I’ve posted before about two UK cities of culture, Hull and Coventry, and now I’ve just been to two of the European Capitals of Culture for 2023, Veszprém and Timișoara (the third is Elefsina, once known as Eleusis, in Greece, which I don’t know much about). Timișoara, in the southwestern corner of Romania, is a city I’ve known since 1991, but I’m pretty sure I’d never been to Veszprém, southwest of Budapest.
This is one of Hungary’s oldest and most historic cities, having played a key rôle in the establishment of Christianity in the country and thus the consolidation of the state and the royal dynasty. A diocese was established here under Prince Géza, who has been converted to Christianity in 975, and in 997 his son King István (aka St Stephen) defeated a pagan uprising here, with the help of knights sent by Henry II, Duke of Bavaria, father of István’s wife Gisela. She made Veszprém her home, and it has always been known as ‘the Town of Queens’. It was largely destroyed in the sixteenth century and rebuilt after 1711, with many ugly buildings added around the old town during the communist period.
I took a very slow train (hauled by an oversized diesel shunter) from Györ (on the Vienna-Budapest main line), through the Bakony hills and forests, with hikers getting on and off, and eventually arrived at the station a couple of kilometres north of the centre of Veszprém. Having found my bed I headed for the castle area – and found it closed off, with all the buildings along Vár utca (Castle Street), leading up to it, hidden by scaffolding and plastic sheeting. This is a rocky plateau reached from the lower town through the Heroes’ Gate, fairly tastefully built in 1936 to commemorate the dead of the First World War (just before the second one broke out), next to the minaret-like Fire Tower (originally built in the thirteenth century but now largely Baroque). Vár utca winds up the hill between large Baroque buildings, some of which house art galleries, and into the square dominated by the Bishop’s Palace (Érseki Palota), a ponderous edifice (1765-76) built on the site of Gisela’s palace by Jakab Fellner, Hungary’s leading Baroque architect. At the end, beyond the Trinity Column (1750), is the cathedral, which has been destroyed and rebuilt many times, the current incarnation dating from 1907-11 – it’s in a pretty authentic Romanesque style, as far as I could see, although the interior murals are a bit bright. Gisela was beatified in 1911, and one of her forearm bones is preserved as a relic in a shrine by the altar.
The cathedral, and the Trinity Column, seem, externally at least, to be in fine condition. The city’s Capital Culture brochure and website feature lovely pictures of this area, so it seems a bit odd that this is all happening now, with no prospect of being ready by Easter and maybe not even by the summer. Maybe the government was persuaded to hand over a large sum of money and they just went crazy?
Veszprém’s biggest event doesn’t actually require much in the way of infrastructure, refurbished or not – the Street Music Festival takes over the streets every summer, and will be bigger and more international than ever this year. Oddly, Veszprém is already a UNESCO City of Music, although it’s hard to see why – it wasn’t home to the Beatles, or reggae, or flamenco, like other Cities of Music, just the Street Music Festival and a certain Auer Lipót (aka Leopold von Auer, 1845-1930), a violinist, conductor and composer that I had never heard of.
Some exhibits are very very niche – the Tegularium, in the basement of the Dubniczay Palace, is a display of bricks (and of information on brickmaking, to be fair), and the Vass Shoe Gallery commemorates the world-famous shoe brand of László Vass, which, again, I had never heard of, as well as housing Lászlo’s collection of modern art, above all Hungarian abstractionists. The former jail, on the west side of the castle, is now a museum, and probably quite a decent one – there will ‘soon’ be lift access from the Ruttner House (Ruttner ház) down on Jókai Mór utca. The ActiCity cultural centre and events space will open ‘in the spring’ in the old children’s hospital on Hovirag utca, south of the centre.
Otherwise, my sense of Veszprém was that it’s really a bit small for the job of Capital of Culture (yes, it covers the Lake Balaton area too, but Veszprém is its heart) – for instance, the old town restaurants were overwhelmed already (by 6pm on the first Saturday in March). And most of the signage that I saw was only in Hungarian, when English and German will be more important for international visitors.
Anyway, the Veszprém Street Music Festival will take place from 7 to 16 July, overlapping with VeszprémFest (12 to 16 July), with international pop and jazz artists such as Norah Jones. From 13 to 22 August there’s Rose, Riesling and Jazz Days, with food, wine and music in the main square, and from 28 September to 1 October the Balaton Wine & Gourmet Festival, launched last year, brings free wine tastings, dinners with Michelin-starred chefs, demonstrations and workshops.
Meanwhile, Timișoara is a bigger, better organised city and seems to be more prepared for its latest year in the spotlight – of course, the revolution against the Ceaușescu regime started here, and Timișoara has enjoyed its fame since then, while also developing as a business and education centre, benefitting from its position near Hungary, Serbia, Slovenia and even Italy. It’s full of students and has a lively grungey bar scene.
The Timișoara Art Museum is large and excellent even in normal times, but it’s pulling out the stops this year. For me the undoubted highlight is the biggest exhibition of the sculptures of Constantin Brâncuși for the last fifty years, but this won’t open until 30 September (running until 28 January 2024). To keep us going for the time being there’s a show of the surrealist painter Victor Brauner, from 17 February to 28 May.
There’s also an active theatre scene here, with the German and Hungarian State Theatres both working with simultaneous translation (with surtitles or earphones, into Romanian and sometimes English), to show that language can be not an impediment but a unifying force. On the musical side, too, there’s plenty going on, notably the Timişoara Muzicală Festival (classical concerts and opera), JazzTM (jazz) and the Plai (world music).
By chance I looked at the Romanian edition of the Riveter literary magazine, published in September 2020, and found that it focussed specifically on Timișoara, and that a remarkable number of the leading Romanian writers are associated with the city, such as Ana Blandiana, Herta Müller and Mircea Cartarescu.
Also noticed in Romania
In Britain this winter everyone (well, almost) has been wearing bessiments (hats, gloves, scarves etc) in exactly the right tone of mustard yellow, whereas in Romania people are wearing down jackets and so on in slightly off versions of the same yellow – prototypes that didn’t make it in the crucible of the marketplace, or just poor copies?