All posts for the month September, 2017

Here we are in front of the massive Palace of the Parliament, a tribute to the megalomania of Romania’s former Communist dictator

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.

While Romania remains a relatively poor country – by European standards, at least – it has some beautiful parks and great cafés

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.

Art from one of the ancient churches in Bucharest

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.

Modern Bucharest in black and white. I liked this picture as it seems as though it could have been taken any time in the last hundred years. While the buildings may look a little bombed out they’re actually pretty attractive.

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.

The Ceausescus gold-plated bathroom, seen throughout the world after his overthrow in 1989

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 massive Palace of the Parliament

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.

There were some beautiful parks in Bucharest. Here we are enjoying one of them.

Back to the Ceausescu house, there were fabulous mosaics throughout. This was particularly noteworthy in their private swimming pool.

A closeup of some of the mosaic work in the swimming pool

A statue

Romania has some love affair with Michael Jackson. This plaque was on Michael Jackson Avenue in one of the biggest parks in the city.

This balcony in the Palace of the Parliament has a Michael Jackson connection, too. It was built so Ceausescu could give grand speeches ala Italy’s Il Duce, but of course he didn’t live to use it. The first person ever given the honor of speaking from the balcony was Michael Jackson who came out, waved to the throngs of fans and uttered the immortal words, “Hello Budapest!” Yeah, those Eastern European cities all look the same, huh?

Inside the palace are all kinds of meeting rooms and halls and over-the-top auditoriums like this one

More construction going on. Between our hotel and the Palace of the Parliament they’re building a huge new Cathedral. So now we have to periodically visit Barcelona to see how the Sagrada Familia is coming along, Belgrade to see how their cathedral is doing, and back here every few years.

The beautiful interior of one of the grand old churches in Bucharest

The old churches are beautiful but the scale is dwarfed by the modern stuff

Mark with a glass of Raki, the classic Balkan aperitif, on our last night in Bulgaria

From the Black Sea it was a long drive back to Sofia. On our first pass through we’d gone to the U.S. Embassy to request new passports. They said it would be five to 10 working days and they’d let us know by email when they were available. We headed back a day early, in part because the hotel we were at in Burgas was full but also so that we’d be in the city the morning of the fifth day.

This had the potential to be a challenging stay. We needed to wait until the passports were available but that could be at any point over several days. So after our first two-night reservation we would need to reserve hotels on a day-to-day basis. And given that hotels were quite full this time of year in Sofia, that could mean having to switch hotels one night and if the passports didn’t come, switch again. Ugh.

Well, to cut to the chase, the first afternoon we were there – the fourth working day since we’d applied – we got the emails that our passports were ready and that we could pick them up the next morning. Wait – they said it would take five to 10 working days and they were ready the morning of the fifth day? When does that ever happen? But it did.

My life in Sofia: reading in a park while lovely ladies sit and chat nearby. I love this park and café lifestyle!

Mark likes all the flowers in Sofia

Unfortunately, there was one more hurdle. We’d needed to file a “lost passport” claim with the local police station so we would have documentation on why our new passports had no arrival stamp. Filing the report had been a big hassle on our first pass through Sofia, but now we were having even more trouble getting them to give us a copy of the report. Eventually the bellman at the hotel we’d stayed at during that first visit solved the problem for us, even though we weren’t staying there this time. You have to love great service like that. (And yes, he was tipped handsomely for his efforts.)

Finally, then, we were ready to leave and could just enjoy Sofia for the rest of the afternoon. That meant another great lunch at a Thai place we discovered and more pleasant hours walking and reading in Sofia’s great parks. These late summer days in Bulgaria have been beautiful, sunny, warm but not too hot, a hint of autumn in the morning that wears away by late morning. It’s not likely that we’re ever going to move to Sofia but it really is a beautiful city. Just lots of parks and attractive buildings and nice restaurants and cafés, everything you want. And as I walk through these parks with leaves beginning to fall I find myself wondering, why do decaying leaves smell so good and decaying animals smell so bad? Just wondering.

We both love the Cathedral. We posted a very similar picture earlier when we came through but you can never have too many pictures of the cathedral here.

At any rate, apparently we’re not the only ones who have discovered that mid- to late-September is a perfect time to be in Sofia. The hotels are full and our favorite dinner restaurant, which we’d gotten into easily on two nights just a week earlier, was packed to the gills when we got there this time; we were told at 9:00 PM that there would be a one-hour wait. Yikes!

Lovely Ruse, Bulgaria. More of those fountains that put so many American cities (or at least Boston) to shame.

To break up what would be a six-hour drive to Bucharest, we drove to a little city called Ruse right on the Danube, the border with Romania. On the way we saw the strangest thing. We were out in the country, far from everything. It was a major road for the region, but still just a two-lane, pocked road with a fair amount of traffic. At one point I observed that there were a surprising number of people standing along the road; not groups of dozens or anything, but every hundred yards or so someone out standing. Then we noticed that they were all women. Then we noticed what one of them was wearing.

Sure enough, there was a stretch of maybe a mile or so in the middle of nowhere with half a dozen or maybe 10 hookers out a little before noon. Once again, I find myself amazed that after all this travel we can still find something new and unique. Strange.

Last weekend was the annual Ruse sandcastle festival, or something like that. They’re still standing here along the Danube, but starting to wear away now.

And then it was into Ruse for the night. The city is famous for its 19th century Neo-Baroque and Neo-Rococo architecture. I like it because it’s on the Danube and I love big rivers. As was the case with Belgrade, the last time we were on the Danube, Ruse doesn’t treat the river as some beautiful play area with townspeople dancing to Strauss all day. It’s a working river, with big cargo boats tied up all the way down. So much for the romance of the beautiful blue Danube.

And this is farewell to Bulgaria. Tomorrow we cross the Friendship Bridge into Romania, the 66th country on this adventure. More importantly for each of us Romania will be the 100th country we’ve ever been to. That’s a big milestone!

Our hotel towering over parkland near the river. We have a great view of the Danube from our 11th floor room, and they upgraded us to a Junior Suite, and it’s cheap!

The Danube in the early morning from our hotel

When you get into a city at 1:45 or so, you take the first reasonable place you can find for lunch. Here we are at Happy Bar & Grill, a big Bulgarian chain we’ve seen everywhere and avoided everywhere. Today it was time to give it a try and, for a big chain catering to very ordinary tastes, it wasn’t bad.

Parkland in Ruse

The beach in Burgas was long and sandy with an endless supply of chairs and umbrellas

I had never been to the Black Sea so, with a few days in Bulgaria to spare, this was the time to check that box. I’ll admit, my expectations were low. We love the Mediterranean (we seriously love the Mediterranean), and there are incredible beaches in Mexico and Thailand and lots of other places. The Black Sea? It’s not at the top of a lot of lists.

This just proves that if you set your expectations low enough, you can be pleasantly surprised. Not the best beach we’ve ever been to, or the best beach town, but ultimately both were pretty good. The weather here in mid-September was just about perfect. The day would start cloudy and cool but it always warmed up and cleared up so that by late morning it was perfect beach weather. There were always plenty of chairs and umbrellas, the water was reasonably warm and clean, there was a great paved trail for walking and running, and it was mostly just nice. Four days of mostly just relaxing and reading is not a bad way to spend time.

On Sunday in particular – a really busy day at the beach – this old guy would stroll up and down the beach in his Speedo-style swimsuit playing guitar and singing. He didn’t seem to be looking for tips, which is probably a good thing.

There were a couple of discordant notes. One night we went to an Indian restaurant, always our “go to” spot when we want a break from local cuisine. The native Bulgarian woman who owns and runs the restaurant with her Indian immigrant husband starts pining for the days of Soviet-style socialism, when life was good and before all those damned immigrants ruined everything. “So what if you can’t complain about the Prime Minister?” she asked, observing that life was a lot better when everyone had jobs that they didn’t have to work at. I tried to convince her that the system failed because nobody worked and the economy couldn’t produce the goods that people wanted but it was obvious she was having none of that crap. She wants the good old days of security and comfort back – and all those damned immigrants gone.

Days would start cool and cloudy, but would always clear up perfectly

And then there was our maid service. When we got to the room this motherly Bulgarian woman in her maid uniform latches onto us and just chats and squeezes our cheeks and says she’s going to take great care of us. Definitely a warmer welcome than we’re used to but kind of sweet. And reminiscent of the Soviet days when every floor in a hotel had some older, heavy-set woman who monitored things. You know, make-work jobs.

Well, the sweetness of her welcome started to wear off when every time we came and went from the room she was there to chat and give us hugs and remind us how she was taking care of us. Kind of obviously searching for tips; apparently to Mark she was extremely explicit about that. But you couldn’t come or go without her there to remind you how sweet she was. Need to go back to the room to go to the bathroom? Sorry, gotta chat with her for five minutes first. The sweetness of it all was really gone by the end, when Mark would go way out of his way to avoid the room between 8:00 AM and 6:00 PM.

Just when you think you’ve seen it all, you encounter something we’ve just never experienced before. But, all that aside, we liked our little Black Sea excursion. From here it’s back to Sofia to pick up our new passports than off to Romania.

Good food was a challenge in Burgas, but over a couple days we made some good finds. This was dinner for two nights at Ti Bar.

And lunch twice at Rosé, where a glass of rosé seemed appropriate

Burgas has this huge pier that people walk up and down all day. A sign there describes it as the symbol of Burgas, though I didn’t think it was that interesting.

And finally, there is a huge park that runs along the beach for a long way. If not for the beach I’d have spent a lot of time there, but it was definitely worth a nice walk here and there during our stay.