So, what do two miscreants do when they have to leave their car in Budapest for yet another transmission rebuild? Why, they hop the (1980’s NYC-subway-style-graffitied, as opposed to 1880’s coal-driven-steam-powered) train to see Oradea, that’s what! Oradea? Is she hot? Well, it’s not a she… it’s a Romanian city minutes from the Hungarian border, and a fine place to spend a couple of relaxing days milling about a town of 200,000 souls. Find yourself a place to stay near (or in) Ferdinand Square, and contemplate where you’ll source an automatic transmission should everything go to pot (and it will, but you’ve already read that part of the adventure).
We would conclude that there are uglier places to get stuck.
One of the things that quickly becomes apparent when you’re in Romania as opposed to Hungary is how oddly easy it becomes to find English speakers. Most young people and a surprising amount of older ladies and gents make your prior touristic sign language education all but unnecessary. This was odd, coming from a huge city like Budapest, where you’d expect the local populace to be more educated in the language of international trade. But in sheer percentage of English speakers, the Romanians do have the Hungarians beat!
Fact check: a survey conducted in 2012 found that nearly 1 out of 3 Romanians spoke English, whereas only 1 out of 5 Hungarians did the same.
A bit on history
Can you spot the name of the town on the clock-tower mechanism above? Oradea is an old city, inhabited since 2,200 BC (that’s the Bronze Age for you history-class slackers). Over its life, the city has held various names, which changed depending on who administered the region: Varadinum (Latin), Grosswardein (German), Nagy-Várad (Hungarian), and Oradea (Romanian). It has, to our knowledge, been called neither Istanbul nor Constantinople (much less Byzantium), though it did spend quite a few years under Ottoman occupation. And really, why not? It’s lovely! I would have wanted it if I were a sultan.
This fine bronze fellow we see above, being disrespected by pigeons, is none other than Mihai Viteazul, prince of Wallachia, Transylvania, and Moldavia, or Michael the Brave, as he would have been known to someone from Indiana. He might not have been as much of a badass as Matei Corvin (whom we’ll get to at a later date), but he was no slouch, taking on significantly larger Ottoman forces and winning by trickery and strategery, much like another famous Transylvanian who became more famous for being played by Gary Oldman. But we digress.
In with the old
The city is bisected by the Crisul Repede River – with Union Square and King Ferdinand Square on opposite sides. Republicii Street, the main pedestrian shopping and dining plaza which exhibits beautiful Secession, neoclassical, and baroque buildings, was undergoing restoration when we visited. And that’s a good thing. We love to see cities taking proactive steps to maintain their beauty as opposed to letting things disintegrate to the point of irreparability. Good work, Oradea!
Seen here is the crumbling baroque facade of the Spitalul Ordinului Mizericordienilor (easy for you to say). Apparently, you can get your rash cleared up here. (Note: further research indicates that it’s only an opthamological and auditory hospital, so rashes may be cleared up… just not the kind that you have.) You can see the renovation work on the exterior, with netting draped over the facade to prevent pigeons picking at the delicious, delicious plasterwork. Or maybe the order of monks which run this establishment would like to keep bricks from smashing tourists in the head. No matter. It’s getting fixed. Next time we’re back, we’ll show you the updated version.
Wandering the town
Begin art-history nerd sentence…. NOW!==> As part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the early 20th century, the city’s architecture was influenced by the Vienna Secession movement, which was created by a group of artists who rebelled against the traditional art of Historicism by creating a new progressive style emphasizing modernist ideas, thus paving the way for Modernism and Art Deco (we bet you feel smarter just reading that.) Their motto is: “To the Age, its Art – to Art, it’s Freedom.” This architectural style is linked to Art Nouveau and is mainly characterized by the interplay of undulating lines, elegant floral patterns or leaf work, and a form of decoration called whiplash or eel style (both of which were developed by Bruce Lee to deal with an uppity Chuck Norris back in the early 70’s.)
Oradea also boasts a very cool renaissance era “star” fortress… the first we had run into on this trip. Originally built in the 11th century as a fortified monastery, and receiving upgrades and exchanging hands through battle and treaty throughout its life over the next 700 years, it was, unfortunately, closed for renovations when we visited the city, and would remain shut for most of the 2014, so we’ll have to return in the future to get a better look. We did draw up plans to storm the fortress at night, but our Turkish allies pulled out at the last moment, causing up to abandon our siege for another time.
Instead, that evening, we concentrated on locating what turned out to be highly forgettable food. Romania, it would appear, is not the country to visit should you wish to be spoiled for choice of fine dining. You can certainly eat cheap, and the food isn’t terrible, but it’s just not as good as what we’d been having further west. But hey, if you’re in the mood for a little Bizarre Foods, Romanian Edition, make sure to ask for the ‘creier prajit‘ and the ‘ciorba de burta’, but only if you’re not up for the ‘pipote de pui’. You’ll thank us later.
Instead, the true draw of this city lies in its architecture. While much of the city outside of the center consists of functional, lackluster apartment blocks which look like they were dreamed up by a real ‘party’ character (communist party, not bachelor party), the buildings at its heart are positively fabulous! An easy walk through the middle of town yields plenty of architectural eye candy for your review, such as:
Now this building (above and left), known as the Palatul Vulturul Negru, or Black Eagle Palace, is fabulous. Look at it! A large glass-enclosed courtyard (above), makes you pray a rogue earthquake doesn’t break out while a magnificent Vienna Succession exterior adds not one, but two large timepieces to the architectural splendor of the city.
Top Down Ella counts the Black Eagle Palace as her top #1 super duper awesome favorite building in Oradea. Top Down Nidal would disagree, and posit that the orange and yellow and green and flowery Sztarill Palace takes that cake:
It’s curvier, flowerier, colorier, and all kinds of otheriers (just like Top Down Nidal). Don’t you think? (Depending on who makes the final edit to this article, one or the other of your humble correspondents will be declared correct.)
But really, what makes this city great is the way that the buildings come together. Individually, one could argue that each building is a bit much. But together, the lines and colors blend into a striking, harmonious whole that just wants to make you move in! But you should really try the bars first (we recommend one in an old neoclassical palace, as seen below and to the right). Sadly, we didn’t go, so try them for yourself before signing that lease.
Oh, and try the theatre. Maybe catch some Opera. Or a concert. Again, we didn’t, though we did pass by the State Theatre, pictured below. Is that good enough for a review? Probably not. But it did give us a lovely view of the neoclassical structure, designed by the same architects as the Vienna Opera House, and helps make this part of town look great. Our opinion may have had something to do with the lovely weather, and clear blue skies, which is quite commonly present in this part of Romania, but do check with your local weather forecaster to be sure.
The State Theatre, or Teatrul de Stat, for you Romanian speaking types
We’d tell you to visit the Synagogue. Though we’re pretty sure it’s been closed for ages, on account of that nasty business known as World War 2, where the locals decided to save their own skins… but let’s not get too far into the unpleasantries of European history, shall we?
Neolog Zion Synagogue, survivor of WW2 and Communism
On a positive note, the synagogue had recently undergone some renovations to the exterior and is in the process of receiving renovations to the interior with the intention of being used once again for religious and/or community events and exhibitions.
Put it all together and what do you get? The following view. Absolutely gorgeous. And easy enough to walk through in a lazy day. Just make sure to pick a day with good weather, or you’ll be running indoors to grab a sandwich in a café filled with smoke. (Yes, this is Romania, one of only two countries we’ve encountered thus far where smoking indoors is still the order of the day. But don’t worry: you’re in the non-smoking section. The smoking section is wayyyyyyyy over there (one table away in a two table restaurant).
And, of course, there are modern touches to this old-timey part of town. Quite a few statues of famous Romanians (or, more accurately, statues of those famous TO Romanians) dot the plazas and squares. Feel free to interact. Not sure if it’s really appropriate or not, since we’re always fuming at people touching the art. But these are left out in the elements, so, really, how bad can it be?
And for another modern bit of fun, let’s play Where’s Waldo, except instead of Waldo, we’re going to have you pick out the establishment you’d most likely shop at based on the first sign which draws your eye. Annnnnnnnnnnnd GO:
Yeah, you picked it, didn’t you? Perv! Just to be clear, stay away from our cat.
But is there a bell tower?
Of course there’s a bell tower! A: this is Europe. B: there’s a historic center. Therefore C: there are many bell towers! Climb at least one. We recommend the one at the Municipal Hall, since climbing it doesn’t involve clubbing a priest (orthodox or catholic) in the back of the head and stealing his keys. We forget how many stairs there were in all, but we’ll just say that it’s not exactly wheelchair friendly. What we do remember is that the views on a clear day were stunning, and not to be missed. As a matter of fact, head there first, so you can get an understanding of the layout of the old town streets you’re about to navigate.
The tower you want to climb is the one on the right. Don’t swim there; that water is cold! We’d recommend the bridge. And after making it up steps and steps and steps, past clockwork mechanisms, and a pittance of an entry fee, you’ll be rewarded with sights such as this. Think of it as a workout with a view:
Stairmaster never looked this good.
But are there cool churches?
Well duh! This far east, you’ll start seeing more and more orthodox churches. If you haven’t been to any of these, you’ll notice quite the penchant for covering every square inch of wall space in icons, woodwork, mosaics, paintings, and, when all else fails, gold! Bare wall space? Leave that to the Lutherans.
You’ll find no Lutheran hiding in here! Church of the Moon (Biserica cu Luna)
While there, make sure to get married. Or, at the very least, crash a wedding. We crashed two. Romanians don’t mind. The more, the louder, the merrier, the greater! Seriously, when it comes to celebratory events, Romanians party harder than anyone, fueled by plum liquor which will grow hair on an alopecia sufferer’s head and music which can only be described as the oboe and accordion crack polka.
But seriously, stick around until after the ceremony and watch the party break out in the street, where musicians and dancers and large women in zebra-print dresses make sure everyone has a merry, festive time!
How to get there
As we mentioned earlier, this is a great town to spend a couple of laid back lazy days exploring some fantastic architecture and getting a taste of local culture and life. The city harbors a fair amount of amenities for transiting travelers and regional tourists, but it’s not built up for what we would call transcontinental tourists; you wouldn’t fly from Chicago to visit Oradea. Yet if you’re in Budapest for a couple of weeks, and feel like going for a long drive, you could do worse than come down for a day or two to experience a different language, novel architecture, and a laid back smaller town with enough eye candy to interested architectural nerds (such as ourselves).
But this article isn’t only about Oradea. It’s about the hundreds and hundreds of Oradeas throughout Europe. Cities and towns big and small, like Lille and Stenay, which aren’t world famous tourist destinations. They aren’t the Romes and Amsterdams and Londons of the world. But they do make up the fabric that weaves the continent together. These cities are where Europeans live, unbothered by Bruge’s hordes of tourists, unimpressed by Budapest’s incredible sprawl. They’re not for everyone, and in our opinion, they shouldn’t be, as that would ruin them. What they are is fabulous, unmolested capsules of culture, much more representative of local life than tourist Meccas polished over hundreds of years to separate distant, naïve travelers from their money. Visit them while you can, before McDonald’s and Starbuck’s and H&M take over. You won’t regret it.
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Until next time, when we poke some fun at some angry Italians (In Milan, that statement would be quite redundant), keep your Tops Down and your spirits up!