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Alba Iulia’s history through its restaurants and hotels

Inns are places where much of the public life of a city unfolds. Despite of the criticism of moralists, pubs and taverns are also important nodes in the social life of the city. The famous interwar period sociologist, Dimitrie Gusti, included the “pub” in his theoretical system as a social unit, alongside the mill, the school, the city hall and even the church. He did not regard the pub as a place for wasting money on drinks, but as somewhere people learnt news and conducted all sorts of business.

In Alba Iulia, the narrative of the pub reaches deep into the past. Certainly, there was at least one inn with mail coach station centuries ago. However, we will not venture that far into history, but shall limit our inquiry to the last two centuries. In the eighteenth century, Alba Iulia had two distinct urban areas. One was the fortress itself, the other the lower city, inhabited predominantly by Romanians and in lesser numbers by Jews, Hungarians and Germans.

Unsurprisingly, the customers of one restaurant located in the fortress were mainly military personnel. We can see a photo of a restaurant amusingly named Galambovendéglő (The Pigeon), which recalls U Kalicha (The Goblet), a restaurant in Prague made famous by “the good soldier Švejk”, a hero of the Czech writer Jaroslav Hašek. While The Pigeon in Alba Iulia fortress looks rather tired in the photo taken around 1900, The Goblet (U Kalicha) became an expensive and stylish brewery after 1990.

Galambovendéglő looks like a pub for rank and file soldiers. Officers living in the fortress could spend their free time in a modest kiosk located opposite the Officers’ Pavilion, nicknamed Babylon in reference to the multiethnic makeup of the garrison, drawn from across the Habsburg Empire. By 1900, an Officers’ Casino had replaced the modest kiosk, allowing officers to socialize in a hall that was on a par with the prestige of their position. The new building displayed no particular architectural style, but had a large room where officers and their wives could attend ceremonies, feasts and a midnight supper on New Year’s Eve. The Officers’ Casino had several rooms, located over two stories, where one could play billiards and cards, smoke, and drink alcoholic beverages or coffee. I hope we are not wrong to think that there was a room for a library as well.

On 1 December 1918, the casino offered its ceremonial hall as the most appropriate place for the Great National Assembly, at which a resolution for the unification of Transylvania with Romania was adopted. Afterwards, the space was renamed Unification Hall.

In the nineteenth century, the Lipoveni neighbourhood in the lower city developed a social life that, in absence of primary sources, would seem highly improbable. We are talking about Julanu’s Pub. The name derived from that of the publican, Iuliu Cricovean, but was distorted by the locals, who did not bother to pronounce it correctly. The pub had a large room, suitable for Romanian dances and peasant theatre, another room with Romanian newspapers where those who could read gathered, and also a bowling alley. There was a large room where, on feast days, some of the locals got together to gossip and drink. Although one might imagine the church authorities disapproving of consumption of alcohol, the curators of the Orthodox church of Lipoveni (well-off peasants, tradesmen and the confessional teacher) headed by archpriest Nicolae Ivan, the future Bishop of Cluj, visited it frequently and pushed for to be turned into a “peasant club”.

In the centre of the city was another institution: the civilian casino, called the City Ballroom. Administered by the local authorities, it was built in 1839 and subsequently renovated on several occasions. It was frequented by wealthy locals, mostly Hungarians, although membership was not dependent on ethnicity; in fact, access to the casino depended on paying a membership fee. The ballroom not only had rooms with billiard and other gaming tables, but also a collection of 1,600 books. For a long time, it was the city’s only public library. For non-members, the ballroom had a restaurant saloon and a summer garden which opened towards the surrounding city park. Musical shows and plays were often held there, and before the First World War, shows by Romanian theatre companies were held in its rooms. In 1913, for example, Victor Antonescu, a legendary figure in Romanian theatre history, visited Alba Iulia for the first time, accompanied by actors of the Bucharest National Theatre.

In 1921, during preparations for the coronation of King Ferdinand in Alba Iulia, scheduled for 1922, a show room with 400 seats was added to the civilian casino. From then on, this room was known as the Caragiale Theatre, but its history is the subject of a different story.

Famous people have marked the long history of Alba Iulia’s hotels. Axente Sever, prefect of the 1848 Romanian revolution in Transylvania, lived for a while in Cricău, not far from Alba Iulia, where he rented a state-owned estate. Wishing to earn more at a time when he was not materially well-off, he established a hotel in Alba Iulia. It was not a large, many-storeyed building, rather a medium-sized building with several rooms which he rented to those who needed a roof over their heads for one night. In 1874, he had the satisfaction of hosting the great historian Bogdan Petriceicu Hașdeu, whose research trip to Transylvania included a visit to the Batthyáneum Library.

Around the same time, two more hotels were established in Alba Iulia. Even though these were not impressive buildings, they were genuine hotels. The first was located on Sétány utca (Promenade Street, renamed from 1922 General Constantin Coandă, and nowadays known as Frédéric Mistral, to the confusion of many onlookers). This was Hotel Europa, which was a real jewel of Neogothic Transylvanian architecture in its time. The building was constructed on the site of the former La Istrătoaie Inn, where the national poet Mihail Eminescu stopped in August 1866 when he attended the general assembly of “Astra” in Alba Iulia.

Hotel Europa was not only a resting place for travellers. Just like the city ballroom located across the park and the Hungaria Hotel, the Europa Hotel’s function room hosted conferences as well as musical and theatrical shows. In the 1920s, the Europa Hotel became the headquarters of the Alba County Committee of the National Liberal Party, handily located not far from the house of lawyer Camil Velican, its president. What led to the hotel’s closure? During the Second World War, the building was the Police Headquarters. After the war, the building housed retail shops and offices. In the 1960s, the relentless Communist demolitions of former urban centres, still in its early stage, turned towards the delicate structure of the Europa Hotel.

In 1887, on the western side of the area called Hunyadi tér (Hunyadi Square), nowadays known as Iulia Maniu, the most impressive building of the lower city was constructed. This was Hungaria Hotel, an excellent architectonic example of the Neoclassical style. The Hungaria’s restaurant was spread through the great festive room, the coffee room and the mirror room, an elegant space to host important people and events.

On 30 November 1918, the Hungaria Hotel entered into the annals of history: it was here that the Committee for examination of the Great National Assembly validated the mandates of the representatives. On that day, the hotel’s function room hosted a conference for the leaders of the Romanian National Party and the Social Democrat Party. After intense debates they arrived at a generally accepted form of the Unification Resolution, which was then voted upon on 1 December 1918. While the Europa Hotel became the meeting place of liberals, the Hungaria Hotel was renamed the Dacia Hotel and became the traditional meeting place for the sessions of Alba County Committee of the Romanian National Party and, after 1926, the Romanian Peasant Party, presided over by lawyer Ioan C. Pop.

On a sad day in 1988, the hotel, named at that time the Apulum, was demolished. Romanian Communists, both those from the capital and local members, proved that they could erase anything from the surface of earth without any remorse for an important monument of the Unification, an event that they otherwise they glorified and celebrated tirelessly. (V.M.)