Black Eagle, Blue Palace: A Day in Oradea

Growing up, one of the main tenets of our gang, often translated into footballing passions, was that out of the triad of neighbouring western Romanian cities ours (Arad) was the best. This was frankly contradicted by everything: Arad was the smallest, the economically least efficient and the one with the least spectacular architecture. Arguably, ours was the best river (we loved pointing out that Timişoara’s Bega is in fact a muddy canal) and occasionally we’d win at football. This last statement must also be put into perspective by the fact that this was happening, at best, in the second division, so we were the only ones really bothered. Oradea being farther away was also mostly a theoretical rival, and my only actual memories are its sunshine flooded boulevards as we crossed it when travelling towards my mother’s village. Both Oradea and Timişoara exhibited the further weakness of having different names in different languages, Oradea being Nagyvárad in Hungarian and Großwardein in German, whereas Arad is so essential it stays the same in any of the traditional languages of the area.

Wisdom gained with age informed me that, sadly, Oradea was frequently more important than Arad in the grand scheme of things, and as such, at the turn of the 20th Century, became a treasure trove of Secessionist architecture, more specifically its folklore and floral motif rich Austro-Hungarian version, which also flourished in the geographically close Szeged and Subotica- some traces of it can also be found in Arad. Encouraged by the Instagram fed rumours that many of these buildings are finally being reconditioned, we set off on a day trip that took us through the pancake flat Western plain all the way to a leafy parking lot by the river crossing Oradea, Crişul Repede. The Fast Criş (or the Rapid one, though both translations sound silly) meets the main Criş (Körös), formed by the confluence of the other two Criş rivers, the Black and the White one, in eastern Hungary. Together, the rivers give the name of the region of which Oradea has long been the centre, Crişana. Those criminally bored by geography may nevertheless be cheered by the intel that this parking spot happened to be right next to a pleasant riverside restaurant, Spoon Bar & Grill, to which we later returned for lunch as well. The dishes turned out to be very tasty, if a bit pricey, but I can forgive almost anything when pasta is cooked the right way, so I warmly recommend the tortellini all’arrabbiata.

Heading towards the main square we were quick to find one of the city’s main architectural attractions: the building of the former Black Eagle hotel, designed by Marcell Komor. Komor, born in Budapest as the son of a rabbi, was one of the most important exponents of Hungarian secession, known for buildings such as the synagogue and city hall in Subotica, the county hall in Târgu Mureș and the Palace (now Novotel) hotel in Budapest. Komor was deported and died in 1944, mirroring the fate of many of Oradea’s Jews, of whom we’ll soon talk a bit more. Built in little more than one year (sounds breathtaking given the times any building project takes these days), it was finished in December 1908, and in its heyday it hosted, besides the hotel, a ballroom, a theatre and a casino. In spite of a careful restoration, its spectacular Y-shaped passage lies mostly empty today and looks in sore need of tenants, stores and cafés/restaurants that would make it feel really alive again.  

Having crossed the Criş we reached every Romanian city’s compulsory Republic boulevard, when suddenly something very blue loomed large on the horizon. Now it has to be said that blue is very probably my favourite colour, and I do appreciate the efforts of restoring the Moskovits Miksa palace, but I still feel that a blue about a couple of shades closer to pastel (say this one) would have been more soothing to the eyes and soul. Nevertheless, the palace, built for local engineer Miksa Moskovits, along the plans of architect Kálmán Rimanóczy Jr, in 1904-1905, is a thing of beauty, bedecked with rich floral ornamentation in the vein of Secession’s Munich offshoot, the so-called Lilienstil. Its looks are however not the only interesting detail- the palace is also the first building in Oradea to have used reinforced concrete, a fairly revolutionary technique at the time.

Another recently restored building is the Zion neolog synagogue, built in 1878 in Neo-Moorish style by Rimanóczy Jr’s father, Kálmán Rimanóczy Sr, based on the plans of the city’s chief architect, David Bausch. After the 1870 schism of Hungarian Jews, the newly formed neolog community needed a new place of worship, and a fairly monumental synagogue was erected on the banks of the river, with a capacity of 1000 people. Today, the restored building can be visited as a museum, and is used for organizing cultural events. The city’s once flourishing Jewish community was all but wiped out at the end of WWII, when, after the creation of the ghetto in the spring of 1944, its occupants were gradually deported to Auschwitz – Birkenau and most of them perished there. One story that survived is that of Éva Heyman, a thirteen year old girl, who similarly to Anne Frank, kept a diary during the final months of her life. This diary, retrieved and published by her mother after the end of the war, has been the basis of the Instagram project Eva’s Stories.

Several other buildings have undergone recent restorations, and many others are being currently worked on, so at times the city can feel a bit like a haphazard building site. Quite a few of the newly resplendent locales don’t seem to have a well defined new function yet, such as the Deutsch house on Alecsandri street, now empty after having been a café, which is a pity given its beautifully decorated floral façade. The Greco-Catholic Bishopric’s Palace, built in eclectic style under the supervision of Rimanóczy Jr has had an even sadder fate: its top section fell prey to fire in August 2018, with current rehabilitation works due to finish by 2021.

Besides the already mentioned Moskovits Miksa palace, Republicii boulevard is dotted with some further fine edifices, such as the building of the bazaar- just as Mark Twain noted that everything in Rome was built by Michelangelo, everything in Oradea seems to be the work of one of the industrious Rimanóczys, here junior was in action again. The Stern palace, lying across the intersection from the Moskovits Miksa palace, goes one better: the initial plan was done by Marcell Komor, the father of the Black Eagle, and the second one by Rimanóczy Junior, with the current version being basically a mashup of both.

One end of the bazaar is home to a Drogerie Markt store: that’s probably not an information that would be considered of architectural or touristic importance, but I must mention it as its design is made so that it seamlessly blends into the overall style of the building, as opposed to the many cheap looking plastic signs and gaudy shop windows that mar the impression of a street that with a bit of care and attention could be absolutely spectacular. In a slightly humorous touch, the statues of the writers who contributed to the Holnap anthology released in 1908 and 1909, considered to be one of the starting points of modern Hungarian literature, look like they’re just having a deeply philosophical discussion about which dishwashing liquid to buy from dm.  As an ecstatic final remark, let me also add that the Astoria Hotel, what with the ‘Grand’ written on its façade and given its symmetry and colour palette, looks exactly like something out of a Wes Anderson film.

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