Visit to Bucharest, Romania

Ocean in Revolution Square in Bucharest where two Romanian rulers (King Carol II and Ceausescu) were forced out of office.

Ocean is pictured above in Revolution Square in the center of Bucharest. This is the large plaza where KIng Carol II abdicated in 1940 and dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu fled from in December of 1989. Bucharest has many large, open squares, and beautiful, old architecture. You can see the famous World War II-era Athene Palace Hotel in the background. We walked around the center at night are were very impressed with the palaces, theatres, etc. One bad point is the Romanians drive very fast. 

We have a four-day weekend with the Serbian government declaring the May 1 Labor Day on Thursday a national holiday along with the Friday as well. We took the opportunity to visit my close friend Claudiu Fuiorea and his family in Bucharest. They are Romanians who used to live in Belgrade and last year they moved to the Romanian capital. We visited them at their home in Transylvania during the winter break of 2009-2010 and traveled with them to the Carpathian mountain resort town of Baile Herculane in October of 2009. We were supposed to also travel with them in October of 2012, but Ocean’s passport was expired so we had to stay in Serbia. We also made many shopping trips to Timisoara, the most western city and a short drive from Belgrade. Claudiu’s wife Vesna and children, Tudor and Mark, are also close to my family and through the years, we have had many good times together. As we leave Europe for Japan next month, we really wanted to see them one more time before we go.

I am in front of the Arc of Triumf, erected in 1878 to celebrate Romania’s Independence

This is my second visit to Bucharest, the first being on business in October of 2010. Through our friendship with Claudiu’s family, we have really come to know the country and culture of Romania. After Poland, it is the biggest Eastern Europe country, and with the Carpathian Mountains, Black Sea Coast, and western Pannonian plain, it is the most diverse. It also differs from the rest of Eastern Europe due to its Latin root language. This is a fascinating country regarding folklore and legends, and it has been pleasurable learning nation’s history.

The next day I went for a run around the National Arena which was constructed in 2008 and is located close to Claudiu’s apartment in the suburb of Titan. Soccer is very popular here as in all Latin European countries (Italy, Spain, France). The suburbs remind me of many Eastern European capital cities because of the communist architecture of the apartment buildings and offices. We then ventured out as a family and had a great afternoon, seeing the sites and soaking up some perfect spring weather. We first visited the Natural History Museum, that had a large and varied collection of stuffed animals from all around the world. It was started by the Romanian naturalist, Grigore Antipa and was set up very well, with it being entertaining and educational for the children and adults. We then walked through the massive Herăstrău Park for lunch at the Hard Rock Cafe. Bucharest has several lakes and parks around them and they are well-maintained. This was something I was not expecting. I also was impressed with the city’s subway, that was clean and organized. It was very convenient to travel downtown and back to Titan.

The kids in front of an extinct elephant species at the Natural History Museum

Timisoara, Romania – A Great Shopping Destination

Claudiu and Bill at the Timisoara Mall

Last weekend we went across the border to Timisoara, Romania to do some school shopping. It is only about a 1 and 1/2 hour or 2 hour drive away and has much better shopping than Belgrade. They have more products and many more deals. We went to the big Ilius Mall and we found many clothes for the kids and I also bought some work pants and shirts. I even found Moleskin® notebooks at a really cool book store. I think we liked the shopping so much because we dropped the kids off at the playland in the mall and had a relaxed time. We also did some grocery shopping at the Real supermarket and stocked up on high processed sugary breakfast cereals for the kids. The city is the fourth-largest city Romania with a population around 300,000 people. The 1989 revolution against the communist regime started in the city and it has more of an Austrian-Hungarian feel than the rest of Romania.

I strongly recommend Timisoara for Belgraders looking for a weekend get-away. Besides the shopping, we made a stop at the Banat Village Museum. The “Banat” is the region covering eastern Romania, western Hungary and northern Serbia. The museum is located in a park setting with examples of old homesteads from the different ethnic groups and time periods. It is nothing flashy, but is a nice spot for kids to run around. They had a great little pond, where the kids threw rocks and chased dragonflies.

Hanging out at the pond at the Banat Village Museum in Timisoara

Ceausescu’s Legacy – Trip to Bucharest



Last weekend I had a quick trip to Bucharest, Romania for an educational conference. We had one evening to explore the city and this post is my initial impressions of the capital. It felt bigger than Belgrade, with an unofficial population of over 3 million in the metro area. I enjoyed my visit to the nation’s capitol, as this is now the third time I’ve been to Romania, but my first to Bucharest.

Above is the weird Palace of the People built during the time of the bizarre “Genius of the Carpathians” reign, Nicky Ceausescu. It is the second largest building in the world, after the Pentagon and was constructed at the end of his time in power. He started it in 1984 and it ended after he was executed in 1989. It is quite an imposing building but unfortunately, we couldn’t go in as it was closed. It would be great to have free reign of the place for a few days. It is 12 stories high and several (unknown) floors deep. Much of it is still unused. It would be a great place for a movie.

Leading from the building is the “Victory of Socialism” boulevard, a replica of the Champs de Eleyse.

Goodbye to Transylvania

We are shown above in front of a statue of Vlad Tepes, or the famous Vlad the Impaler. He was the Romanian ruler in the mid-1400’s who defended Wallachia, a region in Romania, from the Ottoman Turks. He is remembered today because of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel, “Dracula” is loosely based on him. We arrived back in Belgrade last night after a week long stay in visiting Transylvania.

We stayed with Claudiu Fuiorea pictured above to my right. He is from Sighisoara, the hometown of Vlad. On our final day with them, he took us on a tour of the city. Sighisoara one on of the 7 fortified cities built by German immigrants in the 12th century in Transylvania. Claudiu lives in Belgrade and works for a multinational corporation. We have become good friends and he and his family were wonderful hosts. We ate and drank extremely well, and got much insight into Romania.

Playing up the Vampire Image of Transylvania

We visited the Bran Castle near Vesna’s (Claudiu’s wife) hometown of Brasov. The castle looks like Dracula’s castle in Stoker’s Gothic novel, but was actually  customs office for traffic coming into Transylvania from Ottoman lands to the east. The town of Bran really plays up the precarious relationship with Dracula. The market was full of vampire kitsch and was packed with tourists.

The Beautiful Carpathian Mountains

I wondered what it would have been like for those German immigrants 800 years ago. They went to the far eastern part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, lured by the chance for freedom and land. They built fortified cities to defend themselves and the empire from invaders from the east. It was an interesting relationship they had with the local Romanians. Basically, they were not allowed inside the citadels. The immigrants had very separate lives. Sadly, almost all of the descendants of the Germans and Hungarians have now left. Most left during the communist era (1945 – 1989) and the horrible rule of Romanian dictator, Nicolae Ceasescu. He sold visas to families wanting to escape the horrible conditions. He also made them sign over all property to the government. They did leave these beautiful old cities however, the today they are tourist attractions.

We are pictured in the plaza of the lower city in Sighisoara

The effects of Ceasescu are quite visible in Romania today and it will take a long time for the country to bounce back from his horrible rule. Friend’s of Claudiu were telling us of the December 1989 revolution. One of his friends was in university at the time and he went out and tore down posters of the dictator immediately after his execution in Bucharest. It was a strange time he said, as everyone was confused about the transition. As with other “iron curtain” countries, the secret police kept extensive files on everyone and had many informants. Also, most people joined the party as they had to.

One thing I noticed were the many socialist housing blocks built during this era. They are more prevalent in Romania than Serbia. Below is one of the nicer apartment buildings. They were built for workers for the truck and tractor factory in Brasov. The factory sold low quality vehicles to other eastern block countries and it today abandoned. The apartments however, are still occupied. Vesna was telling me that they were designed for single men, many from Moldovia and Wallachia, specifically in Brasov to work for the company. Today families live in these, despite having shared bathrooms and kitchens at the end of the hall.

In the 20 years since the opening up of the country, Romania has come a long way. We noticed many more products in grocery stores and department stores in Romania than Serbia. It is part of the EU and the economic development that comes with it shows. They do have a ways to go however and it will be interesting to see where they are in another 20 years. The Romanian language is fascinating. It was the first of the Romance languages to split from Latin, the language of the Romans. There are many words similar to Spanish, and Nadia and I tried to speak Spanish when a Romanian did not understand English. The Romanians are generally darker and shorter than the Serbs and a bit less outgoing. It is hard to form a solid opinion because of limited amount of time in the country and not having visited the capital of Bucharest.

We really enjoyed our holiday there. A huge thanks to Claudiu, Vesna and their extended families!

Ceausescu's Legacy - Apartment in Brasov

Brasov, Romania

Above is an old map of south east Europe. If you look at the backwards “c” shape of the Carpathian Mountains, you can look for cities of Brasov and Sibiu. These two fortified cities held off the Green Flag of the Ottoman Turks from going further north into Europe. The Emperor of the Austro-Hungarians placed seven citadels in the Carpathians, specifically to stop the Turks.

Today the Romanian cities are tourist attractions. The German immigrants who built the citadels did an amazing job. Beautiful huge walls, churches, schools, etc. They lived in Romania, but lived completely separate lives within the walls of these cities. As you can see from the photo below, Brasov was strategically placed in a tight valley. This made it easier to defend.

The Romanians today owe much to these German settlers. The beautiful old cities bring in many tourist dollars.

Romanian Holiday Part I



Ocean is pictured above chasing pigeons in Opera Plaza in Timisoara, Romania. Timisoara is the most western city in Romania. We stopped there for lunch and a walk around Christmas Market in the plaza. On Day One of our holiday we made it to Sibiu, Romania. We are spending a few days in Transylvania, visiting our friends from Brasov. Transylvania is one of the historic regions of Romania. Brasov is in central Romania, about a 3 hour drive north west of Bucharest, in the southern Carpathian mountains. 

Sibiu and Brasov were two of the seven citadels of Saxon immigrants in Romania. The emperor of the Austro-Hungarian empire had them settle in what is today central Romania, but at that time, part of the Austrian empire. It was the border between the Ottoman Turk world and Austro-Hungarian world. The Saxon immigrants built cities and basically kept the locals (Romanians) out of it. They lived separate lives. (more later)

Reading About Romania and Transylvania

Update: I read a bit more about Ceausescu in Misha Glenny’s book, “The Balkans: Nationalism, War, and the Great Powers, 1804-1999. 
Ceausescu was elected First Secretary in 1965 after the death of Gheorghe Dej. It took several years for him to establish power and get rid of his rivals. Once he did, he tightened control. It was his vision to turn Romania into a dominant force in s.e. Europe and an industrialized nation. Romania is resource rich and could be independent from USSR. Unfortunately, he centrally-planned the economy and ran it down the toilet. 
He was most popular in 1968 after verbally supporting Czechoslovakia’s stand against the USSR invasion. After that, it was all downhill. In 1971 he posted 17 “theses” on the door of the Central Committee and had his own cultural revolution, ala China. He tried to turn a rural, agricultural Romanian society into an urban, industrial country. As he tried to do this, he also monopolized power. For example, he introduced job rotation, forcing party members to rotate jobs often. This stopped them from gaining any expertise and power. It made the administration incompetent. It sounds like Chavez in Venezuela, putting people in important ministries and positions without the expertise or experience, but loyalty. Makes for a poorly run government. His opponents were more in fear of being demoted than worrying about running the government. Ceausescu’s family was exempted from the rotation, of course. 
He crowned himself President in 1974 and a cult of personality formed. Ceausescu made Tito seem modest in his material wealth. His economic policies took away from agriculture and lowered consumption, and heavy borrowing from Western banks. He expanded the secret police and the country was full of informers. “The first great socialist industry was the production of personal files.” Speaking to foreigners was prohibited, ownership of a typewriter required a certificate, etc. Penalties included losing a job, banishment from university education, etc. Paul Goma and others spoke out. 

I finished re-reading Robert Kaplan’s book, Balkan Ghosts. I focused on the section for Romania as I am preparing for our family to travel to Brasov, Romania, located in the Transylvania region of Romania. The book is a mix of travelogue and history. Kaplan visited several areas of Romania, included two of the cities in Transylvania near Brasov. He was there 20 years ago and the book is now a bit dated, but it did give me a good historical perspective of the area. Romania celebrates the 20th anniversary of end of the “communist” dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu. He and his wife were executed 20 years ago tomorrow (Christmas Day). It is an interesting time to visit and my second to the country. We went earlier this fall to the border region with Serbia, to the former Roman bath village of Baile Herculane.
From my reading I learned several things.
1) I didn’t know that parts of Romania used to be part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. (The Russians also fought for control of other areas in the north of the country.) Brasov’s original name was the German Kronstadt. I wonder if they still have an influence after so many years of Romanian and communist oppression and control. Are there still Hungarians and Saxon Germans in Romania? 
2) I didn’t realize how horrible Ceausescu’s rule was for the Romanians. Besides Stalin and the guy in Albania, I can’t think of a worse ruler. I can see why on my visit in October, the Romanian side of the border was so run down. It will be interesting to see a richer part of the country and are the harmful effects of Ceausescu’s legacy still seen and felt. Is the economy growing? Are the Romanians better off today than 20 years ago? 
I found two sources of differing views on Romania. The first is more of a negative view of the country from phot0journalist, Christian Movila and his photo essay in today’s New York Times. The second is a recent book by former US Ambassador to Romania, Jim Rosapepe, entitled Dracula is Dead: How Romanians Survived Communism, Ended It and Emerged since 1989 as the New Italy. I am looking forward to forming my own opinion on the place and also having a good time with my family and friends. 
My notes on Transylvania from Robert Kaplan’s book, “Balkan Ghosts” are below. 
  • Vlad the Impaler  had his castle on the plain of Wallachia, not T.  Bram Stoker’s story Dracula is closer to Bucovina and Moldavia than Transylvania.
  • Transylvania is more Western than the three areas above. The Turks did not conquer Transylvania. William Penn almost named Pennsylvania Transylvania because he was  so impressed with the religious tolerance of the area between Catholics & Protestants.  
  • Hungarians and Saxon Germans repressed the Romanians in Transylvania. Romanians not impressed with the eastern beacon of the West. 
  • For both the Romanians and Hungarians, Transylvania is special. It is where the Romans had the original colony of Dacia, and for the Hungarians, many important victories over the Turks occurred. Bela Bartok and several other famous Hungarians are from the region.
  • After WWI treaty, Romania got Transylvania from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Romanian names replaced the Hungarian names of cities and towns. Big Orthodox Cathedrals were built during this period. 
  • In WWII, the Hungarians re-took the region, but with Romania changing sides towards the end of the war, the Romanians were once again awarded Transylvania. 
  • Ceausescu forbid all Hungarian language, schools, newspapers, etc. He colonized the area with hundreds of thousands of Moldavian and Wallachian laborers. He also forcibly relocated Hungarians to other parts of Romania. There is a lot of enmity between the two countries. 
  • The 2.1 million Hungarians in Romania helped with the downfall of Ceausescu. They were led by Calvinist pastor Laszlo Tokes of Timisoara (Temesvar in Hungarian). 
  • Kaplan loves the city of Cluj-Napoca, very beautiful. 
  • A great quote on page 155, he was discussing an acquaintance, Nigel Townson, an English professor working at the university in Cluj. He married a Serbian and lived in an apartment in the city with his two children. In 1990 when Kaplan visited, was a time of shortages, when Romania was just coming out of the communist years. “Life wasn’t easy for Nigel, but he had a better elemental grasp of what Romanians and their country were like than any pampered foreign diplomat could ever hope to.”
  •  “Romania was one of those places overflowing with passion, where you meet the best and the worst people…”
  • Ceausescu was a real tyrant and did horrible things to the majority of Romanian people. Uneducated, from the Appalachians of Romania, he ran the country like a peasant would. Carter invited him to USA during the worst of the atrocities in Romania. 
  • Kaplan thought Marie Windsor Hohenzollern was Romania’s best ruler because she secured the seccessio of Transylvania to Romania after WWI. Slept with troops on battlefields of WWI and Second Balkan War and dressed as pagan warrior goddess of Dacia. 
  • Ceausescu sold visas to Romanian citizens of German and Hungarian descent during his dictatorship. After oil, it was a good source of income.  

Serbia Qualifies For The World Cup!!


Owen & Sebey At Red Star Stadium
Owen & Sebey At Red Star Stadium


Last night my friend Claudiu and I took the kids to the Serbia versus Romania World Cup Qualifying match. Serbia was leading Group 7 in the European Group and needed a win to secure a spot in next summer’s World Cup soccer tourney in South Africa. They earned their spot with an emphatic 5 – 0 win over neighboring Romania. 

We got pumped up for the game with a lunchtime soccer match
We got pumped up for the game with a lunchtime soccer match

My last experience at the stadium for the Austria qualifying match was horrible and I was apprehensive in taking three young boys (Owen, Sebey & Tudor) to the game. We were crushed in the entrance at that game, but last night’s game was very well organized. Stadium officials looked at the tickets at several checkpoints on the way to our seats. The seats were numbered and there was one seat for every person. There were also many police and ushers in the aisles to prevent overcrowding in the exits like last time. 

Serbia obviously outplayed Romania and were back to their up tempo attacking football that has been lacking the past few matches. At the end of the match, there was a big celebration with fireworks and President Tadic in his luxury box opening up the champagne. Serbia qualified for the first time as an independent nation – in 2006 in Germany, they were still Serbia-Montenegro. It is interesting the there are several ex-Yugoslavia republics with chances of qualifying. Bosnia-Hercagovina will finish in second place in their group and will play off to get in. Slovenia also is in second place and could qualify automatically as group winner if Slovakia loses to Poland. Croatia is one point out of second but will probably not get into the playoff.

How will they do in South Africa? They have as good of chances as anyone else. They have one superstar, Manchester United defender Nemanja Vidic. They are solid in the midfield with InterMilan player and team captain, Dejan Stankovic. My favorite player on the team and possibly their best, is Milos Krasic. He plays for CSKA Moscow and really makes things happen for Serbia. He is fast and always moving forward and is always involved in Serbia’s goals. He is a player to watch out for as he is only 24. I can’t believe one of the bigger European clubs hasn’t picked him up yet. They also have the tallest soccer player at this level, 6’8” Nikola Zigic. He usually gets several good header opportunities in front of the goal every game. Their goalie is solid and if the role players can step it up, they have a shot at taking on the big boys. They need another big scorer as I don’t think Marko Pantelic, one of the strikers is up to World Cup level of play. He is always complaining on the field and doesn’t really do a whole lot in my opinion. They will always be in games with Vidic as center back. 


Lunch With the Romanian Supporters
Lunch With the Romanian Supporters

The qualification means the World Cup will be much more interesting for me with Serbia and the USA in the tourney. I have photos on my Blackberry but haven’t yet figured out how to upload them to my computer. I will post some photos from the game when I get a chance.

My Thoughts On Romania


It is quite appropriate to post about the country of Romania as tomorrow, Serbia plays against its neighbor in an important World Cup qualifying soccer match. My first impression of the country was the same as when I visited neighboring Bulgaria – “These guys are in the EU and Serbia is not?” It was most evident in the border crossing. Coming back into Serbia, the Romanian border post was run down and the guards very inefficient. Crossing into Serbia, the installations for immigration were better maintained. The roads were in better condition, less garbage along side the roads, and the villages and towns on the Serbian side were also nicer and better maintained. I know Serbia is not part of the EU because of politics and not economics or standard of living, but when compared to Bulgaria and Romania, they are EU-quality. 
The Romanians were very friendly and we enjoyed the visit. The Romans had a larger effect on them than the Serbs. I wonder why? The Romans were also here in Belgrade. I also learned of the Dacians, one of the early groups in Romania. I would like to learn more about them as well as the Vlachs. I did notice a significant gypsy population, even in villages, which one does not find in Serbia where they are mostly located in the larger cities. 
Gypsy Wedding Dance in a village we drove through
Gypsy Wedding Dance in a village we drove through
The Carpathian mountains were beautiful as well as the rolling hills of southern Romania. Very similar to the Serbian countryside, although we saw more pumpkins in Romania. We had to stop at a pumpkin patch and get some photos. It reminded me of the old Peanuts cartoon when Linus waits for the Great Pumpkin to come. 
The boys climbed some of the Carpathians! We didn’t see any vampires, which is always strongly associated with Romania. We did see a girl at breakfast in the hotel rubbing garlic on her toast however. We will probably be back again. 

Visit to Southern Romania – Baile Herculane

This weekend we visited southern Romania. Above is the view of from our window of the Carpathian mountains in the town of Baile Herculane. Romania borders Serbia and we were invited to see the sights by our Romanian friends living here in Belgrade.

We stayed at a bed and breakfast in the resort town of Baile Herculane. It means Hercule’s Bath in English. The area has geothermal water springs and since Roman times, people have thought that the water has medicinal properties. The setting of the town is beautiful. The Carpathian mountains are a long mountain chain that goes through Romania and into northern Serbia. They are not the peaks of the Alps, but as you can see, they are scenic in their own way. We drove through much of them and stopped in several places to hike and take photographs.

The town is very strange. When this part of Romania was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the town was discovered by Emperor Franz Joseph. He built several large hotels, a casino, and several formal bathing palaces near the turn of the century. Back in the days before antibiotics and modern medicine, geothermal waters and mountain air were more popular medical treatments. I read of Franz’s wife or sister, I can’t remember which, visited the town and had an affair with a Romanian officer in the Austro-Hungarian army. She visited the place frequently and she had a villa. It sounds like the town was once the Monaco of the Empire. I can’t get over the amount of money it must of cost to build these palaces. It is crazy that one many, Franz Joseph could have so much power. It is also unbelievable that the two countries, Austria and Hungary, dominated European affairs. Today they are two smaller nations, that are well off, but by no means lead Europe.

The buildings are still in Baile Herculane today, but they are in very poor condition, many of them abandoned. It was eerie to walk around the town and see all of these magnificent palatial buildings in such a state of disrepair. The fog and gloomy weather combined to make it all the stranger experience. Late Saturday afternoon, we walked with the kids down to the city center and saw up close all of these buildings. The kids loved the park and buying honey in the comb pieces from a street vendor. We were loving the architecture and mountain scenery. The place could really be a five-star destination with about 100 million dollar investment in the buildings, roads, etc.

The Kids Enjoyed the Park
The Kids Enjoyed the Park

The environmental consciousness of the Romanians is not quite up to EU or American standards. We saw lots of garbage in the village and throughout this part of Romania. The river going through the town was also quite polluted and I saw several open pipes running into the water. The geothermal springs are hot, but the water does have a definite sulfur smell and one could identify walking through the town.

Everyone was very friendly at the hotel and we ate well. Claudiu and Vesna were great as our Romanian tour guides. We really enjoyed ourselves! I’ll be blogging more this week on some of our experiences.

Oceans Favorite: Pollenta and Cream Cheese
Ocean's Favorite: Pollenta and Cream Cheese