The quiet Danubian town of Giurgiu, a bridge-length from Bulgaria, has only figured on the football map since former local boy Ioan Niculae moved his Astra club here from Ploiesti in 2012.
Before then, if you wanted to see top-flight football in the area, you had to cross the river to Ruse. Dunav Ruse played in Bulgaria’s A league for nearly 30 seasons after World War II, home advantage helping them to a second-leg win over Roma in the UEFA Cup of 1975.
Over the Danube, little Dunârea Giurgiu, founded in 1963, were flitting between Romania’s Liga III and II. Young centre-back Gino Iorgulescu, later to star with Gheorghe Hagi at Sportul Studentesc, started his career here in the mid 1970s.
Iorgulescu moved into football administration, rising to become chairman of the Romanian League in 2013. In the summer of 2010, with Dunârea settled in Liga II for the past five seasons, Niculae took them over, renaming them Astra II. Two years later, the club was dissolved entirely.
At the same time, Niculae’s main Astra club arrived from Ploiesti, where they had been based for nine decades. FC Astra Ploiesti moved into Dunârea’s old Marin Anastasovici Stadium, south-east of town and within sight of the Friendship Bridge that links Romania with Bulgaria.
On the pitch, Astra have more than matched the achievements of Bulgarian neighbours Ruse, undertaking two European campaigns, reaching the Europa League group stage in 2014-15.
A league runners-up spot in 2014 was followed by a historic first title in 2016, all accompanied by the expansion and modernisation of the Marin Anastasovici. European opponents will now be coming down to this little-known corner of Romania, 65km from Bucharest, opposite the Danube cruise ships that dock at Ruse.
Sadly there is only one fast, direct train a day from Bucharest Gara de Nord to Giurgiu Nord 2hrs away. For most you need to change at Videle, an overall 3-4hrs. The standard price is RON16, RON36 for the fast train.
A far more frequent and direct service is provided by three minibus companies, who operate by Bucharest’s Eroii Revolutiei metro station. Journey time to Giurgiu is 70min, tickets around RON15. Buses leave from the Autogara, a small parking lot at Calea Serban Voda 296-298. Exit right from Eroii Revolutiei metro, by the Flanco shop. Head for the traffic lights and the Eroii Revolutiei cemetery, with a large Orthodox church alongside. The Autogara is opposite the church.
None of the bus companies have websites. The English-speaking manager of Omerta can be contacted on +40 747 339 677. Allegro can be contacted on +40 735 560 511. Once in Giurgiu, the modest public transport system consists of four bus lines, but the city centre is walkable. For a taxi, call Aalintaxi on +40 246 212 244, +40 761 200 122 or +40 729 200 122.
Giurgiu has no tourist information office and a poor stock of hotels.
The more basic Hotel Vlasca is a little further from the centre, down in the south-west of town towards the river.
Of the ones closer to the stadium, the monolithic Steaua Dunarii is still recovering from the terrible fire of 2012 while the Sport, a few steps from the ground, also needs renovating. Giurgiu has some way to go before it can properly accommodate regular, top-level European football.
Giurgiu has a fair few cafés and restaurants, but few out and out bars or pubs.
Near the train station, the un-pub-like but late-opening Irish Pub comprises a large terrace and a dimly lit, wooden interior. You’ll find it on stall-lined Strada Garii.
Upstairs in the landmark Clock Tower, the café offers a convenient and convivial place for a drink, near the Coffee Lounge and the Possesso Café, both on Strada Mircea cel Bâtrân both with TVs showing match action if you ask nicely.
On the same street, La Trattoria Di Centro is more pub-like than its name suggests, with Romanian dishes alongside Italian ones, and football on TV.
Down towards the river in the Alei Park, the Alei Bar & Pizzeria offers beer and pizzas on a terrace, surrounded by greenery beside the ruins of a medieval fortress.
On the other side of the canal, fish restaurant La Perla (Soseaua Portului 1) is the only venue providing a perfect panorama of the Danube.