06 March 2007

Sitting On the Edge of Transylvania

Bucharest has surpassed my initial expectations of it. I presumed it would be a few levels above the cities I witnessed in Albania. In reality, it is more on par with the grand capitals of Western Europe. After a few more years of development and fine-tuning it may even rival them.

This is the first country I will visit which experienced a Communist and Soviet influence in the past. I find it interesting to see how the society and country have progressed since those days.

I can easily sense a wave of change in the air. Romania joined the European Union on January 1 of this year, and now EU flags fly alongside those of Romania. The country still uses its original currency, but the transfer to the euro should come eventually. Restuarants and stores of the West, like Pizza Hut or Hugo Boss, fill the shopfronts along the main boulevards. This is the first place in Europe where I have seen a Hummer or a Cadillac Escalade driving next to the more typical Eurpean compact cars. One finds construction projects around every corner in Bucharest, which already displays many recently finished buildings. This city juxtaposes Victorian age relics, bleak Communist era apartment towers, and sleek modern highrises all together along its streets. The cleanliness and city basics do not yet meet the standards in more developed parts of the world, but work is clearly moving along to narrow that divide.

Underneath the layer of age and dust lies a beautiful city. Imagine if Paris had been abandoned for several decades and people are only now returning. In fact, Bucharest contains a copy of the Arc de Triomphe and the Champs-Elysees. The latter is actually wider and longer than its Parisian inspiration, and was one the projects of Romania's former dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu.

Today I visited the grandiose Palace of Parliament. Ceausescu commissioned this mega building in 1982. In terms of floor area, the Pentagon outside of Washington D.C. is the only larger administrative building in the world. In terms of volume, the Palace is larger than the Great Pyramid of Giza. I had no idea such a structure existed here. Engineers and architects used only building materials from Romania. Its rugs, tapesteries, and carpets were all handwoven. One certain pair of window curtains in the Palace are 30 feet high and weigh around 1,600 pounds. Workers razed much of Bucharest's historical town area for the building's foundation. Perhaps only Ceausesco's ego can match the Palace's size. The dictator built the structure as the seat of his government and as his personal office.

However, Ceausesco never saw his project finished. The dictator and his wife were captured during the Romanian Revolution of 1989 and executed a few days later. A public referendum decided to carry on with the remaining construction, which at that point included only the interior decoration. Three percent of the work remains today. The building houses the Romanian parliament and other government offices.

Tomorrow I journey to Bran, located in the famous region of Transylvania. In Bran rests the castle built by Vlad Tepes, a.k.a. Dracula. At least for one day, I will believe in monsters. In the evening I will move on to Cluj Napoca in norther Transylvania. There I will spend a couple of nights with Eszter, a friend from last semester in Eichstaett who lives in Romania.

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