Bucharest, Romania's Recaptured and Restored Capital

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Once called "the Paris of the East" Bucharest was destroyed by a despised despot before it was taken back in the late '80s, but signs still remain of his rule.

Photography by the authors

How does a European country recapture its capital and from whom? Franks, Vandals, Huns? No, those were the barbarians of earlier centuries and the Dark Ages ended about 800 AD.

The communist criminal from whom the people of Romania finally wrenched its “Lost City,” Bucharest, was more rapacious than any Visigoth tribe that ever crossed their land. It was their own ruler, the despised (and possibly demented) despot, Nicolae Ceausescu. When he and his wife were arrested and shot by a firing squad on Dec. 25, 1989 it was surely a Christmas present to the Romanian people.

Yet we were thinking serendipity not history when we sailed into Romania with Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection. Exploring Europe by river cruise has been discovered by the cruise cognoscenti, of course, and it has become the fastest growing part of the cruise industry.

It’s still fun although the Uniworld cruise details for this year have changed. Now the cruises are all-inclusive: Airport transfers, shore excursions, gratuities, beverages and alcohol on board, internet and Wi-Fi. Furthermore, the cruise from Vienna down the Danube is now 16 days and ends with a flight from Bucharest for two nights in Istanbul. Ours ended in Bucharest and we took the train deeper into the country.

Now, our River Countess is ambling down the Danube with its 135 passengers—and our friends, Jack and Diane, up front, are reporting our progress that we’re starting to leave Serbia.

“That’s the Golubac Fortress with its 10 towers,” Jack bellows to us in what he thinks is a stage whisper. “14th century. But the Romans were here earlier!”

We wander up beside them just in time to see the Iron Gates, the symbol of Romania and the tallest rock sculpture in Europe. It took 12 sculptors 10 years to commemorate the reign of Decebalus. He was king of Dacia from AD 87-106, but they finished the sculpture in 2004. Decebalus fought three guerilla wars against the Roman army until the Emperor Trajan finally defeated him. He remains one of the great national heroes in Romania.

We try and chat with a Romanian father and his son. His little boy finds our attempts to say anything in his language hilarious so we use our hands. He still finds us funny.

It’s dinner time and this is our last night aboard. Tomorrow we will take the Uniworld coach into the capital of a land practically unknown to American visitors, a land not gussied up by national tourist offices or jaded by too many visitors.

We go in to find passengers taking a moment to pose with Jord Zwaal, our Dutch captain. We have now sailed with him twice.

In Bucharest we drive in our coach into Revolutionary Square with its 2005 Memorial of Rebirth. The controversial column has been ridiculed as an Olive on a Toothpick, or a Potato on a Stake—and not adequately representing the 1,500 people who suffered and died in the revolution needed to bring down Ceausescu.

Nearby, beside the Kreţulescu Church stands a statue to Corneliu Coposu, a Romanian politician whom the Communist regime arrested in 1947 and held without trial for nine years. He was arrested again in 1956 and imprisoned till 1964. The communists imprisoned his wife, too, on similarly rigged charges; she died in prison.

The monstrosity originally “The Palace of the People,” is said to be the second largest building in the world with only the US Pentagon being bigger. It has become a national government office, perfect for politicians with the usual bloated sense of their own importance.

Those standing on the balcony of the palace can look down the avenue Ceausescu deliberately made wider than the Champs Elysee in Paris as he destroyed most of historic Bucharest. It’s the same balcony from which Michael Jackson looked down on his local admirers and shouted to them, “Hello…Budapest!”

Inside the palace is stark marble: no money was left for furniture and Ceausescu was executed before it was finished. There was talk about turning it into a shopping mall!

Ceausescu has been called worse than the Roman Emperor Caligula and a greater thief than Marcos in the Philippines, who has been identified in the Guinness Book of Records as the greatest thief in history.

It wouldn’t be a European vacation without seeing more than our share of churches. The striking thing about them is that some are so large and so over-decorated by North American standards. Many interiors are in poor repair, yet there are no obvious enthusiasts with collecting cans asking for help to restore the churches.

Such apathy may be because the country is still poor and the communists who were so anti-church have left their mark on the country. After all it was Karl Marx who said, “Religion was the opium of the people.”

Top two: The Patriarchal Cathedral. Bottom row: church in the Bucharest National Village Museum.

A less flamboyant church is the delightful and small Stavropoleos Church built in 1724 by a Greek monk on the edge of what is now Old Town.

“It was restored quite recently,” says our Uniworld Tour guide. “In 1899!”

The Stavropoleos interior is exquisite, a surprise because the outside is not particularly striking.

Stavropoleos was built by a poor, dedicated Greek monk, but St. Nicholas Church has a more upscale history. It was created in 1905-1909 thanks to a 600,000 gold ruble donation from a Russian, the Tsar himself. Alexander II approved the seven Russian onion domes on top and the iconostasis below that is reputedly a reproduction of the altar in one of the cathedrals in the Kremlin.

We had hoped to see the interior but St. Nicholas is apparently full of students in prayer at this moment. “This church is sometimes called the Students’ Church,” says our guide, “We’ve just finished the annual school exams so we can imagine what they’re praying for.”

On our way back to our hotel we pass a couple of Romanians. One, an older man seems lost in thought as if he knows stuff about Ceausescu that still bothers him. His companion seems more amiable and grins at us. We whisper to each other that the younger man is dressed like a Californian!

Surely he doesn’t understand English but he speaks to us and says “Yankee OK!” We are charmed. We pull out our phrase book and say “Buna!” He grins at us and repeats, “Yankee OK.” We reply “Ceau” as Ciao as if he is Italian and he repeats “Yankee OK,” until he finally gets up with his friend and they leave. He shouts “Ceau” at us as they turn the corner.

We learn later that in the early 20th century, Romanians felt French and Italian were more sophisticated languages than their own and we should have tried our old school French on them.

And so ends our first fun day walking the streets of Bucharest.

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.