A Serb, a Romanian and a German sit together in a Catholic church listening to a priest saying the Lord's Prayer in Hungarian. What sounds like the opening line of a joke is a normal occurrence here in Timisoara, capital of the western region of Banat.
Once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Timisoara (population 315,000) is now the third-largest city in Romania. For centuries, people of different origins and faiths have lived with and alongside each other here. This diversity was the main thread running through Timisoara's bid for the title of European Capital of Culture.
Timisoara was supposed to be Capital of Culture in 2021 but was given a two-year stay because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In view of the fact that much remained to be done, it proved a long but welcome delay. Now, says Mayor Dominic Fritz proudly, the city is "on the home straight."
Ready to shine
Timisoara's chosen slogan for the year is "Shine your light!" Mayor Fritz explains: "It is meant to show that everyone — male or female — has something to contribute, regardless of their background. Everyone can shine their light for society."
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"The intention is," he continues, "that our program of culture will involve as many people as possible — not only as consumers of culture, but as participants — and allow people to experience places in the city in a new way. Timisoara's heritage will shape Europe's future, too."
Dominic Fritz is not a Romanian citizen with German roots: He's actually a German citizen from the Black Forest who fell in love with Timisoara when he first set foot here 10 years ago. Two years ago, he ran for the post of city mayor and won by a comfortable margin.
Now he intends to play an active role in the city's cultural program in 2023 and beyond: "This is not about a one-year fireworks display. We want to do things that are sustainable and have a long-term, positive impact on the city and on life," he says. "When we invest in culture, we invest in the prosperity of the local community."
Cradle of the 1989 revolution
Fritz goes on to say that Timisoara has been a European city for centuries, long before the establishment of the European Union. It was here, in December 1989, that the revolution against the country's communist leader, Nicolae Ceausescu, began.
"The people of Timisoara know what Europe and its values mean. And they know that you have to fight for freedom, and for European freedom," Fritz tells DW.
This is Europe
The city's rich diversity is reflected in its architecture. Take, for example, Timisoara's imposing National Theater and Opera House, which is home to no fewer than three national theater groups, each of which performs in a different language (Romanian, Hungarian and German). This is unique in Europe. Incidentally, it was from the balcony of this building that the city's liberation from communism was announced in 1989.
A short distance away is the German-language secondary school named after the poet Nikolaus Lenau, who was born in the region. The school is immensely proud of the fact that two of its former pupils have won Nobel Prizes: Herta Muller (Literature, 2009) and Stefan Hell (Chemistry, 2014).
Other major buildings in the vicinity include the Romanian Orthodox Cathedral, the Catholic cathedral, where masses are said in Romanian, Hungarian, German and Latin, and the Serbian Orthodox church. The large synagogue and the Lutheran church are also located in the city center. Everywhere in the city's charming streets are cozy cafes and restaurants, book shops and boutiques.
Renovation and revival
Vlad Tausance grew up in the district of Fabric. In the 18th century, Fabric was home to the region's first printing works, several mills and breweries — and many craftsmen. Tausance is head of the city's Capital of Culture communications office. He points out buildings in a wide range of styles — art nouveau, secession, historicism and eclecticism, modernism and neoclassicism — some of which have been restored with great attention to detail.
"When I was a child," says Tausance, "this was a very sleepy district. Today, a growing number of people come here to get away from the hustle and bustle of the center and in search of alternative cultural events, hip bars and vintage shops."
Bringing the culture back
On the other side of the city is the district of Iosefin, with its popular traditional marketplace. Its old puppet theater and the students' culture house will be used as locations during the year of culture. During the communist era, the district was known for its lively underground scene, which boasted some of Romania's best rock bands.
For several years now, the Prin Banat Association's Heritage of Timisoara initiative has been organizing an inventory of historical monuments and their renovation. One such a building is the old water tower, which was built in 1910 but has not been in use for 50 years. Although it is still covered in scaffolding, the intention is that it will open its doors as a cultural center in time for the city's year as Capital of Culture.
"Right now," says Simona Giura of Prin Banat, "there is no culture on offer in the district. So we came up with an extensive program of art and culture for all age groups." Sustainability is the watchword here too: "For us, 2023 is just the beginning."
Space for underground culture
Timisoara's year as a Capital of Culture will officially begin in mid-February. For Mimo Obradov, an author and music critic from the Serbian community, it promises to be a unique event. "It is also recognition of Timisoara's avant-garde role and underground culture in the last few years and decades," he tells DW.
For Obradov, it is essential to counter the constant risk of the globalization and uniformization of culture. "Timisoara's diversity has something to offer. The city and the entire region are an example of how the EU should work: as a melting pot of diverse ethnicities and communities, with different cultural influences and a coexistence that should exist all over Europe," he says with conviction.
Thirty cultural events are planned for each week of the year. The program contains a large number of highlights, including events with two Nobel laureates for literature, Orhan Pamuk and Olga Tokarczuk, German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, a concert directed by Timisoara-born conductor Cristian Macelarum, who is also artistic director of the George Enescu International Festival, and an exhibition of the works of renowned Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi.
Authors: Cristian Stefanescu, Tiberiu Stoichici
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