It might be time to consider Timisoara | ET REALITY


Families stroll and munch on ice cream cones as bike messengers whiz by. Retirees relax on benches near manicured flower beds, while hipsters in headphones walk their dogs and children chase pigeons next to a fountain laden with bronze fish. The scene at Victory Square in Timisoara, Romania, is quintessentially European: modern meets Old World.

Looking at the imposing Art Nouveau palaces that line the large square, larger than three American football fields and bounded by the National Opera and Metropolitan Orthodox Cathedral — I wonder how Timisoara remains a city that sleeps on trips, the most notable city you’ve probably never heard of.

Romanians and history buffs know Timisoara for its leading role in the bloody Romanian revolution of December 1989, when local protests sparked a nationwide wave that toppled dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. (The country is still grappling with the unresolved legacy of that revolution.) As I look out across the vibrant Victory Square, it’s hard to imagine 100,000 anti-communist protesters packed together during those fateful days.

Other claims to fame include being the first city in Europe (the second in the world after New York) with electric street lighting (1884) and being called Little Vienna for its abundant secessionist and baroque architecture, an indelible mark of the government of the Habsburg, which began in 1716 after 164 years under the Ottoman Empire. Liberated from the Turks, Timisoara flourished over the next two centuries under Hungarian and Austrian control and the dual-monarchy Austro-Hungarian Empire. Vienna’s nickname is an exaggeration, although the architecture, trams and green spaces evoke the Austrian capital.

Timisoara is largely unknown to tourists (and relatively unknown) despite being only a few hours from Budapest. As close to Vienna as it is to the Romanian capital, Bucharest (both about 340 miles), and even closer to five other European capitals, Timisoara is also accessible by a small but sprawling city. airport that connects it with cities throughout Europe.

I had also never heard of Timisoara when I arrived in 2002 with my eyes wide open. Peace Corps volunteer. I stayed two years, fell in love, returned to get married and made annual trips from America, when Timisoara pulled me in like an old friend. My wife and I returned six years ago. I have witnessed an evolution from the bleak years after the revolution to today’s cosmopolitan environment, thanks to a booming technology sector, significant foreign investment and the youthful energy of 40,000 university students.

For me, the appeal of Timisoara is twofold: its architecture, which is immediately apparent, and its authenticity, which is gradually assimilated. This is not a tourist trap with plenty of cheap shops, but a genuine, liveable, multicultural city that moves at a measured pace and offers visitors just enough for two or three days, perhaps surprising them with the taste of Romania, a country that still endures. an unjustified image problem, whether non-existent or inclined to the negative.

Featuring the most popular attractions, Timisoara’s historic center is compact, walkable and centered on three car-free squares: Victory, Liberty and Union Squares. A mix of bold architecture abounds along the path.

Overlooking Victory Square is the 300-foot-high Orthodox cathedral with its striking Byzantine-tinged Neo-Moldovan style, more common on the other side of the country. Built in the 1930s and one of the tallest Orthodox churches in the world, the cathedral features multiple turrets, a massive gilded altar, towering frescoes and cavernous porticoes. A free program, which is often overlooked. museum In the basement, curated by a gregarious nun, it houses ancient icons, manuscripts and religious artifacts.

In the rest of the square, it is worth admiring the palaces from the beginning of the 20th century, still identified with the names of the original owners and then of the city’s richest families, including Neuhausz, Weiss, Dauerbach, Löffler and Széchenyi . To one side, two communist-era modernist apartment blocks disrupt the continuity of the design, but for the most part the buildings are magnificent examples of Art Nouveau, specifically, the Viennese Secession with colorful, even playful Hungarian and eclectic elements, legacies of a construction boom when the city was under Austro-Hungarian rule. Restoration work continues, but several facades have recently been restored to their original grandeur that rivals any in Europe.

At the end of the square, the 686-seat opera house is intimate and impressive inside, but is open only to shows and tour groups with prior permission.

From Victory Square, many walk along the short, umbrella-shaded Alba Iulia Street, passing street musicians and ice cream parlors on their way to Liberty Square and its elaborate statue of Saint John of Nepomuk and the Virgin Mary, made in Vienna in 1756. An old Hungarian bank on a corner has yet to be restored, but its elegant tower and rounded balconies exude Art Nouveau. The old pomegranate-colored 18th-century Town Hall, with an eclectic style fused with classical elements, now houses a university music school; sounds of violin and trumpet often emanate from its windows, adding to the charm. If hunger calls, there is Cafeneaua Greena cozy bistro with a varied menu, and the popular The Focaccería serving focaccia, panini and croissants.

The nearby buildings are a mix of renovated and unrenovated, a common theme throughout the city center, from the side streets to the inner neighborhoods of Fabric, Iosefin and Elisabetin, simultaneously radiating architectural charm and abandonment, but worth the worth exploring. Timisoara has restored dozens of its 14,000 historic buildings, improving them to some extent: in the interwar period, it must have been an impressive city. But there is still a lot of work and worn edges, a reality of a city that is not completely polished: authentic and constantly transforming, seemingly eager to shed the stereotypes associated with Eastern Europe.

Two blocks away is Union Square, a picturesque medley of pastries and architectural gems. The Baroque Palace, administrative center during the Austro-Hungarian Empire, now houses the National Art Museum of Timisoarawhich hosts a month-long exhibition by Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi, with pieces from the Pompidou Center in Paris, London’s Tate Modern and elsewhere.

The celebrated artist spent most of his career in Paris and this is the largest exhibition of his work in Romania in 50 years.

Next to the art museum is the capricious 1911. Brueck House, a dazzling example of Art Nouveau and Secession with its pink and mint color scheme that resembles a gingerbread house. Across the square is St. George’s Roman Catholic Cathedral, resplendent after its recent four-year, nearly $6 million renovation. Inside this baroque masterpiece, you will be transported to Italy, although masses are celebrated in Romanian, Hungarian and German.

Union Square epitomizes Timisoara’s multiculturalism and religious tolerance. Opposite the Catholic “dome,” as it is known locally, is the ornate and colorful Serbian Orthodox bishopric and church. Nearby is a German language school (which produced two Nobel Prize winners) and a bookstore, while a few blocks away is the Cetate synagogue, completed in 1865 and reopened last year after a lengthy renovation.

A once-thriving Jewish community topped 13 percent of the population in the interwar period, but declined significantly due to mass emigration during communist rule. Still, the Jewish heritage in Timisoara is enormous and visible in many of the best buildings, including the Brück House and the iconic Max Steiner Palacewhich gives off Gaudí vibes in its corner of the square.

The Union Square area is full of dining and drinking spots, most with outdoor seating, and is where locals flock. For traditional Romanian food, try myorite for soups, stews and grilled meats with polenta. came is a luxury wine-focused restaurant where you can taste Romania’s underrated varieties. Zai Miniaturewith a wide selection of gins, serves cocktails and spritzes with a view, while Garage cafe It has some of the best breakfasts and pastries in town, including vegan ones. Narua cozy vegetarian restaurant with a shaded terrace, is opposite doppioone of several featured specialty coffees.

Near Union Square is the Revolution Memorial Association forks museum about the tragic and euphoric events of December 1989. A short film and exhibits are informative and fascinating, but graphic and not for small children or dizzy people. It is a valuable if humiliating experience, especially eye-opening for Americans and other Westerners.

In addition to exploring the main squares, another way to experience Timisoara like a local is to stroll along the Bega navigable canal, which runs through the city, passing through green parks with paths and cycle paths. one which leads 40 kilometers from the border with Serbia. Several bars and restaurants dot the canal, but mostly it’s a pleasant place to stroll and watch the vaporetto water taxis and kayaks glide past countless weeping willows.

Timisoara will be one of the three European capitals of culture in 2023. A wide range of art exhibitions, concerts, music, theater and dance festivals will be held until December.

Cultural capital organizers are using places outside museums, from hidden courtyards to private galleries, as exhibition spaces. See the full calendar of events or read highlights by month.

The Romanian currency is the leu (plural, lei). In restaurants, expect to pay 25 to 45 lei (about $5.50 to $10) for soups and starters and 70 to 90 lei for main dishes. For accommodation, the four stars. atlas hotel, Opened in 2021, it provides modern comfort just steps from the main squares. Doubles from 700 lei.

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