Friday Thought #90 Romania’s dark history

To finish off our Romanian trip report, I must mention the political history of the country as it is one of the most extraordinary stories to emerge from a county so close to home, and in the very recent past.

Nicolai Ceausescu was Romania’s communist president from 1967 – 1989 and despite seemingly starting out as exactly what the country needed and wanted, it soon turned sour and Ceausescu became increasingly brutal and repressive. He maintained tight controls over the media, sanctioned a brutal secret police force and made decisions which resulted in extreme shortages of fuel, energy, medicines, and a nationwide famine. Finally, after years of growing unrest, unlawful killings and political demonstrations, Ceausescu’s communist government was overthrown, and following a dramatic helicopter escape attempt, Ceausescu and his wife Elena were subjected to a brief show trial and sentenced to death by firing squad.

We visited these sights in Bucharest and in Târgoviște, an hour north of the capital, expecting them to be busy and full of tourists with cameras, like any European capital, especially one with such a fascinating history. But what we discovered was quite the opposite, Bucharest was like a ghost town. We were seemingly the only tourists, and the only people paying any attention to these historic landmarks. We got the distinct impression that Romanians don’t want to commemorate the revolution or celebrate their freedom, they just want to forget that this ever happened.

It took us a long time to even find the Ceausescu Museum in Târgoviște, given that it had no signs, wasn’t marked, and has the incorrect address on the website. This crumbling and unremarkable building is where the Ceausescus were held, tried and executed. Eerie doesn’t even come close. You can sit in the chair where they were sentenced, see where they spent their final days, and touch the bullet holes which remain in the wall where they fell. It should signal the end of repression for Romania, a start of a new era, yet the guest book indicated that we were the only visitors in the last 10 days.

Another stark reminder of the Ceausescu’s rule, and one which perhaps the Romanians would like to forget, is the Palace of the Parliament in Bucharest. Ceausescu built this in the 1980s to try and replicate the regime in North Korea. In order to build this narcissistic monstrosity, a hospital was demolished along with several monasteries and around 37 old factories and workshops, and 40,000 people were kicked out of their homes. The cost of building it was estimated at around €3 billion, of public money. Today it is the fourth biggest building in the world and the cost of heating and electric lighting alone exceeds €5.5 million per year. Despite housing the entire Romanian Parliament and several museums, approximately 70% of the building remains empty. Just what Romania needs; a country which still has one of the lowest net average monthly wages in the EU, at just €540.

Romania was a truly fascinating place, and I am pleased that through visiting I was able to learn so much more about the dark history of this country. If you ever find yourself in Eastern Europe I thoroughly recommend a trip.

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thumb_IMG_5115_1024A surprising lack of pride on a national monument.

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The bullet holes remain, as do the original lines drawn where the Ceausescus fell. Eerie doesn’t even come close.

 

 

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Friday Thought #89 Skiing in Romania

As I mentioned last time, my most recent eastern European ski jolly was to Romania; not a country renowned for its skiing, but somewhere with mountains nonetheless, plus with the added bonus of being a fascinating country, steeped in history and therefore with lots a exploring to be done. Unfortunately it has been a fairly dire winter across the whole of the European continent, and Romania was no exception, but despite the pretty minimal snowpack and obvious recent wind affect, with a bit of imagination and some searching, we managed to have some superb days out.

We were staying in the tiny village of Busteni, which does have a cable car, but no ski area. Theoretically the lift is for hiking and sightseeing only, but with a little internet research and a lot of map studying we discovered that there was a beautiful ski tour across the plateau at the top, with a potentially adventurous and exciting descent through a vast gully back down to the valley. It did indeed turn out to be quite an adventure, and we were slightly wary about the prospect of waking one of Romania’s hibernating bears…! But we had the place to ourselves all day in fairly wild country, and found some great skiing.

Despite day passes being disproportionately high in Romania (around the equivalent of €35/€40), one-way ski tickets are outrageously cheap (€5), leading us to wonder why anyone bothers buying a day pass, given the fairly limited lift-served skiing! So we generally got a lift bump at the start of the day, in neighbouring Sinaia and Azuga, and spent the day exploring with the skins. The weather was wonderful all week, so we may not have found powder heaven, but we saw some spectacular views and thoroughly enjoyed exploring and discovering some new mountains.

Friday Thought #88 Rescue Bears in Romania

At the end of February I had the opportunity to visit a country which has been on my hit list for a long long time. Romania has always fascinated me, everything I had heard about it seemed such a far cry from anything I knew, yet it’s just a short plane ride away, and in the very same continent I live in. The extreme poverty, the images of the orphanages in the 1980s, the horrific dictatorship, the hardships the Romanian people have had to endure; it seems like something that would happen in another world, far from privileged western society, and surely not in the modern day. Yet much of this dark history was during my lifetime, and since 2007 Romania has been a member of the European Union, the very same union shared by powerhouses such as Germany and the UK.

The trip was planned as a ski adventure combined with some culture and exploring of Romania, and I will share some of my experiences in Romania over the next few weeks, but I would like to start on a happy note. Whilst there we were absolutely delighted to be able to visit a rescue bear sanctuary in the town of Zarnesti, around 3 hours north of Bucharest, and we loved it so much, we visited again!

Horrifyingly, only in 2005 was it made illegal in Romania to take bears from the wild and hold them captive as ‘pets’ or tourist attractions, and thus the “Libearty“ sanctuary was created in an effort to try and rescue and care for the brown bears which had been mistreated and abused across Romania. Many were kept chained in front of restaurants, hotels, and gas stations as tourist attractions. Believe it or not, one bear was even rescued from a cage in a monastery.

Since the sanctuary opened, 95 bears have been rescued, and now live a life as close as possible to how they would be living in the wild, with 70 hectares of space to roam, hunt, swim and hibernate.

They run solely on donations and support from animal charities and supermarkets, and we discovered to our horror that the sanctuary’s running costs are a whopping €40,000 per month. It is a truly wonderful place and a remarkable achievement. I thoroughly loved spending time somewhere so selfless and so dedicated to others. I couldn’t recommend a visit more highly if you ever find yourself in Romania.

http://www.ampbears.ro/en/bear-sanctuary

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