Monday 1st October 2012, Munich
We returned to Munich last night after three exhausting days around Bucharest, the sixth largest city in the European Union, where daytime temperatures averaged 32 degrees and the glare of the sunshine was unremitting. Bucharest is not a good city for walking round in at the best of times, and I imagine those are few. The wide, straight, multi-lane boulevards leading to huge roundabouts similar in size to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris mean pedestrians walk for kilometres exposed to the heat, cold, wind or rain. Traffic is crazy and the sound of sirens, horns and squealing car tyres make it a scary place to be. We spent hours overall standing in the heat waiting for traffic lights to allow us across the roads. The far side was often a very long way off with vehicles speeding right up to the crossings, skidding to a halt and snarling as they waited to roar off again, carving each other up quite ruthlessly. We soon learnt to cross roads very quickly and frequently designed our routes from one isolated tourist attraction to the next according to the shade in neighbouring streets. Thus we discovered quite a bit about parts of the city, away from the public gaze. Here the buildings are in a parlous state with plaster broken from the frontage, steps cracked, broken or missing, woodwork and windows crumbling and facades festooned with electric cables. Dogs slept laid out across the pavements or scavenged and peed around the doorways while the streets were a danger to life and limb. Wires, rusty spikes and broken manholes were just the start. Posts had been frequently studded across pavements, then later removed by cutting them off a couple of centimetres above the surrounding pavement and leaving them, complete with rusting jagged edges. Cobbled streets were uneven and frequently dug up and left. Where pipes needed attention deep holes were cut through the tarmac and left unprotected. Cars parked anywhere they could, forcing pedestrians out into the roads and maybe 20% of the manholes on the pavements and zebra crossings were missing covers and filled up with litter. At night street lighting was bad, except along the arterial roads that dissect the city, and I was really frightened of falling and further damaging my hands.
That’s the side of Bucharest many of the residents contend with. For tourists it is a different picture. There are thousands of taxis which are cheap and quick – though we didn’t use them for fear of missing something interesting along the way. Buses don’t use the city centre which is served by a metro system. There are hundreds of smart hotels offering the same comfortable, convenient but banal international accommodation we’d experienced down on the Black Sea.
Our hotel had been recommended by the Conference organisers, conveniently located near the main attractions of the city. Its greatest merit was the air conditioning, the shower and the endless supply of fluffy white towels which were changed far too frequently to conform to the professed environmental awareness policy claimed by the management. We were grateful to return to our room on a couple of occasions to shower and sleep during the worst heat of the afternoon.
There are very many wealthy people in Bucharest. A Rolls Royce was parked at the entrance to our hotel throughout our stay though it may well have had no engine - appearance is everything. There were plenty of very smart and expensive restaurants and prices for drinks were more than double those paid in smaller, local bars and cafes. At our hotel we were horrified to find 48 lei (about £8.50), for a beer and a bottle of water, added to our hotel bill. After a very long argument they eventually conceded they had “accidentally” charged us twice for the same drinks! (note the name - Hotel MOXA).
In Bucharest there was far less begging than we’d experienced elsewhere in Romania and no sense at all of personal insecurity. There was though a heavy police presence around all the public buildings and main squares. When we were accosted it was usually near the churches.
We were told that for orthodox Romanians giving money to beggars is a necessary part of their religion, particularly at important dates surrounding funerals. Thus there will always be beggars around, asking for alms. When we questioned why money was given directly to street beggars rather than to a charity to administer as we do in other European countries the reply was that nobody has any faith in the integrity of charities.
We have probably seen far more of the rural areas of Romania than many of the affluent residents of Bucharest. We are aware of just how much poverty exists out in the villages where the elderly live from agriculture and suffer a third world standard of living. Unless they have children working abroad to support them, once they are old and sick they are left to die as they cannot afford to pay privately for medicines and health care. At the same time so much of the nation’s wealth is being squandered on lavish building projects around the capital where so many incredibly rich Romanians are living. One wonders how many politicians may have changed their coats at the 1989 revolution and are still in office today.
Many Romanians feel insecure in their country where they are expected to pay bribes to officials and have no faith in their politicians. Young people who can are leaving Romania to work elsewhere, unless they are from wealthy families such as lawyers, politicians, bankers and doctors. Thus the country is one of rich and poor with very few people in between.
We heard that all public service workers – including nurses and the police – had their salaries cut by 25% recently and further cuts are expected. How can such people afford to live unless by taking bribes? So corruption permeates all levels of society. Yet the country has so much wealth. And more pours in from the rest of Europe all the time. Orphanages are still receiving help from the rest of the EU long after “Ceaucescu’s children” will have become adults. The first priority for Romania should be to help itself and redistribute the undoubted wealth it has for the wellbeing of the elderly, the sick and the poor, and to eliminate bribery by paying a living wage to its public employees. But it won’t happen. No matter how much other countries try to help Romania, the poor will still live in rural poverty, gipsy children will never attend school, roads and pavements will remain death traps and people will continue to die from neglect. Meanwhile the already affluent sector of society will become wealthier and a few more hotels and commercial enterprises will spring up around the capital. Currently a new, unnecessary cathedral is being built in Bucharest and the size of the new National Library and the Law Courts beggar belief. Laudable as these projects may be, there are more pressing needs in the country at present.
So now I will climb down from my soap box. Sorry, but I can never see any of the places we visit on our travels through rose coloured glasses. I write what I see, hear and feel but I do recognise things are far more complex than my personal feelings expressed might imply.
Romania was one of the very last Communist countries to fall during the 1989 changes across Eastern Europe. It was led by the dictator Nicholas Ceaucescu and his powerful wife Ilyena. Originally Ceaucescu was seen by the western powers as standing out against Russian domination and he received support and recognition for this from the western powers. Like Jimmy Savile he was even honoured with a knighthood by the Queen of England! Meanwhile however he was ruling his country with ruthless power supported by corrupt officials. He banned contraception to increase the population, demanding that couples have large families but offered no financial help or health care. Too often children were unwanted particularly if born handicapped. These were abandoned in the notorious Romanian orphanages, neglected and forgotten. He then attempted to destroy the rural villages and traditional ways of life, forcing rural communities into badly constructed blocks of flats in the cities where they lived with their chickens and pigs while he turned the countryside into collective farms. When forced to move the peasants had to abandon their dogs. They multiplied rapidly and that legacy still remains in the number that still roam the countryside and city streets today.
Bucharest has been struck several times by earthquakes. The one in 1977 seriously destroyed major parts of the city. Ceaucescu used this as an excuse to bulldoze many residential areas of the city as part of his plan to reconstruct Bucharest to surpass the grandeur of any other European city. He was particularly impressed with North Korea and the absolute power the Communist leader, Kim Il Sung and determined to emulate him.
Many buildings of historic value along with churches so essential to the local communities were ruthlessly swept away. The residents were forcefully rehoused in huge blocks of soulless, poor quality suburban flats to make way for wide boulevards cutting across the city, lined with massive residential buildings to house party members and politicians.
The palace he planned to be his residence and the seat of parliament, complete with flats for his ministers is the second largest building in the world – after the Pentagon – and the boulevard leading up to it is intentionally wider and longer than the Champs Elysees in Paris. While the nation lived in abject poverty he spent its wealth on monumental buildings in Bucharest. He became increasingly dictatorial, treating the Romanian peasants and non party intellectuals pretty much as dispensable slaves. To look at the city south of the river today is to look upon the aspirations of a meglomaniac. He was finally overthrown in 1989 of course, after the events of Timişoara reported elsewhere in our blogs, and after most of the Communist countries of Europe had already fallen. So, when he and his wife realised their time was up, their attempt to flee by helicopter from the roof of the Romanian Communist party headquarters failed as there was nowhere for them to flee to. No country was prepared to offer them asylum. They were captured, immediately given a sham trial and within a couple of days were executed 25 December 1989 in Targovişte.
It was in 1989 that the centrepiece of his architectural dream was realised. His palace took only four years to build! It is some fifteen stories high and about the same deep. It has a nuclear bunker in the basement. After his fall the people wanted it pulled down as no acceptable use could be found for it. Eventually though it became the seat of parliament which uses those rooms already completed by the dictator. Hundreds of other rooms have simply been closed off and will almost certainly never be finished now. The country has no use for them.
After an abortive attempt to visit the palace on Saturday, when we were informed the palace was closed for a special meeting – was there really not a room spare somewhere for a meeting? – we finally got to see around it yesterday morning before our return flight to Germany. It’s certainly the largest building we’ve ever seen, or ever will. The most sumptuous rooms of Versailles, Buckingham Palace, Milan or Vienna are as nothing compared to the gargantuan marble halls, the thousands of crystal chandeliers, the velvet drapes at the windows, the gilt mirrors and the carved wood embellishments. There are no paintings on the walls however as Ceaucescu was deposed before he’d had time to enjoy his palace.
From the balcony we looked out along the approach to the palace, lined by trees and white blocks of flats, built to impress. They looked like mega-lego construction kits - quite appropriate for a meglomaniac.
Up on the roof of the building we had a stunning view around the entire city with its straight boulevards radiating out from the palace, the cars speeding along looking like beetles far below.
Our tour lasted two hours. Long before the end we were becoming jaded and exhausted with walking through ever more extravagant halls and chambers for which no real use could be found. Many were hired out for international conferences and they all had boxes for international simultaneous translators. There are only so many G-21 summits you can hold and that would only need one of the smaller halls! White elephants? You could keep whole herds of them hidden here!
So what else have we seen? In the city centre stands the Communist Party headquarters with the balcony from which Ceaucescu addressed protestors gathered on the square outside. Someone dared to snigger, a ripple spread. Soon people were chanting “Timisoara, Timisoara” where peaceful protestors had just been ruthlessly killed. Ceaucescu faltered. His fear was shown on televisions around the world. He had lost control. Days later he was shot.
Beneath the building today there is a plaque to those who gathered there that day. Nearby is a strange monument to all who died in the struggle to overthrow the regime.
Other buildings of note include the Romanian Athenaeum, a late 19th century concert hall in neo-classical style.
To its left was the Athenée Palace Hotel, in the cold war a hotbed of espionage, now a very smart Hilton hotel with very smart Hilton customers to be glimpsed in the dining room.
Just beyond was the Royal Palace, built in a rather heavy classical style in the 1920s with discrete entrances where the King could admit his various mistresses. Since the change a large equestrian statue to King Carol I has been erected facing the palace in front of the University Library. This handsome building, which fronts the Piaţa Revolutiei was among the most badly damaged during the confrontations which accompanied Ceausescu’s downfall but it has now been completely restored. Ironically the Stalinist style Communist Party Headquarters suffered less damage than most other buildings around the square.
There is a massive triumphal arch on a roundabout to the north of the city, larger even than the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. It commemorates the Trianon agreement of 1918 whereby the area we know as Transylvania was removed from Hungary and given to Romania. It remains a strong bone of contention with Hungarians to this day.
Nearby we visited the National museum of the Romanian peasant. The few people who make the long walk out there from the centre can get a glimpse of what life is still largely like in the country regions outside of the major cities. There is a reconstructed wooden church like those we saw in Moldavia as well as a wooden house and a mill. There is a large display of religious icons, examples of national costume from the different regions, wooden headboards from cemeteries, ceramics, metalwork, household and religious furnishings, textiles, weaving and embroidery.
In the museum quarter we also saw the Bucharest museum of Geology and the Bucharest Natural History Museum. All three museums were set beneath shady trees in a beautiful parkland area of straight, raked gravel footpaths and cycleways. A delightful place to stroll, sheltered from the heat of the day, it was almost deserted as it is not easily accessible from the centre of the city.
Monday 28th January 2013, Exeter
Having been ill for the past few months I no longer remember many of the details of our time in Bucharest. Below are a few brief notes compiled jointly by both of us.
Thursday 27th September 2012. Hotel Moxa, Bucharest.
We were quite pleased to leave the rather soulless atmosphere of the Hotel Rin near the airport to head back into the centre of Bucharest to the Hotel Moxa where we were to stay by ourselves for a few days before returning to Munich. We shared a hair-raising taxi ride with Paul and his colleague Geoffrey who wanted to see a bit of Bucharest before their flights that evening.
Our hotel proved to be very conveniently located to explore the historic centre of the capital and we exhausted ourselves on our first day, taking in as many sites as possible on foot in 32 degrees of sweltering heat. Despite the havoc wrought by Ceaucescu, who tore down whole sections of the city to rebuild it to his greater glory, many churches remain and they are all well used by the devout of all ages, and by beggars who hover hopefully around the entrances. Often they are incongruously crammed in between high-rise offices and blocks of flats but at least they survive. Even Ceaucescu could not afford to alienate the many adherents of the Orthodox Church by tearing them all down, although some did disappear when the Centru Civicu was constructed.
Friday 28th September 2012. Hotel Moxa, Bucharest.
Today decided to head northward toward the museum quarter. Almost immediately north of the hotel was Cantacuzinu Palace, a secessionist building with a riot of decorations. It was the home of the composer Enesco, who married into the Cantacuzinu family, and now houses a museum dedicated to his work.
It was so unbearably hot after our visit to the museum that we returned to the Hotel. After cooling off Ian decided to visit the Bucharest Metropolitan Library which was just a few streets away to thank one of the staff who had been helpful in arranging his participation in the symposium.
Just by the hotel he visited the attractive classical building that housed the Romanian Academy, set in attractive gardens which contained fountains and Roman sarcophagi. The Academy, founded in the 19th century has played a prominent role in Romanian culture, at one time being responsible for maintaining the national library collections.
When he eventually located the Metropolitan Library he found it to be located in a pleasant nineteenth century building, which was totally inadequate for the services the library sought to provide. Ornate marble fireplaces and moulded ceilings did not compensate for the cramped quarters. Two small rooms with shelves climbing to the ceiling contained the main lending stock, which seemed to be arranged by the Universal Decimal Classification although, as there were no labels on the spine, it was difficult to locate individual volumes. Nor was there any sign of bar codes or computerised issue systems although he was shown a computer catalogue. Another room seemed to contain the local collection and a fourth a large oriental section, although when he attempted to enter he was promptly shown out again. The sound of chanting indicated that there was a course in Sanskrit prosody in progress. The member of staff was on leave, so he attempted to leave a message and departed, puzzled that this small building could contain what seemed to be the central public library for a city the size of Bucharest, a library that, apart from the many other activities detailed on its website, had the resources to organise a conference that could pay to fly a hundred delegates in from all parts of the world, lodge them for three nights in a luxury hotel in Mamaia, and provide a trip to the Danube delta. It was clear that there were other public libraries in Bucharest and that, as part of public cutbacks, apart from a massive salary cut, the library service was being restructured, giving the Metropolitan Library a bigger role in co-ordinating the network provided by the various districts of the city. But there were many questions unanswered in this brief visit.
Saturday 29th September 2012. Hotel Moxa, Bucharest.
As we went through the rather scruffy area by the University lined with stalls piled with dusty paperbacks we were overtaken by a group of students with banners, flags and vuvuzelas. As we got close to the Piaţa Revolutiei these were joined by ever more groups, chanting but generally well-humoured, and even obeying the traffic lights. We decided to avoid the lack of shade and crowds in the Piaţa Revolutiei by turning off behind the Cretulescu Church only to find the main centre of the demonstration to be the grass area in front of the radio building. What it was all about we never did discover. The demonstrators were young, schoolchildren rather than university students, and the atmosphere happy. It was a positive contrast to the highly charged and lethal confrontations back in 1989 and 1990. Romania may be facing many social problems since the change, but this freedom to demonstrate peacefully seemed a breath of fresh air.
Other related photos taken during our time in Bucharest were ...
We visited the palace on our final day and made our way back hrough the afternoon heat to collect our luggage from the hotel and take a taxi out to the airport for our flight back to Munich where our friend Charlotte was waiting for us with Modestine happily asleep in the garden.
Pictures marked Bucharest* were taken from Wikiemedia Commons.