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 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.