And finally, Romania. Not finally as in the end of our trip, or even the end of this region, but finally as in “We made it to 100 countries.” That’s 100 for each of us; Mark has been to a few I haven’t been to and I’ve been to a few he hasn’t been to. But we’ve each made it to 100 countries, a pretty big landmark.
And so far Romania has been worth the asterisk it will have on our journeys. It’s funny; my sense of the country has always been as a backward Soviet satellite, a place where peasants starved while the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife I lived in regal splendor. While it is poor – by some measures the third poorest country in Europe after Moldova and Bulgaria – it is so obviously a European country that you almost forget the awful years of Soviet dominance and dictatorship.
Almost. And then you tour Ceausescu’s house or his government palace and that history comes racing back. First, though, the very brief history of Romania. In pre-Roman times the area was populated primarily by the Dacians. Under Emperor Trajan, the Romans conquered and colonized the area, later incorporating it fully into the Roman Empire. From this arose the original Romanized Romanian language and the sense that the people here are descendants of Rome. Trajan is, in fact, considered one of the founding fathers of the Romanian people.
As the Western Roman Empire began to collapse, Roman troops pulled out of the area in the late 3rd century. As the Middle Ages evolved starting around the 6th century what is now Romania consisted of three principalities: Wallachia, Moldavia, and Transylvania. While the area was technically conquered by the Ottomans in the 16th century, all three regions retained significant independence until well into the 19th century. After that they were more fully under Ottoman control but that lasted only a few decades. King Carol I was named king in 1866 and the country’s independence was recognized internationally in 1878.
Through the two World Wars the boundaries of Romania were constantly changing as various powers favored one Balkan country or another, but in the aftermath of World War II the Soviet Union occupied Romania and set its boundaries in stone, so far at least. The Soviets then proceeded to do to Romania precisely what Germany had intended with so much of Central and Eastern Europe: strip it of its natural resources and turn it into a source of agricultural products. As a result Romanian development all but stopped.
Enter Nicolae Ceausescu, who became dictator in 1965 on the death of Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, the original Romanian communist dictator. Ceausescu, to his credit, saw that his relationship with the Soviet Union was a dead-end and so he started putting some space between Romania and the Soviets; Romania was, for instance, the only member of the Warsaw Pact that refused to participate in the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia. That modest independence endeared him to Western powers who, ignoring his massive civil rights abuses, began showering Romania with loans from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.
All was good through the 1970s as the money kept pouring in and he could invest and buy and the country could grow. By the 1980s, though, the loans were coming due. What to do? Easy. Ceausescu put the country on an austerity plan to pay back the loans, which he actually did. The problem is that the Romanian people suffered terribly as every possible resource (except those needed to keep the ruling clique happy, of course) went to paying foreigners. By the end of the decade, with communism collapsing across Eastern Europe, the Romanian people revolted. On December 21, 1989, they forced Ceausescu out of power, captured him, and tried him and his wife. They were quickly convicted and executed before a firing squad on Christmas Day, 1989 – all pretty quick you might observe. Thus ended the tyranny and Romania quickly began the process of rejoining Europe.
So here we are in Bucharest, 10 years after Romania joined the European Union. On the drive from the Bulgarian border into the city – the sixth largest city in the EU – you could see that the countryside is still poor and that peasants often live only marginally better than they did perhaps hundreds of years ago. Still, once in the city it’s also obvious that there is a lot of growth in Romania these days: great buildings, nice restaurants, beautiful parks, cafés – all that stuff that makes you feel as though you’re in Europe. According to one analysis Romania’s per capita income is 59 percent that of the EU average; not good, but a lot better than the 41 percent level of 2007 when it joined the EU. One piece of evidence, at least, that integration into the European economy works.
What to do for a few days in Bucharest? One of the surprising things for us is that after our weeks in the Balkans we’re not so crazy about the food here. The problem is that unlike the other Balkan countries, Romanian food appears to be a lot more influenced by German cuisine which just isn’t as good (and certainly a lot more carb-laden). We were amused after a couple days to observe that our meals had been in Lebanese, Turkish, Greek, and Israeli restaurants, even a Uruguayan steak house; not a bite of authentic Romanian food. The Mediterranean food, though, was great.
We did two big tours that both turned out great. The first was a tour of Ceausescu’s home, the Spring Palace, the Ceausescu family residence from the mid-1960s on. We were both surprised by how much we liked the building, not quite as over-the-top garish as perhaps we’d expected. The guide was great, by no means an apologist for the Ceausescus but not simply depicting them as the devil either. He insisted, for instance, that during the years of austerity in the 1980s no one in Romania starved, that they all found ways of surviving, even though one of the crimes the Ceausescus were convicted of was genocide through starvation. Either way, the 90-minute tour was fascinating and a great introduction to modern Romania.
The other property we toured was the Palace of the Parliament. Planned by Ceausescu but not finished until after his execution, it is today one of the largest buildings in the world, second only to the Pentagon by some standards. Built during those horrible years of austerity in Romania, the building is a tribute to megalomania. Some of the numbers are staggering: 35 million cubic feet of marble, 3,500 tons of crystal, 32 million cubic feet of wood for parquet floors, underground parking for 20,000 cars. After the execution there was quite the debate about what to do with the unfinished building, but eventually it became home to Parliament with many of the spaces available for parties and events and meetings. To give you a sense of the size our tour lasted over an hour and we covered about 1.25 miles; that consisted of about four percent of the total building. So yeah, big.
That was our introduction to Romania. From here we’re doing a tour of five smaller cities around the country before we end our Balkan trip.