Timisoara has been on my list of places I would like to visit for a long time. After all, it is called “Little Vienna”, so it would certainly be interesting to find out why it is called like that. I consider it a special privilege that I could visit Timisoara this year – in 2023 when it became the European Capital of Culture. Even more exhibitions, concerts, festivals and other projects have been added to the rich cultural scene of the city.
Whether you go there now or at some other time, I definitely recommend spending 2-3 days in the city – on the one hand, to see as many sights as possible, on the other hand, to enjoy the atmosphere of the city (even in the evening). Although I chose the street with umbrellas for the cover photo, I decided to devote the first days to places worth seeing in nice weather, while the third day will be reserved for museums and other objects where you can go when it is raining outside.
Timisoara is a city made for those who like to walk. You just need to wear comfortable shoes.
A Brief Look at History
After the ravaging of the city by the Tatars in the 13th century, the Hungarian king Béla IV. invited German settlers to rebuild the town. When Charles I Robert of Anjou won the Hungarian throne, he moved his residence to Timisoara, which became the capital of his kingdom for seven years (1316-1323). In 1552, the city was conquered by the Turks and for 164 long years, it was under Ottoman rule. In 1716, the Austrian army under the command of Prince Eugene of Savoy decided to conquer the city. After a 48-day siege, the Turks left the city and the entire Banate of Timisoara became a province of the Habsburg monarchy. The imperial authorities in Vienna immediately began a large-scale process of colonization, inviting mainly German Catholics, who then became known as Banat Swabians.
As part of the monarchy, the city experienced rapid economic and demographic growth. At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, there were two breweries, the factories for matches, chocolate and hats. The city was becoming “Little Vienna”. Just like before the construction of the pompous Ringstrasse in Vienna, Emperor Francis Joseph decided in 1892 to demolish the already dysfunctional fortifications and rebuild these areas into spectacular squares with beautiful buildings. Since 1869, a horse-drawn tram (the first in Romania and the fifth in the world!) had been running on the streets here, and in 1884, Timisoara became the first European city with electric street lighting! The first public lending library was also opened here, and the city hospital had operated here 24 years before a similar facility in Vienna. It is said that up to a hundred different achievements of technology were first tested in Timisoara, then introduced in the capital of the monarchy.
And now we can start walking the streets of Timisoara…
Victory Square – Piata Victoriei
We will start our walk in the very heart of the city – at Victory Square, which no visitor to Timisoara can miss. At the “lower” (southern) end of the square is the Cathedral of the Three Patriarchs.
With eleven towers, it looks more like a castle. The highest tower is over 80 meters, which makes this church one of the tallest Orthodox cathedrals in the world. The roofs of the towers are covered with green and yellow glazed bricks, while the facade is red and white.
Construction began in 1937, but it was slowed down by World War II. The temple of the Romanian Orthodox Church was completed only in 1946 and also consecrated – with the participation of the Romanian king Michael I. The construction was a demanding technical challenge. First, the concrete foundations were created on the marshy land, which are supported by 1,700 reinforced pylons, sunk to a depth of 20 meters. The architecture of the cathedral combines Byzantine elements with Romanian-Moldavian elements.
4,000 people can pray inside the cathedral. I like the mysterious gloom in Orthodox churches, despite the shine of the rich gold decoration. The iconostasis – the altar wall – is made of gilded linden wood. The cathedral is dedicated to three great saints and church teachers who are highly respected in the Eastern churches: St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory the Theologian and St. John Chrysostom. The faithful come, bow in silent devotion to the icons, touch or kiss them, and then light candles for their dead and living.
In the crypt of the church, you can see a collection of historical church art, books, manuscripts and icons.
Opposite the cathedral, there is the Monument to the Revolution against the Communist Regime (we will talk about it later). It was created by British artist Paul Neagu, originally from Romania. His works can be admired in the world’s most famous galleries.
Now a long rectangular square with carpets of green grass, trimmed bushes and colorful flowers stretches out in front of us. The locals are sitting on the benches, debating, basking in the sun, and pigeons are circling above their heads. Pigeons also fly around the she-wolf.
A copy of the famous Lupa Capitolina statue was donated by the city of Rome to Timisoara in 1926. Romanians are very proud of the similarity of their language to Latin and Italian. Interestingly, the bronze statue was removed during World War II as a protest by the people of Timisoara against Fascist Italy led by Mussolini. The she-wolf with Romulus and Remus returned to its place during the Ceausescu regime.
Another popular photo motif on the square – even in the evening – is the Fountain with (stone) fish…
…and of course the beautiful historic houses from the beginning of the 20th century on both sides of the square. It is such a mixture of eclectic style with Baroque and Art Nouveau.
Lovers of abandoned or dilapidated places will be pleased here as well, as several buildings are, unfortunately, in a bad state. Others are covered with scaffolding, which promises a nice facade in the future, but according to the locals, this reconstruction has been going on for too long and is accompanied by several problems – lack of funds, conflicting construction companies…
Most of the buildings were designed by the city’s chief architect, László Székely, who also died in Timisoara (he was born in Budapest). For example, the very first house on the left (when the cathedral is behind us) – the Szechenyi Palace. Its residents certainly have a wonderful view of the cathedral, however, from one of the flats, important film footage was taken during the revolution of 1989. It was quite brave considering that there was gunfire everywhere at that time and many residents were lying in their flats on the floor on their bellies, shaking (rightfully) with fear.
Other buildings by architect Székely at the square: the three-story massive Dauerbach Palace, Hilt&Vogel (the Helios gallery is on the ground floor), the renovated Neuhaus Palace with an arched white-green facade and also the Timisoara Hotel (originally the seat of the Swabian Bank).
Among the renovated houses, the Lloyd Palace (next to Neuhaus) by architect Lipót Baumhorn, today the seat of the Polytechnic University and the historic restaurant on the ground floor, is just as eye-catching. It is the building that was the first to receive a construction permit in 1910 after the demolition of the old fortification.
The square’s architectural ensemble is complemented by several modernist residential buildings from the 1960s.
If you are in Timisoara on a beautiful sunny day, ice cream is a good idea! I recommend Il Gelato di Bruno – excellent ice cream, homemade from natural ingredients. If you walk towards the cathedral, it is on the left side, near the fountain. However, it can be easily overlooked because the building is covered by scaffolding (year 2023). Strawberry and pistachio were a good choice! Two scoops cost 16 lei.
At the other end of the square, the white facade of the Opera House shines from afar. It was built in the years 1872-1875 by the famous Viennese company Fellner&Helmer, which designed many theatres and opera houses in the monarchy (in Bratislava, Sofia, Berndorf…)
Today, the building houses up to four institutions: the Opera, the National Theatre and the German and Hungarian State Theatres.
However, the Opera building was destroyed twice by fire and only the original side wings remained. The facade somewhat resembles a triumphal arch, which is more than symbolic. Not because the Opera stands on Victory Square, but because protest speeches against the Ceausescu regime were heard from its balcony in December 1989 when 40 thousand people gathered in front of the building. From Timisoara, the revolution then spread throughout Romania. These events, which were not without victims, are commemorated by a plaque on the facade of the Opera House.
The space in front of the Opera is a place where various cultural events take place. Unfortunately, I did not get to go inside the Opera, so I could not look at the square from its balcony. Still, I was lucky that I visited Timisoara at the time when a temporary installation was built near the Opera – the “Green” Tower, on which 1306 trees, bushes and plants were planted. The tower was supposed to promote biodiversity as a central element of Timişoara’s identity and at the same time, it offered a wonderful view of the entire square.
When I ascended the tower, the left side of the square was in shadow, as if the sun wanted to soften the view of the buildings in a forlorn state. So is the first building on the left – Jakab Löffler’s Palace – an amazing historical building, but some parts of the facade are covered with a black net. What caught my attention the most were the bullet holes in the wall of the palace – a sad reminder of the revolution of 1989. By the time the army joined the side of the protesters, more than 100 people had lost their lives and over 500 people had been injured.
You can see from the holes that the bullets were flying high, so I am not at all surprised that people preferred to throw themselves on the floor at their homes. I grew up in communist Czechoslovakia and when I saw those bullet marks, I really appreciated that our revolution in 1989 was “Velvet”, without casualties.
From the Green Tower, there was also a good view of Modex – a department store that also reminded me of the era of socialism, its taste and consumerism.
The small Alba Iulia street leads to the square near the Opera House. This is the street that cheers up every visitor even in bad weather. Colorful umbrellas hang from it, they sway with every gust of wind and when the sun shines, they cast their umbrella shadows on the pavement. Everyone stops here to take a few photos. And you can try to find an unopened umbrella. I laughed that even among the umbrellas there are individualists who do not want to blend in with the crowd and prefer to stay closed.
When you are at the end of the street, turn back. On the left, there is a fountain with drinking water and behind it the so-called House with flowers – Casa cu flori (there is a confectionary on the ground floor). The owner of this house, built in 1901, was florist Wilhelm Mühle (we will hear more about him in the Day 2 article). Although the building is in a bad state, you can see the rich decoration – columns with Corinthian capitals, angels and flower garlands. Mühle opened a store here with seeds and bulbs of garden flowers. Unfortunately, the communists let this house – as a symbol of bourgeois opulence – fall into disrepair.
The street with umbrellas led us to Liberty Square – Piata Libertatii, which in the past served as a place for military parades. The Habsburgs established the seat of the military administration here, as well as a military casino. There is also an old town hall with a red facade. I experienced a food festival here when the whole square was filled with music, lively chatter and the smell of good food.
At the center of the square, there is a plague column as a memorial to the victims of the plague in 1738 and 1739 with a statue of Jan Nepomuk, the patron saint of the Catholic believers of Banat, and the Mother of God. These sculptures were made in Vienna, disassembled into pieces and transported on the rivers Danube and Tisza to Timisoara.
However, at the square, you will also find some modern sculptures and even a sort of a solar-powered artistic tree where you can charge your smartphone.
If you are here in the summer, be sure to go to this square in the evening. When dusk falls on the houses and their renovated or shabby facades are covered in darkness, sad and beautiful tones of the piano sound in the square, couples cuddle together on benches and a tram rumbles along the tracks…
In the extension of Liberty Square, there is the small St. George’s Square (Piata Sfantul Gheorghe). It was here that the first horse-drawn tram was put into motion in 1869!
At the square, there are the remains of the walls of the Jesuit church which was demolished during the modernization works at the beginning of the 20th century. The equestrian statue of St. George fighting the dragon is from 1996, it is also one of the memorials to the victims of the 1989 revolution.
And now we come to Vasile Alecsandri Street. You will not be surprised during the day, you have to come here in the evening. Hundreds of fluorescent lights will light up above your heads and you will be mesmerized – maybe like the people of Timisoara when their streets were lit up with electric lighting for the first time.
This important event from 1884 is also commemorated by a huge lantern on C. Brediceanu Street…
…and also as street art near the Maria Theresa Bastion.
We are slowly approaching the vast Unification Square through the small street with the lights. However, we will leave this walk for the next day. 🙂
Text: © Copyright Ingrid, Travelpotpourri
Fotos: © Copyright Ingrid, Travelpotpourri