Budapest to Bucharest, Kiev, and Moscow travel blog

We disembarked our riverboat and loaded onto coaches for our ride into Bucharest, where we would be spending the next two days. Unfortunately, Zoran was our guide and I let his stream of consciousness babble run over me. When I tried to reconstruct Romania’s history, I came to have some sympathy for his loose facts. There were many forces at work in Romania’s creation. For centuries after the Romans left, many tribes from the east settled in Romania, including the Huns, Slavs, Bulgars, Magyars, and Mongols.

In the 13th century, the Hungarian King Bela of Transylvania invited the Saxons to settle there as a means of repulsing the Tatars who were mounting persistent invasions. During the 14th and 15th centuries, principalities of Wallachia in the south and Moldavia in the east were also formed, establishing the three general regions of Romania known to the present day. The Ottoman Turks pressed into Europe in the next centuries, and after the Battle of Mohacs in1526 (where we had disembarked when we visited Pecs, Hungary), the Ottomans ultimately prevailed. Although Transylvania came under Habsburg rule in the late 17th century, regions in Wallachia and Maldovia remained under Ottoman control until the Russo-Turkish War of 1829, when they became Russian protectorates.

In the early 19th century, democratic revolutionary efforts supported by the French began in Wallachia and MoldoviaIn, until, following the Crimean War, in 1859 popular political elections uniting these two regions were successfully led by Alexandru Ioan Cuza. In Transylvania, however, military leaders approached first Louis Napoleon and then Bismark for assistance in finding an appropriate monarch for that state. Bismark produced Prince Carl from the Prussian House of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen. Following a coup d’etat Prince Carl I of Romania replaced the elected prime minister Cuza, and Romania- now composed of Transylvania, Wallachia, and Malova - was recognized as an independent kingdom under King Carl I. During his reign, Romania enjoyed several decades of prosperity until WWI.

The two world wars are just too much for me to digest at this point. Suffice it to say, that during WW II, King Carl II (grandson of King Carl I) was forced to abdicate in favor of the fascist dictator Antonescu, who joined Nazi forces and who was responsible for murdering over 300,000 Jews and at least 11,000 Roma. Antonescu was later tried and executed for war crimes. Romania was the primary source of oil for the Nazi’s during WWII and was therefore the target of intense Allied bombing. But just before the WWII ended, in August 1944, King Michael, heir to the throne, mounted a successful coup, and Romania then switched sides to join the Allied forces. The Soviets occupied Romania after the war, forced King Michael I to abdicate, and installed a communist regime. The Soviets left Romania in 1958, but its communist dictator was firmly established.

In 1965, Nicolas Ceausescu assumed the Romanian communist dictatorship and ruled, with his wife, Elena, until they were deposed by popular revolt (assisted by the military) in 1989, tried by some kind of tribunal, and immediately executed by a firing squad. Today, there is a democratically elected government headed by an ethnic German named Iohannis. His primary challenge is to attack and dislodge the impermeated corruption that has impoverished this country.

During our visit to Bucharest we saw the Central Committee building where Ceaucescu gave his last balcony speech and from whose rooftop he and Elena escaped by helicopter. Soon thereafter they were intercepted and brought to a military base in Targoviste outside of Bucharest. Today, Ceaucescu’s last speech and attempted escape is marked by an white, spear-like obelisk that seems to pierce a thorny wreath, known as the Rebirth Memorial. Zoran wasn't going to let us out to take pictures until someone protested.

We had lunch at a popular beer and sausage restaurant called Caru’ cu Bere, which served gigantic portions. We walked some of it off with Zoran, visiting the Stavropoleos Church, the “Little Paris” section of restaurants, and, on the steps of National History Building, the modern statue of Trajan standing naked and holding a he/she wolf.

That evening our Tauck group had a private tour of the Parliament, or the People’s Palace as Ceaucscu wanted it called, which was just across the road from the JW Marriott where we were staying. This is a monstrosity of a building, at 330,000 sq m, it is second in size only to the US Pentagon. Ceaucscu bankrupted the country in the 1980’s trying to pay back the billions of dollars he had borrowed in order to build it. In fact, it was never nor will ever be completed. Today its grand rooms are rented out for use by NATO, as movie locations, but not for the Romanian Parliament.

The scale of the entrance halls was hard to take in. The ceilings were at least five stories high and they are very grand staircases at major intersections. We visited a few meeting rooms - one all in pink, so it could be a neutral color not found on any country’s flag. Another was green or heavy, wood carved mahogany. The chandeliers in all of the rooms were massive and weighed several tons a piece. We visited an upstairs room with a balcony that overlooked the grand boulevard, planned by Ceaucscu to rival the Champs Elysées, and Barry took a bow. Our farewell dinner was in a comparably plain ballroom of the Parliament with elegant service and musicians.

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