The grey skies and drizzly rain that greeted us on a cold February morning were the perfect backdrop for our special Bucharest city tour, which walked us through Romania’s tumultuous communist history.
Even though the city’s violent revolution happened in my lifetime I’m sad to say that I know little more than the name of Europe’s last dictator – Nicolae Ceausescu, so I was eager to find out more about what the Romanian people had been through and how they had overcome.
To be fair, I was only 11 when the Romanian revolution took place, more interested in reading Smash Hits magazine than watching the news, but now an adult, I think it’s important to learn as much as I can about the places I visit, both the good and the bad, so that the past is not forgotten and maybe, just perhaps, we might learn from our mistakes.
Unveil Romania – Bucharest city tour
With this in mind, when Unveil Romania invited me to take one of their guided city walks it was the tour that told the story of 45 years of communism that appealed to me most.
Picked up from our hotel, our guides Mihai and Olivia – also the company’s owners – drove us to the start of our tour outside the Romanian Athenaeum, a neoclassical concert hall that epitomises the era when the city was known as ‘Little Paris’ and experienced an economic and cultural boom.
It’s one of several beautiful buildings still to be found across the city, dotted between the grey, concrete monstrosities of communist Bucharest and today’s modern glass towers.
As we sheltered under our umbrellas from the atmospheric rain, Michael told us the story of the Romanian royal family and the beloved King Carol I, a German aristocrat that accepted Romania’s invitation to become the country’s first king. A very odd set-up if you ask me, but basically after the Ottoman Empire was defeated, Romania declared itself a sovereignty and invited several overseas aristocratic families to take on the role of royal family.
The family had a short reign in the country, with only four kings ever holding the crown. During the Second World War, the final king, Michael I, tried to protect his country by first siding with the Soviets and later allying with the Allied forces, and the young king was eventually forced to abdicate and exiled when a communist coup took place.
And so began Romania’s era of communism, which as an outsider appeared to start with great ideas but go terribly wrong. At first the country appeared to be doing well but as the leader Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej began to distance himself from Russia and build ties with the West, he quickly died of lung cancer. Although not proven, there are claims he was assassinated by Russia, as radioactive material was found in his body after death.
The story of Romania’s communist past is really like reading through the pages of a cold war spy novel and the introduction of Ceausescu is when things start to get really crazy.
Communism and Ceausescu
Taking leadership through yet another coup, Ceausescu did a lot of good for the country at the beginning, but then he became gripped by the idea of paying off his country’s national debt in just three years and well, the shit really hit the fan.
Romanian villagers with over 50 hectares of land were forced to move into tiny city flats with the government taking their property, with all produce sold overseas to pay off the debt. Heating, power and food were drastically rationed, with people queuing hours for food, and he even started running public buses using methane tanks, which the locals nicknamed ‘moving bombs’!
As Michael told this tale we slowly walked over to the city’s Revolution Square, which was home to the Communist Party’s headquarters and just across the road (joined by an underground tunnel) was Section 5 – the home of the secret police. At the height of communism it is believed than one in four people were working as informants, reporting on their friends and neighbours.
Unsurprisingly, as this went on the people’s anger rose and eventually, in 1989, a bloody revolution began. Standing in the square where the fighting began, Michael pointed over to the HQ’s balcony, which was where Ceausescu began his last ever speech. This was cut short as the people began to hurl stones at their ‘leader’ and fighting between the people and soldiers began. During this time many people were gunned down and as our walk continued, Michael and Olivia showed us buildings that were until as recently as a few months ago still riddled with bullet holes. They also showed us the old university library, which had been burnt in the revolution, with thousands of books and manuscripts lost.
History brought alive
Standing in these places ourselves really helped us take in the history, but what really brought the revolution to life was the items and photos that the couple shared with us from that time. As we stood in front of the old library, Olivia was able to show us a picture of the building on fire, so we could see how much had needed to be rebuilt.
Taking a break from the rain and the cold, we snuck into one of the city’s many cafes, where over coffee and hot chocolate, Olivia and Michael showed us more memorabilia from the revolution, passed on to them by their parents, who had experienced it first hand. It was amazing to see a newspaper from the day of the revolution, where the journalists printed an apology for the lies they had told the public for year after year. Also getting to see ration books and old money, all while they talked us through dramatic photos from the events was amazingly interesting, whilst also very sobering.
Visiting the world’s second largest administrative building
After warming our bones, it was time to move onto our final stop of the tour – a visit to the Palace of the Parliament, the world’s second largest administrative building, and the seat of the Romanian parliament. Ceausescu’s big project, this was in essence a gaudy show of power, as he wanted to have everything the biggest, highest, and heaviest it could be.
It took ten years to build, with 20,000 people working 24 hours a day to complete it, and many lost their lives in the process. Monasteries were destroyed in order to place the building where he wanted, and he also began destroying churches, as he didn’t want to see any from the windows of his palace. In order to save them, someone created a crazy process where churches were raised off the ground, placed onto rail tracks and moved to other areas of the city where they could not be seen by Ceausescu. Insane or what?!
Guided tours of the Palace of the Parliament
After the revolution many wanted to knock down this monstrosity, but in the end, in respect for those who lost their lives during its creation, the building would become ‘for the people’ and became the parliament building. With over 3,000 rooms though, much of the building still lies empty and unfurnished and you can take a guided tour that gives you a glimpse of the building’s scale and grandeur.
Ceausescu wanted decorations on walls, ceilings and floors to match, demanding crystal chandeliers, silk curtains and marble hallways, but today these giant rooms appear as empty shells, with just a few used for conferences, UN meetings and as concerts halls. The tour is well worth experiencing, however, be aware that you will need to bring and hand in your passports before being allowed onto the tour and if you’d like to take photos you will need to pay extra to be given a photography pass.
Our half day tour gave us a lot to think about and a much deeper understanding of Romania’s history and communism in general. Perhaps not everyone’s cup of tea, I loved finding out more about the country and its people and I feel that I gained so much from Michael and Olivia’s detailed knowledge, allowing me to enjoy my further explorations of the city so much more.
Unveil Romania’s Ashes of Communism Bucharest tour costs from €20-35 per person depending on the size of your group. The tour can be personalised to your interests and you are picked up and returned to your hotel.
For more information on this and other tours from Unveil Romania, please visit www.unveilromania.com.
My tour was complimentary for the purpose of review, but as ever, all opinions are my own.