And so it goes, our travels took us to Romania. Long before our takeoff from Melbourne researching our world adventure in search for Spomeniks, we cast our eye to the east of Europe. This mysterious country that is often the scene for stories of vampires and werewolves pricked our curiosity and the more we read about it the more we wanted to experience this corner of the world that is said to have places lost in time.
We landed in the capital of Bucharest to a sweltering day and a friendly taxi driver who managed not to get us killed on the way to our accommodation. There seemed to be little care to driving laws as cars ignored lanes often, driving on the wrong side of the road, overtaking like maniacs without indicating and swerving all over the road with some kind of blind faith that everyone else will move out of their way. As we had a road trip planned for this leg of our journey Dotahn was turning a slight shade of pale.
With a warm welcome we were ushered into a lovely apartment with ships in bottles and a spooney-nose man hanging in the kitchen. One of Emm’s favorite features though was the air conditioning.
That evening we headed to a local bar in an old abandoned factory called Fabrica. With some help from our waitress who spoke a bit of English but was a little too busy being hip and Dotahn’s translation app we managed to order a delicious dinner and cocktails to celebrate the 3rd quarter of our adventures.
Our first exploration into Bucharest was to Old Town as any good tourist should. On the way we past huge mosaic fountains, empty and crusted with garbage, snaking their way down through the civic center. Remnants of more regal times (or so we thought). The juxtaposition of old and new buildings was stark and interesting with some grand old buildings having been refurbished only on one side while the other fell into ruin.
You knew when you had stepped into Old Town as the roads turned to cobblestones and no cars were allowed entry. The lanes had their fill of pretty buildings with a myriad of souvenir shops and over priced (but still fairly cheap) tourist restaurants. It made us wonder, having visited all these European cities with their historic Old Town centers, what Melbourne s CBD will become in the future and where will the future business hub will be. How will our future Old Town relay our cities history?
Following a well worn pattern and the desire to know more about this land we made our way to the National Museum of Romanian History. We found the Museum guarded by a weird dog-eel-man statue looking out across the street to a gigantic pretty building that turned out to be a bank.
Although we could not understand most of what was going on in the exhibitions we gathered information through dioramas and haphazardly translating some of the wall text using a translation app. Through these snippets we gathered that the first exhibition was about an excavation of relics and remains of ancient Romanian people from 5000 to 3000 BC. It was fascinating to see the forms of their pottery work and see their quite sophisticated tools and way of life.
Next up was the beginning of written Romanian history with the conquest of Rome over the Dacian people living in areas of modern Romania in around 100 AD. Rome then ruled over the area known as Roman Dacia until around 270 BC when the area was relinquished after repeated attacks by free Dacian tribes and the Goths. The name Romania has it’s roots in this ancient occupation. The exhibition was a reconstruction of the Trajan’s column which was a huge 30 metre column erected in Rome which depicted the victory of Roman Emperor Trajan over the Dacians. Along with the column were a number of artifacts from Romania including gravestones and commemorative markings from the Roman occupation.
In the last museum chamber we were to witness a different sort of hoard than we were used to. The type of hoard which one would imagine in a pirates cave or sitting under a dragon in a hollowed out mountain. Jewelry, swords, crowns and scepters, we marveled at some of the intricate design work and wondered at the gaudy glory of history
After our museum visit we found a shady spot to escape the sun and sit contemplating our next move. Two students approached us and asked if they could interview us as tourist because they were studying tourism. They were wondering if we loved their city and what our initial impressions of Romania were before our arrival as well as why we had come. This was to be our first of many experiences of meeting Romanians who are very proud of their country but concerned about the reputation they have in wider Europe. When they discovered that we were artists they recommended we see the Contemporary Art gallery of Bucharest housed in Parliament building, the second biggest building in the world next to the Pentagon.
It was on our mission to see the Contemporary art gallery of Bucharest that we began to unravel Romania’s more recent history. Romania’s Parliament building is the most expensive administrative building ever built as well as the second largest building in the entire world. This was not too difficult to believe as it is gigantic. We soon found out that this building was seen as a bit of an embarrassment to the nation and a testament to the insanity of the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu who held the country through it’s communist years from 1967 to 1989. Ceausescu looked to North Korea for inspiration and basically bankrupted the country by borrowing heavily from the West and then attempted to rectify the spiraling debt by selling off the majority of Romanian produce. This resulted in widespread hunger and eventually led to revolution and the assassination of him and his wife. The parliament building is now a huge empty building with only a tiny fraction of rooms being used.
After walking around the building we found the gallery tucked away in the back. The first exhibition we visited was a fantastic show by Mircea Suciu of prints with charcoal and paint. The images were mainly political in nature and fitted well in the cavernous rooms of the parliament. His use of charcoal and paint over photography create seemingly shifting perspectives and a fantastic sense of movement.
The next floor was a study of the influence of Caspar David Friedrich’s Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer (Wanderer above the Sea of Fog) 1818 and the idea of witnessing a scene from the same veiwpoint as its subject from behind. It was interesting to become aware of how often this pose first depicted in the Romantic era is being heavily adopted by popular culture.
Another of the giant rooms held a large retrospective exhibition of works from the Bucharest arts university and a great show of children’s imaginings of architecture and town planning.
On the top floor of the gallery we found a party smashing out tunes and drinks on a large balcony. Not a bad way to finish a gallery viewing we must say. With gorgeous views over Bucharest we also got a glimpse of the next gigantic building being erected with taxpayers funds in Bucharest. A huge cathedral. At the time we marveled at the interesting forms of construction. But we were soon to observe throughout our travels around the country churches being built EVERYWHERE. We were to learn that during communism the majority of churches were destroyed and religion was pronounced illegal. Faith therefore became an underground affair mostly practiced behind closed doors in peoples homes. There is nothing like persecution to rejuvenate your faith. The fall of communism meant that churches began to spring up all over the place as the Roman Orthodox church sought to reestablish its dominance in both the social and political life of Romania.
Our wanderings through the streets of Bucharest also reveled other strange traces, from more grandiose yet empty boulevards to strange weeping heads in the pedestrian tunnels under streets. The thing that really caught our attention though was the graffiti seen everywhere saying ‘Basarabia e Romania‘ What did it mean? Part of our road trip through this region of the world was to trace a branch of Dotahn’s history in a lost country called Bessarabia. Is Basarabia the same as Bessarabia? Perhaps it is not as lost as we had thought.
On our last night in Bucharest we got lucky and were in time to see a huge free projection festival around the parliament building that evening called iMapp. On our way to dinner we passed through as a great band began to play a mixture of traditional Romanian music and dubstep as the hordes started to emerge.
The crowning glory of the festival was a projection mapping competition with five chosen finalists from various countries. The projection covered 23,000 square metres of the parliament house and used 104 projectors! Equating to over 2,000,000 ANSI lumens for all you projection nerds out there. It was by far the biggest projection mapping setup we had ever seen and was truly amazing to see.
Showcasing six entries from around Europe the largest applause was naturally for the Romanian admission to the competition which depicted the legend of Bucharest. A young maiden Dambovita helps a prince in the forest to find his way. The prince proposes, but she refuses as she has promised to marry the shepard Bucur. The prince gives her a dagger and a spinning top. Upon her return she tells her husband about the encounter and he is sorry that he cannot provide for her as the prince could. To prove her love and that she does not need princely things she drives the dagger into a rock. From the rock pours the purest water which grows and grows until it is a river, the river Dambovita. They decide to stay in that place and soon others gather around the river and the town Bucuresti is born.