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This really is a strange sort of city. There's not a lot to photograph really, and most of the place is in a sort of urban decay. Towering above all of this, or maybe I should say lumbering, is the former royal palace used by Nicolai Ceausescu and his wife during their reign of terror in the late 1970's and 80's. The building is truly monolithic in size and decidedly Stalinist/classical in construction, even though it was started in 1984. Never finished, the building has the second largest footprint in the world next to the pentagon, and contains over 12 floors including four subterranean ones. There are numerous bunkers because Ceausescu was so fearful of the Romanian people that he took nothing to chance. It was even decreed that there would be no air-conditioning systems other than natural for the floors he used for day to day living because he feared being gassed through the system. Such is life for murderous dictators I suppose.

The palace is grand for sure, but it is also really dead. It has no life both because it is not very old, but also because of its stark anal symmetry, and lifeless sterile looking walls. Scale is what is important here, and Ceausescu wanted to ensure that everything he had was bigger than everyone else's. He even made the boulevard in front of the palace in French style 6 metres longer than the real Champs Elysees on purpose, just so he could say it was longer. The rumour in the palace is that he wanted to have a huge picture of himself installed in one of the rooms, and a picture of his wife opposite. But the folklore says that the real plan was to put a mirror opposite him, and not his wife.

In any case, he and his wife escaped by helicopter in 1989 during a last ditch effort to hold on to power but they were soon both captured and summarily executed by firing squad. The people hated them that much. The girl giving the tour of the building was sort of tongue in cheek about all this when she said, "Yes, we executed them, and unfortunately we did not give them a fair trial. This is something we are not very proud of." Everyone in the group laughed softly, and she smiled with her delivery. It was a funny moment. Shortly after this she told us how a magnificent marble stair case was rebuilt three times because Ceausescu insisted on a life size model of what they would look like, and twice he was not happy. The final set of stairs had steps only a fraction of a centimetre different in height than the previous ones. It goes on and on and on like this...

The city shows the scars of its leadership. Without a naturally long period of continued development, there is a lot of decay, poverty, pollution, and rubbish; very poor driving skills (incidentally, the Dacia is really a Renault in disguise - I didn't know that), and less friendly people than in the country. Yes, it does not feel as safe as other places, but to tell the truth, I felt less safe in St. Petersburg. Te exception of course is the little hostel we found. It's called Villa 11, and it's run, of all people, by a family from Toronto. Turns out they inherited the home from their parents and just picked up the family and moved them here. The place runs more like a house with people and bicycles running around all the floors. Bookshelves are jammed with papers and books, including "Encyclopaedia Canadiana" from 1972, and a whole host of other magazines and strange looking collectibles. Every flowerpot has a small paper Canadian flag stuffed in it beside the plant, just like the ones Sheila Copps was giving out around the time of the last referendum. The walls are crumbling, the doors don't lock properly, and the floors are all crooked, and the carpets torn. In short, it's perfect. Most unlike any of the other places we have stayed. And there were Canadian style pancakes for breakfast. No maple syrup though, sad to say.

Walking around the city, there is really not much to offer for backpackers, but it a way, this is its appeal. Nothing has really happened here yet to make it a very touristed city, and therefore, it remains relatively unscathed by the kitschy shops, and still relatively inexpensive. It's a great time to visit, and you still get a lot of looks from people because they are sure you are not from there. Yes, it's very nice out in the Romanian countryside, but I don't think a visit to this country would be complete without seeing the capital, and understanding some of the history that has caused the place to fall behind a lot of its neighbours. And of course, the excellent, if not slightly small, poppy seed bagels. I would recommend the country to people more than Hungary actually, and that I think is saying quite a bit.



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