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Sibiu - A view from our expert author
This beautifully preserved Saxon city was named as the European Capital of Culture in 2007.
Sibiu (Nagyszeben/Hermannstadt) is one of the most visitor-friendly cities in Transylvania. The city has two levels: an ‘Upper Town’ containing most of Sibiu’s historic sites located on pedestrian streets and three easily navigated squares, and the ‘Lower Town’, a charming tangle of old houses and cobbled streets. Connecting the Upper and Lower towns are dozens of tunnels, stairways and hidden passages, emerging suddenly into sun-drenched, pastel-painted squares, which are fun to explore.
In the Old Town, the magnificent Piaţa Mare marks the heart of the city and is home to shops, cafés, museums and the impressive tourist office. Piaţa Mică has beautiful painted 17th-century houses. With more than 100 attractions in the city alone, Sibiu contains the largest concentration of tourist attractions in Romania. In 2007, Sibiu was declared European Capital of Culture with a bizarre slogan ‘Normal. Sibiu. Young since 1191’, which confused some visitors with the ‘normal’ part, somewhat damning with faint praise.
However, the emphasis on youth is an attempt to distance itself from the tired old Dracula themes and retreat into the dusty past.
To prepare for the Culture Capital year, the city started a massive regeneration and renovation project and buffed up the buildings. The people of Sibiu like to speak of the ‘old young city’, to describe the disparity between the architecture, with its medieval city walls and towers, and the city’s dynamic social life. ‘Theatre, film, photography and jazz festivals are traditional in Sibiu,’ explained Stela Matioc, programme co-ordinator for the Capital of Culture Office (www.sibiu2007.ro).
Throughout the centuries, Romanians, Germans, Hungarians and Roma have existed side by side in Sibiu and a climate of cultural tolerance has developed, from which the city deservedly earns its cosmopolitan reputation. Since Romania’s 2007 accession to the EU, Sibiu’s economy has expanded significantly with Germany the largest trading partner.
About 15,000 companies with German investment have been set up in the region, including numerous firms in the engineering sector, the textile and construction industries and the chemical and pharmaceutical sector. During 31 May–1 June 2007, European Commissioner for Multi-lingualism, Leonard Orban, visited Sibiu and said: ‘Sibiu is a splendid city, fully deserving the title of European Capital of Culture. It is a city at the vanguard of multi-culturalism and multi-lingualism in the European Union.’
A development from 1929, when Walter Starkie wrote, ‘In contrast to the gay atmosphere of Cluj, Hermannstadt is sad and mysterious.’ There’s nothing gloomy about the city these days and in spring and summer, the pavement terrace cafés are packed with students and visitors wallowing in an exciting cultural milieu.
(Photo: © Lucy Mallows)