Thursday, November 2, 2017

Down the Danube from Budapest to Bucharest: Romania

Morning in Gurgiu
Unless you opt for an extension, Romania gets short shrift on the Budapest to Bucharest Danube cruises. Passengers disembark at Gurgiu in the morning and bus to Bucharest for the night before flying home. The cruise includes lunch, a tour and dinner at the hotel. However, with most flights leaving early in the morning (my friend and I had a 2:30 a.m. wake-up call) no one hit the night spots.

Too bad because this city, one of the largest in Europe, not to mention the Romanian economy, deserves more.

The drive in was quite interesting as our guide, Sorin, told us about Romania with a welcome dose of humor. It was all forest when the Romans arrived, but soon became the agricultural center it still is. Wine culture has a 2,000-year history here and prior to World War II wheat was a major export. Smokers of Marlboros and Kents are enjoying Romanian tobacco.

Tip: The country is filled with smokers but laws eliminating smoking in restaurants were finally passed in 2016.

When a cow leisurely crossed the highway we learned Romania is an open range country.

Vlad Tepes, the Impaler
King or Count, Drakula reigns.
 Dracula, be he the original King Vlad III, "The Impaler," of history or author Bram Stoker's version, is a national hero, especially in Bucharest.

Under Vlad III, "Bucharest was a free trade place," said Sorin. "No taxes, duty free, free parking. Vlad was very good for the country. People respected Vlad."

Whereas his grandfather bribed the Turks to stay out, Vlad fought them, killing 20,000 and impaling them on stakes "like shish kebab," Sorin described, adding that Turkish assassins killed the king, cut off his head and took it to the sultan in Constantinople.
Bram Stoker is on a Romanian postage stamp, tpp.

When Irishman Bram Stoker modeled and usurped the name of his character after the King, public interest was inflamed. The Castle of the Carpathians underwent a name change after lovers of the book decided it was where Count Dracula was buried. The Count has been very good for the Romanian economy and there is even a statue of Bram Stoker in Romania for having made the area so famous. The Irish bar is one of the city's most popular.
Romanian born Bela Lugosi portrayed the classic Dracula.

According to Sorin, "in 1973 they found the grave of Vlad 30 minutes outside Bucharest," although Romanians prefer to keep quiet about it, lest it affect tourism.

Glimpses of Bucharest 
 Upon arriving in Bucharest we go directly to our restaurant situated on a scenic lake.

This banquet-specializing spot is capable of handling five buses or three weddings at a time, complete with musicians and folk dancers.

The restaurant is known for its fish but our meal is classic Romanian fare, salad, beef soup, cabbage rolls and "mamalika," polenta.

The ride back into city center offers a hint of how beautiful Bucharest can be, unlike the Communist era depressing multi-story apartment blocks we saw on our approach.

Our walking tour started at Calea Victoriei in front of the statue of King Karol I, their favorite German King who brought electricity, rail and tramways, votes for women (thanks to his wife, one of Queen Victoria's many daughters), built Symphonic Hall, the library and increased prosperity. He and his steed stand facing the National Art Museum, formerly the Royal Palace.

From there we head into what Sorin called the German Quarter, others Old Town, a warren of streets and impressive buildings, the handsomest of which seemed to have become banks.

Cafes bustled with activity and I Ionged to linger in one but had spied the tiny Stavropoleos Monastery Church up ahead. Our pace was a hasty one and I knew it deserved  more time than was allotted so I hurried ahead.

Built in 1724 as part of a larger inn, its style is wildly eclectic and to me, completely satisfying. Byzantine, Ottoman, Moroccan or Romanesque, it has it.

I've later learned its style is called Brancovenesc, described as eclectic and developed during the reign of Prince Constantin Brancoveanu, 1688-1714.

Rich frescoes inside and out, even richer icons and relic receptacles demand attention, but my favorite spot was the side garden, a sanctuary of peace and reflection.

Tip: The pace of this tour is steady, but it is over flat, paved surfaces without any elevation changes. 

The Harrod's of Bucharest.
There were so many buildings and stores I wanted to see the insides of but couldn't (not to mention the museum, theaters and palaces),  it made the tour as frustrating as it was interesting. 

 Tip: Bucharest is a human-sized city. "We don't like skyscrapers, towers," Sorin said. "Better two, three, four stories." As such it's good destination for Levelers. Flat, too.

The day was hot, though, so the air- conditioned bus was a welcome sight.

Our next stop, "the People's House," brought home what Romania had suffered through since World War II.

Sorin had told us some of the story, how after the Soviet takeover in 1948, "the Russians tried to make us like Russia." Private property was taken over by the state. Productive individual farms were turned into unproductive state-run communes. Farmers were sent to work in factories, businessmen on farms. Nothing worked; hunger and starvation ensued, far worse than in the other Baltic states. One half miillion people were imprisoned, another quarter million were disappeared.

When Nicolae Ceausescu took over the country in 1965 then became president in 1974, he exchanged Socialism for Communism.

"We lost 1,500 during the anti-communist revolution," said Sorin. "He tried to make us like North Korea."

Eventually 100,000 political prisoners were released and individuals reclaimed their property.

The People's House.
As if the economy weren't bad enough, Ceausescu began on the People's House, an oversized testament to his ego. It is the second-largest administrative building in the world (the U. S. Pentagon is the largest). Looking at it from a block away it is as ugly as it is big, totally out of proportion and lacking in grace.

It also lacks air conditioning; Ceausescu didn't like air conditioning. It also lacks more than 100 steps of the finest marble that Ceausescu had torn out. He was short and they were too big for his stride.

He never made a speech from the grand balcony he had built for that purpose. He was deposed, he and his wife tried and executed before it was christened. Michael Jackson was the first to speak from it.

From there we were delivered to our hotel, the JW Marriott Bucharest Grand another souvenir from the Ceausescu era for it is where foreign dignitaries stayed. I can assure you they were very comfortable.

Tip: If you need anything here, ask the staff. They are extremely accommodating, especially concierge George Soreata who was invaluable in helping me check in for my flight home.


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