Families stroll and savor gelato cones as bike couriers whiz by. Pensioners loosen up on benches near manicured flower beds while earbud-wearing hipsters walk dogs and youngsters chase pigeons by a fountain laden with bronze fish. The scene in Victory Square in Timisoara, Romania, is quintessentially European — modern meets Old World.
Scanning the imposing Art Nouveau palaces lining the grand plaza — larger than three American football fields and bookended by the National Opera House and Metropolitan Orthodox Cathedral — I ponder how Timisoara stays a travel sleeper, probably the most noteworthy city you’ve probably never heard of.
Romanians and history buffs know Timisoara for its leading role within the bloody Romanian revolution in December 1989, when local protests set off a nationwide wave that toppled dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. (The country remains to be fighting the unresolved legacy of that revolution.) As I stare upon vibrant Victory Square, it’s hard to examine 100,000 anti-Communist protesters crammed together during those fateful days.
Other claims to fame include being the primary city in Europe — second worldwide after New York — with electric street lighting (1884) and being called Little Vienna for its abundant Secession and Baroque architecture, an indelible mark of Hapsburg rule, which began in 1716 after 164 years under the Ottoman Empire. Liberated from the Turks, Timisoara flourished in the following two centuries under Hungarian and Austrian control and the dual-monarchy Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Vienna moniker is a stretch, although the architecture, trams and green spaces do evoke the Austrian capital.
Timisoara is basically unknown to tourists — and comparatively undiscovered — despite being just a couple of hours from Budapest. As near Vienna as to the Romanian capital, Bucharest (each about 340 miles), and even closer to 5 other European capitals, Timisoara can also be accessible by a small but expanding airport that connects it to cities across Europe.
I’d never heard of Timisoara either after I arrived in 2002 as a wide-eyed Peace Corps volunteer. I stayed two years, fell in love, returned to get married and made annual trips from America, when Timisoara tugged at me like an old friend. My wife and I moved back six years ago. I’ve witnessed an evolution from the glum post-revolution years to today’s cosmopolitan vibe, due to a booming tech sector, significant foreign investment and youthful energy from 40,000 university students.
For me, Timisoara’s appeal is twofold: its architecture, which jumps out immediately, and its authenticity, which sinks in steadily. This is not any tourist trap with trinket shops galore, but a real, livable and multicultural city that moves at a measured pace and offers barely enough for visitors to fill two or three days — perhaps surprising them with a taste of Romania, a rustic still enduring an unwarranted image problem, either nonexistent or leaning negative.
Timisoara’s historic core, which has the preferred sights, is compact, walkable and centered on three car-free squares — Victory, Freedom and Union. Along the best way, a mélange of daring architecture abounds.
In Victory Square, the 300-foot-tall Orthodox cathedral dominates with its striking neo-Moldavian, Byzantine-tinged style more common on the opposite side of the country. The cathedral, in-built the Nineteen Thirties and one in all the world’s tallest Orthodox churches, features multiple turrets, a large gilded altar, towering frescoes and cavernous porticos. A free often missed museum within the basement, curated by a gregarious nun, houses ancient icons, manuscripts and spiritual artifacts.
Elsewhere within the square, it’s price admiring the early-Twentieth-century palaces still identified by the names of the unique owners, then the town’s wealthiest families, including Neuhausz, Weiss, Dauerbach, Löffler and Széchenyi. On one side, two Modernist Communist-era apartment blocks discombobulate the design continuity, but mostly the buildings are superb examples of Art Nouveau, specifically, Viennese Secession with colourful, even playful Hungarian and eclectic elements — legacies of a constructing boom when the town was under Austro-Hungarian rule. Restoration work continues, but several facades were recently returned to their original grandeur that rivals any in Europe.
At the top of the square, the 686-seat opera home is intimate and stunning inside, but open just for shows and tour groups with prior permission.
From Victory Square, many wander the short Alba Iulia Street, which is shaded by umbrellas overhead, passing buskers and gelato shops on their solution to Freedom Square and its elaborate statue of St. John of Nepomukand the Virgin Mary, made in Vienna in 1756. A former Hungarian bank on one corner has yet to be restored, but its elegant tower and rounded balconies exude Art Nouveau. The pomegranate-colored, 18th-century former City Hall, in eclectic style fused with classical elements, now houses a university music school — violin and trumpet sounds often emanate from its windows, adding to the charm. If hunger beckons, there’s Cafeneaua Verde, an inviting bistro with a various menu, and the favored La Focacceria serving up focaccia, panini and croissants.
Nearby edifices are a combination of renovated and never, a typical theme across the town center, from side streets to the inner neighborhoods of Fabric, Iosefin and Elisabetin, which concurrently radiate architectural charm and neglect, but are price exploring. Timisoara has restored scores of its 14,000 historic buildings, spiffing them up to a degree — within the interwar period, it should have been a surprising city. But much work and well-worn edges remain, a reality of a city not fully polished — authentic and steadily transforming, seemingly desperate to shed stereotypes related to Eastern Europe.
Two blocks away is Union Square, a picturesque potpourri of pastels and architectural jewels. The Baroque Palace, an administrative center throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire, now houses the Timisoara National Museum of Art, which is hosting a monthslong exhibition of the Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi, bringing pieces from the Pompidou Center in Paris, the Tate Modern in London and elsewhere.
The celebrated artist spent most of his profession in Paris, and that is the most important exhibition of his work in Romania in 50 years.
Next to the art museum is the whimsical 1911 Brück House, an arresting example of Art Nouveau and Secession with its pink-and-mint color scheme resembling a gingerbread house. Across the square is St. George Roman Catholic Cathedral, resplendent after its recent four-year, nearly $6 million makeover. Inside the Baroque masterpiece, you’re transported to Italy, though Masses are celebrated in Romanian, Hungarian and German.
Union Square encapsulates Timisoara’s multiculturalism and spiritual tolerance. Opposite the Catholic “dome,” because it’s known locally, is the ornate and colourful Serbian Orthodox bishopric and church. A German-language school (that produced two Nobel laureates) and bookstore are nearby, while a couple of blocks away is Cetate Synagogue, accomplished in 1865 and reopened last 12 months after a lengthy renovation.
A once-thriving Jewish community exceeded 13 percent of the population within the interwar period but dwindled significantly due to mass emigration throughout the Communist regime. Even so, the Jewish legacy in Timisoara is outsize and visual in lots of the finest buildings, including the Brück House and landmark Max Steiner Palace, which emits Gaudí vibes on its corner of the square.
The Union Square area is filled with places to dine and imbibe, most with outdoor seating, and it’s the go-to spot for locals. For traditional Romanian food, try Miorita for soups, stews and grilled meats with polenta. Vinto is an upmarket, wine-focused restaurant where you possibly can sample Romania’s underrated varietals. Zai Miniature, with a large gin selection, serves cocktails and spritzes with a view, while Garage Cafe has a few of the most effective breakfast and pastries on the town, including vegan ones. Naru, a comfortable, vegetarian-friendly restaurant with a shaded terrace, is across from Doppio, one in all several specialty-coffee standouts.
Near Union Square is the Revolution Memorial Association and its museum concerning the tragic and euphoric events of December 1989. A brief film and exhibits are informative and riveting but graphic and never for young children or the queasy. It’s a worthy if humbling experience, especially eye-opening for Americans and other Westerners.
Besides exploring the major squares, one other solution to experience Timisoara like a neighborhood is to wander along the navigable Bega Canal, which runs through the town, passing verdant parks with walkways and bike paths, one leading 25 miles to the Serbian border. Several bars and restaurants dot the canal, but it surely’s mostly a pleasing place to walk and watch “vaporetto” water taxis and kayaks glide past countless weeping willows.
If you go
Timisoara is one in all three European Capitals of Culture in 2023. A full slate of art exhibitions, concert events, music festivals, theater and dance extends through December.
The cultural capital organizers are using venues outside museums, from hidden courtyards to non-public galleries, as exhibition spaces. See the total schedule of events or peruse the highlights by month.
The Romanian currency is the leu (plural, lei). At restaurants, expect to pay 25 to 45 lei (about $5.50 to $10) for soups and starters and 70 to 90 lei for entrees. For accommodations, the four-star Atlas Hotel, which opened in 2021, provides modern comfort just steps from the major squares. Doubles from 700 lei.
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