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.

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