Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Ceausescu - Romanian (Patriotic) Megalomaniac

When I think of Romania, I still think of Ceausescu. That was the mind set for most of my life and, I suspect, many Romanians older than 45 years or so in age.

Things are rapidly changing now though, so I wanted to make sure I visited Bucharest before his terrible memory and legacy were completely replaced by a return to normality.

He looks so sweet
So, just like on my visit to Georgia, a big part of it was to dig around horrible memories of a recent brutal dictator. In Romania, of course, the memory was much more recent.

My day started with a ten minute walk to the laundry to pick up a bag of washed clothes. Very nicely done, thank you.

I bought a "strudel" from a popular bread shop, but it wasn't anything special to be honest.

Popular Bakery

'Strudel' was a bit dry though

After taking my clothes back I was still hungry and fancied a coffee so I popped around the corner to a well known Romanian place call "Manu Lui Manuc". They have a big outdoor courtyard area filled with tables.

I had the "hungry as a wolf" breakfast, which just means you got ham as well as cheese with your omelette. The service was a bit slow but after that I was all set for a day of following in the last footsteps of Nicolae Ceausescu.

Ceausescu was born 51 days before my dad in 1918 in the small town (population around 11,000) of Scornicești, west of Bucharest. Years later, when their most infamous son was in power, he had a ridiculous football stadium built there (30,000 capacity) for the local team which, miraculously, got promoted to the first division at the time.

He was leader of the Communist Party in Romania from 1965 until his death, on Christmas Day, 1989. His rule of Romania is probably most remembered as one of fear and persecution. The positives? Well he was a true patriot and did get rid of all of Romania's international debt.

Like many people my age interested in politics, I'll never forget those television images of the speech he gave in Bucharest on 21st December 1989. The look of bewilderment on his face was haunting as things started falling apart for him.

The trouble had been brewing for years but was reaching a crescendo at the time. He had just been re-elected leader (what a surprise) at the 14th congress of the Romanian Communist Party. He was 71 already and it seems even some people in the party were starting to question his continuing rule.

All it needed was a spark, and the whole thing might go up in flames. The spark was provided by an ethnic Hungarian pastor, Laszlo Tokes in Timosoara (near my mum's village of Stamora in the west of Romania). He accused the Romanian government of favouring Romanians of Hungarians and other ethnic groups and it led to local demonstration that were brutally put down.

At the time the Romanian media said almost nothing about the revolt in Timosoara but the word got around about what had happened from foreign sources.

A few weeks later, the party decided to organise a "spontaneous" rally in favour of the government where Causescu was going to announce pay rises and other benefits to try to appease what was already sensed as a growing rebellion.

Thousands of workers were ordered to the square told where to stand, given banners to hold and instructed to clap and cheer when led by party officials. There were approximately 80,000 people in the square.

It all started as normal (and boring) as usual but after a few minutes screams could be heard - apparently after some people in the crowd were shot by security forces. Ceausescu seemed to lose the plot for a while as anarchy ensued. Some in the crowd started shouting "Tim - o - soara" and thousands started to leave the square. Later, many people were killed as the revolution started.

The "royal" couple made their escape from the rooftop of the building in a helicopter but were caught a few days later and executed on Christmas day 1989.

These were thee days that changed Romania forever so I wanted to go to that square and get a feel for the place where it started.

Professor Google, of course, helped me to identify the square where Ceausescu had given that famous speech, and how to get there – a 15 minute walk. But when I got there I needed confirmation of which was the actual building he spoke from.

When I go to the square I noticed a smart-looking lady walking towards me so I stopped to ask her.

“Scuzate-ma. Vorbesti Ingleza?”

“Yes I do. I used to live in England”

“Oh really. Where?”

“Nottingham. I used to work at the university as an engineer.”

As they say, it’s a small world.

Anyway, she was able to confirm the building and after taking a few photos (along with another English guy from Bristol) I wondered if I might get to see the Romanian Athaenium – a fantastic opera hall. 

What are the chances? The person I ask about where the speech was from Nottingham

Plaque commemorating the speech

Comrades, Comrades... ooh, he's gone

Revolution Square

This is where it all kicked off

Revolution Square from the far corner of where Ceausescu spoke

I found the building, juts around the corner, and impressive it is too. But unfortunately it was closed so I couldn’t get in to see the main auditorium, which is apparently really beautiful.

Bucharest atheneum

The closest I got ...
... to seeing this
So with the first two (well one and a half) objectives ticked off, it was time to head back to the hotel and pick up my passport, which is required when you go on a tour of the Parliamentary Palace. I wanted to minimise the time I carried the passport around with me so I hadn’t brought it out yet.

I walked back a different route than I came so I could see a little more of the Old City. I must say I really like Bucharest, it has a lovely old European feel to it.

Old City
I put my passport in a sealed plastic bag and put it in a buttoned up trouser pocket and set off for the Parliamentary Palace. My tour was booked to start at 1 pm but I was told to get there 15 minutes before hand. In my head I had the idea that the entrance was on the left hand side of the palace, as looking at it from the front, so that’s the end I headed for.

Palace getting bigger as I get closer

I have to admit, I quite like the look of it, myself

The building really was even bigger than I expected so I started to panic that I might be late. I got to the left corner and saw an entrance and started walking up the incline towards the palace but was stopped by a guard.

“No. You need exit.” (I think he meant ‘entrance’)

“Go there…” and he pointed to the other side. Maybe Alex, the South African lady on the 

Transylvania trip,  had said it was on the left side as you look from the building. Oops!

Now I was really in a panic.

In an unlikely scene, straight out of Mr Bean, I found myself jogging along in front of Ceausescu’s vast palace in 35C of heat as one O’clock approached.

The video is mirrored, by the way
making it look like I'm running from Right-Left

Sweating cobs, I arrived easily on time, presented my passport, picked up my ticket and paid my 35 Lei entrance fee. When 1 pm came, our guide collected us and took us through security, which was like going through an airport again.

Once we were all through (it took about 20 minutes or so) our guide started the tour. He gave us all the astounding numbers of the place which basically say “IT’S HUGE!”. Apparently, Ceausescu held a competition for competing architects and the winner won because her's was the biggest and the grandest.
Anca Petrescu was chosen as the architect because her design was the biggest
This is the view of it from above...

Inside there were more ridiculous stats on the fittings and furnishings. This set of chandeliers, the biggest in the palace, weighed more than six elephants (or some big number, anyway)

It's not just the size but the quality too

Anti-Communist art is posted all over

Marble columns along vast corridoes

Obscene really

Most of the halls are hired for conferences etc now

Garden area in the middle
The tour guide was great. Witty and insightful and full of anecdotes about Ceausescu.

Apparently he got the idea after seeing a similar government building in North Korea and so want one that was similar, but bigger. In fact on every foreign trip he made he'd come back and tell the architects to change the design based on his latest whim.

Of course it wasn't just Nicolae Ceasescu who was egotistical. His wife was no better and they ruled together.

Elena Ceausescu
In the hallway, they wanted two, not just one, immense marble staircases. The plan was, when they were going to great international guests, they each come down one of the staircases at the same time and meet at the bottom and then meet their guests.

Man of the people, this!

In the vast ballroom the two end walls have a massive space in the middle of them. This was going to be for two portraits at each end of... guess who?

Of course, as our guide never tired of telling us, often with a little smirk on his face, the Ceausescu's never got to see it complete.

Space for a portrait of Nicolae (or maybe Elena)

Ball room

Main Hall Ceiling

View from the terrace

Warning, you might feel sick watching thtis next clip...

This was the Exit I tried to go up

I must say I had the same feeling of disgust at the opulence when we went to see Peles castle but of course the difference is that the Parliamentary Palace was in the current era.

I spoke to a lovely very smart guy from Bucharest in a bar later on and he made the point that the extravagance of Peles castle was almost totally funded by King Carol's German family, not the local poor people. The same certainly couldn't be said of this palace.

I must say, though, it was far more tastefully done than I was expecting. I didn't know what I was expecting but it was far more elegant than that.

It's ironic that this white elephant of a building, commissioned by and for a tyrant, is now one of Romania's biggest tourist attractions.

It really was a great trip.

Next, after dropping my passport back at the hotel, I was off to try to get a look at another huge structure, but one with mass appeal and support - the National Arena.

I got the tram. I had to ask someone to make sure I got the right one. Professor Google's advice contradicted her's a bit but she seemed to know what she was on about, so I caught the No 55 tram, not 54 or 40.

The tram journey was fun and easy enough.

Not quite the route but it did take about half an hour

It's another very impressive looking stadium...

When I got to this entrance, I thought my luck was in. All I needed to is walk down that path, take a few snaps and get out of there. Unfortunately, the security lady wasn't having any of it.

"No. Sorry. Video Cameras. Cannot go."


Not to be put off, I continued walking around to the main entrance and there seemed to be a lot of activity going on. There were lots of police and inside I could see a TV camera crew.

I approached the gate and spoke to a policeman.

"Eu football tourist"

"Vorbesti Engleza?"


"I have come all the way from Australia. Please could I just go in and take a couple of photos of the stadium. Five minutes only."

He smiled and nodded. A female colleague who was obviously involved in what was going on volunteered to guide me past the other security guards down to front of the stadium.

"Want to go on the pitch?" she asked

"Yes please"

So near... but it was good I was turned down

Panoramic View inside

"What's going on?" I asked.

"It's Simona Halep" she is coming here for a reception at 8 pm.

TV crew getting ready for the Simona Halep reception

Amazing basketball-stadium-like screens suspended from the roof

I took this almost from center spot

Better than I could have hoped

So it was a good job that security woman turned me away. If she'd have turned a blind eye and let me go down and take a photo I would have turned away satisfied. 

It's a very impressive stadium and several Bucharest clubs use it, most notably Dinamo and Steaua (as they used by called) now it's FCSB (Football Club Steaua of Bucharest) - don't ask!

The change in name has been enough to put off a lot of their fans (including our driver yesterday) from supporting them.

Romanian football has always been completely dominated by their biggest clubs - the greediership is catching up with that then.

61 title wins for Bucharest teams + 39 for the rest = 100

One city in that list that stands out to me is Pitești. My team Nottingham Forest played Argeș Pitești in the defence of the European Cup in 1979-80, beating them 2-1 away and 2-0 at home.

They had won the Romanian League for their 2nd (and last) time the season before, qualifying them to play in the tournament.

Pitești, like Forest, were fighting above their weight even to get into the competition. The town has a population of around 155,000.

Forest played about 50 km away from Ceausescu's birth place
That would have been an interesting trip. Why didn't I go?

Of course, it's also the national team's stadium where Romanian failed to qualify for this year's World Cup, finishing a disappointing 4th.

After my visit to the stadium I popped into the massive Mega Mart next door to do a bit of shopping. It's very impressive with all the fancy label designer shops you'd expect in any big city.

The sports shop had some England shirts on sale but the price was ridiculous.

$220 - no way!

As I made my way back to the tram I couldn't help noticing that the stadium is next to a suburb with the same name as the current Nottingham Forest (giant) goalkeeper.

As I walked round the stadium I chatted briefly to a coach who was getting a bunch of 10 year olds to jog up and down the steps outside the stadium. He had heard of him, of course, as he is the national goalkeeper for Romania. He must have played at that stadium, just near the suburb of his name, several times as he has 27 caps for them

Costel Pantelimon - Forest's, Forest's No 1
As I headed away from the shopping mall, I could see thousands of tennis fans starting to descend on the area. I thought about joining them but I felt a bit of a hypocrite as I'd never heard of Simona before I'd arrived in Bucharest and I imagine most of what would be going on would make no sense to me.

Besides, I was getting hungry.

The lovely Simona Halep - Her first Grand Slam title
Back at the room I dumped my new clothes and set off for a bight to eat. There was some lovely musical entertainment to be seen.

Firstly a performance of classical music was being given for free and promoted with models in costume...

A group were singing (Jewish?) songs outside the Orthodox church, which was also very sweet.

I went back to Caru cu Bere for some more delicious soup. This time I sat inside in their dining rooms with exquisite wood paneling.

Food & Wine & Beer

Unfiltered beer from Timosoara

Soup in a loaf of bread

After a nice glass of wine at Bruno's wine bar... it was literally Beer O' Clock, where I had a nice local craft beer and a great conversation with a local guy who, of course, spoke excellent English.

I didn't stay up too late as I had to set my alarm for 5 am in order to check out and catch the bus to the airport.

Night Night Budapest.

No comments:

Post a Comment