Monday 5 October 2015


Someone just asked me what Timisoara is like. 

I wanted to get there in January 1990 and kicked myself for not getting there sooner when I did go in 2003 or 2004 - now that seems a vanished world too.

I grow old, I grow old, I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled...

I found this, that I wrote for Vivid in 2006, about a city I had visited two years earlier.


Bargain-price city breaks have done to tourism what the tank did to warfare. Not only are far more people flying to far more places than ever before but increasingly sophisticated consumers constrained by time rather than money are taking several weekend breaks  a year to supplement their annual foreign holiday. Romania is one of the few countries so far relatively little touched by cheap air rickets but all that is about to change

Nowhere are their effects further reaching than in the former Communist bloc. Eastern European cities, beautiful, until recently obscure, and for Western tourists delightfully cheap, are being transformed and with them whole economies and societies. Budget airlines have done far more to integrate East and West than any initiative from governments or Eurocrats. Tallinn, Riga, Bratislava, Cracow and a score of others have become tourist meccas. As soon as she joins the EU next year Romania too will lose her innocence. 

A number of Romanian cities will make popular destinations but number 1 will undoubtedly be Timisoara. Ryan Air is already said to be planning flights and two Italian budget airlines already fly there. Sibiu and Sighisoara are not close to airports. In any case, for me, Timisoara is the most perfect city in Romania. Already it attracts more foreign visitors than any other city in the country except the capital.

A visitor to Timisoara from Bucharest will be struck by an utterly different atmosphere. A much higher-minded atmosphere. For one thing, Timisoara is capital of the Banat which until 1918 was part of Austro- Hungary and belongs, even more certainly than Transylvania, to Central Europe and not the Balkans. The baroque architecture of Timisoara has a lightness of touch that feels as much Italian as German and the city is home to a sizeable Hungarian minority as well as smaller Serb and German communities. Not far away there are plenty of vestiges of the Hapsburg ethnic jumble including Czech, Slovak, Serb and Croat villages. And in the last eight or ten years significant numbers of Italian businessmen have been draw to a city which is closer to Venice than to Bucharest

For almost two hundred years, until the early eighteenth century, Timisoara like most of Hungary (but unlike most of present-day Romania) was directly governed by the Ottoman Empire. But today nothing of the Moslem world remains. The city the Austrians rebuilt in baroque after they reconquered in 1716 earnt the name ‘the Little Vienna’. Later in the nineteenth century it was the first town on the continent to have horse-drawn trams and the first to have electric lighting. Its most famous son is Johnny Weissmuller, the original Tarzan.

But Timisoara is widely-known abroad, if at all, as the place where the Romanian revolution of December 1989 broke out.  It was the decision by President Nicolae Ceausescu to use deadly force to suppress demonstrators here that was the catalyst that led the army to defect to the side of the uprising. For several days the attention of the world was centred on events in the city despite the Communist government’s complete news blackout and wild stories flew around about the numbers of people killed by the authorities. Timisoara is proud of its role and has nominated itself ‘the first free town in Romania.’ Everyone here believes that the revolution that was launched in Timisoara was stolen by apparatchiks and party hacks in Bucharest.

The jewel of Timisoara is Piata Unirii, one of the loveliest and best-proportioned squares in Europe. It houses not one but two exquisite eighteenth century cathedrals, one Roman Catholic and the other Serbian Orthodox, as well as a series of superb baroque buildings. But instead of the cold grandeur of the original Vienna, the square has a relaxed and abandoned feeling, the slightly down-at-heel formal garden in its centre a place where children play and adults sit and talk. Hard to believe that the square was the scene of many horrible public executions including that of Gheorghe Doja, leader of a peasants’ revolt in 1514, who was cooked alive, his flesh fed to his followers.

A short walk through a maze of attractive old streets leads to Piata Libertatii, another fine square, and then to Piata Victoriei. Piata Victoriei is the modern centre of the town. In architectural terms it is a rather mediocre example of the Hungarian eclectic style that flourished at the turn of the nineteenth century. Much more interestingly it was one of the focal points of the 1989 Revolution. Students of recent history can follow a trail that will lead them to the Protestant church where Pastor Tokes’s arrest sparked an unprecedented gathering on the streets of ethnic Romanians and Hungarians, Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox. After his arrest a bloodied Tokes appeared from a window urging the crowd to dissolve but his appearance had the contrary effect. The rest as they say is history.

In Timisoara the different communities live together pretty amicably and much more so than, for example, in Cluj where irredentist politicians long won votes by stroking chauvinism and distrust. And during the 2000-2004 period when the ex-Communist party, the Social Democrats, and its ‘barons’ (local politicians who dispensed patronage and were accused of widespread corruption) were in power in local authorities throughout the land Timisoara remained a redoubt of the opposition. The city looks out and forward while other cities seem to look backward and inward. It is way ahead of any other provincial city in Romania in the number of international companies that have factories or offices here and will soon have a flourishing tourist industry. EU accession will open the borders of a multicultural city that is at the crossroads of Europe and the city is assured of a prosperous and exciting future. But for many of us, like Romania as a whole, it will never be nearly as charming again as it is now before it has been discovered. Go (or go back) quickly.


  1. Nice article. The smartphone has changed Romania and the world as much as the budget airline. I miss the old days too...

  2. I realize this is an old post but a recent one links to it. A couple of corrections are in order.
    Timisoara was governed by the Ottoman Empire for 160 years, not really close to the 200 year number given above.
    The execution of Gheorghe Doja is said to have taken place in what is now (and has been for some time) St Mary's Square.