Communism, Contrasts and Ciorbă, in Bucharest
Apprx. Reading Time: 4 minutes
It’s funny (read cringe-worthy) how easily we stereotype people and places…..
“You’re from India? How many Gods do you worship then?”
“Oh! Africa is amazing, everybody looks the same!”
“You’re British? You must adore the Royals!”
“You’re off to Romania? Dracula castle? Nothing else there, they’re quite poor!”
Yet, I found myself heading off to Bucharest due to the Experience Bucharest campaign.
Knowing that I worship one God, Moroccans do not look like Nigerians and not everybody glorifies the concept of ‘Royalty’ anymore, I knew I was in for a surprise. The many ‘uses’ of travel is knowing you’re frequently wrong, and that it can be very humbling. Keeping that in mind, I landed at Bucharest with a blank slate.
I was not greeted with the homeless flocking around me nor were dilapidated buildings everywhere I turned. There was an eclectic mix of the new and old, street art (not graffiti) adorned many buildings and people headed home on a busy evening on Thursday dressed in some of the coolest trends I’ve seen in a while.
The smell of first rain and exquisite abandonment
What stands out most about Bucharest is its architecture. Called the ‘Paris of the East’, it’s difficult to fathom why someone would give it such an epithet, till you suddenly turn around on a busy street in the middle of the city and are informed that what you’re facing is an abandoned mansion with the German and Italian embassies next door.
We’re taken inside and the first thing I smell is the smell of first rain during the monsoons.
There’s colourful pieces of glass strewn everywhere which crunch under our feet, not a soul in sight other than our group and just silence with the occasional chirping of birds. Even after years of neglect, you can see the well-preserved books and the beautiful gilded, painted ceilings.
I’m astounded as to why a mansion lies in such a state. Mircea explains that most of the structures were built in the Belle Epoque style, from which the nickname ‘Little Paris’ came to be. A change in the regime, lack of funds and a dictator who had ‘visions’ to make the country a ‘highly compliant’ one, caused a sudden shift in styles which led to neglect by owners, who still prefer that the structure crumble to the ground rather than spend thousands to restore it to its former glory.
Lasting impressions from North Korea
Romania not only had sights reminiscent of Paris but also had some great inventors at the turn of the 19th century, who made groundbreaking inventions like Insulin and Cybernetics. Left to prosper, the current scene would have turned out quite differently. Unfortunately, World Wars and the rise and fall of various dictators ensured it did not. One of them being Nicolae Ceaușescu.
Many in their right minds would know visiting and cherry-picking traits from North Korea never benefited anybody.
Nicolae Ceaușescu was not an exception. He was in awe of the policies of the then supreme leader Kim II Sung and envisioned a Romania equal for all masses. Equal in terms of physical and monetary entitlement too.
“Why is such a concept bad?” I ask Stefan, our guide for our Communism tour.
“The people did not get what they deserved” is his simple reply.
Coming from the largest democracy in the world, it isn’t difficult to understand the perspective. What many don’t get is that it also worked the other way round. People were given houses and jobs irrespective of merit while others got the same no matter the labour put in.
Through subtle methods, Ceaușescu also ensured that the masses were always aware of his kindly efforts. So images of him were always present at the communal dining halls and mentions of him and his wife Elena were scattered across textbooks distributed to children.
His methods failed to stay subtle when he envisioned the ‘Palace of the Republic’ to be the biggest memento that would ensure his heritage carried on. This translated to crowds being moved from their apartments in the old city and crammed in far-off working class localities and an area of about 5 km ‘cleared’ to make way for posh lawns where crowds could gather to get a glimpse of him and sing his praises as he stood in one of the towering balconies around it.
Since he also could not stand the sight of Churches and Monasteries, Engineers, historians and architects came together to preserve the architectural heritage of Romania. Many of them were ‘physically’ moved, not piece by piece but wholly, by first shifting them on rails placed underneath, using an ingenious idea by Eugeniu Iordăchescu, a civil engineer.
Imagine a building passing by when you look outside your window!
Ceaușescu then ensured funds needed for the palatial construction kept flowing in by cutting down on imports, implementing rationing and ensuring all the labour and artefacts were produced in Romania itself to very high standards.
And so work on the heaviest building in the world and the 2nd largest administrative one after the Pentagon started but Ceaușescu never got to fully savour the dream.
A very bleak Christmas
The ‘Palace of the Republic’ was incomplete when what is believed to be one of the quickest turns of events in a dormant revolution in history, occurred.
Within a week in December 1989, mass protests led to many deaths and people stormed the streets, gathering and revolting against the Ceaușescu’s as he stood on his balcony located near The Memorial of Rebirth which looks like a pillar skewering a baked potato but is, in fact, a metal crown of thorns. They fled from the roof in a helicopter, to be caught later and executed after a false trail.
‘We’re still communists in different costumes’
As I sit sipping a Ciorba at one of the restaurants in town, I start making conversation with one of the waiters. ‘It was all a facade to overthrow Ceaușescu, nothing else. We’re still very much Communist. The Palace of the Parliament still has some ruler’s from the regime.’ he says. And he is partially right. It was only Ceaușescu who was convicted while other’s with the same belief’s are still Scot-free and hold positions of power in the Parliament.
As with any country that undergoes a revolt but has no concrete plans for the future, Romania is doing really well with trying to keep up with the ways of the world when it comes to the economy and issues like corruption that go hand-in-hand with it.
For someone that passes by Bucharest and gets enchanted with the twinkling lights in one of the outdoor cafes or notices the hipster music coming from an abandoned locality with a pub on the terrace, these matters are lost in the blink of an eye. Yet these very scenes promise a bright future by millennials who are shaking off ties from a not-so-distant past and taking huge strides to keep up with a very promising future.
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Communism in Bucharest, Romania
- Bucharest has some of the most interesting alternate tours I’ve come across. The Beautiful Decay tour by Interesting Times is what we opted for. Their guides are excellent and lively! Check them out for more options
- There are many communism tours in Bucharest, however I opted for the walking one by Open Doors. Stefan usually conducts the tours himself at a leisurely pace and it’s always packed with lots of info!
- The tours are not stressful however always a good idea to move around wearing comfortable walking shoes!
- Keep your camera handy as there’s scope for plenty of pictures!
Looking to head off to the islands to catch some sun and sea? Why not head to Mykonos? All details here!
We were hosted by the Experience Bucharest team during our stay in Bucharest., however as always
all opinions are our own.
Have you ever been on any alternate tour that was fascinating? I’d love to hear of it!
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