“Our bravest and best lessons are not learned through success, but through misadventure.” – Amos Bronson Alcott.
Erin and I just got back from our long Galentine’s weekend in Romania. That’s right, Romania. Not a place I ever expected to visit in my life, but I’m very glad I did. Aside from being a lot of fun, it was also an eye-opening experience.
WARNING: History Lesson Imminent. I feel it’s important for me to explain why Romania looks the way it does in these photos, because it isn’t all pretty. Feel free to skip the next paragraph if you’re not interested.
Bucharest is a city that has clearly gone through a lot of upheaval – the evidence of it is everywhere, from poverty-stricken areas to buildings crumbling into themselves in the most unlikely places. After being bombed during WWII (though not as badly as many other European cities), Bucharest underwent a long-lived and severe Soviet occupation. Communist Romania became heavily in debt and its terror regime cost countless lives. Nicolae Ceaușescu was the General Secretary of the Romanian Communist Party, as well as the country’s head of state. To sum it all up, he was a complete bastard. Because Romania had accrued so much debt, he established an “austerity program” in 1981 in order to reduce it. Romania basically became a police state, run by the Securitate (secret police). Things like heat, food, and medicine were severely rationed and the standard of living plummeted.
Malnutrition became a way of life and the infant mortality rate became the highest in Europe. It is estimated that at least 2 million Romanians died directly due to communist repression, not including indirect deaths such as from malnutrition and poor conditions. The true number could be much higher. In 1977 an earthquake rocked the city, leaving Bucharest heavily damaged and with many dead. Then in 1989, the Romanian Revolution swept the country. In December riots broke out, ultimately ending with the capture of Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife (the Deputy Prime Minister), Elena. They were hastily tried and found guilty of mass murder, damaging the national economy, and abuse of power. They were executed by a firing squad on Christmas day. Unsurprisingly, Bucharest (along with the rest of Romania) has struggled to recover from these atrocities in the short time it is had had since the fall of communism.
Now, back to the more cheerful stuff. We flew into Bucharest in the morning and spent the day walking around the city. The first thing that struck us about Bucharest was that it was pretty spread out for an old European city. We’d been expecting narrow, cozy cobblestone streets with plenty of cool buildings and fun places to eat. As we discovered, that is a perfect description of Bucharest’s Lipscani District, but the city as a whole is not like that.
We walked and walked, checking out the Palace of Parliament and some of the gorgeous architecture. Eventually we made our way to Calea Victoriei, which is arguably the prettiest street in the city and a favorite among tourists. There are many monuments, churches, and museums (though many of them looked closed to us) along the way, as well as a good deal of shopping. At the south end of the street and just to the east, you’ll find the Lipscani district. This is the epicenter of Bucharest’s nightlife (complete with those cozy, cobblestone streets we were looking for). There is booze, food, and music in every direction, and of course strip clubs if you’re into that kind of thing.
Erin had discovered a restaurant that was highly recommended online for having delicious, cheap, traditional Romanian food. We were very excited to eat there for dinner and ventured out after getting settled in the hotel. We walked along the dark streets (um, why are all the lights out?), trying to avoid the wires hanging down from telephone poles. (Don’t worry, it’s part of the fun.)
We made it to the end of the mile walk and found our restaurant — closed. It was such a disappointment. If you have your heart set on visiting a specific restaurant in Romania, don’t be surprised if you find it shut down. We saw an astonishing number of eateries with “Inchiriat” (For Rent) signs in the windows. But for us, the icing on the cake was another mile walk back to the hotel, where we ended up having dinner. I got the dish of the day. How do you eat one of these without choking on bones with every mouthful? ——————–> Seriously, if you know the trick to it please let me know. I did pretty well, but I certainly didn’t avoid all of them.
Our third day in Romania (day 2 was spent outside of Bucharest) we started off with a wonderful breakfast. On this particular morning, Erin and I discovered Ramayana Cafe near our hotel and the train station. Ramayana Cafe was a diamond in the rough and I highly recommend it to anyone visiting Bucharest. We enjoyed a pot of tea each, but the cafe offers coffee, smoothies, alcoholic drinks, snacks, and is also a hookah bar.
Fueled by tea and mystery cookies, we walked north to the Museum of the Romanian Peasant. Entrance was 8 lei a person – about $2.50. It was very interesting, even though we didn’t really know what we were looking at. The exhibits don’t have signs or text to explain them, only numbers to go along with an audio guide. We didn’t get the audio guide because the desk lady didn’t mention it to us, but I assume it would have come at an additional cost. Not that it would have been a big deal – the exchange rate for Romanian leu (RON) is actually in our favor. Today, one dollar is 3.26 lei. However, that also means that a beer can cost 15 lei. Anyway, the museum is worth visiting. Just make sure not to take pictures (or at least do it discreetly) because Photo Nazi will come hiss at you.
By the end of our time there, Bucharest left us with the sense that it is a city just beginning to discover itself. Before WWII, it was even called the “Little Paris” because of its beauty and culture. The repression of communism cost the city a lot of its identity and the feeling lingers on, but in the last few years Bucharest has been doing much better. If you want to visit, now may be the perfect time to go before the more raw, Romanian culture is diluted by tourism. However, I can’t suggest going in winter – the city is supposedly quite beautiful in spring, and its numerous parks would be gorgeous in bloom.
Our second day in Romania, we decided to get out of Bucharest and take a train to the coast. Constanta is the largest port on the Black Sea, and the fourth largest port in Europe. We were very excited to see the beach town, but our first and largest hurdle was buying train tickets. Train tickets in Romania are unlike train tickets anywhere else I’ve been. Firstly, there are no automated kiosks to use. There are a handful of different “Casa Billete” (ticket offices) where you have to hope the vendors speak English. Even if they do, there’s a chance that that particular ticket office won’t have tickets to where you’re going, because different ticket offices are affiliated with a different train companies. We had to check with three ticket offices, and the lady at the last one didn’t speak any English. By then we were ready to give up. We went back to the hotel and looked online to see if there were, in fact, trains from Bucharest to Constanta as we had assumed. The train website confirmed that there were, and that they cost about 105 lei ($30) for a return ticket.
We decided to go back to the station in the morning and hope that a different, preferably English-speaking, person would be at the counter and we would be able to buy tickets. Amazingly, we were in luck. Her English wasn’t very good and she was clearly frustrated as we tried to understand each other, but in the end we had our tickets in hand and were sitting in a surprisingly comfortable train on our way to the coast. The train looked a bit dirty and rickety from the outside, but inside it proved to be far nicer than most trains here in Italy.
It was a three hour ride to Constanta, during which we stared out the windows as tiny shanty villages flashed by. In rural Romania, at least between Bucharest and the sea, people live in a fashion I’ve only ever seen on television. These villages were made up of small, one-room shacks of wood and sheet metal, with little fenced in “yards” that were about the same size as the shacks themselves. The yards were completely mud (possibly because of the winter season), and many of them were full of trash and had laundry hung out to dry; some even had goats or chickens roaming around. Each property was pressed up against the next with no space in between, and Erin and I wondered if they even had electricity. I doubted it – many shacks had smoke puffing from chimney pipes, and some of the villages looked like they didn’t even have roads leading to them. Perhaps part of the dismal feel was the grey, freezing weather, and the fact that no one was outside. There was certainly a sense of abandonment and hopelessness. I still don’t understand how they are able to live day to day in those conditions, but I would like to learn. (The photo is a stock photo from the internet, but is a good example of what we saw. Taking a picture of the shanty towns while sitting across from locals would have felt a little wrong.) These communities were surrounded by fields. Southern Romania produces a huge quantity of grain, and though it was a pretty miserable landscape in February, it would probably be quite beautiful in the summer when the wheat is tall and blowing in the wind. I wondered if perhaps these tiny villages were the people who tended to the crops, since there were no large farms to be seen.
Eventually, after crossing the Danube, we arrived in Constanta. As soon as we stepped off the train we realized that this town was not the hip, fun, beach city we expected. It was grey. We agreed that with a little color, Constanta would be infinitely more appealing. Italian towns are not always the most beautiful, but they’re colorful and it often makes all the difference. You’ve probably seen pictures of Cinque Terre on the west coast of Italy…. Now imagine all the buildings are grey. Ew, right? Aside from the drab lack of color, businesses were closed left and right, trash and stray dogs were everywhere (perhaps even more so than Bucharest), and construction projects were sitting half-finished.
We made our way from the train station to the beach, about a mile and a half, and walked down a long stairway to the sand. We had reached the Black Sea! We walked out on a man-made breaker and found a little family of swans floating in the water, as well as a swarm of jellyfish. The wind was bitingly cold and looking back at the coastline, it was a pretty ugly view. But we enjoyed our time on the beach anyway.
We killed time with a long lunch (Italian food is everywhere in Romania. We just can’t escape it.) until our train back to Bucharest. It had been a long day, but we were glad we made the journey to Constanta. Aside from getting to say we’d been to the Black Sea, it was an eye-opening look at rural life in Romania.
All in All
All in all, our visit to Romania was not what we were expecting. At first we had been kind of bewildered by what we actually found there. However, by the end of our three days the culture shock had worn off and we were incredibly glad we had gone. We got to experience a completely different culture and see ways of life that had never been real to us before. We had fun, but more than that, we came home changed. We’re more grateful for the things we have; it’s so easy to take things for granted. So if you go, don’t go for a vacation. Don’t stay in the Lipscani district. Go to learn.