Centuries in the Square, Sibiu
The sun was shining and the ice cream in my hand was melting at just the right rate when I settled onto a bench in Sibiu’s central square, the Piata Mare. Following typical European pragmatism when it came to naming things, “piata mare” means Big/Grand Square, and it was just right.
Around me stretched a ring of mansions and palaces dating back centuries, mostly from the striking neoclassical and romantic eras, but a few going back further to Renaissance, Baroque, and even gothic designs. This was unsurprising, given Transylvania’s historical membership/relationship with the Habsburg Empire, and made for a perfect place to sit and enjoy my mint chip. But the array of buildings offers more than just instagram envy.
To my left was Lutsch House, which dates back to the 1400s, though its appearance owes much to an 1830 renovation. Not only was it a lovely yellow-over-orange layer cake of nearly Caribbean color, but it houses two rival political parties. The beauty of this amicable coexistence is only enhanced by the fact that the parties each represent an ethnic minority in the region, one Hungarian, one German, two of the cultures whose blending has created modern Romania.
The Hungarian presence is clear, since Transylvania was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until it dissolved after World War I, but why a distinct German minority? During the Middle Ages, large numbers of settlers from western Germanic lands were moved here to buffer Europe against threats from the east, including the Tatars and Ottoman Empire. They were collectively labeled Saxons, and are the reason cities and towns in the region usually have both Romanian and German names. Sibiu, for example, is also known as Hermannstadt. Saxon governance included the Saxon University, whose use of “university” had nothing to do with education, but rather the component parts of natio (people, ethnicity) and universitas (unified totality). In former centuries, Saxon University was headquartered a few doors further down from Lutsch House in Hecht House. I was looking through the centuries as I worked my way through my ice cream.
Continuing around the square, my eyes found the Brukenthal Palace, built by the immensely influential Baron Brukenthal who developed many of the administrative structures that carried the entire region from the Middle Ages into the modern, and whose impressive art collection was already on display to the public in 1790, three years before the Louvre was inaugurated. My plan was to go see it the next day (if you’re on my tour, you’ll get to see it on Day 8).
My eyes finished their circumnavigation of the beautiful square, then came back to the centerpiece, the grand Holy Trinity Jesuit Church, whose interior is (of course) stunning, and whose Baroque belltower stands over the passage between the Big Square and the Small Square, Piata Mica. But even better than the church walls were the children laughing in one of those fountains that irregularly and unpredictably squirts water into the air.
My ice cream was gone, but the sun was still warm, Sibiu was still vibrant, and I was enormously happy to be in Romania.