Dave the motorhome’s well positioned under the trees of Camping Casa Alba, on the outskirts of Bucharest, Romania. It’s been a (literally) cool place for Charlie to wait it out while we visited the city today. The parking area’s gradually filling up with motorhomes of varying shapes and sizes from the Netherlands, here as part of a tour.
Driving a motorhome through the centre of Bucharest on a Friday afternoon? It’s not got much to recommend it. Unless you’ve a pent up rage you need to vent, or fancy going postal, I’d suggest avoiding that particular hornet’s nest. We got through OK, but at a small price. I can hold my own in Dave now, muscling my way about between lanes, forcing folks out of the way, returning the looks of poorly-hidden hatred on fellow driver’s faces, leaning on the horn like we’re a fire engine, generally being unpleasant. All good stuff, but it doesn’t come naturally to me, honestly, it takes me hours to calm down afterwards.
In fact, it’s taken me all night and some of this morning too! As I took Charlie out for a walk, the campsite pooch who resides in an outdoor kennel next to the gate, legged it out and grabbed pampered pooch by the throat. I let loose with shouts, aimed kicks and overhead whirling arms, the full monty. Full of adrenalin after checking Charlie wasn’t bleeding, I looked back to see the reception chap had wandered to look out the door, and was smirking at me. I just walked off, only heading over to see him after I’d walked Charlie around the park and returned him to Dave to calm down (me, not Charlie). He was busy talking with a group of German folks at the time, turning to deal with me I let loose, giving him a piece of my mind, something along the lines of ‘see here, your dog attacked my dog see, and that’s frankly unacceptable’. More smirking, at which point I got rather loud and indicated the next time I took Charlie for a walk, I’d be using my Bucharest dog stick fender-offer. Yes, he nodded, that would be a good idea.
I’ve made up with him now. Even after all this time on the road, I sometimes expect folks to behave in a certain way, one I’m used to. There are few countries we’ve been to which treat dogs in the same way as your average Englishman, as a member of the family. To reception man, who only speaks a little English and must have had only half a clue what this ranting bloke was on about, the idea of me hitting the dog here (which is apparently called Lisa) is perfectly acceptable. I showed him the stick as I walked out the site, ‘bravo’ he said, reaching out to touch my arm, and I could tell he was genuinely happy that it was all cleared up.
According to a 2012 census, Bucharest is home to 64,000 stray dogs. Under Romanian law, these animals can’t be put down unless incurably ill, so the only option to control their numbers is to capture them and either get folks to adopt them or sterilise them and re-release them. That’s a lotta dogs to be waving my stick at. Where did they all come from? As with a few questions about Bucharest, the answer leads you to one man, or more accurately, one man and his wife: the Ceaușescus. The story goes that he forcibly removed folks from the countryside and put them into flats in the cities, and they were unable or unhappy about bringing savage great guard dogs into the tiny flats. Not everyone agrees with this story though, although this guy’s logic that dogs only live 13 years on average and the Ceaușescus have been gone far longer seems to miss the fact dogs can breed? Another post from the same chap about dogs, he celebrates the fact thousands of them elsewhere in Romania were illegally killed a few days ago. I’m not having a go at him, this ain’t my country, it just adds weight to the idea that dogs are seen very differently here to the UK.
With the knowledge there are so many strays knocking about, and having found a shaded safe spot, we decided to leave Charlie here. Reception man sorted us out with a couple of (we think) all day bus passes for 5 RON each. RON and LEI seem to be interchangeable ways of referring to the same wonga – the notes themselves have LEI on them though. He gave us a leaflet in Romanian which describes how to use the credit-card sized bits of card – press the ‘2’ button, wave the card in front, wait for the green LED. With no sign of the skin-thin hooker who occupied the bus lay-by yesterday, we jumped on board and proceeded to attempt every possible combination of ‘2’ button and waving of card, even trying the ‘1’ button, the green LED fails to come to life, RED, RED, RED. Stuff it, we just sat down and rode as black riders, the ticket-less.
The bus is modern, a red scrolling LED system tells you the next stop and the numbers of the bus connections you can make there. A voice calls it out, it’s all rather nice. We pass a church and half the bus silently cross themselves, arms flapping close to their chests like they’re trying to swat a fly. After a couple of stops a lady jumps on with her groomed-up pet pooch, so we now know dogs are allowed on public transport here (I’m not sure what the driver would do about it anyway, they were all ensconced behind ten inch thick lead-lined walls, protection from those rabid mutts maybe). Looking at the window, it’s all familiar stuff from more northern Europe, KFC and IKEA float past. Jeeps and Mercedes 4x4s mix it up with Romanian Dacias, barely a ten year old car in sight. The road’s perfect and wide. What’s going on?
Looking at the list of Europe’s countries by GDP, the UK comes in 22nd according to the IMF, wedged between Italy and Spain, with an average GDP of $35334 US. We’re only 2 positions above Greece. Romania occupies position 63, with a GDP of $7542 US. Out of the EU states, only Bulgaria manages a lower income, at $6334 US. Folks in Kazakhstan (home of Borat, although filming of the mocked-to-the-max villagers took place here in Romania) make more money than Romanians. What’s going on, why is Bucharest so swish? I don’t know the answer, but I’m guessing it’s something to do with the law of averages. As Bucharest is so far south, close to the Bulgarian border, we’ve seen little of the rest of Romania so far, maybe the answer lies there.
Before coming here I read up a little on Nicolae Ceaușescu. The story goes a little like this, seriously simplified for (a) brevity and (b) the reason I don’t really know what I’m talking about:
- Romania sided with the Axis during WW2, at least until Russia came knocking at its border, then it flipped sides in 1944.
- While all this madness played out, Nicolae Ceaușescu, who came from a poor family, was in the clink, a communist idealist and political prisoner under the country’s fascist regime.
- Under Russian influence, the country came under communist rule in 1947, and Nicolae slowly but surely progressed into positions of greater power.
- By 1965 he was the general secretary, the boss. And a clever boss too. The Western governments loved the fella as he made various public shows of anti-Soviet sentiment.
- At some point it all went a bit wrong. Abortion was made illegal. Divorce was made all-but-impossible. He went off on one, setting himself up as a titan, creating a personality cult through media control and massive posters of his head (in which his image never aged past 40-odd). He borrowed huge amounts from the West at unfavourable rates and in an effort to try and pay back billions in a few years, food and other essentials were exported, leaving folks starving and getting rather fed up.
- The debt was finally paid up in 1989, but it was too late for Nicolae. As other communist states started to collapse around him, folks here decided enough was enough. In a dramatic few days the public turned against him and, after killing of an unknown number of protesters, so did the army.
- Nicolae and his missus (oh lordy lord, read up about Elena if you get time, she was one nasty broad) tried to leg it via chopper, having punted a billion dollars or some such abroad, but they were turned over to the army. After a quick show trial, shorter than most business meetings I’ve ever been to, they were shot. Nicolae was 71, Elena 70. The firing squad opened fire even before the cameraman could hit ‘record’.
Anyway, we got off the bus having failed to be arrested for not having a ticket, and walked about 5 minutes the to hop-on-hop-off bus, bought a couple of tickets at about £5 each for 24 hours and sat upstairs in the sun. We saw the city in style. If you head this way, the hop-on-hop-off worked really well for us, with free entertainment thrown in courtesy of the ‘most wooden audio commentary in the world’. A stiff-upper-lip English lady, all starch and ‘thuses’ regales you with staid facts and figures about what you would have seen if you’d been looking in the right direction 2 minutes ago. Excellent! Oh, and the bus stops are camouflaged too, you need Clark Kent’s eyes to find ’em.
Missing the stop at the Palace of the Parliament, the bus driver pulled up for us between stops and let us off to wander back up to it, past an incongruous rock concert setting up facing it, the drums being tested over loud speakers which will surely take out every single window later when someone gets carried away and cranks up the volume. You can read all about the place here if you fancy, it’s the largest building in Europe. Only American national ego has created a larger building anywhere in the world (the Pentagon), the difference between the two being the fact the US could afford it. It’s one of Ceaușescu’s nutter schemes, and it’s quite unbelievable he got away with the whole thing in a country where people starved. He’d clearly gone mad. Our attempt to get in was thwarted, you need your passport and we’d left ours in Dave for safekeeping. Ah well, the £6 fee for taking photos felt scandalous anyway.
Taking to the bus again we toured around, mainly looking at buildings. Bucharest’s a right old mish mash of styles. My idea of it all being grey commie blocks of crapness was a daft one. The city’s been here for 500 years, and the reds only lasted it out for 42 of them, there’s lots of stuff to see which Ceaușescu failed to bulldoze.
The city feels clean, wide open to the sun (some roads are 8 lanes wide). There are few beggers and tat shops. One clean-cut looking chap came up and asked me if I spoke German. When I replied ‘nein, nein, entschuldigung’, he simply switched tact ‘Francais?’. Too slick, we ignored him and wandered off. Even the dogs were a no-show, we only spotted a handful of ’em in the city centre.
As it grew hotter, and we realised that we’d seen enough buildings and weren’t fancying museums or eating out, we grabbed the bus back here. Black riders again, but again no inspectors arrived to collar us. A sticker on the bus seemed to say it was £10 each if we were caught. Back at the campsite, again no hooker (weekends off?) at the entrance, Charlie had slept his way through the day and all was good with the world. A beer’s cooling in the fridge and we’ve now got the fab job of working out which bit of Romania to go see next. Gotta admit, I’m not city boy. Although I liked Bucharest, I’m glad to be leaving, to go see some of the ‘real’ Romania. Loads of pics of Bucharest: