Tag Archives: Romania

Impressions of Central/Eastern Europe’s Former Communist Countries

I’ve now traveled through 8 of the former communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe – Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, Romania, and Bulgaria.  Although I’ve written about most of them individually, I’ve recognized some things they share that I think are interesting:

  • Capitalism has been enthusiastically adopted in these countries.  Foreign companies are welcome.  There is advertising everywhere.  There are lots of small entrepreneurs working hard.
  • There is a lost generation of older people who grew up during the 45 years of communism.  Many have had a very hard time adapting to capitalism.  They lack the necessary skills or work ethic, and as a result, are a drag on the economy.  This has results in a huge generation gap, as younger people are driving the economy that supports the older ones.
  • Some people still look fondly to the Communist days.  They liked that everyone was provided with free, though basic, social services such as health care, welfare, pensions, etc. Now the people have to pay for these services.  They also didn’t have to work as hard or be responsible for themselves to the same degree that they do now.
  • Under communism, there was no personal property.  People were assigned housing by the government, with Communist party members normally receiving the better accommodations.  After the fall of communism, people had to apply to gain ownership of their existing homes.  They did not have to pay for them.  Communist party members generally retained their superior housing.  Citizens also had the opportunity to buy other state-owned assets like land and businesses, but most didn’t have the money, so many of these became the property of former communist leaders, who had amassed wealth under communism or who pilfered state funds, or of thugs (mafia, gangs, etc.)
  • There is still a problem with corruption in some of these countries at many levels.  The EU continues to reprimand those members with corruption problems.  A campground owner that I spoke with in Bulgaria told me of his ongoing challenges with local authorities seeking bribes for things like building permits, erecting street signs, etc.
  • Almost all of these countries are now members of the European Union, although some don’t use the Euro yet.  With the recent Euro problems, it might seem like they wouldn’t be anxious to switch.  In reality, some of their governments continue to spend wildly, and therefore don’t meet the fiscal criteria to switch to the Euro (criteria that are only likely to be tightened given the recent problems in Greece, Ireland, etc.).
  • As poorer members, countries like Romania and Bulgaria are recipients of considerable funding from the EU.  It is used to migrate to EU standards in many areas of government, business, and society (e.g. health care, military, signage, etc.) and to upgrade infrastructure.
  • With the fall of communism, many people’s communist era pensions lost value, so many seniors now exist on a small amount of income.  As prices rise towards the levels of Western Europe, inflation is making it very difficult for those who live on fixed incomes.
  • With inflation, those who own property are seeing significant increases in its value.  Those who don’t are becoming locked out of the real estate market due to the high prices (kind of like Vancouver).
  • Throughout these countries we’ve noticed a lot of abandoned buildings.  Many are government facilities no longer required (e.g. border crossings between Schengen countries that now share a common customs and immigration boundary), businesses found to be unsustainable in a free market economy, or homes abandoned as people moved to take advantage of new opportunities).
  • Despite the daily rain showers which remind us of Vancouver, we enjoyed our travels through the formerly communist countries of Central/Eastern Europe.  In most places (except for a few popular cities like Prague and Budapest) the prices are lower and there are fewer tourists.  The roads, facilities, and services are more variable, but definitely adequate, and these countries all have rich and interesting histories that most Westerners know little about.

This is the House that Nick Built

Nicolae Ceauşescu was the leader of Romania from 1965 to 1989 when he and his wife were executed by firing squad immediately after a two hour televised show trial on Christmas Day.  The grand House of the Republic (Casa Republicii) he was building wasn’t finished at the time, and despite the fact it was a symbol of his repressive and increasingly brutal regime, it was completed after his death.  Today it is called the Palace of the Parliament (Palatul Parlamentului) and houses the Romanian Chamber of Deputies, Legislative Council, Competition Council, and the Senate (pretty much the entire national leadership).

Black and white image of Nicolae Ceauşescu in suit and tie

Nicolae Ceauşescu

Nicolae was born to poor parents, began work in a factory in Bucharest when he was 11 years old, and became a communist agitator in his youth.  He was arrested and jailed several times for anti-fascist activities, and at one time shared a cell with Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, a man who became his mentor and who later become the leader of the country.  After World War II, Romania fell under Soviet influence, and the communists came into power in 1947.  Ceauşescu quickly rose through the communist party ranks and held major leadership positions in the Romanian Government.  When Gheorghiu-Dej died, Ceauşescu became the leader of the country.

Ceauşescu was initially a popular with the Romanian people and viewed positively be Western leaders.  Despite his being a communist country, it had an open foreign policy, collaborated with Western Europe, and was occasionally openly critical of the Soviet Union.  Richard Nixon visited Romania during this time, and Ceauşescu was received by many foreign leaders.  He was viewed as a potentially reforming communist, and was courted by the West.

Ceauşescu in black suit seated on couch beside Geral Ford and Richard Nixon (both wearing blue suits), coffee table in front

Ceauşescu visiting Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon (1973), Source: Wikipedia

Ceauşescu received the Danish Order of the Elephant (what a title!) and honorary Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath from Queen Elizabeth.

Ceauşescu with wife and Queen Elizabeth with Prince Phillip standing in a line for formal black and white photo

Ceauşescu with Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace (1978), Source: Wikipedia

One of the early indictors of trouble was in the mid-1960’s when the Government of Romania made abortion illegal, divorce more difficult, and introduced other policies to increase the country’s low birth rate (women with 10 or more children were called heroine mothers).  This led to increased birth rates but also increased child abandonment.  In the 1970’s Ceauşescu began to pursue a national transformation program, similar to China’s cultural revolution.  He admired North Korea’s Kim Il-sung and China’s Mao Zedong, and began to actively develop his own cult of personality.  He continued to set his own foreign policy independent of Moscow, and was one of only 3 communist countries to participate in the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.

During the 1960’s and 70’s, Romania borrowed large amounts of money from Western countries to finance economic development.  By the 1980’s, this debt was becoming an oppressive burden, so Ceauşescu ordered that the debt be repaid as quickly as possible.  Most of the country’s food and industrial production was exported to get foreign currency for this purpose, and although the people understood why it was happening, they suffered greatly.  Food, heat, and electrical rationing were implemented.  Getting sufficient food was very difficult as the shops were empty.  Ceauşescu lived in denial of this and state television broadcast propaganda showing full stores and reported record agricultural production.

It was in this climate of restraint and suffering that in 1983, Ceauşescu began construction of a white elephant.  He ordered that a hill in the city of Bucharest be cleared to make way for a grand palace, resulting in the destruction of 28 churches and synagogues and 30,000 residences.  Ceauşescu intended that he would live in the palace and that the entire national government would operate from there (the presidency, government, parliament, and high court).

Large grey building veiwed from the plaza in front

Palace of the Parliament

Extending in front of the palace, he built the grand Bolevardul Unirii (Union Boulevard) similar to the Le Champs Élysées in Paris.

Looking over garden, flags, plazza, and long boulevard stretching into the distance

View from the front balcony

Originally named Victoria Socialismului (Victory of Socialism Boulevard), it extends for 3.5 km (just over 2 miles) and is lined with fountains.

Long boulevard with fountains and lined with trees, stretching into the distance

Bolevardul Unirii (Unity Boulevard)

The Palace is rectangular in shape, 270 meters (900 ft.) x 240 meters (700 ft.), has 12 stores, and a total of 3.7 million square feet.  It was constructed almost entirely using Romanian labour and materials.  It is the world’s 2nd largest building by surface area (after the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.), but has the largest square footage and was the most expensive to build.  This lavishness was one of many of reasons why the starving Romania people were so upset.

In December 1989, demonstrations began in the city of Timişoara, and the harsh government crackdown provoked an angry response from the people.  The uprising quickly spread to the capital of Bucharest and on December 21st Ceauşescu attempted to give a public speech but was shouted down by protesters.  People watching on television saw that he was unaware of how serious things had become.  He appeared shocked and confused by the people’s response.  By the next day protests had spread across the country and the mysterious death of the defence minister led to the army siding with the people.  Nicolae tried to address the people again, but he and his wife Elana barely escaped by helicopter when they began throwing rocks and stormed the building.  They were soon captured and became the last people executed in Romania before capital punishment was abolished 13 days later.

It is interesting to note that Ceauşescu was stripped of his Danish Order of the Elephant by Queen Margrethe II of Denmark on December 23, 2 days before his death, and of his Knighthood by Queen Elizabeth on December 24, the day before his death.  Elizabeth also returned the Romanian Order that Ceauşescu had given her.  I find it remarkable that these things weren’t done earlier in his regime, which was widely regarded as being dictatorial, but only after he was overthrown.  The whole business seems pretty transparent, responding to the tide of public opinion rather than individual merit.

For a while the people of Romania considered demolishing the Palace of the Parliament.  It reminded them too much of Ceauşescu. The building was complete but the interiors unfinished.  It sat this way for 5 years before they decided to finish the main areas and later began using it as the seat of their government.

Huge white hall with giant skylight lined with columns and chandeliers

One of the many massive interior halls, Source: Wikipedia

Today it is one of the grandest palaces in Europe, constructed in a neoclassical style, but with the advantage of modern construction techniques.

Long white marble hallway with columns and a red carpet, Source: Wikipedia

Pretty nice for hallway! (Source: Wikipedia)

Its main rooms are much larger and almost as grand as those of many other European palaces (e.g. Schönbrunn in Vienna, Versailles outside Paris, Sansoucci Park palaces in Potsdam).

Some of its carpets are so big they had to be manufactured in place (they actually moved in the carpet weaving machines), and it takes 80 people to move one of them!

A huge hall with skylight, white floor, and people milling about

Another massive interior Hall, Source: Wikipedia

If you’re interested, the palace is available to rent, but not for private parties.  The only private event ever held there was the wedding reception of Romanian gymnast, defector, and national hero Nadia Comăneci and American gymnast Bart Conner in 1996.

The Real Dracula

Who was the real Dracula?  Is it this guy trying to bite Diane?

Guy in cheesy Count Dracula costume with fake teeth and blood pretending to bite Diane's neck

Is this the Real Dracula?

The man known as Dracula was born in 1431 in Sighisoara (pronounced ‘siggy-schwa-ra’), a town that we visited in Transylvania.  Dracula (Vlad III) was named after his father Vlad II, a commander of the mountain passes between Transylvania and Wallachia. His mother was Princess Ceneajna of Moldavia.  His father lived at Str Muzeului 6 near the clock tower, which is probably where Dracula was born.

Three story corner house on main square painted golden yellow

Dracula’s Birthplace

Dracula’s birthplace is now a tourist restaurant and coffee shop.

Diane seated at a table with small lamp, orange wall, with coffee in white cup

Diane enjoying coffee in Vlad Dracul’s House

In the year of Vlad III’s birth (the son), Vlad II (the father) traveled to Nuremburg and was vested into the Order of the Dragon, a society with the goal of protecting Christianity in Europe and defending it against the Ottoman Turks. The Order of the Dragon was founded by Sigismund of Luxembourg, Holy Roman Emperor and king of what later became Hungary, Croatia, and Bohemia. Afterwards Vlad II was known by the nickname Vlad Dracul (meaning ‘dragon’).  Like his Dad, Vlad III was also initiated into this Order at age 5.  Young Vlad became known as Dracula (‘son of the Dragon’) after his father.

In 1436, Vlad II Dracul became Voivode (King) of Wallachia, making Vlad III (Dracula) a Prince. His rule didn’t last long and he was overthrown in 1442 by rival factions in league with Hungary, but regained his thrown with support from the Ottomans (Turkish Muslims) in return for agreeing to pay the Jizya (a tax on non-Muslims).  In addition, he was required to send his two sons Vlad III (Dracula) and Radu to the Ottoman court to serve as hostages to ensure his loyalty, a common practice in those days to ensure that people lived up to their commitments.  There Vlad Dracula probably observed the Turks using torture and other techniques of terror, which he would later use against them.

Vlad Dracula grew and became a three-time Voivode of Wallachia, ruling mainly from 1456 to 1462.  This was a period of growing attacks on the Balkans by the Ottomans.  As a member of the Order of the Dragon, Vlad III spent much of his life battling against the Ottoman Empire and the expansion of Islam.  In order to discourage them, he began the practice of impaling his enemies and allowing them to die slowly.  He developed a reputation for excessive cruelty which was renowned across Europe.  The total number of his victims is estimated in the tens of thousands.   As a result of his practice of skewering his enemies, Vlad was later dubbed Vlad Țepeș  (Vlad the Impaler).

Black and white image of man with long hair and mustache, hat with raised insignia in front

Vlad the Impaler

Vlad was the inspiration for Count Dracula in Bram Stoker’s 1897 gothic horror novel Dracula.  There is no evidence that the real Dracula drank blood, could change into animal forms, or was undead.  Stoker knew just enough Romanian history to make the connection with Vlad Dracula and Transylvania undoubtedly seemed like such an exotic place for the home of his main character.

We also visited Bran Castle, which claims to have a connection to Dracula, one which is tenuous one at best.  Still, it was an interesting castle to visit given its position, history, and design (many small rooms linked by twisting staircases and passageways).  The Castle has displays about its own history, that of Vlad Dracula, plus information about vampires and strigoi (Romanian poltergeists, evil souls of the dead born again with the ability to change into animals, become invisible, and to drain the vitality of victims via blood loss – sound familiar?).

Castle above trees.  1 tower.  Grey with reddish roof.

Dracula’s Castle?

Vlad III Dracula was murdered at the age of 45 in the year 1476.  His head was taken to Constantinople as a trophy, and his body was buried unceremoniously, but his memory and his descendants live on.  Vlad Dracula is an ancestor of Queen Elizabeth.  Mary of Teck, a descendant of Vlad the Impaler, joined the British Royal Family in 1893 upon her marriage to His Royal Highness Prince George, Duke of York, who later became King George V in 1910. In October 2011, Prince Charles publicly claimed that genealogy proves that he is a distant relative of the real Dracula.

Impressions of Romania

• Romania appears less developed than the other countries we’ve been to in the European Union, including other former Communist countries Poland and Slovakia.

• It is common to see people driving horse drawn wagons in the countryside and smaller towns.  For many, this appears to be their primary form of transport.

• The roads in Romania are generally poor.  A lot of rural roads aren’t paved.  Even those that are can be bone jarring, resulting in average speeds of 40-60 km/hr.  Despite careful driving (don’t worry Sue and Martin), we had unwrapped eggs break while bouncing in the camper refrigerator door.

• Romania is the home of Transylvania and ‘Count Dracula’.  This should not be confused with Tasmania, an island off the south coast of Australia, and home of the Tasmanian Devil.

• Transylvania was settled by Saxons from Germany in the 12th Century, who accepted the invitation of King Geysa II of Hungary to come to Transylvania.  They established many of the major towns in the region.  There were over 700,000 Germans in Romania in 1930, but today there are less than 45,000 native German speakers.

• Romania tried to remain neutral in both of the world wars, but was coerced to side with the Allies in World War I and with the Axis (Germany, Italy, and Japan) in World War II.

• Nadia Comăneci was born in Romania, and won 3 Olympic gold medals in the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal.  She was the first female gymnast ever to be awarded a perfect score of 10 in an Olympic gymnastics event.

• Nicolai Ceauşescu was the leader of Romania from 1965 to 1989 when he was overthrown during the collapse of Communism.   He was tried in 2 hours and executed along with his wife on Christmas Day 1989.

• Praising the crimes of totalitarian regimes or denigrating their victims is forbidden by law in Romania.  This includes the Ceauşescu regime.

• Romanian houses are often painted in pastel colours of cream, yellow, peach, green, or blue.

Looking down a street with green, blue, and peach pastel houses.

Romanian houses painted in pastel colours

• Hitchhiking seems to be common here.  People on the roadside wave a straight arm up and down a couple of times then bend it to the thumb up position that we typically associate with hitching.  At first I thought they were indicating that we should slow down, but we don’t drive that fast.

• It is illegal to drive a dirty car in Romania.  This is hard to avoid when many roads aren’t paved.

• It is a legal requirement to wear a reflective safety vest when walking beside the road at night or in poor visibility.  This is not just for people whose cars have broken down (which is common elsewhere in Europe), but for everyone.

• There are a lot of stray or feral dogs in Romania, mostly street-smart mongrels about 8-14 inches (0.3 meters) high at the shoulder.  They are large enough to deliver a bite, but not big enough to really intimidate.

Sad mutt with grey and brown tones walking down the sidewalk

Feral Dog

• Romania has the largest wolf and bear population in Europe, but we didn’t see any.

• There seem to be a lot of short women here.  Many of the young woman are petite, but the older women dressed in traditional clothing look squat.

• The Romanian language is a romance language that is related to Italian, French, Spanish, and Portuguese.  As a result, it is easier for me to recognize some of the words than in Poland or Slovakia.

• It is common to see people selling things beside the road.  Cheap plastic children’s toys seem to be popular, as are craft and food items like leatherwork, preserves, and honey.  We saw several people selling stills by the road, large copper kettles with corkscrew condensing tubes attached.  Yes, the kind used to make hooch.

Romania — We’re not in Kansas any more…

We approached the Romanian frontier at a small crossing in the east of Hungary.  Ours was the only car visible as we approached the remote border post in the dusk of late afternoon.  A man in a green uniform was smoking and put his cigarette down on the curb as we approached.  The country of registration of most European vehicles is indicated on the license plate, so it was obvious that we weren’t from around here.  Two other men in green appeared.  They flipped through our passports and our vehicle registration.  One asked, in surprisingly good English, “Do you have any special baggages?”  I wasn’t quite sure what he meant or how to answer so I smiled, shook my head, and said, “Nothing special”.  They were handing us back our passports and the English speaker said, “Enjoy your stay in Romania”, when he noticed that we were from Canada.  Up to this point they had assumed that we, like our camper van, were from England.  This was apparently an issue.

All three men disappeared for a very long time.  We sat there with the engine off, waiting.  Ours was the only vehicle there.  We could hear the crickets chirping, but after what seemed like an eternity, they re-appeared with our passports and let us pass.  The English speaker said, “Welcome to Romania”.  Romania recently joined the European Union, but it is not yet part of the Schengen Area, the zone of 26 European countries that share a common customs and immigration boundary.  So we needed to receive passport stamps to leave the Schengen and to enter Romania.  I don’t think that many Canadians pass through this lonely border crossing.  I am thankful yet again for the fact that Canadians are welcomed into so many countries.  We bear one of the best passports for international travel.

As soon as we arrived in the first Romanian village we noticed a big difference from Hungary.  Things were visibly poorer and less developed.  The roads were paved, but full of holes or patched and bumpy.  The few cars we saw were small, old, and in poor condition.  There were as many horse-drawn wagons on the road as cars.  We passed a man using a pitchfork to load his wagon with fresh grass cut from the roadside using a scythe.  It felt like we had gone back about a hundred years.

Horse drawn wagon on road with wheels, rubber tires, white horse

Horse-drawn wagon on roadway (Photo Credit: Diane)

The houses were simple and some had outbuildings made of wattle-and-daub.  There were open ditches in town and no sidewalks or landscaping.  The ground in front of the small homes was just mud.  The children were playing in the street.  A popular toy for the boys appeared to be a whip.  Definitely not child safe.

Three children running toward the car wearing pants and jackets

Romanian children playing in the street

The few adults we saw had dark, weathered complexions.  Some women sat in front of their homes wearing kerchiefs and house smocks.

Romanian woman walking beside road wearing skirt and aprom

Rural Romanian woman walking beside road (Photo credit: Diane)

Several times we had to slow to pass small herds of cattle in the streets as they were being brought in from the fields.  Each group was being prodded by a man with a whip, usually accompanied by a boy.

Cows walking on the street. Picture taken through windshield of the RV.

Cows in the street!  (Photo credit: Diane)

As we passed, everyone stared at us.  It felt like we had been teleported back to a village in (rural Africa, India, or Nepal).  Suddenly we were curiosities again, instantly recognizable as being outsiders.  I had expected to encounter this somewhere in Central/Eastern Europe, thinking perhaps it might have occurred earlier in Poland or Hungary, but they were both more developed and more frequented by tourists.  In rural Romania our large vehicle and our light skin colour make us stand out.

Patrick driving RV with cows visible outside the windows

Dodging Cows!  (Photo credit: Diane)

There were not many shops and none were open.  Eventually we arrived at a gas station, hoping to buy a vignette.  There were no cars there, but there was a person filling plastic containers with fuel.  They didn’t sell vignettes.  Surprisingly, we did find a bank machine and were able to get some Romanian lei (pronounced ‘lay’).  I had to walk through the mud to get to it.

We headed for the only campground in this part of the country.  It is operated by a non-profit foundation led by a Dutch couple that takes in battered women and their families.  They are glad to see us and asked about our journey, seeming almost surprised that we had made it.  There is only 1 other camper here.