The Banat (Bánság) is the historical term for the western marches of Romania between the Timiş and Mureş rivers, but it has also come to include the Crişana, to the north between the Apuseni massif and the Hungarian border. With its largely featureless scenery, great rivers, historical sites and intermingled ethnic groups, the Banat has much in common with its neighbours, Hungary’s Great Plain and Serbia’s Vojvodina region. The frontiers were supposedly settled according to the principle of national self-determination at the Versailles conference of 1918–20, each country’s delegates bringing reams of demographic maps and statistics to support their claims, but in truth the region’s ethnic tangle could not be unpicked. Communist policies towards minorities were comparatively fair until the 1960s, when an increasingly hard line led to a haemorrhaging of the Banat’s population, particularly of Magyars. In both 1988 and 1989, around eighty thousand left, as liberalization gained pace in Hungary but things went downhill fast in Romania. The Schwab Germans, who colonized this area when the marshes were drained after the expulsion of the Turks, have almost all emigrated to Germany since 1989. Nevertheless, many Slovaks, Serbs, Magyars and other minority groups remain.
Key attractions are the cities of Oradea, Arad and Timişoara, each of which also dominates a route between Transylvania and Hungary or Serbia, and gives access to most other places of interest in the region. Timişoara, in particular, is hugely enjoyable, and the city not to miss should you have to choose just one in the region. There are also rural temptations aplenty, such as the western ranges of the Apuseni mountains, with their stalactite caves and wooden churches, and the spas at Băile Herculane and Băile Felix; moreover, there are some terrific festivals in the smaller villages.