Oradea is a city near the Romanian-Hungarian border. I visited it more or less by default, but I’m delighted I did. The city centre is a delightful place of secession architecture, beautiful churches, and pedestrianized streets. These are the top things to do in Oradea in a day.
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As I mentioned we visited by default. We were staying in Nyiregyhaza in Hungary, and I fancied a day road trip into Romania. My first choice was to go to Cluj-Napoca or Bran Castle, but my initial thought of “it doesn’t seem so far” was replaced by the reality offered by Google Maps. Five hours each way is not my idea of a day trip. I constricted my scope and after checking Arad and Timisora, my pin landed on Oradea. A quick look at photos and I knew I had found my destination. I was also aware that my rental company limits the daily amount of kilometres which can be driven, when a border is crossed.
Travelling to Oradea
I had originally planned this as a birthday trip, escapism is my idea of celebrating one. That didn’t pan out, so we went another day. We rose early, stocked up our tummies before the trip and made a beeline for the Romanian border. This was to be the first time that I would drive across a physical border, the Irish border not being visible at the moment (as anyone following Brexit will be familiar with). It took all of two minutes for me to realise I had made an error of calculation. We would arrive in Romania an hour later than I expected. I was perplexed till I learned Romania was in a different timezone to Hungary. Who would have known. Ok perhaps a little more research next time. Thankfully I hadn’t gone to Cluj, that would have been a short visit.
With my “careful” planning shattered, we sluggishly made our way through the less than perfect roads to Debrecen in Hungary, followed by the rather unpronounceable Berettyoujfalu. They rival Icelandic volcano names in these parts. Shame but Hungarian is still a mystery to me, and I’m far from being able to speak it. As we approached the border worrying signs of a four-hour delay for trucks flashed overhead. How would that impact us?
Closer still police diverted us from our expected route, and threw Google Maps off. This wasn’t going to plan so far. So we winged it into the unknown. On our return trip I realised I was grateful for the diversion, as somewhere between 500-1000 trucks were stopped waiting to cross to Romania. That is one queue I wouldn’t like to have joined. We did join the road again after this queue and the change of country was seamless.
Oradea is only a short distance from the border and my first impressions of the outskirts weren’t too favourable. But gradually as we reached the centre, this impression turned full tilt. Oradea is interesting in that not only is it closer to Budapest than the Romanian capital Bucharest, it is even closer to Vienna. Formerly it was a Hungarian territory and the influences are there to be seen, in the secession architecture and the food. Some thirty percent of the population would identify as being Hungarian. The city is an affluent one by Romanian standards, and this can be felt as you walk the streets.
A little history on Oradea
Oradea was first mentioned in history around the 12th century. It took hold when King Ladislaus I of Hungary built a monastic settlement at the site of the present day Catholic Church. The city went from strength to strength as part of Hungary in the 14th and 15th century. It was then invaded, first by the Turks, then by the newly dominant Ottoman Empire, then again by the Hungarians and all the time it was contested by all of these and the state of Transylvania.
It was only when the Habsburgs finally gained control in 1692, that all started to settle and some of the buildings from the present day city were built. The secessionist architectural movement of the early 20th century is what finally shaped the city we see today, and brought with it many of my favourite buildings in the city. Both world wars impacted the city too, with the end of World War I signalling it becoming part of Romania. This was briefly interrupted by World War II as Hitler and Mussolini allowed its reunification with Hungary. This was to be short-lived however as the status quo was re-established with the Treaty of Paris in 1947.
Back to the present
So after the mishap of missing the same turn twice to get into the city, I finally found the road Hermie (we finally decided to give Google Maps a name, and yes my daughter is a huge Harry Potter fan) was going on about. The approach from there was down the Crisul Repede River and as soon as I saw Piata Ferdinand, one of the main squares I knew I was in the right place. I parked in Parcare Supraetajata, for convenience and safety and cause we had no currency to pay for on-street parking.
Our first stop was to change money and after the conversion from Forint to Leu, my usually quite mathematical brain, failed me and I stared blankly at the money, without any concept of its worth. One leu is worth about €0.21, $0.23 and about £0.19. Thankfully the internet took me out of my confused trance.
So our walk took us down Calea Republicii and past the wonderful colours of the Moskovits Palace. Built in 1905, it’s ornate bluey-green brilliance was the perfect introduction to the city. The street was a pedestrianized one lined with tables and chairs of restaurants and some very intriguing buildings.
Lunch in Oradea
We took the chance to get some lunch. The first pizzeria we stopped in we found it difficult to find a server, and when we did she said no pizzas were available for thirty minutes. Interesting how they survive but maybe that’s why the waitress was hiding. So the place next door was also a pizzeria, which was serving at the time, and we switched our allegiances. Pizzas and paninis proved perfect and the food was very fresh, and worthy of Italy. We ate at Stefy cafe, for anyone interested, but hunger meant the prerequisite photos didn’t happen on this occasion.
Top Things to do in Oradea
Returning to Piata Ferdinand square we admired the many palaces in the surrounding streets. So much intricate detail can be seen on their facades. The square is the epicentre on this side of the river and worth finding is Poinar House with its round bulb tower, which faces onto the neo-classical Regina Maria Theatre, and what is perhaps the most enchanting building in the city, the Hotel Astoria.
The hotel was built in what was the Sztarill Palace, constructed in 1902. The exterior is an inviting mix of pastel pink and yellow, and the columned tower is simply beautiful. The interior cafe was a favourite of Hungarian poet Ady Endre, and it’s here he met his muse. The building was designed and named after its architect Ferenc Sztarill, who was responsible for several of the city’s secessionist buildings.
We crossed the river to the south of the city, the weir that cuts across it adding beauty to the Town Hall beyond.
Oradea Town Hall
The Town Hall was to be next on our agenda. Whilst the town hall is visitable, and tourist information can be garnished inside, we did not visit. We did however have its Clock Tower in our sights. It was a little difficult to find the entrance, the door is quite indistinguishable. Remarkably the Clock Tower was the only sight we paid in for in all that we visited and at 5 leu, it wasn’t exactly a significant cost. The entire building is from 1902, and the tower has clocks on all four sides. Rising 50 metres, I asked how many steps to expect, and the clerk paused before unsurely uttering 250. So perhaps there are that many. But she was friendly. The tower is open Tuesday to Sunday.
There are three viewing platforms but naturally the top one is where the best views exist. And what views. Running along the river and over the square below, they are exhilarating. So worth that one Euro.
Union Square Oradea
The focal point of the city is the square Piata Unirii, or Union Square. I do love a nice open square in a city, and this one is a mix of fountains, green areas, and some splendid architecture. Leaving the City Hall, the green roofed Catholic Church stands nearby, and the undeniable beauty of the Palace of Greek Catholic Bishops on the west side. It was sadly undergoing structural work on my visit, after suffering a fire in 2018.
The west square was just as imaginative, with the Black Eagle Palace at one end. This Sztarill designed building from 1908, is a covered shopping gallery. It’s glass roof and stain glass windows are worthy of a stroll through and admiring, but all the expected shops and boutiques within seem to have vanished, leaving the area a little unexpectedly vacant.
Moon Church of Oradea
If you only do get to visit one church in Oradea then the Moon Church must be it. Properly entitled Catedrala Adormirea Maicii Domnului, this masterpiece is known as the moon church on account of the moon clock in its dome. This shows the current period of the moon, and the mechanism has a cycle of 28 days. Impressive engineering at the time. The church was opened in 1793. However it wasn’t the simple exterior that drew or impressed us. The Byzantine interior is extremely detailed and exquisite, and its iconostasis a work of art. The walls are lined with frescoes by Alexander and Arsenie Theodorovici, which were restored in the 1970s. I adore small churches like this, they have an ability to really confound you.
The city is perfect to walk through, it’s quite small and most of the attraction are accessible on foot. We ambled through 1st December Park from here, which is the ideal route for anyone looking to visit the fortress. However with time already shortening we didn’t take that advice on walking and instead turned back up along the river. Again the promenade is a relaxing escape from the city, and the way back takes you to the city’s splendid synagogue.
Roman Catholic Cathedral
We returned to our car with a brief interlude at Cyrano on Calae Republica, for some coffees and milkshakes. I know I said earlier if you only visit one church in Oradea make it the Moon Church, but if you only visit two, then the Roman Catholic Cathedral should be the second. The Cathedral is 2km outside the city, so being short on time, the car was our best option. A short spin and we were at the cathedral and there is parking directly outside.
Again I was surprised to find myself able to walk straight in, and the place was so quiet I wondered if I should even be there. But at no point did I regret being. The church was built in the Austrian Baroque style, and was consecrated in 1780. Several architects are credited with its construction. Like the Moon Church, an understated exterior belies a rich interior. Golden pillars compliment the ceiling frescoes, and the altar and organ were astounding.
The Roman Catholic Bishops Palace is also located nearby as part of the baroque complex.
Having read up on Oradea before coming, the star-shaped Oradea Fortress was billed as the top attraction, so I couldn’t leave without having seen it. The fortress in various guises is as old as the city itself, with the current fort an Italian construction in the 16th century. Oradea Fortress saw its fair share of battles down the years, and was laid siege to many times, as per my earlier written history. The fort is a large complex and you are free to roam around the exterior walls and through the buildings. It is being restored and at the time of our visit preparations were in place for Easter festivities.
The complex contains many buildings and I found it rather photogenic. The waiting room and reception hall contain frescoes of animals that have been recovered in the restoration process.
Everyone who visits Oradea seems to visit the museum inside but we somehow weren’t motivated to. Maybe destiny told us we would be better off somewhere else. One last place called me, one which had I inadvertently found while perusing maps, and yet was absent from all that I had read on the city. Why I will never know. It should be on every itinerary.
Holy Cross Monastery
The Holy Cross Monastery is some 3km outside the city. If not driving bus 17 or 16 will bring you close by. Parking is plentiful near the complex, and the whole place has an air of one not touched by tourism. Nor is it the intention, it is a living, breathing monastery where many Orthodox nuns still occupy. There are quite a number of apartments inside, for those who decide this is their vocation.
As I approached I was again unsure if this is somewhere I should be. A monk and nun fully clothed in habits stood outside, and I motioned to them if I were allowed inside. They welcomed me in the direction of the building, our basic sign language triumphing. It has amazed me to subsequently learn that it was only established in 1992. There was no information available on site and I believed it quite historical as I walked through. Entry is made through the rather beautiful entrance with its conical domes that could look at home in a castle or Disney-world. It serves as the bell tower.
This was all I had seen before of the place and it was enough to draw me there. However it was to prove that what lay inside was in fact the monastery’s true worth. On the interior of the gateway the Byzantine paintings caught my eye and already stories were being told through art.
Painted Wooden Church
And yet my mind was not expectant of what lay beyond. The monastery centrepiece is a wooden church, brought from the village of Corbesti some 40km away. The church dates from the early 18th century, and was in a state of decay at the time of movement, having been hit by a tornado. It underwent a major restoration in the monastery and now represents a triumph in Transylvanian art. The frescoes as we see them today are the work of Ioan Savu.
Even upon first glance the church is beautiful, but as I approached the frescoes really confounded me. I’ve never come across a church like this before and the sheer detail was mind-blowing. They covered every part of the church, out and in. One could spend hours poring over their details. My personal favourite was the ladder to heaven, with the lost souls falling through to be taken by the demons of hell. I think my photos will say a thousand words more about the church so I’ll share as many as I can with you.
The church inside is small and devoid of furniture. From what I’ve read it is possible to visit while the nuns are doing a vigil mass, and the singing is a treat for the ears. Again the art inside is particularly wonderful.
The challenges of visiting the monasteries
As a working monastery don’t expect anyone to show you around. Sometimes it felt my presence wasn’t appreciated. I attempted to make a video, and as I walked I was met by a scowl from a nun, which provoked an apologetic withdrawal from me. Perhaps they want to keep their treasure to themselves. Who can blame them, places like this are unique through their anonymity as much as anything else. The monastery’s gardens are well-tended and floral, and definitely worth exploring. There are a number of shrines too, my favourite being this ornate one below.
The Monastery would be our last interaction with Oradea. It was not to be our last drama though, I wasn’t aware that both Romanian and Hungarian officials would be seeking identification and having cleared the Romanian side I drove right by the Hungarian officials. Thankfully we didn’t cause a border incident and they understood my ignorance of their system when I reversed back.
Should you visit Oradea
Is Oradea worth the hardship of travelling from Hungary or one of Romania’s central city’s? Most definitely. The Holy Cross Monastery alone is worth it. Add in all that architecture, some neat churches and what I percived as a relaxed way of life, and I could easily say its a place where a few days could be spent.
Should you be travelling from Hungary, a visit to the city of Debrecen is highly recommended. For more information consult my blog on the city, A Travel Guide to Debrecen.
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