The engaging city of TIMIŞOARA has long been the most prosperous and advanced of the Banat’s cities, claiming to be the first place in Romania to have a public water supply, the first in Europe to have electric streetlighting and one of the first in the world to have horse-drawn trams. It still boasts Romania’s premier technical university.
Timişoara grew up around a Magyar fortress in the marshes between the Timiş and Bega rivers, and in 1315, Charles Robert of Anjou, king of Hungary, established the capital of the Banat here; it played a crucial role during the 1514 uprising and Hunyadi’s campaigns against the Turks, who occupied the city from 1552 until 1716. The Habsburgs who ejected them proved relatively benign masters over the next two centuries, when Temeschwar, as they called it, acquired many of its current features. The draining of the marshes created the Bega Canal, which now separates the old town from the newer quarters to the south. These days, Timişoara is best known as the birthplace of the 1989 revolution, and still sees itself as the true guardian of the revolution’s spirit, swiftly hijacked by the neo-communists of Bucharest.
Close to the borders with Serbia and Hungary, and with flights from all over Europe and Romania, Timişoara is also a major transport hub. The city’s sights are clustered around the two large main squares, Piaţa Victoriei and Piaţa Unirii.
Despite doubts about the authenticity of the events of December 1989 in Bucharest, Timişoara’s popular uprising is still regarded as the catalyst of the revolution. The spark was lit just southwest of the centre, when crowds gathered to prevent the internal exile of the Reformat pastor László Tökés.
Tökés came from a distinguished dynasty of Reformed (Calvinist) churchmen in Cluj. Born in 1952, he followed his father into the priesthood, but was soon in trouble for teaching Hungarian culture and history to his parishioners in Dej; after two years without a job, he was posted to Timişoara in 1986. Here, he became increasingly outspoken in his criticism of the government and the church authorities, while stressing that he spoke not only for Hungarians but also for the equally oppressed Romanians. In particular, he protested against the systematization programme, denouncing it on Hungarian television in July 1989. This led to an increasingly vicious campaign against him by the Securitate, who spread slanderous rumours about him, smashed his windows and harassed his family and friends, culminating in the murder in September 1989 of one of the church elders.
László Papp, Bishop of Oradea, a government placeman, agreed that he should be transferred to the tiny village of Mineu, north of Zalău, but he refused to leave his parish and resisted legal moves to evict him. Being officially deemed unemployed, he lost his ration book, but his parishioners brought him food despite continuing harassment. Eventually, he was removed to Mineu on December 17, and stayed there until the 22nd; the fact that it took so long for a police state to shift him, and that the eviction was so clearly signalled and then delayed for a day or two, is cited as evidence that plotters against Ceauşescu were deliberately trying to incite an uprising. After Tökés’s removal, riots erupted on the streets of Timişoara, culminating in Ceauşescu’s ordering the army to open fire, and eventually his overthrow.
The new National Salvation Front (FSN) tried to co-opt Tökés onto its council, along with other dissidents, but he soon asserted his independence; appropriately, in 1990 he took over the job of Bishop Papp, who fled to France. Romanian nationalists have accused him of being an agent of the Hungarian government and of the CIA, and he continues to be a hardliner, pushing for autonomy for the Magyar-dominated areas. Having cofounded the National Council of Transylvanian Hungarians, he was elected to the European Parliament in 2007, serving as vice-president in 2010–12.
The city stages several terrific festivals, and there’s plenty going on over the summer; in early May there’s the Timişoara Muzicală Festival (w timisoaramuzicala.ro), a series of classical concerts and opera at the Opera House, followed by JazzTM (w jazztm.ro) the first weekend of July. The Plai world music festival (w plai.ro), held at the Village Museum in mid-September, attracts some of the best performers from around the globe.