A Few Steps From Europe To The Orient – Collision Course:  Sarajevo Between East & West

The dividing line between east and west in Europe is entirely subjective and over the centuries has been subject to change. In the first half of the 19th century the Austrian Foreign Minister, Prince Clemens Von Metternich stated that Asia begins at the Landstrasse, the road that led south and east out of Vienna to Hungary. In other words, Hungary was part of the Orient. During the Cold War, the dividing line was partitioned by an iron curtain that separated capitalism from communism, multi-party democracy from the dictatorship of one party rule. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall that boundary has moved further east, to the border running between EU and non-EU members. Some prefer to mark eastern from western Europe by religion. Cross the border from Hungary into Ukraine, Poland into Belarus and church steeples suddenly transform into onion domes. Catholicism and Protestantism give way to Eastern Orthodoxy, rules based religion to mysterious mysticism, Rome becomes Byzantium.

Cathedral Church of the Nativity of the Theotokos

Cathedral Church of the Nativity of the Theotokos
(Credit: Wikipedia)

A Precarious Coexistence- Empire & Ethnicity Collide
So where does East meet West in Europe? All of the above might be the best answer. In my experience though, there is no place where East meets West in such startling fashion as the heart of Sarajevo. Here the transition and transformation can be experienced on a human scale. One can walk from Europe into the Orient in a matter of minutes. This has much to do with the currents of geo-politics and geography. Yet in Sarajevo it is also noticeable at a real street level. Europe suddenly becomes interwoven with Asia. In the transition between the new and old town in Sarajevo I felt the beating heart of the Balkans, a deeply rooted multiculturalism with almost an unfathomable ethnic diversity. Here was to be found the deep roots of Ottoman influence in Europe, Austro-Hungarians dipping their toes into the near east, Serbs overreaching their way west, Croats with a marginally effective presence, the Sephardic Jews still making their presence felt even in absence and Bosniaks predominate, despite a precarious existence. Here was the place where empire and ethnicity collided, causing the creation of a sublime atmosphere only to be found in Sarajevo.

It took me only half an hour walking around the heart of Sarajevo to sense the depth of diversity that has been the city’s hallmark for centuries. A short walk took me past Catholic and Orthodox Cathedrals, the city’s oldest synagogue and its most glorious mosque. In my experience there is nowhere else in Europe where the architecture of differing belief systems stands in such close proximity to one other. These houses of worship not only represent religions, but are also symbolic of the different ethnic groups that have made the city their home. Sarajevo should be known as much for this plurality of peoples and faiths, as it is for the horrors of 20th century warfare that have irreparably altered its reputation. The heart of Sarajevo is a tale of tolerance sculpted in stone and professed in distinct dialects. Along a handful of streets, eastern and western ideals of Europe, religion and culture are arranged astride one another.

Inside the old Sarajevo Synagogue which is now the Museum of the Jews of Bosnia & Herzegovina

Inside the old Sarajevo Synagogue which is now the Museum of the Jews of Bosnia & Herzegovina

A Darker Testament – Religious Epiphanies In Sarajevo
This fascinating walk can best be done by starting at the Cathedral Church of the Nativity of the Theotokos along Branilaca Sarajeva. This Cathedral was the first church in Sarajevo to rival the Muslim monopoly on monumental sacral structures. At the time of its construction in the mid-19th century, Sarajevo was still part of the Ottoman Empire. Interestingly enough, the imperial Sultan Abdulaziz symbolically contributed funding for its construction. The Cathedral’s main benefactors were wealthy Serbian merchants in the city. Laid out on a cross-shaped plan, the three-section basilica contains five domes, with the central dome much larger than the others. Though the Sultan supported its construction, the Cathedral caused great consternation among the Muslim population of the city since its tower was higher than any minaret found in Sarajevo at the time. The cathedral’s dedication was delayed for over a year due to protests and the threat of violence from conservative Muslims. The furor subsided after the minaret at Gazi Husrrev-beg Mosque was raised by a few feet to surpass it.

From the Cathedral Church of the Nativity walk about 50 feet down Zelenih Beretki and take Strossmayerova to the north. This runs right into the neo-Gothic styled Sacred Heart Cathedral of Sarajevo. It is the largest cathedral in Bosnia-Herzegovina and plays an important role as the main center of worship for Catholics (mainly ethnic Croatians) in the city. The cathedral also acts as a symbol of Sarajevo, with its Romanesque towers appearing on the city’s coat of arms. Its size made it an inviting target during the Siege of Sarajevo. Despite sustaining major damage, the cathedral has now been repaired.

Turning to the east down Ferhadije, follow the street for a couple of minutes until it turns to the north and goes to the Museum of the Jews of Bosnia & Herzegovina. The museum is housed in the oldest synagogue in Sarajevo. It was built in 1581, fifteen years after the first Jews arrived in the city. These were Sephardic Jews who had fled persecution in Spain. The rustic multi-story building testifies to the enduring Jewish presence. Inside there is a much darker testament, the Book of the Dead, which lists over 14,000 Jewish citizens of Sarajevo wiped out by the Holocaust.

Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque in Sarajevo

Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque in Sarajevo (Credit: Julian Nitzsche)

An Eastern State Of Mind – The Orient In Europe
Backtrack down Ferhadija and turn left. The street name suddenly changes to Saraci up until the point at which it bisects Mula Mustafe Baseskije. After turning right, in a couple of hundred feet the soaring minaret and multi-domed Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque comes into view.  To see the mosque illuminated at night is a fantastic experience. It is also a reminder that this was the first mosque in the world to be illuminated with electricity. The mosque is an excellent example of classical Ottoman architecture. Located at the heart of Sarajevo’s Bascarsija (Old Town), within minutes of seeing the mosque, I forgot that I was in Europe or even the Balkans. It was as though I had walked into the near East, treading on Ottoman ground. The Oriental exoticism on display became all consuming. Here, the West only existed as a distant memory, just as the East minutes before had been all but unimaginable. The transition from one culture to the next was seamless. That magical architecture of spirituality spread across a few streets in the heart of Sarajevo had taken hold of me.

The War Still Being Fought – Preservation Of Dissension: The National Museum Of Bosnia & Herzegovina (Travels In Eastern Europe #23)

There were places I visited in Sarajevo because I wanted to and there were places I visited because I felt like I had to. The National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina was one of the latter. I have spent a large part of my career working in museums, including now. The idea of visiting something that reminds me of work while I am on vacation in Eastern Europe feels me with dread. I always recoil at such a thought for the same reasons. There will be an overwhelming number of things to see and read, then after an hour my legs and back will begin to ache, this will be followed by a test of intellectual endurance, as I grow weary of words and pictures and artifacts. The visit will come to an abrupt end, mainly because my eyes are glassy and mind numb from trying to take it all in. Museum fatigue is what I feel at the beginning of a visit these days, rather than at the end.

This feeling weighted me down as I walked towards the entrance of the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina on a late spring morning in Sarajevo. On the grounds leading to the entrance were medieval tombstones, an ominously intriguing reminder that the history of Sarajevo was much older than its famously fraught 20th century. Yet the 20th century was never far away, as the gloriously Italian Renaissance revival style museum building, erected at the tail end of the Austro-Hungarian era, so conspicuously showed. When I entered the museum though, it was the very recent past that confronted me. Here was a place that had aged, not because of time, but due to war. Its most prominent characteristic was neglect.

Medieval tombstones around National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina

Medieval tombstones around National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina (Credit: BiHVolim)

Agreeing To Disagree – Bosnia’s Past As Its Present
I soon discovered that The Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina does not have any world class exhibits. It does hold some priceless cultural artifacts, but there was little funding to care for them. As a matter of fact, lack of money was the main reason the place had fallen into a state of disrepair. The federal government was not forthcoming with operational funding. The main reason was that each ethnic groups representative entities, whether Bosnian Serbs, Croats or Bosniaks (Muslims) wanted their own cultural institutions. Each of them was opposed to a multi-cultural interpretation of Bosnia’s past. This was a harsh commentary on the often contentious ethnic relations at the federal level of government. The upshot was that by the time I visited the museum it was deteriorating badly.

From what I experienced the museum would be deemed by most visitors an abject failure. Paradoxically, that was exactly why, for me, it succeeded. The fact that it was cold, many of the rooms dimly lit and the exhibits falling apart spoke volumes about what the country had suffered since the dissolution of Yugoslavia. Not long after my visit, the museum would close for three years. I would later discover that the staff was not paid for over a year before the closure, yet somehow the museum stayed open. They proved that dedication, pride in the museum’s mission and a sense of duty could overcome a lack of funding, but only for so long. To compound matters, there was dissension about what should be presented.

Life during wartime in Sarajevo

Life during wartime in Sarajevo

Besieged Sarajevo – Surviving The War, Losing The Peace
The most arresting of the exhibits was one that dealt with the Siege of Sarajevo. This seemed only right, since it was the war and even more so its aftermath that had brought the museum to a point of extreme degradation. There were some artifacts from the siege, but it was a series of photos that spoke volumes. A woman in dark sunglasses rode a bicycle past a bullet pocked Volkswagen Bug, a small child with two black eyes and a bandage covering most of his head held a flower in his hand, the remains of a skeletal petrol pump at an utterly ruined gas station. One photo framed the essence of destruction picture perfectly. The photo was taken through a twisted, contorted metal vehicle door. Where the window glass should have been was the concrete skeleton of a ruined building. Another showed a wing of the National Museum during the war as little more than a series of shattered windows. Surreal and sublime, these images were snapshots of the Siege of Sarajevo.

The exhibit was done with little money, but a surfeit of emotion. The siege was a deeply personal trauma for everyone involved. Later I would learn just how personal for the museum staff. The museum’s director, Dr. Rizo Sijari, was killed during the siege by a grenade blast while covering holes in the building caused by artillery fire with protective sheeting. He was the most notable, but certainly not the only staff member who gave his life quite literally in the service of preserving Bosnia and Herzegovina’s national heritage. Centuries of cultural history were now threatened by narrow political interests and intractable ethnic tensions. The irony was that the museum had survived two World Wars and one of the longest sieges in military history, remaining open for most of that time, but it was on the verge of not surviving an uneasy peace.

I can't stop thinking of my friend...

I can’t stop thinking of my friend…

The Incalculable Loss – A Museum Of Memories
The exhibit ended with the “Book of Impressions – Exhibition – Besieged Sarajevo”. This allowed visitors to record their impressions of the exhibit. Some of these were deeply personal, such as the one that stated “I can’t stop thinking of my friend that left Sarajevo when she was a kid and could never get her city back.” Sarajevo still stood, but the city would never be the same, neither would the people. The personal traumas they experienced had scarred them for life. All the reconstruction and reconciliation could never bring the city or its citizens back to the peace they knew before the war. Their losses were incalculable. This exhibit communicated to me a little bit of what they had experienced. Unfortunately it was on the verge of being lost as well. A year after my visit the museum would close. “Besieged Sarajevo” was another casualty in a war that was still being fought.

From 2012 to 2015 the National Museum of Bosnia & Herzegovina was closed

From 2012 to 2015 the National Museum of Bosnia & Herzegovina was closed (Credit: Watalicom)

Moment Of Surrender – A Street Corner In Sarajevo: Visiting The Beginning Of The End (Travels In Eastern Europe #22)

I was picked up at the airport in Sarajevo by the proprietor of my accommodation. We drove back through Novo Sarajevo (New Sarajevo), a newer part of the city I had never heard of before. The typical Tito-era tower apartment blocks loomed over the city streets. It was not until we got close to the old town that I began to notice steeples and minarets piercing the skyline. I was nervous with anticipation. My goal was to get checked in as quickly as possible so I would have time to hurry down to the location of the assassination site. After dropping my bags off, impatience drove me to immediately order a taxi, A few minutes later I was being whisked through the winding streets above the Old Town. The taxi driver misunderstood the directions and dropped me off nearby. This turned out to be for the best as I was able be to get my bearings while approaching the site.

From the moment I first saw a photo of Gavrilo Princip being apprehended by police immediately after his assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, the archduchess Sophie I was fascinated by that event. The assassination’s setting in Sarajevo, an exotic quasi-eastern city that was a cauldron of ethnic tensions had much to do with my interest. I can still remember when I first saw the photo. It was on page four in Volume One of the Marshal Cavendish Encyclopedia of World War I in my high school library. The Encyclopedia had a detailed article on the assassination. I read and reread it several times. My interest in the story of that fateful day led me years later to eventually track down an entire set of the encyclopedia later in life. Such curiosity eventually led me to research a trip to the actual site. That is what brought me all the way to Sarajevo. I now stood on the verge of realizing a decades old dream.

Realizing a lifelong dream in Sarajevo

Realizing a lifelong dream in Sarajevo

Trigger Effect – Changing The World One Bullet At A Time
It is not often (or ever) that I travel thousands of miles to visit a single street corner, but the allure of what happened in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914 magnetically pulled me to that place where the Obala Kulina bana meets Zelenih beretki just across from the Latin Bridge. A century ago, the Obala was known as the Appel Quay, while Zelenih berertki was Franz Josef Strasse. Sarajevo was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the southern frontier of that multicultural polity. The annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina by Austria-Hungary in 1905 had caused the blood of Serbia to boil. Bosnia had a large population of ethnic Serbs. The nation of Serbia wanted to incorporate them into a Greater Serbia that would rule over all South Slavs. Ethnic Serbs in Bosnia were stoked by the Serbian government to overthrow Austro-Hungarian rule. One way of doing that would be to assassinate the heir to the throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand when he visited Sarajevo. The man who carried out the assassination, Gavrilo Princip, was a rootless, Bosnian Serb nationalist. His act of murder changed history.

When I got to the actual site, I was surprised by how small everything seemed. The Miljacka River, running beside the Appel Quay and under the Latin Bridge was flowing tepidly. It took less than a minute to walk across this world famous bridge. The street corner on which Princip stood when he fired the shots was just another ordinary street corner in front of an unmemorable building. Today the building holds a museum about the assassination and Austro-Hungarian rule in Sarajevo. There was a plaque with historical information on the outer wall of the museum and that was about it. It was something of a letdown, but what should I have expected? I had built the event up in my mind to such an extent that almost anything outside of the actual moment itself would have been a letdown.

The incredible thing was that the event really was of outsized significance, beyond all proportion to the modest surroundings of the site. There is no understating the assassination’s effect upon the world, both then and now. It was quite literally the trigger event that led to the outbreak of the First World War and millions of lives being lost in the first great conflagration of the 20th century. Princip’s shots were the inaugural volley that started the 20th century on an ultraviolent trajectory. Standing in the exact spot where it all began should have been humbling. In truth, I did not feel much of anything, other than a sense of gratification that I had realized a lifelong dream.

The Latin Bridge over the Miljacka River

The Latin Bridge over the Miljacka River

Murderous Foibles – Reign Of The Amateurs
As for the assassination itself, the entire operation was full of foibles, nebulous characters and outright amateurism. For example, there were six known potential assassins in the city that day. The first three completely lost their nerve, failing to carry out a number of prime opportunities to murder the Archduke. Another assassin did muster the courage to toss a bomb at the Archduke’s vehicle, which bounced off its open topped canopy and badly damaged one of his entourage’s vehicles following closely behind. The bomb thrower, tried to commit suicide by taking cyanide, which only proceeded to induce vomiting, then proceeded to leap into the nearby river which was less than half a foot in depth. So much for getting away. The police pulled him from the water and gave him a vicious beating.

The Archduke took this as more a personal slight than a potentially fatal threat. By the time he reached the town hall to give a speech, he was barking at the mayor about the ferocious hospitality shown toward him and his wife by the bomb throwing locals. His wife, Sophie, was able to calm him down, but his imperious, stubborn nature would come back to haunt them. Instead of getting out of the city as soon as possible, the archduke decided they should go to the hospital and visit those who had been wounded by the bomb. This meant going back through the city once again with the car’s canopy down.

The man in charge of the Archduke’s security (if there was such a thing on this day) decided they should avoid the maze of streets in the downtown area and hurry along the Appel Quay, more of a straight shot through town to the hospital. Unfortunately the archduke’s chauffeur was not told this information. He was still following the original route and turned right onto Franz-Josef-Strasse, back towards the city center. Just after making that turn, the chauffeur was dutifully informed (too late of course) that he was headed the wrong way (the right way by his incorrect calculations) and put the car in reverse, which jammed the gears causing the car to stall.

Princip was standing close to the middle of the crosswalk when he fired the fatal shots

Princip was standing close to the middle of the crosswalk when he fired the fatal shots

A Fluke Of History – An Ordinary Street On An Ordinary Day
At right about this time, Princip, whose most notable features were his short stature and a pair of preternaturally dark circles under his eyes, was coming out of Schiller’s Delicatessan (you can’t make this stuff up). He proceeded to pistol whip an innocent bystander who was in his way and then unloaded two shots. The first struck the Archduke in a jugular vein. The second struck his wife Sophie in the abdomen.
Right away, a crowd developed around Princip that attempted to lynch him. That was until the police arrived and carried him away. The Archduke and Sophie did reach the hospital, but she was dead on arrival and ten minutes later so was he. His final words were a repetitive mumble, “it is nothing.” Well it most certainly was something.

As for Princip, he turns the great man theory of history on its head. Perhaps it is not great men who make history, but weak men who overcompensate for their own innate weakness. They summon anger as a replacement for courage and leave their mark on the world through incident or accident. Such an improbable series of events put the assassination site into perspective for me. The act occurred less by planning than happenstance. It was a fluke of history that Princip found himself standing on the sidewalk beside the Archduke’s stalled out vehicle. The sheer randomness of everything that happened that day has left countless historians grappling to make sense of it all. The assassination is a reminder of the role luck and chance play in history. That may also be why the site itself seems to be so mundane. It happened on an ordinary street, on an ordinary day, but as I would find out soon enough, Sarajevo is no ordinary place.

Visiting Sarajevo – Shattered Impressions: Thirty Years & Thousands Of Miles Away (Travels In Eastern Europe #21)

Just as Bucharest has become associated with the monstrous architectural excesses of Nicolae Ceaucescu, my next destination, Sarajevo will always be associated with two tragic events that the city can never quite escape, the Assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand which sparked World War I and the 1,425 day siege of the city by Serbian forces during the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990’s. The name Sarajevo evokes memories of these two events. One was the precursor to modern warfare, the other indicative of its ultimate extreme. These events will always have their place in history and give the city an unjustified reputation for infamy, as if it was fated to be the place where these events would occur. In other words, there must be something about Sarajevo. I must admit that I was not immune to such thinking. It was part of what drew me to plan my first trip to Eastern Europe and the Balkans around visiting the city.

I had originally planned to take a train through Bulgaria and Serbia to Bosnia, but after deciding to visit Bucharest it was easier for me to fly into Sarajevo. This was not the optimum way to ease into the Balkans. There would be no gradual change of scenery or prolonged crossing of borders, the transition would be abrupt. It was almost as if I was being parachuted into the city. Before parting ways with my travel companion, Tim, he had mentioned visiting the city. He called it “fascinating” and said it was well worth a multi-day visit. As the plane prepared for landing on the outskirts of the city, at an airport that had been central to the nearly four year siege, I wondered what to expect. I doubted it would be anything like my first encounter with the city, thirty years before and thousands of miles away.

Opening Ceremony for the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo

Opening Ceremony for the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo (Credit: BiHVolim)

The Winter Games – Sarajevo Shines In The Spotlight
It was the winter of 1984, Cold War tensions ran high and the Soviet Union was viewed as a monolithic Evil Empire. At least that is what we thought or were taught in the United States. The Olympic Games were more than a sporting competition. They were also a contest in the struggle for ideological supremacy. Posing the question of which system was better at developing athletes. A state controlled, centrally planned system or one inspired by the free market? The first communist nation to hold a Winter Olympics would be Yugoslavia with Sarajevo as the host city. Yugoslavia was an outlier, not part of either the Warsaw Pact or NATO, a communist nation with elements of the free market. The Yugoslavs hoped the Winter Olympics would boost their reputation with Sarajevo acting as the showpiece. The Yugoslav government spent $135 million in preparing for the games, an unheard of sum for a mid-sized country.

As a teenager in North Carolina and fanatical sports fan I eagerly followed those Winter Olympics. My most enduring memory is of snow, lots of snow, huge fluffy flakes falling on Sarajevo for days on end. Each day I tuned in, there would be legendary ABC Sports host, Jim McKay, standing amid a snowstorm, telling an American audience that Sarajevo was experiencing blizzard conditions. The downhill skiing event was canceled no less than three times due to heavy snow and high winds. I wondered if the event would ever be run. When it finally was, American Bill Johnson would be the surprise winner. I remember everything on the race course covered under a thick blanket of snow. For me, Sarajevo became the place of eternal snow, where it was forever winter. It was a powerful image that I struggled to shake less than a decade later, when the city came under siege.

A burning government building during the Siege of Sarajevo

A burning government building during the Siege of Sarajevo (Credit: Mikhail Evstafiev)

Siege Mentality –  A Ruined Image
The siege of Sarajevo brought images of a war torn city where people ran for their lives every time they crossed the street. There was no snow, only burning buildings gutted by artillery fire. Bullets, shrapnel and fear were pervasive. The siege seemed to be never ending, to the point that it became almost an afterthought. Bosnia became a synonym for ethnic conflict and Sarajevo a byword for death and destruction. Was this really the place that had hosted that winter wonderland of an Olympics? A dream city had somehow become a nightmare one. The siege and the Yugoslav Wars finally came to a muddled end, but Sarajevo would never be the same, at least not in the popular imagination. The war left thousands of scars, as many mental as physical.  As peace took hold Sarajevo faded into the background, part of yesterday’s news, obscured by international terrorism and the Euro Crisis. I thought little of it, as did the rest of the world.

Any mention of the 1984 Winter Olympics focused on the dilapidated state of the once magnificent facilities. War, neglect and lack of money had turned them into ruins at a very early age. Sarajevo came back into the news with the imminent arrival of the centennial of the Great War. It started to pop up in news headlines prior to the anniversary. It had been a dream of mine to visit the actual site of the Archduke’s assassination ever since I learned about it in high school Western Civilization class. My teacher, Mr. Johnson, spent an entire class drawing a diagram of the Sarajevo street layout, then explaining the causes of confusion that ended in Gavrilo Princip firing the deadly shots from point blank range that murdered the Archduke and his wife. Mr. Johnson had an incredible curiosity and spoke with such passionate fervor that it made me want to visit Sarajevo. To stand in the exact same place where to my mind, twentieth century history had begun. That was my goal in traveling to Sarajevo.

Sarajevo - from above

Sarajevo – from above (Credit: Julian Nitzsche)

Shock of the Normal – Opposites Attract
As my flight to Sarajevo touched down at the airport I looked out the window. I saw a place that looked completely normal. The wounds of war had been paved or painted over, the airport totally refurbished. It was inviting and well organized, passport control was a lark. My first impression of Sarajevo was of a warm, welcoming place, the complete opposite of its recent past.

Guilt Trip – Last Remains: At The Grave Of Ceausescu (Travels In Eastern Europe #20)

Nicolae Ceausescu had everything his way in Romania for the last twenty-five years of his life. In the twenty-five years since his death it has been a much different story. Ceausescu was not buried in any great mausoleum. That is hardly surprising since he and his wife Elena were executed by a firing squad on Christmas Day 1989. Instead he was given, what for him, would be considered a pauper’s grave, away from the center of Bucharest. It was to the grave of Ceausescu that I found myself traveling to on my final day in Bucharest. My travel companion Tim, who was fascinated by all things Ceausescu, had piqued my interest in going to the site. He wanted to see the final resting place of Romania’s most infamous modern leader. This seemed like it would be a fitting finale for our visit to Ceausescu-era Bucharest sites.

Former grave of Nicolae Ceaucescu

Former grave of Nicolae Ceausescu (Credit Biruitorul)

A Funereal Finale  – In Search Of Ceaucescu
First we had visited Ceausescu’s infamous monstrosity of grandiosity, the Palace of the Parliament. This had been followed by a stroll down Bulevardul Unirii, a four kilometer long Ceausescu showpiece. He had made sure that it was just a little bit wider than the Champs Elysees in Paris, bigger was always better in Ceausescu’s mind. Then there were the ubiquitous tower apartment blocks that dotted Bucharest, a constant reminder of an urbanization policy run amuck. There was nothing quaint or refined about Ceausescu. Everything had been done on an inhuman scale that dwarfed the individual. There was only room for one man in Romania while he was alive and that was him. I thought it would be interesting to see how Ceaucescu was memorialized at a place where he had not been able to create the context.

Ghencea cemetery, which holds the graves of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu, is located about an hour’s walk southwest of the city center in Bucharest. We decided to take the bus instead. I expected the Bucharest city buses to be down at the heel, lacking in comfort, communism in a moving can. When the bus arrived I was pleasantly surprised, it was almost brand new. It even had computer screens in it that listed out each of the coming stops along Bulevardul Ghencea. The seats were clean and comfortable with plenty of leg room. The short ride to the cemetery was pleasant and uneventful. We disembarked close to the entrance. Tim had printed off the exact location so we would have little trouble finding it. With Romania predominantly Greek Orthodox in religion, the cemetery was a mass of crosses. I felt as though I were standing amid a crowd of holiness. It was hard to believe that one of the most unholy people Romania had ever produced could have been buried amid all this Christian iconography.

The grave of Nicolae Ceaucescu today

The grave of Nicolae Ceausescu today

Infamy & Irony – Grave Misgivings
Ceausescu’s final resting place was ironic, a judgment of history. He was going to be surrounded in death by all that he had vilified in life. To add insult to injury, his grave would have been impossible to find without directions, lost amid all the other headstones. For a man who dedicated much of his life to the monumental, Ghencea Cemetery was much to understated, the antithesis of his megalomania.

It did not take us long to find Ceausescu’s grave. Tim had read online that photos of it were discouraged. His information said there were people on-site who made sure tourists did not snap pictures. We tried to make ourselves inconspicuous, but two Americans, one with red hair and the other of Asian descent do not look very Romanian.  The headstone and base of the grave was of polished red granite. The name Nicolae Ceausescu was inscribed upon the stone. It did not look much different than other headstones I had seen before.  There were a few jars with flowers and a small pot holding a yellow plant. I wondered who might have left these, but it was really not that surprising.

Every dictator has his fans and friends, people who glorify the past when the future dries up. Close by, but not beside Nicolae’s grave, was that of his wife Elena. They had been gunned down standing side by side, in death they were apart, but still in close proximity to one another, as they had always been in life. Getting a photo looked like it might be a bit difficult. There were a couple of men standing close to the grave. It was hard to know whether or not they were guarding them, but if they were it was in a very languid manner. On the other hand, this was a public cemetery, what was there to really worry about. Perhaps the legacy of Ceausescu’s secretive state watching everything and everyone was casting its dark spell over us, a quarter of a century after his death. I finally got myself in a position to take a photo. The men standing nearby hardly noticed or if they did, hardly cared. We walked around the cemetery for a few more minutes, then left. That was the end of our search for Ceaucescu sites in Bucharest.

Graves at Ghencea Cemetery in Bucharest

Graves at Ghencea Cemetery in Bucharest (Credit: Biruitorul)

The Final Fall from Power – Surrounded…Forever
Our visit to the cemetery had been revealing, the grave was quite unimpressive. The closest counterpart and a major influence on Ceausescu’s thinking had been the dictator, Kim Il Sung of North Korea. Sung is now deified in the Kumusan Palace of the Sun in Pyongyang. The palace had once been Il Sung’s private residence. It reportedly cost $100 million to convert it into a mausoleum. Il Sung’s body lies in a clear glass sarcophagus. It is not hard to imagine Ceausescu’s remains in such a tomb if not for his fall from power. That makes his grave site all the more startling. The dictator who held power over his nation for decades on end was finally humbled. He now lies surrounded by the tradition and orthodoxy of religion that his atheistic state radically opposed. His attempt to refashion Romania into a vanguard of communism failed. All that Ceausescu stood for has been resigned to the proverbial dust bin of history. And all that he stood against now surrounds him…forever.

The Free Tour – An Ambassador For Bucharest: The Heart of Romania’s Revolution (Travels In Eastern Europe #19)

Hardly anything in the world is free anymore. Everything and everyone seems to have a price. Capitalism has brought wealth and prosperity to the world. Conversely, it has also brought about the monetization of nearly every aspect of life. This is especially true when it comes to travel. Try to think about taking a trip without spending any money. It is almost impossible. For those looking to do European travel on the cheap, Eastern Europe has been the place to go for the last twenty-five years. It was never a region without money, though it certainly had less of it before the Iron Curtain fell. A nation such as Romania, which was beset by poverty when communism collapsed, may not be rich by European standards today, but capitalism has triumphed. The stores are filled with consumer goods and chain stores have penetrated all the cities. There is no going back to the days of centrally controlled economies or imposed five year plans. The impulse for greed is too great.

Our guide on the free tour of Bucharest

Our guide on the free tour of Bucharest

The Land With A Little Bit Of Everything – Including Free Of Charge
For travelers from the western world, places like Romania still offer great value. Food, drink, lodging and transport are available at bargain prices. A two week stay costs less than a week long visit almost anywhere in Western Europe. Call it a Romanian two for the price of one deal. The country needs such value based tourism to help boost economic growth. Fortunately, it is well endowed with attractions. Romania has a little bit of everything, a stretch of coastline along the Black Sea, soaring mountains in the myth laden land of Transylvania, castles crowning hilltops and an eclectic capital city. It was in the latter that I found myself with a traveling companion, Tim, who was on a multi-month journey across Europe.  He was the one who introduced me to an idea that I found fascinating, the Free Tour. Across many cities in Eastern Europe, local guides, often students, gave tours of their hometown taking visitors to places famous and obscure. In addition, visitors would meet and hang out with a local. There was no cost, except for a voluntary donation. It was a bit shocking that in a nation with the second lowest per capita income in the European Union such a free service was being offered.

The Free Tour was given rave reviews by Tim who had just recently been the only participant on a tour in Sarajevo. He got a unique perspective on that ill-fated city from a guide who had lived through much of the tumult. Tim had no idea what the Bucharest free tour might entail, but since there was no cost, I was more than glad to join him and give it a try. We were to meet our guide at 17:00, at the front of Parcul Unrii, in the heart of Bucharest. Sure enough at the appointed time a dark haired, bespectacled Romanian male greeted us with a warm smile. His name was Mihaii. He was a local student who led several of these tours each week. Tim and I were the only participants, which wasn’t really that surprising since it was early spring. The slate grey sky was threatening rain, but only a few random drops intermittently landed on us. After a brief introduction to the history of Bucharest and some information about the ominous Palace of the Parliament looming at the opposite end of Bulevardul Unirii, we began to walk down the streets and alleyways of old Bucharest.

Balcony where Nicolae Ceaucescu gave his final speech

Balcony where Nicolae Ceausescu gave his final speech

A Balcony In Bucharest – The Best Thing About Freedom
Mihaii was more than just a guide. He was also an informal ambassador of the city, part of a new generation that had grown up without the suspicion and narrow mindedness engendered by the Ceausescu regime. Mihaii’s generation was pro-European, western in outlook and had a cautious optimism that Romanian’s entry into the European Union would bring prosperity. Meeting someone like him was worth taking the tour. Thirty years before, the idea of a Romanian university student walking two Americans around the city center would have been enough to cause the immediate arrest of all involved. What we were doing would have been seen as revolutionary in the 1980’s, now it was a sign of freedom and openness. The tales he told us and the sites we saw while strolling through streets of old Bucharest was fascinating. Yet it was a site associated with the Revolutionary upheaval of 1989 that was the most extraordinary of all.

The tour ended where many say post-communist Romania began, in what is now known as Revolutionary Square. We were looking up at the balcony of the Ministry of Internal Affairs building, which was formerly the headquarters of the Central Committee of the Romanian Communist Party. Mihai told us about Nicolae Ceausescu’s final speech that took place there on December 21, 1989. After hundreds were killed in the western Romanian city of Timisoara, Ceausescu decided to use an annual speech to show that he still enjoyed popular support. With 80,000 people packed into the square he began to drone on with the usual glorified banalities. Much of the crowd had been bused in for the speech. Workers were told they would lose their jobs if they did not cheer, clap and wave placards. After a few minutes the crowd began to jeer and boo. Video of the speech shows a bewildered and increasingly nervous Ceausescu. He then tries to change tack by promising raises, but the incensed crowd grows unruly. The jeers rise to threatening levels, it is obvious that Ceausescu has lost support from the masses. It is an incredible scene, as he begins to comprehend the disaffection and hatred directed toward him. A security guard finally ushers Ceausescu away. Four days later, he and his wife were executed by firing squad.

The final madness - Nicolae Ceaucesacu giving his final speech in Bucharest

The final madness – Nicolae Ceausescu giving his final speech in Bucharest

A Free Tour Of Freedom – Revolutionary Consequences
Mihai had been born after the fall of Ceausescu, but knew the story well. He talked about the people who had been killed in the revolution for the hope that things would change. They did and they didn’t. When I remarked that the fall of Ceausescu was a great event for Romania. Mihai said yes it was, but he was only one person. Almost everyone else associated with Ceausescu, those who had spent decades enriching themselves and impoverishing the country were never prosecuted. Many ended up in other positions of power. Romania was still plagued by corruption and cronyism. Had things really changed? The ultimate answer was yes. How else could we be standing in Revolutionary Square listening to a man who was part of Romania’s newest and most hopeful generation give a free tour that was ultimately about freedom.

An Obscure Madness – Dreams & Disappointments: Under The Spell Of Hungarian Men’s Pro Tennis

Fanatical followers of Hungarian tennis have to grasp at whatever hope they can find. Hope is the one thing in the absence of good results that can sustain interest in such an obscure and totally random subject. For instance, I still have hope that Victor Filipenko can somehow climb out of the 788th position in the world rankings. In other words, I am hoping Filipenko can win a match, any match on the satellite circuit, the lowest level of the pro tour. The only person that feels this desperate about Filipenko’s poor play is likely Filipenko himself. Actually it would be nothing short of a miracle if anyone else cared. The same goes for the eleven other Hungarians who have managed to earn at least one ATP ranking point in the past year. The words “no hoper” come to mind when recalling the rather thin list of accomplishments from men with strange names such as Mate Valkusz, Matyas Fuele and Levente Godry. No hoper means the player has little, if any chance of ever earning a decent leaving playing professional tennis, but that certainly does not stop them from trying.

Levente Gödry - one ATP ranking point away from oblivion

Levente Gödry – one ATP ranking point away from oblivion

The Peasants Of Pro Tennis – Satellites Of Serfdom
A popular website with news about men’s pro tennis players who toil on the challenger circuit (one level below the ATP World tour) is called Footsoldiers of Tennis. Challenger draws are filled with players usually ranked between #100 and #300. The Hungarian names mentioned above rarely get to play at this level. They are more like the peasantry of tennis, toiling for years on end in serfdom at satellite events, calling their own lines, stringing their own rackets and dreaming of direct entry to a few challenger events. A first round loss at an ATP World Tour event would be the holy grail of their career. Hope only goes so far when cheering on Godry who debuted at the pro level in 2011. His highest ranking ever was #937. He is now 24 years old. By this age, someone like Rafael Nadal was dominating Grand Slam events. Then again, there is only one Nadal, while there are hundreds of Godry’s lurking in the lower recesses of ATP Tour rankings.

What keeps a player such as Godry going is beyond me. Perhaps it is the memory of his lone victory on the tour over the past year, when he defeated Sweden’s Patrik Rosenholm who had to retire in the second set with an injury. This victory came at a satellite event or as they are officially now known, “Futures”. Since that time, Godry has managed to lose ten consecutive matches, several of which were to players ranked lower than one thousandth in the world. Godry suffered the ignominy of being double bageled (losing a two set match without winning a single game) by countryman Attila Balazs at a satellite event in Hungary last year. Godry has never defeated anyone in singles play ranked above #457 in the world over his seven year career. In his only match thus far in 2017, Godry lost in straight sets to a man with a great name and not so great game, the 929th ranked Tal Goldengorun of Israel. Godry might assuage fears of his ever dwindling career prospects by recalling the fact that he was part of a winning doubles tandem at a Serbian satellite event last year and also made two other doubles finals at that level back home. Quite marginal by most standards, but it does offer a bit of solace.

I do not want to sound defeatist, but the chance of Godry ever making it to the next level is next to nothing. It may be time for him to give up a dream that has long since been tarnished by innumerable losses. The same thing could have been said several years ago. Perhaps Godry considers his only career option to be that of a touring professional. I pity the man if that is true. Then again, there are plenty of people who are really bad at their chosen professions, but manage to hang around the office for years while collecting a paycheck. The problem for Godry is that collecting a check on the pro tennis tour is contingent on a certain level of proficiency. Anything less than victory will not be good enough. The world of men’s professional tennis is cruel and indiscriminate. Win, go home, go broke or find another career. When a touring pro gets desperate enough, he will cling to any shred of hope. Thus Godfry can console himself with the fact that, despite his abysmal results, he is the twelfth best men’s tennis player in Hungary. That means something, but probably only to him and a few hangers-on, of which I am one of the few.

Attila Balazs on the comeback tour

Attila Balazs on the comeback tour

Dreaming Of Greatness – In Praise Of Attila Balzas
Conversely, the man who destroyed Godry in Budapest last autumn, Attila Balazs, is a shining example of a player turning hope into reality. Balazs’ career is suddenly on the upswing after he disappeared from the tour for almost two years, likely due to injury. I have a special place in my heart for Balazs due to a rather bizarre connection between him and Hungarian tennis greatness. His last name is the first name of Hungary’s greatest men’s tennis player, Balazs Taroczy. In my world of unexplainable sporting superstition that counts for something, exactly what is open to question. For two years, beginning in August 2014, Balazs did not play any matches on the pro tour. He started his comeback nine months ago unranked and was forced to qualify for Futures events. He ran off a string of 15 consecutive wins in taking titles at three tournaments. A couple of months later, he won 20 more matches in a row while garnering four more Futures titles, this time in the tennis backwater of Tunisia.

Balazs reached a new level just this past week, as he qualified at the Ostrava Challenger and then made it all the way to the semifinals.  This will allow Balazs to jump another thirty or so places in the world rankings, moving him up to around #230 in the world. If Balazs keeps up this level of play he might be able to top his all-time highest ranking of #153 which he attained almost seven years ago. It might not sound like much, but for me and those few other eternally suffering Hungarian tennis fanatics it would be cause for a wild celebration, giving rise to greater hopes. This is the life I have chosen, following the careers of men I will never know, from a nation that I love, in the lower levels of a sport few follow. Dreaming of greatness and suffering disappointment, all in the service of an obscure madness. My dreams are the same as those Hungarian men who toil in anonymity on the pro tennis tour. We are in search of a greatness that remains forever out of reach, but never beyond belief.

A Ten Way Tie For Last Place – Tennis Triviality: A Fanatic Falls For The Hungarian Open 

You know your life has grown pathetic when a passion for Eastern European tennis has you transfixed by a few random results from a lower tier tour event that no one really cares about other than the Betfair folks, a few wildly enthusiastic tennis tour groupies and a promoter who has staked his entire existence on a week’s worth of mediocre matches. Yet such was the situation I found myself in last week as I spent several days searching for scraps of news and compulsively checking results from the Gazprom Hungarian Open in Budapest. The sponsor, a behemoth Russian energy giant not known for transparency, left a bit to be desired, but certainly provided packets full of prize money. My interest had little to do with the top players in the draw. I did not have one measly cent wagered on a match. Instead, I was almost certainly the only one out of 321,400,000 Americans obsessed with the outcome of a handful of matches featuring Hungary’s finest men’s tennis players.

These professionals were a motley group of journeymen at best, men whose one shining moment would either be a top 100 or top 1000 ranking. The kind of players who lurk in Davis Cup Group 2 Europe/Africa zone draws, dominating Andorra’s finest before being drubbed in turn by Belarusians. Cheering on Hungary’s finest men’s tennis players is almost always a thankless task. A kind of sporting chore that drove me to distraction for several days with thoughts of epicless efforts by clay court warriors with the names of Attila (of course!), Marton (very Teutonic with a fierce first service) and Zsombor (sounds like a sibling of Zamfir, that master of the pan flute who I once saw mocked in a Sprite commercial, I think). My hopes and dreams for one week were invested in the results these men might produce. I yearned for a few acts of greatness – such as a first round victory – while preparing for almost certain disappointment. In my zeal for transcendent obscurity, I overlooked a player in the draw with a deep, but less obvious Hungarian connection. I will get to that momentarily, but allow me to first set out a few of the facts surrounding last week’s tournament in Budapest.

Center court - at the Gazprom Hungarian Open held in Margaret Island in Budapest

Fill it up with dreams – center court at the Gazprom Hungarian Open held in Margaret Island in Budapest from April 24-30, 2017

Futility & Self-Flagellation  – The Plight Of Hungarian Tennis
The Gazprom Hungarian Open was nothing less than a landmark event for the Hungarian Tennis Association. It was the first time an ATP World Tour level event was held in Hungary. What in the name of Balazs Taroczy took so long? Hungary is a nation in love with football, water polo, rowing and handball. Tennis comes in about a ten way tie for last place. To everyone’s surprise Budapest stole a march on Bucharest, sweeping the tournament away from the Romanian capital, where it had been held since 1993. That is what a good or at least a wealthy sponsor can do for an ambitious promoter. Never mind that it was a 250 level tournament, the lowest tier of the ATP World Tour, this was akin to holding a Grand Slam event in Hungary. Wimbledon on the Danube anyone! The Hungarian Open was going to be a big deal, so much so hardly anyone in the world paid attention. Hungarian men’s professional tennis has these disappointments. Being a fan is an exercise in both futility and self-flagellation. Unfortunately only three Hungarian men were entered in singles, two in the qualifying and one in the main draw.  This shows the continuing dearth of talent for Hungarian men’s professional tennis players.

The results of those entered in the tournament were decidedly mixed. Seventeen year old Zsombor Piros played in his first ever tour level event. Ranked #1397, it is not surprising that he was unable to qualify for the qualifying. Instead, he needed a wild card just to gain entry and then proceeded to lose his first match in straight sets. Attila Balazs did better, winning his first qualifying match in an upset over second seeded and #79 ranked Dusan Lajovic of Serbia, before bowing out in a close match with an American hardly anyone has ever heard of, the exquisitely named Bjorn Frantangelo. Hungary’s great hope was the nation’s top ranked men’s player, Marton Fucsovics who made the most of his wild card entry by easily defeating Mikhail Youzhny in the first round of the main draw. Fucsovics then lost to a former world top tenner, Spaniard Fernando Verdasco, but not before nearly winning the first set in a tiebreaker. This ended a decent week for the Hungarians, but nothing really remarkable. A great depression started to consume me. I stared at the draw listlessly. All hope was gone. The idea that playing on home turf might inspire the Hungarian men to raise the level of their games was a good one, but the results never really materialized. The truth was they hardly ever do. Yet a ray of light broke through the clouds of defeat. I noticed the name of Laslo Djere, an ethnic Hungarian who happens to be a citizen from next door neighbor Serbia. Djere had the most memorable week of his young career, offering a triumph of hope over experience.

Márton Fucsovics - Hungary's top ranked men's tennis player

Márton Fucsovics – Hungary’s top ranked men’s tennis player (Credit: Diliff)

Cut From A Different Mold – Hungarian Tennis Stars By Way Of Serbia
A little known fact hidden in plain sight is that the greatest ethnic Hungarian tennis player in history and one of the all-time great women’s players was Monica Seles. Though she started her career playing under the flag of Yugoslavia, Seles grew up in Novi Sad, which is now part of Serbia. The city is located in the Vojvodina region of northern Serbia, home to 250,000 ethnic Hungarians. The Hungarians of Vojvodina were stranded there after the post- World War I Treaty of Trianon severed the region from Hungary and made it part of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. Monica Seles’ ancestors were among many ethnic Hungarians who stayed in the area despite their minority status. Few know about Seles’ Hungarian roots. I figured it out because I love to know a lot about nothing in particular, tantalizing myself with trivialities. The connection with 21 year old Laslo Djere is obscure, but good enough to keep me engaged in my forlorn hope for some kind of Hungarian tennis greatness. Djere was born in the town of Sentes, whose demographic makeup is 80% ethnic Hungarian. It is the kind of place no one will ever visit, unless they live there.

Until March, Djere had shown little promise of making a breakthrough on the World Tour. He had never won a world tour level match and only qualified for the main draw in a handful of events. His greatest feat had been qualifying for the French Open in 2016 before losing in the first round. His record in Challenger events was not exactly raising hopes either. He had managed runner-up finishes at Milan and Cortina in 2016 on red clay, his favorite surface. By April 2017, Djere was ranked #184, but his recent results were some of the worst of his career. He lost in seven straight challenger events, the last five losses of which he failed to win a set. The only reprieve was a one week drop down to the satellite tour where he gained a confidence boost by winning a small event in Croatia. I do not know what boggles the mind more, the minutiae of Djere’s 2017 swoon or the fact that for some unexplained reason he started playing like a top one hundred player in April.

Laslo Đere - anything is possible

Laslo Đere – anything is possible (Credit: Frédéric de Villamil)

Drizzle & A Dream – Laslo Djere’s Moment In The Rain
Perhaps winning the satellite event helped turn Djere’s game around. Two weeks later he achieved a career first, qualifying for and winning a first round match at the world tour event in Marrakech, Morocco. He nearly made it to the quarterfinals, losing in a taut three set match to Albert Ramos. Then it was on to Budapest where he exceeded all expectations, including my own. Djere barely made it through qualifying by winning two close matches. He then sailed through his first two matches in the main draw. That set him up against Fucsovics’ slayer, Fernando Verdasco in the quarterfinals. The match was played in less than ideal conditions, as rain fell intermittently. This helped Djere, as the slow conditions dented Verdasco’s powerful game. Nonetheless, the Spaniard won the first set and held match point in the second. Down on serve 30-40, 4-5, Djere pulled off a shocker. After saving match point he went on to win the set in a tie-breaker, then handily won the final set 6-2.

It was an incredible result, one that I could scarcely fathom. The next best thing to a Hungarian in the semis was an ethnic Hungarian who spoke the language. Though Djere subsequently lost in the semifinals, he had won four main draw matches in Marrakech and Budapest. That is four more ATP World tour level matches than he had ever won on tour before. Djere could have rubbed a rabbit’s foot raw his entire career and not expected to get this lucky. But was it luck or skill? The coming months will likely answer that question. Perhaps I am mistaking a sneeze for a hurricane, but his latest results are nothing short of miraculous. Could Djere, by way of Serbia, be the answer to Hungarian professional tennis fanatics wishes? Does anyone care? I do.

A Dictator’s Last Resort –Palace of the Parliament: Bucharest’s Monument To Megalomania (Travels In Eastern Europe #18)

I have never had any desire to visit North Korea, but staring up at the sheer massiveness of Romania’s Palace of the Parliament gave me an eerie sense that I was close to the heart of that hermit state. The building is a rough approximation of the inherent madness and outsized egoism that symbolizes dictatorial regimes at their most extreme degree. Something about this towering monument to megalomania gave me the feeling that I might as well have been in Pyongyang, rather than Bucharest. The difference was that I could snap a photo from where I stood without fear of being arrested.

I could have not done the same thing during the 1980’s, when the Palace was under construction. At that time Romania was in the iron grip of what might be called Ceausescuism, a cult of personality centered around the communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and to a lesser extent his wife, Elena. The couple and their acolytes set out to reshape the Romanian capital in the image of Pyongyang, following a visit to the North Korean capital in 1978. Some say this visit was what finally sent Nicolae over the edge, tipping him into insanity. Pyongyang offered Ceausescu a grotesquely grandiose vision of the future that he could bend to his will. There is little doubt that the visit had an effect on him and an even greater effect on Bucharest which can still be seen today. How could it not be?

Palace of the Parliament in Bucharest

A Vision Of Madness – Palace of the Parliament in Bucharest (Credit: Alejandro Glacometti)

An Impenetrable Palace – More Than Meets The Eye
It would seem that the Palace of Parliament cannot be missed, even if you tried, but there really is more to the building than meets the eye. The structure stands 86 meters high, but it extends even deeper underground, burrowing another 92 meters into the rich Wallachian soil. Twelve stories can be seen, but there are at least another eight underground, maybe more, hidden from view. It has never been disclosed just how deep Ceausescu’s paranoia and suspicion demanded that construction workers dig, It is known that the depths house a nuclear bunker, a fearful dictator’s last resort. He was preparing the country for all eventualities, but it was really built only to save himself and his family. Standing outside the palace on a beautiful spring morning, I contemplated its size for some minutes. I was on a visit with my new friend Tim, who had convinced me after we first met in Bulgaria that this was the must see communist-era attraction in Eastern Europe.

It was interesting to go through security at the entrance. I really wondered what all the bother was about. The palace was built to survive almost anything. Our guide had the typical dark and handsome Latin features so prominent in many Romanians. He also had a flair for the dramatic when he spoke. He peppered his words with a special zest. It became obvious to me that the Romanians were passionate people. I felt as though I had discovered a rustic slice of Italy on the edge of the Balkans. Unfortunately his opening had little to do with the Palace, more a monologue about the ancient historical roots of the Romanian people in the land they called home. It felt odd hearing about the greatness of Romania and their connection to the Roman Empire in the halls of such an architectural atrocity as the Palace of Parliament.

Treasure house of a madman - The White Room

Treasure house of a madman – The White Room (Credit: Ognen Bojkovski)

The Anti-People’s Palace – Treasure House Of A Madman
If anything, Ceausescu wanted the Palace built in order to obliterate the past, a brave new world where nothing from the past is worth saving. It had done that quite well, bulldozing one-sixth of Bucharest and leading to the destruction of historic neighborhoods, churches and monasteries, all to be replaced by a mind blowing behemoth of unfathomable proportions. Tragically this also meant the uprooting of approximately 40,000 people, many of them with little warning. Even worse were the reported 3,000 lives lost during the construction. In a ghastly irony, the building was known for some time as The People’s House (Casa Poporului), a place “the people” could not or would not ever want to visit.

Our guide showed us what the people, rather than Ceausescu, had actually built. He took us through several different rooms, but anyone of them would have been quite enough. We saw a room that looked to be larger than a football pitch, with a rug that must have been woven by an army of peasants. It was setup to host a conference for what looked like an entire town. There were chandeliers galore (reputedly the building contains 3,500 tons of crystal within its walls), brocade and silk curtains, gold leaf decorative f and enough marble to exhaust a thousand quarries. The place was difficult to fathom. It has 1,100 rooms, only 400 of which are currently in use. Nearly every component or material used in its construction came from somewhere in Romania. No part of the country was spared the theft of its natural and cultural wealth, all to be held in the treasure house of a madman, who coincidentally got to see very little of it.

Madness in Marble - Staircase at Palace of the Parliament

Madness in Marble – Staircase at Palace of the Parliament

Decadent Designs – The Unfinished Palace
The Palace was still unfinished when the Ceausescus were executed after a show trial on Christmas Day in 1989. It never has been completed and probably never will be. One of the main reasons it took longer to build than originally planned had to do with the bizarre whims of Nicolae Ceausescu. The guide told us several revealing anecdotes about Ceausescu and the Palace. The most memorable of these concerned a marble staircase we walked up and down on the tour. The staircase had to be rebuilt three times because Ceausescu did not like the dimensions of each step. He wanted a step that fit perfectly under his foot, just like he wanted a nation he could keep under his heel. He got his wish, but before the job was completed on the palace or the nation, he and his wife were dead. His legacy was a nation in tatters, left with an unfinished monstrosity in the heart of Bucharest that has turned out to be just as hollow and empty as Ceausescu’s grand designs.

 

 

Welcome To Bucharest – Hand Over Fist: A Flower Seller & A Monument To Megalomania (Travels In Eastern Europe #17)

Following the “tres leu” taxi fiasco Tim and I were back to where we had started. We swore off Bucharest taxis because of the risk involved. Our issue at the moment was how to find our hotel with an address, almost zero directions and a very poor map. We stood on the sidewalk peering at our guidebook map for some time. From this map we could generally see where we needed to go, but only the largest streets and boulevards were marked.  After a few minutes we came to a decision which can best be summed up as “help!” We began looking around for someone, anyone who might be able to assist us. It hardly mattered whether they spoke English or not, desperation breeds flexibility. Our taxi driver, “trei leu” friend, was still standing by his car, waiting on a naive passenger to fleece. We both thought it would have been hilarious to ask him for directions, but decided against it for obvious reasons.

Tim and the Bucharest flower seller

Tim and the Bucharest flower seller

No Sense Of Direction – Mixed Messages
On the nearest street corner we did notice a woman selling flowers who looked kind and helpful. We approached her with the hotel address in hand. She smiled politely then studied the address for a long period of time. The look on her face was one of perplexity. Attempts to explain our situation only added to the confusion. We pointed up and down the boulevard, at another nearby street and finally tried to persuade her to point us in any direction. She spoke no English, but tried hard to understand our mixed messages. Finally she raised a finger, as if to say I know what you need. Then she reached in to her pockets and pulled out some lei. She was trying to give us money, but for what. We both started vigorously shaking our heads from side to side. We did not need any money.

Suddenly we realized what she was trying to do, give us money for a taxi. She pointed at a nearby taxi. We began laughing and the flower seller did the same. The irony was incredible.  Of the first two people we had met in Bucharest, one tried to scam us, while the other wanted to give us money. We were finally able to make our flower seller friend understand that we did not want to take a taxi or need any money. She was able to somehow get us headed in the right direction. Before leaving we snapped a photo of her smiling. The craziness and confusion had alleviated our angst. It is incredible how just one person can make a city seem welcoming.

Old Bucharest - Central University Library

Old Bucharest – Central University Library (Credit: Ștefan Jurcă)

Paris Of The East – An Old, Grand Ghost
After a few wrong turns we were able to find our hotel. It was located close to Carol Park (Parcul Carol), which is home to the Nation’s Heroes Memorial, Romania’s version of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. After we settled in, I decided to go for a run to get my first look at Bucharest. I did not have many preconceived notions about the city before I arrived. Most of what I knew about Bucharest and Romania came to me from Robert Kaplan’s famous geopolitical travelogue Balkan Ghosts and reading 1990’s era travel guides I had purchased at clearance book sales. For a place that was no one’s idea of a major tourist destination, including in Romania, it had once enjoyed an exalted status.

At the turn of the 20th century, Bucharest was known as the Paris of the East, a charming, amorous city of inspired architecture filled with people speaking a Romance language. It was a rough approximation of the French capital, as close as one could get to it at the time for Eastern Europe.  Bucharest’s mysterious, exotic reputation also came from having once been a stop on the famous Orient Express railway line. All of this old world grandeur made it sound like an appealing destination. The reality that initially confronted me was much different.

A Vision Of Madness - Palace of the Parliament in Bucharest

A Vision Of Madness – Palace of the Parliament in Bucharest

The Looming Legacy – A Sterile Space
I hoped Bucharest would be better then what we had seen on our ride into the city. Its outer areas had been a dusty urban conurbation that looked dirty, congested and decidedly lacking in charm. There was the usual tower apartment blocks that loomed as a menacing architectural memory of the grim development strategy of the Romanian communist dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu. These soul destroying, concrete structures pockmarked the skyline. They looked like the kind of places where a sense of community goes to die. There was no escaping Ceaucescu’s legacy in Bucharest. It was what had brought me to the city. I traveled there with my new found friend Tim because he was going to visit the Palace of Parliament, that communist era monstrosity that had gained worldwide fame as a monument to one man’s megalomania. This was too good an opportunity to pass up. I rearranged my entire Eastern European trip to see it. The Palace was one of the most famous symbols of the Communist era anywhere in the world.

Though I would be visiting the Palace the next day, I could not control my urge to take a quick look at the building. I found a much better map which helped me figure out how to find my way there. All I really needed to do was run for about ten minutes to where the parliament was located. Then I could spend the rest of an hour running laps on the sidewalk around it. My first impression was one of awe, at the unbelievable massiveness of the structure. This became clearer each time I ran all the way around it. It took a good fifteen minutes to make a single lap. An expansive space surrounded the Palace. Some might call it a yawning void. It took up a huge area, but all around it was a sort of sterile emptiness. Nothing about the palace or its immediate surroundings was human in scale. The entire complex seemed as though it had come from another world and truth be told, it had. That world began to disappear in the winter of 1989 with the execution of the Ceaucescu’s, but their legacy still loomed over Romania much lie the Palace towered over Bucharest.