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Last Updated: Saturday, 29 December 2007, 12:04 GMT
Growth of a revolutionary boomtown
Timisoara, the cradle of Romania's 1989 revolution, is enjoying an economic revival. Nick Thorpe reports on urban wealth and a city balancing between empires old and new.

The train to Timisoara only takes five hours from Budapest, one of the two old imperial capitals.

Timisoara, Romania
Timisoara was the cradle of an uprising against Ceausescu

The single track runs straight as a Turkish arrow through the frozen marshes of western Romania.

The Banat region is not rich in stone so the medieval builders of Timisoara castle had to settle for wood.

Turkish chronicler, Evliya Celebi, describes the majestic castle walls as 50ft thick, made of oak trunks and tough as ebony.

The local forests felled for its construction have never recovered. There is still barely a tree to be seen between Timisoara and the Hungarian border.

But there are reeds, great expanses of them, standing yellow-grey and stiff as the lances of a motionless army in the December frost.

The Austrians replaced the Turks and, tucked away in the south-eastern corner of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Timisoara prospered.

Mayor Georghe Ciuhandu
Ten years ago, there was 12% unemployment here, now there's less than 2%
Georghe Ciuhandu, Mayor of Timisoara

The railway was established in 1857 and, by the mid 1880s, the town boasted the first electric street lighting in Europe.

Romanians rubbed shoulders with Hungarians, Serbs, Jews and Germans.

It was that tradition of tolerance which prepared the ground for the revolution to break out here in 1989.

When the secret police came to arrest a Hungarian priest, Laszlo Tokes, they had to contend with a rare outbreak of Romanian-Hungarian solidarity, as crowds gathered in front of his house to defend him.

Their resistance spread to Bucharest and, within days, the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu was toppled.

Made in Romania

The twilight of 2007 finds the city embedded in the European empire.

There are very few Jews left and the number of Hungarians is dwindling but the Italians have arrived in force.

Building work in Timisoara
Building new water mains is a sign of Timisoara's expansion

Marco Petriccione, country manager of the Banko Italo Romena, has been here for five years.

His was the first Italian bank to set up here, to absorb the business demands of 6,000 Italians.

Romanians go to Italy to work, usually in menial jobs, but the Italians come here as employers attracted by low Romanian wages - still under an average of 300 (406 euros) a month.

At first they manufactured shoes and textiles.

Look out for the "designed in Italy" on that expensive label but read "made in Romania" between the lines.

But as wages rise here, those companies are going further east, to the Republic of Moldova, for example.

Energy demand

In their place, big Italian electricity companies like Enel and Ansaldo are arriving to fill the growing demand for energy and infrastructure.

In St George's Cathedral, on Piata Unirii, I once watched a nun mopping the floor early in the morning, the splash of her bucket mingling with the prayers of the faithful.

Timisoara

This time, there are no candles but, in the dim electric light, the huge gilded figures of angels seem to soar out of the shadows, chastising the congregation for their latest sin - shopping.

"Whenever I ring my friends, they tell me they're shopping," my colleague Mircea complains.

"It's the national sport now in Romania."

Bankers like Marco worry that people may now find it hard to settle their debts.

Big shopping malls have sprung up beyond the pretty city centre to service tombstone residential blocks - a Communist legacy.

On the Liviu Rebreanu boulevard, work starts early.

They are building new mains water supplies beneath the roads and repairing the sewage system of a city that cannot stop growing.

Urban prosperity

"Ten years ago, there was 12% unemployment here,"' says the mayor, Georghe Ciuhandu. "Now there's less than 2%."

He is just back from a trip to Serbia, fishing for workers in the sleepy border towns of Vojvodina.

For his city to continue to attract investment it needs a new workforce.

He also speaks hopefully about persuading some of those who now work abroad to come home.

I ask him what level wages would need to reach. He suggests 500 (677 euros) a month, nearly double the present average.

The small farmers here are not organised. They have no representatives, to talk to investors and government
Count Andreas von Bardeau, landowner

If the urban dwellers are prospering in the European Union, the peasants are suffering.

Among great drawings of buildings and farms, I find Count Andreas von Bardeau - he can use the von on his name card in Romania but not in Austria.

There he owns what he describes as "a small forest and castle".

Here, in western Romania, he has 50,000 acres of prime agricultural land.

"For 200 years this region belonged to Austria, so I feel good here," he says.

But he laments the chaos in the countryside.

"The small farmers here are not organised. They have no representatives to talk to investors and government."

Heart-breaking

As we meet, he is organising a conference of foreign bankers, to try to attract money to agriculture.

"As a farmer, it breaks my heart to see so much land lying fallow."

And he sketches a vision of a Romania as prosperous as Austria, the mountains of Transylvania rivalling the Austrian Alps.

But for the time being, big modern coaches bring the mountain people all the way to work in Timisoara.

They disembark at the crumbling bus station, next to the Edefsin market where gypsies sell second-hand clothes and a low, wintry sun turns even red apples to gold.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 29 December, 2007 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.



SEE ALSO
Country profile: Romania
04 Dec 07 |  Country profiles


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