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Though only a quick journey from Belgrade, the Romanian city of Oradea is still far enough away to make you feel like you’re on holiday.
Think you know Romania because you’ve seen Bucharest, Timisoara and Dracula’s castle? Think again.
Those who really know the country recommend visiting the north-western city Oradea – a neglected holiday destination that has only recently begun to capitalise on its considerable charms.
Oradea is about 335 km north-east of Belgrade. The quickest route is by car. You can get there in less than six hours by taking the E671 highway, with no risk of a speeding ticket.
Alternatively you can try the train. There is no direct railway link from Belgrade, but trains depart every day for Timisoara, where you can catch frequent buses and trains for Oradea.
A comment on an internet forum about Romania aptly describes Oradea as “an open-air lesson in architecture”.
The city lies in the foothills of the Apuseni Mountains and is keen to attract more tourists. Inspired by the example of Timisoara, which has re-branded itself “Little Vienna”, the people of Oradea have begun referring to their city as “Little Paris”.
The first mentions of Oradea appear in a document dating to 1113. In its long history, the city has been passed back and forth between Hungarian, Romanian, Habsburg and Ottoman rulers.
The most recognisable influence in the city today is that of the Austrians, who modelled Oradea in the Romantic Baroque style of the Austro-Hungarian empire.
A large fire destroyed part of the centre in the 19th century. It was rebuilt by the Viennese engineer Franz Anton Hillebrandt in the Secessionist style, which was fashionable at the time.
With their decorative facades of pale pink, blue, green and white, Hillebrandt’s buildings make Oradea one of Romania’s most colourful cities.
The Communists that ruled the country for almost half a century left behind numerous buildings in the Socialist style. Yet their plain structures with simple lines seem inconspicuous amid the wealth of architectural colour and decoration from the earlier era.
Oradea straddles the Crisul Repede River, which divides the city into roughly equal halves. Along the river are several well maintained parks – ideal for a leisurely stroll.
The city has two main squares, each on opposite sides of the river - the Union Square (Piata Unirii) and King Ferdinand Square (Piata Regele Ferdinand).
The King Ferdinand Square leads visitors into a central city street and pedestrian zone - Strada Republicii (Calea Republicii). This is the main shopping thoroughfare and the perfect place for a coffee break. It is lined with cafes and bars, with the river to one side and the city’s landmarks to the other.
The street is itself something of a landmark, with dozens of Secessionist buildings that have recently been refurbished.
Oradea’s most imposing sight, its fortress (Cetatea Oradea), lies on the opposite side of a river, a few blocks from the Union Square.
In its nine-century long history, the fortress has served as a palace; a base and a prison for the Austrian military; a transit camp for prisoners of war on their way to the Soviet Union; and an office and archives for the Communist police. Today it is a tourist attraction and a venue for art exhibitions and craft fairs.
Oradea has more than 100 religious sites of various denominations, making it hard to pass a block without stopping for a photo.
Among the most impressive are the Baptist Church, the biggest of its kind in Eastern Europe. The Baroque Church of the Moon (Biserica cu Luna) is another attraction. Built in 1790, it features an astronomical clock with a half-gold, half-black sphere, maintained in perpetual motion, depicting the phases of the moon.
Opposite the Church of the Moon are the City Library and Town Hall, housed in a building originally designed for the Greek Catholic Bishop.
Another site that is a source of local pride is the Bishop’s Palace (Palatul Episcopal). The three-floor mansion with 100 fresco-adorned rooms and 365 windows, marking the days of the year, was built in honour of Maria Teresa, the 18th century Habsburg monarch.
The building was the palace of Roman Catholic bishops until 1945, when the Communist authorities turned it into the museum. Although it was returned to the Roman Catholic Church in 2003, the palace still hosts the Museum of the Crisana Region (Muzeul Tarii Crisurilor). Its 250,000 exhibits span history, ethnography and the arts – and include some fossilised remains of dinosaurs.
Oradea also has a vivid nightlife. The locals may complain that the best venues are in the city centre - but this makes them ideally situated for tourists. Take a walk down the Calea Republicii and across the bridge to Union Square, and you are sure to find bars and restaurants to your taste.
The cuisine in this part of Romania has been influenced by Austria, Germany and Hungary. Local specialties include iofca, a noodle dish with cabbage or cheese, and paprikash, a type of dumpling.
For dessert, try the pogacele, a traditional cake usually made with plum brandy, or the varga beles, a noodle pudding with cheese and raisins wrapped in pastry.
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