An awfully long but detailed account of a girls weekend getaway to Timișoara
While there wasn’t a prevalence of sunshine during my winter weekend getaway to Timișoara, Romania, I’m happy to vouch for it’s nickname: The Little Vienna. Littered with hidden gems, fantastic architecture and a bloody history, it’s a city which is difficult to describe in it’s sheer wondrously bizarre atmosphere.
Honestly, Timișoara is probably the most off-the-map city I’ve visited. This is probably illustrated most by the concerned/skeptical remarks from my friends/family when I told them that not only was I jetting off to Romania, but I was also visiting a city which nobody could pronounce.
The new flight route from Doncaster Sheffield airport to Timișoara is offering flights which really do scrape the barrel; I paid only £18 for return flights from Friday afternoon through to Monday morning. I won’t lie and say that the flight through WizzAir! was fantastic, but you get what you pay for. The airport was post-apocalyptically barren despite it being a Friday; our flight was the only one leaving the airport until 10pm that night. The man sitting in front of me on the plane was loud, insulting and suspiciously tactile with the flight attendants before he unceremoniously vomited red wine absolutely everywhere, including on my coat stuffed under his seat. Safe to say the holiday was not off to a fantastic start.
I also won’t be particularly kind about Timișoara airport. It’s not representative of the city whatsoever and the baggage collection area is a bit of a shock for someone who is expecting an airport-decor standard similar to literally anywhere else in Europe. Apparently they’re pumping 10 million euros into it sometime soon, and I think that’s probably wise with the increased traffic from their upcoming capital of culture 2020 break. In order to get into the city, we needed money and I had precisely zero lei. Luckily, there is an exchange desk where my friend/fellow traveller Emily exchanged her 40EUR and I eventually found a cash point despite an initial panic. I withdrew approximately £50, which got us very nicely through the weekend.
After grabbing a bus ticket – which was not checked – for about 50p (Arriva, take note), we ventured into the city. This was not before we had encountered another English couple at the bus stop, who told us in great depth about their cow’s bowel movements/how many miles they drive in their car each week with unprecedented enthusiasm. Safe to say we were rattled by their strange conversational offerings and spent much of the weekend avoiding them.
Getting off the bus at the closest stop to our AirBnb, we found ourselves in perhaps the scariest place I’ve ever been. I think the street was the epitome of what young, female travelers are taught to fear in Eastern Europe: towering communist blocs, unlit narrow streets and a dying phone battery. We were lost. My attempts to text my AirBnb hosts were met with a rebuttal that they had ‘sent me many photos’ of the outside of the apartment which I still cannot find to this day. In our attempts to find the place, I accidentally rung a random flat, to which a very nice Romanian man descended in his pyjamas and directed us in hand gestures to an identical block across a small patch of grass which had coke bottles buried like tiny capitalist gravestones. Upon letting ourselves in, we journeyed up concrete, unlit stairs (equally as terrifying) and finally arrived at our apartment.
And it was spectacular! The apartment was great: beautifully themed, decked out with a TV, a kitchen and a shower far nicer than mine at home. The room was wonderfully warm in the below-freezing Romanian weather. We were close to tears. But alas, we could not stay in the warm womb of the apartment forever and had to venture out into the city centre for food, which I had assured Emily multiple times was okay, and I hoped I was right. Walking the 10 minutes into the city centre, we bumped into a woman who spoke English, had moved to Timișoara from the UK and gave us many recommendations and heaped praise upon the city for its safety. At the end of the conversation, she did attempt to convert us to Jehovah’s witness-ism, but I appreciated the effort nevertheless.
The Piata Unirii is a lovely square and a real representation of the ‘Little Vienna’ comparison. The facades on the buildings are beautiful pastel colours and the golden streetlights (Timișoara was the first European city to get electric street-lighting!) lights up the Holy Trinity statue perfectly. We finally felt as though we’d seen what we’d come to see, and the best was yet to come.
The food in Timișoara was our greatest discovery: it was cheap and unique. The Scotland Yard was a great restaurant and I’d fully recommend it; I had a hearty stew and two amazing sugary ‘Romanian’ cocktails. I’m not sure what qualified them to be Romanian but they were damn good and only about £3 each. The cow-feces couple from the bus stop also materialized at this point and so Emily and I made a quick getaway. P.S We struggled to find any convenience stores open or in the city centre at this time (about 7pm-9pm) so bare that in mind.
We did also attempt to infiltrate the recommended local bar, The Drunken Rat Pub. I have never been stared down so hard in my life. I have no idea what had offended the bar-goers with our presence but we decided to do a 180 and march right back out, went home and straight to sleep.
Our first full day in Timișoara commenced with the free walking tour which was one of the highlights of the weekend: you can check out their website here. Andrei was a perfect guide; hilarious, informative and – best of all – he got us drunk. As it was his namesake St Andrews day, he brought out multiple Țuică shots for everyone. This, combined with some delicious £1 mulled wine from the Christmas market stalls got me considerably tipsy, ensuring that I left him a stellar – albeit rambling – review.
Andrei seemed very excited about the new Doncaster-Timișoara route and seemed to know a lot about it, which led me to believe that the flights were a pretty big deal to the Timișoarans. Andrei also seemed pretty pissed off about the modern art sculptures around the city, which I have to admit is understandable. Of the things I didn’t understand about Timișoara, the thing that confused me the most is that the city seemed to pump money into artistic projects/the squares while a lot of the buildings were in pretty awful states. While the city had its fair share of beautiful buildings, it also had a lot of buildings which looked totally abandoned, ransacked, collapsing etc. These dilapidated buildings weren’t on the outskirts but just… in the city centre. I don’t know what the laws are like regarding property but I haven’t ever visited a city where buildings just sit in that state.
Nevertheless, I did enjoy the TV with legs (?) sculpture.
Andrei’s tour took us all around Timișoara right to the main attraction of the city; the beautiful Orthodox Metropolitan Cathedral.
The interior of the Cathedral is impressive, but my opinion rests firmly in favour of the outside. The scale of the it really makes it to be an imposing piece of architecture as it sits on totally flat land, framed by such a long and grandoise boulevard and surrounded by carefully trimmed parks.
After Andrei gleefully showed us a photograph he had printed and laminated of both ex-president Ceaușescu and his wife being shot by firing squad, we reached the end of the walking tour.
Upon sitting down in the nearby park to eat some Paprika Lays, the french boy who had been on our tour appeared about 100 metres away. He then proceeded to take a photograph of us on his phone. As Emily whispered in a panicked tone ‘he’s coming over!’ we made a dash out of the park, wriggling our way out around the back of a pond where we were sure he wouldn’t find us. Alas, this did not stop le petit fluage, who then followed us for 10 minutes through the city, shamelessly stalking us. To have caught up with us, he must have ran pretty quickly, making our french pursuer ever the more terrifying. We took shelter in a bookstore.
For lunch, we had an egg. At the egg cafe, where else? Neata Omelette Bistro only serves eggs. Eggs benedict, scrambled eggs, eggs on croissants. Egg-citing! The food was really good, egg-cellent.
We then fancied a bit of shopping; where can you shop in Timisoara? Truthfully, I don’t know. There is a mall slightly outside of the city which apparently is pretty good. Instead, we went to Bega shopping centre. I don’t even know if it could be called a shopping centre. It was bizarrely empty and everything was shut in the middle of the day. I have no idea what was going on in there but it unsettled me deeply.
For our last stop of the day, we went to the Communist Consumers Museum, and inside, ‘Scart, a chill place’, and a chill place it was indeed. So chill, in fact, that we struggled to find it and people seemed surprised to see us. I had white chocolate milk; I don’t know really what was in it but it had enough sugar to fuel me for a week. The decor was pretty nice, my personal favourite being a poster of a stick-figure Elena Ceaușescu being hung. The actual museum part of the whole affair was, in my opinion, pretty lackluster as it was just several rooms filled with what appeared to be kind-of old junk. However, many reviews of the place do point out that the museum is a ‘trip down memory lane’ so what I was missing was probably a childhood in communist Romania. While the cafe and the museum were memorable, I maybe wouldn’t recommend it to tourists just because it’s pretty hard to find, out of the city centre (from our apartment anyways) and doesn’t have so much significance if you don’t personally recognize the items displayed. That being said, I bet it is super interesting if you’re into civilian communist history. My favourite piece in the museum was a home-made painting of Ceaușescu also being hung. As you can probably tell, Romanians really enjoy seeing the Ceaușescus being killed in various fashions. I can’t say I blame them.
Romanian TV is also odd. Our favourite show was ‘Anti-talent’, particularly for the Old Town Road cover which legitimately featured a man in blackface, who I assume was ‘playing’ Lil Nas. I guess that sort of thing hasn’t become frowned upon yet. One of the most boring ones was ‘Se striga darul’ which roughly translates to ‘The gift is shouting’. It seemed to be a really long, exhausting wedding negotiation where neither party looked at all happy to be there and the presenter had a really grating personality. We preferred to watch either Romanian Eurovision entries (they haven’t got a great track record) or documentaries on the Romanian Revolution (which started in Timisoara!), or the long-forgotten Italian soap operas which aired on the TV.
Our second day in Romania started off with absolute starvation as we had neglected dinner the day before. However, it was Great Union Day! I had no idea that our trip had coincided with such a momentous holiday. To make everything better, it was also the Christmas light switch-on and concert in the main square.
For an inordinate amount of time that morning Emily and I stood, freezing on the main road close to the apartment and waited for the military parade to begin. I have no idea why it took several hours for about 30 men in uniform to walk 100 metres but the organisation was driving me crazy. The music would start, and 30 men would walk down the strip, then there would be a 20 minute wait before the next batch went. There was a tank which I was really hoping would move, maybe just to plow me down, but it didn’t. Eventually we just left.
Luckily for us, the food section of the Christmas market was open and booming; for only about £7, we managed to grab a huge sausage, a kebab, a bowl of bean stew and some traditional dumplings, which was enough for us both, easily. While trying to communicate with the woman running the stall, a tiny old lady behind us in the line helped us translate with a little cry of ‘Beans? Fasole!’. Upon looking at our surprised faces (English seemed common among the young but not so much the elderly), she exclaimed ‘I learn it on Google!’. She is, so far, the coolest person I’ve ever met.
The rest of the day into the evening consisted of more mulled wine, sweets and a little rest stop back at the flat. We did go shopping for souvenirs, which were plentiful, but the quality of postcards is absolutely abysmal. Why they don’t have nice photographs of the city I don’t know. I picked one (the only one) up and it was such bad quality that it looked like it was printed in the 80s and had been left in the sun since then. There were lovely painted postcards; but that’s not a photograph! I understand that this is a very specific gripe to have but it confused the hell out of me. Why are there no postcards?? Where are they??
The evening, however, was boomtown central. A huge concert jam-packed with moderately famous Romanian stars made for an incredibly entertaining evening. It was here where I learned that that song which goes ‘Numa Numa ay’ (Dragostea Din Tei) is actually Romanian. I thought it was gibberish my whole life. I was so confused when one singer did an emotional rendition of it that I began to laugh. Genuinely thought it was a piss take.
We actually went back to the food portion of the festival (obviously) and picked up some chocolate-covered pastry balls which struggled to stay warm in the -1/-2/-3 winds. More mulled wine. Then, the fireworks began in the national colours of Romania to celebrate unification! This probably sounds really soppy, but I really do think there was a genuine feeling of national pride (and not the racist kind) in the square that night, and I felt really privileged to be a part of it, especially in a country which had been in pretty awful times just 30 years ago but had fought out of it tooth and nail. Never before had I felt so upset that England had failed to revolt in the late 1700s.
At around midnight, we headed home with the crowd back to the apartment, stopping along the way to snap some pictures with the festive lights. A lovely band were playing next to an ice rink and all was well in the World. Apart from the fact that it was absolutely fucking freezing and I had been wearing the same clothes for 3 days.
We caught a taxi back to the airport the following morning and the trip home was significantly more pleasant. There was nobody at the airport since it was so small (apart from the cow-feces couple, who thankfully ignored us) so minimal waiting, but a man did throw up really loudly in the waiting lounge, and this time, he wasn’t even drunk.
My top tips:
- Catch an uber from the airport to the city, it’s pretty cheap and way easier than the bus, especially towards the airport or in the dark. The bus is around 30 minutes, the stops are difficult to navigate if you don’t know the timetable (we were super lucky that our stop was the last one). Unnecessary stress for the sake of like, £5-7.
- If you’re going for budget, this is the place to do it. Our AirBnb was great, and split between 2 was only £12 a night for privacy and comfort. Our hosts ran most of the AirBnbs in the area it seemed, so they’ll all be of a similar quality. I’m always pro-hostel though, and there are seemingly quite a few good ones if you’re alone. More comfort? Cheap hotels with swimming pools are available and they look pretty swanky.
- The Timisoara free walking tour is great (as with every city: I would also recommend the Riga free walking tour!)
- There are public toilets and they’re really, really nice. Go figure.
- Doncaster Sheffield airport – in the winter – is pretty much only served by WizzAir! There are like, no flights. Don’t even bother getting there 2 hours early, or even an hour early. We lay on the floor for like, 3 hours.
- If you can’t learn Romanian, learn French. The two languages seem very intertwined (both as Romantic languages, I suppose), and some basic French knowledge went a long way in interpreting signs and menus.
Restaurants I’d recommend:
- The Scotland Yard
- Any outdoor market stalls
- Egg restaurant (Neata omelette bistro)
- Honestly every restaurant seemed to get like 4/5 star reviews: the food is really good. You’re in very little danger of walking into a bad restaurant and even if you do, it’s super cheap.
I think Romania probably gets a lot of slack from us Brits. The xenophobes are always pretty keen to point out that the ‘gypsies’ (Roma) come from Romania and I do think the image persists in Western Europe that Romania is full of men who will grab you, steal from you and kidnap you as a young woman. There’s a great article in the Guardian about Romania here and the British perception of it being the EU country they’d least like to live in.
I’m here to say that honestly, I got harassed more in Paris and Helsinki than I did in Timisoara. Not only that, but I don’t think I even got looked at the wrong way during my time in the city. There was a distinctly different vibe to most other European countries. Like, way more respectful. Getting off the plane, I remember looking around while withdrawing money and, shamefully, being way more pedantic about handling my money than I ever have been. Then I got a tap on my shoulder and I thought, ‘great, we’re getting robbed 3 minutes into the holiday’. It was a young man, smiling, handing me back my hat I’d dropped. Again at the bus stop, a man with his child ran after me to return my glove. The man we awoke by ringing his doorbell directed us to our flat with patience. The Romanian couples on our tour were lovely to talk to. Andrei gave us free drinks. The Jehovah’s Witness gave us a spiel of recommendations. The old lady in the shopping line translated for us. The market-stall keepers gave us free bread with our meal. Ironically, the only negative interaction was with that French boy.
Brits dislike Romania probably because, as per usual, they’ve never visited. They’ve never had Romanian cocktails or listened to an emotional rendition of ‘Dragostea Din Tei’ or eaten their red gingerbread at the Christmas market. They’ve never been in their fancy public toilets or watched their military parade or had Tusca shots at midday.
Is Timisoara safe? Yes. Probably one of the safest cities I’ve been to. Appearance wise (in the outer, housing districts), it probably screams traditionally ‘unsafe’. It isn’t. I think it’s really important that we tackle this perception passed on by our elders that ex-communist countries carry an ‘unsafe’ element to them: it restricts cultural broadening and sections off parts of Europe which don’t deserve silencing.
If anything, I think we should probably be looking up to the people who forced their way out of Communist tyranny by executing their president and his wife via firing squad and riding on tanks in 1989. If you want to see something truly inspiring, watch the BBC documentary here. Godspeed.