I’m in a museum, watching a documentary about a western Romanian city. Outside the windows of the small room in which I’m sitting, a frosty November chill hangs over the grey pavements and spires of Timişoara. The day is glove-thumpingly cold, but peaceful.
Inside – mercifully warmer – the images on the screen show the same roads and churches, even the same sunless skies, but nothing in the film could be construed as peaceful. The scenes are of tanks, snipers, bloodshed and blind panic. When the film finishes, one of the museum staff approaches me, puts her hand on my arm and says, in English: “You must tell people not to forget.”
Timişoara, set among the wide fields of the fertile Banat region, is the fourth largest city in Romania. In December 1989, a mass uprising on its streets provided the spark that would ignite the Romanian Revolution, which within ten bloody days resulted in the trial and execution of the then president, Nicolae Ceauşescu. More than two decades on, the destination still bears the scars of what took place.
As I get up to leave the memorial museum, the door to a back office opens. A white-haired man appears, gesturing for me to join him. Puzzled but not wishing to offend, I oblige. His desk is piled with papers and his English non-existent. He presses a leaflet into my hand headed ‘Asociaţia Memorialul Revoluţiei Decembrie 1989’. The text underneath is unintelligible to me. This man, too, puts his hand on my arm.
He begins speaking to me in Romanian and, as he does so, his eyes well up and his voice cracks. When I depart, doing what I can to show comprehension, he shakes my hand hard. If I’d been in any doubt as to how raw the emotion still runs in the city, I wasn’t now. On that week in December, Timişoara (still known locally as Primul Oraş Liber, or First Free Town) saw as many as 100 of its residents killed by pro-Ceauşescu forces. The revolution was brief. The recovery, for some, was evidently less so.
But although its past is still fresh, Timişoara hasn’t stayed still. It stands today as one of the most forward-thinking cities in Romania, and in the streets outside the museum there are juxtapositions everywhere: BMWs sit bumper-to-bumper with boxy socialist-era Dacias, streamlined corporate towers share the skyline with scuffed baroque mansions and local listings mags showcase techno festivals alongside small classical recitals.
Parts of the centre conform to lazy clichés about the former Eastern Bloc, with potholed pavements, colourless backstreets and unappetising menu translations (‘forcemeat rolls of cabbage’, anyone?). At the same time though, the city is now held up as a model of economic success, and the buffed expanse of its main shopping mall, complete with Body Shop, Nike Store and Starbucks, is proof of the investment coming in.
It is nine weeks before Christmas, and as I walk with my guide, Lavinia, towards Piaţa Victoriei – the handsome square which witnessed a crowd of more than 100,000 protestors in 1989 – I comment on how early the festive decorations have been put up. “Actually,” she replies bashfully, looking at the fairy lights strung across the road, “they’re from last year. The council never got around to taking them down.”
It seems apt, somehow. Romanian cities don’t tend to get great press, and visitors seldom arrive expecting a finely calibrated tourist infrastructure. Counter to preconceptions though, and despite remnants of bullet-pocked stucco, parts of Timişoara are strikingly attractive. It would be silly to overplay the aesthetic appeal – it’s not Vienna – but much of the city soars in the face of notions of concrete grimness.
Piaţa Victoriei itself, a 300m-long square lined with flowered gardens and flanked by rows of tall Habsburg-era buildings, is a prime example. Like the city itself, it has been variously shaped by Ottomans, Austro-Hungarians and other erstwhile regional powers. We find a cafe, take a window seat and watch as 21st-century Romania goes about its daily business – young lovers strolling, scarf-wrapped buskers feeding pigeons, police kicking at litter scraps.
“People all around the country still think fondly of us in Timişoara,” says Lavinia, sipping on a black coffee. “Ceauşescu always hated coming here because he knew the spirit of the people was against him. He used to think he might be assassinated. In the end, he was right to fear us.” Lavinia was a child at the time, and her parents forbade her from leaving the house during the week of violence, but she still talks about the revolution with a sense of ownership.
At one end of the square is the high-shouldered Metropolitan Cathedral. The exterior is impressive, with turret-like towers and intricate tilework, but it gives little hint of the hushed atmosphere inside, where daylight is minimal and rows of gold-framed icons glow softly under candelabras. It is around midday, and there are several dozen devotees at prayer in the warm gloom.
Religion still holds profound importance in Romania. Tellingly, it was a pastor that kickstarted the revolution. Clergyman László Tökés had been an outspoken critic of Ceauşescu’s dictatorial tendencies for some time when governmental orders came through to deport him from Timişoara. His parishioners made a stand, which grew quickly into a large-scale public demonstration. The rest is history.
Tökés himself was actually of Hungarian ethnicity, and today the city retains a multicultural flavour, with not only a sizable Hungarian population but substantial pockets of Germans, Serbs and Ukrainians.
It lends the place a spirited atmosphere. “A lot of young Timişoarans have lived or studied abroad,” says Istrate Lacriomioara, the manageress of Timi’s Cafe, a new juice bar in the town centre. “We’ve come back with more know-how and more ideas.”
With a bit of investigation, this cosmopolitan energy is evident throughout the city. Having spent the following afternoon wandering the surprisingly good modern art gallery, I rest my feet at Cafe Bonjour, a high-kitsch wonderland of funky fabrics, table lamps and Mucha prints, before ambling across the road for a couple of pre-dinner beers at a swish Asian-themed bar. I round off the day with a crazily cheap ticket for the city’s ornate opera house.
When the performance finishes (or, if I’m truly honest, slightly before – Carmen with Romanian surtitles is a bit of struggle), the bars around the centre are still pulsing with life. The most entertaining of Timişoara’s drinking holes are like something from a time capsule: thick tobacco clouds, regionally brewed beers and loud guitar music.
Throughout the next day I continue to explore the city. Away from the centre, it has a remarkable amount of green space, although being November, the temperatures aren’t exactly conducive to hours spent at pond-side benches. Dotted regularly around these parks, though, are sculptures commemorating the events of December 1989. Seeing these statues standing cold among quiet, leafless trees is poignant.
The central market, on the other hand, is full of life. Tables are piled high with mounds of pumpkins and pots of local honey. Stallholders keep themselves warm by rubbing their hands together and shouting for custom. There are more apples for sale than I think I have ever seen in one place before. Trams rattle past, kids charge along the walkways and music tootles out of nearby windows.
Later, as I’m walking back to my hotel along one of the central side streets, I spot a large plaque on a lamppost. It says, in two different languages: “Timişoara, the 12th November 1884: The First Town of Europe with Streets Illuminated by Electric Light”. The drama of the revolution tends to overshadow the fact that the city’s more distant past was, in its own understated way, quite prestigious. But perhaps even more relevantly, I think, looking up at the 125-year-old streetlamp, Timişoara’s future looks fairly bright too.