Alba Iulia: Ancient city transformed by EU funds eyes smart future

This article is part of our special report EU in my region.

The EU-financed restoration of Alba Carolina Citadel has already transformed the city of Alba Iulia into one of Romania’s top tourist attractions. But the ambitions of the administrators of the city of 70,000 in central Romania have not stopped there.

In the spring of 2003, Alba Iulia was preparing to host its first City Day in the citadel’s ditches, which were opened to the public. The walls of the 18th-century Vauban-style fortress had been largely ignored and the only people who ventured inside the fortifications were daring children and the soldiers who had their barracks close by.

So, the event on 31 May 2003, marked by horse parades, concerts and a beer festival was also a moment of renaissance for the 300-year old citadel.

Ten years later, the fortress was almost completely restored with funds from the EU’s Regional Operational Programme. But the administrators of Alba Iulia were just getting the hang of using European funds and did not intend to stop at restoring only their city’s historical centre.

For Alba Iulia, 1 January 2007, marked the start of one of the best periods in its 2,000-year history. While for many local communities, Romania’s accession to the EU brought depopulation, due to migration, and even a reduced appetite for investment, the population of Alba Iulia grew and so did investments.

Alba Iulia is a champion of using EU financing for development.

“Alba Iulia is the city that attracted the most European funds in the whole of Romania. More than €3,000 for each resident, compared with the Romanian average of 1,000 euro. We have received €200 million from the European Commission for the city alone, not for the whole county,” says the mayor, Mircea Hava.

Around a third of the total of €200 million was used for 20 projects related to the fortress restoration and tourist facilities, but the local government used regional development funding to build roads, bicycle tracks, landscaping projects or new tourist attractions.

“I did not think that I would enjoy [Alba Iulia] that much. There are so many things to do and they have restored it wonderfully,” said 24-year old Iulia Nicut, who recently spent a few days of her vacation in the city.

But it’s not only the tourists who enjoy the renewal of Alba Iulia. Encouraged by the development, a 59-year old Romanian woman, who had left the country about three decades ago, has chosen to buy land for building a house, while keeping the apartment she owns in Alba Iulia, where she has spent her childhood years.

The restored fortress became an important tourist attraction, but the accompanying infrastructure investments had also benefitted. From around 60,000 inhabitants in the 2000s, Alba Iulia’s population reached 74,000 in 2017.

The number of lodging units has risen to keep up with the higher number of tourists, while the interest of foreign students in the University of Alba Iulia courses is also increasing. The “1 Decembrie 1918” University has a budget of €1.5 million for the Erasmus+ program in the 2015-2018 period.

A little bit of history

Alba Iulia has held a very important role in the history of Romania. Some 2,000 years ago,  the Romans built a large castrum [military camp] in what is today Alba Iulia. Apulum was the largest city in the Dacia province and the castrum was the seat of the XIII Gemina Legion, which guarded the mountains where the gold was extracted and watched over the roads used to transport it to Rome.

During the Middle Ages, Alba Iulia was the capital of the Principality of Transylvania and it also played a role in the union of the three great Romanian principalities under Michael the Brave.

Later on, the Great Union of Romania was marked by the Alba Iulia Resolution on 1 December 1918. Four years later, Ferdinand of Romania and Queen Marie were symbolically crowned in front of the Coronation Cathedral – built inside the walls of the citadel – as monarchs of unified Romania.

Plans for a smart future

While Romania is celebrating its Centenary in 2018, Alba Iulia is eyeing the future, aspiring to become Romania’s first smart city. Tens of companies invested more than one million euros in projects such as smart lighting, solutions for civic activism, digital education, WiFi hotspots, a medical hotline or a virtual tour of the Citadel.

“A smart city is made by people and not by technology and it is more about how to solve people’s problems by properly using technology. A city in which technology works safely, easily and in a transparent manner makes people’s life much easier and enjoyable,” Alba Iulia city manager, Nicolaie Moldovan, told Mediafax news agency in a recent interview.

“We know that, in order to become a smart city, Alba Iulia needs to invest a few hundred million euros in the infrastructure, in 10 to 15 years, but also needs legislation and programs to support smart city development, well-trained workforce (…) and a good collaboration with utilities, telecoms, transport or safety companies,” Moldovan also said.

In that respect, Alba Iulia counts on EU funding again. “I hope the next multiannual financial framework of the EU and the national government will allow cities to get money for smart infrastructure,” said Moldovan, the city manager.

After the Centenary Year, Romania will take over the rotating EU Presidency in the first half of 2019.

Alba Iulia will, once again, play a significant role, as it will be hosting some important meetings, according to Victor Negrescu, Minister Delegate for European Affairs. “Alba Iulia is a beloved city for Romanian people and it is normal to be included in the programme of Romania’s Presidency,” said Negrescu.

Incidentally, the European Commission’s Representative Office in Romania chose Alba Iulia to be the host of this year’s event held to mark Europe Day, 9 May. It was yet another sign of the European dimension of one of Romania’s most vibrant cities.

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