Monday, May 12, 2008

Canines and capitalists

The Sydney Morning Herald
http://www.smh.com.au/

Bucharest is becoming a dynamic part of the new European landscape, writes Sam Vincent.

At sundown in Bucharest, the stray dogs that prowl the city's streets by day return to their lairs, some slinking into abandoned buildings, with others retiring to nests of grass and twigs. It is a scene from the Third World, which is why it is unlikely to endure. Last year, Romania joined the European Union, a move that is transforming the country's capital with giddying speed.

It is about time Bucharest had something to celebrate. Following centuries of Ottoman, Russian and Austrian rule, the city only emerged as the capital of an independent Romania in 1862, prompting a golden era of peace and stability. But the 20th century would see locals suffer greatly through World War II, natural disasters and the crazed dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.

This troubled history of domination and subjugation is best seen in Bucharest's peculiar mix of architecture. I start my exploration of the city beside remnants of the inter-war period on Boulevard Regina Elisabeta, where beautiful locals wrap themselves in fur to combat the cold. Crumbling neoclassical mansions stand testament to a time when Bucharest was known as "little Paris", a pretension supported by the grand boulevards that cross the city centre.

I follow one of them, Nicolae Balcescu, where small Orthodox churches occasionally emerge from behind naked birches.

As I move further from the centre, it is the communist era's turn to flaunt its achievements. Giant, Weet-Bix-like apartments and other gaunt celebrations of the proletariat devour the streetscape. They are the colour of dirty dishwater and are caked in a layer of slime, as if having spent the past 50 years underwater - a kind of post-communist Atlantis.

The latest architectural style is that of New Europe. The European Union is pumping millions of euros into beautification and infrastructure projects throughout Bucharest, aimed not only at restoring the city's faded grandeur but also dragging it into the modern (capitalist) world. Brightly painted stores now sell brands once only dreamed of by the locals. Vodafone, The Body Shop, Max Mara and McDonald's - they are all here, much to the delight of the trendy teens, weighed down by shopping bags despite the fact their parents' average wage is still just $200 a month.

Feeling overawed by the pace of "progress", I visit the fantastic Museum of the Romanian Peasant. Its three floors celebrate the life of rural Romanians, with a vast collection of quotidian titbits collected from barns and farmhouses throughout the country. Particularly impressive is the collection of wooden crucifixes, which could come in handy if you are planning a trip to Transylvania.

Having worked up a peasant's appetite, I walk to the city's daily Amzei Market, where the entrepreneurial guile of the resident babushkas sees me leaving with arms full of lunchtime goodies I don't remember asking for. Among my bounty is zacusca - a puree of grilled zucchini, tomato, eggplant and paprika. Not for the faint-hearted but just as tasty is my grapefruit-sized lump of branza de burduf - shepherd's cheese left to mature in the stomach of a slaughtered sheep.

My picnic attracts the attention of two stray but surprisingly handsome mutts, casually planting themselves at my feet. I give one a crust of bread but am told off by a security guard for doing so before I have a chance to feed the second. The strays date from the 1980s, when thousands of homes were destroyed by communist hard-man Nicolae Ceausescu to make way for socialist housing projects. The replacement apartments proved unsuitable for pets, leaving dog owners few options but to free their pooches. By the mid-'90s it was estimated that Bucharest, a city of two million people, was home to 250,000 feral dogs. Most have since been culled or removed (and continue to be) but the city still wakes to the yelps of overworked bitches and snappy pups.

Walking around Bucharest is easy and pleasant but, for a look at how the locals travel, I hop on the city's immense metro. It dates from 1979 and looks it, with bright-red seats and retro orange walls. In a graffiti-clad carriage I take a noisy ride from Piata Victoriei station to the city's most infamous building.

The Palace of Parliament resembles a space station that never quite got off the ground. The world's second-biggest building after the Pentagon, this monstrosity is perhaps history's most absurd folly. Ceausescu had one-sixth of Bucharest bulldozed to make room for his "House of the People", while the real people suffered chronic food shortages and frequent blackouts.

Today it houses the Romanian Parliament, which struggles to fill 30 per cent of the beast's capacity. As the bitter cold turns my hands the colour of lavender, I circumnavigate the palace's perimeter, a task that takes a full 50 minutes to complete.

Ceausescu's regime was toppled in December 1989 in a bloody revolution that left at least 1000 people dead, marking the end of a year of political upheaval throughout Eastern Europe. I ask a local man skateboarding in dim light what he makes of it all. "I was on school holidays at my grandmother's house watching it on TV. Very scary times,"says Valentine, a law graduate originally from the city of Sibiu in Transylvania.

As a starless night envelopes Bucharest, skateboarding is out of the question, so Valentine invites me for a beer at his favourite watering hole, La Ruine, at 88 Str Lipscani.

We sip pints of Romanian lager among a young crowd and discuss his adopted city.

"Bucharest isn't a beautiful city," he admits, as the rush-hour fleet of locally made Dacia cars hoons past outside. "But the thing I love is that its people have hope.

"We want to put our past behind us and have Europe accept us. This town is moving forward fast and it's great to watch."

Anything he doesn't like about Bucharest?

Valentine thinks a moment, then looks me in the eye. "Sure. All the f---ing stray dogs."

TRIP NOTES

Getting there Swissair flies from Sydney to Bucharest via Zurich. See www.swiss.com.

Staying there Hotel Duke says guests will "feel like a duke, sleep like a duke". This might not be equal to Ceausescu's decadence, but the Duke's cosy rooms are still pretty plush. Singles cost from 370 Romanian lei ($168); doubles from 480 Romanian lei. Phone +40213174186; see www.hotelduke.ro.

More information Museum of the Romanian Peasant, open Tuesday to Sunday, $3.50 adults, $2 children. See www.romaniatourism.com.

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