And now you have the 278th reason to visit Romania: Timișoara will be one of the European Capitals of Culture in 2021.
Although I lived in Romania for a year, I just noticed that I have no photos of Timișoara. I have only been to the city in Romania’s far west briefly on the way to and from Belgrade, always wanted to come back for longer, but never made it. Romania is much bigger than I had imagined. So I have a reason to return to Romania, too.
The first time I arrived in Timișoara was on a cold October day after a long and grueling bus ride. It rained without pause. I had to kill the afternoon until I could seek refuge with Elena, my Couchsurfing host for the night. All the streets in the Old Town had been dug up for some overdue repairs and still in the rain, I waded through mud, getting colder and colder by the hour.
And yet, I immediately liked the city. Timișoara was once Hungarian, Ottoman, Austrian, Serbian for a brief time and now of course Romanian. Some quarters of the town still have the Austrian names Josefstadt, Elisabethstadt or Freidorf. The Old Town is a typical Habsburg town, and long before it was crowned Capital of Culture, I remember a lot of book stores, galleries and an extensive theater program in Romanian, Hungarian and German.
Victory Square on the other hand is dominated by Romanian architecture, in particular by the Romanian-Orthodox Cathedral of the holy three Hierarchies with its fairy-tale-castle-like towers, the Chamber of Commerce and the National Theater.
Couchsurfing hosts are usually very friendly and helpful, but I really hadn’t expected the voluminous food package which Elena handed me the next morning. She had packed enough sandwiches, fruits and stuffed cabbage that I could eat during the whole train ride to Belgrade, could continue eating while sitting in a park there and could even give the rest of the food, which I couldn’t have possibly managed to devour that week, to a homeless man.
Two weeks later, on the train back from Belgrade to Timișoara, I met Tyler, a young man from Tennessee. He had worked hard for one year, had moved back in with his parents, didn’t party anymore, because he had wanted to save everything for a one-year trip around the world. Via Romania and Bulgaria his plan was to reach Istanbul, and he was very excited about Europe. “If I continue to have as much luck, I can even travel for three years. I spend far less than I had planned because there is always a girl who invites me to stay at her beach house for a few weeks,” he was amazed about continental hospitality, and I didn’t have the heart to tell him that this was mainly due to his striking likeness to Brad Pitt.
However, Tyler had too much confidence in the reliability of the Romanian railroad and thought that a planned stay of a few minutes in Timișoara would be enough to catch the night train to Bucharest. But the Romanian state railway CFR guarantees a minimum delay of 30% or 2 hours for each ride, depending on which is more. Because I didn’t want him to freeze to death at the train station and because I happened to have booked a hotel room with two beds, I simply invited my new friend to stay with me in exchange for an invitation to dinner (more stuffed cabbage). Then, I lay awake the whole night and regretted my hospitality because Tyler was snoring like a bear. But I digress into personal anecdotes when I actually wanted to write about Timișoara.
The choice is particularly deserved in my mind because Timișoara played a role in the fall of communism in Europe which has only been forgotten because so much else happened in 1989 that nobody could keep track. Maybe it was no accident that the Romanian revolution in December 1989 began in Timișoara. There, in the westernmost part of the country, one could receive the Yugoslav and Hungarian TV stations and the ethnic Hungarians and Serbs in Romania could understand the broadcasts. The ethnic Germans on the other hand were informed about the end of the GDR through family contacts with Germany. By that time, the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain in Hungary had already been opened. Thus, an overall image of the upheaval in Eastern Europe consolidated itself and motivated Romanians to get rid of the hated Ceaușescu couple. That however turned out to be a bloodier business than in all other European countries. The battles raged for ten days.
Maybe like no other city, Timișoara is thus suited to remind us of the progress made in the unification of Europe. 27 years ago there were civil war and massacres, only 9 years ago Romania joined the EU and now Timișoara is one of the cities with the lowest unemployment rate in Europe. Not only culture thrives here, but companies from all over the world are moving in and expanding. When I moved to Romania in 2014, I felt the boom myself, reflected in the real estate prices. I couldn’t find an affordable apartment in Timișoara and had to move to Târgu Mureș instead.
The other Capitals of Culture in 2021 will be yet-to-be determined cities in Greece and in Montenegro (I am rooting for Cetinje), which suggests that you go on a great Balkan tour. There is no reason however to wait another five years with that.