Romania, Land of Contrasts

I think I mentioned it before in a story about Romanian Gypsies, or Romani, that Romania was pleasant surprise for us, and a place we like to promote whenever we can.  We cannot understand why people don’t want to try Romania, it has so much to offer, but they keep returning to the ‘old school’ names, like Paris, Tuscany, Provence and many tropical locations.  I hesitate to mention Greece, because it is also one of our favourites.  Perhaps their travel agents have not tried to reach out to see what is available in Romania.  In that case, they should talk to Paula Olaru at info@romania-tours.ro – she will help you out wth information and a fantastic tour if you want.  Romania . . . land of contrasts . . . seemed appropriate for this story as it covers a wide range of experiences, locations, and tastes of culture not seen elsewhere.

Athénée Palace Hilton Hotel from Author Ian Kent
Athénée Palace Hilton Hotel

I’ll begin with the first hotel we stayed at in Bucharest.  Bucharest, ‘Paris of the East’ it was known as for years.  We were first booked into the ‘Athénée Palace Hotel, which is now run by the Hilton chain.  This hotel has survived wars, bombings, and earthquakes to build an enviable reputation of a deluxe ‘Belle Epoque’ hotel.  It’s history, dating back to WWII and later the cold war, include a time when spies from all countries stayed here, creating a fascinating and sometimes dangerous collection of individuals.  A book was written about this hotel at this time.  Quoting from it’s description  “As European capitals fell during 1940 and 1941, diplomats, generals, Gestapo spies and demimondaines from all over Europe swarmed to the Athene Palace, Bucharest’s Grand Hotel.  Arriving at the crowded Athene Palace on the day Paris fell in 1940, the American journalist Rosa Goldschmidt Waldeck watched, for the seven months, all the events and the international figures that made Romania Europe’s last sensational hotbed of intrigue and colour”

Athénée Palace Lobby from Author Ian Kent
Athénée Palace Lobby

Before we traveled to Romania, I learned we would be staying at this hotel, so I made it a priority to read Rosa Waldeck’s book, “Athene Palace’.

Just on the edge of Bucharest the Romanians have built an outdoor ‘village museum’.  We’ve seen this done in several places in Europe, where they collect samples of early architecture, building techniques, and entire houses and other buildings from around the country and construct a complete ‘village’ of these restored buildings as an open air museum.  This one is called ‘MUZEUL NATIONAL AL SATULUI ‘DIMITRI GUSTI’.  Dimitri Gusti was the individual who suggested and promoted this project . . . to preserve the old technologies and skills of building.  The museum covers a 30 acres in Herastrau Park on the banks of Lake Herastrau.  There are 50 buildings, 50,000 objects, and attracts over 500,000 visitors a year.  It is a fantastic place to visit, illustrating the old crafts of building log houses, shingle roofs, and other skills.

In contrast with these lovely old building skills, we also visited what is most likely the worst example in the world of excess, waste and mis-treatment of the society.  When Nicolae Ceaucescu was in charge, I hesitate to say ‘running the country’, because he actually ran it into the ground, he built his ‘Palace of the Parliament’, a huge, grotesque structure, reputed to be the second largest building in the world (I think the Pentagon is the largest). 

This communist dictator decided to build this monster by wiping out a large section of Bucharest, levelling homes, churches and apartments, turning one fifth of Bucharest out on the streets or housing them in plain, boring, Soviet style apartment blocks.  This razing included 19 Orthodox Christian churches, 6 Synagogues and Jewish temples, 3 Protestant churches, plus 8 relocated churches and 30,000 homes in two neighbourhoods alone. At that time, the household pets were also let loose, causing a problem with ‘wild dogs’ running loose in the city. In fact, when we went there, I was warned to watch out for these animals, so I armed myself with a pocket ‘dog alarm’.  I did not ever require this protection, but I was always on the lookout for this threat.

Ceaucescu spared nothing for his ‘Palace’. He used 700 architects, and 20,000 workers, working 24/7, using marble and fine stonework from all over the country.  I don’t know what kind of architects he used, but when they built the theatre in the palace, they forgot to put a room behind the stage . .  . rather difficult for the players.  The building is about 12 stories tall, with an estimated 8 stories underground.  Other statistics about this monster are equally disgusting.

Ceaucescu’s ‘Palace’ from Author Ian Kent
Ceaucescu’s ‘Palace’

We’ve seen recent examples of narcissism, but Ceaucescu was a classic!  He called himself ‘Conducator’ (Leader) and ‘Genuil din Carpati’ (Genius of the Carpathians) and even had a king like sceptre made for himself.  If you visit the palace on a tour, be prepared for some very tight and arrogant security rules, as well as no toilets within easy reach. ( as the tourists and tour buses line up )  I had an uncomfortable run-in with a security guard who did not like me taking photos or moving out of the queue.  I’m not sure if he expected I might steal a slab of marble or what?

The Romanian people finally had enough and the Romanian Revolution broke out in 1989.  The Ceaucescus were forced to flee by helicopter, eventually captured, tried and convicted by an ad hoc military court and executed by firing squad on Christmas Day, 1989.  (Yea!)

Despite many of the photos I show in this story which depict peasant farmers, Romani, and horse and buggy technology, Romanians have a highly skilled science and technology workforce, Romanians who have a history of being first.  For instance:

 Ion I. Agȃrbiceanu was the designer of the first gas laser in Romania.

Doctor George de Bothezat and Ivan Jerome invented and developed the quadcopter, and aircraft with six bladed rotors.  (used by US Air Service in 1922) .

Back on our tour of Romania, as we drove down a country road the first day, we rounded a corner and came across a local man on horseback, coming towards us.  This gentleman was our host for the night (we learned later that our guide had called him on his phone to meet us as we arrived).  He said we could ride the horse into the village, so Horiko, our travel companion from New York took advantage of this adventure and rode into town on the man’s horse.  This was an interesting B&B or pension experience, as it seemed the entire village ran a cooperative of sorts, some only have one or two rooms, but enough in total to cover many guests.  They all met later in a large dining room for meals.  When we were there, we joined a large group from Denmark, also on a tour of the area. It was quite interesting and pleasant, as we were all new to Romania.

Out grocery shopping from Author Ian Kent
Out grocery shopping

The village we were in is Sibiu, a small village with several pensions or B&B’s run by local women. The one we selected was Pension Adriana, a Pensiunea Agroturistica, obviously an agro-tourism facility, serving organic food to its guests.

We had a lovely room, decorated with a lot of folk art and lovely handworked materials. We walked around the village and found the local gift store, selling handmade crafts and artistic souvenirs.

Other Romanian firsts: 

            3D Cinema – patented  by Theodor V Ionescu in 1936.  Ionescu was a Romanian physicist who also made discoveries in plasma physics and ionosphere physics.

            The first Fountain Pen was invented in 1927 by Petrache Poenaru, who received a French patent for it.

            Anastase Dragomir invented and patented the ejection seat for aircraft in 1928, and the ejection cabin in 1930.

            Lasăr Edelianu was the first chemist to synthesize amphetamine.

            Justin Capră, engineer and inventor, worked on jetpacks, 72 fuel efficient cars, 15 unconventional engines and seven aircraft, among others.

            Rodrig Goliescu,  built the first vertical takeoff and landing aircraft

And so it goes on, with many Romanian scientists and mathematicians leading the way in their fields, especially in aeronautics, both pilots and engineers.  And just another quick note – where do you go if you want a large ship built these days?  Try Romania.  (just a side-note – Alina Puia is the only female manager of a shipyard in Europe. . . . let’s hear it for the girls!)

Diana, Catalin and I enjoying breakfast

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