Hello all my tomorrows… Oh dear. I’ve been posting vacation snaps again on Facebook instead of writing in my blog. Naughty. To make good, my first travel story for a while.
‘The past is a foreign country’, famously observed genteel English author LP Hartley, ‘they do things differently there’. Well, this is a postcard from the so-called ‘city of yesterday’. It’s a town called Oradea, in Transylvania. Don’t be too hard on yourself if you haven’t heard of it. (Oradea I mean, not Transylvania.) This small city in North Western Transylvania is a repository of faded grandeur, which just happens to be just my favourite kind – of grandeur that is. Though not as well known as other Transylvanian towns such as Braşov, or Sighişoara, it has a baroque and art nouveau splendour all its own and an historic timeline teeming with incident; from the inspiring to the tragic. For inspiring, look to its role as a centre of humanism and the Renaissance in Central Europe, and the university originally built here in that time; for tragic, try the burning down of Oradea Fortress in the Tartar-Mongolian invasion of 1241 – described in the famous poem Carmen Miserabile. Nine hundred years later and the city’s Jewish population were all but annihilated in WWII. The remaining Jewish population is miniscule; as evident in the decrepit state of the synagogue.
There is however a significant Hungarian population in Oradea, and you can recognise the language being spoken on the streets. You can recognise it that is, if you know what geese choking on foie gras sounds like looped backwards. Romanian of course, is a curious tongue with its own peculiar charm; sounding like Italian spoken with a thick Russian accent. (Is there any other kind?)
Meanwhile back here in Hungary, there are nationalists who believe Oradea should be within Hungarian borders, as it was before WWI, for example. I’m not quite sure what it is the Hungarians feel they could screw up more decisively than the Romanians have, left to their own devices. But I notice that Romania, while one of the poorest countries in Europe, is not on the Huffington Post watch list of 10 countries most likely to default; while Hungary, who ended the Cold War with better prospects than any other post-soviet country, could still go full Greek.
Anyway, back to Oradea. At various points in its history, the town has prospered and declined under many different bylines, just some of which include ’Athens on the Sebes Körös’, ‘Paris on the riverside of Pece’, ‘the City of Tomorrow’, and (my personal favourite) ‘the City of Yesterday’. Which I suppose it is in present tense. You may gather by the different names of the river running through it, Sebes Körös (Hungarian) and Romanian (Peces) that the town has changed ownership a few times, which it has – Hungarian and Romanian and Turk have all held dominion over Oradea. Today the river is known as the Crisul Repede, and very pretty it is too, as it meanders past the banks of the charming, leafy and well, quite frankly Parisian looking centre. The Athens bit stems from its university, which even today is reputedly one of the better medical schools in Europe.
Still, Oradea has undoubtedly seen better days, and I’m not talking about during the disco era. In a census taken in 1538, shortly after the town’s so called Golden Age, it was estimated some 20,000 people lived in Oradea, around a third of London’s population at that time. By 1720, that figured had trickled down to just 216 residents. Today, the populace is again around 20,000, though I don’t suppose anyone would claim this as an indication of any Golden Age. Oradea, like most of Romania, seems quite poor. There are plenty of people in peasant dress, plenty more in straw pork pie hats, socks and sandals, threadbare suits, and so on. Though there are a number of restaurants dotted about, most patrons seem to order little more than coffee. Cheap and nasty little casinos and strip joints abound however, just in case anyone decides they’re not being separated from their money quickly enough. But Oradea certainly doesn’t feel dangerous, at least to this old East European hand.
It is probably a place for Transylvanian ‘completists’, best saved after seeing Bran Castle, Timişoara and so on. But because of that, as a tourist, you virtually have the place to yourself; which may be just how you like it – I know I did.