail from Templin to Angermünde across the state of Brandenburg. I had vacation days to kill and itchy feet that wouldn’t do well sitting at home all day. There was plenty of that to come anyway.
So I hopped on the train in Berlin for an hour ride north to Templin––a gateway of sorts to Brandenburg’s Uckermark region, a vast chunk of land left remarkably untouched considering its proximity to Berlin. This land has seen glaciers from the Ice Age, Slavic tribes, the Holy Roman Empire, and Prussia before turning into a battleground during World War II, leaving many of its towns severely damaged.
On the day I was out there, it was blissfully quiet and I couldn’t think of any other place I’d rather be than Templin where I set off on a 30-kilometer run to Ringenwalde. You know. For fun.