Tuesday, January 26, 2010
Timişoara and the new face of Romania
It was in Timişoara that a week of protests led to the downfall of Ceauşescu. Twenty years on, this bright, culturally eclectic city proves there's more to urban Romania than brutal tower blocks
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 26 January 2010
A temporary installation commemorates the anniversary of the revolution that deposed Nicolae Ceauşescu. Photograph: Ben Lerwill
It's fair to say that urban Romania has had its struggles as a tourist sell. Travellers to the country are usually drawn by either the expanse of the countryside – still seen as existing in a rolling horse-and-cart realm that western Europe left behind long ago – or the vampire legends (the Drac-allure?) of Transylvania. Its cities, on the other hand, are generally treated as bywords for gloom, grey skies and brutal tower-blocks.
It falls to the likes of Timişoara to counter preconceptions. Alongside Cluj-Napoca, Sibiu and the much-maligned capital Bucharest, the western city is among those Romanian centres to lay genuine claim to a bright and eclectic cultural offering. Its theatres,festivals and live music calendar give impressive platform to the national character, and in several parts of town (don't be alarmed, now) there's pretty scenery, too.
Last month, the city found headlines for other reasons. Twenty years ago, mass protests here jumpstarted the week-long revolution that deposed Nicolae Ceauşescu. The days running up to Christmas 1989 shaped an era, bloodily so, and you won't have to look far for someone keen to give you their own account of the period. Two decades on, however, this university town is as notable for its burgeoning arts scene and bold, age-worn architecture as for its political past. There's a youthful spring in its stride, too, evident in everything from a high-energy festival roster to a lively CouchSurfing community.
Today's marketing tag is "Little Vienna", and there's a wealth of genuinely grand Habsburg buildings, but the city's too much of a rough diamond for the comparison to be apt. This is not necessarily a bad thing. The handsome, cracked grandeur of the centre makes for a stirring backdrop, tourist traps are almost non-existent and costs are low. From a cultural viewpoint, meanwhile, omnipresent theatre bills and a trio of weekly listings magazines tell their own story.
Take in a festival October's annual TMBase festival
"Spring and summertime are when Timişoara really comes alive," says resident Manu Babescu, presenter of a weekly literary review on Romanian TV. "There are some great festivals." The pick of these is September's established three-day world music celebration Plai (www.plai.ro), headlined last year by the Ivorian singer Dobet Ghanoré and French rumba band Kaloomé. The festival, set in greenery on the city outskirts (plaimeans "field"), also stages a colourful programme of arts workshops and theatre performances. At other times of year, strong options include May's Timishort Film festival (www.timishort.ro), July's Romany Art festival (www.iraf.ro), October's electro-fest TMBase (www.tmbase.ro) and November's International Jazz festival (www.timisoara-jazz.ro). Beer, wine and drama are all the subject of annual shindigs of their own.
You're rarely far from music in Timişoara, whether it's tootling out of the Facultate de Muzica on Piaţa Libertăţii or drifting from speakers over civic spaces (someone on the council holds a flame for Whitesnake, it would seem). For a more involved experience, various options exist. Locals are still mourning the revoked license of Jazz Club Pod 16 in 2009, but venues such as Setup (Str Pestalozzi 22, www.setuptm.ro), The Note (Str Cornelia Salceanu 22, www.thenote.ro) and Van Graph (Str Matei Corvin 4,www.vangraph.ro) serve up a schedule of guitar bands, jazz, folk acts and electronica. Jazz's associations with freedom and western decadence meant that the genre was marginalised under Ceauşescu, so even today it remains a powerful mode of self-expression. For those who like music with their meals, meanwhile, there's quality fare and jaunty folklore to be had nightly at La Leul de Aur (Str Maraseti 12), while Porto Arte (B-dul 16 Decembrie 1989), a restaurant on a docked boat, stages lively traditional performances every Saturday.
The broad-shouldered opera complex on Piaţa Victoriei is the city's cultural hub. It houses three theatres and a princely 700-seat opera house (www.ort.ro), tickets for which cost a gloriously un-elitist £5, a steal even by Romanian standards. Expect to find classics such as Aida and Carmen on the schedule, and while it may offer a cheap night out, the 19th-century architecture and lavish decor mean the locals still dress up for the experience. For something more contemporary, the nearby philharmonic hall (www.filarmonicabanatul.ro) has concerts up to four times a week, ranging from blues to choral works. Elsewhere, galleries and public art are sprinkled over town, none more enjoyable than the Muzeul de Arta (www.muzeuldeartatm.ro) in the Old Prefecture – its permanent collection features more than 70 pieces by the darkly humorous portraitist Corneliu Baba.
Up all night
Timişoara's western location means it has sizeable Serbian, Hungarian and German minorities, as well as a cosmopolitan student mix, and the city has the kind of feisty nightlife options natural to a young, multicultural population. Away from the beat-fest of the clubs, Scârt Loc Lejer (Str Zoe 1) is a delightfully kooky pub in an old townhouse, owned and run by artists and boasting a large garden of fairy lights and hammocks: a fine setting for polishing off £4 bottles of local white wine. Komodo (Str Gh Lazar 5) is a busy Asian-themed lounge serving cocktails and cigars (Romania has no smoking ban), while Aethernative Cafe (at the top of Str Marasesti, through double doors beneath the "Sevander Grup" sign) hosts raucous jam sessions for a sociable, studenty crowd. A general word of warning: beware the power of the plum brandy (pălincă) if you're intending to function the next day.
• Wizz Air (www.wizzair.com) flies to Timişoara three times weekly from London Luton. Accommodation options include Hotel Lido (www.hotel-lido.ro, +40 256407373) and the centrally located Hotel Timişoara (www.hoteltimisoara.ro, +40 256498854).
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010