Bucharest: August 16-19, 2018

Flights in the Balkans and Eastern Europe were quite inexpensive in late summer of 2018 and the easiest way to travel. After checking through passport control, I headed outside to meet my Uber driver for the ride into central Bucharest. My passport was filling up with new visa stamps since none of the countries I visited after Slovenia were in the Schengen Zone.

The drive from the airport revealed a much different cityscape than the other Balkan capitals. Monumental boulevards on the Parisian model lined with parks and impressive palaces and apartment buildings led to the central part of this city with over 2 million residents.

The Romanians are descended from the Dacians and Wallachians and like to consider themselves “an island of Latins in a sea of Slavs”, with the exception of their long-time nemesis, the Magyars of Hungary. They speak a Romance language, but, given their geographical isolation for centuries, it barely resembles Spanish or Italian. They like to say they’re the descendants of the Roman Emperor Trajan and his V Legion, thus the popularity of the male name Troian. They manufacture a car called the Dacia, which is now owned by Renault and quite popular in Southern Europe.

My Airbnb followed the usual pattern: a beautiful apartment inside an old 1920’s building. I was within walking distance of the historic core and around the corner from a Brutalist-style Intercontinental Hotel, which was erected during the Ceausescu regime, about which we will elaborate later.

I walked to the old town for dinner at Caru’ cu bere and sat at the bar. The charcuterie was excellent, along with the local wine.

The next morning I walked a few blocks to meet Alexandru, my guide for the architecture tour of Bucharest. We were joined by a young engineer visiting from Beirut. Alexandru had recently graduated with a degree in architecture, but was planning to move to Germany in search of greater economic opportunity. His grasp of Romanian history and politics was as impressive as his architectural knowledge.

Bucharest has an amazing variety of architectural styles, from Beaux Arts to Romanian Revival. We also visited some superb murals before heading to the government sector and the old town.

Unlike its neighbors, Romania managed to stave off the Turks and eventually became a tributary state, paying the Ottomans to leave them alone. Vlad Dracul, the inspiration for Dracula, gave the Turks a particularly rough time in the mid-15th century, famously impaling thousands of the Sultan’s troops. Consequently, there are few Ottoman buildings remaining.

After securing full independence in the late 19th century, the Romanians recruited a German Hohenzollern prince to be their king, Carol I. His son, Ferdinand, succeeded him as king and oversaw a major improvement in the lives of his subjects. His wife, Marie, was particularly well loved for her philanthropy.

Alexandru then took us across the main square to see some of the Communist-era buildings, including the former headquarters of the Securitate, the notorious Communist secret police. Alexandru told us that if you were taken there, chances were good you’d never emerge alive. The Romanian Institute of Architects built a modern glass addition over the infamous building. The former Communist Party headquarters, from where the last dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, fled after a massive crowd began booing him in December 1989, was actually built in the Fascist style in the 1930’s. For those with an interest in the macabre, the trial and execution of Ceausescu and his equally hated wife, Elena, can be viewed on YouTube, as can the execution of wartime leader Marshal Ion Antonescu 43 years earlier.

From here we walked over to the old town to view some Orthodox churches and other prominent buildings. One building was the sole skyscraper of pre-war Bucharest. After Romania left the Axis in 1944 and joined the Allies, the Luftwaffe tried to bomb the building, which was being used as a radio station. They missed and destroyed the National Theater instead.

Alexandru walked us through the architecture faculty where he studied on the way to lunch. I enjoyed the tour and history lesson so much I treated Alexandru and the Lebanese engineer to a traditional lunch in old town. Alexandru shared that he had recently been in an anti-government protest and had been tear-gassed. He made the comment that the current government were recycled Communists in Italian suits. A few years later, a reform government sentenced the former Socialist Party chairman to prison for massive corruption. He also told us that the Soviets deported 500,000 Romanians to the Soviet Far East and Siberia and replaced them with ethnic Russians and Ukrainians, which accounts for the fair hair and light eyes seen in the city. Regarding the gypsies, now known as Roma, he joked that most of them had left for Western Europe since they could be guaranteed a minimum income of €800. He emphasized that Romanians cringe when tourists ask about Dracula, so I refrained from bringing it up.

The next morning I joined another tour hoping to see some additional monuments and sites. Our tour guide was particularly infatuated with the sex life of the much-loathed King Carol II, who suffered from priapism and was constantly on the prowl. He went through two wives and carried on an affair with Madame Lupescu, whose Jewish origins weren’t popular in prewar Romania. Carol was deposed and exiled in 1940 when General Antonescu and Horia Sima established the National Legionary State. Romania went on to join the Axis and invaded the Soviet Union in summer 1941 as Hitler’s partner. The Romanians lost 300,000 troops during the invasion and were crushed at Stalingrad. Before long, King Michael, Carol’s son, abolished the Antonescu regime and changed sides. Stalin let him remain as King through 1947, when he was ordered out of the country and the full rigor of totalitarianism was imposed by the Party.

Few countries in Europe have as interesting a history as Romania. I’d been looking forward to visiting it for years. During the 20th century it went through a victorious WWI when it regained Transylvania from Hungary, the Dobruja from Bulgaria and Bessarabia from the USSR, only to lose most of it within 25 years. Its people suffered under a corrupt king, a fascist dictatorship and a particular monstrous version of Communism, ending with the despotic rule of the Ceausescus. After the disastrous 1977 earthquake, the Ceausescus saw an opportunity to raze the historic area and its historic churches to construct their megalomaniacal Palace of the Parliament, the largest building in Europe. It’s now the seat of the Romanian parliament. It has to be seen to appreciate its enormity.

After checking out of my lovely rental, it was time to head to the Gara de Nord, Bucharest’s main train station, for the ride up to Brasov in the Transylvanian Carpathians.

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