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.
Things to Do in Sighet
Most of the things to do in Sighet will come in the food and hiking suggestions. But I’ll cover a few sites here first.
Elie Wiesel Memorial House
There are two museums you’d be silly to miss while in town. First and foremost, the Elie Wiesel Memorial House. The museum is located in the childhood home of the Nobel Peace Prize winner and Holocaust survivor who shared his experiences in the book Night. Alina Marincean curates and occasionally offers tours of the Jewish history of Sighet. (No promises! Best to reach out in advance.) Alina was kind enough to spend a morning with me, bringing Jewish Sighet to life in a way that simply wouldn’t have been possible on my own. That’s because few sites are marked, so you need someone who knows where and what they’re looking at. And Alina could find something to talk about around every corner and in every courtyard or alley.
My timing was particularly fortuitous because the museum was hosting two workshops/events during my visit. First, they held a Jewish culinary workshop in which I got to lend a dish––the kasha varnishkes I mentioned at the beginning. There was also a musical event, highlighting Jewish, particularly Yiddish-language, music.
Tip: If you’re traveling on a Jewish heritage trip, contact the Tarbut Foundation for more information on guided tours.
Memorial to the Victims of Communism and of the Resistance
The other museum to visit, and one of the most popular throughout Romania, is the Memorial to the Victims of Communism and of the Resistance. The museum is set in a former prison, outfitting the rooms with different exhibits that take you through the history of communism in this part of the world with an obvious focus on Romania. Most everything is exclusively in Romanian, but you’ll get a piece of paper at the beginning that includes translations.
Sighet is right on the border of Ukraine. People who live in Sighet cross the border back and forth on a daily basis. It is a border crossing, so you should expect to spend a little time handing over your passport and waiting for the requisite stamp. One important thing to remember is that as of this writing, you have to purchase insurance to enter the country. That’s one of the latest requirements due to the pandemic. It’s not at all expensive, but something they’re definitely going to ask you for.
The Ukrainian border town is Solotvyno. During the Austro-Hungarian Empire, when my ancestors would’ve been here, there was no border or separation between the two. It was all Maramures. I wanted to visit Solotvyno because it seems some of my ancestors actually came from this shtetl of yesteryear before moving to Sighet.
If you go, be sure to wear comfortable walking shoes. You’ll be hopping on and off crumbling sidewalks as you head to the town center. It’s a little less than a mile or a little more than a kilometer from the border crossing to the center of town. I grabbed a delicious bowl of roasted veggies in a stone bowl at Selin. From there, you could catch a train and continue throughout Ukraine. But if you’re looking to better understand the Jewish history of the area, you’ll need a guide who can point out the sites for you because very few things are marked.
Where to eat in Sighet
Sighet is a smaller city of around 37,000, so it’s not overflowing with restaurants, cafes, and the like. That said, you can still eat quite well in your time here.
Hotel Grădina Morii
This is probably the nicest spot in town in terms of the setting. The hotel is listed at three stars but could easily pass for four stars. It’s set just on the edge of the Iza River and the Carpathian Mountains in the middle of Grădina Morii, a state park. Waiters are dressed in the stuff you’d expect of formal hotel staff, but that’s not to say you’re expected to match. In fact, one of my dinners here came after a sweaty hike. The menu is essentially a variety of pizzas and sandwiches with a few options for dessert. In fact, the highlight for me was my dessert. I got a Papanași, which is a Romanian cheese dumpling smothered in jam.
Right on the main strip, this is where you should come for a quick bite. It’s Sighet fast food without any of the familiar mascots. All you do is pick your crepe, your fillings, and then you nosh. It’s a filling lunch without taking too much time out of your day.
The Coffee Factory
Right next door to Cresp, you can come to The Coffee Factory when you’re jonesing for your afternoon buzz. The Coffee Factory is the specialty coffee shop of Sighet, which seems obligatory in any town these days. Internet access is free if you’re hanging out for a while and they’ve got some baked goods out on display.
When you’re really feeling the sweet tooth, check out Cofetaria Ileana. This is an old-fashioned bakery and café. You can see the years that have gone by in the walls and against the tile flooring. The options are too many to name here. Come hungry, come with a friend, and get a few things to try.
Casa Iurca de Călineşti
Here’s your spot for traditional Romanian ambiance and fare, located right next door to the Elie Wiesel Memorial House. For my lunch, I went with a heavy plate of mushrooms paprikash and a side of mamaliga––a porridge made out of polenta that’s wildly popular across Romania.
I actually had dinner at Casa Veche at least twice, if not a third time. (The week went by in a blur.) It’s a place that feels like old Europe with white tablecloths and tile floors. If the weather allows, you can sit out on the patio. Otherwise, head inside and pick from a slew of traditional Romanian dishes or you can always take a night off from the local stuff and get a pizza. Then again, if you really want to go outside of your box, you can ask and see if they have any brains available.
I didn’t eat here, but I did stop by after dinner at Casa Veche for a couple of beers. The interior has this classy 1920s vibe that makes you think you stumbled into an early 20th-century bank vault. They’ve got a menu as well if you’re here for food, but I was plenty happy kicking back with my beer.
Where to Stay in Sighet
Originally I planned to stay at an AirBnB. A vacation rental isn’t usually my first pick, but since I had a good five full days in town, I wanted something with a kitchen so I didn’t have to eat out for every single meal. Unfortunately for me, my AirBnB canceled on me. They had to work on some repairs at the property.
There are other vacation rentals in town, but nothing that beats a hotel in my mind. (The others didn’t have a kitchen or weren’t private.) So, I ended up at the Villa Royal, which proved slightly serendipitous for my purposes. (The original owners were Jewish and you can see stars of David worked into the metalwork along the staircase.)
Stay here if you’re looking for something no-frills and affordable. For my purposes, it’s all I needed. I wasn’t going to be lounging the day away in my room. I was planning to be out almost all day, every day. Plus I was staying put for several days and wanted something on the more affordable side of things. Next time I go back, I’ll likely stay at Hotel Grădina Morii with its immediate access to hiking trails across the Iza River.
Where to Hike in Sighet
One look at Sighet, with the Carpathian Mountains in the background, and it’s easy to imagine how this town could be a hiking hotspot. If Sighet were in Germany, where hiking is an obsession, there’d be maps and signs everywhere pointing to trails.
You’ll find some trail markers in Sighet, but they’re few and far between and they don’t extend all that far along the walkable trails. I tried desperately to find GPX routes or something to help me along my way, especially after I got warned about aggressive sheepdogs.
Luckily, you’ve got me and I managed to complete the approximately 13-kilometer loop that crosses the Iza River and goes into the hills and back into town at Grădina Morii. I noticed that the trail was marked but only for the two-kilometer climb/descent between the river and the top of the hill. After that, it’s best to hike with a GPX route. You’d also be wise to equip yourself with a whistle to scare away any aggressive sheepdogs because the warning I got turned out to be very much based in reality.
I only made it about two kilometers out of town before coming across a farmer, his flock, and some sheepdogs who were very vocal about my presence. The farmer said something but of course I hadn’t a clue as to what. You can zoom in on the route and see me pacing back and forth, taking a picture while I debated going back or waiting to see if they left. I’d test it every now and again, but the dogs told me to “piss off” in their own way. Eventually, they moved down a hill and I was able to continue, but I was sufficiently spooked for the rest of the hike and on high alert. I also didn’t have a good dog whistle on me, so I’d do it again if properly prepared. The views were well worth the soiled shorts.