Fifteenth in a series
August 27-28, Bucharest, Romania — Disembarkation time came. The night before I ended up in an unplanned celebration on the sun deck with two fellow travelers and four staff members who had served our merry ensemble since we embarked in Budapest. My parting gift: a memorable hangover.
“Things are looking up,” our local tour guide said as we entered Bucharest. Five out of the seven district mayors were under arrest for corruption.
Our first stop couldn’t have been more symbolic: Revolution Square and the monument jokingly dubbed “the potato and the stick ” — officially, the “Rebirth Memorial.”
From a balcony above, on December 21, 1989, Ceaușescu addressed a mass gathering of the people, promising changes that no one believed he would make. On the spot, the Romanian Revolution began, supported by the Army. The Ceaușescus fled, to be captured the next day. On Christmas Day, they were charged with genocide, found guilty in a trial that lasted 90 minutes, and put to death by firing squad. The order was given to shoot them one by one, but Elena insisted they be shot together. “I brought you up like a mother,” she shouted when her hands were tied behind her back.
After a brief walk past a few downtown buildings and churches, our guide led us to Caru’ cu bere, a restaurant with an interior that looks like a Catholic Church. It never was a church, but was established in the 19th century and was once a meeting place for Transylvanian activists. The food was good and more than generous.
It’s hard to imagine what Bucharest would have looked like without Ceaușescu. They city flourished during the reign of Carol I from 1866-1914; electricity was introduced in 1882; and the city hosted a World Exposition in 1906. Hundreds of beautiful Art Deco homes and buildings were constructed in the 20s and 30s — many are now gone. Ceaușescu wanted to transform the city into what he saw as the pinnacle of sophistication: a French style city. So he razed one-fifth of the buildings — immune to the hardship caused when families were displaced and their dogs abandoned — and began building giant apartment houses and government buildings with French-style architectural decorations.
As a result, 65,000 feral dogs ended up roaming the streets of Bucharest but we didn’t see any; the population has been pared down to a few thousand. (The tourist booklet, “Bucharest in Your Pocket,” notes: “Where have all the dogs gone? To be perfectly honest, we don’t really care, but according to ASPCA around 20,000 have been adopted, 2,000 remain in shelters and the rest have been put down.”)
You can’t miss “the People’s Palace,” or what is now the Romanian Parliament. It’s the second largest administrative building in the world, after the U.S. Pentagon, and the heaviest in the world. It is mammoth in every way. Which is the point.
The tour guide from the palace reeled off a memorized script bulging with numbers:
1,100 rooms; 220,000 square meters of carpet; 3,500 tons of crystal; 1 million cubic meters of marble
It costs $6 million per year to run, even with little of it in use and the lights dimmed.
The official tour guide acknowledged that there were rumors of a nuclear bunker (of course there was a bunker!) but insisted that “no one knows” how many subterranean floors there might be. Wikipedia claims eight levels.
Our purpose in visiting the palace was our farewell dinner. Catered by the JW Marriott, where our group was staying, we listened to a quartet of talented young women while being served dinner. The food was fine (the wine not very good), but the New York style cheesecake was a hit.
Rather than taking advantage of Tauck’s all-day excursions to Transylvania, our group opted to explore Bucharest on our own. We spent the morning at the Dimitrie Gusti, the National Village Museum. Located on the shore of Lake Herastrau, the museum has, since the 1930s, been collecting and restoring endangered rural homes at an outdoor campus. Today, the campus spreads over about 25 acres and includes more than 300 buildings. The homesteads are grouped by historical provinces, and range from churches built in the 1770s to homes built at the turn of the 20th century.
We walked out the back entrance, over the bridge and along the shady bike and walkway to Pescarus, an excellent fish restaurant with outdoor seating.
The last stop of the day, with our friends Stan and Karen, was to visit the Romanian art collection at the Muzeul National de’Arta al Romaniei. The most striking object, to me, was a huge “iconostasis,” an altar-like work with dozens of portraits of the apostles and saints dating from the 15th century, which was salvaged from one of the many churches that Ceaușescu tore down in 1986. What else, I wondered, was destroyed?
Dinner on our own that night was Turkish, at Divan, recommended by our Romanian tour guide, who had once lived in Istanbul. Good but not quite like we remembered from Turkey; however everyone loved the mezeler (mezzes, appetizers served with the Turkish version of pita bread).
The JW Marriott, upon our return, was jamming. Whereas the night prior had been devoted to raucous wedding parties, this Sunday night it was raucous baptismal parties. We retired to the bar for a nightcap — Jamesons for the guys (a habit developed on the ship) and beer for me (Ursus, the local beer).
The morning of our last day, I took advantage of the JW Marriott’s spa by booking a message to work on my neck, which had cramped up during the night. The therapist not only fixed my spasm but was (at my encouragement) informative. (I’m not using her name in case the hotel objects to her candid comments.)
“Many people think it was better under Ceaușescu,” she said. “You had a job, you could buy your house. Everyone was the same. There might be three dresses available but you could buy them. Now we see stores with designer dresses and Gucci bags but no one can afford them.”
On the other hand, there wasn’t enough food, and television was only available 30 minutes a day. There was electricity, but not all the time. Many of the buildings weren’t reinforced with steel, so they fell down in earthquakes. If you tried to leave an area in search of better opportunities, you were considered suspect.
When I asked the therapist about the elaborate baptismal parties, she explained that many people have large parties for their babies — especially if they didn’t have a big wedding. She resents the fact that they have to pay a priest for any extra services such as a baptism, wedding or funeral — despite the fact that the priests are paid salaries by the state.
She dreams of visiting the U.S., and reeled off a list of the TV shows she had enjoyed growing up. But she has no desire to leave Romania. “We are a loud people,” she said. “We love our country and we will fight for it. Do you know whey Ceaușescu built the People’s Palace? To prove that we are not a small people.”
Next: Zurich with a Bang