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.
One of the Banat’s oldest towns, ARAD has fewer sights than Oradea or Timişoara, and lacks their vibrancy. However, it can showcase an impressive number of Habsburg-era buildings as well as an eighteenth-century citadel, while its position on the road and rail routes between these two cities, and from Transylvania into Hungary, makes it a convenient place to stop off for an afternoon. It’s also a good base from which to strike out towards villages in the foothills of the Apuseni mountains.
In summer, most townsfolk head across the river by the new footbridge to the park (daily 8am–5pm; May–Sept €1; Oct–April free), which is rammed with swimming pools (May–Sept Mon 1–10pm, Tues–Sun 8am–10pm), cafés, bars and open-air discos. The city festival is the Zilele Aradului (Arad Days), spanning the second half of August.
From Arad, it’s possible to reach a number of villages noted for their festivals. The formerly Schwab village of Sântana, 7km east of the Arad–Oradea highway (30min by train from Arad towards Oradea or Brad, then a 15min walk), hosts the Sărbătoarea Iorgovanului festival (an excuse for dancing, music and dressing up in traditional costumes), on the last Sunday of May, a Schwab Kirchweih (church fair) on August 1, and a Pumpkin Festival (Festivalul Dovleacului) at the end of October.
Another 100km east (114km from Arad), Vârfurile is on the DN76 from Oradea to Brad; just west, a minor road runs 6km north to the small village of Avram Iancu (not to be confused with the other village of the same name just over the mountains), where people from thirty mountain villages gather on the second Sunday of June for the Nedeia of Tăcaşele mountain festival. In addition to trading and socializing, this large fair is an excellent opportunity to hear musicians playing cetera (fiddles), nai (panpipes) and buciume or tulnic (alpine horns). The connection between new life and stirring lust probably underlies a good many spring festivals, including the delightfully named Kiss Fair (Târgul Sărutului) at Hălmagiu, 10km southeast of Vârfurile. Traditionally, the event enabled young people to cast around for a spouse while their elders discussed the fecundity of livestock and crops; it takes place in March, but the exact date varies from year to year so check with the tourist office in Arad first.
The road and rail routes south from Caransebeş pass through the Poarta Orientalis or Eastern Gate of Transylvania before reaching Băile Herculane and its spa at the bottom of the Cerna valley. The middle and upper reaches of the valley itself, now protected by the Domogled-Valea Cernei National Park, are much as Patrick Leigh Fermor described them in the 1930s: “a wilderness of green moss and grey creepers with ivy-clad water-mills rotting along the banks and streams tumbling through the shadows [illuminated by] shafts of lemon-coloured light”. Among the butterflies and birds that proliferate here are bright blue rollers, which the Romanians call dumbrăveancă, “one who loves oakwoods”.
BĂILE HERCULANE gets its name from the Roman legend that Hercules cured the wounds inflicted by the Hydra by bathing here, and the nine springs, with their varied mineral content and temperature (38–60ºC), are used to treat a wide range of disorders. The Roman baths were rediscovered in 1724, and royal patronage made Herkulesbad, as it was then known, one of Europe’s most fashionable watering holes. The old spa, centred on Piaţa Hercules, was still elegant when Patrick Leigh Fermor came here but is now in a terrible state of decay and only slowly being restored to its former glory. There’s far more life in the ugly but livelier satellite spa of Pecinişca, 2km towards the train station and dominated by half a dozen or so grim high-rise hotels.
Other than a wallow in the renowned baths, Băile Herculane’s chief attraction is its surroundings – soaring limestone peaks clothed in lush vegetation and riddled with caves. You can bathe in the Seven Hot Springs (Şapte Izvoare Calde) just beyond the Cerna rapids about 35 minutes’ walk upstream from Piaţa Hercules, from where a path (marked with red dots) climbs east to the Cascada Cociu (or Cascada Roşeţ), a 120m-high waterfall. Another two hours’ hiking up the Cerna valley brings you to Gisella’s Cross, from where there are magnificent views. From here, an unmarked path leads in thirty minutes to a forest of black pines, dotted with boulders, and a spectacular 300m precipice. Other paths provide access to the vaporous Steam Cave on Ciorci Hill (1hr 30min), the Outlaws’ Cave where Stone Age tribes once sheltered (30min), and Mount Domogled, which has trees and flowers of Mediterranean origin and more than 1300 varieties of butterfly (4hr).
It’s roughly 40km from Băile Herculane to the watershed of the River Cerna, on a forestry road that continues to Câmpuşel and the Jiu valley. A path marked with red stripes runs parallel along the ridge to the north to Piatra lui Iorgovan in the Retezat mountains – allow one or two days.
There are not many decent hotels in the old spa, or among the group of huge communists blocks just south, but there are numerous decent new pensions towards the station in Pecinişca, as well as signs advertising cheaper private rooms. The best restaurant is in the Ferdinand hotel, followed by the Grota Haiducilor, at Str. Romană 2 on the road to the Roman hotel; there are also two popular pizza places, the Greek Pizza Dimitrios, near the Cerna hotel at Piaţa 1 Mai 4 (t 0255 560 691) and the Restaurant-Pizza Cristal at Str. Castanilor 7 (t 0255 560 000), both offering a good range of pizzas (€2.50–3.50), as well as ciorbăs, salads and grills.
A delegate at the Assembly of Alba Iulia in 1918, Dr Petru Groza (1884–1958) was an important politician before and after World War II. With the Communist Party banned since 1924, it was he who, in 1933, founded the Ploughmen’s Front, actually a cover for the communists; as a prosperous lawyer and landowner, Groza was well camouflaged. He was imposed as prime minister in 1945 – after communist agents provocateurs had gunned down communist demonstrators to discredit the democratic parties then leading the government – and organized elections in 1946 to establish the communists in power. The people voted overwhelmingly against them but to no avail: the result was falsified, and in mid-1947 the remaining leaders of the democratic parties were arrested.
Groza sought reconciliation with Hungary and tried to moderate the nationalism of the Communist Party leader Gheorghiu-Dej; his dismissal in 1952, along with Ana Pauker’s Hungarian acolyte Vasile Luka, was a harbinger of the regime’s crackdown on Romania’s Magyar minority.
Various low massifs run south parallel to the Serbian border, all the way to the Danube, their limestone rocks opening into lovely caves and their warm climate fostering semi-Mediterranean flora and fauna; there’s also some interesting industrial heritage here.
Văliug, 23km southeast of Reşiţa, sits at the north end of Lacul Gozna, with Crivaia 6km south at the other end; both have a range of guesthouses and are starting points for excursions into the Semenic mountains. From Văliug another road climbs through beautiful beech forest to mountain-top Semenic (also reached by chairlift from Crivaia), which has chalet-style accommodation and two hotels. Skiing is possible here from November to April – pistes range from very easy to difficult.
Although the massif is lower and less rugged than others in the Carpathians, it still offers good hiking. One of the most popular trails heads west from Semenic to the Comarnic Cave and on to the Caraşului gorges (9–10hr; red cross markings). Just before the eastern entrance to the gorges, the Comarnic Cave is the Banat’s largest grotto, with a spectacular array of rock “veils” and calcite crystals distributed around its 400m of galleries on two levels. It can also be reached by taking the road from north of Caraşova to Iabalcea (3km) then hiking for 7km.
The gorges themselves are wild and muddy and harbour several more caves. If you don’t fancy hiking here from Semenic or Crivaia, the gorges can also be entered from the west (following blue triangle markings) near the Croatian-populated village of Caraşova, on the main road 16km south of Reşiţa.
The congenial city of ORADEA, capital of the Crişana, is close to the site of Biharea – the capital of the Vlach voivode, Menumorut, who resisted Hungarian claims on the region during the tenth century. Founded around a monastery, the medieval town of Nagyvarad (as the Magyars still call it) prospered during the reign of Mátyás Corvinus (raised at the Bishop’s Palace here) and later acquired a mammoth Vauban-style citadel and the wealth of charming Secession buildings (built in the decade before World War I) which are today Oradea’s most characteristic feature. The city sits astride the Crişul Repede river, north of which are the main shopping area and a couple of small museums, while to the south are the city’s most interesting buildings and the citadel. Aside from being a useful place to break a journey to or from Hungary, Oradea is just a short bus ride away from the spas at Băile Felix and Băile 1 Mai. They’re enjoyable places to spend an afternoon relaxing, and can also make a good base for visiting Oradea itself; treatments for muscular pain and rheumatic diseases (available at hotels) include healing baths in sapropelic fossil mud and dips in pools fed by the warm and slightly radioactive River Peţa.
Just 8km southeast of Oradea along the DN76, BĂILE FELIX is a compact village whose residential core is overlooked by an ugly jumble of concrete high-rise hotels. The resort centres on the attractive Parc Felix, with several warm pools in which the thermal lotus (Nymphaea lotus thermalis), otherwise found only in the Nile Delta, has survived several ice ages, along with a tiny fish and a snail; there’s also a wooden church by the market on the edge of the park. To the north at the entry to Felix, the Ştrand Apollo has a large thermal pool surrounded by mock-rustic buildings (built around 1900) plus indoor pools (from 30–33°C to 37–39°C) and also offers saunas and massages. The Lotus Therm Spa & Luxury Resort, a gleaming spa and aqua park with a five-star hotel, opened in 2015.
The much smaller and less developed spa of BĂILE 1 MAI (Ântâi Mai) is reached by a turning off the DN76 just before Băile Felix, or a 1km walk east across the fields. The aqua parks here are more modern and family-oriented than in Felix.
To reach Băile Felix, take tram #3N from Oradea’s train station or bus #12 from Piaţa Unirii to the Nufărul terminal on the city outskirts, and then minibus #511 (every 15–30min; €0.50), which makes a clockwise loop past the communist hotel blocks before returning through the centre. Bus #512 runs two or three times an hour to Băile 1 Mai.
The main rail line and the DN6 follow the River Timiş southeast from Timişoara towards Băile Herculane and Wallachia, passing through the small Habsburg towns of Lugoj and Caransebeş. Caransebeş offers easy access into the mountains, either west into the Semenic massif or east to Muntele Mic, Ţarcu, Godeanu and, ultimately, the Retezat range.
The Apuseni mountains lie predominantly in Transylvania, but their westernmost massif, the Pădurea Craului or Király-erdő, is within easy reach of Oradea. The Centre for the Sustainable Development of Protected Areas in Oradea is developing a network of eighteen show caves, open to the general public, and also of technical caves, restricted to guided groups, that will give access to magnificent karst features.
The small town of Beiuş, 55km southeast of Oradea, is the main jumping-off point for the impressive stalactite caves of Farcu, Meziad and Chişcău, while the village of Roşia, 16km north of Beiuş on a newly surfaced road to Bratca and Bucea (with buses from Beiuş on weekdays), and the modest alpine resort of Stâna de Vale, 30km east of Beiuş, are bases for hiking and mountain biking in the unspoiled Pădurea Craiului.
There are bus services (Mon–Sat 2 daily) from Beiuş via Sudrigiu to Chişcău, some 25km southeast, where in 1975 quarry workers discovered a cave containing dozens of Neolithic bear skeletons – hence its name, “Bears’ Cave” (Peştera Urşilor). It’s atmospherically lit, making the one-hour tour an unmissable experience. It starts in the Bears’ Gallery, where over one hundred bears were trapped by a rockfall fifteen thousand years ago and ended up eating each other, as the bones marked by bear teeth show. The extraordinary range of stalagmite and stalactite formations of the 488m-long upper gallery – shaped like castles, wraiths and beasts – are accompanied by the sound of water crashing into subterranean pools.
From the village of Meziad, 10km northeast of Beiuş (and reached by four buses on weekdays only), it’s a further 2.5km east to the famous Meziad cave, with its huge entrance arch. The cave was first explored in 1859, and after a road was built in the 1960s it was visited by some 25,000 people a year until its popularity was usurped by the opening of the even more spectacular cave at Chişcău in 1980. Hour-long tours start whenever enough people gather; the tour covers 1.1km of this warren, whose total length is almost 5km, the guide pointing out the stalactites and other features of chambers up to 30m wide and 20m high.