Convinced that Romania was a land of sadness and misfortune, I made a two-day stopover in Sibiu to take advantage of a weekend opportunity to visit the book fair hosted by the Transylvanian city with its German pedigree and German name: Hermannstadt.

I hadn’t been to Sibiu since the mid-1990s, when the city, which had a football team in the first division, had yet to extricate itself from the drab aftermath of communism. People were living in fear, clinging to jobs in moribund state industries. Worse still, they still hadn’t recovered from the nightmare of 1989, when the streets of the city were awash with blood: 99 dead and hundreds of wounded, shot down by mysterious marksmen (special forces and Soviet "tourists"), machine-gunned or hunted like game by army helicopters.

The Sibiu I returned to in 2011 had nothing in common with the oppressed city of the 1990s. From the polite, civilised and optimistic taxi driver to the attentive and friendly hotel receptionist, everyone exuded an western urban air. And this impression was amplified on a visit to the historic centre, where the Piata Mare and Piata Mica (the Grand Square and the Small Square) are so full of life and so imbued with history.

Nowhere else in Romania is there a car-free area that is as extensive, as beautiful and as overflowing with good humour as the pedestrian zone in the heart of Sibiu. Everyday the hundreds of outdoor cafes, ranged one after the other with good taste that has been refined over the centuries, attract thousands of people who linger until after midnight, talking in Romanian, and also in German, English and French.

Here and there you come across camera-toting Japanese and Middle Eastern tourists. With every step, Sibiu seems to breath youthful exuberance even when you come upon groups where the mother and daughter are accompanied by the grandmother — after all, youthfulness is a state of mind and not just a date of birth in a passport. This is something that you feel, for example in Munich, where the lust for life is always there 365 days a year. After a few hours spent in the pleasant effervescence of the historic centre Sibiu, you might be forgiven for thinking that you had been magically transported to the Marienplatz, which is the kilometre zero of the Bavarian capital.

People earn a reasonably good living

Perhaps the miracle is due to the International Theatre Festival, which has been held here for 18 years. But the locals I spoke to were quick to point out that since 2007, when it was designated as a European Capital of Culture, Sibiu has become the venue of choice for all kinds of events in the worlds of theatre, cinema, publishing and even medieval art, which take place week after week. One of the most surprising results of the change has been that the dozens of hotels and hundreds of hostels in and around Sibiu are full virtually all year round.

The miracle has a lot to do with the cultural industry, but the economy has also played an important role. Dozens of factories, many of them in the auto-parts sector, have been established around the city by foreign investors who arrived over the last 10-15 years.

People earn a reasonably good living, and Transylvanian good sense, tinged with a touch of German education (most of the Saxon population has left the country but their good habits remain part of the culture), has led them to conduct their lives with dignity and optimism.

I couldn’t leave Sibiu without walking the length of Revolution Street, which is home to two marble monuments set 20 metres apart. One outside the police station records the names of the 25 Interior Ministry officers and junior officers who were shot down on 22 December 1989. The second monument outside the Nicolae Bălcescu Land Forces Academy pays homage to six soldiers who were also killed on the same day.

The lovers, who were strolling in the shade of the lime trees on a fine spring day in 2011, didn’t appear perturbed by the blood soaked history of the place — a sign perhaps that Sibiu, even though it has not forgotten its past, has overcome its sad heritage to take full advantage of the present and prepare for its future.

When we finally have at least 20 cities like Sibiu, Romania will have begun to resemble Germany.