Sightseeing a City in a Day

Day 2. 15 July 2005

Friday. I woke early for breakfast to make the most of the day to find myself disappointed to find the fifth floor of the hotel in thick fog. Reassuring myself that it is not raining and that this grey weather will most likely burn off soon enough, I head downstairs, chirpily, towards breakfast. Pausing at reception I am told that the forecast is for sun and 28 degrees.

Breakfast is served in a poolside room of modest grandeur; small details fashioned from concrete and painted in simple white. Starting with cereal fruit juice, this is followed by a platter of bread, meat, and salty, creamy, goats cheese; all washed down with a large mug of black coffee.

In the early hours following breakfast and before the shops and museums open at 10 o’clock, and whilst the fog still lingers, I reccy the town. My Rough Guide mentions two museums in Timisoara, the Museum of the Banat, which although it is to be found in the fourteenth-century castle, the curators have spared ‘no effort […] to make the voluminous display of historical exhibits as dull as’ possible. I decide to give it a miss, and instead settle on finding and visiting the Ethnographic museum, of which I have heard very favourable reports.

After a whirlwind tour of the modern, and tediously dull and uninteresting department store next door to my hotel (just to see what is there), I strike out north towards the old Bastion; in which it is said that the ethnographic museum resides. Within about five paces turning the corner, I find it. Old, crumbly, red brick it is built with sloping walls, and topped by a roof of grass and bushes. Constructed as a series of triangles, these structures used to circle the old city. Now, only two parts exist, the rest having succumbed to demolition in the name of town planning. This section, in the northeast of the town, is the larger of the two, and now pay host to an internet café, and English bookshop, and a other shops, including a car showroom.

Following the road round, the lanes cut through the old archways in the city walls, and I follow the road round the outside of the Bastion. I’ve passed a Violin Museum, but it’s closed, and browsed in an antique furniture shop, but as yet have found no Ethnographic Museum. Consulting my map again, I peer into ever door and window, ask in hesitant English and broken Romanian at cafés and magazine stalls where I can find the ethnographic museum. Nobody knows. Suddenly, thinking that I have found it, I enter into a vaulted brick chamber, only to discover that it is the back – or maybe the front – door of the antique furniture shop I was in earlier.

Continuing on round the road, I find a small antique shop filled with a miscellany of antiques and junk. In the corner, a group of old men play cards and smoke cigarettes. The owner, a tall man with curly grey hair, and smelling of tobacco, is an attentive host, and so I decide to ask him where I can find the ethnographic museum. I ask him if he speaks English. A little, he shrugs. I proceed, showing him what I’m looking for in my Rough Guide. He is very helpful, and explains that it has moved. It is now in the centre of town to the right of the opera house. Dreapta; I confirm the positioning, impressing him with my attempts at his language.

Striking back across town towards the centre of town, I arrive back outside of my hotel. As predicted the fog is lifting fast, and so I head back to my room to ditch my fleece, don shorts, and switch the batteries in my camera (which have drained themselves alarmingly quickly – maybe I have duds – hrmm…).

Rather than taking the route across the park which I took last night, I take one of the main streets away from the Hotel Continental, down a wide, tree-lined boulevard with tramlines cut into the cobbles. Half way along – all of ten paces or so, I find a quiet courtyard, sun-drenched in terracotta colouring, which gives home to the tourist information office. They are unable to confirm or deny if the ethnographic museum has moved or not and there is little choice in the range of postcards on offer. As I continue on my way down the boulevard, I fast come to conclusion that has beautiful, if slightly ramshackle as Timisoara is; it is most definitely a small city, and one that is not as yet geared up to international tourists.

Crossing the north end of the tiny and picturesque Piata Libertatii, I reach the other side of town the town centre in something short of ten minutes. The Timisoara outdoor market, uses in part, the only other remaining section of the old bastion as its entrance; within which is a floral hall with an intoxicatingly powerful and beautiful scent. Beyond the meat hall, with it’s slabs of pork and lard, is the vegetable market. About the size of a football pitch, and under canopy; rows after rows of stalls fill the space, each heaped high with fresh, vegetables, and further on, fruit.

I buy a kilo of deliciously sweet cherries for around 50p, before heading off further northwest to the Botanic Gardens. More of a park than a botanical garden as I would have imagined it, the gardens are dry, and exhausted; water courses and ponds are dry and dusty basins of concrete. It’s peaceful but it feels sad, and I leave.

Walking back through town, I stop at the 24 hour supermarket, a small, but smartly tiled in black and white, and spotlessly clean corner shop, and by the local Tuika – a fiery plum brandy known as palinka. Returning to the market, I buy, for 20 000 Leu a cheeseburger – the pork steak, pressed paper thin and cooked and served up with peppers and sauces in a bun. I buy this from one of the huts at the back of the market, and eat it on the street, washing it down with local water, and a desert of cherries. Passing through the market to leave, I am accosted by one of the stall owners, a cheerful chap, who, on seeing my camera wants to me take his photograph against the backdrop of his Coca-Cola drinks machine.

Making my way back to town via one of the north-south tram lines, is, umm … interesting! They are doing major works, involving digging up the lines and relaying them, and the footpath alongside, whilst still nominally still there is diverted at will over huge gaping holes via old planks chipboard sheets that bend and give under foot. I walk the tracks, and skirt the edge of the road, back to a road that takes me onto the Piata Victorei.

To the right of Opera House, eh? If stand with my back to the opera house, the ethnographic museum will be to the right? Well I can’t see anything that looks like any kind of museum that I’ve ever seen. There is a bank on the corner opposite the bullet-stained McDonald’s building, and so I try and ask there. Showing my map and guide book to the sharp-suited man behind the spotless desk, he seems to speak less English to the old man in the antique shop, and is certainly less friendly.

I cross the square, and find the thoroughly un-castle like castle (more of an Oxford college really) that houses the Museum of the Banat – the one with the interesting write up in the Rough Guide. Thanks to the help of a French woman who translates from the Romanian spoken by the old guy on the front desk, I eventually understand that contrary to what I have told, the ethnographic museum is up by the Bastion somewhere. Ah well, maybe it is not to be. I decide instead to visit the Romanian Orthodox Cathedral again.

Stepping into the back of the church, there is a service being carried out, with the priests intoning the religion. I slip my sandals off and feel the cold of the tiles refreshingly on the souls of my feet. On either side of the entrance to the cathedral are darkened chambers, each reverently quiet, and each containing a single large table of iron – a tray of molten wax from the candles placed into it. Bought daily at the kiosk inside the church, the people of Romania place these in memory of those who died in the revolution of 1989. The heat given off from these tables is intense. It truly is a powerfully poignant thing to behold.

I cross the street and walk for a while through the riverside park listening to the birds, and the wind in the trees. On the way back up the road, and call in at another church, this time Catholic. On a smaller scale, there are the same orange candles burning in rememberance.

Heading back across town, I delve once more into the streets around the old Bastion, and eventually, as I am about to give up, come across a plain, if large, wooden door. Pinned to it is a single sheet of photocopied A4 with a printed notification, in Romanian, it announces the museum within. I try the handle, and pull open the door. Within is a tiled hallway and a flight of stairs that cross the entire width of the building and leads to a landing with a further flight of stairs going up to left and right. Making my way up to the left and the right, I find another large, imposing wooden door, and try the handle. It opens and step through into the entrance to the museum. The curator comes forward out of the back room and takes my fee of 10 000 Leu (remember that’s only 20p!)

What I find is a collection of Romanian urban and rural history gathered together within the upper floor of the old bastion. Notes and descriptions on the pieces are scarce and only provided in Romanian when any are available, and so how much I get from this museum is largely dependent on what I remember from the larger, more modern museum in Budapest last year.

Returning to the hotel, I avail myself of the poolside terrace, and lounge about for half an hour or so, swimming a couple of lengths and cooling off and giving my feet a break after much pavement walking. Taking the lift back up to my room shortly after six o’clock, I shower change before heading out to find tonight’s restaurant. The Rough Guide recommends Miortic, at Str. Cluj 26, which it says serves some of the best Romanian food in town. It’s ten minutes walk south of the canal, and so I head off there, rounding the eastern edge of the park behind my hotel and reaching the bridge over the canal just as the thunder which has be ranging around the sky above breaks into rain.

Heading out of the close-nit streets and apartment blocks of central Timisoara I find myself in the leafy suburbs, and begin to wonder if there is indeed a restaurant down this when all around it seems to be private housing. I do, eventually, find Miortic, or at least I find the house cum restaurant formerly known as Miortic. There is a Miortic van parked out the back, and a terrace of sorts, and the number of Str. Cluj is 26. This though, is about all there is left. With tonight’s thunderstorm easing off already, I lower the hood of my waterproof and head back into town, and back across the bridge where I veer down to the right to take the river-walk into the centre of the town.

This walk proves to be nicer than I thought. With the sky clear again, I walk into the sunset with the tower of the orthodox cathedral ahead of me, through rose gardens and trellis’ where it seems lovers congregate. There is one such pair of lovers wrapped up in there own company over on some white painted seating beneath one such rose arch. There is also an outside concert venue with a big partially covered stage, and then more rose gardens on the other side.

Crossing the centre of town I seek out my second choice of eating establishment: Grizzly’s on Str. Ungureanu 7, which allegedly boasts ‘sumptuous food and generous portions in comfortable surrounds’. Whether it does or not, I will never know, as, upon arriving I discover that the downstairs bar and street terrace has been replaced by a pizzeria. Defeated, and by now thoroughly hungry, I return to the Piata Victorei and to the outside terrace of the Lloyd Restaurant, where, for a little under £4 I have a very nice chicken and polenta dish, a desert of cheese balls and coffee, and another pint of Timisoarian Premium Lux.

Paying my bill, I depart the restaurant, and wander back through my second Romanian night, and to my hotel, to sleep and wait for the next day…

Day Three: Sitting in cafés, driving into the mountains, and storks at dusk…