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.

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.



A Hostel Situation – The Way To Ruse & Romania (Travels In Eastern Europe #13)

Two men were quietly conversing among themselves while sitting in a kitchen at a hostel deep in the mountains of Bulgaria. All the while rain played a percussive rhythm on the rooftop. If this had occurred during the Cold War it might have been the opening to a spy thriller, but this was the 21st century, at a hostel where backpackers and freelance travelers hunkered down, exhausted from partying and pleasure seeking while plotting their next adventure.

Hostel Mostel in Veliko Tarnovo

Hostel Mostel in Veliko Tarnovo

Eavesdropping In Eastern Europe – Changing Plans, Making Friends
The two young men I overheard were speaking English and by their accent I could tell they were Americans. Their discussion concerned the easiest way to get from Veliko Tarnovo to Bucharest in order to see the infamous Palace of the Parliament, the piece de dictatorship of the Romanian communist ruler, Nicolae Ceausescu. I fixed a cup of coffee while eavesdropping. One of the men, with a tall, rangy build, dark hair and a thick New Yawkish accent was heading out the next morning on the first bus he could find to Ruse, Bulgaria, a city on the Danube that sat just across from the Romanian border.  There he planned to get a bus north to Bucharest. The other man, an Asian-American who looked to be just out of college had a friendly demeanor and was planning to stay an additional day in Veliko Tarnovo. The man leaving promised to send the other one travel information on buses headed from Ruse to Bucharest. After hearing this, I decided to introduce myself and was met with almost instantaneous friendship.

The New Yawker, was from the city, but now taught English in China. He had done a remarkable amount of travel in Eastern Europe. Every place that came up in our conversation, from Skopje to Sarajevo, elicited an affirmative response. He rattled off one anecdote after another. In Pristina, Kosovo a local had “rolled out the red carpet” for him, happy to finally meet an American. The Kosovar had an abiding affinity for Americans because they had saved him and his country from the wrath of Serbia. In Bosnia, he had been detained in a holding cell for a night because he had been caught with a bottle of prescription Xanax. His “arrest” was in an effort to elicit a bribe. He did not give in and so was let go the next morning. In Tirana, the capital of Albania, he had visited the Pyramid, a bizarre monument/cultural center built by Europe’s most insular communist regime. It was now a kitsch tourist attraction, quite a change from its former use as the “Enver Hoxha Museum”, a surreal honorarium to the super paranoid lunatic leader. And so the tales of travels near and bizarre went on. The other young man asked me if I wanted to check out Veliko Tarnovo with him the next day. I readily agreed. This led to a change in my trip plans for the better.

Palace of the Parliament In Bucharest, Romania

A Plan Changer- Palace of the Parliament In Bucharest, Romania (Credit: Marco Almbauer)

The Allure Of A Remarkable Monstrosity
Traveling alone is a wonderful way to see the world, but can lead to intense periods of loneliness. Put a person in a country where they do not know the language, alphabet or culture and they will eventually feel a need for the familiar. The anti-social self may begin to long for conversation and friendship. I experienced such a feeling after several days to myself in Bulgaria. When the chance presented itself for a few days traveling with a fellow American I jumped at the opportunity. This changed my trip itinerary. Instead of doubling back through Sofia and then transiting through Belgrade to Sarajevo, I would now be traveling to Bucharest and flying from there to Sarajevo.  This suited me for more than just social reasons. It was not just companionship that I sought, but also the chance to see the second largest building in the world, the Palace Of The Parliament, a remarkable monstrosity of Ceausescu’s abysmal rule, a monument to failed ideology and personal tyranny.

The young man I would be traveling with, Tim, was extremely interested in Eastern European history. Unlike me, he was too young to have experienced the fall of the Iron Curtain. This did not stop him from spending hours discussing the countries of the former Warsaw Pact and their recent Cold War history. He was on a three month trip around Europe before he settled down to start a career. He had spent considerable time – over a month of his trip – in the Balkans. Tim was now of the opinion that the Balkans were the most interesting part of Europe with their kaleidoscopic history of struggle, horror and contradiction.

I spent another day in Veliko Tarnovo with Tim dodging downpours while exploring the Old Town, then we set out on a chilly, but bright Monday morning for to our first destination Ruse. The New Yawker had sent word that maxi taxis (a cross between a small bus and a car) were easy to get in Ruse. We should have no problem crossing the Romanian border and find ourselves in Bucharest by late afternoon if all went well. Veliko Tarnovo had been a gem of a town to visit, with layers of history, a rich architectural legacy and an old town filled with quaint shops. Maybe this was why it was such a shock when we got to the bus depot. It was little more than a vacant lot covered with busted pavement. Buses entered and exited haphazardly, people wandered about aimlessly. There was hardly any organization. Instead groups of people stood loitering in small crowds. The place looked dangerous, but was actually benign. It would be an especially good place to get bit by a stray dog. I suddenly felt like it was the 1980s in Bulgaria all over again.

Veliko Tarnovo - One last look

Veliko Tarnovo – One last look (Credit: Nikola Gruev)

Bulgaria Shrugs Its Shoulders – A Changing Of Time
The bus finally did arrive, just not on time. I began to understand that time had a very different meaning in the Balkans. It was elastic, a guideline rather than a rule of thumb, something useful, but that could also be ignored. My experience was that nothing quite ran on time in Bulgaria and no one was really bothered by it, just as they were not bothered by the condition of the bus terminal. I imagined Bulgarians as a nation of people who collectively shrug their shoulders at the state of their nation. The bus terminal was just another unsightly mess, in a Bulgarian landscape that was filled with them.

Later Rather Than Sooner – Sibiu to Sighisoara By Rail

In 2007 Romania became a member of the European Union (EU). Since that time, the question has been raised about whether they should have been admitted as members. Critics believe that the country was not ready to join. The foremost reason cited was the level of corruption. Romania is plagued by opaque government and poorly functioning institutions. Everything from procurement to health care is prone to waste and graft. I have now visited Romania three times since its accession, but on these trips I have not personally experienced corruption. Of course, tourists are not applying for unemployment benefits or using the public health system. The closest most tourists get to experiencing the effects of the Romanian government is when using the public transport system. Accession to the European Union was supposed to help Romania improve their transport infrastructure. After traveling through Transylvania a month ago I would have to state unequivocally that Romania has a long way to go in order to catch up with developing countries let alone the rest of the EU.

Time Delayed Device – The Romanian Express
A memorable experience, occurred when my wife and I decided to take a day trip by train, traveling from Sibiu to Sighisoara, a place famed for its citadel, medieval old town and as the birthplace of Vlad the Impaler. We went to purchase our round trip tickets a day in advance. The ticket agent was a lady so helpful and pleasant that she felt compelled to lead us into a labyrinth of route iterations and timetable possibilities. We finally called mercy after a good ten minutes of migraine inducing options. Settling on the simplest plan, we were to leave Sibiu at 7:23 a.m., make one change at Medias and arrive at Sighisoara at 10:25 a.m. Even if one did not count the 19 minute layover in Medias, this was still over two hours and 40 minutes of travel time to cover a mere 80 kilometers. On the return trip, we would have a straight shot, but it would still take over three hours. Our main worry seemed to be making it to Medias for the connection. I had never been on a Romanian train that arrived on time. These trains were the ultimate in time delayed devices. Even the night express which took us direct from Budapest to Brasov earlier on the same trip was over two hours late. Then again that had been a thirteen and a half hour trip, so another two hours didn’t seem all that bad. On the trip to Sighisoara I would find out just how long hours or two can be.

The Most Polluted Town In Europe
The next morning, we left the station beneath clear blue skies. It was shaping up to be a beautiful Saturday, the time of departure was exactly 7:23 a.m. We were rolling along slowly, making stops at various villages along the way. Village life looked as though it had not changed much over the last hundred years. There were as many horse drawn wagon carts, as there were cars on the road. Cracked facades were the main hallmark of the houses and roosters crowed at nothing in particular. It was another spring day in the sleepy villages of Transylvania.

Slowly, ever so slowly the train crawled along, an ominous landscape came into view. The train stopped just outside one of the most depressing places I had ever seen. The land was scalded and scarred between the railroad tracks and a nearby town. Gruesome skeletons of abandoned industrial buildings were haphazardly arranged in the distance. The scene was toxic and nasty. This was the dustbin of heavy industry. I opened my guidebook to Transylvania, hoping that this unsightly monstrosity was marked. It was. The nearby town’s name was Copsa Mica. It was said to be the most polluted town in Romania. I later learned that many believe it is the most polluted town in Europe. I believe it. Copsa Mica was ruined by the heavy industrialization policy of Nicolae Ceaucescu. Two industrial plants had been the culprits. One produced carbon black for dyes, the other was a smelter. This has caused lead poisoning and lung cancer on a terrifying scale. The life expectancy for the citizens of the town is nine years lower than Romanian average.

Copsa Mica with Carbosin Plant in the distance  (Credit: Julian Nitszche)

Copsa Mica with Carbosin Plant in the distance (Credit: Julian Nitszche)

Welcome To Romania
While staring at this environmental disaster I reminded myself that next time someone tries to say a good word about communism, I will ask them to google Copsa Mica. It is a tragic, horrific concoction of ideology and industry. Copsa Mica made it hard to believe that we were still in Transylvania or that less than an hour away was the beauty and elegance of one of the first European Capitals of Culture, Sibiu. I have been to Chernobyl and the nearby abandoned city of Pripyat, but Copsa Mica looks much worse. Today over five thousand people still live in the town. With a shutter and clang, we pulled away from the unsightly, industrial wasteland and through Copsa Mica. I have rarely felt so relieved. Even with a couple of five minute delays, it seemed that we just might make it to Medias in time for the connection. We had to be less than ten kilometers away by now. And then the train began to slow, as we arrived at another village. The difference this time is that we just sat there. The engines shut down. This was followed by an uneasy silence. Minutes went by and nothing happened.

The passengers in the half empty car began to murmur and frown. A ticket checker was stopped and questioned by one man. Even though I can hardly understand a word of Romanian, one could tell that he was being quizzed on the problem. He patiently stood talking for some time. The passenger he addressed sighed when he was finished. Interpreting these gestures I guessed that it was going to be awhile. It was more than awhile. A good 30 minutes passed before the train slowly, ever so slowly began to roll again. We asked a young man of college age on the train if he could tell us what exactly had been the problem. He replied that the ticket checker claimed the line was undergoing construction. He also added for effect, “Welcome to Romania.” The final miles to Medias were prolonged by an excruciating slowness.

Romanian Railways - not exactly at your service (Credit: Marcin Szala)

Romanian Railways – not exactly at your service (Credit: Marcin Szala)

The Hurry Up To Be Late
We rushed off the train at Medias. Groups of bored looking people were listlessly waiting on several platforms. I rushed into the station, wondering whether or not we had missed our connection. The station was empty. It brought to mind an abandoned public latrine. Fortunately, some invisible being had updated the arrival times. The train to Sighisoara was late. Who would have thought? I felt a sense of foolish relief as I walked back out to the platform. My wife had joined the group of placid faced, would be passengers. It suddenly struck me, how much time do people spend waiting on trains in Romania? Could such a figure even be quantified? The inefficiency, the waste of it all. Could the beauty and romance of Transylvania’s landscape somehow make up for it? Perhaps, I was just being too western, too business oriented, too selfish. After all, at least we were on vacation. What about the poor souls who actually needed to get somewhere. Everyone standing on the platforms looked either complacent or resigned.

After a while the train that would take us to Sighisoara arrived. I find it exceedingly ironic that as soon as a late arriving train shows up, everyone hurries to get on fearing that they might be left behind. This is for good reason. Late arriving trains never dawdle at the station more than a couple of minutes. Instead their modus operandi is to never wait on the tardy, but to only stop for prolonged periods in the middle of nowhere. At least we were back on the tracks. This kind of progress couldn’t last and it didn’t. Sure enough within half an hour we were stopped yet again. This time the situation turned desperate. We waited longer than it had taken us to first arrive at this point. We really were in the middle of nowhere, not a village in sight.

How Far Is it? How Far Is It Now?
This time we stopped right where the adjacent line was undergoing construction. Our train stood still on one set of tracks while we stared longingly at the tracks still under construction. They gleamed in the sunlight, brand spanking new. This was of little consolation. We even saw construction workers, kicking a soccer ball, having lunch or standing around. The problem was that no actual construction work seemed to be going on. Soon a stale heat permeated the train car. An older lady in front of us, smiled knowingly. I shook my head in resignation. She acknowledged my frustration with a knowing glance. She soon questioned the ticket checker, who seemed to be giving her a minutes-long description for the cause of delay.

After he left the lady began to talk with us. She could not speak English and we could not speak Romanian. Trying to communicate was rather amusing, but I felt a twinge of sorrow. We understood enough to ascertain that she was going to see a friend in Sighisoara who was sick. I wondered how many times she had dealt with this same thing. I wondered if she had ever been on a train that was ever on time. I wondered if we would ever be on a train that was on time. I tried to blame the whole thing on Ceaucescu, but he had been dead for almost twenty-five years. It was corruption, waste, graft and whatever else I could conjure up that might shoulder the blame. A generation had passed, would this ever change. I went and used the bathroom, if you could call it that. When a train is stopped passengers are not supposed to use the bathroom. If everyone followed that rule, there would be chronic bladder bursting all across Romania. Finally, the train started rolling along once again. Could this really be happening? Would we make it to Sighisoara just an hour late? That was too much to ask.

Finally at the point of arrival - Sighisoara Railway Station

Finally at the point of arrival – Sighisoara Railway Station

Later Rather Than Sooner
We stopped again and again. The delays were not as lengthy, but nonetheless it was hard to believe we would ever get there. Finally we really started moving, perhaps as fast as 30 miles per hour. It was surreal. A few more twists and turns, then we were suddenly at Sighisoara. I could not believe it. The station was cute, tidy and trim. This was more like it. Only problem was that it had taken four and a half hours. We now only had two and a half hours to see the place. That worry paled in comparison to thoughts of the return trip. We could only hope that it would be less than two hours late. I shuttered at the thought of taking the same route. Perhaps by the late afternoon construction would have stopped. Then again, it had never started. Welcome to Romania!