Beaufort, SC: a cute little town by the sea

In May 2015, we got away for a quick trip to the beach. I have heard about Beaufort, SC from HGTV, I believe, and then I have read about it in Coastal Living. It was described as a quaint little artist town by the water, so I really wanted to check it out. We always go to Charleston but this time we ventured out about an hour and a half to check things out. Beaufort was indeed a cute little town. We went to Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park and had lunch at Plums restaurant. I tried the soft-shell crab sandwich – the special – and I didn’t really like it. The shell was not as soft as I would have expected it to be but the drinks and the view were great. We walked about, in search of the haunted Castle, a 19th century classic house. Get the story from the locals:


Carriage stepping stone


Two dogs, one real, and one ceramic.

My kind of town, Chicago is

I heard a lot about Chicago, mostly about the jazz & blues scene and the cold winters. I had the chance to visit very briefly while in college. I really wanted to go to a piano jazz bar. However, as fate will have it, I was a day or two shy of my 21st birthday. In Europe, this wouldn’t have been an issue but here we can drive at 16, be in a war at 18 but are not responsible enough to drink until we are 21… Anyway, the funny thing is that I didn’t even drink back then (it’s all over now 😉 ). I went to Chicago just for a day. I remember walking along the river and having the distinct feeling that I was in one of my favorite movies, While You Were Sleeping

(0:44) Walking Along The River / They Are Walking Between N. Michigan Avenue and N. Columbus Drive Bridges, Chicago (Note: They Are On The North Side Of The Chicago River Walking Toward Columbus Drive)


I was mesmerized by the tall buildings (there aren’t many skyscrapers in Berea, Kentucky). We really wanted to find the Sears Tower, so we walked towards the tallest building we could see. Of course, the closer we walked, the tougher it was to know which one was the tallest… We made it but only to be turned down for a ride to the top with ten minutes left to closing time. What a bummer.

Two years ago (in June of 2014), I returned to The Windy City for a professional conference. I had very little time to explore but I had the chance to walk along the water, through the park, and on to the famous Bubble (Cloud Gate in Millennium Park). I enjoyed the wide sidewalks and taking in the refreshing 70 F degree air – a welcomed coolness after Knoxville’s 80s-90s F degree weather.


I tried one of the hot dog places that was supposed to be the best in downtown (Portillo’s) but I wasn’t impressed. Maybe I just chose the wrong type of dog? The other thing that just had to be tasted right at the source was the Chicago-style deep dish pizza. Now, that was good! I met a friend who was also in town for a conference and we had a great time at Gino’s East pizzeria. Ginos with AmyDeep Dish Pizza

This time I did make it to the top of the Sears Tower – now called Willis Tower. The views are spectacular and for some reason the jazz theme song from  Moonlighting TV series popped into my head (Al Jarreau). I too stepped into the glass box dangling 103 stories above the ground and had my picture taken for the world to see how brave I am! But most of all I just took in the panorama and enjoyed smart cocktails with strangers. There is just something so romantic about the sunset over the lake and the city lights, high above the ground…






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The Navy Pier is a must when visiting Chicago. We concluded our Chicago trip with a wonderful boat ride into the sunset…





So for now, so long, Chicago. I will return in search for that perfect piano jazz/blues club. Any recommendations are welcomed.

Christmas in Romania – part 5: Brasov

Christmas in Romania – part 5: Brasov

Saving the best for last: Brasov, my home – always!

Home is always the best, at least for me. I can honestly say – and not just because I’m from there – that Brasov is one of the best cities in Romania. It has a perfect blend of old and new: melancholic cobblestone streets are meandering among brick and stone houses with red terracotta roofs, guarded by ancient watch towers, and the fortresses on the hill. There is so much history here. There is also a lot of life and living. People enjoy each other’s life-long friendships, meet and spend time together at the sidewalk cafes, or get together on the weekends to enjoy nature, good food, and good companionship. Brasov is a true gem, located in the best possible setting: surrounded by lush mountains and showing off its best panorama from Tampa, the hill overlooking downtown and Piata Sfatului (the central piazza).


It was named “Corona” or the Crown and it’s really with good reason.


It has also been named “Probably one of the best cities in the world” – and you have to appreciate both the loving pride and the disclaimer in this slogan…

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I love that the young and the old can peacefully coexist and enjoy the same wild dance parties. I love the main piazza, Piata Sfatului, a popular rendezvous and hang-out spot, which turns into the perfect performance stage for music festivals, Argentine Tango or Salsa dancing, and for the giant Christmas tree and winter market. The city has so much charm, and it seems to me that it’s getting better each year. Yes, I’m biased but I also have the perspective of seeing the city only once a year and really noticing every change.

My beautiful Brasov was decorated and poised for the winter holidays and, even without snow, it glowed and enchanted me. I enjoyed strolling down the street, window-shopping, listening to the carolers, having a cup of hot mulled wine, and admiring the Christmas tree. There was also a popular Nativity scene and a carousel for kids. I love the juxtaposition of worldly fun, candy shops, and lights with the somber shadows of the Black Church and the vigilance of the White Tower.





Learn more about the historic sites

Enjoy this slideshow of Christmas 2015, downtown Brasov (photos might take a bit to load up, so be patient).


One of my favorite activities at Christmas time is decorating the tree. My family (of four) lived in a small two-bedroom apartment, so we always had a small Christmas tree. However, it was always well-dressed and it smelled divine. I love the smell of pine tree and, since I was a baby, I could watch the twinkling lights for hours. This year I went with my dad to the market to pick a tree and chose this guy:


With the tree up (we usually have the tree decorated only a few days before Christmas), we were ready to receive carolers. There are plenty of groups going around if you wish to receive them but we opted for someone we knew. A neighbor of ours has a beautiful daughter who is studying music. She played a few songs for us on her pan flute, which I understand is pretty hard to learn.

Thanks to Facebook, I was able reconnect with a couple of friends from high school. We met at Festival 39, a beautiful restaurant on the corner of Republicii street, in downtown Brasov.

High school was not a good memory. The Headmaster was a sadistic math teacher who tormented me every day for four years. Sadly, he doesn’t even know or understand that… Oh, there are some stories to be told from those days….but I’ll leave that for another day. It was great seeing my friends. It’s like we’ve never been apart, although twenty years passed…ouch! Time is silly like that: it likes to surprise us.

My husband and I made several trips to downtown – some for purely selfish shopping reasons – but most just for the joy of walking, sightseeing, and eating. We heard about this little place called La Ceaun (“At the Cauldron”), so we tried it one night for dinner. There were two sections: one with a big common table and a to-go counter, and the other one called La Ceaunul Tihnit (“At the laid-back/calm cauldron”), which we chose. The décor was very nicely done, in a modern fashion but using old/traditional elements: local ceramics, woven towels, and wooden menu holders. The food was delicious and very cheap, comparatively speaking. We ordered mulled wine, traditional meat and cabbage rolls with polenta (sarmale cu mamaliga), a pickled hot pepper and sour cream on the side, bean and pork belly soup in a bread bowl, and for desert, galusti cu prune (potato dough stuffed with plum and boiled) – all for a whopping 52 RON, or about 13 USD.


Another great place we visited for dinner was Bistro del Arte, a very quaint little restaurant tucked away on a cobblestone side street, in downtown Brasov. The number of tables available is small, and the setup is very cozy. Local artists display their sculptures or paintings throughout and some nights, there is live music playing.


The restaurant’s loyal stray dog respectfully sits outside the bar, waiting for his treats. I offered him some bread, but I was informed that he prefers cheese… He was still nice enough to keep us company for a while.



The cheese is not to be shared with dogs, sorry (growl). We had a glass of the house red and a small cheese plate, for starters. I loved the presentation:

Next, we had paella with chicken and a Mediterranean salad, and more wine.


Warmed up by the wine, we stepped into the cool night. We walked briskly, past the mulled wine wagon, still very much alive with visitors, past the late-night walkers, taking in the charm of city in its festive lights, feeling alive and happy.






Brasov has many perks and one of them is being the foothills of Poiana Brasov, one of the best skiing resorts in Romania. My brother and his friend convinced my husband to join them for several days of skiing. I don’t ski but I ice skate… It’s crazy, since I grew up there but I never took skiing lessons. I went skiing a few times, when I was a kid, with strap-on skies, and once, while in college. I had the “pleasure” of trying out the black diamond slopes using my fancy plow move and my thigh as the brake, so I didn’t return… But back to my story. My husband didn’t bring any skiing attire from the U.S., so we ended up buying a helmet, goggles, gloves, hat, socks, and ski pants at the local Decathlon store. He rented the other equipment from Poiana Brasov, and off they went. I joined them to the base of the slope and then went for a few hours’ stroll. I went to find the old Olympic skating rink I remembered from my childhood. I remember the little changing area serving hot tea with rum – so soothing and satisfying. I thoroughly enjoyed the vendor huts lined up between restaurants, along the main road. I ended up buying a ridiculously large furry hat and walked around with a grin the entire time; Hey, when in Rome (or Romania for that matter)…. I squeezed my way into a small wooden church to listen to a part of the sermon, then I walked past the sledding slopes and proceeded to look for a nice place to grab a hot coffee. I really wanted to find something non-smoking (which is still hard to find but finally existing!). I found this traditional-looking restaurant and chose a corner table, in the upstairs section, overlooking the slopes. I had a decadent and cheesy pastry and sipped on a cappuccino. It was fun watching the kids – by themselves or with their parents – sled down the hill, and a couple of young adults – possibly having had one too many rum teas? – who kept of falling off the sled before it reach the bottom half.

After a while, I walked back to the parking lot at the bottom of the ski slope to wait for my boys: husband, brother, and nephew. While waiting, I enjoyed people-watching: the colorful suits, the skillful – and not-so skillful – slaloms, and the random dog managing to dodge the skiers as they came to the end of the slope. There was one lady who arrived with the aid of the Salvamont, on a stretcher. Her leg must have been broken. She hobbled to a fence, where she waited for the ambulance to arrive. I felt so bad for her; she looked in pain.

After a good day of skiing, what’s better than a warm and plentiful meal, cooked by mom? Nothing, of course. My parents prepared mici (or “the little ones”, a mixture of beef, lamb, and pork, with spices, grilled), alongside veggies, and washed down with beer or red wine.

On the last day before heading to Bucuresti and then back to Knoxville, we visited with my brother and his family one more time for another feast. Even if it had finally started snowing outside, the guys fired up the grill on the patio and cooked tuna steaks, chicken, and beef. The side dish was either pasta made by my nephew (he had taken a cooking class the previous day, making pasta from scratch), or couscous, to stay on the healthy side of things. The wine was good but the time was short.

Good-byes are not my favorites and we rushed out to catch a cab back to my parents’ apartment. When we walked in, a familiar vanilla smell was coming from the kitchen. My mom showed up with a knowing smile on her face. “You made doughnuts, didn’t you?” A large plate of hot beignets was waiting on the small kitchen table and we gladly indulged my mom before hitting the road.


Our driver took a while to find us and was a little distraught at the number of luggage pieces we had (little did he know that we left quite a bit behind; we brought three bottles of wine, carefully packed in our check-ins). In Bucuresti, we stayed at hotel RIN, which is very close to the airport and offers free transportation to and from the airport. It’s a four-star hotel (although it’s not really) but we found a room at a discounted rate of only 30 dollars per night.

Our flight out of Bucuresti was bright and early at 6 a.m. In Amsterdam, we boarded our big plane, only to disembark because the cleaning crew had missed a check point. But better safe/clean than sorry. After that, it was smooth sailing to the U.S. I sat next to a foreign-looking guy (I had the middle seat), who happened to be sitting next to me on the flight to Knoxville. Turns out that he was indeed foreign (from the Check Republic) but was living in Knoxville – small world….

I really love flying KLM. The staff is always so nice and calm. I noticed that they are very heavy into branding, which I can appreciate being that I do marketing for a living. Everything from the plastic cups to the napkins and more had something typical Dutch etched or printed on it: a bicycle, tulips, clogs, windmills. Some of my best friends are Dutch, incidentally – but that’s another story… I do have a lot of stories, so stick with me. Meanwhile, I leave you with these beautiful flowers (which my husband and I bought for my mom before we left).


Christmas in Romania – part 4: Mocanita Steam Train

Christmas in Romania – part 4: Mocanita Steam Train



Mocanita from Viseu de Sus is the most famous narrow gauge train using a steam engine in Romania and the only one in Europe still in use. Mocanita Steam Train is also the only way to access Vaser Valley, a mountainous area, with century old forests, mostly untamed due to a complete lack of transport infrastructure and human settlements.

Our trip started with our “conductor,” a young lady dressed in the official uniform joining us in the cabin and checking our tickets. After we all proved we were legit, she offered us shots of “horinca” (Romanian hard liquor) and toasted us to a great trip! The drink helped warm us up but it certainly didn’t compete with the wood-burning stove we had in our cabin. The trip was slow and peaceful. We made a couple of short stops before taking a break for food at a rest area. Of course, there was a lot of food, mainly meat. You could either purchase the trip tickets to include the meal or you could buy the food on the spot. There were fire pits available to warm us up, since the weather was fairly cold. There were carolers singing traditional songs around the fire and there was plenty of space for the kids to run around. The place also housed a small museum, where one could learn more about the history of the railway and the area. The trip back was long, without stops. All in all, I would recommend the trip during fall or summer when the weather makes for a better scenery and picnic break.


Christmas in Romania – Part 3: Maramures

Christmas in Romania – Part 3: Maramures & Traditions

While in Maramures, we visited a few traditional landmarks, happenings, and people:

The Merry Cemetery at Sapanta

Far from being funny but certainly capturing the locals’ story-telling affection, this cemetery is unique in its beautifully-carved and brightly-colored crosses. The cemetery dates back to the 30s, however, the belief on which it was built – that death is not the final destination – comes from our ancestors, the Dacians (10th century BC – 2nd century AD). Most of the stories involved young men who drank too much but also other sad happenings. The church was being renovated to include colorful detailed mosaic tiles creating quite a site to see. If you wish to get some traditional souvenirs, there are plenty of vendors just outside the cemetery selling anything form hand-woven rugs, purses, and clothing, to traditional blouses (I highly recommend these), and wood-carved flasks and décor.


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The Tractor Driver: Here I rest, Pop Grigore is my name. I liked my tractor and my bottle to ease my sorrow/longing. I lived unhappily because my dad left me when I was young. It was my fate to lose my life young and for death to take me at 33 years of age.

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The Village Elderly: I am the village’s most elderly and I danced to Petreusi brothers songs. I traveled to Baia Mare and I danced in Bucharest many traditional dances. May you also dance like me, those how look at me, and may you live to be ninety six years old.

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Traditions Festival in Sighetul Marmatiei

The festival was spread over several streets and piazzas in downtown Sighet. We watched the processions of dancers and singers dressed in the attire specific to each area. Romania is very rich in tradition, with a multitude of details and nuances to the traditional attire, song, and dance for each part of the country, down to the county. Some areas of the country will use mainly red and black for the hand-stitched decorations on their clothing, while others will add bright colors such as yellow and red, along with elaborate head gear and jewelry.


The story goes that the horse got too close to a guy. The guy punched the horse, and the horse’s master beat the heck out of the guy… Don’t mess with his horse!



Read more about the festival here:

Ieud Monasteries:

In the Valley (Din Ses): Built in the seventeen hundreds, this small wooden church invites Ieud’s locals to attend Orthodox mass each Sunday. The locals dress up in traditional attire and proceed through the hand-carved gate towards the beautifully crafted church.



There’s always one…
Enjoying a quiet moment, a hazy winter morning walk, with steam coming out of the hay bails.



On the Hill (Din Deal): We arrived at the monastery at dusk and I enjoyed the quiet vista from the old wooden church overlooking the village. We returned on daylight and were able to photograph the amazing paintings inside the church. The monastery is unique because the paintings are done directly onto the wood (usually, a cloth is applied on top of the wood and then painted). The paintings are very well preserved, given this fact and their age (the church was built in the seventeenth century).


The church had an interesting locking mechanism, where the key had to be of an exact length in order to match the ridges in the locking wooden block.



Mos Pupaza, woodcarver in Valea Stejarului

He was an artist, promising to give a new life and beauty to any piece of wood and dead limb he transformed into decorative, useful, or clever objects. He was known for his spindle with bells (“fus cu zurgalai”) and story-telling. Everything in his home was thoughtfully hand-crafted. He embodied the spirit of the local folklore at its best. Read more about Mos Pupaza (English translation). Sadly, Mos Pupaza passed away only days after our visit in Maramures. I feel lucky to have met him even if just once… May he rest in peace.

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Mos Pupaza’s first work of art.

Folk Museum Ples

We stopped by the Ples family’s museum: their two houses. The host showed us the old loom and demonstrated the use of different tools around the yard.



Talking about the kids, who are far away…IMG_7580









Other fun things in Maramures:

  • Dressing up in the traditional clothing
  • Getting stopped by the border police near Ukraine
    • We were right near the border but couldn’t see Ukraine because of the mountain ridge between us… We were driving back to Brasov and out of three cars, the police decided to only stop the little green car we were in. My sister-in-law’s sister was driving. Apparently, there is an issue with cigarette trafficking around the border. The funny thing is that she works for the equivalent of the local IRS in Romania.
  • On our way back to Brasov, we took in the gorgeous panorama past Bistrita and Cosbuc village (named after one of Romania’s greatest poets George Cosbuc, born here in 1866), Reghin (also known as the city of violins for its masterfully-crafted instruments), Shighisoara (the best-preserved Medieval town and citadel in Europe), Viscri village (fortified church is UNESCO World Heritage Site; In 2006, Charles, the Prince of Wales bought and restored two 18th century Saxon houses in the Transylvanian villages of Mălâncrav and Viscri to help protect the unique way of life that has existed for hundreds of years and promote sustainable tourism. The buildings have been restored keeping the traditional ways and converted into guesthouses for tourists. The renovation of these buildings has helped provide a sustainable future for the people of rural Transylvania while also enabling residents to maintain their traditional way of life.)20151229_04110020151229_04110320151229_041355

Coming up…: Mocanita Steam Train

Christmas in Romania – Part 2: Turda Salt Mine and Ilea Bed & Breakfast

After Christmas, ten of us (six adults and four kids) loaded up in three cars and drove to Maramures, the north-western corner of Romania, near the border with Ukraine. The area is beautiful, with rolling hills and absolutely gorgeous lighting, guaranteed to make your photos glow – a photographer’s Paradise (if you don’t believe me, check out Adrian Petrisor’s photos).

On the way, we stopped to visit Turda Salt Mine. This out-of-this-world looking underground dwelling has been a mine used since Roman times but was officially built in the 18th century. It is now a popular tourist destination for those with respiratory troubles and healthy travelers alike, featuring self-service row-boat rides, a Ferris wheel, ball courts, and more.


(The slide show below might take a bit to load but be sure to watch it.)

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We had a healthy and hearty lunch at the nearby restaurant called Sarea-n-bucate (Salt in Food). It featured traditional food but it wasn’t the best I’ve had.20151226_072247


Varza a la Cluj (cabbage with rice, minced meat, and tomatoes, baked; served with pickled hot peppers and sour cream)


Assorted meats and pickles

In Ieud, Maramures, we stayed at Pensiunea Ilea, a local bed and breakfast ran by Liviu and Maria Ilea, who were absolutely lovely. The food was spectacular and locally grown. I actually enjoyed drinking milk again – the real thing, with cream on top and all!



Breakfast and dinner were included with our stay. I absolutely loved the wooden serving trays – rustic and fun. Dinners were more like a family gathering than just a sit-and-eat affair. We enjoyed our hosts’ company and learned more about the local culture and history from them, especially since they were both teachers. Liviu also played in a renowned folk music band, called Fratii Petreusi. I took a photo if his only copy of the CD Marg pe Iza, zin pa Mara.

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Horinca (local “moonshine” with pears or some intricate wooden mechanism that will make you wonder how they got in there – whether you’re sober or not…)
Lamb ribs and pork sausages with boiled potatoes, topped with parsley
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Cheesy omelette  – the breakfast of champions 🙂

I don’t usually like rose wine. However, I really liked Liliac (Bat); Maybe I’m biased since I’m from Transylvania ;-). It was nice a crisp and not the usual too sweet taste. I could see that going very well in the summer months or with fish. I wish I could have brought some back with me. The red wine was Cadarca and it was a very nice not too heavy, not too light red that goes well by itself or with lighter meats and cheese, of course.

The backyard smoker was busy.
Poor Bobi had to smell all that goodness and stick with his canine diet. Well, he did get some good bones at least, since there weren’t many leftovers…


Christmas in Romania – Part 1: Trip to Romania and Christmas Feast

This silly day job is keeping me from writing more… so sorry to make you wait. Here is part 1 of my latest trip to Romania.

This winter I escaped to my hometown of Brasov, Romania for the holidays and it was
everything I could have asked for: family, friends, food, wine, dancing, walking…and more food.

The trip didn’t start quite right. 20151217_141656I had this weird feeling that nagged me: “I’m not ready to travel yet.” This is very strange, as I am usually super-pumped about hitting the road, especially when it comes to going home, to Romania…  I was supposed to leave on Thursday, December 17, made it to the McGhee Tyson airport in Knoxville, Tennessee, reluctantly said good-bye to my lovely husband who dropped me off, and proceeded to the gate. However, my Delta flight to Atlanta had some technical issues and the delay caused me to miss my other two flights through Europe. After spending half an hour on the phone with a representative who pretty much said “just go ahead to Atlanta and maybe you can catch a flight to Europe from there,” I asked the lovely attendant at the counter to book me on another flight. I called my husband to come retrieve me, only to return and give the trip another try two days later. The silver lining was that I got to go dance at the local ballroom dance studio’s Friday night party one more time before hitting the road. Fortunately, Saturday travel was light, so it was smooth sailing to Romania!

Twenty some hours later, I arrived at the airport in Otopeni, Bucharest (we call it Bucuresti and it is the name of Romania’s capital). From there, I located my shuttle driver from M&M Express, a very convenient transfer service between the airport and major cities in Romania. Within two hours, I was finally home!IMG_6798

As soon as I walked in the door, my parents greeted me with hugs and kisses – and that never gets old! The phone rang and my brother, who was visiting from Switzerland where he lives together with his family, invited us to dinner. Food! Yes!! But first, a shower – airplane oogies, yuck – and a quick nap. Turns out that waking up from a one-hour nap after 20+ hours of no sleep is very hard… Luckily, I didn’t have to do much thinking between my parents’ apartment and getting into a taxi heading to Sacele, the nearby town my brother calls “home” while in Romania. The first thing on the agenda was to get two double espressos in so I can function properly and then the feast began.

Side note: Taxis are super convenient and available day or night. They are also very cheap – about $3 from one end of town to downtown or to the nearby town of Sacele; some of the cheapest ones are Martax and Tod Taxi. The taxi will display the price per kilometer and the total at the end of the trip. If you are worried about being overcharged, you might want to learn how to say the address where you’re going in Romanian and then refrain from speaking English/looking like a total tourist during the trip. However, most of the time, the taxi guys are friendly and they might even speak some English. I occasionally tip a little (1-2 RON, or .25-.50 cents), especially if it’s late at night or if I’m going outside town, or at the very least round up the amount.

Downtown square: Piata Sfatului
Downtown, view of Tampa hill and the Hollywood-style sign on top of it

It took a few days to adjust to the seven hour time difference, and I enjoyed doing absolutely nothing! My husband finally arrived on Christmas Eve and he had the same short nap option before our big holiday dinner at my brother’s house. We, Romanians love to eat (and party) but we go all out at Christmas and New Year’s.  Here is some of the absolutely (not) calorie-free food we got to enjoy (recipes will follow).


  • Salata de vinete = babaganoush or roasted eggplant salad
  • Zacusca = spread similar to bruschetta, roasted red peppers and other veggies
  • Crochete = fried cheese balls
  • Salata orientala = potato and egg salad
  • Piftie = meat in garlic gelatin
  • Various pork products, like caltabos and toba – my husband’s favorites…not

Main meal

  • Brisket and sausages (baked in wine…falling apart and delicious)
  • Pickles (muraturi): varza = cabbage, pepene = watermelon, gogonele = green tomatoes, morcovi = carrots, conopida = cauliflower, castraveti = cucumbers
  • Sarmale – traditional stuffed cabbage rolls, mandatory at Christmas time
  • Red wine


  • Cozonac = traditional sweet bread, rolled up and stuffed with walnuts, raisins, and sometimes Turkish delight
  • Assorted baked goodies: cornulete cu nuca, prajitura
  • Coffee

I will soon share some recipes, I promise.