Apparently in 2009, Madonna visited Bucharest and rented this entire hotel for her and her crew. Fans gathered in front and, seeing the gathering, the singer decided to step out on the balcony and salute the crowd. “Hello Bucharest!”, she said, or something to that effect. People were happy and returned home to watch boring television. (However, during her show she denounced discrimination against Gypsies in Eastern Europe and was booed by the crowd of 60,000, but that’s another story).
This much more spectacular balcony was to be inaugurated by Communist dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu. Unfortunately for him, he passed away before it was completed, the consequence of having found himself sharing space with fast moving pieces of lead. When the Palace of the People (now called the Palace of Parliament) was somewhat completed (more on the building in the next post), it was visited by Michael Jackson during a tour to Bucharest in 1992. He was a huge star at the time and people gathered in large numbers in front of the building, hoping to see him on his way out. Seeing the crowds from inside, he decided to do an unplanned appearance on the balcony and thus became the first person to pronounce a speech from there. “Hello Budapest!, he said. The Bucharest crowd was not very impressed, but they probably bought his vinyls or cassette tapes anyway.
And finally, the ugly. This is the balcony from which Ceaușescu made his final speech. Ironically, he ordered the big gathering to make a speech aimed at putting an end to student protests and riots in Timișoara. It didn’t quite go his way and, faced with a very hostile crowd and uncertain support from the security forces, he tried to pull the Yanukovitch Manoeuvre, but he was caught along the way. Following a trial so short that a few people on a toilet break missed it entirely, he and his wife were introduced to some human resources fellows who called themselves “the firing squad”, and that was that.
The summary procedure was much criticized, but apparently the reason for it was that the country was in chaos, with protesters fighting security forces and security forces even fighting other security forces. This was no “Fall-of-the-Berlin-Wall-and-we-are-all-happy-moment”. It was very unclear what was happening and how things would end. So the people holding the dictator figured getting rid of him would send a clear message: “Communism is dead. Stop the fighting.” Right or wrong, as far as I understood, it worked.
In total, over a thousand people died during the 1989 Revolution.
And things like very strict food rationing (100 g of butter per month in 1987), came to an end after decades of hardship. Now all kinds of food was available, in infinite quantity. Of course, nobody had any money to buy it, but that eventually got better.
Speaking of fake economies; while I usually stay in modest hotels to keep my long-term travels affordable, in Bucharest I stayed one night at the JW Marriott Bucharest Grand Hotel with my friend Bob who was there for work.
I am always amazed at how international chains maintain similar prices worldwide, notwithstanding the local cost of living. Had I wanted to read the news at the hotel in the morning while sipping a coffee, it would have cost me 83 Lei for the continental breakfast, and 70 Lei for a 24h internet voucher, for a total of 153 Lei, or about $50.
Instead, I went to one of these very popular bakeries, where I grabbed two delicious savoury pastries, one filled with olives and the other with ham and cheese. I then sat in a lovely cafe and had a cappuccino while I read the news on the free Wi-Fi. Total cost: 9 Lei, or $3.
As Bob left town another friend arrived. I met Valentin in Ethiopia’s Danakil Depression and later visited him in his hometown of Sofia. Knowing I was travelling in his back yard, he did the trip from Sofia to visit Bucharest with me, a city he had only once briefly passed through. (Terrible picture by shaky handed waitress)
Bucharest is sometimes referred to as the “Paris of the East”, and it does have some of the same kind of elegant architecture. (I know, a bunch of cities are referred to as Paris of the East)
This Military Circle was built by the rich aristocrats who formed the Officer Corp of the Romanian Army after the Great War. When the Communists took over, they decided to put some Government offices in it, but Army Officers protested, saying this was not a public, but a private building. Apparently, their opposition was heard and the Circle was technically the only private building in Bucharest until the 1989 Revolution. As a dictator, sometimes you have to pick your battles with the Army.
The National Bank of Romania, which prides itself on never having been robbed in its 134 year history. Cynics say it’s because everybody knows there is no money in it.
I stayed in a small hotel run by an architect. She said Communism was the most destructive force when it comes to Eastern Europe’s architecture. Indeed, there are many signs she is right in Bucharest: ridiculously wide streets and ugly big socialist buildings are nearly everywhere.
But impressive things, like this 1936 Arcul de Triumf, were kept by the Communist. As much as we can blame them, they were not alone in destroying old Bucharest. In 1847, a catastrophic fire destroyed a third of the city, including the richest areas. After trying to put out the fire for days, residents gave up and started praying to Saint Demetrius. Incredibly, it worked and the fire died down. All agreed it was a miracle and nobody thought the fact that every building that could burn had already burned was possibly an alternate explanation.
Despite massive progress, Romania is still a poor country by European standards. A lot of structures lie in ruins and I saw a nice two bedroom apartment for sale near my hotel for 38,000 Euros. Bucharest has also experienced a fairly significant population decline since the Revolution.
But some major buildings are being restored and reopened, like the Hanul lui Manuk, an old semi-fortified inn where travellers could rest and park their animals in the inner courtyard, protected from bandits and other riffraff. It was originally built by Manuk Bei, the public servant whose job it was to pay the tribute to the Ottoman Empire on behalf of Walachia. Yes, he was taking a cut. The inn recently reopened and without any publicity at all, it had long line-ups at the restaurant within a few days. People in Bucharest certainly like their cafes and restaurants.
They also like books. I had never before seen a book vending machine, like this one at the Bucharest North train station. This might explain why 100% of all the Romanians I know are intellectuals who teach in a college or university. (Disclaimer: large error margin, sample size = 1). Hi Paul!
Since I am going off on a tangent: when was the last time you used a phone booth? On the rare occasion I see one in use, I probably look at the user as if he was a criminal, wondering what strange set of circumstances left him in such a predicament.
Arguably one of the most beautiful buildings in Bucharest, the Atheneul Roman was built entirely with donated money. I should be in Bucharest again next month and I will try to catch a concert there.
They certainly didn’t build on the cheap.
During a small rehearsal.
The Romanian capital also has a lot of statues, many of which nobody understands, like this one, nicknamed “Potato on a Stick”. Many wonder if the blood represents the sufferings of the Revolution. Don’t ask the artist, he had nothing to do with it. It is actually the result of vandalism. Someone threw a balloon filled with red paint and it was never removed.
According to the latest polls, Romanians have voted this statue the ugliest in the city. An awkward and ugly looking man awkwardly holds an ugly hybrid depiction of the Roman she-wolf and the snake of Dacia (I think). Clearly, the statue fell off the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down, but it mysteriously attracts pretty women.
And finally, Parcul Herăstrău, a massive urban park of more than one square kilometre. Like any park in the Northern Hemisphere, it didn’t look that great in March.
But the lake in the middle looked perfect.
Those of you who have been to Bucharest might wonder why I left out a hard to miss structure. Just as I gave the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa, its own post, so I will do for the second largest public building in the world, after the Pentagon, Ceaușescu’s megalomaniac Palace of the People.