WHY HAVEN'T YOU HEARD OF . . .
Forgotten for the last two decades, Transylvania's prettiest city is enjoying a year in the spotlight.
"The Communists saw these things as subversive and bourgeois," says the owner of a shop named Antik, describing a Latin and German manuscript, written by a Hungarian nobleman in 1814, that synthesizes everything that was known about the world's languages. "So the intellectual families took them into the forests and buried them in wooden crates. They stayed buried for almost 20 years. Then Nicolae Ceau¸sescu decided that culture was good for the nation, and they dug them up."
Romania betrays little evidence of Ceausescu's affection for culture. To construct a single monstrous building in Bucharest in 1984--the House of the People, today known as the Palace of the Parliament--he razed a historic area roughly the size of Venice. Even places like the beautiful Transylvanian city of Sibiu, spared the wrecking ball, were so neglected during the tyrant's 24-year rule that the town may as well have been destroyed: Churches rotted, palaces crumbled, and museums were looted.
Ceausescu was overthrown (and shot by a firing squad) in 1989; Romania joined the European Union on January 1, 2007. The Romanians couldn't be more excited. The word Europe, which in luckier parts has a tinge of meddling bureaucrats and high taxes, here means a chance to recover the culture and identity that, in Romania's terrible last century, were so violently blown up and bulldozed.
Each year, the EU chooses one or two member cities to showcase--with exhibitions and performances--to the rest of the union. This is meant to foster a greater understanding between the many cultures. To prepare for its stint as a European Capital of Culture for 2007, Sibiu spruced up everything from its public squares to its sewers. The city's baroque architecture has been restored, and the treasures that these buildings once housed have been returned to their rightful places. Jan van Eyck's masterpiece, Man with Ring, is back in the art galleries of the National Brukenthal Museum--the Communists had taken it to Bucharest--as is a stolen Titian, Ecce Homo, that was recovered by customs agents in Miami.
Casa Luxemburg is a small symbol of the European solidarity that has given Sibiu a new chance. The city of Luxembourg is also a Capital of Culture for 2007, and its government has taken the opportunity to fund the renovation of this historic building on one of Sibiu's main squares. It now holds the Luxembourg consulate, a tourist information center, and a small guesthouse with six bedrooms. The country's relationship with the town dates back centuries. Migrants from the Moselle River Valley--part of which is in modern-day Luxembourg--founded Sibiu in the late 1100s.
Near one of Romania's oldest restaurants, the 500-year-old Butoiul de Aur, there are plenty of places that boast of Sibiu's connections to other parts of Europe, like Ciao Italia pizzeria and the British-pub-style La Turn.
Even though it's had a serious face-lift, Sibiu is still Romania. In the mostly unrestored lower section of the city--where you can walk past faded pastel facades (such as that of homey Hotel Ela) and wizened old women selling vegetables on bedsheets spread on the cracked pavements--you'll feel as if you've wandered into a sepia picture of the Old Country from an immigrant grandparent's scrapbook: a piece of the past, dug up and returned miraculously to life.