For the first part of our Romania travels, check out this post.
After our visit to the gorgeous Peleș Castle, we finally made our way to the nation’s capital, Bucharest.
Bucharest (First Time)
Scott’s former colleague Manda happened to be interning in Bucharest while we were there. She works for a well-established Romanian music studio called HaHaHa Production; working with some of the biggest musical acts in the country, their owner, known simply as “Smiley,” is a national superstar. He is also a judge on the Romanian version of The Voice, and he often produces many of those up-and-coming stars once they finish the show. Check them out!
Anyway, we met up with Manda for our first night in the city. She took us to a really lovely four-storey book store, then on to a good sushi place for dinner, and finally to a super cool steampunk-themed bar where we had a few drinks and played some cards.
During the rest of that week, we met up a few times, and Manda also introduced us to covrigi, or traditional savory or sweet filled Romanian pretzels. They come in various shapes and sizes, and they’re really, really cheap (like, you can have a breakfast covri with ham and cheese for about 50 U.S. cents)! And they’re DEEELICIOUS! There are numerous chains of bakery shops called covrigarie or simigerie, famous for these delights, and they’re about as ubiquitous as donut shops in North America.
The next day, while Scott worked, I went on a walking tour of the Old Town and saw some beautiful architecture, including Stavropoleos Church. (The ceilings in particular were gorgeous!) That night, we went to a restaurant called Hanu’ lui Manuc that served traditional Romanian food and had traditional dancing and music.
Next, the we toured the Ceausescu Palace, also known as Primaverii Palace, family home of former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife and children; this super-opulent mansion lies in Sector 1, the most exclusive district in the city. It was built using the finest materials from around the world. Each of Ceausescu’s children had three rooms dedicated to themselves alone, and the dictator and his wife (often referred to as his “co-dictator”) had their own huge suite of rooms — offices, reception areas, bedrooms, a huge closet, etc. The huge indoor pool was covered in wall-to-wall Italian mosaic tile.
As ever, under Communism, everyone is equal… but some are more equal than others. Ceausescu was a monster and a giant hypocrite, to say the least.
We also visited the Palace of Parliament, which is the second largest administrative building in the world, after the Pentagon in the U.S.A., and also the heaviest building in the world in terms of the amount of component materials. Ceausescu personally oversaw most of its construction, more than once forcing the builders to tear down entire rooms and rebuild them when he didn’t like the way they were coming together. He also wanted everything used for the building to be made in Romania; to do so, he caused many factories and companies to be created in order to make the carpets and lighting, quarry the marble, etc.
To make room for this massive building, though, Ceausescu also forced many people out of their homes into government housing, in many of which they had no bathrooms or even running water. Worse, to pay for it all, he started exporting Romanian-grown food to other countries. This resulted in a local shortage, which in turn caused an epidemic of starvation in his own country. Ceausescu was literally killing his people to build this opulent building.
All these factors, combined with the constant surveillance and imprisonment of people, ultimately led to a student-driven revolution that ended with the death of both Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife and co-dictator, Elena. (Good job, young people!)
Another cool thing we saw in Bucharest was a series of street performances that were part of the Bucharest International Performance Festival. We saw Italian flag performers, a Spanish drum circle, and a French cirque de soleil-like performance on a lake (!) in a city park. This last was in the absurdist style, super-weird, very fun, and a more than a little confusing; it was a part of a private city tour given to us by Manda’s friend Elena, who very kindly and proudly showed us around Bucharest one Saturday evening. She took us to some of the major sites in the city core and then to a Romanian restaurant where we saw some traditional dancing while we ate yummy traditional food (including an amazing dessert of donuts with strawberries and cream!) — all that prior to the crazy show on the lake mentioned above!
Oh, and we also got to tour HaHaHa Production’s offices with Manda, and also went to a concert in the city, which was headlined by Smiley himself and some of his biggest fellow stars! We even got to meet one of them after the show, an artist by the name of Jean Gavril, who is now one of my new crushes! 🙂
Constanța and Tulcea/Danube Delta
After an exciting week in Bucharest, we headed east toward the Black Sea, to a city called Constanța (con-STANTZ-uh). The city itself was dirtier and less appealing than some we’d seen, unfortunately, and it had many dilapidated and decaying buildings, including the old Constanța Casino; formerly the summer home of King Carol I, it has sadly not been maintained.
While Scott worked a lot of the time we spent here, I enjoyed a few lazy days on the beach savoring the views and reading books.
Then, continuing north from Constanța along the Black Sea, we stopped at the ancient Roman city of Histria, or Istros. From the Wikipedia entry, “[Istros] was the first urban settlement on Romanian territory when founded by Milesian settlers in the 7th century BC. It was under Roman rule from the 1st to 3rd centuries AD. Invasions during the 7th century AD rendered it indefensible, and the city was abandoned.” To be honest, there wasn’t too much left to see, aside from some bits of walls and ancient foundations. Still pretty cool, though. There was also a quaint little restaurant attached, where we had a light meal and some nice local wine.
A bit later that day, we visited Enisala Fortress in the Dobrogea region. It was really quite something to see from a distance, and the views from the hilltop over the surrounding region was lovely, but the interior of the castle, sadly, is almost entirely gone.
That night, we arrived at Tulcea (TULL-chuh). From there, the next day, we took a long, lovely boat ride through the Danube Delta. The tour was small, with only about ten of us in total (including our two guides), and we went through the whole delta right out to the sea. Once fellow tourist was a psychologist from the U.S. named Mike, who worked at an American military base nearby, and we had a really nice time chatting with him throughout the day. We exchanged emails and he shared some recipes with us a few days later. (Hope you’re well, Mike!)
We saw all kinds of indigenous flora and fauna, including a wide variety of birds, a herd of wild horses, and what our guides assured us are numerous in the area but only rarely seen: a beautiful striped wild cat (about half again, or maybe twice the size of a house cat). At midday, we stopped at a little village where we ate a huge meal of fresh fish soup, fried fish, polenta, and fried donuts.
Baia Mare (BYE-ya MAH-ray) is in the northern part of Romania, in the Maramureș (MAR-a-MOOR-esh) region, close to the Ukraine border. There, many people still live an old-fashioned lifestyle, sort of like Mennonites or Amish folks in North America — horse-drawn carts are used regularly in both agriculture and transportation, people wear traditional Romanian clothes, families live together in large households, and electricity and other modern technology is limited. That’s not at all to suggest everyone in Maramureș is backwards or ignorant; there are lots of towns that have every modern amenity as well. Some folks just choose to live the old way.
Here while Scott worked, I toured a prison once used to hold Jews, along with anyone else the Communist party deemed “dangerous” (read: anti-communist or anti-establishment). It was, like most communist memorials and museums, both educational and depressing. Statistics suggest that one in every five people in Romania were either part of the secret police or were interrogated by them, and possibly imprisoned, killed, displaced, or forced into labor camps by the Communist party.
I also took a day-trip to the Barsana Monastery, which was a delight. Comprising an 18th-century church and its accompanying structures, covered with baroque murals, and its flower-laden grounds, this is one of the famous of the sites known as the “wooden churches of Maramureș.”
On a more cheery note, we also walked around the Happy Cemetery, a one-of-a-kind resting place that celebrates the lives as well as the deaths of its townspeople. Each tombstone is a colorful mosaic work of art that depicts the life or death of the person interred there; there were mosaics of builders, housewives, mechanics, bakers, farmers, etc. There were also images and stories of tragic car crashes and accidents. It was really quite beautiful and literally a happy place to lie in eternal slumber. Unique and charming!
Bucharest (Second Time)
Remember the package we mentioned way back at the start of “Romania: Part 1”? Yeah, well, because my package still hadn’t arrived at this point, we headed back to Bucharest to wait for it. We didn’t want to have to come all the way back to Romania from our next destination once it arrived. So we dropped of our rental car back in Timișoara and then jumped on a local flight back to Bucharest. There we waited and waited, then waited some more, for another eight days in all.
During this time, Scott worked a lot and I toured the city. I also got my hair colored (I’m a blonde now!). I went to the Municipal Museum, where I saw a ton of big, beautiful diamonds. I visited the Cotroceni Palace, home to King Carol, later turned into a hotel used by the dictator.
Together, Scott and I visited the Museum of Senses (which was very underwhelming, really more of a kids’ attraction than a museum). We also spent one afternoon at a really nice place called Therme, which is a very large indoor waterpark with slides and pools for the kids (including fully grown kids, like us) as well as saunas and all sorts of other spa facilities available only for grown-ups (which we still assert that we are). Oh, and we also saw an orchestra play at the beautiful Athenaeum.
I finally got my package after calling the post office every day and, finally, paying an extra $250 USD in taxes — more than I paid for the items inside the package.
Then we flew to England. We decided to go to the UK next because a) flights to London from Bucharest were cheap and b) honestly, we were craving some interaction with native English-speakers; after four months of being in non-English-speaking countries, we were a bit tired of the language barrier.
More on England and Scotland in our next blog!
Connie & Scott