around the world – part 17.8 (castle bran)

October 04 2006:

I should probably break this post into at least two to adequately describe the events of Wednesday – but I won’t.

Our tour began at the Parliament Palace and concluded at Dracula’s Castle Bran. Prior to departing on our tour, myself, the Australian and one other took a short half hour walk in the blocks surrounding our meeting site. In that short amount of time and distance I absorbed more pollution than I have in the last year. My throat was burning and I felt out of breath by the time I returned to the coach. I can only imagine what the air must be like here at the height of summer.

On to the Parliamentary Palace:
First a few facts provided by our interpreter to put things into perspective:

– Began construction 1985 and was 50% complete by the time of Ceausescu’s demise in late 1989. Today it is 90% complete.

– From 1985 until 1989 the site employed 700 architect/engineers and 20 000 labourers working in three shifts, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. From 1989 progress has been somewhat slower – largely due to the fact that Romania is no longer in the grip of a paranoid wackjob.

– There was never any cost estimated for this project since all property was owned by the state and labour and materials were simply procured by decree. However some have estimated that on opportunity cost alone Romania surrendered the equivalent to its entire economic output many times over.

– It is the second largest building in the world by surface area – approx 285m on each side and is the third largest building in the world by volume.

– All of the materials used in its construction were sourced (extracted) locally – Ceausescu was determined to not have to import anything.

– About 2 million cubic meters of marble of all varieties were used in its construction.- All of the curtains are silk with silver and gold woven through.

– Many of the carpets in the largest halls were woven on site in a single piece rather than stitching together separate smaller pieces. Many of the carpets are custom made for each room – for example one semicircular carpet was woven in a single piece to line the aisle of a circular theatre;

– Photography is forbidden within the palace, although we were able to photograph outside on the balcony.

On with Junior’s observations.  A project of this scope can only be accomplished if at least the following conditions are met – there is an absolute dictator with grandiose vision and complete control over every aspect of the economy (including labour) AND there are enough specialized and educated sycophants to make it happen. Certainly Ceausescu wasn’t the first and won’t be the last politician to conceive and build an immense project to suit his vanity (Mirabel Airport? – Montreal Olympics?). As well, numerous despots in the developing world have constructed immense but by now crumbling edifices – largely because the engineering expertise departed after construction and / or insufficient technical experts were available to maintain them over time. Romania, on the other hand, certainly had plenty of engineering talent thoroughly co-opted by the Communist Regime.

The building is roughly square – although not precisely – but from a distance it does look symmetrical. It dominates the downtown area of Bucharest and is easily identifiable from almost any viewpoint. I t is set apart in a large parklike setting cleared at the same time as the grand boulevard was constructed. Inside, each and every hall completed during Ceausescu’s regime was adorned in elaborate detail. No expense was spared, with marble, gold, silver and silk everywhere. What sets apart this particular palace from other such projects is the degree of detail and effort applied to satisfying Ceausescu’s peculiar vanity. But, curiously and perhaps because of the advanced paranoia which permeated the Ceausescu Regime, many small mistakes were made, but rarely acknowledged. Those responsible simply changed the plan to hide the fact that mistakes had occurred.

For example, in the centre of the palace a large circular hall was constructed, originally intended to be a theatre complete with back stage, risers and wings. Unfortunately by the time it was completed it was discovered that the plan had not accounted for any of the supporting elements of a theatre stage – namely the wings, risers and backstage were missing. Instead there was simply a stage butted up against the circular outer wall. Now the space is used only as conference hall despite the fact that it was built with all of the other aspects of a theatre- main floor seating for 600 in leather bound chairs and at least two levels of box seats extruded from the side (circular) walls.

To give you an appreciation of the efforts made to satisfy Ceausescu’s vanity a couple of examples are conspicuous. Firstly the immense marble staircases on either side of the grand entrance hall were built and rebuilt several times over. The architects were under orders to design and construct staircases which Ceausescu could descend without having to look down to retain his footing. As he was small in stature, his stride was measured minutely to produce staircases with an entirely unique rise and run. At least four attempts were made before the final version was complete.

Secondly, lying between the grand dais (above the entry hall) and the congress of deputies hall there is a somewhat smaller foyer. This particular space was designed to enhance an echo effect. Many rooms in the palace have specific measures to dampen echo, but this space is unique. Once Ceausescu was finished addressing an assembled (standing) group from the dais, he would proceed through the foyer into the congress hall followed by the parliamentarians. As he passed through the foyer, lining either side would be approximately 20 – 30 palace staff, instructed to clap furiously. The hall was designed to enhance the sound of their clapping such that it would sound as if many hundreds of persons were applauding his words of wisdom.

Once through the congress hall you step out on to a large balcony overlooking a park and semi circular plaza and away down the grand boulevard. It was intended that Ceausescu should be able to address the masses from this balcony – but he was never given the opportunity as he met his unfortunate end in the aftermath of a popular uprising. To imagine this balcony you have to dredge up images of the old Soviet politburo reviewing parades from the Kremlin – then magnify four or five times the size. In fact the only person to have addressed a crowd of any size from this balcony was Michael Jackson. I imagine that if Ceausescu was still alive today he would cringe at the depths to which his beloved palace had sunk to.

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Castle Bran:
In recounting our visit to Dracula’s castle I should first describe the surrounding countryside and our ride across it.

Romania is divided by a mountain range with the plains province of Wallachia to the south and the mountainous region of Transylvania to the northwest bordering Hungary. Wallachia is very much a gently rolling steppe with broad horizons – with the largest cities, Bucharest and Ploesti sprawling out into the farmland. One of the things which struck me as we rocketed through Wallachia to the north was just how much of the land with agricultural potential was out of production. In some cases, as far as the eye could see, the land was simply covered with grassland. Every so often one could see a cluster of oil rigs off in the distance, nodding their heads slowly as they extracted compressed dinosaurs. Of note, as we departed Wallachia and enter Transylvania the neater and better kept up the houses became. In fact the general level of prosperity was acutely different in those areas settled by the Austro-Hungarian empire than those areas which have been under the grip of the Ottoman empire.

National Route 1 heading north from Bucharest quickly becomes a badly rutted, undivided single lane highway almost immediately upon leaving the city suburbs. Our convoy rocketed along at breakneck pace lead by our Military Police escort who drove straight down the middle of the road forcing traffic on both sides of the road off onto the shoulders. Good fun although no doubt a bit of a panic for those having a large motorcoach bearing down on them at 120km/hr. I have remarked on it before but I felt again a little uncomfortable as we barreled along forcing every other unsuspecting traveler off the road. I can’t imagine that Romanians are in the least impressed by this ostentatious show of privilege. About 3 hours after departing Bucharest, with our driver handling the coach like a sports car, we arrived at Castle Bran.

Castle Bran – also ‘Dracula’s Castle’ – is supposedly on the ‘list’ of places one must visit before you die. It was built in the 1300s on the very southern border of Transylvania facing south towards the plains of Wallachia. It controlled the silk road from the southeast to the northwest into Central Europe and the owners extracted a 3% tax on all goods (taken in kind) passing through the border. At various times the castle was held by either the Austro Hungarian Empire or the Ottomans. Culturally and physically the southern edge of Transylvania marks the zone where medieval Christianity met with and fought for supremacy against Islam. To this day the wall and customs house marking the border exist – literally at the foot of the castle mound.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but many 14th century castles look very much alike and there is nothing singularly unique about the design of this castle. Instead its fame rests on its rather dubious connection to Count Dracula. Dubious firstly because Bram Stoker never set foot in Transylvania or Bran Castle. Secondly it is unclear who ‘Dracula’ actually was. It is often stated that he was Vlad the Impaler – but it is not so clear after all. While Vlad was certainly a bloodthirsty and thoroughly naughty boy – given over to murdering folks by the hundred, he certainly didn’t seduce young virgin girls to drink their blood. He apparently enjoyed killing many at a time and preferably Turks. To complicate matters further, there have been at least two other Vlads, each at times assigned the epithet/title ‘the Impaler’. However it has stuck in the public imagination and so it must be.

The castle as it is now, was largely renovated by Queen Mary of Romania from the 1880s onward. The interior spaces were plastered, electricity installed and various other comforts acquired. She is revered to this day by Romanians as she very successfully negotiated Romania into formal existence at the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. It is said that she successfully convinced US President Woodrow Wilson to change his self determination plan to include Romania. It is a very pretty castle, in very good shape and small enough to see most of it within an hour and a half.

After our tour of Castle Bran we were brought to a nearby Ski Resort, lifted it seemed right out of Bavaria. In fact much of the housing in the area had a distinctly southern Germanic flavour – the steep pitched roofs with deep overhangs, second floor balconies overlooking the entrance etc. There we were feasted in great style, complete with roast pig on spit, many rounds of schnapps and beer culminating in a great outdoor bonfire. I have not researched it, but it strikes me that if one wished to go ski-ing in Europe, you would be hard pressed to find a cheaper location offering good ski runs and modern amenities. Look into it before the hordes arrive. Filled to bursting, we gently settled back into our coach and with escorts leading we blasted back along the highway towards Bucharest.

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around the world – part 17.7 (bucharest)

Tuesday 03 October 2006:

Well, I have successfully arrived here in Bucharest and what a different world. In summary Bucharest is a study in contrasts – simultaneously dingy and broken down complete with abject poverty on full display, while at the same time all sorts of new construction, high end retail and flashy cars are also very much apparent.  Right now you can see clearly how life was for most under the Ceausescu Regime – something which will likely disappear as Romania integrates with the EU – but also you can see where this city is headed.

First a bit of background for you: Romania surrendered to the Red Army in 1944 and then after fell loosely under the Soviet Bloc. I say loosely because the sort of communism in effect here in Romania had a distinctly nationalist flavour which became more pronounced in 1965 when Ceausescu came to power.  The legacy of Ceausescu is to this day one of revilement and to a certain extent a perverse pride. Revilement because during his rule he became a suspicious paranoid despot which had far reaching and immediately felt effects on his subjects – but also a bit of perverse pride as Romania under Ceausescu carved an independent path for itself separate from those (Czech, Poland, East Germany, Hungary etc) under the heel of the Soviet Union.  Pride too because despite the abject poverty which Ceausescu reduced Romania to, many seem to take that as the sort of challenge and badge of suffering that only Romanians can bear up under.

He is particularly despised for the quite unnecessary and sheer economic stupidity imposed on his people – particularly in Bucharest.  He and his paranoid crew embarked on a program of ‘systemization’ – new-speak for a particularly invidious form of collectivisation. Systemization meant housing the workers in identical apartment blocks (the better to control them) while erasing whole villages or historic areas.  Simultaneously, about 30 years ago, he decided that two immense construction projects should remake the heart of old Bucharest – the first was an imposing Parliament building (now the second largest office building inthe world) and the second, a grand boulevard to rival the Champs de Elysee (sp?).

In constructing the first he took out huge loans and subsequently impoverished the nation in meeting the terms of the loans, consuming approximately the entire available economic surplus for a decade or more in the late 1970s and 1980s. No expense was spared in constructing Parliament. Granite, marble and lavish ornate fittings were conceived and built for every room in the building no matter its final intended purpose. It is to this day the most easily distinguished landmark in the city. Although it isn’t the tallest building, its isolation in an immense park means that from almost anywhere you are able to glimpse it.

Second, running due east from the parliament building for about 2km is a grand boulevard, originally entitled the ‘Boulevard of the Victory of Socialism’, adorned with countless fountains marching down the centre and lined its entire length with 10 storey ersatz greco roman apartment buildings. To make way for this project, approximately 10000 dwellings, churches historic buildings etc were bulldozed and the occupants made homeless. Some of the most important historic budding in Bucharest were simply obliterated for this project – all to house the communist party elite. On first view, it is quite impressive and one might be forgiven in assuming that the remainder of the city is as grand.

Sadly, the entire project is one huge Potemkin village. The reverse side of these ornate apartment buildings are plain, facing out onto the streets immediately behind – where the housing stock ranges from hovels to 4 and 5 storey buildings standing in spite of themselves. (Not surprisingly, under the free market economy, some of those properties have soared in value – even for buildings one might charitably describe as slums). As you drive along the boulevard the sight-lines down each cross street were carefully managed with similar ersatz greco-roman apartments stretching away from the boulevard, but only for a block or two. Without exaggerating too much, I can state that every building constructed during the communist regime is crumbling – gaping holes and chunks are missing from balconies – window frames cracked and broken. Even the ‘showcase’ buildings intended for the communist elite, on close inspection, are in quite sad shape. Most of these apartment blocks would not be offered even as low income housing in Canada.

The downtown is dingy, and dusty. In fact it is rare and remarkable to witness a clean automobile. The air is heavily polluted and one can feel it your lungs – the grime probably arises as a result of at least three factors combining to undermine whatever natural beauty would otherwise be seen.  Firstly, since the fall of the Ceausescu regime and the adoption of market economy nearly everyone seems to be on the move – via automobile that is.  From the ubiquitous DACIA beaters to brand new Land Rovers and Mercedes the streets are clogged at all hours.  Partly this comes about from Bucharestis habit of double and triple parking, parking half on the sidewalk, in the medians – anywhere a car can be parked legally or not.  Secondly, the economy of Romania is very much industrial – think Hamilton circa 1950 and you will get an idea. Every building more than 5 years old is coated with soot and grime – pollution from every source seems to cling to all surfaces. Thirdly, I have yet to see any municipal services dedicated to cleaning the city – whether it be picking up garbage or washing down the streets. Garbage blown into the cracks and edges is everywhere, while sand and dust coat the streets. In fact I suspect that at least two services would do a booming business here – mechanics specializing in front end alignments (how many curbs do you need to climb before the handling becomes a bit dodgy?), and any service which actually removed garbage.

A survey of Bucharest isn’t complete without acknowledging the highly visible extremes between the rich and poor. There appears to be no middle class – or if there is one they are likely hiding their relative advantage so as not to be targeted by the many poor.  It is not uncommon to see Porsche SUVs, Land Rovers, Mercedes parked outside ritzy restaurants, while on the opposite sidewalk, sit dozens of poor. In fact, almost any business catering to the newly rich has their own private security force. Another aspect which poverty has wrought on this city is the dozens of abandoned dogs and elderly beggars.

By Tuesday morning, one member of the German delegation had been accosted by professional pickpockets, losing all of his cash in the process. Monday night another delegation were targets at a restaurant – three men sat down behind them and attempted to remove a wallet from one of the jackets hanging on the back of a chair. Also on Monday night we were accosted twice in the Greek restaurant next to our hotel, once by a young child flogging toys out of a plastic bag and once by a very elderly female beggar who glowered at us with her palm held out. Each of them timed their approach so as to appear when our waiter had left to enter our order at the kitchen.

But how about the meeting itself you might ask? Our Romanian hosts have been very hospitable – hosting the meeting in the very large and ornate Officers’ Mess a couple of blocks off the main boulevard. Each morning upon departing the hotel in our bus motorcade, we have been escorted by three military police cars, clearing a route through rush hour traffic. At times we are caught up in the traffic and can’t get through any more quickly than the local commuters but whenever an opportunity presents itself in the form of an open space, our police escort races ahead, blocks the intersection and we rush through. I can’t help but wonder if the residents instinctively resent us for the reminder of the perks once offered to the communist elite. It is hard enough getting across town during rush hour and then along come the NATO delegates barging through. To cap it off, once clear of the main boulevard, we proceed along at breakneck pace into the oncoming lanes with two police cars about 50m in front clearing two lanes over to the curb – making friends with the locals no doubt!