After waiting a dozen years to be a European Capital of Culture again, following Pécs’ year in the spotlight in 2010, Hungarians will almost be getting a double dose in 2023, with not only Veszprém-Balaton taking the honours but also Timișoara, just a short hop over the Romanian border from Szeged.
Timișoara is a city in western Romania, known for Secessionist architecture. The central square, Piața Victoriei, is surrounded by baroque buildings and the Metropolitan Orthodox Cathedral, with its mosaic-patterned roof tiles and icon gallery. Nearby is the Habsburg-era square Piața Unirii and the Memorial Museum of the 1989 Revolution. The museum houses uniforms, documents and a film on the Ceauşescu dictatorship.
The population of 320,000 occupies one of the most beautiful urban areas in the country, getting its charm from these wonderful squares and beautiful buildings, which boast influences from a range of architectural styles, with unique facades and vibrant colours, built around a series of nicely restored public squares and lavish parks and gardens with a multitude of species of roses and other plants.
This city is of great historical significance, home to some of the most famous museums in Romania, with the Memorial Museum of the 1989 Revolution having been founded to commemorate one of the most important events in the country.
Timișoara is also home to an open-air museum with traditional monuments on display, such as churches and houses decorated with stone, wood and clay, as well as an important collection of objects including icons and other historical and archaeological items originating from the surrounding Banat region.
Romania’s third-largest city, after the capital Bucharest and Cluj-Napoca, is also known as Primul Oraş Liber (the First Free City), for it was here in Timişoara that anti-Ceauşescu protests first exceeded the Securitate’s capacity for violent suppression, eventually sending the dictator and his wife to their deaths.
The Memorial Museum of the 1989 Revolution is an ideal venue to brush up on the anti-communist uprising, with displays including documentation, posters and photography from those fateful days, capped by a graphic 20-minute video (not suitable for young children) with English subtitles.
The Communist Consumer Museum houses an odd collection of pre-1989 consumer goods manufactured in Romania. Three rooms and a hallway are filled to the point of overflowing, below a popular cafe south of the centre. Most of the toys, appliances and periodicals are satisfyingly odd and it’s worth a visit just to watch older Romanians take a nostalgic stroll down memory lane.
Synagogue in the Fortress was built in 1865 by Viennese architect Ignatz Schuhmann, and the synagogue acts as an important keynote in Jewish history – Jews in the Austro-Hungarian Empire were emancipated in 1864, when permission was given to build the synagogue. The 19th-century Cetate (Citadel) synagogue has been rededicated after partial renovation and returned to the Jewish community for use as a house of worship nearly 40 years after it closed for religious use. There is a fine exterior.
The 1989 revolution began at the Reformed Church, where Father László Tőkés spoke out against Ceauşescu. You can sometimes peek in at the church, and it is usually open during times of worship.
The statue of St John of Nepomuk and the Virgin Mary, located in the centre of Piaţa Libertăţii, was made in 1756 in Vienna and brought to Romania in memory of the victims of the 1738-9 plague. Etched around the monument’s base is the story of hapless St John of Nepomuk, who was reputedly flung off Charles Bridge in Prague to his death on the orders of the king for failing to reveal the queen’s confessions. The three statues at the base of the pedestal represent Saints Sebastian, Rochus and Charles Borromeo.
Timisoara Art Museum displays a representative sample of paintings and visual arts over the centuries as well as regular, high-quality temporary exhibitions. It’s housed in the baroque Old Prefecture Palace (built 1754), which is worth a look inside for the graceful interiors alone.
The Orthodox Metropolitan Cathedral was built between 1936 and 1946. It’s unique for its Byzantine-influenced architecture, which recalls the style of the Bucovina monasteries; the floor tiles remind of traditional Banat carpets. At 83 metres the dome is the highest in Romania.
The open-air Banat Village Museum was created in 1917 and exhibits more than 30 traditional peasant houses dating from the 19th century.
In the form of a crucifix shaped by massive nails, the Memorial to Victims of the 1989 Revolution is at the southern end of Piaţa Victoriei. Fronting the square to the north, the Old Town Hall was built in 1734 on the site of a 17th-century Turkish bath. It was here that the leader of the 1514 peasant revolt, Gheorghe Doja (Dózsa György in Hungarian), was tortured before being executed (a scalding metal crown was put on his head while he was seated on a red-hot iron throne). Doja’s peasant army, after an initial victory, was quickly quashed, captured and killed. The building is now part of Timişoara’s West University.
The city’s fine baroque Roman Catholic Cathedral on the east side of Piaţa Unirii was built in the mid- to late-18th century, after the Austro-Hungarian Empire had finally secured the area from Turkish influence. The main altar painting (1754) of St George slaying the dragon was carried out by Michael Angelo Unterberger, who was the director of the Fine Arts Academy in Vienna at the time of the cathedral’s construction.
Banat History Museum is housed in the historic Huniades Palace, whose origins date to the 14th century and to Hungarian king Charles Robert, Prince of Anjou. It hosts the largest collection of archeological objects in Banat and the ground floor houses the 6200-year-old Parța Neolithic Sanctuary.
A couple of blocks to the east of Piaţa Unirii, following Str Palanca, is the Timisoara Fortress, a classic 18th-century Austrian fortification with three battlement rings and nine bastions. It’s been partially remodelled into a complex of shops and cafes.
Fronting the west side of Piaţa Unirii, the Serbian Orthodox Church was built at about the same time as its Catholic counterpart across the square. Banat artist Constantin Daniel painted the interior.
The Romulus and Remus Column is a replica of the well-known statue in Rome, and was presented to Timişoara by that city in 1906 to mark Romania’s Latin origins.
The Trinity Column is a sculpture to God the Father, Christ and the Holy Spirit taking pride of place in the centre of Piața Unirii.
With western Romania’s nicest hotels and finest restaurants, Timişoara makes a perfect base for the European Capital of Culture 2023 and for exploring the Banat region, with the nearby city of Arad being of note.