Sunday 25 July 2010

Bucharest Hungary Serbia and Bulgaria in 80 hours

Hot Bucharest Saturday morning in July. 11.30 Geo called and suggests I drive with him to Szeged in Hungary to catch the Szeged Festival returning through Serbia and a corner of Bulgaria. I hate Szeged I say but after five minutes’ reflection I decided to take two days off and agreed.

Geo is a true Romanian and therefore a metaphysician who knows that time and space do not exist. I asked as we set out whether we might get to Szeged in time for the play that evening and he said let’s see. In fact we were half way there at 10.30 after driving with only a couple of pauses. Geo is, to my indignation, even less practical than me. Both of us are children when it comes to travel but he is sure he is a natural leader and I decide that it would be cruel and destructive to weaken his self-belief. His fatherly authoritativeness while losing his way is something to admire. One should never feel an urge to punch him.

Geo enjoys ill health. Whose last words were: ‘I am dying of a hundred good symptoms’? Geo is in the exactly opposite case. He warned me that I might need to take drastic action if his back gave in completely. I don’t drive and wondered whether he expected me to grab the wheel from him in mid-spasm and thus save us from hurtling to our deaths.. My father liked to dramatise his life and especially his driving in this way, which is why some people refused to drive with him. One makes friends because of psychological similarities and needs which are not easy immediately to discern.

Sinaia. We take the air for the sake of Geo’s back problems. The town where I rarely stop is increasingly spruced up and has an Edwardian air around the Hotel Palace, a flavour of Arnold Bennett.

Another crisis. Geo’s ‘claxon’ (car hooter) has failed him. A Romanian without his klaxon is emasculated, a hermaphrodite and I feel for him but tease him too. No he says not laughing this is serious. I do not use my car horn without a reason but it is absolutely necessary to have a horn and dangerous to drive without one. Later to his great relief it returns to life. All Romanians are Mr. Toad.

Jams in the mountains. A long queue in Busteni. Mid-afternoon. Why are people leaving Bucharest lazily at that time? But it is because of a landslide that the traffic is slow. And these landslides Geo say are caused by illegal logging.

I thank God Romania still does not have motorways or even dual carriageways. The roads are far less exciting than when potholed and third world ten years ago but they still pass through charming one horse villages where rushing through you can taste the emptiness of childhood. The road that twists across the mountains to Sinaia and Brasov is still the artery that links Romania to Europe and civilisation.

I miss the horses and carts which were common five years ago, much more so twelve years ago or twenty. Made illegal by the health and safety fascists of the EU. The same abominable people have made it illegal to kill a pig in your back garden.

Fortified Saxon churches (fortified to protect the parish from Genghis Khan and the Tartars as well as the Turks) glimpsed from the car. I glimpsed them on my first visit in 1990 in a prelapsarian Communist countryside before Romanians fled to Spain and Italy to pick crops, when the Lutheran churches still held services each Sunday for their Saxon congregations. And I am very ashamed that I have not explored them very much now.

A comfortable newly opened hotel in Sebes for less than €40 and a workmanlike pizza on the terrace downstairs. Sebes in the morning for fifteen minutes is a delight. Though it is mid-July the rains have kept the grass as green as in May. The melancholy churchyard around the Gothic church of this little German town could almost be in England. I want to read much more about the history of Transylvania which has little to do with that of the Regat. South of the Carpathians the Reformation meant nothing nor the Enlightenment. Only the French Revolution permeated.

There is nothing as enjoyable as a driving holiday unless it is a train holiday. A cumulative diagonal biopsy of Romania.

Arad so briefly I can’t remember it. A flash of C18th buildings and the poignant late nineteenth century Hungarian stuff when Magyars were momentarily a great power.

Maria Radna not far from Arad with its Hungarian or is it Swabian Catholic monastery towering on steep steps disproportionately over the little village. No time to find out its history. Although two generations older and baroque not neo-classical something about it reminds me of Esztergom.

Is this one of those parts of Romania near the border, like Arad or Oradea, which should really have been left in Hungary one wonders. I can’t help asking myself if Transylvania and the Banat could have been independent countries after 1918 instead of being taken from one procrustean national state to another. The short-lived Republic of the Banat failed in 1918. The Swiss ideal does not seem to work outside Switzerland. It remains to be seen how a multi-racial Western Europe will work out.

The corridors of the monastery are lined with the usual plaques in German and Hungarian recording the gratitude of the devout for intercessions by the Blessed Virgin but also by many paintings on the same theme many movingly naive. A brunette adolescent girl beneath the wheels of a car. A patient in a hospital bed attended by doctor and nurse. The Blessed Virgin appearing at a bedside. How far from Orthodoxy but far too from the understated murmered politeness of Anglicanism.

We decide not to take the shortest route to Szeged, fearful of hold-ups with lorries and instead take one of Geo’s imaginative routes which I come to learn do not save time. The heat is merciless and this is somehow fun. We are in central Europe in its tropical summer. We visit a village to try to find Geo’s grandparents’ grave without success.

We cross finally the Hungarian border and suddenly the ennui is palpable. Roads like roads in a child’s toy town. Neat grass verges. No no no I think. This is not what I want.

Szeged 18 years after my last visit, once more in stuffy intense heat, once more en route to the Voivodina. Szeged was destroyed by a flood in 1879 and rebuilt at the apogee of Hungarian self-confidence. The heat is in the upper nineties and cities in landlocked countries seem intolerable. I disliked the place in 1992 and do so again at first this time but staying till evening and a breeze I reconsider and find I like it. It is 18 years older and so am I. Now that the sooty London of my boyhood has been cleaned up and so have almost all the other cities in Europe, Szeged looks as old as anywhere else. Szechenyi Ter is reminiscent of a square in Lisbon a century or more older. And Szeged has a number of really splendid ‘Eclectic’ i.e. Art Nouveau buildings, much more beautiful than the pompous monstrosities found elsewhere in Hungary from the same period. And the wide turbid Tisza lined with Sunday afternoon crowds searching for a breeze.

We had dinner with some nice but slightly yeastless people who want to organise more festivals and I see that Geo surrounded by Hungarians from Hungary, Serbia and Romania is vulnerable. People might make jokes about Romania or criticise his country and he is alone and defenceless. His car with its unreliable klaxon is far away but everyone skirts controversial subjects.
We rather liked the town and Geo tangoed on the embankment of the Tisza with an astrophysicist but it is good, Geo and I agree the next day, to shake off the dust of Szeged and the EU.
Across the border in the Serbian Banat, Subotica 18 years on is very charming far warmer than Szeged, though without Szeged’s architectural distinction. Southern, even though the population is mostly Hungarian. Balkan by osmosis. I remember an old woman selling newspapers from a kiosk her wrinkled brown face alongside startling graphic covers of hard porn magazines. To my surprise they still sell hard porn alongside the daily papers but the vulvas and labia are less in your face.

Novi Sad. Very short time but a really excellent beef sour soup. Several baroque churches. The fortress overhanging the Danube and below it an ignored old town built in the 18th century and now empty dusty boarded-up and dilapidated. Like Lipscani ten years ago except it is old.

Just time for one of the lovely monasteries of the Fruška Gora: the Novo Hopovo monastery. Do the Serbs think the Romanian painting too frivolous perhaps. These dozen or more monasteries were I told founded by monks fleeing Turkish rule when Serbia was captured or recaptured by the Turk. The monk who sold us our postcard and keyring was thirty one from Bosnia and too young to have served in the war.

The Novo Hopovo monastery has magnificent wall-paintings which are comparable with those in Romanian monasteries but miss I think the vigour and colourfulness of the Romanian ones. Do the Serbs think the Romanian painting too frivolous perhaps. I think of Slavic countries for some reason as metallic. I supposed this is meaningless but Geo says he agrees with me; the Slavs are cold.

Off the useful highway to Nis and the roads are bad and the villages delightful. The Timoc valley. We spoke to several Timoc Romanians who speak an archaic Romanian. One said to me that he is proud to be Romania but his children do not speak the language. The Serbian government wants to make Serbians of them and is succeeding. Why? Because of TV or schooling I wonder. He had never been to Bucharest but I forgot to ask if he had ever been to Romania.

Zaijacar on the Timoc close to the Bulgarian border enchants me. 18 years ago compared even to Hungary Serbia seemed Western and uninteresting. It still feels comfortable but one has the feeling of a weight off one shoulders being in an obscure town in an obscure part of an obscure country. Yugoslavia was not obscure but Serbia is. The statues to the heroes of the 1878 War. I am put in mind of the imaginary country in Nostromo or of a Graham Greene setting – perhaps the border town in Argentina in The Honorary Consul. The Communist hotel with its inevitable net curtains and solid breakfast. It reminds me of Tulcea at the mouth of the Danube.

Zaijacar is gratifyingly obscure but should not be because five miles away are the extensive ruins of the palace of the Emperor Galerius whose father was a Thracian shepherd and his mother a Dacian (ancestors of the Romanians). He became a soldier rose from the ranks and married Diocletian's daughter. The man at the ticket office displayed an encyclopaedic knowledge of his life and reign but did not mention his savage persecutions of Christians. The persecutions attributed to Diocletian seem to have been instigated by Galerius or at least took place while he was Caesar (junior Emperor). A bad Dacian clearly and not one in whom Romanians can take pride. I would like to know more about the ancient Roman class system or lack of one. How English I am.

Interesting also that he went to war with Persia. The clash of civilisations between Iran and the West predates both Islam and Christianity.

Then Bulgaria, an easy border surprisingly. We stop in a small place Kula which also has a well preserved Roman fort the Castra Martis. And a sleepy small town down at heel Balkan feel that Bulgarian country towns have and which I love very much. The calm of the place is extraordinary.

A dog barks and the caravan moves on. We come soon to the ferry to Calophat which has no schedule and comes and goes as it listeth. We wait 90 minutes in the heat clinging to the shade from the customs building. I buy fun-sized mars bars from the duty free shop to keep hunger at bay and to pass the time.

Calophat with its one large white shiny hotel. Geo surmises it was built by and for smugglers in the time of the Serbian embargo. Ten years ago Geo says Romania and Bulgaria started building the bridge which will replace the ferry and carry a motorway to Timisoara. A few pillions are visible on the Bulgarian side, on the Romanian side almost nothing. These things are a parable.

Sunday 11 July 2010

A chimpanzee isolated in a cage. Is England going to the dogs?

An English friend of mine (lonely in Serbia?) sent me this response which made a great impression on him to a Guardian article by Simon Jenkins headlined "This is the healthiest, longest-lived, wealthiest, tallest, least prone to epidemics, poverty or the likelihood of war, generation in recorded history."

"You could say the same about a chimpanzee being kept isolated in a cage, but most people would consider that inhumane. We, like our primate cousins, need companionship, community, satisfying occupations and a degree of status (in the sense of feeling we are valued among our peers) in order to not end up "neurotic". Unfortunately, turbo-capitalism isn't very good at delivering those things to an awful lot of people, particularly the companionship and sense of belonging to a community."

Aren't occupations more satisfying on the whole than thirty years ago (were word processor operators fulfilled?) although a fair point about the atomisation of communities. Loneliness and pointlessness might be I imagine the two great problems in England. Romanians many of whose jobs are much more satisfying than in the old days have more pressing concerns.

I dislike very many aspects of globalisation and the move from living in towns to living in cars and malls and via internet but I believe in free trade. Old fashioned communities had a lot of downside. Societies where people know their neighbour are societies where people care what their neighbour thinks. Many people hate the twitching net curtains syndrome at least opinion formers who wrote for the Observer in the 70s. I think the net curtain twitchers and the cult of respectability are pretty useful though no doubt risible for the clever but when you abandon them you have to have state diktat instead. Everything is private so it has to be directed by the state. Still I doubt if the old curtain twitching could have continued. Immigration, the internet, cars and the pill have changed everything.

I like the sense of common values and cohesiveness in Romania yet a strong society or sense of civic pride or sense of community are exactly what Romania does not have. Decapitated by Stalin and forty years of egalitarianism followed by a banana republic. I suspect public spiritedness was not in much more supply before Communism though perhaps the pre-1945 hierarchical society had more deserving people at the top.
Romania is alive with curtain-twitchers. I was asked to translate the much used Romanian word ‘scandal.’ “It’s ‘scandal’ in English too but we don’t use the word because nothing scandalises us any more.” And the scandalmongers have been fully occupied for the last twenty years though it is unclear how effective a deterrent their tea sweetened by scandal has had in deterring the scandalous. Everything is a perfect scandal but Romania's transformation from a society where neighbours know each other is apace too.

Until the crisis declared halt to progress every month Romania became perceptibly a less friendly, more materialistic society where the car is king the streets and roads are gridlocked and most people noisily munch popcorn and conduct telephone conversations while watching American films at the cinema. To paraphrase Camus, man fornicates and reads the internet. There is nothing more to be said. Or rather something more. For those with the money and the good job in the foreign firm or the profitable business there is the mall, the gym and the lengthy car journey between. No need any more to step over beggars or navigate your way along the pavement between parked cars that block your way. If you live in Pipera, the newly built northern business district, and live in the soulless Baneasa there is little need to enter the gridlocked city centre at all. Foreigners who live and work there can scarcely be said to be living in Romania let alone Bucharest.

Yes I like a strong society, a limited state and am tired of BBC people knocking old wives remedies, folk wisdom and traditional ways of doing things as prejudice and unscientific. We need societies - they are organic - conservative - they run themselves. The internet is blessedly impossible to control, creates communities but no corner shops. Personally I always shop at alimentars not hypermarkets and in my heart I hate the retail industry but hypermarkets exist because people like them. As A.J.P. Taylor said people didn’t travel because the railways were invented. Had they not wanted to travel the trains would have run empty.

Things seem to be going to the dogs in England but that is because I shall shortly be 48 and am living abroad. My father in the 60s was disgusted by the modern world and I don’t want to be like him. I love the internet, stamps on sale in shops, railway stations where the telephone gets answered even if by someone in Bangalore wherever that is, no more Cold War though political correctness is the new Communism. And there are still 3 countries, Burma, Iraq and Syria left to visit. People in London are much more polite, there are cheap buses everywhere and few cars thanks to the unspeakable Ken. Most people do not get divorced or have abortions....People don’t hate and try to destroy the past like in the 60s. Architecture is infinitely better. Maybe slightly less bullying in schools, though I doubt this.

In Romania, things improve and at the same time get worse. More of the former than the latter. Like England.

Things I love about England

Things I miss about England

Nothing really except my mother's cooking and pantomimes at the Players' Theatre; neither still exist.

Things I love about England

The late Monsignor Alfred Gilbey
The late Alan Watkins
London, but not Greater London
Bowling greens
Irish priests
Indian food
Second hand bookshops
The Daily Telegraph
The Spectator
Radio 4
Milk and suet puddings
Lemon meringue pie
Beef casserole and dumplings
Justin Webb
The civil service
Alan Bennett
The North
Hardware shops
Watch repairers
Piano tuners
Lonely people who feed pigeons
Formerly young fogeys
Girls from Chelsea and South Ken
Traditionalist Catholics
Nice couples who marry young
Hunting types
The Prince of Wales
Lord Salisbury
Wendy Cope
The Importance of Being Earnest
E Nesbit
Melancholy Essex marshes
The Beano etc
Sheridan Le Fanu
Will Hay
London clubs, especially the ones that do not admit women
The Ingoldsby Legends
Point to points
Bacon sandwiches
Black pudding
Pub theatre
The East End
Jews especially Nigella Lawson
Lord Skidelsky
Northern Ireland
The Windsor Castle, Kensington, The Seven Stars, Holborn, The Surprise, Chelsea

Things I don’t like

Leftish Anglican clergymen
The Liberal Democrat Party
Oxford and Cambridge teaching 'Business'
The ubiquity of professors, universities, firsts
Gastropubs except the Tickell Arms
Garden centres
Harriet Harman
Johann Hari
Polytechnic educated MPs
The monstrous regiment of women
Leftish schoolmasters
Preoccupation with property prices
Shopping centres
1960s and 70s architecture and town planning
Chain stores
Pedestrianised areas
Public relations companies
Child centred activities
Anti-discrimination as a secular religion
Eastenders and all soap operas except Coronation St.
Social engineering
Local government
Bitter - beer or people

Eugen Ionescu on religion in Romania

Eugen Ionescu: Religion in Romania means something entirely different from what it means in Catholic or Protestant countries.

The Communist Origins of Political Correctness

The Frankfurt School of Marxism was a real school. It was really a building in Frankfurt and received gas bills. It was a think-tank set up to marry Marxism-Leninism with the insights of Freud. After the failure of the revolution in Germany, Austria and Hungary, Marxists had to conclude that the workers had failed to rise against their oppressors because of their false consciousness. From the Marxist point of view this was absolutely true, of course. This false consciousness included, in Lukacs’s words, the whole of western civilisation. Western civilisation was itself the enemy of the people. The Frankfurt school was excommunicated by Stalin for heretically adopting insights from psychoanalysis and expelled from Germany when the Nazis came to power (its members were Jews to a man). They sought refuge in academic tenure in third-rate colleges in the United States where they remained like a dormant bacillus. And there in the late 60s student radicals wanting a justification for free love, bohemianism and revolt discovered a philosophy much groovier than that contained in Das Kapital. Foucault was horrified by the student radicals and summoned the police to rid his lecture room of his long haired admirers but Adorno in Pittsburgh sprang from obscurity hoping to achieve the long delayed apotheosis of his revolutionary ideals.

If you seek the monument of the men and women of 1968 look around you. Not to be sure in the economies of western Europe. The moth-eaten phylacteries of Marxism Leninism have been discarded for the free market goose which lays the golden eggs that the welfare state redistributes to its clients. But in an attitude that rejects authority, tradition, organised religion (as opposed to personal, privatised spirituality), rejects parents, rejects the masculinity of the nation in favour of the maternal values of the social worker. The ideas of the Frankfurt School, that marriage was oppressive of women, that bourgeois sexual morality was a means of oppressing workers, women, homosexuals, became the ideology which took over the universities and therefore opinion formers despite the right being in office in America and Great Britain in the 80s and early 90s. None of it is new. All was invented during the Weimar Republic by Leninists seeking to replace bourgeois civilisation with Bolshevism. The student radicals of 1968 included Schroeder, Brown and many people who now help run the E.U.

Saturday 10 July 2010

What are the best five things about Bucharest?

What are the best five things about Bucharest someone asked and found he could only think of four. He included decent primary schools (sounds like damning with faint praise but then I am not a father). My list? The people, the decrepit late nineteenth century Franco-Oriental streets, the humanity of Romanian life, the sense that the modern world is still a fair way off in the distance, the energy. But I could have gone on with many more examples. The folk religion, the jokes, the parties, the second hand booksellers, the wartime egalitarianism (people who sleep rough sit watching open air film shows without exciting the disdain that their counterparts would do in Western Europe), the gypsies, manele, the old-fashioned terraces where one can get a bottle of wine and a Bulgarian salad for a song, the serendipity, the way that every day is completely different from the day before (unless you work in a big foreign firm), the daily problems which you come to enjoy (or else go mad), the courtesy and great kindness that counterbalances the gracelessness and mercilessness. Food well...yes....up to a point. The Antim monastery which I visit every 5 or 6 years. The Stavropoleos Church. A number of the churches. Most of all the broken run-down streets. Until recently the slummy Old Town now drowning in a sea of wine-bars. Cismigiu. The beauty and femininity of the women which is unparalleled.

Thursday 8 July 2010

The Impaler - even Bucharest’s germ is dark, unwholesome, fascinating

File:Vlad Tepes 002.jpg

The first record of Bucharest is a document dated 1459 six years after Constantinople fell signed by Prince Vlad III - Vlad the Impaler! –so named generations after his death for his characteristic and unspeakable method of impaling his victims on pikes. And yes alas much better and erroneously known to a wider world as Dracula. If we put aside Bucur, the improbable shepherd of legend (his name means joy) who is said to have founded Bucharest, even Bucharest’s very germ is dark, morbid, unwholesome.

“From the distinctly inadequate material at our disposal it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that Vlad was a man of diseased and abnormal tendencies, the victim of acute moral insanity.” 

This was the judgment of R.W Seton-Watson the great English historian of Romania writing in 1934 when it was still possible to believe in progress and enlightenment values. In fact Vlad did not invent this horrible method of killing his victims by insertion of a pike in and out of orifices. A wooden stake was carefully driven through the victim’s anus, to emerge from the body just below the shoulder in such a way as to not pierce any vital organs. This ensured at least 48 hours of unimaginable suffering before death. King Stephen the Great of Moldavia for example also impaled Ottoman prisoners, was acclaimed by Pope Sixtus IV as the athlete of Christ and was canonized several years ago by the Romanian Orthodox Church. (St. Stephen is also said to have fathered an illegitimate child at every town to which he lay siege). Impalement was used in Scotland and the Turks made more use of it than any other army. Nevertheless the history relates that the sight of an Ottoman army defeated by Vlad the previous year impaled on pikes in concentric circles, their leader’s modesty protected by his ceremonial robes and turban, moved to tears even Sultan Mahmud II the conqueror of Constantinople he who had lived all his life among abstruse and elaborate methods of killing.

Many brave men lived before Agamemnon; but all are overwhelmed in eternal night, unwept. What Homer accomplished for Agamemnon Gutenberg did for Vlad Tepes whose deeds were saved from oblivion by a squib printed there several years after his death.

It was Vlad who a few hundred dingy yards from my flat built the Old Court whose ground floor was brought to light in the 1950s, the only building in Bucharest old enough for an Englishman to consider truly old. The Impaler was a Wallachian ruler who swore allegiance but then fought against the Turk in the period immediately after the fall of Constantinople. A distant parallel can be drawn with Artorius a millennium earlier fighting English pagan invaders after the Roman legions left Britain. Both men obscure enough and scarcely recoverable for history became important myths: the one King Arthur and the Matter of Britain, the essence of chivalry which inspired Malory, the other by the grace of an Irish hack writer and the silent films Dracula.

Footnote stuff. American historian Kurt Treptow was sentenced to prison for much graver offences but his coining ‘Vlad III Dracula’ is also difficult to forgive. Patrick Leigh Fermor was stretching things as far as they could be stretched when he opined that Draculea was just allowable. (The Impaler’s father was Vlad Drac, Vlad the Dragon, and Dracul could be a diminutive, the little dragon).

That there is no link between Vlad and Dracula has finally been put beyond all doubt by the publication of the wretched Stoker’s notes. But in any case, Dracula is a fictional character in a cheap horror story who is a Szeckler (cousins to the Hungarians) vampire and resembles if any historical figure Elizabeth Báthory the beautiful Hungarian countess who bathed in the blood of the village virgins she sadistically murdered. (Another digression: the Countess Bathory always puts me in mind of a beautiful Romanian lady I once knew.) The Impaler was indeed born in Transylvania but he ruled Wallachia and waged war against the Ottoman Empire and Islam. He was a cruel and perverted killer of a very different kind. But the times were brutal. His father was assassinated on the orders of his uncle John Hunyadi, his elder brother, Mircea, was buried alive by the Saxons after they gouged out his eyes with red hot pokers. His wife (or mistress) committed suicide by defenestrating herself when she learnt that the Turks had surrounded his castle in Tirgoviste. Vlad had his illegitimate half–brother, Vlad the Monk, killed after he tried to seize the throne.

Tepes's ruined palace in the Old Town in Bucharest

What to make of the Impaler this bizarre if not very momentous figure of whom only a few facts are known, an exotic and terrifying figure to begin the line of rulers whose capital was Bucharest that leads through Greeks, Russians, fascists and communists to Mr Ion Iliescu and Mr Traian Basescu? He was considered a great man, a progressive force and national hero, in Communist Romania. (I recall my surprise in 1990 to find myself walking down Vlad Tepes Street in Brasov but I should not have been surprised. I already knew Attila the Hun was a Hungarian hero though he was not a Hungarian.) And indeed Romanian history is full of curious parallels. Legend says that Vlad forced the members of boyar (noble) families who were implicated in the deaths of his father and brother to build a castle for him with their bare hands a project in which many died. Four centuries later the new rulers in Bucharest in the early 1950s - the young Ion Iliescu the leader of the Communist students’ association among them? -sent many thousands of enemies of the people to build the never completed Danube-Black Sea canal, the canal of death. To admire murderers like the Impaler and Attila is shocking but then in what does greatness consist? And what was St. Constantine or Napoleon? Or Stalin?

King Stephen the Great also impaled many infidels and he is the greatest Romanian hero. Pope Sixtus IV called him 'the athlete of Christ' - popes in those days were less bothered about interfaith dialogue. Stephen was canonised a few years back by the Romanian Orthodox Church despite having been said to have fathered an illegitimate child in every town to which he laid siege. I mentioned this to an extremely, in fact passionately devout Romanian lady I know and she replied 'Well, he was  a man.' As Eugene Ionescu said, 

'Religion in Romania means something completely different from what it means in Catholic or Protestant countries'.

I picked up a couple of years ago in a second hand bookshop an essay by Mircea Eliade and idly opening it I had an odd experience. As I read Eliade say the historical destiny of Romanians, Serbs and Bulgarians was to spill their blood to protect an ignorant and ungrateful Europe from the danger of Muslims I recognised that I had heard similar ideas many times in guide books and inscriptions in places as far apart as Poland and Greece. They were the kind of local patriotic white noise one shut out but now the words had a chilling clarity. The war that the Impaler fought for the religion of Jesus of Nazareth with a perverse savagery which moved even the infidel army to grudging respect is one that was fought by Charles Martel at Tours, by the Impaler’s patron John Hunyadi at Belgrade, by Jan Sobiesky at Vienna, by John Buchan and his colleagues in Milner’s kindergarten during the Great War and in Afghanistan today.

Adolf Hitler holding forth in Berlin as recorded by Martin Borman said: 

“Had Charles Martel not been victorious at Poitiers — already, you see, the world had fallen into the hands of the Jews, so gutless a thing is Christianity! — then we should in all probability have been converted to Mohammedanism, that cult which glorifies the heroism and which opens up the Seventh Heaven to the bold warrior alone. Then the Germanic races would have conquered the world. Christianity alone prevented them from doing so.”

And Gibbon in a simpler age in which Anglican divines knew nothing of comparative religion mused that had Martel lost, 

“Perhaps the interpretation of the Koran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford, and her pulpits might demonstrate to a circumcised people the sanctity and truth of the revelation of Mohammed.”

I hate the new Lipscani

I hate the new Lipscani including the man dressed as Charlie Chaplin. I liked it when it was a slum. Now every time I set foot in Strada Lipscani which is most days a small part of me dies.

I went downstairs last night and had a good meal in one of the dozens and dozens of places that have opened in the last year or so in place of hardware shops and locksmiths Yes it adds a fair bit to the sum of human happiness. Yes it was inevitable . Yes it is very convenient to me to suddenly find myself live in the midst of trendy bars and restaurants. But I hate it. These old towns come by lorry are invented somewhere else by design companies and they all look the same whether it is Belfast or Havana or Minsk. Yes Minsk has all this stuff too. The same bars the same restaurants the same old same old. You don’t even need tourists. Belfast and Bucharest don’t get many and Minsk, well. Their old towns cater for the people who live in the real town to which the old town has become a lifeless pendent.
When I came to live here eleven years ago Bucharest was the only capital city in Europe whose old town was a slum. I was fortunate to have found the street to suit the morbid taste I share with quite a number of foreigners who like Eastern Europe for squalor and broken things. The local people quite rightly do not share it. The next street even in that distant era had – something then quite outlandish in Bucharest in 2000 – a Belgian chocolate shop. And round the corner 400 yards away stod the national bank a white battleship overshadowing the crooked and ill-slated houses. But my little street was satisfyingly riven by potholes and lined with shabby shops and tenements filled with illegal gypsies. As Bucharest changed, as malls darkened the land and nobody any more shopped in the market or the corner grocery shop the alimentar I the Englishman continued to buy my supercristal toothpaste from Vasile whose shop doubled as a bar or from the shop across the street where Radu played backgammon and drank tuica with his customers who seemed to be a kind of surrogate family. People even three years ago were asking me how I could bear to live here. One Englishman whose intelligence I respect though not his taste said the place depressed him.
The first thing to say about the old Town in Bucharest is that is not very old. Most of it is built after 1850 and is about thirty years older than the rest of the so-called historic centre. All that is truly old in the old town are the labyrinthine street plan (after ten years living in this tiny postage stamp I still get lost), three beautiful churches built in the 16th 17th and 18th centuries respectively, two Turkish hans from the early 19th century, two or three other Ottoman wooden buildings and the Curtea Veche, the old court. The Curtea Veche is incontrovertibly old. It is the ground floor of the palace built of terracotta brick by Vlad III the Impaler himself - the Impaler ! Dracula! -in the 15th century. Fallen into disrepair and disrepute it disappeared under other buildings as the ground level rose and was brought to light when a row of shops on the site was demolished in the 1950s. It stands to this today without postcard shops or guide book stalls a puzzle of diverse busts tombstones and architraves littering the paved surface as if in a surrealist painting but passing it today I saw some tents and painted wooden wagons that spoke obscurely of history as bloodless entertainment industry. The curator who is a mine of information speaks no English which is reassuring. A downward flight of stairs into the basement level takes you into some eery tableau from Eugene Sue’s Le Juif Errant or the Phantom of the Opera, a vast brick catacomb shadowy and chilly on the hottest day. Michael Wharton once expressed the hopeless wish when a fragment of Roman road was discovered at York that it should be left enigmatic unexplained and unsignposted among the Edwardian terraced villas . Michael Wharton staunch reactionary, hater of the modern world and of progress, would have loved the old town in Bucharest until the last four year have brought in many things he loathed: worst of all, people employed to wear historical costumes.

I like manele

I like manele. Played from tinny transistors in villages. The 'Romania profunda'. Or by my gypsy next door neighbours who always play good tunes but alas are nowadays mostly silent for whatever pragmatic reason. First because it is catchy. Second because it is something authentically Romanian (yes, OK Romanian gypsy) in a sea of globalised mass-market rock music about which i share the opinion of my spiritual sovereign Pope Benedict XVI long may he reign. I don't know though whether His Holiness would grant his imprimantur to manele. I should add in self defence that I also liked Vama Veche (until it became just too built up) which was the antithesis of manele.

"One travels to think."

"One travels to think." Mircea Eliade.  
"One travels for architecture and food and America has neither." A.J.P. Taylor. 

One reason to travel is to have uncomfortable thoughts that one avoids at home.

Saturday 27 March 2010


A town of one street, one church, and one idea - but what idea?

Bucarest has been described as a town of one
street, one church, and one idea. The aphorism is
to some extent justified, for the Calea Victoriei is
practically Bucarest, the Greek Church knows no
dissenters, and the prevailing idea is the spending
of money.

From Maude Parkinson's Twenty Years in Romania. Walter Starkie writing a few years later quotes the same tag but he assumed the one idea was sex. Both meanings sound spot on in contemporary Bucharest but that would mean two ideas. Although some times the two ideas are not wholly unconnected.

Romanians have bought 15 Ferraris worth EUR 200,000 each since the crisis began but this is the most unsurprising news item I read this year

An English lady in the harem at Bucharest

From: A journey through the Crimea to Constantinople in a series of letters By Elizabeth, Lady Craven (1789).

Lady Craven the friend of Johnson and Horace Walpole is remembered if at all for the accounts she wrote of her many journeys and for her scandalous private life which cries out for a post-feminist biographer. She became the morganatic wife of Alexander, Margrave of Brandenburg-Ansbach and Bayreuth and she was accorded the title of "Princess Berkeley" by the Holy Roman Emperor Francis II

WHEN I landed in Wallachia I found horfes, provifions, and guards, provided for me, and I rather flew than drove along—From Karalafh, for a confiderable way, the route lay on the borders of the Danube, where cattle of all forts were feeding upon the fineft forts of clover, intermixed with various flowers—There is no road made, and I faw no carriage track, but a fine foil without ftones or ruts, made the journey very pleafant. As I came near to Buccoreft I quitted the meadows, and faw a moft beautiful country, where fmall woods of fine timber and Turkifh corn, ftanding above fix feet
high, formed a rich and varied picture Several
boyards came to meet me, and my Arnauts, or guards, were extremely alert and clever; though their ufual mode of fupplying my carriages with horfes often gave me great difpleafure; for it frequently happened, that a peafant mounted on a. good-looking horfe, with his fack of flour behind him, was difmounted in an inftant, a tired horfe left him, and his frefh horfe harnefled to my carriage—I wanted at leaft to have fome money given the man, and an explanation of the affair, but it feems the Prince of Wallachia had ordered that I fhould have no trouble or delay—and not be fuffered to pay for -any thing, fo that the little money I gave away was privately, and not without much

management could I contrive it Juft as I was
about to enter Buccoreft, I found a party of Janiflaries with a tent pitched about a mile from the town, who quarrelled with all my attendants, and made the poftillions drive back to enter the town another way as I was told, that road having been fhut by order of the Prince. My furprife increafed, when I found myfelf drove under a large gateway belonging to a Greek convent, the inner court of which was very fine and fpacious furrounded by cloifters with Gothic arches—My carriage was prefently furrounded by people of various nations, talking all languages to me—At laft I addrefled myfelf to one in a French drefs; pray, Sir, faid I, where am I?—A German fervant of mine fpoke to him in German, and I found I was driven in there to perform quarantine, for five days at leaft—The fuperior of the convent, by this time had come up to the door of the carriage: fancying by my looks, I fuppofe, that I had not the plague, he defired me to make ufe of his rooms till I had chofen my lodging for the night—The old venerable man fat by me and Mademoifelle while we dined; and I had then fent down to the town to inform the Prince of my fituation—But I afked my refpectable hoft where I fhould lodge if I ftaid—He pointed to a fmall miferable room acrofs the court, with only bare walls, and the windows of it were all broken. This room was to contain all my fuite with me; for every company I found that arrived, was kept apart from the

reft Clofe to the door of this room I faw a
wretched creature alone, with death in his countenance—And pray, fays I, what is that miferable figure?—A man fufpe&ed to have the plague, who was put away as far from the others as poffible, with
a little clean ftraw to lie upon I confefs I was
heartily glad when the Imperial agent came from the town, to inform me the Prince was very forry for the miftake—that it never was his intention I ihould be fent to the convent 1 thanked my old father for his civilities, and haftened to the town where I had been but a few moments, before a gold coach, made I believe in the year one, came to the door, with a fet of brown-bay ftone-horfes, that feemed to fpurn the earth—There was a Turkifh groom that held the bridle of each horfe—A kind of chamberlain, with a gold robe on, and a long white ftick in his hand, and the Prince's private fecretary came to fetch me. The whole town, I believe, by this time was got round the equipage, and we proceeded very flowly to the firft court of the palace, in which I went through a double row of guards, fome of them Janiflaries, and the others Arnauts and Albanians In the fecond court was another
double row of guards, and thefe extended up a large flight of fteps that conducted us to the great audience-chamber, in the corner of which, a fpace was divided off with cufhions, upon which fat the Prince, dreffed and attended a la Turque-, over his head were ranged the horfes tails, the great helmet and feather, the magnificent fabre, and other arms which I had feen parade before him in the ftreets of Conftantinople He afked me by the interpreter, how Choifeul did—and if I would not make fome ftay in Wallachia Coffee and
fweetmeats were ferved, and when I rofe to take my leave, one of his chamberlains told me in a whifper to fit down again, when my ears were aflailed by the moft diabolical noife I ever heard; upon which with a very grave loud voice the fecretary faid, c'efl pour vous Madame—c'eft la mufique du Prince-, and the Prince defired me to look out into the court—There I faw trumpets of all kinds, brafs plates ftriking together, and drums of all fizes— fome of which, not larger than breakfaft-cups, were ranged on the ground, and the ftrikers of them fquatted on the ground to beat them—Each mufician was endeavouring to drown the noife of his neighbour, by making a louder if poffible; and I do not know that my nerves ever were fo tried before—for my companion, who faw the difficulty I had to refrain from laughing, was faying, for God's
fake do not laugh
Mr. de Choifeul's excellent German muficians came into my head too at that moment, and the contraft of his mufic to the noife I heard, added to the abfurdity of the thing, fo that I fuffered extremely—however this fcene did last long, I was called to have an audience of the Princefs—
But here I muft leave you for the prefent. Before I fet out I will finifh my account of this reception.
E. C

iHE Princefs was fitting a la Turque, with three of her daughters by her, they were about nine, ten, and eleven years old—The Princefs might be about thirty, a very handfome face, fomething like the Duchefs of Gordon, only her features and countenance had more foftnefs, and her fldn and hair were fairer—Her perfon was rather fat, and me was above fix months advanced in her eighth pregnancy—She took my hand and feated me by her— The, Prince, to fhew me an extraordinary degree
of refpect, had fuffered Mr. V to come into
the Harem, and he fat down by him. There were near twenty women in the room, one of whom, inftead of a turban, had a high cap of fable put behind her hair, that was combed up ftraight over a kind of roll—This head-drefs was far from being ugly or unbecoming—The Princefs told me it was a lady of Wallachia, and that the cap was the drefs
of the country After the Princefs had afked me
all the fimple queftions generally afked by the Eaftern females—fhe afked me if I was drefled in the French fafhion; and told me fhe mould be happy to know any thing fhe could do to detain me in Wallachia a whole year—The Prince feemed to defire it as much as fhe did—But I affured them I mould not ftay four-and-twenty hours in Buccoreft. They then defired me to fup with them, which I confented to, but defired I might return to my lodgings to write to Conftantinople, as I had promifed immediately upon my arrival to this place— I was conducted back to my coach, and through the courts with the fame ceremony as I came—And being feated, the fecretary told me he was ordered to mew me a fine Englifh garden belonging to an old boyard, which we went to. A country curate's kitchen-garden in England and that were the fame—But the mafter of it was a venerable figure with a beard as white as fnow, dreffed in a long muflin robe, fupported by his fervants, as he walked with difficulty—He prefently ordered all the fruit in his garden to be prefented to me; and when I was going out of the garden, I met the very lady, with her fur cap, I had feen in the palace—She fhewed fuch tranfports of joy upon finding me at her father's houfe, that it was with difficulty I could get from her; me had taken me in her arms, and almoft fmothered me with kifles
The refpectable father's name is Bano Dedefcolo, and one of the principal noblemen in Wallachia; however I got to my lodgings at laft, and fcarcely had finimed a letter to Mr. de Choifeul, when two of the Prince's people with the fecretary came in, followed by many more of his houfehold. The fecretary defired me to go and look over a gallery that furrounded the back court of the houfe, I did fo; and I faw a beautiful Arabian horfe, in the midft
of a great mob; two Turks held his bridle The
fecretary told me the Prince hearing that I was fond of horfes defired me to accept that, which a Pacha of three Tails had given him a few days before—and he hoped I mould accept of it with the regard with which it was prefented—I gave him as civil an anfwer as I could imagine, and very handfome prefents in money to the grooms that brought him, and to the whole fet of ftable people— The fupper was ferved in a more European manner than I mould have imagined; a table upon legs, and chairs to fit on were things I did not expeci. The Prince fat at the end of the table, his wife on one fide, and I on the other. Mr. V was likewife invited, and fat at my left—Several women fat down to flipper with us. The Princefs had nine females behind her chair to wait upon her—feveral filver things, evidently the produce of England, were fet upon the table, fuch as falt-fellers, cruets, etc. etc. but there were four candlefticks that feemed to be made of alabafter, fet with flowers compofed of fmall rubies and emeralds, that were very beautiful Deteftable Turkifti mufic was played
during the whole fupper—but relieved now and then by Bohemians, whofe tunes were quite delightful, and might have made the heavieft clod of earth defire to dance. The Prince faw the impreffion this mufic made upon me, and defired they might play oftener than the Turks—It feems thefe Bohemians are born flaves, the property of the reigning Prince of Wallachia, while his power lafts—There are, as he told me, five thoufand of them left, formerly
there were five-and-twenty thoufand After the
fupper was over we fat fome time in the large room the Princefs firft received me in, but the Prince
and Mr. V fat on one fide, and the Princefs,
myfelf, and the other women on the other
The Princefs, I believe, thought I gave myfelf the liberties of a traveller, when I told her the ladies
with us learned to dance and write—with fome other things which fhe doubted of, likewife — —
Her hufband fmoaked his pipe, and I was forry fhe did not too, for I faw that it was her civility to a twelvemonth with her, which me faid would be a great amufement to her, as my prefence was full
tt it
a ftranger that prevented her -The Prince afked
me if I knew the Emperor and Prince Kaunitz— and upon my anfwering in the affirmative, he afked me—" Should I fee them?"—" Probably"—" Why then (faid he) do you tell the Prince I am devoted to his commands—-and tell the Emperor, I hope " now we are fo near one another, we mall be good " friends"—The oddnefs of thefe meffages was very near making me laugh—but I gravely aflured, him I mould deliver them faithfully, if I had an opportunity About half paft eleven I rofe to take my
leave, and received from the Princefs fome very beautiful embroidered handkerchiefs, and was obliged again to excufe myfelf from ftaying only
of graces 1 retired with all the attendants I had
before, only with the addition of I believe a hundred flambeaux, and all the Turkifh and Bohemian mufic playing by the fide of the large gold coach—The horrid difcord and comical proceffion got the better of all my gravity; arid though the fecretary was there, I laughed all the way to the French Conful's houfe, where I now write, the civil man
and wife infifting upon giving me a bed. Mr. V- 's
ideas of good-breeding were fo difcompofed, by my laughing, that he affured the fecretary the perfection of my ear for mufic was fuch, that the leaft difcord in it made me laugh—and he repeated this in all the
ways he could turn it I faid, oh! oui, c'e/i bien
vrai', but between whiles I faid in Englifh, what would you have me do, I feel like Punch parading through the ftreets, with all thefe trumpets and this mob about me—However, the fecretary and Mr.
V at laft caught the infection, and we arrived
laughing all three at the houfe, where the Conful's wife had prepared me a comfortable bed, and I got rid of my mufic by giving them a handful of money.
S s

It is fo hot that I cannot fleep, and I am writing
to you, dear Sir This is no inconfiderable town,
the fituation of it is very beautiful—indeed, in this country it would be difficult to find an ugly fcite— Wallachia pays to the Porte a tribute of four hundred purfes * yearly, exclufive of grain, wool, and many thoufand fheep—Shepherds pay an annual tribute befide, of eighty thoufand fkins of the cattle, with butter, cheefe, and tallow
If the grain fails from Egypt, this country is obliged to fupply the deficiency at Conftantinople— Still I affirm that upon earth, Sir, all things fuperior in their nature, either animate or inanimate, are taxed cruelly—This beautiful country, the foil and climate of which makes every produce luxuriant, is by the hand of fate under a power which extorts unmercifully from the natives, through the neceffities of the Porte, if not by the rapine of the Princes, and prefles plenty from her fource, driving often the wretched Wallaques to fly into the mountains, where, at leaft for a time, they avoid the cruelties they find from a tyrannical government, which punifhes them for the deficiencies the extortions of that very government have occafionedt

I fet out early to-morrow, and fhall write from Hermanftadt, the firft imperial town I fhall reach— I have a very clever addition to my fuite here, a kind of trader and interpreter, who fpeaks the Wallachian language perfectly, and is going to Hermanftadt

Tuesday 23 March 2010

Horea's revolt covered sympathetically by the Times in 1785

Romanian tourism in a British newsreel, 1964

A visitor's guide to Bucharest, Romania

Bucharest pretty innocent of tourism for so long is now alas a tourist destination. This article seemed very flattering to me but annoyed a patriotic friend of mine by mentioning a Morrocan restaurant and describing Bucharest as formerly considered crime-ridden which it never was. I told an American a couple of years ago that I lived in the most, perhaps only, interesting country in Europe and she guessed I meant Romania. But hypermarkets, mortgages and celebrity magazines may change that.

Europe's last leper colony is in the Danube Delta

Wonderful colour film of Bucharest during the Second World War

This clip is considerably too kind to Marshal Antonescu who should not be judged lightly even though he had a very poor hand to play. He continued the war against the Russians beyond the Dniester (cf. Mannerheim of Finland which escaped being a Soviet satellite after the war) and was responsible for the deaths of many Jews and other civilians in Bessarabia.

King Carol II of Romania & Prince Michael in the UK 1938

King Carol II of Romania & Prince Michael in the UK 1938

The Romanian and Russian royal families in Constanza in 1914

John Reed in Romania

John Reed the extreme left-wing American journalist who wrote 'Ten Days that Shook the World' an inaccurate and admiring account of the October Revolution did not like Bucharest where he spent two months:
"The Rumanian... speaks a Latin language strongly impregnated with Slavic and Asiatic roots -- an inflexible tongue to use, and harsh and unmusical to the ear.
And he has Latin traits: excitability, candour, wit, and a talent for hysterical argument in critical situations. He is lazy and proud, like a Spaniard, but without a Spaniard's flavour; sceptical and libertine, like a Frenchman, but without a Frenchman's taste; melodramatic and emotional, like an Italian, without Italian charm. One good observer has called Rumanians 'bad Frenchmen' and another 'Italianized gypsies'."
"Shopkeepers and cabmen and waiters in restaurants are thieving and ungracious; if they can't cheat you they fly into an ugly rage and scream like angry monkeys. How many times have Rumanian friends said to me: don't go to so-and-so's shop, he's Rumanian and will cheat you. Find a French or a German place...
"There is nothing original about [Bucharest], nothing individual. Everything is borrowed. A dinky little German King lives in a dinky little palace that looks like a French Prefecture, surrounded by a pompous little court. The government is modelled on that of Belgium... Frenchified little policemen bully the market-bound peasants, who dare to drive across the Callea Victoria and interrupt the procession of kept women. Cabarets and music-halls are like the less amusing places on Montmartre; you can see Revues based on dull French ones... A surface coating of French frivolity covers everything -- without meaning and without charm."

Sunday 21 March 2010

Romanians liked expensive cars in 1818

The Reverend Robert Walsh accompanied the British Ambassador on his journey to present his credentials to the Sublime Porte and wrote a Narrative of a Journey from Constantinople to England, London, 1828. The whole book is here.

Contrasts and parallels between then and now abound.

“…Formerly, it was the practice for the Boyars, like their ancestors the Scythians, to ride on horseback, from which they seldom were seen dismounted in the streets. It was only about thirty years ago that they adopted the more effeminate habit of riding in carriages; and this practice is congenial to their vain and indolent disposition, that now they would not cross to the opposite side of a street without entering into them. But the circumstance which most distinguishes Bucharest is melancholic dissoluteness of manners among all classes. The town abounds with wine-houses; and, to attract customers, a number of women are kept in each house, who are ready at a call to dance and sing for the guests. To these houses the Boyars repair from their own families and pass their evenings among the most shameless class of females that ever disgraced the sex. In this way it is that Bucharest is rendered infamous for profligacy beyond any other city in Europe. The number of this unfortunate class is so great, that it was proposed to lay a capitation tax to them, as the most profitable source of revenue that could be resorted to and it is expected that the proposal will be carried into effect.

…The first thing that struck me in the streets was the number of brilliant carriages rolling in all directions or standing at the doors.…It is the favorite vanity of the boyars to display these machines, on which they expend large sums of money; as they are made merely for show – falling to pieces in a year or two, and requiring a constant expense to supply new ones. In one of these gaudy vehicles a fat Boyar sits, wrapped in a rich pelisse with an enormous calpac, or cap of curious shape, consisting of two large lobes swelling out one above the other and covered with green or scarlet velvet. In the front is generally a tall, dirty fellow, in a shabby, ragged, grey great-coat; his head covered with a large, slouched, foxy felt hat, tied with cord, from which his hair hangs loose and matted about his face and shoulders. This barbarous mixture of finery and rags the Wallachians seem to have derived from the Russians.”

The Maramures August 2005

The Last Peasants
First published in Vivid in October 2005, republished in The Times
"The country is holding its breath today," read The Times. “Tension and nerves will be felt by millions who know that the bombers have chosen Thursday as a day of atrocity.”
The world has been rewritten by the writers of cheap thrillers. And not necessarily present day thrillers. We feel as if we are in the neurotic pre-1914 landscape of William Le Queux or early Edgar Wallace.
While Londoners were waiting pensively in the tube I was in another kind of pre-1914 landscape, driving through villages in the Maramures, the northern edge of Transylvania bordering on Ukraine. Here life hasn’t changed very much in centuries but it will soon change utterly. Here in the most conservative part of Romania, Europe’s least modern country, peasants have not completely given up traditional costumes, for example. Such tractors as were to be found here under Communism were long ago sold off and horse-drawn ploughs are universal. Old women in black scatter seed in the fields. This is subsistence farming of a kind which had disappeared elsewhere and must soon disappear here too.
It took me fifteen years to get to Maramures. In 1990 when everyone in the Transylvanian countryside wore traditional costume to Mass and cars were scarcely seen, I asked my Romanian companion, ‘Is this the poorest part of Romania?’ It was my first day here. ‘No, it’s the richest. Can’t you tell?” A disconcerting reply. ‘If you want to see somewhere poor and old fashioned you should go to Maramures. In Maramures they’re still living in the Stone Age.’
In those fifteen years Maramures has changed like the rest of Romania. Gloucestershire has been bought up by stockbrokers wanting weekend cottages and Maramures I had read was full of villas built by customs officers and police colonels. And there are plenty of big new houses around. A lot fewer people wear costume every day than did when I missed my first chance to visit. Tourism is bigger business now than it was then and there is a steady stream of foreign visitors but the area still feels pretty undiscovered, well protected by its inaccessibility. You can’t get there easily from anywhere by car, train or plane.
In Maramures villages men in hats and women with scarves, aged from thirty upwards, spend a lot of time sitting on roadside benches. They look attentively at each car or pedestrian that passes and conversation languishes. Tranquil is I suppose the word. The bomb explosions in London seemed unreal to Londoners but less real in Maramures.
Agrotourism, putting up with peasants, is the joy of travelling in Romania. This is tourism on a human scale, bespoke. You are a lodger but treated as a friend. Catch it before its innocence has been lost and before Romania enters the E.U. in 2007. Your hosts who are subsistence farmers provide milk for your coffee fresh from the cow at the end of the garden. How much will be lost when EU health regulations bring all this to an end.
The priest’s wife in the village of Botiza, Mrs Victoria Berdecaru, has revived the carpet making industry in the village, organised a very neat crafts museum and organises accommodation for visitors. I stayed with Vasile the handsome 40 year-old local carpenter and handyman who built the museum and who told me ‘I do everything except dig graves. I won’t dig graves.’
I came on a chance impulse to see the 38th edition of the Hora La Prislop festival. Horas are traditional Romanian dances and every village has its dances. Hora La Prislop is held on a mountainside and participants from villages throughout the Maramures compete for prizes. It attracts a big well-mannered audience who sit on the grass watching the stage neither eating, drinking nor talking. I also noticed three or four foreigners, one bestrewn with two large and expensive cameras. The festival is great fun on a sunny Sunday afternoon if you repress the adage about trying everything once except incest or Morris dancing.
The date of the first festival, 1968, is telling. Nicolae Ceausescu was just beginning to wrap himself in the flag and emphasise the traditions of the Romanian peasantry, twenty years before he began to knock down villages to make way for agro-industrial complexes. We were back in the 1970s and you expected to see local party dignitaries in crimplene suits make speeches praising agricultural output.
This was the eve of Assumption Day. In Romania as in much of Southern Europe the Assumption of the Virgin is one of the most important days of the year. It is treated in the countryside as an unofficial holiday. The roads were full of processions, adults in full costume, and angelic girls in white as for a first Holy Communion.
People from all over the area and the two biggest processions converged on the Monastery of Moisei where Mass in the open lasted from early evening till midday. Until 1989 these processions were forbidden by the police and had to be held under cover of night but today every ex-Communist politician wants to be photographed on the Assumption at some famous monastery. Moisei was crowded with visitors and stalls selling refreshments. Long before the first procession was near the narrow road to the monastery was blocked and impassible by car.
Wooden churches are what Maramures is renowned for, with spires, steep roofs and wall paintings. I attended Mass the next morning in a Greek Catholic church in Iaud or rather in the graveyard amid hollyhocks and brightly painted crucifixes with most of the congregation. The women stood together in the front, the men together at the rear. Most of the women wore scarves and traditional blouses and skirts but there were a few in blue jeans and loose hair. Each year the numbers of the latter increase.
The priest at the close read out the names and size of the contributions made by parishioners to the cost of building the new church. (“€100 on the part of Mrs Ionela Ghica, €100 on the part of Vlad Dumitriu…”) Everywhere you go in Maramures new churches have been or are being built alongside the houses of incomers. A few miles away an impressive Orthodox monastery complex has been built on the site of one suppressed in the eighteenth century.
Iaud is a village where half the population is Greek Catholic. The Greek Catholic rite resembles that of the Orthodox but the Greek Catholics, also known as ‘Uniates’, recognise the authority of Rome. Iaud boasts several fine wooden churches and a reputation for large families. It seems that the inhabitants observe the Church’s teaching better than in richer parts of Europe. According to Vasile: ‘If you have three children here people think you’re impotent.’
Sighet, a pleasant Austro-Hungarian town a mile from the Ukrainian border, houses the infamous prison where after the Communist takeover the leading politicians and opinion-formers were incarcerated, tortured and in many cases killed. Today the prison is a well-designed museum that explains the Stalin era. When I visited the museum had plenty of customers. Children ran around noisily. I got a slight sense in the exercise yard of the horrors of the recent past, I stood in the little cell in which democrat Iuliu Maniu had died and I went out. I was pleased that President Ion Iliescu, a leading member of the Communist Party’s youth wing during the years when the prison was busiest, had not been to see it.
Vasile told me that the secret of a happy life is preserving tradition. ‘You have to change but you should keep the traditions.’ I thought of life in London where traditions have been dissolved by affluence, technology, pop culture and multiculturalism. In the Maramures past and present are seamless, the existence of God is assumed rather like the sun rising each morning, neighbours know everything about each other and no man is an island.
But the numbers of cars we saw everywhere with Italian driving licenses testify to the exodus of Moreseni to work abroad. In the locality where I was staying everyone went to Northern Italy, where the discipline of Italian life was irksome but the money was very good. In other parts of the Maramures I am told everyone goes to Spain. Maramures is beautiful but desperately poor and an economic impossibility. As Vasile said to me ‘When you say agriculture you say poverty.’ Europe no longer has room for subsistence farmers and even if people like Vasile would never swap their lives for anyone else’s, his three daughters will go to college and not return to live their mother’s way of life. Vasile has no regrets. ‘They must fulfill their destiny. I hope they will return here when they are old.’
© Paul Wood 2005

Two incidents from the short reign of Constantin Hangerli

R.W Seton-Watson, A History of the Roumanians (1934)

So exorbitant was this demand as virtually to amount to all the herds of Wallachia. The collectors were ordered to levy the increased tax within the brief space of ten days, and employed very severe measures, not stopping short of torture. When at last despairing protests were made before the palace - in itself a most unusual event - the prince [Hangerli] appeared at a window and called out angrily, 'Pay the taxes and you won't be killed'.

An emissary was sent from the Porte to Bucarest, accompanied by a tall negro executioner. Forcing his way into the palace and into the very presence of the hospodar, he produced a firman of the sultan and ordered the negro to strangle the wretched Hangerli then and there, before the eyes of his terrified guards (1 March 1799).When some of the boiars rushed in, they found the prince's head had been hacked off, and the room was deluged with blood.

Meanwhile in Hampshire Jane Austen was completing Northanger Abbey, George Washington was dying at Mount Vernon, Napoleon's troops were slaughtering Albanian prisoners of war at Jaffa.

Donald Dunham on 18th century Bucharest architecture

In the first half of the XVIIth century, there appeared a new combination of imported styles which has been characterized as the first Wallachian manifestation. The prototype of this style is the village church of Gherghiţa in Prahova county. A later example of this style is to be found in the Biserica Doamnei [Church of the Lady] in Bucharest. The floor plan is rectangular and there is an open portico surrounded with pillars supporting an arcade which later included a bracket-type and clover-type design above the columns. The ante-nave, which was previously separated from the nave by a wall, in this church runs into the nave with only pillars and arcades between. There is one tower over the nave and one over the ante-nave or over the portico, which later tower houses the church bell. For the first time the staircase to the bell becomes an integral part of the building on the north wall. There is no corresponding structure on the south wall so the building loses its symmetry.
In the second half of the same century this partial amalgamation was modified. The structure was elevated and the effect is of more graceful outline. For the first time, the pillars and arcades of the open portico and the door and window frames are heavily painted or sculptured. Lace-like sculpture is found on the altar screen as well as on the pulpit and chairs. This style of church became generalized as “Romanian” during this period and today examples are to be found throughout the country.
The same architectural basis was followed in the late XVIIth century at Fundenii Doamnei Church outside Bucharest, which was built by a member of a family of Greek origin, Mihail Cantacuzino. However, the subsidiary elements became increasingly incongruous. The exterior sculpture is delightful even if sections of it would seem more suitable in Persia. It is said that a Persian sculptor was imported to do the decoration; certain Persian motives are used and a delicacy of workmanship characteristic of that nationality is present. The pavilion on the exterior is Persian and is flanked by cypress trees. The stylized peacocks at a fountain with swimming fish, the vases with flowers, the lemon trees and the pears and pomegranates are typical. The sculpture over the door is less fortunate: Professor Oprescu refers to it as “Italian Baroque under pressure of Byzantine eastern influences.”
The first part of the XVIIIth century saw the construction of the Văcăreşti Monastery [demolished by Ceauşescu in the 1980s] by the Mavrocordato family in the same tradition as the earlier family of Greek origin, the Cantacuzinos, and as the Brâncoveanu family. This structure includes even more lavish embellishments but the style is practically unchanged. It is one of the last evidences of church architecture in this tradition; from the second half of the XVIIIth century interest in architecture and sculpture waned and the accent was placed on painting.

Bucharest is a habit which is hard to shake

Bucharest is a habit which has survived. The Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu intended to demolish the entire city and rebuild it inspired by his state visit to Pyongyang. (Ion Iliescu who accompanied Ceausescu was dismayed by Kim Il-sung’s dreary statlet but Ceausescu had seen the future.) It would have made more sense to have built a new capital on green fields as the Kazakh dictator has since done, a Communist New Delhi or Islamabad. But like Strada Lipscani Bucharest’s despised spiritual centre, Bucharest continues despite wars, fires, earthquakes and changes of regime from Christian t Muslim, from fascist to Communist to democratic, always to preserve its very specific and not very high-minded character.

This is no country for old men

Travel books are like all literary genres from another age, when abroad had another meaning . When John Paget wrote almost no-one among his readers, all people who paid income tax and a tiny fraction of the English population had been to Hungary or heard of Transylvania. For a long time travel was expensive and difficult and travel writing was information for the curious and a story with the writer as protagonist. And funny foreigners. All foreigners for the most liberal Englishmen were very faintly comic until some moment some time after we joined what was then called the Common Market. Now they are something to help us choose where to go on holiday, to prepare for holidays and to compare notes afterwards. And writers create the country they write about. Arabia is about Wilfred Thesiger. Delhi is now about Sam Miller and William Dalrymple a literary construct. And countries are an idea which is changing. And the word foreign is changing too. Will Romania be a country in fifty years time or a part of a big non-country called Europe? Countries are about traditions and therefore anachronistic. And about excluding foreigners which seems xenophobic and discriminatory. And about violence in the past the future sometimes in the present. And about languages but languages are being subverted by English. Countries are a difficult concept in the post-modern post-Marxist world.

Sex and travel

If as Malcolm Muggeridge said sex is the mysticism of materialism, then this can also be true of travel too. And not particularly the beach holiday kind of travel so much as the more adventurous travel. Travel agents sell dreams. Only books and travel have the qualities of dreams and for the young only dreams are real. Reality is a terribly dull thing. When one gets older life acquires a texture and begins at last to one’s surprise to feel real, which means like a novel. About the same time novels seem less interesting. (For some people perhaps travel does too?)

Abroad is bloody - King George VI

The heart is the undiscovered country. You travel to a foreign country to discover your unconscious mind.

Laurence Durrell said you have two birthplaces. The place where you are born and the place where you learn about life. For me an adolescent of 36 my second birthplace was Bucharest.

For some people who do not put their feet on the ground and take part in life there can be a transparent sheath between themselves and life. They are tourists all the time, in their home town or when they are travelling. Perhaps I am one of these people. I felt throughout my four years at Cambridge that I was a tourist there. In London where my contemporaries were pursuing paths to money and love I walked around with an acute overwhelmingly passion for the city which you can only feel if you grew up in Southend-on-Sea. As Philip Guedalla said of Micheael Arlen’s characters they walk down Jermyn St with such an acute sense of its being Jermyn St that one almost suspects them of being in London for the day. and perhaps this is how I have lived in Bucharest in the last twelve years. Perhaps this is why I like being a foreigner here rather than feeling a foreigner in my own country. How awful to feel at home somewhere. Does anyone feel at home anywhere? Does anyone interesting? Perhaps grown-ups do. Perhaps that is one definition of being grown-up.

Selling newspapers

Mihai Florescu from whom I buy my morning paper in University Square came to Bucharest and started as a paper-boy when he was thirteen and fresh from the country. When he arrived in town he was wearing peasant costume for that was in 1935. The newspapers he has sold have born headlines about the Munich crisis, the abdication of King Carol II and the death of Stalin, about Ion Tiriac and Nadia Comaneci and, more regularly than anyone else, about Nicolae Ceausescu. This week they proclaim that Romania has entered NATO. In those 68 years Tudor has never read a newspaper. I don’t think he can read. The events recorded in the papers he sold didn’t impinge a lot on his existence, with the notable exceptions I suppose of the earthquakes of 1940 and 1977. Even the war touched him relatively little despite the German wartime bombing raids and the Soviet troops marching down the Calea Victoriei. And one day in December 1989 a friend warned him to keep away from his pitch because they were shooting people in University Square. Tudor stayed in the basement room that he shared with a widow for a week until it was safe to ply his trade once more.