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Jason Toews and fifi (the band)

Romania, August 2019 (Part 1)

Jeez, enough chitchat. Take me to the photos.

DAY 0: My Bathroom – London – Bucharest

Look, if you’ve read any of my travel writing, or if you follow me on Facebook, or if you are related to me, or you’ve ever met me in passing, the fact that my trip to Romania was marred by gastro-intestinal distress probably comes as no surprise. Even I’m tired of hearing about it. Having said that, it was pretty fucking dire. At 2am on the morning of my departure for Romania, I awoke sweaty and nauseous, and spent most of the following miserable eight hours in the bathroom. So, kind of a typical Monday for me, *ba-dum TSS*.

What happened? Pre-travel anxiety? Food poisoning? Did someone slip a whole clove of raw garlic into my dinner? Or was it simply one more battle in my ongoing intestinal apocalypse? I had no idea, and I was exhausted by trying to figure it out.

It was hard to imagine spending the next 24 hours on planes and in airports while clutching my stomach and searching for the nearest bathroom, and yet… canceling the trip also seemed unthinkable. I had been dutifully learning basic Romanian for months (mulțumesc, DuoLingo!), and I had told everyone in my life about this incredible opportunity to photograph abandoned places in Romania. I could not stand the thought of explaining that I had bailed because my tummy hurt. I also could not tolerate the thought of gnashing my teeth in envy while photos taken by other members of the tour group filled my Facebook feed. Plus, experience indicated that my GI tract would eventually right itself, even if it took a few days (or a week, or two, or sometimes a month). So I downed half a bottle of Imodium and slumped in ashen-faced silence while Robin drove me to the airport.

As a proud and loyal Delta SkyMiles member in good standing, I had once or twice been bumped up to first class for short domestic flights. But I had never in my life experienced first class on an intercontinental flight until this Romania trip, and oh my sweet lord what a life saver if you are traveling while afflicted. British Airways set me up in my own little fully-reclinable seat-slash-bed, with a surplus of pillows and blankets, inside a futuristic white pod, surrounded by a/v equipment, with a never-ending supply of hot towels and eyepads and foam earplugs and cotton footies and soft British Airways-branded pajama pants. Also, crucially, I was about five steps from the first class bathroom, where I spent much of the trip from Sea-Tac to Heathrow. After throwing up a few times, I felt slightly less desperate.

According to the Bible, the Israelite High Priest was allowed to pass through the veil once a year and enter the Holy of Holies, which contained the Ark of the Covenant, the Ten Commandments and some sort of spooky light. In much the same way, my first class ticket allowed me to pass the security desk and enter the British Airways OneWorld lounge at Heathrow, which contained an abundance of charging stations, a full buffet, and hot showers. Exhausted, hungry and yet unable to eat, I found a comfortable chair, plugged in my phone, and kind-of-slept for several hours.

And then it was onward to Bucharest!

DAY 1: Bucharest

If I am watching an action film, and a beefy male character appears onscreen wearing gradient-tint sunglasses, a thick gold chain necklace, carefully-groomed stubble, immaculate white designer sneakers, and a matching top-and-bottom track suit (optional accessory: cigarette), I would have two immediate reactions:

  1. This character is obviously a low-level Eastern European gangster (collecting protection money or running a chop shop, definitely with a plan for moving up in the organization, probably dead by the end of the film), and
  2. Oh, come on. Nobody *actually* dresses like that.

Having spent 10 days in Romania, I can testify that quite a few people dress *exactly* like that. Including the gentleman who picked me up at the airport, Dragos. Who, I want to stress, was a sweetheart, never once leaned on a deli owner for protection money in my presence, and was still very much alive at the end of the film. Er, trip.

As we drove to the hotel, I tried out my rudimentary Romanian on Dragos, but his English was markedly superior to my Romanian, so we eventually stuck to English. This experience repeated itself throughout the trip. Almost everyone I met under 40 spoke fluent English, and were more than happy to demonstrate that by giving me detailed directions or information in my native tongue. More than once, I tried to order food in halting Romanian (“Strudel cu… mere… si cafea…?”) and found my efforts met with mild irritation (“Yes, yes, apple strudel and coffee. NEXT!”). As you might guess, older folks and people in rural areas were less likely to speak English.

Dragos dropped me and my bags at the Europa Royale Hotel in Bucharest’s Old Town, where I was reunited with my dear friend Matthew Christopher and was introduced to a few of my tour-mates. Matthew, the man behind the Abandoned America website, books and tours, was co-leading this Romania trip with Derek Baron, a sort of professional traveler. Derek left home in 1999 for a three-month Southeast Asia trip, and never stopped traveling. When I met him, he had been roaming the world for 20 years, and was just beginning to think about finding a place he might like to settle down. For a while, anyway. I suspect a woman was involved. Read more about Derek’s extraordinary adventures (like working on a cruise ship, acting in a Bollywood TV series, tracking down an Indian militant who stole his car, and getting kidnapped in Bangladesh) on his Wandering Earl website. (Earl is his middle name, BTW.)

Matthew and Derek had secured the services of an excellent local guide, Stefan, who possessed encyclopedic knowledge of Romania’s history, art, architecture, religion, politics, and food. He provided translation and negotiation services as needed, was eternally warm and slyly funny yet always professional, and by the end of the trip I think we all had a bit of a crush on Stefan. Okay, fine, I’m just speaking for myself.

Dragos and Mihai were our drivers. Mihai was an enigma – often silent and remote, he never smiled and consistently rebuffed my attempts to converse. I was a little intimidated by him. He drove aggressively, never wore a seatbelt (he inserted a plastic tab into the seatbelt latch to prevent it from beeping), and my only real interaction with him was when he would – suddenly, tersely, in the middle of my conversation with someone else – correct my mispronunciation of Romanian words. He spent his downtime smoking with Dragos.

There were six of us in the tour group: Me, Susan, Barbara, Brian, Sally, and Jody. Some of our group had not yet arrived, but those who were present and correct followed Derek through winding passageways to a hidden courtyard for dinner. The weather was perfect for outdoor dining, and we were surrounded by beautiful old buildings in various states of crumbling disrepair. Cats skulked along balconies and brick walls above us. When the sun set, the courtyard was lit by small bulbs strung overhead. The enormous menu featured meat of every kind in daunting portions, with a final page entirely devoted to cigarettes. “No Smoking” section, you say? I laugh! This is Romania!

Nausea notwithstanding, I knew I had to get something in my stomach, so I pecked at the frisbee-sized schnitzel (șnițel). One bit of good meal-related news: Lemonade (which I love) is a staple beverage in Romania. Almost every restaurant serves it, and it’s usually homemade, often mixed with mint and honey (limonadă cu mentă și miere). Apart from the lemonade, however, I was starting to worry about how I would eat on this trip, or if my stomach would ever get itself back online.

DAY 2: Bucharest

Our little group gathered for a cocktail-fueled orientation meeting at The Urbanist, across from our hotel. As we reviewed our itinerary, a local character in ragged clothes, presumably homeless, reeking of alcohol, interrupted to introduce himself. We tried smiling politely and returning to our conversation, but that strategy was unsuccessful (as it almost always is).

“Don’t ignore me!” he shouted. “I’m Michael Jackson!”

“That’s great,” Derek replied calmly. “We’re actually having a conversation, so-”

“Ptttthhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhpppppppttt!” Michael Jackson responded with a lengthy raspberry, showering us with spittle.

This was to be the first of several encounters with Michael Jackson. I should also note that Mr. Jackson was one of very few (apparently) homeless people I saw in Bucharest. A miniscule percentage of the homeless population in Seattle, for example.

While we talked, a few of my tour-mates enjoyed ice cream from the cafe. Excited to demonstrate my sweeping command of the Romanian tongue, I shouted “Inghetata!” which is the correct word for a type of ice cream, but it kinda came out like an exclamation or greeting, and I used it as such for the rest of the trip:

“Good morning, Jason.”

“INGHETATA, MY FRIEND!”

“Uh… sure?”

You can look up Ceaușescu for yourself, but here are the basics: He was Romania’s head of state from 1967, serving as President of the State Council. In 1974, he was elected President of the Republic. He began, as despots often do, as a reformer and a populist hero. He quickly revealed his true nature as a tyrannical strongman. He was mad for city planning, with a single-minded determination to re-shape Romania – and Bucharest in particular – in his image. He was overthrown and executed along with his wife Elena during the Romanian Revolution in December 1989. (If you’re interested, you can easily find depressing footage of their “trial” and execution on YouTube.)

On Day 2 of our Romania trip, Stefan led a walking tour of Bucharest, and we saw Ceaușescu’s handiwork everywhere.

Start with the Palace of the Parliament. Everything about this massive square fortress of a building – the heaviest building in the world, the third largest by volume – speaks of a totalitarian mindset. It was designed by 700 architects and took 13 years to build. Construction was completed by 20,000 laborers working three shifts a day, plus 5,000 army personnel, 1.5 million factory workers and an army of “volunteers.” The cost of heating and electric use and lighting alone exceeds 6 million dollars per year. It remains 70% empty.

Ceaușescu wanted all the thoroughfares leading to the Palace to be grand and impressive and lined with buildings in an imposing style similar to the Palace. The only thing in his way was a bunch of annoying humans already living there, who would need to be relocated. And a bunch of perfectly functional buildings that would need to be demolished. And also a river that would need to be re-routed. Five square kilometers were razed – more than the damage done by both World Wars combined. Over 40,000 citizens were forcibly displaced (I’ve seen estimates as high as 200,000). Romanians called the urban destruction Ceausima, combining the words “Ceaușescu” and “Hiroshima.”

More details on Ceaușescu’s rapacious “architectural apocalypse” can be found here.

Historians and influential politicians begged Ceaușescu to spare the many Orthodox churches slated for destruction. He grudgingly agreed not to destroy any churches which could be moved out of his sight, off the main thoroughfares. 13 churches were moved and preserved. Read more about that here and here.

Which leads me to the first stop on our Bucharest tour – Mihai Vodă Monastery, built in 1591. In 1985, “…the church building was moved on rails 285 metres east and hidden in its present location on Sapienței street” (Wikipedia). The cloisters and other buildings were demolished. See my photos for a look at the unique architecture and the fascinating murals inside, which include depictions of soldiers, peasants, and at least one war criminal.

Next up and much more interesting: Biserica (Church) Zlatari, built in 1667, rebuilt in 1705 and again in 1838 (“…So, I built a third one. That one burned down, fell over, then sank into the swamp, but the fourth one… stayed up!”). It’s a gorgeous place, densely packed with stained glass, gold leaf, eye-popping artwork, mysterious ancient artifacts and OH WHAT THE FUCK A MUMMIFIED HAND. Zlatari is dedicated to St. Cyprian the Mage, the patron saint of wizards and necromancers, and there is a freaky portrait of Mr. Cyprian over the entryway looking like he’s about to fold space and time.

But more importantly and horrifyingly, to the left of the stage or whatever they call it in a church, there is a glass case containing his actual mummified arm. There is even a little steampunk-looking portal, through which you can touch the black, waxy flesh of St. Cyprian the Mage’s hand. Did you just ask me if I touched it? OF COURSE I touched the mummified hand of the patron saint of necromancers. Do you know who you’re talking to?

Bucharest is an intriguing mix of massive, intimidating architecture clustered around the main roads, with all sorts of weird and interesting buildings hiding just behind, in various states of disrepair and abandonment. One apartment building has a list of names next to the door, which you might logically assume are the names of the current residents. But no! This is another building which Ceaușescu threatened to raze. Historians pointed out that it had been the home of many beloved artists and poets, and begged him to spare it. He relented, as long as it could be hidden from his sight, not visible from the main road. So, another building more to Ceaușescu’s liking was erected in front of it, with inches to spare, and a plaque listing the famous occupants was posted.

Another bit of interesting signage we saw on crumbling buildings all over Bucharest: A mysterious red disc, containing the ominous words “Cladire expertizata tehnic incadrata in clasa I rissc seismic” which means something like, “In the event of an earthquake, this building will collapse, killing everyone inside” (I’m paraphrasing). Many of those buildings were still fully occupied. I saw a comment on a blog somewhere that Bucharest’s formerly seedy, now thriving Old Town is “…less a ‘Red Light’ and more of a ‘Red Disc’ neighborhood these days…”

I love signage, so just one more, I promise. Bucharest is divided into several Districts, and each is run by its own council, with their own signage design standards. So, while the “Primaria Sector 3” logo (seen on benches, garbage cans, etc.) is flowery, decorative and almost Art Nouveau, the “Primaria Sector 5” logo is all humorless functional block caps.

There is a ton of world-class grafitti and street art to be found and photographed in Bucharest. The streets are crowded with people at all hours. There are an abundance of lush, forested parks in which to take refuge. Gentrification is creeping in, and it’s easy to find excellent restaurants, even a few hip coffee shops just like in Seattle, featuring artwork by local bohemians.

Si pasajuls! (And the passageways!)

Pasajul Macca-Vilacrosse is an alley between large buildings which has been covered by an arched glass ceiling.

Pasajul Victoria, known sardonically as “Instagram Alley,” is covered by hundreds of multi-colored umbrellas. Both contain hip restaurants and bars with outdoor seating and boutique shops of all kinds.

Susan had lost her hat somewhere between the US and Romania, so we followed the signs to a tiny hat shop in the dimly-lit courtyard of an apartment building. Research later revealed that this building began life in 1900 as a brothel, which totally makes sense. I can imagine the prostitutes hanging out on the balconies above, leaning over the railings to entice customers. Nicu, the proprietor of the hat shop, is close to 90 years old and has been making and repairing hats since he was 14. Susan didn’t see anything that spoke to her, and Nicu also wasn’t thrilled about our cameras, so we were swiftly ushered out. Susan’s quest for a suitable hat would have to continue elsewhere.

Stefan’s afternoon tour complete, I wandered around a market set up inside the former Bucharest stock market building. Hand-painted Christmas ornament eggs, mildly naughty French postcards, oil paintings of indeterminate provenance, antique books, jewelry, and traditional pastries were all for sale. From a book and ephemera dealer, I purchased a “Rumanian Statistical Pocketbook 1960,” which contained maps and statistics and informative full-color charts such as, “AREA UNDER CROPS BY CROP GROUP AND SOCIAL SECTORS” and “SHARE OF THE SOCIALIST SECTOR IN THE PRODUCTION OF CERTAIN CULTURES.”

I should talk about Vlad the Impaler (and Dracula) for a minute, right? Vlad Tepes, like Ceaușescu, started out as a populist reformer, but it turned out his definition of “reform” including killing 80,000 people, 20,000 of whom were publicly impaled. The impalings were gruesome and did *not* result in immediate death, and if you want more details, you can read about it here, ugh.

Romanians have a – shall we say – complicated relationship with the legacy of Vlad Tepes. So do tourists. Locations associated with Vlad are a big part of Romania’s tourist industry, and his image is everywhere.

And then there’s Count Dracula, the character which Bram Stoker partially based on Vlad. Dracula is also big tourist business in Romania, especially in Transylvania (which I had always thought was a separate country, but is actually just a mountainous region in Romania, go figure).

Which leads me to Bran Castle, which is commonly associated with Vlad and Dracula, despite the fact that Vlad never lived there and Dracula is a fictional character but facts don’t matter anymore so whatevs. Vlad probably spent more time at his palace in Bucharest, Palatul Curtea Veche, which was just a block from our hotel in the Old Town. It is currently being restored, though the timeline for opening to the public is vague. The entire site is shielded from view by fences and scaffolding (though we did find a tear in the fence, through which I took a quick photo).

A bit more about Bucharest’s Old Town, where our hotel was located. According to inyourpocket.com, the Old Town “is more or less all that’s left of pre-World War II Bucharest.” Once a no-go zone for tourists, it is now filled with museums and public art, modern restaurants of all kinds (including “Dracula Medieval Feast,” natch), bars, nightclubs, and also something called “Sing Sing – Maxim Security Prison for Sexy Woman’s” which I only know about because it was next to the vegan restaurant where I had lunch.

Susan eventually found a hat that she liked in a gift shop, but when you’ve only ever known someone without a hat, and then they put on a hat, it always looks weird at first, doesn’t it? So we teased her about it. Okay, *I* teased her about it.

That night, the whole group met in the hotel lobby for dinner. I was still feeling rough, and was tempted to stay in my room. But I also didn’t want to be “that guy,” so I joined the group.

On our way to dinner, we walked past Stavropoleos Church and decided to stop briefly. I wish we could have stayed longer in Stavropoleos’ leaf-shaded courtyard, which holds artifacts from many of the Orthodox churches demolished by Ceaușescu.

I also wish I had brought my camera; the only photos I took were with my iPhone. The doors to the church were closed, but Derek told us that – if we were interested – we could go in one at a time, provided we remained respectfully quiet and didn’t take any pictures.

I entered, carefully closing the door behind me. The church was dark, and I couldn’t see much. An Orthodox service was in progress. At the front and to my left, a female choir sang the most mournful, ominous, painfully beautiful music I have ever heard in a religious context. It was so alien to me, so different from what I think of as sacred music, and their voices resonated in my chest, knocking the wind out of me. There was a working-class man dressed in worn clothing, sitting in the front row, overcome with grief or some other emotion. He held his face in his hands and rocked back and forth on his bench. One of the female voices was now rising in a terrifying, high-pitched ululation… and then a previously-unseen chorus of men on my right joined in with a bowel-rumbling low drone. I found it profoundly moving but also deeply unsettling for reasons I couldn’t begin to explain, and I stumbled out of the church choking back tears. Which was not how I wanted my tour-mates to see me on the first day of our Grand Romanian Adventure.

Dinner was at Caru cu Bere, a 130-year-old beer hall. The menu, again, was many pages of meat. And beer! There were musicians and dancers. It was loud and joyous and all very authentic and I bet the food was excellent, but I was too sick to eat or socialize properly. I quietly told Matthew that I was going to skip dinner and get some air. I received several concerned looks and plenty of “are you going to be okay?” and “anything I can do?” and, after reassuring everyone, I left, boisterous Romanian beerhall singalongs receding behind me.

I walked to Unirii Square to see the famous fountains, another ambitious Ceaușescu urban planning project. If you can forget for a moment the tyrant who had them built and the people displaced, the fountains at night are pretty wonderful, synchronized with lights and music, surrounded by parks and people. Here’s a short video to give you a taste:

DAY 3: Bucharest – Gostinari

Thursday morning: Wake up, gulp down some breakfast, jump in the van, and we’re on our way to Gostinari – a rural village approximately 25 miles southeast of Bucharest – to see an abandoned church.

Gostinari Church is a small brick and plaster building constructed in 1817 by Stefan Bellu. Domed roof now open to the sky, it is filled with birds alive and dead. Greenery is beginning to reclaim the space, names and messages are scratched into the walls, but several impressive murals remain.

The church is surrounded by an active cemetery. When we visited, locals were visiting and cleaning the graves of loved ones, and a lone woman was walking slowly through the graveyard with some kind of smoldering incense. Many of the headstones featured poignant airbrushed photos of the deceased.

One woman, middle-aged, in a brightly-colored blouse, spoke in hushed tones to an elderly friend in a beautiful print frock, a bicycle propped nearby. In my limited Romanian, I asked another woman if I could take her picture in front of the church. She happily agreed, but added – in English – “I have my friend Count Dracula here. You should take picture of him!” Her male companion came forward, pulled his mouth open to reveal two remaining teeth, and grimaced comically.

Sally and I were done photographing the church and graveyard, and wanted to walk through the adjoining village. Stefan agreed to accompany us. We learned that we had arrived on St. Mary’s Day, and the village was preparing for a party that night. In several yards, people were setting up lights and tables and food. Music drifted past from a boombox somewhere. We fell in with a group of adolescent boys on bicycles. One wanted to demonstrate his outstanding burn-out skills, and let me shoot video while he expertly skidded his bike to a graceful stop. I remembered doing the same on my oversized bike at his age, with playing cards in the spokes and a Pippi Longstocking sticker on my banana seat.

Ditchweed hemp grew wild by the roadside. Disinterested feral dogs roamed the streets. Kids gathered for the impending St. Mary’s Day party. It was time to leave.

On our way back to Bucharest, we drove slowly through a Roma village. “No, we can’t stop. No, you can’t talk to the locals,” we were told, in no uncertain terms. The architecture was amazing, and you can read more about that here. Every Roma person we passed stopped whatever they were doing to give us the stink-eye as we drove past – not surprising, given the anti-Roma sentiment prevalent in Eastern Europe. Here’s a short video showcasing the architecture of a Roma village:

After lunch at Dristor Kebab, the oldest kebab place in Bucharest (verdict: mancare delicioasa!), we visited the train graveyard behind the Gara București Nord train station. Unlike this train graveyard I photographed several years ago, the trains here were all of approximately the same vintage and design, and the surroundings were less pleasant, but the grafitti was excellent. Several of the trains were obviously being used by squatters, which meant lots of human detritus: grimy clothing, coffee mugs, rotting food, and yes, turds.

“If anyone questions you, just act like you don’t understand any Romanian, and call for me,” Derek cautioned us.

“No problem,” I replied eagerly. “I’ll just say, ‘Eu nu vorbesc limba Romana’…”

“Uh, no. Because then they would know that you speak Romanian. That’s exactly what I just said *not* to do.”

“Oh. Right.”

Have I mentioned the ominous tower looming overhead?

In 1986, during construction of the Palace of the Parliament, Ceaușescu visited the state-run IFMA (Intreprinderea de Fabricație și Montaj Ascensoare) elevator factory. According to legend, he was appalled at the poor quality control (other sources: he had an irrational fear of elevator failure), and decided that he needed an elevator testing tower. But not just any standard-issue elevator testing tower: “I MUST HAVE THE TALLEST ELEVATOR TESTING TOWER IN THE WORLD TO COMPENSATE FOR MY TINY GENITALIA!” he declared, pounding his fist on the table, in my imagination. The 374-foot-tall IFMA elevator testing tower took two years to complete, was used briefly, and then abandoned. It has remained empty and largely unused for the past 30 years, though its roof is now adorned by a crown of radio and television broadcasting antennae.

On our drive back into Bucharest, we passed the (never completed, currently abandoned) Museum of the Romanian Communist Party.

“Oooooh!” I squealed, face pressed against the van window. “Can we stop to take a photo?”

“I don’t think there’s a good place to park-” began Matthew, but Dragos had already slipped the van into a tiny parking spot with inches to spare.

The Museum, in a building also called Dâmbovița Center or Casa Radio, is on the bank of the Dâmbovița River. As I paced back and forth, trying to find the best vantage point from which to photograph the massive building across the water, I noticed a local man standing on the other side. As we watched (all eleven of us), he unzipped his pants, pulled out his penis, and urinated copiously into the river. After shaking off any stray drops, he zipped his pants back up. We all watched, fascinated. After a long moment’s consideration, he carefully rolled up his pants and jumped into the water, right where he recently urinated.

Inghetata!

We ate dinner that night at Hanul lui Manuc, one block from our hotel in Bucharest’s Old Town. Built in 1808, “Manuc’s Inn” claims to be the oldest operating hotel building in Bucharest, though the hotel part isn’t actually operating at the moment. Only the restaurant in the central courtyard is currently open, and it is a lovely space – cobblestone floor, long wooden tables, leafy green trees providing shade, twinkling lights strung overhead. The menu – provided in both Romanian and English versions – occasionally interrupts the endless list of meats with 19th-century illustrations accompanied by snarky modern captions. A man wearing a fez, listening to a group of be-turbaned musicians, suggests, “Sing the merry one about the one-armed blind old man that died of bubonic plague!”

Schnitzel still seemed like the safest option, so I ordered that again and ate as much as I could before my GI tract threatened mutiny. I was gradually feeling better, but the nausea was still making me feel tired and irritable, and making small talk a chore. All of my tour-mates were having a grand time, though, and I envied them.

Some of us took an after-dinner walk around the Old Town, during which I saw Michael Jackson again. He was wearing a crown made of ferns, and a sympathetic shopkeeper was giving him a much-needed shower from a hose. I greeted him with a hearty “Inghetata!” and he responded with another wet raspberry.

It had been a long day, so Brian and I headed to our room. I had volunteered to share a room with him to reduce lodging costs, and I was starting to regret that decision. Not because of anything Brian did – he was a sweetheart and an ideal roommate. I simply wanted to be alone with my gastro-intestinal misery.

Proceed to Part 2

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