The location of the beginning protests in the Romanian faction of the 1989 revolutions against Communism, Timisoara had not really been on my radar until a RyanAir flight for $19 roundtrip from London caught my eye. Yes, you read that correctly. Even for a discount airline, that was cheap. Considering I had never been to Romania before, I knew that I had to take advantage of the deal.
My adventure began at the airport in London. I got through security, checked the gate, and then promptly got lost on the way to it. Somehow, in that oh-so-long walk through the terminal (please note the heavy sarcasm through the keyboard), I forgot the gate I was going to. Thus, I arrived at the gate I thought I was going to and promptly got in line...only to realize that the destination was absolutely not Romania. "Hm." I thought. It was the only gate with a departure in the vicinity, which made the situation a bit more concerning. Happily, there was a phone nearby that said to use if you needed to speak to an airport employee. Talk about a movie moment, that phone seemed almost too well placed. Do all airports have "hey, did you go to the wrong gate? We can help!" phones? Anyways, I picked it up and connected with an employee.
Soon, another employee approached me and told me to follow her. She led me TO THE TARMAC, where a car met me. Yes, that's right, my poor judgement meant that I got a private, VIP tour of the airport tarmac as we raced, James Bond style, towards my plane. It was very exciting, but also a bit embarrassing because I absolutely should not have found myself in that situation. Luckily for me, however, my fellow passengers need not know why I was being personally dropped off.
Three hours later, we disembarked in Timisoara. The hostel, Freeborn Hostel, is one of the best I've stayed at anywhere in regards to staff and services. They offered an airport transfer, which was a blessing considering the late arrival (after 11pm). The last thing I wanted to do was find a cab, so it was great to walk past customs and see a man with a "Freeborn Hostel" sign waving in the air. There were three of us on the flight who were staying there, so it was a talkative cab ride. Upon arrival, the handsome owner Raul met us, took our money, and then showed us to our beds. Mine was the top bunk in an eight-bed room. I quietly crawled up, and was asleep within minutes.
The next morning, I awoke and went to the adjacent building in order to shower. I had been concerned about the temperature, as it was February and the shower room was not heated, but I needn't have worried! I came back in to find Raul's mother watching Romanian soaps. I smiled at her as I made my way back to my room to drop my things off. When I re-emerged, Raul had appeared. I talked to him for a few minutes, and he gave me a map of the city and showed me places to go. It was very apparent very quickly that he was a proud Romanian and Timisoara resident. I also talked with him about his hostel - he and his mother run it together. He handles the business while she does the housekeeping.
I headed out shortly after that and walked the 10 minutes to the Piata Victoriei. Timisoara is not a particularly large city, and most of the things that tourists would want to see are right in the middle. The square in the center of town is where those aforementioned protests began, inspired by neighboring countries' actions (hence why it's name is translated as Victory Square). There is a rather shabby monument to those who lost their lives in the fight for freedom, at the end of the square closest the Orthodox Cathedral.
Next to the monument was a bakery that sold classic Romanian goods. I ordered myself a couple of different breads, ordered solely on how they looked. I then proceeded across the busy road to the park that surrounds the Orthodox Cathedral. I found a bench and ate my bread in the gloomy morning chill. Raul had shown me on the map that beyond the park is a lovely trail along a creek, but somehow a river walk on a cold winter's morning wasn't high on my agenda. Instead, I had my headphones in (I listened to a lot of Desert Island Discs in Timisoara: this particular moment was Tom Hanks's episode. I specifically remember listening to his selection of the 2001: A Space Odyssey theme song as I wandered the park post-breakfast) and watched the squirrels run around.
Once breakfast and Mr. Hanks were over, I headed into the Orthodox Cathedral itself. I have only been in a few orthodox churches, but I have enjoyed every visit. I am from a Judeo-Christian culture, obviously, but the orthodox branch is so different from the one I am used to.
I climbed the stairs, stepped through the arches, and was immediately enveloped in the silence of the church. I was the only tourist inside, but even though it was a Thursday morning it was quite full of locals. I mostly stood in a corner and observed. It was an open room, and there appeared to be about seven spots where worshippers were to go. I watched as person after person made the rounds, going in the same order, stopping in front of each relic, kneeling, praying, and moving to the next one.
After a few minutes of creeping on everyone, I went back outside to discover that the clouds were beginning to clear. Amazing what a difference the sky makes! The drab square from before was suddenly awash in light and had a whole different appeal.
Due to the sudden change in weather, I lagged in the square for a several minutes, circling the businesses to decide possible dinner options later. Once I had exhausted that journey, however, I moved onwards. I had no destination in mind: when I had researched things to do prior to coming, nothing had popped out at me. Thus, I had decided before even coming that my trip was going to consist of my podcasts, my legs, and my eyeballs. The cathedral had been the one thing I had really wanted to experience, otherwise I just wanted to explore and take in the sights. And that's what I did.
Unfortunately for me, Timisoara is not very big so I was relatively restricted in said exploration. But it was a beautiful day (the nicest I had had in months, really, as I lived in London at the time and apparently Romania has nicer weather. Who'd have thunk?) and the city center was full of colorful, lovely buildings that did not at all reflect my stereotype of a former USSR country, so it was great to explore (now with Michael Bublé telling Kirsty Young about his love for Eminem). My favorite spot was Piata Unirii (see photo), which was a large square flanked by colorful buildings. It's translated as "Union Square," which refers to the fact that one one end is the Serbian Orthodox church (in the above photo) and the other end, a Catholic church (the second photo on this blog).
As I wandered, I noticed how much the buildings reminded me of Dakar. Yes, the capital of Senegal. I certainly was not expecting to be reminded of Sub-Saharan Africa in Europe, but here we were. For example, the photo to the right could have easily been snapped in downtown Dakar. The architecture was similar, the age of the buildings was similar, and even the cars were similar (in Senegal, those are nice cars and the fancy people of the country are seen in downtown Dakar).
Which brings us to an obvious point: even in these two main squares, there was no escaping the fact that this is a more poor region of Europe. As a grad student of European politics at the time, it was interesting to see in person. There is a big argument in the EU over whether Romania (and Bulgaria) was allowed into the Union too early, which is now being seen in the Union's strict treatment of the Balkan countries interested in membership. Though as a fun fact to counter this bleakish picture: Timisoara was the first European city, and second in the world only after New York, to have electric street lights!
The rest of my day was spent wandering this colorful corridor between and around the two squares. Around 5, I found myself back in Piata Victoriei. I perused my dinner options again, but I don't like to eat at restaurants alone so I settled for returning to the bakery. I ordered two items. One was fried dough with spinach and mushrooms in the middle the other was fried dough with cheese. I brought them back to the hostel and ate them at the picnic table in the little courtyard.
As I ate, Raul saw me and came out to chat. He said that he and some of the other guests were going to go out to the bar later and insisted that I come. I thought that it sounded fun, but I didn't want to leave at 9pm. That's "getting home and going to bed" time! A 40 year old in a 27 year old's body, I also relished the quiet in the hostel after they had all left. As I have said in other blogs, I often prefer to be alone.
The next morning, I needed to print my RyanAir ticket (for non-EU citizens, you must have a printed ticket. It cannot be printed more than 48 hours before your flight, so...well, this rule has caused me to have multiple adventures around Europe over the years). Please see my other Romania blog for the story of this little excursion, as well as the rest of the day (which includes the Romanian meal I had).
Too soon, it was time to bid Raul a fond farewell, and I headed towards the bus station that would take me to the airport (it was much cheaper than the $10 shuttle service the hostel had). This walk led me through the more-Soviet part of the city, and it was fitting that clouds rolled in during this jaunt. On the way, I walked past a fragment of the Hapsburg fortress that was built in the 18th century. Then I bought a bus ticket from a booth and walked over to the actual stop (Raul told me that you cannot buy tickets on the bus, you must get them from the booths).
And then it was off to the airport, which is so small that it wasn't even open to passengers until late afternoon. When they did open security, I went through the short line and then wandered the three shops available to pass the time. And I tell you what, Romania does their marketing well. Draquila, I tell ya!