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10 History Lessons You Only Learn from Walking Around Cluj Napoca

10 History Lessons You Only Learn from Walking Around Cluj Napoca

Picture of Roxana Coman
Updated: 6 December 2017

Cluj Napoca is a city filled with interesting landmarks that have borne witness to a rich history. From the Dacians and the Romans to the barbarian populations to the Romanians, Hungarians and Saxons, the city was crossed by or inhabited by several populations who shaped the city as it is today. A multicultural centre of Romania, Cluj Napoca’s history is written on its monuments and streets. Discover its fascinating stories by taking a walk in the Old Centre.

A Roman heritage

In the very centre of Cluj, the Union Square caches the 2,000-year-old ruins of what used to be an old building inside a citadel that the Romans built in the 2nd century. After defeating the Dacians, the Romans conquered the territory of Dacia and transformed it into a Roman province. The Dacians the Romans conquered are considered the ancestors of the Romanians, the only population in the East of Europe that speaks a Romance language.

A surprising statue

One of the city’s symbols, the statue of Matthias Corvinus, dominates the Union Square. Erected to celebrate one of the ‘sons of the city’, the statue represents the former Hungarian King together with four of the most representative men in the Hungarian state. The statue is emblematic of a time when Transylvania was a part of the Hungarian kingdom – Cluj being inhabited by Hungarians and Saxons. Work of Fadrusz Janos and Lajos Pakey, the chief architect of the city at the beginning of the 20th century, the project won the Golden Medal at the World Exhibition in Paris in 1900.

Discover the best ways to experience Cluj | © Alex Ionas/Shutterstock

A Hungarian king born in Cluj

The Matthias Corvinus House, one of the oldest houses in the city, is the place where, in 1443, Matthias Corvinus was born. Son of the Romanian ruler and Hungarian Kingdom’s governor John Hunyadi, Matthias became king of Hungary at just 15 years old. After conducting several military campaigns, he became King of Bohemia and adopted the title of Duke of Austria. He is best known for reforming the administration of justice and reducing the power of the nobles, which gave him the designation ‘Matthias the Just’. A culture lover, he patronized the largest collection of books in Europe, held in Bibliotheca Corviniana, and favoured the introduction of the Renaissance cultural movement in Eastern Europe.

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Matthias Corvinus House | © milosk50/ Shutterstock

From Catholics to Protestants to Unitarians

The Church Saint Michael was, over the years, a Catholic, Protestant, and Unitarian Church. Built between the 14th and the 15th centuries as a Catholic church, the monument was occupied by the Protestants in the 16th century, when the religious reform’s ideas were spread in the city by the writer and pastor Gaspar Heltai. Once the Protestants took the church, all the inside frescoes were razed from the walls or covered with paint. Some were discovered at a later renovation. In the 18th century, the Counter-Reformation gave the church back to the Catholics. Both a religious and a political place, the church hosted king Matthias Corvinus’ baptism, and several meetings of Transylvanian nobles.

The Habsburg’s rule

In the Museum Square, the beautiful Carolina Obelisk reminds of the visit of the royal Austrian couple Emperor Francis I and his wife, Carolina Augusta, in 1817. During a time when Cluj and Transylvania were under the Habsburg’s rule, the king and the queen came to the city to strengthen the loyalty of Cluj’s citizens. After their visit, the city’s first laic monument was erected to commemorate the event. Carved in the column you can see scenes of the couple’s visit, as well as the medieval coat of arms of Cluj – a gate with three towers.

An influential family

At the end of the 18th century, Cluj was the capital of the Transylvanian Principality. The governor at the time, György Bánffy, moved to Cluj, where he built a majestic castle, the Bánffy Castle, an architectural pearl of Baroque architecture. The Bánffy family was one of the richest and most influential families in Transylvania, having several castles and palaces across the territory. A number of the family’s members consistently held high functions as governors, diplomats, lieutenants. The Bánffy Palace, today housing the Art Museum, received several personalities like Francis I and Carolina Augusta, Franz Joseph I of Austria together with Empress Sisi, as well as the pianist Franz Liszt.

A revolution and a Romanian lawyer

In the Avram Iancu Square, the imposing statue of Avram Iancu looks down over the city. A Transylvanian Romanian lawyer who made his studies in Cluj, Avram Iancu is considered one of the national heroes of the 1848 revolution. The year 1848 came with the will to unify Transilvania with Hungary, which created dissatisfaction among the Romanians. Avram Iancu gathered a group of people in the Apuseni Mountains, fought with the Hungarian revolutionary army and won the battles of Mărișel and Abrud. For his efforts, he is today commemorated through majestic statues.

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Avram Iancu Square, Cluj | © Leonid Andronov/ Shutterstock

A Medieval prosperous citadel

With few traces left from the Medieval era, Cluj tells the story of its old glory days through the walls and towers of the beautiful citadel, that endured over time. The Tailor’s Bastion is one of the symbols of the citadel that surrounded the city’s centre. Each bastion was named after a guild, which in times of war had to protect the citadel. However, in times of peace, the guilds were sustaining life’s development in the citadel, producing clothes, shoes, jewellery, as well as alimentary products. In the 15th century, Cluj was a flourishing commercial centre and its merchants were selling products in all the eastern part of Europe.

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Tailor’s Bastion, Cluj | © Cartophil/ Shutterstock

Traces of Communism

A walk through the Mihai Viteazul Square reveals through several Communist buildings and monuments some elements of the time’s ideology. The statue of Mihai Viteazul was built in 1976 and placed in Cluj, as a decision of the Communist ruler Nicolae Ceaușescu. The goal was to counterpoise the Hungarian and the Romanian heritage of the city and the image of Matthias Corvinus, whose statue is placed in the central square. Behind it, a 10-storey building is rising, reflecting the architectural expression of the Communist ideology that families should live in blocks of flats, in communities, so they could also be better controlled by the Securitate, the Communist secret police.  

A monument of resistance

Close to Central Park, a quirky cube reminds of the people who fought against Communism and who were imprisoned in the country’s cells. Thousands of people who dared to think, speak, act against the ideology spent days, years, or even lost their lives in the Communist prisons. The Monument of the Resistance pays tribute to all those people.