Visit to Bucharest, Romania May 2016
On Sunday, 8th May 2016, thirty-three of us gathered outside EDRS at 8am to fly to Bucharest, and so our adventure began. After a 3½ hour flight from Heathrow we settled in to the Europa Royale, our very comfortable and centrally located hotel. By early evening we divided into small groups (no one was left on their own) and ate at one of the very numerous restaurants on our doorstep. Just about everyone spoke English and the meals were good and inexpensive.
The following day after a hearty breakfast and an early start, we found ourselves on a very comfortable coach with Valentina our guide. She was an enthusiastic and patriotic young lady with a wicked sense of humour, but with a wealth of knowledge on Romanian history and politics. She said, tongue in cheek, that all Romanian politicians were the true vampires, not Dracula. That day we had a very busy programme around the city of Bucharest. We went on a tour of the famous Parliament Palace, which is the second largest administrative building in the world, (after the Pentagon in Washington). This was started to be built by the dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu in 1984 with free labour and free materials, marble, crystal, wood for carved doors, and curtains sewn by nuns. We explored many of the hundreds of large palatial empty rooms, with sumptuous crystal chandeliers, carpets and drapes, and tons of coloured marble. It was still a work in progress when in 1989, the Romanian people revolted against the Soviet communist regime. The Dictator and his wife were caught by the Romanian army as they attempted to leave the country, were tried and found guilty of atrocities by a ‘kangaroo’ court, and were executed on the spot. We then went on to visit other places of interest in the city- the Village Museum with its old traditional houses, the Square of the Revolution with its rather strange memorial to those who died in the December 1989 Revolution, and other impressive buildings such as the National Art Museum, Churches and University. Some were in the old style of when Royalty ruled Bucharest for over 500 years, some were grey buildings of the Soviet era from 1947 to 1989, and some where the architecture was very new and modern in design.
The next day, we went on our Jewish Heritage Tour with a new guide, Gabriel. We first visited the Great Synagogue, a major landmark of Bucharest’s Old Jewish Quarter. This had been renovated and maintained by the Romanian Government. It had a very ornate interior which I found garish. It is not now a ‘working’ shul and has been turned in to a museum. To my mind, it was without life. We then went to the beautiful Choral Temple, which is an Orthodox Synagogue with a congregation of nearly 2,000. It has Services every day and I found it alive and warm. Here again, the Romanian Government had aided renovations which were softer in décor. It gave a feeling of hope for the future of the 4,000 Jews who remain living in Romania. We also saw the exterior of the Jewish Theatre, which still has performances in Yiddish. In the evening, the whole group of 33 went to dinner at the Hanu Berarilor restaurant with too much food, very loud noise and some Traditional Romanian dancing and music. A happy time was had by all !
On the Wednesday of our visit, we had a long and full day out. We travelled first to the Carpathian Mountains and Sinaia Mountain Resort, where we visited a monastery. It was very pristine and beautifully decorated with a golden dome. The walls were completely covered with frescos which had been painted on wet plaster and beautifully preserved (the same method as the Sistine Chapel in Rome). It exuded an aura of quiet contemplation. We then travelled on to Peles Royal Castle, which is called the ‘Pearl of the Carpathians’. The Romanian Royal family used to spend many summers there, always entertaining with many guests. We had a personal guide on our tour of the castle which had a splendid and sumptuous interior with a multitude of rooms. Each one was designed and decorated independently to the other, with a style of its own. For its time it had many modern features such as electricity, a heating and cooling system and a lift. Back on the coach, after a short 45 minute drive we were in the region known as Transylvania and arrived at Brasov, a typical medieval city founded by the Saxons in the 13th century. After a lovely light lunch, we had a short walking tour around the old part of the city. We also saw the local Synagogue, where some adults and children of the community were preparing for a Yom Ha’atzmaut event that evening. Time was now getting on as we drove to our last stop of the day. This was to see Bran Castle, otherwise known as ‘Dracula’s Castle’. Towering on a high rock, it looked dark and ominous as we all took our last photoshots of the day. After a 3 hour drive back to Bucharest we were all by now very tired, but what we had seen and experienced it was worth it.
Thursday, our last day, was a free morning and gave us a chance to browse around the shops and re-visit some of the buildings we had seen such as the Holocaust Memorial. On the way back to the airport, Valentina our guide, summed up her view for the future of Romania. She felt that going forward with other EU member states was the best way to raise the standard of living, improve the economy and provide better education for the Romanian people. This would also reduce the number of people who wanted to emigrate. However as she said, they would have to get rid of the vampires in the government first !!
By the time we arrived back at EDRS and made our separate ways, we were all exhausted but content, having enjoyed a wonderfully comprehensive and well organised interesting visit to another European city. A hearty ‘thank you’ to Jeffrey, Andrea and Ros for their very hard work and faultless planning.