Our second full day with Gate 1 consisted of a Bucharest walking tour with a focus on the Romanian Revolution, followed by a field trip to the Romanian Parliament building and a visit to a village museum. The days with Gate 1 followed a pattern of travel days where we were moving between hotel locations being earlier starts (730-830AM) than the 2nd days in the cities we visited, where no travel was required. The Bucharest tour was one of those days which we got to sleep in slightly for a 9AM start. This tour in total had us moving every 3rd day, spending about 2 nights in each city with an extra night in Bucharest to get settled and fortunately only one 1 night in Plovdiv, Romania.
Breakfast, many lunches, and nearly all dinners were also included in the tour, so we spent a lot of time eating, definitely more so than at home. Since lunches were often on the road in smaller towns, the pickings could be somewhat slim, and usually consisted of heaps of meat with few veggies, so we did often fill up at breakfast expecting to eat lighter or at least less at lunch. The Intercontinental had a good breakfast with a variety of British and Romanian cuisine (similar to what we found in Serbia), and today we would be on our own for a later lunch with free time in the afternoon so we decided to fill up.
After breakfast we started the Bucharest walking tour with the group, Cornell leading the way. We started in Republic Square, right across the street from our hotel, where the Romanian Revolution that led to the end of the communist regime under Nicolae Ceaușescu fomented. On December 21, 1989, Ceaușescu assembled 100,000 Romanians in Victory Square in Bucharest for his famous speech. Cornell was a young man at the time at 28, having just finished his education in civil engineering, working for the communist regime in construction. He remembers his mother telling him not to go to the square that day for Ceaușescu’s speech, which was a planned response and show of control to counter the student uprising in the town of Timișoara on December 16, 1989, where many lost their lives when the generals gave orders to open fire on the crowd. There’s a great article by the New York Times around this here.
All of Ceaușescu’s speeches and events were carefully planned, with acrobatics, pomp, and organized chanting and clapping, often rehearsed with the crowd in advance of the actual speech. Attending these rallies were “voluntary” with the quotes, meaning that if you didn’t attend you would be punished, even jailed for disobedience. Even the camera angles used to film Ceaușescu were designed to only show him in the best light and angle, given his skin problems and age at the time – basically it was all designed as a show of strength as the supreme leader, akin to North Korean theatrics.
At that time in history, the people had just about had it with communism, with rations, lack of food, queues and significant problems standing in the way of daily life, while the Communist elite grew fat and wealthy exploiting the system. So when the student uprising unfolded in the west, Ceaușescu responded with tightening his grip further, which led to the spontaneous revolt in Bucharest that ended his regime in the very square we were standing in. Because of the uprising in the west, Ceaușescu forbade any groups of more than 4 people to gather so that information trading, planning, and organization by the people would be squashed. This created a problem for families, who were often larger than 4 people, who had to split up in public so as to not be seen together as rule breakers. As a result of this rule, there was no ability for the Romanian people to gather and plan an overthrow, making the revolution even more fascinating because it was completely spontaneous.
At one point in Ceaușescu’s planned speech (which was recorded as we saw in the documentary “The Rise and Fall of Ceaușescu” on YouTube the night before), people unexpectedly started booing and shouting, in an unplanned yet completely unified moment. This had never happened before in one of his speeches. Reading the room, Ceaușescu’s wife can be heard on camera whispering to him “Promise them” which then prompted him to launch into a series of promises about raising the ration limits and easing some of the restrictions as he sensed the crowd slipping away and turning in to a mob. The booing and shouting only increased, and then someone in the crowd dropped firecrackers as the crowd surged forward. Ceaușescu’s knew he had lost control, and at that moment a guard pulled him into the government building he stood atop to retreat. At this point, the crowd was still disorganized, but it was the spark (or sparkle, as the Romanian people say) needed to continue protesting throughout the day, with dispersed and disorganized groups of people forming focal points of activity throughout the city. The Romanian police and army were sent by Ceaușescu to reign in the chaos in Bucharest, mowing over lines of people with military trucks and setting up snipers to shoot down the disobedients.
Cornell still remembers being in Revolution Square in Bucharest that day, and also remembered his mother pleading wit him not to go. He remembers that, right before the moment of chaos when Ceaușescu’s forces started shooting on its own people, he felt that something wasn’t right. He made a split second decision to stay calm and not run, but rather walk. This instinct saved his life, as the snipers were trained to anticipate runners, and in doing so, a shot crossed several feet in front of Cornell where he would have been had he been moving faster.
The people further mobilized, throwing rocks and eventually getting access to some weapons, fighting back against Ceaușescu’s forces even as the trucks ran them over, killing many civilians. The key turning point came when the Army changed sides and decided to fight with the people. Unlike the police, the army was not as well paid or taken care of, and didn’t have the same privileged conferred to the police, who were considered to be Ceaușescu’s elite. The army turning also coincided with the Minister of Defense committing suicide, and some internal communist party backdoor politics around line of succession and keeping the party going once they realized Ceaușescu was done for. At this point Ceaușescu was flying north to the villa area in a helicopter with his wife and family, with the army now launching an attack on the helicopter from the ground. The helicopter eventually landed, and Ceaușescu, now in the middle of the road, commandeered a car and tried to make a getaway. He was stopped soon after and captured. Within 5 hours he and his wife were tried, convicted, and executed. All told, nearly 2,000 – 7,000 lives were lost in the Romanian Revolution, which was the bloodiest overthrow of communism of the region. A stark contrast to the velvet revolution we learned about in Slovenia when we visited there in 2019.
Also around Revolution Square, we enjoyed seeing some of the new monuments erected and architecture of the surround buildings. The chief monument to the revolution was a bee hive on an obelisk (or at least that’s what I saw), which Cornell said no one really understood or particularly liked.
There was also a very cool modern building built atop an older building, which actually housed the Architect’s guild for the city (hat tip). Some of the historic looking buildings across the way now were museums open to the public, including the National Museum which consisted mostly of art.
After learning about the revolution, we piled into the bus and drove to the Romanian Parliament complex south of the city center. On our way, we stopped to take pictures of what will be the largest regional Orthodox church when completed – it has been under construction for more than a decade already with a completion date perpetually looming at some point in the future.
Gate 1 had arranged a private tour, which was actually quite a privilege and not easy to line up. Besides the lavishness of gold leaf, marble and crystals, there was an untold number of chandeliers and an untold number of rooms and tunnels going as many as 3 stories underground (and maybe more). The Romanian Parliament complex was also the largest government building in the world for administrative use, and also the heaviest building in the world. The building was so heavy that it sunk 6 mm per year. The guide was a young man in his mid to late 20s with a keen sense of humor.
We toured the Senate chambers and representative chambers (called the Chamber of deputies) and learned more about Romanian politics and government. Romania had a multi-party system where coalitions had to be formed to advance ideas and agendas, similar to other European governments. Interestingly, the communist party still had a small presence, with about 1,000 people (mostly older folks with the nostalgia for youth effect) voting for the party each year.
The final stop of the tour was the Dimitrie Gusti National Village Museum in the north Bucharest villa area (think tree lined streets, fancy houses, and man made connected lakes) meant to represent and bring to life the various villages across Romania and the unique regional architectural style of the village houses. It was a large park on the water, with many houses in different styles that you could visit and see how people lived. We especially liked it for the many cats roaming around the complex. One cat decided that it just had to be on our fellow Canadian Australian traveler Kathy’s lap as she and her husband Jeff were taking a break on a bench under a shaded tree. We roamed around looking at the houses and also picked up a hand painted, traditional egg which we would use as a Christmas ornament.
This wrapped up on the tour portion of the day and the rest of the afternoon was free time until a group dinner back in the villa area, where we would hear a speech from one of the Revolutionaries.
The rest of the day for us consisted of meandering around Bucharest looking for more souvenirs (we found none that piqued our interested) and then heading back to the Ottoman inspired old town for beers at the beerhall Cornell recommended, Chariots of Beer (Caru’ cu bere). It reminded us, in a less touristy way, of the beerhall we enjoyed in Zurich in 2021. We both tried a different type of local beer and I also got an apricot rakija.
After a leisurely afternoon (we drank our lunch since we had a large breakfast), we headed back to the hotel to meet up with the group and bus to dinner around 630PM. Gate 1 had arranged a room in a private villa that provided catering while we listened to Egmont Puscasu describe his personal experience in the Ceaușescu revolution, as he had been on the square when it happened, and at the age of 15 had organized a flash point of young revolutionaries to fight the regime. The villa we ate at was also in the part of town where the Village Museum was located, and where Ceaușescu ultimately was captured.
Egmont gave a very moving speech, akin to a TED talk¸ of what life was like, how the revolution fomented, the role he and his fellow students played in it (he likened himself to Gavroche from Les Miserables), talked about the bloodshed and the friends he lost both by bullets and getting run over by the police trucks. He also sustained an injury of barbed wire from the front of a truck as it rolled through and over some of his friends. Egmont then pulled out some visual aids of bullets and of a Romanian flag with communist symbol cutout from the middle, and wore the flag as a poncho (similar to what he said was done by the crowd the day of the revolution) creating an extremely visceral moment for the group. He was a polished speaker and full of emotion and fervor, to be sure, drawing the crowd in with every word and gesture. This was probably on my top 3 list of speeches I had ever witnessed with my own eyes and ears in person.
Egmont was a total proponent of capitalism and anti-communism, very pro west. He now was leading a comfortable life, had built a career out of public speaking both within Romania as well as in the West, and was trying to pass on his life experiences of what communism was like to his daughters. The group asked many questions which continued throughout dinner, such as why did older Romanians appear to have nostalgia for communist times and Ceaușescu? His answer was simple yet profound – it wasn’t so much nostalgia for communism, but rather for their own youth, and they associated those times with people younger, stronger, better versions of their older selves simply because in fact, they were young. This struck us to the core, and also explained a lot of the nationalist and nostalgic sentiment demonstrated in the US by the older generations today. I asked a question about what lessons could the Ukrainians learn from the Romanian revolution, which he didn’t fully answer, rather remarking about how he was pro-Ukraine, anti-Russia, anti-communism and that he stood with them.
Dinner that night was a marked improvement from the previous meals in Romania, even though the Romanian food offerings Gate 1 selected in general were the worst of the entire trip. We had a vegetable plate followed by something meat and probably with polenta, and the vegetarians Naynesh and Anjana sitting across from us kindly offered us some of their steamed vegetables since they had a large lunch. We continued chatting with Egmont since he was seated at our table, and some of the conversation turned to whether the current generation was taught about communism and the struggles of their parents and grandparents. Egmont said somewhat, and his perspective is that the current youth are soft, growing up in a generally rich and conflict-free time period – we circled around this top comparing and contrasting perspectives from the US, and eventually determined that the younger generation were capable and would become “hard” if they needed to, as had generations before them.
After dinner we were dropped off near the Bucharest fountains for the light show that we thought started at 9PM, but unfortunately the plan had changed and they were just ending as we arrived at 830PM. We only caught 3 songs, including the finale, which neither Brendan nor I thought were very special or interesting – both The Bellagio and Disneyworld fountain light shows were far superior. Reviews made the light show out to be the best thing since sliced bread so maybe we missed some earlier spectacle. Mildly disappointed, but still enjoying the pleasant evening, we walked back to our hotel to turn in for an early travel day the next, from Bucharest to Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria.