Why Bistrita ?
BISTRITA, THE CITY OF PASSAGEWAYS
Bistrita is Romania’s northernmost medieval borough, founded in the 12t h century by the German colonists coming from Mosel and Luxembourg Valleys, in a period when the Catholic Church consolidated itself as a state institution in Central and Eastern Europe. The place was initially called Nosa, presumably in the memory of the area to which its founders belonged. On April 2nd 1241 Nosa was devastated by the Tartar attack, in which more than 6,000 Christians were killed. In 1264 a document issued by Pope Urban IV Chancellery first mentions the name of the town – some plots of land known as BISTRICHE. This name imposed itself after the 13th century though the county is still called Nosnerland in German.
Under the protection of the Queen of Hungary, the local citizens became the most important merchants in the area, mediating trade between Transylvania and Moldavia. Thus, in 1352, King Louis of Anjou grants Bistrita a Royal Charter for the right to hold the great market on St. Bartholomew’s Day, a 15 days’ annual event which takes place each August near the church in the main square. The borough was declared a free royal town and was recognized the right to economical, judicial and political autonomy, including that of having its own armorial bearings. In 1465 king Matei Corvin grants Bistrita a Royal Charter for the right to demolish the ancient defense castle on Burich hill and fortify the whole place. The 22 guilds succeed in fortifying about 428,000 square meters, by erecting 10 m tall and 1.5 m wide stone walls running along a surface of about 6 km. At the exterior these walls were fitted with a water ditch, also meant to supply water to the mills in town.
From 1480 onwards, under the shelter of the castle walls, the local people built one of Eastern Europe’s largest medieval architectural ensembles of arched ground-floor passageways – the so called Sugalete Ensemble. The 13 houses formed the economic nucleus of the town, where merchants and craftsmen would sell their goods. Between the large streets starting from the main square and the castle walls, shortcuts were made – narrow, pedestrian passageways running along the town in a north-south direction. They were named after the towers or the guilds that protected the town; at present, they are simply called Passageways. The historical centre of the town still preserves 22 such passageways, like no other borough in Transylvania. The pedestrian activity, as dynamic as it used to be 500 years ago, is carried out throughout these winding, narrow, arched or vaulted old streets, with astonishing and picturesque routes.
The Evangelical Church in the main square is the most representative architectural symbol of the town. Built in stages from the 13t h century onwards, its tower is the tallest stone church tower in Transylvania – 75 m. The Gothic forms of the church are arrayed with elements of Renaissance style by an Italian craftsman who worked in Bistrita in a time when Michelangelo and Titian were gaining fame in Florence, Rome or Venice. Visiting Transylvania in 1564, Giovan Andrea Grano described Sibiu as the most powerful town, Cluj as the most populated and Bistrita as the most beautiful.
In the 18th century the borough falls under Habsburg military domination and will play an important role in monitoring the eastern border of the Empire. It is the epoch of mail coaches setting off from the small square towards Sibiu, Cernauti, Krakow or Vienna, and reaching destination after wearisome travels. According to the legend, it is by coach too, that Bram Stoker’s hero, Jonathan Harker, traveled from Bistrita, through Bargau passage, to meet Count Dracula.
From the 19th century onwards the old fortification was demolished except for the Coopers’ Tower The spirit of tolerance, understanding and co-operation has been dominant, con- tinuing a tradition which creates an idyllic atmosphere in a town where people know each other, an atmosphere that gives peace of mind and invites to long sojourns and nostalgic returns.
The former City hall is situated at the southwest corner of the Main Square. Built in the 16t h century the construction was restored in the neo-classical style in the early 19th century. The stoneware details in the inner yard and the stone benches along the gateway remind of a bygone age when the local judges and the county lords would decide upon all the matters of the community.
The City Hall is housed by a 19t h century building facing the Evangelical Church – the symbol of a town where Romanians, Germans, Jews and Hungarians live in peace and harmony. The statue of poet Andrei Muresanu cast by Cornel Medrea 1937. Muresanu’s poem Rasunet (“An Echo”) became Romania’s National Anthem – “Awaken thee, Romanians”, and Bistrita was officially proclaimed City of the National Anthem.
Bistrita is known as a town of passageways because the street network in the old town still retains 22 narrow streets overlooked by medieval arcades and vaults.
The Arts Passageway links the workshops of the Artists’ Union to the Corneliu Baba Fine Arts College, but 500 years ago the place was called the Butchers’ street, because would link the commercial area of the town and the Butchers’ Tower.
The Sugalete Ensemble (traditionally known as Sub galete) is the largest medieval ensemble of arched ground-floor passageways in Romania. Their aspect has remained almost unchanged since 1480-1550. It is from the shops under these arcades that the Moldavian princes would buy golden and silver jewels, fine cloth brought from Flanders and Cologne, golden thread silk from Venice as well as rare goods, such as pepper, ginger or different medicines.
The stone benches on which the merchants would sit or display their goods remain on the map of today, encased in the pillars that support the Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque vaults.
Each autumn, during the Festive Days of the Arts College, the thread of the arts is unfurled beneath the arcades of the historical buildings to Corneliu Baba Art Gallery,actually a roll of paper on which passers-by can write down their impressions, make drawings, mark the symbols of the town or record the most important events of the year. If you happen to be in Bistrita around 18t h November, who knows, you will add a touch of color to the historical centre, together with other artists of the town.
In 1495, the house on the eastern side of the Main Square was a splendid multi-storey building which the notary Andreas Beuchel started to renovate after the style of the establishments in Krakow, where he had studied. Appointed as magistrate judge (1525-1526), Andreas Beuchel got involved in the political conflicts of the epoch and, being at variance with the citizens of the town, was sentenced to death and executed in July 1532. The story goes that his face was sculpted on the walls of the church choir in the Main Square to serve as an example for all those who would betray the citizens of the town. The house was bought in 1533 by humanist Christian Pomarius, then, in 1538, taken over by Jonannes Murator who came from Moldavia to settle in the area. The building is also known as Ioan Zidaru House (the Romanian for Johannes Murator).
Every July, when the medieval ceremonies are held, it is here that the magistrate judge of the town establishes his residence.
Called the Silversmith’s House in German and the Goldsmith’s House in Romanian, the building is widely considered to be one of the finest medieval constructions in Bistrita.
The Silversmith’s House built 1560-1563 by Petrus Italus de Lugano’s stone masons. The building faithfully preserves the finest Renaissance architecture specific for a Transylvanian aristocrat’s residence. The windows, fitted with stone profiles, visible on the main
facade, are completed by a series of genuine interior doors and details. The gateway is surrounded by pillars placed on high pedestals, after the style of the 15th century Florentine architecture.
Precious metalworking highly developed in Bistrita mostly because precious metals were processed directly via Rodna mines, in close vicinity. Investments in this domain also attracted important medieval investors such as the Fuger family from Augsburg, interested in taking over Europe’s precious metal resources. The Silversmith’s House, with its workshops on the ground floor and dwelling rooms on the first floor, remains typical for the architecture of the epoch.
Spitalgasse (Hospital Street) is one of the oldest in town. During the Middle Ages a hospital functioned on the site, mentioned in historical documents as far back as the 14th century. The chapel and the medieval hospital were destroyed by fire in 1758 and the site was occupied by the present Holy Trinity Roman-Catholic Church and a college. Gheorghe Șincai, an outstanding representative of the Transylvanian School, graduated from this catholic college.
In 1487 the construction of a defensive and watchtower was begun on the northern side of the church in the Main Square. From the very beginning the tower was in care of the magistrate judge and the tower guard had to warn against military attack or danger of fire breaking out. However, Bistrita was fire-ravaged in 1680, 1768, and in 1857, when 148 houses were completely burned to the ground; the roof of the tower, the medieval clock and the tower bells were also destroyed.
Unfortunately, on June 11th 2008 another fire broke out, destroying the scaffolding set up for the restoration of the edifice; the fire spread so quickly that the roof of the tower, the bells, the clock and much of the framework were completely burned down. The whole community now makes efforts to restore this symbol of the past, the present and the future. Around the Evangelical Church were held the famous markets on St. Bartholomew’s Day. Such annual events took place every August and would last 15 days. The southern side of the church has many points of interest, such as the sun dial, the relief portrait of Andreas Beuchtel or a 14t h century knight’s tombstone.
It’s perhaps from beneath these arcades that the voievode of Moldavia, Ieremia Movila, bought 200 quintals of copper pots, spoons, scythes, gun powder, hoes, sickles, hatchets, rope and fishing net; prince Alexandru Lapusneanul is said to have purchased 100 sheets of parchment paper from the same location.
The street network in the centre of the town remains wholly in the style of the early 14th century when it was designed. The old 14t h-16th century houses were incorporated in the 19th century architecture and love for nature brought about flowing flowers in the windows, which adds a splash of color to the town.
Education developed around the religious institutions in the 14t h century; in the course of the 15t h -16t h centuries many local students are mentioned as having graduated from the universities of Krakow, Vienna, Augsburg etc. The present educational system includes university specialties as well. The county library offers specialty books but also ancient book collections. For instance, the Orthodox Bishopric has in its custody Romanian books dating back to the 17t h -19t h centuries. Among the most important are Varlaam’s Collection of Homilies (1643), Simion Stefan’s New Testament (1648), Cantacuzino’s Bible, Inocentiu Micu Klein’s Bible, The Dogmatic Theolog y (1795) etc. This collection also includes 283 hand painted icons on wood from the 17t h -19t h centuries and 45 glass painted icons in a style that is specific to the area.
The first postal service in Bistrita arose in 1667 when Johann Rosenauer and Georg Parlaghi be-came the first post office managers mentioned in documents. It was the epoch of the mail coaches traveling from Bistrita to Sighisoara, Sibiu, Krakow, Cernauti, Vienna etc. The routes recorded in documents 1796 – 1836 offer information about the approximate travel time; for instance it took about 7 hours 45 minutes to travel from Bistrita to Cluj (120 km). Built in the late 19th century, the edifice of the former Post Office now welcomes us at the entrance to the historic centre.
Bistrita is one of Transylvania’s seven citadels, their symbol being the principality’s coat of arms, to be found also in Romania’s coat of arms from 1918 onwards. In his description of the Saxon boroughs in 1564 the Italian Giovan Andrea Gramo remarked that Bistrita was the most beautiful town of Transylvania.
The Coopers’ Tower is the only tower to be preserved from the fortification, whose demolition was begun at the end of the 19th century. The tower was reinforced on the western side by a bastion specially meant for artillery.
The 1.5m thick walls are fitted with different types of embrasures typical of the 15th -16th centuries. In the interior the tower is four-leveled. On levels 1 and 2 is an art gallery organized by Nosner Land Cultural Asociation.
Bistrita was surrounded by stone walls, ditches and defensive towers after 1465 when the local aristocrats were given this right by King Matei Corvin. The guilds of butchers, tailors, ropers, carpenters, coopers, wheelwrights etc. built 10 towers and three main access gates: the Hospital Gate, the Hungarian Gate and the Wooden Gate. The wall of the fortified perimeter ran along Bistricioarei, Ecaterina Teodoroiu, Dogarilor, Bulevardul Republicii and Mihai Eminescu streets.
The Municipal Park – Some 7 hectares of fine parkland containing tree-lined walks, laid-out on the eastern side between the castle wall and the river Bistrita. The promenade had been completed by 1862 when Rudolf Weigartaer planted 200 chestnut trees. Gradually, other ornamental species were added, such as lilac trees and ginko-biloba trees, diversifying the vegetation structure and adding a touch of exoticism to walking through the century-old park. In 1926 a pavilion was built the middle of the park, where people could listen to the brass band concerts as they were taking their Sunday walks. In close vicinity stands the statue of the famous poet George Cosbuc, born in the area.
George Cosbuc Municipal Centre is the most important cultural institution in town. It was built in the 19th century and was known under the name of Gewebeverein – the Reunion of the Craftsmen. Johann Strauss’ “Lilac” musical comedy was performed here in 1912, with soloists from the Vienna Opera House. The edifice remains an impressive architecture monument. Concerts and theatre performances are organized here with the participation of famous artistes.
Bistrita municipal town is the administrative centre of Bistrita-Nasaud department; the 81,000 inhabitants represent 25% of the county population. The administrative territory covers 14.547 hectares and, besides the town, also includes the following districts: Ghinda, Sarata, Sigmir, Slatinita, Unirea and Viisoara. The structure of the population: 90.57% Romanians, 6.42% Hungarians, 2.42 Romany people and 0.45% Germans. 82% of the inhabitants declare themselves to be Orthodox, 1.8% Roman-Catholics, 4.5% Pentecostals, the rest of the population belonging to other denominations. At present, 36% of the active population works in the field of industry, 9% in construction and transport, 6% in education and culture domains, 5% in the public health and social assistance systems. The economic centre of the modern town extends from Petru Rares Square; the building of the Prefecture on the eastern side and the Golden Crown Hotel on the western side, highlight the new development of the town, begun in the early 1970s.
The craftsmen and the traders not only built a town in Bistrita but also improved the self-awareness and the sense of duty of a whole society. The German community is no longer a dominant ethnic group but, in time, the attention to the perfect detail, specific for this community, was taken over by the other ethnic groups. If the architecture and the splendors of this area blend so harmoniously, it is because of the character of the local people who, with modesty, but perseveringly, preserve the everlasting values of ancient culture and traditions in a town glowing with history.