Romania's Lost City Makes Its Comeback

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It's hard to travel in Romania and not be horrified to hear stories of the years under Nicolae Ceausescu's brutal reign and to see the vast and permanent destructive changes he wrought on Bucharest.

Photography by the authors

When BBC journalist Eddie Mair first saw Nicolae Ceausescu’s 4-million-square-foot Parliament of the People, he called it: “Construction on steroids. Today’s fashion may be to build high, but Ceausescu went large.”

Ceausescu’s largesse with his people’s money and the communist regime probably set Romania back 44 years (if you count from the end of World War II in 1945 to the People’s Revolution in 1989). The extraordinary megalomania of Ceausescu may have done even more damage because his power lust (which he thought was vision) made vast destructive changes to his capital.

Sure, East Germany was ruined by its years of communism and has made a magnificent comeback, but it had West Germany to help pick up the pieces. And Romania has had no one. Its US office is in New York City with the email Info@RomaniaTourism.com.

Maybe political anger has no place in travel stories, but it’s hard to travel in Romania and not be horrified as grandmothers tell you of the years of famine that killed their children; years created to fund Ceausescu’s palace. And it’s disturbing to see how far Romania still has to go to regain its former status in Europe.

Libraries of old books are stacked along many of the streets. Bucharest citizens seemingly sense their future requires them to understand their past. Perhaps that’s why they’re great readers.

Romanians seem determined to heed George Santayana’s wisdom: they will remember the past so they’re not condemned to repeat it. We say something to that effect to our guide, who knows of our health background and, to our surprise, responds in her own language then translates it as, “The educated man achieves more in life.” We ask her to write that down in Romanian and she prints “Cine are carte, are parte!”

“Got any more wisdom for us?” we ask.

“Yes,” she says, “even one about you, doctors!”

She takes our notebook again and writes down “Unde nu intra soarele pe geam, intra doctorul pe usa.” As we stare at the words doctoral usa she hastens to translate.

“It’s about the value of fresh air. ‘If the sun doesn’t come in through the window, the doctor will come in through the door.’ I’m a student at the university here, I love our proverbs,” she explains, appropriately proud of her English.

The Romanian Athenaeum completed in 1888 even though the original patrons ran out of money. A “Give a Penny for the Athenaeum” campaign received such a response from the general public it raised enough funds to make this concert hall the pride of Romania. It is the home of the Romanian George Enescu Philharmonic. The Enescu Museum, now housed in the former Cantacuzino Palace, is a tribute to this musical genius, who announced to his family at the age of 5 that he was going to be a composer. He became a famous violinist and Yehudi Menuhin one of his pupils.

“I want to show you another theater, the Odeon,” says our guide. “Or rather the statue in front of it. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the famous Turk officer who fought the Australians and Kiwis so ferociously at the battle of Gallipoli in World War I. As you know, he became the first president of Turkey in 1923. And don’t ask me why his statue stands in Romania, a longtime enemy of the Ottoman Empire!”

We later ask locals. The details turn out to be obscure. Some say the statue was put up privately by a Turk who owned a business nearby. Others say it is an insult to the 1.5 million Armenians killed in the Genocide in the later years of World War I when Ataturk served in the Turkish army. As usual European history can be impenetrable.

The locals tell us, additionally, that the figures at the base of the Memorial column in Revolution Square can be enigmatic, too. More obvious are the bullet holes in a Bucharest street and the Broken Man monument to Iuliu Maniu (1873-1953), who served three terms as Romania’s prime minister and opposed Russian influence. When the communists came to power he was imprisoned with hard labor. He died, aged 80, in prison. The statue shows him broken but still sitting upright. Lenin surely has a lot to answer for throughout Europe, indeed the world.

We get directions from our guide and head for the 16-room hotel, the Rembrandt that we had booked online. It is a great choice: simple, clean and conveniently located in the Old Town. It was also inexpensive, but we booked it on Expedia and broke our own rule to locate a hotel from the web but always subsequently contact the hotel direct to see if that gives a better price. At the time of our stay we paid $160 a night and had trouble finding the hotel website, but we see today, checking the web, that things are now much better, even cheaper.

Hotels in the old part of town show, from their roof tops, the changes in Bucharest’s architecture.

The Rembrandt is close to several restaurants. We ask for suggestions at the desk, load Google Maps on our smartphone and head out for the Restaurant Vatra, known for great local dishes and interesting Romanian decor. It’s about a 25-minute walk but Bucharest (with a population of almost 2 million) is safer than most cities in the world and lighting is excellent.

This is a very unassuming place with most of its customers Romanian—which is always a good sign. We didn’t ask the waitress to identify what we were eating but simply asked her, by pointing, to serve us what others were eating! It sure tasted good.

We go to a fancier restaurant the next night: the 1879 Caru’ cu Bere, a Bucharest institution beer hall. The 19th century vaulted ceilings, painted floor tiles, stained glass windows and club-like ambiance seem unchanged from the restaurant’s beginnings. It also has entertainment with musicians showing the accordion still has a place in a four-piece band.

The restaurant has dancers sometimes performing dressed as if in Downton Abbey, then, alternatively, as if in a small Las Vegas review. Tourists come here as well as locals and the menus have some English below the Romanian.

An interesting review of the “Beer Cart” restaurant is accessible here in the Romania-Insider. It was written in 2012 by an English visitor who has dined in this restaurant many times.

Next day we walk off the calories with a street map of the city. Our destination has been marked by the hotel: Curtea Veche (the Old Court). We wander past alleys with ancient gates along deserted streets as quiet as a Sunday and come, at the end of Strada Franceză, to the ruined walls of the Old Princely Court.

The prince of Wallachia, who built the Prince’s Palace in the 15th century at the apogee of his powers, is someone not seen as a prince by his enemies—and he had many in the Ottoman Empire. His successors later increased its fortifications, but by the 18th century, after an earthquake and a fire, it had fallen into ruin. A museum was established here in 1972.

The best records of this Palace of the Wallachian Princes were those dated Sept. 20, 1459 by Prince Vlad III. His bust stands on a pedestal outside as if guarding the ruins. He is the most famous of the Princes Vlad.

Prince Vlad II was chosen as a member of the Holy Roman Empire’s secret society “to uphold Christianity, the Order of the Dragon.” The Romanian word for dragon is “drac” and the definitive is “ul.” So dracul meant the dragon and the “a” at the end is the diminutive. Thus, the name used by his son, Vlad III, was Vlad Dracula: the little dragon. He also used Vlad Terpes, but especially enjoyed being called Vlad the Impaler.

A student who spoke some English walks past as we take some photographs, hears our conversation and directs our attention to a poster on a wall.

“The drawing is not realistic,” he says. “Vlad did not limit himself to just two; he impaled thousands, but most were Ottomans!”

It’s surely not a children’s bedtime story, and yet we’re heading for the railway station tomorrow to search for it.

And so ends another 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.