Monday, November 2, 2009

Romania: The town that knew no fear

Continuing east, Adrian Bridge visits the cradle of the Romanian revolution – and then heads into the heart of Transylvania. 

By Adrian Bridge

The first words I write in the notebook covering my journey through Romania are: garlic, holy water, silver cross and wooden stake.

Apparently these are all essential items for travellers to that most intriguing (and alluring) part of the country known as Transylvania – assuming, that is, they want to protect themselves against vampires.

Monica, my local guide, is appalled to hear I do not have any of them. "During the day you might be OK," she says. "But at night you had better be careful. Transylvania is a scary place. Something can happen at any time."

My tour begins in Timisoara, the fulcrum of the Romanian revolution in 1989 and a town which, lying close to the borders with Serbia and Hungary, is only on the fringes of Transylvania. But I am going to be moving on to Sibiu – a town much closer to the heartland of Vampiredom.

"Be afraid," Monica says. "Be very afraid. Dracula had children. His children had children. In Transylvania you will feel his spirit."

She's joking. I think. But the prospect of a nocturnal encounter with a vampire does lend a certain frisson to the forthcoming journey. It seems to fit the place. It's good to be back in Romania.

Timisoara does not feature on many tourist itineraries. It has always been an important trading post and has also long been at the forefront of hi-tech developments in Romania (in 1884 it was the first city in Europe to have electric street lights).

The city does have its attractions – riverside locations and a wealth of Secessionist (Art Nouveau) architecture stemming from the Habsburg era. It has even been described as "Little Vienna" – an exaggeration, but there is a grandeur to some of the central avenues and squares. It's a faded grandeur (unlike other beauty spots in the region, Timisoara has yet to receive a major post-1989 makeover), but I like that. There's an authenticity and rawness that reminds me of my first journeys within eastern Europe 20 years ago. You certainly couldn't say that Timisoara has been sanitised.

But I am here to look for the legacy of the Romanian revolution of December 1989. At the time, the country was still in the grip of the megalomaniac Nicolae Ceausescu, a man who, unlike his communist peers elsewhere in the region, had no intention of giving up power peacefully (and who was said, incidentally, to be a great admirer of Vlad the Impaler, the model for Dracula himself).

Ceausescu's nemesis came in the form of a turbulent priest by the name of László Tökés, an ethnic Hungarian pastor in Timisoara who spoke out against the regime. When local party bosses tried to have Tokes evicted and moved to a rural backwater, supporters converged on his home and blocked them. Others followed their lead and the protest spread to the centre of town.

This was no Velvet Revolution, though. When Ceausescu realised things in Timisoara were getting out of hand, he sent in the tanks. At least 100 died in street battles and many more were wounded. But the protesters – many young, many fearless – returned in ever greater numbers. They stood firm and in the end, incredibly, it was the army that gave way and sided with the protesters. On December 20 1989, Timisoara was declared the first free city in Romania, sparking similar uprisings throughout the country. On December 22, Ceausescu, realising the game was up, fled by helicopter from the roof of the central committee building in Bucharest; three days later, on Christmas Day, he and his equally reviled wife, Elena, were summarily tried and executed. It was a shocking, brutal end to the glorious autumn of revolutions.

But at last Romania, too, was free.

Or was it? As I sit on a sofa in one of the lovely outdoor cafés lining Timisoara's pedestrianised Victoriei Square, scene of much of the fighting, Mircea Opris, a local journalist, tells me that the whole thing was rigged.

"Both the West and the East wanted Ceausescu out; it had all been agreed in advance," he says. "The army and Securitate [secret police] manipulated it. It looked like a revolution but actually it was a coup d'état."

Ah, Romanian conspiracies! Who was responsible for the killings that continued even after the Ceausescus had fled? Who really controlled the power? I could sit and drink coffee with Mircea all day and everything would get murkier and murkier. It's deliciously Balkan. (I've always rather liked that, too.)

While Ceausescu had money to burn on his monstrous palace in Bucharest, his people had to subsist on meagre rations of basics such as sugar, flour and cooking oil, and at times just one piece of meat per person a month. They ate lots of potatoes and rice. At Christmas, instead of presents, children often received necessities such as toothbrushes. If they were lucky.

A more detailed account of what happened in Timisoara is to be found in the city's Memorial Museum of the 1989 Revolution, an imaginatively presented collection of displays including photographs and newspaper reports from the time, moving artistic representations provided by local schoolchildren and a memorial chapel. Most compellingly, there is a genuinely horrifying 30-minute film with real footage showing real tanks firing real ammunition at real people.

I speak to Dr Traian Orban, the founder of the museum, who was wounded in the struggle. "I drew courage from everyone around me," he says. "It was an extraordinary moment. We just felt it was now or never and despite the shooting we were determined to win our liberty. I will never forget seeing a child clinging to one of the tank turrets. None of us should forget that. And we should also remember that some of those responsible for the killings have still not been brought to justice."

The scars have clearly not yet healed. But after all that, I need relief – visual, sensory, temporal relief. I find it at an outdoor table in the Eclipse café in Unirii square. I enjoy Caffè Americano and bruschetta and tuna fish salad, and admire the (slightly tatty) baroque buildings all around. I enjoy people-watching: there is a younger Romanian generation for whom the events of 1989 are barely on the radar and for whom laughter comes naturally. I enjoy tuning in to a language that, unlike Hungarian, has familiar sounds: "buna seara" (good evening); "la revedere" (goodbye); "scuze" (excuse me).

It is almost time to head deeper into Transylvania. I am happy to skip a tour of the 12 monuments to December 1989 in and around Timisoara (they look a bit heavy going) but do pop into the quietly inspiring Romanian Orthodox Church. I am told there has been a resurgence of religion post-1989. Suddenly I'm coming over all religious myself. I think about stocking up on supplies of holy water (it could come in handy). Instead I have to content myself with a little prayer…

Getting there

Wizz Air ( flies from Luton to Timisoara and Bucharest from £18.99 one way.

Aer Lingus ( flies Gatwick-Bucharest from £65 return.

Staying there

Doubles at Hotel Lido, Timisoara (0040 0256 407373; from £75; at the Hilton Sibiu (0040 269 505632; from £101; at the Central Hotel, Bucharest (0040 21 3155 636; £77.

Further information

Romanian National Tourist Office (020 7224 3692;;; (for Bucharest and Brasov).

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