Romania: We Don’t Understand Tourism!

Did we mention Dracula? 

First impression, Bucharest struck me as the Portland of Europe. I even wrote that in my notebook, see, right here. It says, “Bucharest is the Portland of Europe. Roses, art, big but not too big. Very laid back, lots of lesbians, tattoos and dogs.” Romania differs slightly from Portland in one major way, the economy seems to be based on past atrocities. 

If you read the Florence chapter about Pinocchio (may the Lord bless you and keep you), you’ll recall that most places have a character they hang their hat on. Romania’s, you may already know, is Vlad the Impaler.  Some call him Dracula. He’s still wildly popular in those parts, the subject of many tours offered by very excitable people on nearly every corner of the more touristy areas. Tales of his cruelty became some of the first best-selling books in Germany, if that tells you anything. He’d capture his enemies then skewer them through the bunghole and upward out the mouth. I call that creative. 

If you travel to Romania and somehow forget that Dracula is from there, don’t worry, someone will remind you. Another fun, interesting tidbit of Bucharest history, the CIA and KGB both have abandoned torture prisons right downtown! And you can tour them as well!

Vlad the Impaler is to Romania as Pinnochio is to Tuscany (as Paul Bunyan is to Minnesota… as Caitlyn Jenner is to Southern California). With the exception that ol’ Vlad really existed. Sure, it was a few years back but he was known far and wide for his cruelty to the enemy, especially the Saxon. He liked to impale Saxons most. A “leave them a powerful message” kind of guy, it was the 15th Century version of sending them a fish wrapped in their hitman’s bulletproof vest. Bucharest makes it well known that Dracula/Dracula’s castle tours are available daily. That can’t be overstated.

Other atrocity tours made available to the public: The Securitate (State Secret Police) dungeons; the aforementioned Communist Torture Prisons (not wheelchair accessible but the van is equipped with conditioned air); The “real” Vampire of Bucharest (an early 70s serial killer whose dad was also a serial killer. Dad’s a separate tour); the Bucharest Parisian Taco restaurant; and a former brothel with a racist bathroom. 

I kept reading about the “excellent” or “fun” dungeon/torture chamber walking tours given by a young woman described as “cheerful” or “lovely and energetic,” thinking about how much of a good time it would be. “Here’s where they disemboweled opposition leaders!” she would say in her energetic tone, presumably dressed head-to-toe in Hello Kitty apparel, sipping on a warm Hell Energy Drink.

Competing Dracula Castles

Who was the real Impaler? Where did he live? There seems to be some discrepancy. Is it Bran Castle or is it Poenari Citadel? There are about 150 years’ difference. They’re pretty close to one another, one is prettier and has better views and is more easily accessible, so the government chose to back that one as the “official” Dracula’s Castle… Bran. 

You can pay to drive an extra 90 miles and climb 1,480 steps to reach the ruins of Peonari or you can enjoy the on-campus resort at Bran, which is closer to Bucharest and boasts a restaurant offering ominous-sounding “Ritual” cake and holds events such as “The History of Dreads in Transilvania!” Surely the “cheerful” tour guide makes it out there for that one. As you can see, Bran Castle wins, hands down. Or spear through your keister, whichever. 

Cold War Accommodation

There’s a very fine line between stark and terrifying, between bourgeoisie and stylish. I’ve been in many a home that made me want to turn around and get back in the car because the owner was trying too hard. Too minimalist or too much kitsch, often what’s meant to impress just says, “I have no personality.” It’s with this in mind I entered the rental home in Bucharest. This former Eastern Bloc housing – meant for the downtrodden, suffering under Communism – is now a very nice community for young couples. No one here was trying too hard. The minimalism with which this place was decorated was come by in earnest.

One foot in any door will let you know that Bucharest has an IKEA. You also understood that you were incredibly lucky back home in the States. Fancy in Romania is still a far cry from upper-middle class in Texas.

What once housed gray, sullen people who worked for the regime now holds colorful, loving families working for themselves or at least not a tyrant, I would assume. Local shops are semi-friendly – to someone, I’m sure – and try not to overcharge you, or at least smile while they overcharge you, sometimes they frown and overcharge you. Parking is a “come as you are, park where you’d like” type of thing, cars seem to have been abandoned on sidewalks then, occasionally, you’ll see someone get in and drive off. In this way, it’s a lot like Italy.

And what was this? Men on the adjacent, identical, Eastern Bloc building had set fire to the tar on the roof. On purpose. Surely that would turn out well.

Children roam the streets and subways and they aren’t even selling gum. Perhaps thumbing their noses at the past, when the regime would kidnap them and recruit them to fight in weird wars, or vampires would steal them and recruit them for vampire tasks. Most suburban restaurants have a playground where kids run screaming like wild banshee people while Mom and Dad get shit-hammered on Zmeurată or the devil juice known as Țuică, what I imagine Quint’s homemade brandy tastes like in Jaws. Take note, most Romanian beer is pretty bad but their wine is tasty and cheap. 

At any rate, it would behoove you to either learn Romanian before you go or not speak to anyone. They live in Romania, most of them have always lived in Romania and none of them have any use for English. They will not bend over backward to understand you. My first night there, I ordered what I thought was the national beer of Romania and a nice, eclectic salad – locally sourced with the best regional, cruelty-free ingredients. What I got was lukewarm, fermented swamp water and a bowl of beets. Seriously, no olive oil, no herbs, just beets. In a bowl. How had I managed to pick this out of menu of 50 items? Literally ANYTHING would have been better.

Lesson learned, study some key phrases and carry them with you, written down – just in case your phone fails you. At this time, once again, Romanian wasn’t an option on Google Translate, nor did I have service. It’s not a simple language either, it sounds like a Turk and a Latvian having a seizure together. But hey, part of adventure is not having any idea what you’re doing, right?  Beets!

At the corner store near my bunker one morning, I bought a delicious-looking roll and some butter with a friendly looking cow and silo on the box. Back at the ranch, I heated the roll and smothered it in the very pale butter and some preserves from a microscopic jar the host left as a gift. It wasn’t a nice flavor. An internet translation, the wifi worked in the apartment most of the time, let me know I’d just purchased and eaten lard. To my knowledge, cows have nothing to do with the manufacturing of lard. I’d been duped. What were those wacky Romanian farmers up to and why was lard in the refrigerated section?

Should you feel the need to look up “beef lard,” you’ll be directed to “tallow.” I can assure you, not one word on the box translated to tallow, but the main word translated to “lard.” Thank you for reading!

The Ewing Family

Hmmm, I may have steered you wrong on the “they have no use for English,” statement. Maybe one thing gets them excited about English. Dallas… the 80s TV show. 

The only U.S. TV show allowed to air during the Ceaușescu regime was Dallas. It was his position that the winner-take-all capitalism conveyed would remind people under Communism how lucky they were. Instead, the characters were celebrated and inspired a revolution. Sounds crazy but it’s true. 

Nicolae Ceaușescu had a very bad Christmas.

Due to the televised oil business in Texas, folks in Romania started to wonder just what, exactly, the president was talking about. Why were we all sharing loaves of bread when the people at the top were taking private planes to Barons’ Balls, etc.? Why was Sue Ellen wearing a $5,000 dress while they bartered over turnips and sewing thread?

Nicolae Ceaușescu (pron: Chai-shess-que), had no real answers. In fact, he was living in the biggest house of them all. When the revolutionists came’a’knockin’, he and his wife had no credible replies. They were tried and convicted and executed right there on the spot, well, about 30 miles up the road in Târgoviște. Seems that while they were giving speeches about how fantastic Communism was, they were having tens of thousands of “ethnics” murdered and embezzling hundreds of millions of dollars. 

Weird how that works. Someone with even a little repugnant charisma touts nationalism and unity while skimming off the top of everything. 

Speaking of the Big House, the biggest house in Bucharest, if not Europe, is the Palace of the Parliament. It’s what one would call a “monstrosity” in every sense of the word. First off, it’s the heaviest building in the world, however the hell you figure that kind of thing out. It was the largest but now that’s a convoluted shit-show I’ll let you check out, if you’re so inclined. It was constructed via nation-wide design contest, won by a 28-year-old woman. Ceaușescu had visited North Korea (what’s that tell you?) and wanted Bucharest to resemble the national pride conveyed by Pyongyang’s layout. 

Tens of thousands of “volunteers” helped build the Parliament building 24/7 in three shifts. Many thousands died trying. The result, one big, ugly building that takes a really long time to walk around (outside). Last I heard, less than half of it is being used for anything at all. It’s kind of interesting at night, all lit up for no one. The grounds are as unattractive and foreboding as the structure itself. I had no interest in a tour, one of the few that didn’t have anything to do with Dracula. 

Romania is home to the Carpathians, like in Ghostbusters

I will say, I don’t believe in ghosts (or UFOs) – and can say I didn’t see any ghosts (or UFOs) in Bucharest, nor did I have any spooky encounters with levitating IKEA furniture or the like. Having said that, the people of Bucharest all look like they haven’t slept much. I think maybe they do believe in ghosts as they seem a little, not timid, that’s not the right word, but scared of some new asshole taking over the country and draining it for personal gain. What that must be like…

Walking blindly from a random subway stop, I ended up near a row of buildings that looked to house banks that are up to no good. Around a corner – looking for food, which isn’t terrible in Romania, but it’s not what anyone I know would call terrific – was a small, ancient temple promising entrants they could get rid of family curses. If you know my family then you know it’s something I needed to do. 

This very small, very quiet Church of New St. George – circa 1699 (the year they rebuilt it after, presumably, Dracula did something to it), features something I’d dub ‘peculiar.’ The right hand of St. Nicholas. You can buy a small card at the entrance for what amounts to $0.40US then bow at the altar, then take a left and kneel on the tuffet in front of a small display case holding what purports to be the right hand – the remains of the right hand – of Saint Nicholas. 

Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of – among other things – brewers and pawnbrokers, and here I thought he was Santa Claus. Weird thing is, he died in Greece, according to some reports. And here was his right hand, preserved in a glass case in Bucharest. You prayed to it, then kissed the card you’d purchased and exited the building to the right and threw it in a wood-burning fire tended by a woman dressed in wardrobe from Fiddler on the Roof and boom, your curse was gone. 

Thanks to me, the maternal side of my family has nothing more to worry about. 

In summation, they no longer have any reason to be ‘fraid of no ghosts.

Walking away from this tiny church containing Saint Nick’s right hand, I couldn’t help but imagine several scenarios whereby the KGB, Secret Police or Dracula were interrupted by a fat guy sneaking into their house through a fireplace. Then they “dealt with him.”

Niall. Not Just a River in Egypt.

It turns out citizens of a country once run by a ruthless Communist regime don’t mind it being what you might consider boring. They’re low-key and like it that way. Even in a two-story pub called The Bordello, you’re not going to see coked up college kids with glow sticks and Aeropostale shirts swinging from lanterns. Then again, I usually go to bed around 10PM so I probably missed any glow sticking or lantern swinging. 

At said former brothel and current discotech, Bordello Bar, I met a young man and fellow traveler called “Nile.” He spelled it for me, which he was obviously used to doing for most non-Irish. He was younger than I but far more experienced in the ways of the world. Literally. He’d been everywhere, man. He’d been everywhere. So I knew my role here would be listener – and listen I did. 

What were his thoughts on Bucharest, having been there four days? Anywhere I should stop by for sure? Eat? You know, unimaginative initial questions to a stranger. He was sharp, not overly sarcastic, jaded or cynical, and seemed to be very well educated. 

“This isn’t my favorite place,” he replied. “The food isn’t great, even in the great places.” He continued, “the architecture is pretty fantastic but overall I’m unimpressed. The people are weird. I’m glad I’m leaving tomorrow.” Not the best review I’d ever heard. I was, once again, going to have to make my own fun. Apart from my assessment of Niall and his education and worldly-ness, I don’t think he knew much about pre-1989 Bucharest. 

We said our goodbyes and I re-entered the Bordella to use the facilities and re-up on beer. 

The bathroom is interesting to find. It’s up the litigious (in America) carpeted compass stairs. Then you’re on your own. Straight ahead, a very nice lounge. But it wasn’t staffed and the stools were turned onto the bar. To the right? You’re in a kitchen. Up another staircase, rooms. Back down and to the left, across from the kitchen was an unmarked door leading to two more unmarked doors, one for women, one for men. Easily identified by the inclusion of urinals. 

Above the first urinal, a poster promoting “African Dance Party Night.” The depiction of what they imagined this to be would definitely cause a stir in the court of social media. 

Bordello bar is in the heart of an alley filled with “menus in English!” signage and less than half-hearted carnival barkers all but begging you to enter their bar, restaurant or vape shop. Some are scantily clad, others in ridiculous 30-year-old animal costumes, others just kind of there. As if someone gave them smelling salts and leaned them against the entrance. I sensed it was about to turn into happy dance, party time so hightailing up the street and out of ground zero sounded like a good idea. 

Approximately 300 yards uphill and around a corner was a brew pub across the street from an establishment called “Los Tacos French Touch: This & That, Crepes & Bar.” As tempting as it sounded, eating there wasn’t going to happen.

Inside whatever brew pub this was were attractive people, a few taps, a few bottles and a men’s room where someone had put a fist through the drywall, leaving an amoeba-shaped hole about 7 x 8”. Someone had since taken a Sharpie to the area and written, in perfect English, “WORST GLORY HOLE EVER!” Hey! We found a sense of humor. This was an exciting development.

I started thinking maybe French tacos were an inside joke. 

Side note:  IPA isn’t beer, it’s just hops on top of hops. There needs to be a new category for IPA that doesn’t list it as “beer.” Maybe “WASP water” or “Hipster juice” or something. 

It was getting darker and navigating the insane intersections sprawling everywhere between me and the subway was pretty complex before 5-6 beers. If you’re ever looking for excitement, have a few at the Harp Irish pub in Bucharest then walk to the Piata Unirii metro station. Sure, there’s a clearly marked metro elevator right across the street from the Harp, if you’re looking on a map. But in person, it’s very well hidden and the crosswalks are the equivalent to that jump-in-the-water ninja show. 

Once again, no one was in the Metro station but serial killers and young couples. I wanted to tell the young couples not to walk down that dark, dead-end alleyway when they get off but they wouldn’t have listened. Or understood me. 

Back in the neighborhood, my go-to had become TurboTequila. An odd wedding venue and maybe restaurant and possible bar. It’s where I’d had lukewarm beer and a bowl of beets the night before. I’d since decided to stick with lukewarm beer. Tables of couples and coworkers drank bottles of something and nibbled on God-knows-what while watching the national news. When, out of nowhere, every last one of them started singing along to the pumped-in music. Richard Marx’s “Right Here Waiting (for You).” I didn’t realize why at the time. 

My guess is that everything from 1989 is celebrated, especially if it’s American. They credit our culture with helping them topple the regime, after all. But even if an American TV show did save their society, Richard Marx? First of all, it’s Richard Marx. Second, you’d think they’d shun anything “Marx” related. On account of communism. 

Up-and-coming

Overall, this comparatively unremarkable city has been through a lot and they still feel the sting. However, the kids are creative, artistic and seem to rule society, maybe that’s a good thing – since most bad things are run by bitter, old people whose dreams passed them by. In the end, aren’t we all ruled by an old white guy with daddy issues? Maybe it’s time to let well-adjusted people run things. There are still well-adjusted people, right?

What Romania needs and may well get is a crack marketing team, rife with MBAs who will package Dracula into a palatable, family-friendly product, suitable for citizens from anywhere. “Draculand” will have a roller coaster called The Impaler!, a log flume ride that splashes into bloody water, they could turn that Parliament building into the world’s largest haunted house. Families could have their photo taken in shackles, being tortured by a high school kid in an executioner’s hood.

Weirder things have happened.

Back at the Bordello Bar that afternoon with Niall, he raved about Budapest, so that’s where I was off to next. I’d give Draculand some more thought on the bus.