Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Unexpected first impressions

Written 30th May

 Southern Romania is at the same time both similar to northern Bulgaria

- wide open countryside, poppy filled cornfields stretching out to the horizon

- and totally different - interspersed with the poppies, are massive, sprawling supermarket complexes and US style strip malls.  I appreciate the we didn't go to Sofia, but apart from a single sign for Carrefour in Plovdiv and the one cash'n'carry on the border outside Ruse, we didn't see a single large supermarket in Bulgaria. Here it seems to be Carrefour, Ikea, BricoKing and the ever-accompanying McD's on the outskirts of every town.   Driving earlier in the dark, at one point, all we could see on the horizon was the blue and red glow of the massive Carrefour sign floating above the fields - Very much not what I expected! 

We had dithered about whether to brave Bucharest or not.  The 2005 lp we have loves it: "forget Prague, forget Budapest, Bucharest is where explorers are heading.  This is Eastern Europe's secret".  The 2009 lp, not so encouraging: many Romanians slam it, some travellers depart visibly stunned after a couple of days (or even a single drive through the increasingly gridlocked centre)" hmmm not sounding very friendly to small vans.  But we figured it would be a shame to get so close and not go - afterall, we might never come back here - and it would never be any better than on a sunday afternoon.  So off we set, with our lp city centre map and our atlas city centre map, hoping we would stumble upon some recognisable landmark - afterall if all else fails, the place has the second largest building in the world (after the Pentagon) that shouldn't be too hard to miss!

And in the end, after about half an hour of random driving around town - where it seemed de rigeur to randomly and unexpectedly pull over across tramlines and out in front of other cars - with centre signs hidden behind trees which were only visible from the wrong road after you had taken it and one abortive attempt to ask a flower stall lady where we were - I couldn't explain that yes, I knew we weren't on that map page, no, the adjoining pages were Budapest and Den Haag, not more Bucharest and all I wanted to know was which direction would take us onto the map page - it was eventually the Parliamentary building which we glimpsed down a road we hadn't taken.  Not so bad after all.

So we parked within sight of it and set off on foot - I love my new sensible shoes!

I don't really know what I was expecting Bucharest to be like. 

I've been to Prague and Budapest so either a bit fancy like that

or, more probably a drab, grey concrete city full of ex-communist run-down apartment blocks I guess. 

And the reality is an eclectic mix of both, with some unexpectedly shiny trendy stuff

and some fancy churches thrown in for good measure.

Bucharest is another of those places where I vaguely remember the history happening, although little more than the name Ceausescu and riots, protests and shooting, if I am totally honest - we have decided that we need a proper book about eastern europe in the 1970's-1990's just so we can really understand what we are seeing, just got to find an english one in a shop somewhere.

A lot of the grand public buildings, some designed by french architects like the Economic, were built at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century and in the interwar years, Bucharest was known as "Little Paris",

not least for its very own Arc de Triumph, built in 1922 to celebrate the reunification of Transylvania with the rest of Romania - the region having been under Hapsburg rule since 1687 until the fall of the Austria-Hungarian Empire in WWI. 

Despite being forced by the Nazis to cede Transylvania back to Hungary in 1940, Romania, by that time subject to the fascist dictatorship of General Ion Antonescu, joined the anti-soviet war on the side of the Nazis and sent its jewish and roma population (nearly half a million people) to the concentration camps.  However, it changed sides in 1944 and with Soviet help, regained Transylvania. The socialists came to power in the 1946 elections and in 1947 the monarchy was dissolved to form the Romanian People's Republic.  And so the stage was set for Nicolae Ceausescu to come to power in 1965, declare himself President in 1974, and cement his position by appointing his wife and family to important political positions in the 1980's until his downfall in 1989, following his decision to export food to finance his grand schemes, including his enormous parliament building, which left the country starving and ripe for riot and revolution. 

The parliament building is indeed indescribably humungous. 

Conceived by Ceausescu at the height of his meglomania in 1984, the 'House of the People' has 3100 rooms which cover 12 storeys and 330,000 sq metres and is apparently still unfinished, although still in use as the senate building.  Ceausescu didn't even ever get to address his people from its ceremonial balcony which overlooks the massive plaza

and down the 3.2km Bulevardul Unirii, which he created by demolishing whole city blocks after a trip to Beijing and Pyongyang convinced him that the only way to be taken seriously as a communist dictator was to have a wide thoroughfares down which to march your armies and thus demonstrate your military might.  It is apparently deliberately 6m longer than the Champs Elysees in Paris, just to make some sort of statement.

There are apparently tours inside but we decided not to - expensive and probably finished for the day anyway by the time we got there - and headed down the boulevard and across the river into the old town.

As I say, a discordant mix.  19th century ornate opulance, next to glittering glass skyscrapers.  Trendy coffee shops and pavement cafes at the foot of run down concrete tower blocks

and neon-lighted  billboards at big intersections, just like London, New York or Shanghai.  It is very  busy trying to be somewhere else - in one block of the old town, we passed an italian restaurant, a hungarian restaurant, a lebanese restaurant, a chinese restaurant, a french patisserie/caf√©, and Pizza Hut.  As well as countless coffee shops, all full, despite an espresso costing upwards of 8 lei ( €2).  

And cables everywhere! Not sure if they were phone, internet or telly but it is fair to say, whilst the networks are there, wireless has a long way to go in this city.... 

I'm not saying any of this is bad, just not at all what we expected.  When we were in Slovenia, someone (who has never been) said in an email "oh eastern europe, that's exciting but the grinding poverty will soon get you down".  Well they we certainly wrong about Slovenia (from what we saw) and we have yet to see grinding poverty anywhere - if anything, the towns around Naples in  Italy felt poorer than anywhere so far here. 

We did find some recent history; the Piata Revolutiei where Ceausescu gave his last speech from the Central Committee of the Communist Building,

the shell of the Securitate building which was destroyed by protestors,

the crosses in Piata Universitatii which commemorate those who died

and the plaque marking where the first protestors died. 

Then a wander back through the old streets, past the pretty 18th century Biserica Stavropoleos and out.

Ok, we probably missed a lot, and certainly all the museums, some of which sound interesting, but all in all glad we went, but done.  Just not in a city mood right now.

So, onwards and northwards.  We tried to find the apparently famous church on an island in a lake at Snagov which is where the headless body of Vlad Dracula is buried but down one turning we found the lake but no village or island, and down the next we found the village but no lake or island, so have given up and have stopped for the night in a layby just north of Ploiesti.

On the plus side, we are back in a land which uses the Roman alphabet again, which makes a restful change from the last four weeks - especially for map/road sign reading! - and being latin-based it's even vaguely familiar, and a bit french, in parts. Which is good.  One happy outcome of this trip which I did not expect was the improvement of my neglected french! 

We are back in a land with a zero blood/alcohol level for drivers but we believe that wild camping is legal everywhere unless specifically stated otherwise so no cooking in the dark and we should be able to finish the bottle of Melnik red before it explodes - what with leaving Bulgaria sooner than expected and going out twice, it was a worry... ;)

So, Romania, all good so far, off in search of vampires tomorrow....

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