Thursday, November 04, 2010


Once you cross the Carpathians the landscape changes dramatically: gone are the gentle hills, bijou villages, Teutonic neatness and general postcard vistas. Instead the Wallachian Plain stretches south like a great hazy, dusty pancake all the way to the Danube. When God was making this little corner of the world he was in a rush and didn't bother with niceties such as aesthetics and wanted to get it over and done with as quick as possible. And things don't improve much when you get to Bucharest.

Most Romanians are quite disparaging about their own capital city. Even people from Bucharest find it hard to muster up many compliments for their hometown. And its hard not to see why: the historic core has been mercilessly gouged and scarred by the senseless megalomaniac whims of Ceauşescu. In the early 80s he embarked on a grandiose project to create a unified civic centre in the city, to be crowned by the unmistakable Palace of the Parliament. Unfortunately Ceauşescu's chosen site for his grand dream was already occupied by the historic city centre. But this posed no problem to the resourceful dictator who showed great resourcefulness in razing a third of it to the ground, including countless churches, monasteries, synagogues and old houses. Many of the buildings were not completed (or even started) by the time of the revolution in 89, and so the city is left with these open wounds, reminders of a painful past, that are still festering, years later.

The ludicrously opulent Palace of the Parliament is famed for being the second largest administrative building in the world, and also the heaviest one. An obscene amount of marble, gilding, silk, crystal and other luxury items were used on this, Ceauşescu's pet project. By the time of the revolution it was about 70% complete and it would have cost more to stop than to complete, and so Romania has been burdened ever since with this oversized white elephant.

However, if you take the time to scratch this unpromising surface, then you will be rewarded. I am, by my own admission, an avowed flâneur, and I like nothing more than to wander a city's streets and see where my restless feet take me. In that respect Bucharest is perfect because you get four cities for the price of one. At its most obvious you have the Communist legacy of the civic centre and Palace of the Parliament ensemble, which, although monstrous, does actually form an overbearing, unified whole that I found growing on me by the end of my few days in the city. Then you have the Belle Époque section of the old town, with wide avenues and opulent buildings that Baron Haussmann would have been proud of and that earned Bucharest the moniker of "Little Paris of the East". There is also the vibrant, cultural city with a thriving cafe culture where elegantly boho-chic women and men with just the right amount of carefully dishevelled facial hair sip their coffees or beers before heading to the theatre. There are also a large number of bookshops and street sellers hawking eclectic collections of tomes, from textbooks on psychology to pulp crime, with everything in between. Other sections of the old town have stately, almost palatial, villas and expansive gardens. Then finally, and here you have to do a little detective work, for which I had the help of my friend Horia, if you know where to look, or peek down enough dingy side-alleys, then you will come across vestiges of Bucharest's medieval past. This past comes in the form of churches and monasteries, for which Cauşescu had little love, and so when he wasn't razing them to the ground, he was hiding them behind faceless, concrete apartment blocks, sometimes moving them several hundred metres just to make way for his visions of grandeur. Such churches are a haunting reminder of a spiritual past that was hacked away at in an attempt to kill it, yet which managed to survive and even flourish despite the persecution.

An old church hemmed in by apartment blocks.

I wrote earlier when I was in Transylvania that I would come back to Dracula, so here he is. The legend of Dracula is based upon a very real, historical character, known as Vlad Tepeş (Vlad the Impaler). He, however, had little to do with Transylvania despite the fact that he was born in Sighişoara (the house was born in has now been turned into a tacky Dracula-themed restaurant, something old Vlad would have had a thing or two to say about I'm sure), and was instead the prince of Wallachia in the 15th century. As his nickname suggests he had a penchant for putting people on spikes, though, to be fair, that was pretty standard practice for your average medieval despot. Instead, he is viewed as something of a national hero in Romania as he, along with Stefan the Great of Moldavia, managed to keep the Ottomans at bay when they were at the height of their conquering ways. So although the mighty empires of Byzantium, Serbia, Hungary and Bulgaria all fell, the Romanian princedoms maintained their independence and became the main patrons of Orthodox Christianity for the next few centuries. Romanians are particularly proud of their historical role as defenders of the faith, and Vlad Tepeş played an integral role in that, founding many churches and monasteries along the way. Food for thought next time you see a vampire flick where the bloodsucker gets banished with a simple crucifix...

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