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.