sâmbătă, 16 aprilie 2011

Bucharest and beyond...

"Like a giant exotic insect, a large glass clings to the side of an apartment building in the Piata Romana, multicoloured straws emerging from it like tentacles.
From above, an oversized Coke bottle, lying along the building's roof, pours a murky stream of fake beverage.
This, we take it, is the face of the new Bucharest. As we trundle around its streets in our rented Ford Fiesta -- amid garish billboards for Vodafone, L'Oreal and the like plastered on Parisian and neo-Romanesque facades -- this face seems increasingly like that of an adolescent trying on make-up for the first time.
Seeking refuge we head to the Romanian Athaeneum, which sits like a wedding cake in the centre of Bucharest, its white columns defiantly billboard-free. In one of the concert halls, a small crowd has gathered to hear a Polish pianist play Chopin. Despite his stirring arpeggio-filled mazurkas and his lyrical rendering of nocturnes, each piece is followed by an awkward silence. It's as if the audience is still making up its mind whether or not to applaud.
Most Romanians we speak to seem to exhibit a similar ambivalence about the direction in which their country is headed. Aboard the flight from Paris to Bucharest, we meet Nikolae, a former ship's master with piercing bluish-grey eyes, who laments the fact Romanian youth of today don't know or care as much about history as his generation did. On the backs of our boarding passes he scribbles the word tuica, the name of Romania's traditional plum brandy, key conversational phrases and details of his villa by the Black Sea to which he warmly invites us.
Another afternoon, at a food stall, we strike up a conversation with Ileana after she helps us navigate the intricacies of a Romanian menu.
She joins us for lunch at a picnic table across the road from the ironically titled People's Palace. I say ironic because 30,000 of the people's homes were bulldozed by the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in his rush to erect this austere behemoth, the world's second-largest building.
When asked if things were better now than under his rule, Ileana shrugs: "Well, you know, you can't have it all."
We gnaw contemplatively on our roasted pork and green capsicum kebabs, an impatient breeze tugging at the paper napkins pinned down with slices of bread.
Ileana explains she is glad that Romania's EU membership gives her the freedom to travel throughout the continent but she's not so thrilled about the increasing rates of unemployment and crime.
"In the old days, everyone was guaranteed a job and a decent apartment." As if to poignantly drive home her point, I catch sight of a beggar sitting in front of the People's Palace surrounded by four bulging garbage bags presumably containing his worldly possessions.
While the older generation speaks with some fondness of the past, younger Romanians seem to have embraced the present with open arms and wallets.
Wandering through early evening crowds in the leafy Cismigiu Gardens, every twentysomething person and teenager we see sports an iPod casually dangling from their neck.
Two of the most striking sculptures are in the Piata Revolutei (Revolutionary Square). Right in front of the Central Committee building from which Ceausescu gave his last speech to jeering crowds in 1989 before being whisked away by helicopter to face a firing squad, sits the statue of Iuliu Maniu, a former Romanian prime minister, imprisoned in 1947 for his opposition to communism.
Maniu looks emaciated but defiant. Near him stands the Memorial of Rebirth, a 25m-tall triangular marble blade skewering a black metal boulder, which commemorates the Romanian Revolution that led to Ceausescu's downfall.
Inside the health club on the 21st floor of the InterContinental, the tallest hotel in Bucharest, middle-aged East European businessmen spread their white-towelled torsos out onto the heated marble slab that faces the view.
As we wander out to the adjoining terrace, I can imagine the electric anticipation rippling through the hotel in 1989 when it was the vantage point of choice for the international media reporting on the Romanian Revolution.
Below us the architectural potpourri of the Bucharest skyline reflects Romania's rich and diverse cultural and historic heritage.
Eighteenth-century Orthodox churches nudge up against sombre communist-era apartment blocks. Straddling Rue Kiseleff is Bucharest's own Arcul de Triumf crested by the Romanian tricolour, very similar to its Parisian cousin.
On the Calea Victoriei, the Novotel exemplifies the blending of the traditional and the modern with the reconstructed 19th-century facade of the old Opera House fronting the hotel's modern black glass exterior.
Heading into the countryside towards Transylvania we pass more medieval churches as well as peasant families riding on donkey-drawn carts.
We roll into Brasov, the capital of Transylvania. Schoolchildren play football in the sun-dappled shadows of the gothic Black Church, which borders the town square. Our hotel, the Bella Muzica, prides itself on being located in a 400-year-old building.
While the interiors have been refurbished, the cavernous restaurant in the basement with its stone arches and lanterns makes it seem as though we are eating in a modified but cosy dungeon.
Stepping outside the town's walls, we climb up to the White Tower, one of two watchtowers constructed in the 15th century to alert the townsfolk to imminent raids by Turks and Tartars. Perched on its steps, we watch tendrils of smoke rise from the roofs below, with barely a sound but for the gentle rustle of the river.
We make the obligatory detour to Bran to visit Dracula's castle.
A sign announcing Vampire Camping indicates we must be getting close.
Outside the castle, stalls sell blood wine and a few men wander about in masks and fangs, draped in red and black capes trying to act appropriately ghoulish.
Despite the build-up, the eeriness factor of the castle where Vlad the Impaler, the source of the Dracula myth, visited a few times, is disappointingly low.
Sunlight bathes the central courtyard and the arched windows offer bucolic views of a brook, green fields and the brick cottages of rural Transylvania.
A more imposing presence is Pelees Castle in nearby Sinaia, which rises out of its backdrop of rolling green hills and dense pine forest like a scene from a fairytale. Originally the home of King Carol I, it was later taken over by the Communist Party and used by Ceausescu to host dignitaries such as Richard Nixon, Muammar Gadaffi and Yasser Arafat.
From its terraces a range of regal sculptures of queens in flowing robes and knights in full armour gaze out onto the breathtaking landscape bordered by the snowcapped Carpathians.
Back in Bucharest, we spend our last afternoon searching for the graves of Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, who was also executed in 1989. Our queries for directions from passersby elicit a variety of responses.
One sarcastic woman questions why we are looking for them. Others shrug and say they don't know and don't care. It is dark by the time we finally pull up in front of the large iron gates of Ghencea Cemetery.
"Sorry, closed," shrugs the caretaker through the railings, his white teeth gleaming in the moonlight. We plead with him and finally he relents after securing a promise to buy him a beer.
We crunch along gravel to the dictator's grave; the Orthodox cross that marks the spot glints ghostly white in the light of my camera's flash. Several fresh bouquets of red and white lilies carpet the ground.
Elena's grave is relatively unadorned, with a black iron cross eerily resembling a stake rising out of its centre.
The two were buried in different parts of the cemetery, the caretaker explains, as punishment for their sins.
As we walk to dinner at Balthazar, a trendy French-Asian restaurant, later that night, the dimly lit backstreets are roamed by packs of stray dogs, progeny of the ones abandoned by the Romanians who lost their spacious dwellings to Ceausescu's People's Palace project.
Their howls send chills up our spines and we walk gratefully into Balthazar's oasis of warmth and light. As the howling recedes into the darkness, it feels almost as if the ghosts of Romania's past have finished their work for the night." (www.theaustralian.com.au)