Iasi (pronounced ‘yash’) has attractions and character that would be exhilarating if one had the power to see through concrete and sour interpersonal skills. Fear not, attitudes are improving (for those 35 and under) and this area can easily fill a couple days while you pinpoint the numerous joys of Romania’s second largest city.
Having been Moldavia’s capital since 1565, Iasi is scattered with fabulous buildings, important monasteries, parks and unpretentious cultural treasures (by “unpretentious” I mean lazily signposted and free or the next thing to it). As one of Romania’s largest university towns, the population seemingly doubles during the school year when students from around the country flood the streets with a liveliness that defies their position in one of Romania’s poorest provinces. The youthful, cosmopolitan atmosphere, including thousands of foreign students, is starting to steer the city away from its lingering socialist ways and blase attitude toward customer service. Additionally, it’s the best staging area for travelers heading into Moldova, 20km away.
Founded in the second half of the 14th-century, Iasi has a strong cultural tradition left by a constant stream of scholars that began clustering here in the early 17th-century. Names from the city’s prolific literary past that you’re likely to hear during your visit include Vasile Pogor, Ion Creanga and the riotously popular poet Mihai Eminescu, as their names and faces adorn dozens of streets, busts, memorial houses and museums. The first Romanian language newspaper was published here in 1829 and the country’s first university was founded in 1860.
Iasi was named the capital of modern-day Romania when Moldavian ruler Alexandru Ioan Cuza united Wallachia with Moldavia in 1859, however, Bucharest quickly snatched the title away in 1862. Iasi’s notorious history of anti-Semitism took root in WWI, with the birth of the League of National Christian Defence – the predecessor of the despicably fascist Iron Guard.
Modern Iasi is among Romania’s most vibrant cities, teeming with beautiful people, increasingly respectable restaurants, bars and hot night spots. Try to catch Iasi Days during the second week in October; originally a week-long religious event devoted to Saint Parascheva that has mushroomed into a street party, fuelled by a river of must, a sweet and tasty almost-wine brew that’s only available for a few weeks each year after the grape harvest.
Iasi has a shiny new tourist center at Piata Unirii no. 12 that is giving out outstanding maps of the city and numerous visitor brochures. This should be the first place you stop.
Attractions/activities include wandering Stefan cel Mare boulevard, admiring the Metropolitan Cathedral, the gnarly Church of the Three Hierarchs and the Palace of Culture, one of Romania’s postcard picture favorites. Innumerable smaller churches, monasteries and museums are seemingly around every corner and the university area is where you’re most likely to find some willing English speakers. Take a break in Romania’s first and largest botanical gardens, take in a show at the National Theatre or bus out to the Cotnari Winery for a taste of yummy fermented heaven.
Iasi’s airport started international flights in 2007 (about time). At last check Austrian Air is running an Iasi-Vienna flight seven days a week and Tarom flies to Rome three days a week. Otherwise, Romania’s second city is still isolated by a handful of domestic flights to Bucharest and Timisoara.