Nestled up against the Black Sea, bordering Bulgaria, Hungary, Serbia and Ukraine, lavished with soaring alps, pristine beaches and fertile plains, and offering the incomparable Danube Delta, one would think the thousands of years of history presented in monasteries, Roman ruins, ancient castles and excellent museums would attract the world. But it doesn't.
Romania has an image problem. First, Romania is to most Europeans the epitome of corruption. Secondly, Romania is, for the most part, dirt poor. Thirdly, the cities are mostly a jumble of half completed public works projects flanking collapsing buildings. Then, the notorious gypsies are identified with Romania.
And, but not finally, the political scene in Romania is the stuff of soap operas, with a former sea captain as president, his brother on the way to prison, one daughter exposed as working on behalf of the Russians, while the other daughter, a model, represents Romania in the European parliament. The former minister of tourism and a dozen other politicians are chin-deep in corruption scandals that remain a staple of European tabloids. And, at the moment, Romania is the bÍte noir of Europe for the brutal, public, mass killing of stray dogs that is itself wrapped in charges of kick-backs, lies and corruption that reaches, as usual, to the top.
Yet, her attractions can be breathtaking, awe-inspiring, and sublime.
The painted monasteries of Bucovina date from the 16th century. When Bucovina was just mountainous wilderness with fewer settlers than bears, one of great rulers of pre-Romania, Petru Rares, built scores of chapels, walled monasteries and churches to mark that wilderness for his people and faith.
The painted monasteries are now honored as UNESCO World Heritage sites. Monks and nuns keep the grounds springtime beautiful with well-tended beds of roses and wildflowers, windows accented with colorful trays of geraniums, and manicured orchards. The massive fortifications are under repair with European Union money so they look as formidable now as when invading Ottoman Turks pulled up short. Centered on each courtyard is a church adorned inside and out with ancient frescos that look remarkably vibrant.
On the other hand, Constanta, typical of most Romanian cities, is steadily crumbling. Lying on the Black Sea coast, founded in 600 B.C. and a Roman trading center 20 years before Jesus Christ, parts of the ancient heritage remain in the form of open-air ruins, with other relics, pottery and artifacts housed in a striking 19th century museum. Another museum, put up in the 1960s by the Communists to enclose an expansive 2000-year old Roman mosaic floor, is in worse condition than the floor.
Meanwhile, scores of buildings sport “danger” tape and bold signs that warn of falling facades! That is Romania in a nutshell, and it begs a short look at the country's history.
The one word that defines Romania's last 400 years is "betrayal."
In the 1850s, what would become Romania had been split between the Ottomans, the Habsburgs and the Russians. After being granted “nationhood,” Romanians joined the Russians and other European powers to drive the Ottomans off Europe. Romanian troops were the vanguard rushing at cannons to win bloody victories that resulted in … a dismembering of Romania.
Yep. Betrayal. Romanians fought and won, and then in the peace conferences were shorn of territory by the Great Powers to satisfy … Russia. It is a theme oft repeated.
In the aftermath of World War I, a Greater Romania was created. At Versailles, she gained Dracula's Transylvania and Petru Rares' Bucovina from the withering Austro-Hungarian Empire. Romania also gained Dobrugea from Bulgaria and Bessarabia, an original part of “Romania,” back from Soviet Russia. Infant Romania was suddenly the size of France.
Twenty years later, Stalin and Hitler carved up Romania before they carved up each other. Most of the 1919 gains were lost. Romania was a World War II battleground. Then came the Communists. That disaster lasted until the 1989 palace revolution but, most Romanians would say, the disasters of the 20th century linger today.
With the war in neighboring Ukraine, Romania anxiously wonders if her front line status as a NATO country will lead to further “great power” betrayals.
Meanwhile, in scenic Transylvania, some German tourists come “home” to see Brasov, Sibiu and Sighisoara, places that were called Kronstadt, Hermannstadt and Schassburg for 800 years before the Red Army forced the Saxons to either leave or die. The cities are testament to the mixed cultural heritage of Transylvania where Saxons, Romanians and Hungarians built a vibrant culture, until the Soviets came.
Transylvanian villages and towns look like half-timbered, red-tiled-roofed Nurnberg with winding, narrow streets, gothic facades and dense surrounding forests. And you can still see the ghosts of generations of Germans in the blue eyes of the current Romanian population. In Brasov, there is a famous church in the center, and on a wall is a bronze tablet with the names of hundreds of young German men from the parish who died in World War I defending Transylvania from the Russians. Dracula's purported castle is just outside the town and a major tourist stop.
On the Black Sea, the beautiful people enjoy all the best of a sea-front vacation in Mamaia. English, the lingua franca of Europe, is seldom heard but generally spoken by waiters and clerks. It's just that there are no Europeans visiting this summer. Overhead, a gondola gives tourists a seagull's view of the miles of white sand beaches.
Spacious, immaculate, marble-paved promenades are lined with shops, ice cream palaces, hotels and open-air clubs pumping out laconic Eurodance. Rent a chair with umbrella (cheap), and young bronzed men bring tall drinks to you for next to nothing. Beyond the clubs and hotels are the broad expanses of beach and the Black Sea with the war in Ukraine only a few hundred miles away. You can almost smell the cordite.
And in Bucuresti, the capital, formerly the Paris of the Balkans with broad tree-lined boulevards, grand Haussmann-inspired buildings and great parks surrounding broad pleasure lakes, diners relax at night in the traditional courtyard of the 19th century restaurant, Hanul lui Manuc, over excellent meals to the music of violin and cymbalom. Bucuresti's sidewalk cafes are filled all night. Shops are crowded and overflowing with European fashion. One of the most charming museums in Europe is little Cotraceni, a part of the presidential palace. A walk through leafy Cismigiu Park is a trip back to the elegance of 1910.
But Bucuresti suffered under communism, and many of the Belle Epoch buildings were destroyed to make way for Stalinist apartment blocks. Then there was the earthquake of the 70s that killed thousands and left piles of ruble, some yet to be removed. And there was construction of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu's monument to himself, the massive Palace of the People that caused some of Bucuresti's finest historic neighborhoods to be leveled. The dictator was later shot for this transgression and others.
Romania still struggles with balance between public spaces versus private spaces. Homes, businesses and restaurants are quite snappy inside. Often their facades are in very good condition. Public places, on the other hand, are scruffy at best. Sidewalks are a disaster, while medical clinics fairly gleam. In East Europe, the land of the collective farm, they haven't figured out how to collectively beautify the public space.
Romania had enjoyed an upswing in tourism until recently. The Ukraine-Russia War has not helped, nor have Russian troops perched like vultures in the nearby Transnistrian Republic. Just as deleterious has been a boycott by Europeans decrying Romania's slaughter of her abandoned dogs. Money allocated by the government for neutering was pocketed by corrupt politicians, so the abandoned dog population grew.
Finally, a child was killed by a dog — not a stray, as it turned out — but the government saw an opportunity and turned the population loose on the dogs with bloody, gruesome effect. Pictures of Romanians shooting dogs on the street, or killing them with axes or clubs made it into most European papers, and the lurid videos rippled through social media. Animal activists pushed, with great success, for a boycott of Romanian goods and tourism.
So, despite the gorgeous beaches and the exquisite monasteries and monuments, regardless of the sweeping romance of Transylvania and the deeply discounted prices, you will seldom hear languages other than Romanian spoken these days on those sunny beaches, or anywhere else.
However, if you are a seasoned traveler looking for something different, Romania is the ticket. But if you love dogs, then stay away, for a while. While Romania is stupendously beautiful, you really don't want to happen upon someone shooting "Lassie" on a street corner.
Jim Sack is a Fort Wayne resident who enjoys traveling abroad. This column is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinion of The News-Sentinel.