On a bright early morning in Sibiu, a small picturesque city in Transylvania, the spire of its impressive Evangelical church glows as the main town square begins to bustle with locals and tourists.
To anyone familiar with Sibiu, it is unsurprising that Romania, which currently holds the presidency of the EU Council, will host a key EU “Future of Europe” summit here this week, ahead of EU parliamentary elections later this month.
This city, compact and cultural, cuts a figure as European as any of its EU counterparts: it is steeped in history, has impressive architecture, quaint cobbled streets and squares lined with coffee shops and restaurants.
“In 2007, Sibiu was an EU cultural capital, this city is beautiful,” says 20-year-old Iulia Ivan, a barista at ThereFresh, a modern coffee shop in Piata Mare, Sibiu’s main square. Ivan says that young people with ideas are attracted to the city to start businesses. The array of trendy coffee shops and restaurants that have cropped up in recent years appear to corroborate her statement.
Indeed, the EU leaders, or anyone visiting Sibiu, a city that offers visitors a rare combination of slow-paced, relaxing getaway and active, culture-packed city break, is in for a treat.
Everything worth visiting in Sibiu can be explored by foot, which means the two central squares, Piata Mica and Piata Mare, both of which boast splendid, centuries-old architecture, can make for ideal starting or resting points around which to focus your sight-seeing.
Sibiu has a long, rich, multicultural history which can be a welcome dimension for the culturally curious traveller eager to learn the history of their surroundings.
The city was founded in the 13th-century by Transylvania’s ethnic Saxons, a German-speaking tribe who settled in the region to protect the area from Eastern invaders. They have left an indelible mark on the city and the wider Transylvanian region. Many of the distinctive, pastel-coloured buildings look as though they were designed for a fairytale, while Sibiu’s fortification towers, which helped to protect the city as far back as the 15th-century, are well worth visiting on a brisk city walk.
Just off the main square is the notable 18th-century Brukenthal National Museum, situated in a superb Baroque building where you can see impressive artwork from the 15th to the 18th-century. While the city’s permanent cultural spots are reason enough to warrant a visit, Sibiu also hosts myriad cultural events, from classic car shows to a jazz festival, from a food festival to a film festival — there is seldom a shortage of things going on. You can also take a short 2.5-mile bus ride from the centre to the ASTRA National Museum, an open-air ethnographic museum on Romanian civilisation.
In recent years, the standard of Sibiu’s eateries has also grown impressively; there is now an array of excellent independent restaurants to choose from.
On the corner of a quiet street adjacent to the main square is Hochmeister, a charming bistro aptly named after Martin Hochmeister, a local Saxon printmaker who printed the first guide to the city in 1790 and who published a popular newspaper for the once-thriving Saxon community.
The restaurant’s Scandinavian-style interior (not to mention the sizeable children’s playroom – a gift to parents) makes for a vibrant, relaxed space to enjoy a decent plate of food – from lamb tagliatelle to chocolate tart, matched by a well-selected list of local wines.
In Sibiu, you’ll rarely be more than a short stroll away from your digs, and it’s a beautiful city to explore by night.
While there are numerous hotels to stay at in Sibiu, renting an old city dwelling can make for a much richer experience. You can book a heritage apartment through Visit Transylvania for around £30-£50 per night. The fully equipped Historian’s House, which sleeps five, is spacious and boasts exposed wooden ceiling beams and a host of old Saxon furniture, which will give you a keener sense of Transylvania’s early settlers.
The budget airline, WizzAir, flies daily from Luton to Sibiu, with return flights as little as £50 – ideal for a weekend escape.
As night draws in on a peaceful Sunday evening, Romanian and EU flags flutter in the wind anticipating the arrival of the bloc’s bigwigs, who will discuss solutions to the EU’s various problems, including Brexit. A short stroll around their host city, however, should remind them of what they’re trying to hold together.