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.
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.
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.
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.