August 16 – September 13, 2017 (End of summer)
Currency: Leu (lei)
Visa: 90 days in 180
Cost of living: Low
Once again out of Schengen time, we decided to revisit Romania to kick off a grand tour of the Balkans. Timisoara had everything we were looking for: low cost of living, high quality of life, and way fewer people than Bucharest. It’s above all a peaceful place. An impressive ring of parks encircles the Old Town, offering a bit of shade and escape from summer’s sweltering send-off. Crumbling Austro-Hungarian facades lend an aura of regal decline, while sharp new renovation projects hint at a city with a promising future. But Timisoara wasn’t always so peaceful. It was passed around between Hungary, the Ottomans, Austrians, had a brief flirtation with independence as the Banat Republic, then Serbia, before finally becoming part of Romania. It both suffered and triumphed during WWII, and was ground zero for the Romanian Revolution. On 20 December 1989, it was declared the first city free of communism in the country. It’s not always easy to tell how that’s working out for them, but we felt welcomed either way.
Where we stayed
Our choice of Airbnb↗ this month was swayed by photos of cute travel decor and a large selection of books. It was an excellent choice. Our host sent an assistant (his housekeeper’s daughter) who met us on arrival. She was incredibly kind and patient, staying late and talking us through options as we struggled to find our way from the airport. A few snacks in the apartment kept us going overnight until the grocery stores opened in the morning.
We fell in love with the place immediately. It was spacious and bright, with a non-stuffy bedroom and the most modern oven of any kitchen we’ve seen. The apartment was set in a quiet courtyard with maybe two dozen other apartments, so there was little noise. Our new neighbors helped us out, going so far as to let us in and guide us to our unit when we couldn’t locate its button on the buzzer. Occasionally a taxi-driving neighbor would work on his car downstairs, but nothing obnoxious and never at obscene hours. And though we’d just come from fall-like temperatures in Latvia↗, we could safely combat Romania’s lingering summer heat by popping open the windows. Unlike just about every other stay, this home had mesh screens!
The wifi lived up to the high standards of Romania, functioning at top speed and without losing connection. Even our laundry situation was notably pleasant.
The Iosefin-Dâmbovița neighborhood, where we were located, was an admittedly-lengthy 25 minute walk from the center of town. Our building was across the street from a Catholic church, and just up the street from the city’s largest and prettiest cemetery. Only once did the distance come back to bite us. A particularly delugey thunderstorm stranded us kilometers from home and soaked us to the bone within seconds. We could hear branches falling as we ran, blinded by water, toward home. Thankfully we made it back without losing our lives; or worse, our cell phones.
What we did
Timisoara’s Old Town is not a dusty tourist relic, but the beating heart of the modern city. It is clearly undergoing a massive revitalization (when compared against Street View images from 2011). We began our visit in Piaţa Victoriei, the most photogenic plaza that stretches all the way from the landmark Orthodox Metropolitan Cathedral to the National Opera House. It is especially popular as a meeting point and gathering place (for human and pigeon alike). Deeper in, past the currency exchangers, resale shops, and travel agencies, Piața Libertății opens up, a field of bright red brick and trippy statues. Further north – looking both way at the tram crossing – we cross Strada Eugeniu de Savoya (packed with bustling new bars and cafés) before reaching Piaţa Unirii. This is the most expansive of the town squares, rimmed with churches of different denominations, pretty houses, and the city Art Museum. Finally, we found Strada Mărășești, beautifully repaved with pedestrian-friendly paths, passing the Stronghold Synagogue before rejoining Victory Square on the other side of the Opera House.
And after that very fulfilling 20 minutes, we began to wonder aloud what we were going to do with the other 27 days of our stay.
Okay, so Timisoara’s sightseeing core is small. It could easily be done in a day. But as digital nomads, our best stays aren’t dictated by numbers of attractions, but by quality of life. And on that front, the City of Parks excels. Timisoara has more than a dozen, any one of which would be the envy of most similar-sized cities. We saw incredible (free!) theater in Roses Park. Turns out, you don’t need to speak a lick of Romanian to enjoy Fiddler on the Roof! The Communist Consumers Museum offered an irresistible peek behind the (iron) curtain at the Romanian way of life before the 1989 revolution. In some ways, the city with the first electric street lights in Europe looks like its best days are behind it. But Timisoara never felt sad or desperate. On the contrary, it feels like a city comfortable with itself, inviting, and poised for an upswing. And anyway, no matter your station in life, a walk along the Bega River is always a relaxing and entertaining way to spend a sunny day.
Across town, the Banat Village Museum was the perfect excuse to spend a lovely afternoon outdoors. This open-air museum, like the one in Bucharest↗, has a collection of traditional buildings from across the Romanian countryside. Some of the farmsteads support real animals while grape vines wander over the structures. The homes are filled with cool family heirlooms and era-appropriate furnishings (seeing how they maximized space by transforming the bedroom into a living room was especially interesting). During our visit, caretakers re-thatched a roof with bundles of thick yellow straw. Some of the dwellings were quite homey, but we’re glad we live in the age of wood and tile floors instead of packed dirt. The Timisoara Zoo is just across the street and makes for a convenient double-feature. Their collection is small, focusing on relatable critters like farm animals, some trash pandas, and – the crowning exhibit – a family of European brown bears. At least the tickets (less than $1 US) didn’t break the bank.
Though a bit of a hassle to get to from Timisoara, Hunedoara‘s Corvin Castle is the must-see attraction in this part of Romania. Huge, Transylvanian spires on imposing towers, menacing gargoyles, and just the right amount of kitsch make this an absolutely classic castle. The best feature has to be the impressive defensive moat and wooden bridge. We wandered the halls and uh, other kind of halls as long as we could, especially the tower where the floors have long-since rotted away and left a series of ghostly doors to nowhere hanging around. Corvin Castle easily earned a place in our hearts as one of the world’s best castles (according to us)↗.
Food & Drink
Our main grocery stops this month were the local Kaufland and Lidl, though we much preferred the market at Piața Iosefin. This tri-level bazaar was packed with summer produce, fresh-baked bread and just-picked vegetables, and the best selection of eggs and meat. For the most part, the prices were cheaper than the chain stores and the quality was better. Prepackaged foods were often light on the “good stuff.” Lidl meanwhile offered the rare opportunity for affordable duck. The regional specialty mici were again on the menu as well, sold everywhere and just about as good as their Balkan neighbors’ ćevapčići.
Even though we did most of our cooking at home, there were plenty of decent choices for eating out. Pizza
Hut Hot filled us up in Hunedoara, and Timisoara had plenty of gelaterias and patiserii (pastry shops) for satisfying snacks on the go. The free theater performances were serviced by an array of food trucks. Our favorite find was deep-fried dough balls slathered in chocolate sauces. Too rich to have more than once, but too good to miss.
Our expectations were low when it came to Romanian beer and wine after Bucharest. But in Timisoara, we came prepared to seek out the good stuff, and our efforts were rewarded.
Our first two stops were Vinoteca Tohani (where we got most of our wine) and Viniloteca, an incredible record shop / craft beer establishment. Their home label, Bereta, was excellent. But they were equally happy to recommend other local producers like Amistad and Hop Hooligans. Grocery stores still sold cheap beer by the jug of course, but at least this time we had options.
The Wine Guy and Bibliotheka helped us expand our palette beyond the syrupy sweet. Sec and demisec Merlot, Pinot Noir, and especially Feteasca Negra (a local specialty) challenged what we though we knew about Romanian wine. And Reciproc Café, right across the street from Parcul Botanic, became our favorite spot to stop for a drink in the Old Town. Their packed menu featured local wines and beers from everywhere – town microbrews to regional favorites to German imports. We could even bring some goodies home to add to our collection.
Uber↗ is available in Timisoara, but we didn’t utilize it during our stay. On the night we arrived at the airport, we simply couldn’t book a single car though the app. We waited and tried for the better part of an hour before giving up and hopping on the E4b bus instead. Most buses from Traian Vuia end at the city center, but those with the “b” designation continue on to Timisoara Nord train station. We didn’t have any lei when we arrived and, temporarily sans debit cards as we waited on replacements, couldn’t get any from the airport ATMs. But luckily one machine had a built-in automated currency exchange; we swapped a couple euros and were on our way. For the equivalent of $0.65 US, we were dropped just 10 minutes’ walk from our apartment.
The city buses and trams were great for getting around and essential for visiting the Village Museum. Tickets are sold at almost any kiosk and cost 2 lei apiece (around $0.50 US).
We also had our first experience with BlaBlaCar this month. Wanting to see Corvin Castle but not wanting to spend ~4 hours each way on an intercity bus, we instead tried out the one ride-sharing app that actually is about sharing rides. Someone else’s business meeting in Hunedoara was our ticket to a cheap carpool round-trip. Unlike Uber, we had to pay cash in person instead of over the air, but it was still the best choice for our needs and a great way to meet a local and learn a bit more about life here.
Stuff of interest
This month’s SIMs↗ came from Vodafone. A chip with a whopping 39 gigs of data and some call and text credit cost under $10 US.
In 2021, Timisoara will be the European Capital of Culture. The city already has signs looking forward to this date, which may be one of the driving factors for the city’s remodel and abundance of art.
There are lots of quality secondhand shops selling good used clothes. Going on the right day can net big discounts in addition to the already low prices. We stocked up on long sleeves for the upcoming winter.
Before our drive to Hunedoara, we have practically never seen a new church under construction. Especially in Europe. There are so many already; they really need more?! But many houses of worship were undeniably pretty, at least.
For whatever reason, Timisoara seemed to have the kindest and most positive graffiti around. Okay, yes, still slightly unsightly, but at least the messages tended toward wholesome. Even the stickers slapped up on the backs of street signs were more orderly than usual.
What we learned
We really enjoyed our second visit to Romania. This wasn’t the biggest or flashiest place we stayed, but it was thoroughly livable. There was a real community vibe that set it apart. Like no matter what happens, Timișoreans are going to be okay.