Once Upon A Time In Oradea

By Helen Lumb

‘Oradea?’ My neighbour, Vlad, frowns. ‘De ce? What are you going to do there?’ I was beginning to wonder if I’d booked the equivalent of a long weekend in Swindon. Eventually he conceded that Oradea was ‘cochet’ – stylish.

It’s best to enter into most things with low expectations –  this, I’ve decided, is the secret to avoiding disappointment. The Oscar-winning film, the chart-topping novel, the number one single – so often they end up being good, but not great. And sometimes, not even good. I board the plane with plenty of books downloaded onto my Kindle. 

Oradea is in Bihor County, north-western Romania, 15 km from the border with Hungary. Romanian is the official language but almost everything here, from street signs to menus to bus timetables, is written in both Romanian and Hungarian. 

The Hungarian name for Oradea is Nagyvárad, which translates into English as ‘Great Castle’…….

 ‘……Once upon a time, there was a beautiful little city, guarded by a great castle. A sparkling river flowed through its centre, trees lined the grassy embankment and the sound of church bells rang gaily in the crisp, morning air. Buildings in shades of pale blue, pink and ochre rose skywards, their ornate facades having graced the wide city squares for over a hundred years.’

Within the city centre itself, almost every single building is an architectural Art Nouveau beauty. It’s a city of copper-topped spires and round leaded windows, doors-within-doors, curling, wrought-iron balconies and splendidly intricate plasterwork with sinuous, curving flowers and twisting vine tendrils. A lot of money has been spent on renovation, including the addition of an international airport terminal serving western Europe, and the transformation is still ongoing; but it’s already a triumph. With only 200,000 inhabitants, it’s true that Oradea is a relatively small city – but to someone who grew up 20 km from the nearest school, it’s a mini metropolis. 

Once you’ve finished marvelling and exclaiming and taking photographs of gorgeous buildings, head over to the citadel and visit the well-curated museum – there’s something here for everyone, my favourite being the Gheorghe Șerban Japanese wood-block print collection.

Also not to be missed is Darvas-La Roche House – its metallic, studded front door hints at the glamour to be discovered within. The house, built in 1912, was designed by brothers, József and László Vágó. Each room has been arranged with artifacts and furniture of the period; apart from the children’s room, which is empty. Instead, an animated sound and light show transports you into a world of dreams and fantasy – and night-time terrors.

Eating out in Oradea is another pleasure. ‘Via 29’ is an informal and cosy ‘Italian’ restaurant serving good pork ribs; ‘To Chefs’ (yes, you read that correctly ‘To Chefs’) produced a ‘ceafa de porc’ like no other – the fine hunk of meat having been roasted, not fried; ‘Spoon’ perches on the riverside and makes the perfect spot for lunch; ‘Meridian Zero’ is located within the citadel itself and is an up-market yet inexpensive restaurant with excellent service. Topping them all, ‘Allegria’ – located right in the city centre – the ‘mangalita’ will have you dribbling into your Hugo. Unless of course, you’re vegetarian.  Or teetotal. 

When I arrive back in Bucharest, Vlad is leaning on our garden gate, smoking a cigarette. 

‘So?’ he says, grinning, ‘How was it?’  I know what he’s thinking. 

How can I explain, in my broken Romanian, that sometimes it’s just perfect, to not do anything very much at all.

Helen Lumb is the owner of Park Lane English. She stayed at the Astoria Grand Hotel, Oradea.

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