It’s hip to be in one of the most beautiful baroque squares in Europe, says Bernard O’Shea,
who is content to roam around Romania’s lesser known western fringes.
Sometimes you see a photograph of a place and you just yearn to be there, to immerse yourself it and experience it for yourself.
So what was it, really, that made me do an onerous, almost farcical detour (see The Farce on Platform 3 in the Time To Wander Blog) so that I could take in Timisoara, a city described by Lonely Planet as “a glamorous Vienna wannabe marooned on the western fringe of Romania”?
The answer: Piata Unirii.
The description on a local maps explains it best: Piata Unirii este una din cele mai frumoase si mari piete baroc din Europa … Piata Unirii is one of the most beautiful and biggest baroque squares in Europe.
I love baroque architecture, which I tend to associate with Brazil because that’s where I’ve seen some beautiful examples of it in splendid tropical settings such as Paraty, Olinda, and the colonial gem towns of Minas Gerais. But to see this colourful cluster of buildings in Romania – a country that people often conceive of as grim and grey – was a revelation. The effortless tranquillity of the scene, too, drew me in, but the pictures say it better than words.
It’s extravagant, I know, to travel 15,000 kilometres just to stand in the middle of a pretty square, but there I had other good reasons for going: Timisoara is Romania’s third largest city, so it must have a buzz to it; it has enough historic sites to satisfy the curiosity of those interested in such things; it was the city that quite accidentally started the Romanian revolution of 1989, and its museum dedicated to the revolution is one I have particularly wanted to see (it’s described in “My respects to the Romanian revolutionaries”); plus it’s a Vienna wannabe, and who doesn’t like Vienna? Or wannabe ones that are cheaper and less crowded than the real thing.
So, a done deal. Timisoara here we come…
Funnily enough, when I eventually got there, I stumbled across Piata Unirii quite unintentionally. It was late in the afternoon, I had just arrived after a long train journey from Budapest with my father (now in his 80s), and he was feeling feverish. So once we had dumped the suitcases in our room, I set off on foot from the hotel, heading west down the main boulevard towards the city, in search of a pharmacist. But the quaint roads and cobbled alleys on the northern side of the boulevard seemed to be calling me – and so, forgetting my father’s needs for a minute (sorry, Dad) I succumbed to their allure and strayed down Strada Mercy to explore. A couple of blocks on and, lo and behold, Piata Unirii lay before me. Right beside me, was a pharmacy decked out in patterns of fresh coats of pale green, white, maroon, and other embellishments. It’s probably the prettiest pharmacy I’ve ever set foot in (it’s on the left in the twilight picture).
Piata Unirii has many moods, depending on the time of day, the clouds in the sky and the angle of the sunlight. Each time you visit it, you see something in it that you didn’t see before. There is a patch of lawn about the size of a football field in the middle, criss-crossed by cobblestone paths; concrete benches around for people to sit on, and – strangely but delightfully – portable wooden chairs that you can pull up as you please. Enticing cafés and restaurants line the perimeter. At night, when it is lit up by old-fashioned street lamps, the piata takes on another glow of its own. But it’s forever peaceful – the only traffic around here is pedestrian.
Piata Unirii is a place where people come to socialise at the end of the day. Talk is the main activity. I found it oddly refreshing, to see people so engrossed in each other’s company. Nobody was hunched over their mobile phones or other mod cons, there were no blaring TV screens or sound systems in the the cafes, it was just pure human interaction; I wish there were Piata Uniriis where I live.
The landmarks of note include the Roman Catholic Cathedral and the Serbian Orthox Church (both built in the mid-18th century), the old Serbian Bishop’s palace and the city’s Art Museum, housed in the Palatul Vechii Prefecturi, or Ole Prefecture Palace. Nearby is the impressive Sinagoga din Cetate or Fortress Synagogue.
The more modern hub of Timisoara is the Piata Victoriei, or Victory Square, scene of some of the most dramatic moments of the revolution when it was jam-packed with protesters. It’s long and rectangular, with pretty gardens bookended by the Opera House to the north (it used to be called Piata Operei) and the towering Orthodox Cathedral at the other. South of the Cathedral is a rim of parkland and the Bega canal (where you can go boating), and beyond that the lively student quarter.
Timisoara has suffered from federal neglect, having been “marooned” on the fringe, far from the national capital, Bucharest. It still has an air of faded glory – in some instances very faded. One of my English students in Sydney, a young man from Murcia in Spain who visited Timisoara on what was to be the start of a motorbiking holiday, said he felt like it looked like a war zone. I thought this harsh, but when I look back on my photographs, I can see what he means. Even the buildings in Piata Victoriei which houses the MacDonald’s (yes, there is one right in the cultural centre) could do with a fresh application of plaster.
Nevertheless, I liked the place, and I sense it’s heading for a revival. Judging by what I read on billboards there, the local governing authorities are very progressive and trying to get it back on the map, possibly as a European capital of culture in the next six years or so. Take my word for it, Timisoara’s – a place to watch, a place just waiting to be rediscovered. TTW
Bernard O’Shea travelled to Romania at his own expense. More information at romaniatourism.com. Photos © Bernard O’Shea.