Cluj is a city of churches. The writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, visiting in the 1930s, described being “woken by the discord of reciprocally schismatic bells”. Those bells peal loudly today, with the sound of Sunday singing emerging through assorted west doors. Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists, Pentecostals, Baptists, Unitarians and Szekler Sabbatarians are all represented in Transylvania’s capital city.
It’s a place of many names too; President Ceaușescu was not happy with the simple Cluj, and added the suffix Napoca to make capital out of its history as a Roman settlement. To Hungarians, it is Kolozsvár; the few remaining German-speaking Saxons call it Klausenburg.
Home to 10 state-funded universities, it is a city of young people. They walk to their lectures and libraries through a streetscape that is rooted in the 18th century. Though the city has its fair share of grim communist-era housing projects, they don’t intrude on the historic centre. Around the grand Unirii (Union) Square stand palaces bearing the crests of the old Transylvanian nobility. The former townhouse of the Bánffy family is now the city art museum.
The square is dominated by the cathedral-like structure of St Michael’s Church, its tower the tallest in Romania. Built in the 1440s, it became Protestant in the 16th century, and then Unitarian, before it was reclaimed by the Catholic Church in 1716. Its interior is surprisingly restrained: the walls are washed white, the odd faded corner reveals a glimpse of earlier grandeur. The only hint of baroque splendour is the grand pulpit in the middle of the nave. Twenty Christmas trees, stripped of their decorations, await disposal.
Five minutes walk from the church is the house where Matthias Corvinus, the 15th-century Hungarian monarch, was born. A plaque erected by Emperor Franz Joseph in 1887 marks the spot. Next to it is another memorial, put in place a decade ago. The language is interesting – it claims that the “greatest of all Hungarian kings” was Romanian by birth – even though Cluj did not become part of Romania until 1920.
This is an example of what some see as a clear desire to assert Romanian superiority in Transylvania. In a church outside the city a young Hungarian recounts how two Romanian women had challenged him in the street and told him to stop speaking his own language. “It gives me a terrible pain in the head,” said one.
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