Romancing Romania

It is often the case that when a country has a bad image, or is known for the wrong reasons, the reality turns out delightfully different from the perception. Such was my experience on a recent trip to Romania. The images that the name evokes are of a despotic dictator, the darkest days of communism, grim orphanages, and crumbling potholed boulevards in Bucharest, a city in its heyday known as the Paris of the East. Dracula’s castle and vampires invariably form part of the equation too.

It would be impossible in anything less than a voluminous book to explain Romania’s history, and the following comments only reflect my own observations. The Romanians are Latin folk, this being reflected not only in the name of the country, but also in their language, customs, personality, and much of their architecture, for Dacia, the heart of present day Romania, was a province of the Roman Empire.

Over many centuries, the country was deeply and often tragically influenced by Turkish, Greek, Slav, Magyar and German invasions and settlements. After the overthrow of the monarchy, which was only installed during the late 19th Century, the country entered perhaps its darkest times; beginning in 1947 when the country fell under Soviet influence and the communists took power. In 1968 began perhaps the most evil of all the communist regimes to have afflicted Eastern Europe, that of the despotic Ceausescus, Nicolae and Elena. In 1989, after a popular uprising, they were executed on Christmas Day after a secret military tribunal found them guilty of crimes against the state and people. This allowed Romanians to celebrate Christmas openly for the first time in 40 years of communist tyranny. Since this Revolution that allowed the installation of a democratic government, the Latin characteristics, previously suppressed under a veil of justified paranoia and fear, have re-emerged.

The Romanian language is Latin-based but has many words in it of purely Slav origin, with others of Greek, German, and Turkish heritage. Visitors who can understand or speak a Latin language (the closest being Swiss Romansch, Catalan and Italian) will find basic written Romanian fairly easy to follow. Some Romanian words are identical to those of other Latin based languages, and the construction very close to Latin, meaning that those hours of boredom at school learning about datives, Caesars army, and the chariots of the Roman soldiers have at last, 40 years later, borne fruit It certainly enabled me to find my way around, and to enjoy the excellent and abundant food.

The country, because of the influences that have shaped it, is blessed with a depth and diversity of culture and a spiritual richness I have not encountered anywhere else in Europe. In terms of its geography and physical features, Romania has just about every physical feature imaginable apart from desert and jungle The visitor can relax or party at Black Sea resorts, some simple, some sophisticated, explore historic haunted castles and fortresses, marvel at the beauty of unspoiled medieval towns, take a cure at spa resorts, practice winter sports at competitive prices,? study the unique painted monasteries of the Bucovina region (UNESCO world heritage protected), take a cruise on the Danube Delta to view some of the unique flora and bird life, or enjoy gastronomical delights and superb wines at bargain basement prices.

Romanians are, without any doubt, some of the friendliest and most hospitable people on earth, something that was proved to me several times during my stay. They also have a quick and subtle sense of humor. When invited to a party, we arrived late afternoon, (I m told it finished at 10 the next morning) to a delicious aroma of braai, for the Romanians are great and proud meat eaters, and even have specialty sausages, called mititei, nothing like boerewors, but just as delicious. Our host shook my hand and placed a cold beer into it in a simultaneous and practiced action, and within minutes another one, followed by a plate of food. Such is Romanian hospitality.

I was amongst people whom I had never met before, speaking an alien language, and yet I immediately felt comfortable, at home and surrounded by the warmth and hospitality of delightful people. I also have to say that every woman there looked like a million dollars, simply because Romanian women enjoy looking good and making the most of their features. Even those who perhaps were not so attractive knew how to dress and groom themselves to draw attention away from their bad features and towards the good ones. Whilst it would be an exaggeration to say that all Romanian women are beautiful, the influences which have created this nation have certainly bestowed it with a greater proportion of good looking and elegantly groomed women than almost anywhere else I’ve ever been, and they certainly how to make the most of their assets

Add to this a Latin charm and grace, the Eastern European willingness to please, and none of the western militant feminism and miserabilism, and the combination is a winning one. I suspect that the men are just as appealing to the opposite sex but I didn’t follow up on this point. Just as at a South African braai, the group polarized, with most of the men either standing around the barbecue, drinks in hand, talking about sport, business, or cars, or in front of the wide screen TV watching Romania (unfortunately) losing to the Czech republic at football whilst the women were mostly inside talking about domestic matters.

The charm and beauty of Bucharest is often hidden behind modern facades or down small streets you’d pass without a glance unless you knew where to look.? Because the town has no official tourist office, knowledgeable locals are essential allies in discovering the city, if only because they are enormously proud of it and will ensure that you see some stunning architecture that you would otherwise miss.

The locally published Whats on type guides give prominence to the less desirable features of democracy, such as gambling salons and massage parlors. This is sad because there is a wealth of cultural activities available almost every night of the week, excellent local restaurants, coffee shops, and bars, along with perhaps the world’s greatest monument to megalomania, the palace that the Ceausescus built, but never saw completed. This is the second largest building on earth and no expense was spared in its construction as Nicolae and Elena raided the nations piggy bank and destroyed thousands of homes, business, and places of worship to create this palace, which is now used for parliamentary meetings and official functions. Pre-arranged visits are also possible.