Travelling Light

Bucharest, Romania August 30-31, 2014: Communist White Elephants And The Old Town

Our journey to Bucharest began with lovely Bulgarian mountain scenery as the sun gradually set. We had booked sleeper berths, and the lady at the station had considerately given us two bottom berths, saying that the train was not crowded, and we would most likely not have anyone in the upper berths. This turned out to be completely accurate, so we had a private compartment. Yay for privacy!

We were woken at the border for passport checks – twice, because there was more than half an hour of travel between the two checkpoints. Seriously, you could have a full-blown nation in these areas of no-man’s land between European countries!

The train was due into Bucharest at 5am, but actually arrived just after six. Our couchsurfing host, Harkan, was there to meet us, with his car. He had been patiently waiting for over an hour, because there is no way to check online whether a train is on time. We are just blown away by how generous people can be.

We had a nap, and then a fabulous Turkish breakfast (courtesy of our host), and a swim in the resort-style pool.

And then it was time to see the sights!

Our first stop was a relatively ordinary local Orthodox church, because there was a wedding in progress.

The bride and groom wear gold crowns, which are removed partway through the ceremony.

The church, like all Orthodox churches, no matter how small, was intricately decorated with gold, silver, and paintings.
The bridesmaids wore black lace! We forgot to ask Harkan whether this is traditional. Possibly not, given the revealing shape of the tops.

Once we reached the city centre, we went first to a park containing a large lake. Bucharest is built around a series of small lakes, and at some point a small dam was erected to merge several of them together into a large lake. During the summer, there are many paddle boats and rowboats on the water, and in the winter it is a favourite place for ice skating.

The buildings in Bucharest centre are quite attractive. The old town area is less well-preserved than others we have seen, but it is a lively place, with lots of clubs, bars, restaurants, and cafes, and many outdoor dining areas.

The communist-era buildings were generally designed in a Neo-Classical style (extremely monumental), so they are in keeping with the older buildings which remain.

We even saw evidence of facadism! (We thought it was a uniquely Australian developer mindset, to make a token gesture of keeping the heritage listed facade, but to put a glass skyscraper inside it.)

This monument, locally known as “the bleeding potato” is a monument to the people who died in the 1989 uprising which ended the communist era in Romania.

Romania’s uprising was particularly dramatic, as they executed the president, Nicolae Ceaușescu, and his wife. There was some small version of a trial, apparently, but not everyone is convinced of its validity.

Opinion is divided on Nicolae Ceaușescu, even today. Yes, he was a megalomaniac. He bult the second largest building on Earth (the Pentagon is the largest), and named it Nicolae Ceaușescu Palace.

Then he built something about three times the size of the Sydney Town Hall across the road to be his wife’s palace.

And something else of a similar size to be the guest quarters when he had visitors. (It is now a Mariott hotel – a very big one!) And he dug an artificial river through the centre of the city, because every city centre should have a river in the middle, right?

He was helped in implementing his vision by the 1977 earthquake, which destroyed large swathes of the city. He had geologists choose a stable base for his palace, to ensure it will survive and future earthquakes.

He also built Bucharest an Arc de Triumph, and a broad road with fountains in the middle to be Bucharest’s Champs Elysees. He was fond of entertaining foreign dignitaries. The road from the airport to the city centre has two lanes in teh centre of the median strip, which were reserved for foreign dignitaries arriving in Bucharest.

Meanwhile, of course, it being a communist country, people were starving because there was no food in the shops.

Bucharest was the first place we saw entire shops devoted to church equipment – and more than one shop, too!

As the sun went down, the lights came on, and the streets became ever more beautiful. As we wandered into the old town, there were, again, street performers. The ones who dress up like statues and hold very still, and the ones who dress up like Charlie Chaplin and move very fast.

We are not sure what it is about Charlie Chaplin, but we have seen Charlie Chaplins in Pecs, Sofia, and now Bucharest.

One of the best things in the old town was the recently re-opened caravanserai. They haven’t renovated the accommodation yet, but there is a restaurant in the courtyard, and the atmosphere is spine-tingling.

We had several hot chocolates and a great conversation with our host, who escorted us everywhere. People are wonderful.
This bride is being kidnapped from her wedding.

Don’t panic – it is traditional. If the bride is kidnapped before midnight, her godfather pays the ransom, and if she is kidnapped after midnight, the husband pays. Needless to say, the kidnappings all happen at around 11.30pm.

The bride is taken to some public place (to prevent shenanigans, perhaps?) and there is dancing and drinking until the ransom is paid. The bride is then returned to the wedding feast, which goes on until dawn.

We saw a total of five brides in different public places that night! We even joined in the dancing once. When in Rome …