The last country I visited on my recent trip to Eastern Europe was Romania. Most of my time there was spent in its capital, Bucharest, a lovely city sometimes called “Little Paris.” Some of the city’s ornate buildings help explain this nickname.
In addition to French-inspired architecture, another reason Bucharest has been dubbed “Little Paris” goes back to around 1900 when it became fashionable for citizens to greet each other in French and wear the latest French fashions. All things French became a kind of status symbol, I guess.
The fascination with French culture can certainly be seen in some of the architecture that has survived two world wars and communist dictatorships.
Bucharest even has its own Triumphal Arch, modeled after the famous Arc de Triomphe in Paris. The picture my husband took from our tour bus doesn’t do it justice, but just like its counterpart in Paris, this monument is surrounded by a roundabout that bustles with traffic.
The elaborate architecture was also evident in a restaurant we visited in the old Lipscani district of Bucharest. This place featured arched doorways, a mosaic-tiled floor, paintings on the walls, balconies, tall ceilings–and a violinist to serenade lunch patrons. I believe we were told the restaurant had once been a church.
Speaking of churches, Romania’s predominant religion is Eastern Orthodox with more than 81% of Romanians identifying themselves as Orthodox Christians. Many of the churches are stunningly beautiful. This Eastern Orthodox Church features a vaulted ceiling with every inch of wall space used to depict scenes from the Bible or paintings of saints. Many of the early church members were illiterate, so these elaborately decorated churches helped them learn their Bible stories.
A feature of the Orthodox religion is the prevalence of icons, sacred images painted on wooden panels. I bought this icon from a shop in Bucharest. I’m Methodist, not Eastern Orthodox, but I believe a picture of Mary and Joseph on a bedside table works for any Christian.
The People’s Palace, Romania’s parliament building, was built during the years of communism, but is surprisingly as ornate as the French-inspired architecture of the city. And it’s big; in fact, it’s the second largest office building in the world.
Construction began under the rule of Nicolae Ceausescu, the last communist ruler of Romania. Although he was tried for crimes against his country and, with his wife, immediately executed on Christmas Day in 1989, work on the People’s Palace continued, and this grand structure was finished eight years after Ceausescu’s death.
Revolution Square in Bucharest is full of symbolism. The square is named for the beginning of the uprising which led to the overthrow of the brutal communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. In early December 1989, over 100,000 people gathered there. Authorities expected the crowd to applaud Ceausescu’s speech condemning Romanians who were beginning to protest communist rule.
Instead, people began booing and jeering. The scene was caught uncensored on the state-run national television station. The cat was out of the bag, with Romanians across the country seeing the level of support for ending communism.
Ceausescu gave this speech from a balcony of the building in the picture, then called the Central Committee of the Communist Party. The obelisk in the center, adorned with something that looks like a pierced hornet’s nest, has been erected since the revolution and is officially called the Monument of Rebirth.
I can’t talk about Romania without mentioning vampires, particularly Count Dracula of Transylvania. The area of Romania known as Transylvania is real, and unfortunately, about a four-hour, one-way drive from Bucharest, making it a very long day trip. We didn’t have a day to book such a trip to see the castle that supposedly was the setting for Bram Stoker’s famous novel Dracula.
What we could do, though, was book a local excursion to see where Vlad the Impaler is buried. Who is Vlad the Impaler? Though Transylvania is a real place, Count Dracula wasn’t a real person/vampire. Bram Stoker made him up.
However, the Count is based on Vlad the Impaler, a Romanian lord who stopped the invasion of the Ottoman Empire towards Western Europe. Despite the fact that the man was vicious–he impaled his enemies, leaving them to die a slow, painful death–he is considered a national Romanian hero to this day. His bloodthirsty style inspired Bram Stoker to use him as a model for Count Dracula.
Incidentally, Vlad the Impaler is buried without his head, which was separated from his body when he was killed and delivered to his enemies in Constantinople. Maybe an example of you live by the sword, you die by the sword.
Due to the coronavirus, this trip to Eastern Europe came with hassles. I had to take three Covid tests, two saliva and one very unpleasant nasal version. Each time, I held my breath, praying I wouldn’t test positive and be quarantined somewhere far from home. Also, I endured endless hours of wearing a mask both while sitting in airports for layovers as well as when flying.
Still, the trip was worth the inconveniences. I saw a part of the world that had been off-limits to Americans most of my life. I learned about life there during World War II, the years of communism, and now the period of adjusting to capitalism.
I came home happy to be an American.