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Timișoara is often considered the unofficial capital of the historic Romanian province of Banat. According to the latest census (2021), it is one of the most populous cities in the country (319 500 inhabitants), with almost half a million people living in its urban area, and the second largest functional urban region after the capital, Bucharest. Meanwhile, Timișoara attracts about 8,000 new residents every year. Timișoara is a multicultural city, home to 21 ethnic groups and 18 religions. Interculturality has long been a special feature of the city.

Timișoara is located in the northern hemisphere, at the intersection of the 45th parallel north and the 21st meridian east, almost equidistant from the North Pole and the equator. Timișoara is located near two rivers: Timiș and Bega, which made the land swampy and frequently flooded. The name of the city comes from one of these two rivers. Timișoara developed on its banks, where the land was fertile and provided favourable conditions for food and human subsistence since 4000 BC. The first verifiable inhabitants of the Banat were the Dacians. Some historians believe that the present location of the town corresponds to the ancient Dacian settlement of Zurobara. After the Roman conquest, the settlement grew around the Castrum Regium Themes, an ancient Roman crossroads fortress, with a population consisting mainly of farmers, hunters and craftsmen.

First officially mentioned in 1212, Timisoara was destroyed by the Tartars in the 13th century, but the city was rebuilt and grew considerably during the reign of Charles I of Hungary, who financed the reinforcement of the fortress. He later also commissioned a new royal palace, built by Italian craftsmen, which housed the royal court between 1316 and 1323. Due to its strategic location, which allowed control over the Banat plain, Timișoara’s importance grew considerably. In the middle of the 14th century, the city was therefore at the forefront of the struggle of the Western Christians against the Ottomans. In 1394, the Turks led by Sultan Bayezid passed by it on their way to Wallachia, where they were defeated by Mircea the Elder at Rovine. Years later, Timișoara served as a rendezvous point for the Christian armies before the Battle of Nicopolis.

The Battle of Nicopolis, as depicted by Turkish miniaturist Nakkaş Osman in the Hünername, 1584–88 © Wikicommons

When the Christians were defeated, the Ottomans laid waste to Timișoara. The city remained under Ottoman rule for 164 years and enjoyed a special status similar to other cities in the region, such as Budapest or Belgrade. During this time, a large Islamic community lived in Timișoara. At the end of the 17th century, there was an anti-Ottoman uprising in the Banat. In 1716, the Austrian army decided to conquer Timișoara. The Turkish civilian population was forced to leave the city after a 48-day siege and repeated bombardments that destroyed many buildings in the city. Timisoara came under Habsburg influence and later under Austro-Hungarian rule. After the conquest of the Banat, the imperial rulers in Vienna began an extensive colonisation process, during which a large number of German Catholics settled in the city. The newcomers developed crafts in the region, the entire fortress of Timisoara was rebuilt and the Bega River was regulated, creating a navigable canal. An extensive modernisation process began, with new large boulevards and beautiful architectural quarters, and the city became a progressive and cosmopolitan place. Timișoara was the first city in the Habsburg Empire with street lighting (1760) and the first city in Europe and the second in the world, after New York, to light its streets with electricity. in 1869 Timișoara introduced public transport with horse-drawn trams, a first in Europe. The first public library in the Habsburg Empire was opened at this time and a municipal hospital was built, 24 years before the one in Vienna. The first German newspaper in Southeast Europe was also printed in Timisoara. The first chocolate manufacturer in Romania was founded in Timisoara in 1890.

Horse tram in Timisoara in 1869 © Wikicommons

Between 1880 and 1914, Timisoara was the most important industrial, commercial, financial and cultural city in the region, admired for its artistic achievements in music, literature, painting, sculpture and architecture, as well as for its technical and scientific innovations.
From 1918, Timisoara became part of modern Romania.
During the World War II Timisoara again suffered great damage from devastating bombing raids, especially in the second half of 1944. German and Hungarian troops tried to take the city by force throughout September, but fortunately without success.
After the war, Timișoara, like the rest of the country, suffered under the communist regime. However, the city developed into a highly industrialised city and the population tripled between 1948 and 1992 as people migrated to larger cities in search of a better life.

On 16 December 1989, the first anti-communist uprising in Romania began in Timisoara. On 20 December, Timisoara was declared the first city in Romania to be liberated from communism. The slogan ‘Azi in Timisoara, maine in toata tara’ (Today in Timisoara, tomorrow in the whole country) echoed through the streets, which quickly filled with demonstrators. What originally began as a protest by the people of Timisoara against the persecution of the reformed bishop Laslo Tokes developed into an uprising against a repressive system that caused the entire country to collapse and kept it trapped behind the Iron Curtain for decades after the Second World War. Innocent people, children and women died for freedom at that time. It was a bloodshed that was initially tried to be covered up and hidden from the rest of the country. As a child, I remember that the news on TV still contained the same monotonous praise of the Communist Party and its leader Ceausescu. Nothing was reported about what was going on in Timisoara. But I also remember how my grandfather, a former political prisoner in the Russian forced labour camps, secretly listened to the news on the the radio “Free Europe”, although this was completely forbidden in Romania at that time. Like him, many others learned the truth about what was happening in Timisoara. A few days later, in all the major cities and especially in Bucharest, people began to rise up against the communist dictatorship, and in the end, after many lives destroyed and buildings machine-gunned, the revolution was victorious and Romania became a free country again, ready to embark on a new path, that of democracy. But Timisoara was the spark for these events.

Two men led away at gunpoint after their car was stopped by soldiers in Timisoara on December 1989 © Fortepan

Timișoara is a thriving city today. It is one of Romania’s most important educational centres, with around 40,000 students enrolled in the city’s six universities. At the same time, it is a city with an old medical tradition, where much is being done in this field. The first in vitro fertilisation, the first laser heart surgery and the first stem cell transplant in Romania – they were all performed here. In recent years, Timișoara has also become a provider of medical tourism services, especially cosmetic surgery and dental treatment, due to its high quality and affordable prices. The city is now distinguishing itself alongside other major Romanian cities as a regional technology centre. In 2013, it had the fastest internet download speed in the world.
Timișoara, often referred to as ‘Little Vienna’, is known for its many historical monuments and its 36 parks and green spaces. The city is part of the European Route of Art Nouveau. It is also a member of Eurocities. Timisoara has six large public squares surrounded by monumental buildings.
Timișoara has an active cultural life, and this is one of the reasons why it was chosen as the European Capital of Culture 2023, along with Veszprém in Hungary and Elefsina in Greece.

Timișoara is the only city in Europe that has three state theatres in three different languages (Romanian, German and Hungarian). The three theatres and the National Opera are housed in the Palace of Culture, an architectural jewel built between 1871 and 1875 according to the plans of the Viennese architects Ferdinand Fellner and Hermann Helmer, who had also designed the City Theatre in Vienna, among others. Romanian history and popular fairy tales inspired the wall drawings. Joseph Strauss began as music director in Timisoara, where he composed and premiered the Faust Quadrille. Franz Liszt also performed in Timisoara in 1846.

Ten years after its application, Timișoara is officially the European Capital of Culture in 2023. As the European Commission mentions, the city has won ‘a vision not for one year, but for the whole city’.

Dominic Fritz, mayor of Timisoara © Primariatm.ro

The organisers and the city administration are sure that Timisoara will attract up to 1,000,000 guests this year. in naming Timisoara the European Capital of Culture for 2023, the city has set its goals with a view to the impact people have on the community in which they live. Thus, we want to become a city where cultural excellence prevails and which hosts over 30 cultural communities, including Romanians, Germans, Hungarians, Serbs, Croats, Italians, Spaniards and Bulgarians,’ said the Mayor of Timisoara, Dominic Fritz.

This cultural palette is the added value of the city, as it has favoured the emergence of public institutions that mainly serve the European citizens residing in Timişoara.

The official slogan of Timisoara as European Capital of Culture 2023 is ‘Shine your light – Light up your city! It was inaugurated along with other events in mid-February in the presence of more than 100 high-level representatives from 41 countries, including Romanian Prime Minister Nicolae Ciucă, US Ambassador to Romania Kathleen Kavalec, Adina Vălean, the EU Commissioner for Transport (who had also come to present the ‘Melina Mercouri’ prize offered by the EU Commission as a reward for the commitment taken on and appreciated by the organisers), or Katrin Goering-Eckardt, Vice-President of the Bundestag. The latter stated in a live discussion with Mayor Fritz on Instagram that Timisoara had given her the impression of an extremely hospitable city.

Piaţa Unirii, Timisoara. On the left – Serbian bishops palace, on the right – Serbian orthodox Cathedral © Wikicommons/ Voytek S

The organisers have prepared more than 130 events for the first weekend, including gallery openings, rock or electronic music concerts, theatre performances, children’s programmes, symphony concerts, guided tours, workshops and film screenings, which will be attended by almost 17 000 people. Meanwhile, the whole of 2023 will be full of cultural events in the city.

According to the European Commission, European Capital of Culture status brings important benefits. The European Capitals of Culture initiative aims to “highlight the richness and diversity of cultures in Europe, to celebrate the cultural commonalities shared by Europeans, to strengthen European citizens’ sense of belonging to a common cultural area and to promote the contribution of culture to the development of cities’. The Commission cannot directly fund cultural projects, but there is a formula to complement the events budget with €1.5 million for each of the awarded cities, coming from the Creative Europe programme, which aims to promote the contribution of culture to the development of these cities.

Moreover, history shows that the event is a perfect opportunity to revitalise these cities by raising their profile, improving their image on the international stage and stimulating tourism.

This initiative was launched in 1985 when Athens was officially declared the first European Capital of Culture. To date, more than 60 cities in the European Union and beyond have been awarded this title.

Greek actress, singer, activist, and Minister of Culture Melina Mercouri talks to the press ahead of the launch of the first European Capital of Culture in Athens, 1985 © Melina Mercouri Foundation

Culture plays an important role in our lives and in our society; we need culture to understand each other better and to strengthen the bonds between our countries. By being awarded the title, cities can strengthen their cultural activities and reach new target groups. The programme also has a social impact and promotes intercultural dialogue. Hosting the European Capital of Culture Year provides the winning cities with a great opportunity to showcase their cultural life on a much larger scale and enhance the city’s image, visibility and recognition on the international map. European Capitals of Culture have a great long-term track record in terms of growth and job creation.

The most obvious and direct economic impact is certainly the increase in the number of tourists. It is estimated that the average increase in overnight stays in a European Capital of Culture is 12%. For example, after the Belgian city of Mons was named European Capital of Culture 2015, it was found that every euro of public money invested brought between 5.5 and 6 euros to the local economy. Similarly, Marseille, European Capital of Culture 2013, experienced a huge and profound transformation due to investment projects worth more than 600 million euros, which revitalised the city for decades to come. To achieve long-term impact and benefits, municipal programmes must be fully integrated and coordinated with the development projects of these cities. There must be a unified vision and a clear strategy.

Following the European model, there are now also national initiatives such as the Italian Capitals of Culture or similar initiatives in Ireland, the UK or Lithuania. . They are extremely useful and give a boost to local development.

The Gothic Evangelical (Lutheran) Cathedral of Sibiu, Romania elected as European Capital of culture in 2007

Sibiu, another beautiful Romanian city, was chosen as European Capital of Culture in 2007, the same year Romania officially joined the European Union.
In 2016, the city of Timișoara was nominated for the title of European Capital of Culture 2021. However, the event was postponed until 2023 due to the coronavirus pandemic. Anyone can follow the city’s entire cultural programme this year on the website www.opening.timisoara2023.eu, with numerous events currently listed.
when it comes to Timișoara, people agree that the city is different. Different in the sense of open, courageous and diverse. A city that has not been afraid to swim against the tide and that, in moments of grace, has itself become a tide. A city that is not ashamed of counterculture and that has even understood that multiculturalism is not a term that only applies to ethnic groups and denominations’. (www.timisoara2023.eu)

Dominic Fritz, the city’s mayor (a German citizen who speaks impeccable Romanian), has been an active supporter of this ambitious and important project for the city. He recently participated in external campaigns to promote the event in some major European capitals: Paris, Brussels and Berlin. Together with his young and enthusiastic team, he managed in recent years to attract non-repayable European funds of more than 100 million euros for Timisoara, which helped modernise the city’s infrastructure and gave it a new European look.

Among the attractions tourists can see in Timisoara this year is a tower decorated with 1306 perennials, located in the middle of the city centre. The temporary modular construction with a height of 26 metres was designed by four architects from Barcelona together with a local team. It will serve as a vantage point. From a height of 20 metres, visitors will be able to admire Victoriei Square and its surroundings. Each level of the construction will include several cultural activities.

Famous Hollywood actors John Malkovich and Isabella Rossellini will appear in two special theatre performances in Timisoara this year.

The 2023 Art Encounter Biennial will begin on 19 May and end on 16 July. This year’s edition bears the signature of curator Adrian Notz, former artistic director of Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, and will take place at several venues in Timișoara.

Timișoara National Art Museum © Nrf

The Constantin Brâncusi exhibition ‘Romanian Sources and Universal Perspectives’, curated by Doina Lemny, will be on display at the National Art Museum of Timișoara from 30 September to 28 January 2024. The exhibition of works by the famous Romanian sculptor is one of the most anticipated events in the city’s 2023 European Capital of Culture cultural programme. Ovidiu Șandor, the commissioner for the Brâncusi exhibition, recently told Euronews: ‘Brâncusi has not been exhibited in Romania since 1970, more than 50 years ago, and I felt that this context, the Capital of Culture, is a special context in which such an exhibition, which we might enjoy once in a generation, could take place. It is a complicated exhibition, difficult to organise, because the most difficult thing is to get the loans. The various museums in the world that hold such works are very choosy about accepting loans and we are happy that in this partnership with the National Museum of Art, with the French Institute, in a project funded by the County Council, we have managed to convince museums such as the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the Tate Modern in London, the Guggenheim Collection in Venice’.

Timișoara will also benefit from this year’s cultural title in the longer term. The city’s citizens will continue to use the five cinema halls specially set up for this cultural year, the MultipleXity Centre for Art, Technology and Experimentation later on. In addition, the title of European Capital of Culture offers cultural operators the opportunity to assert themselves and put themselves on the European cultural map.

Romania is a country with immense tourism potential that is still largely undiscovered and under-promoted. Timisoara now has the chance to gain more visibility, and can also serve as an impulse generator for other Romanian cities. Time will tell if this great opportunity will be used wisely and efficiently.

alexandra.paucescu@europe-diplomatic.eu

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