Sunday, 25 July 2010

Bucharest Hungary Serbia and Bulgaria in 80 hours

Hot Bucharest Saturday morning in July. 11.30 Geo called and suggests I drive with him to Szeged in Hungary to catch the Szeged Festival returning through Serbia and a corner of Bulgaria. I hate Szeged I say but after five minutes’ reflection I decided to take two days off and agreed.

Geo is a true Romanian and therefore a metaphysician who knows that time and space do not exist. I asked as we set out whether we might get to Szeged in time for the play that evening and he said let’s see. In fact we were half way there at 10.30 after driving with only a couple of pauses. Geo is, to my indignation, even less practical than me. Both of us are children when it comes to travel but he is sure he is a natural leader and I decide that it would be cruel and destructive to weaken his self-belief. His fatherly authoritativeness while losing his way is something to admire. One should never feel an urge to punch him.

Geo enjoys ill health. Whose last words were: ‘I am dying of a hundred good symptoms’? Geo is in the exactly opposite case. He warned me that I might need to take drastic action if his back gave in completely. I don’t drive and wondered whether he expected me to grab the wheel from him in mid-spasm and thus save us from hurtling to our deaths.. My father liked to dramatise his life and especially his driving in this way, which is why some people refused to drive with him. One makes friends because of psychological similarities and needs which are not easy immediately to discern.

Sinaia. We take the air for the sake of Geo’s back problems. The town where I rarely stop is increasingly spruced up and has an Edwardian air around the Hotel Palace, a flavour of Arnold Bennett.

Another crisis. Geo’s ‘claxon’ (car hooter) has failed him. A Romanian without his klaxon is emasculated, a hermaphrodite and I feel for him but tease him too. No he says not laughing this is serious. I do not use my car horn without a reason but it is absolutely necessary to have a horn and dangerous to drive without one. Later to his great relief it returns to life. All Romanians are Mr. Toad.

Jams in the mountains. A long queue in Busteni. Mid-afternoon. Why are people leaving Bucharest lazily at that time? But it is because of a landslide that the traffic is slow. And these landslides Geo say are caused by illegal logging.

I thank God Romania still does not have motorways or even dual carriageways. The roads are far less exciting than when potholed and third world ten years ago but they still pass through charming one horse villages where rushing through you can taste the emptiness of childhood. The road that twists across the mountains to Sinaia and Brasov is still the artery that links Romania to Europe and civilisation.

I miss the horses and carts which were common five years ago, much more so twelve years ago or twenty. Made illegal by the health and safety fascists of the EU. The same abominable people have made it illegal to kill a pig in your back garden.

Fortified Saxon churches (fortified to protect the parish from Genghis Khan and the Tartars as well as the Turks) glimpsed from the car. I glimpsed them on my first visit in 1990 in a prelapsarian Communist countryside before Romanians fled to Spain and Italy to pick crops, when the Lutheran churches still held services each Sunday for their Saxon congregations. And I am very ashamed that I have not explored them very much now.

A comfortable newly opened hotel in Sebes for less than €40 and a workmanlike pizza on the terrace downstairs. Sebes in the morning for fifteen minutes is a delight. Though it is mid-July the rains have kept the grass as green as in May. The melancholy churchyard around the Gothic church of this little German town could almost be in England. I want to read much more about the history of Transylvania which has little to do with that of the Regat. South of the Carpathians the Reformation meant nothing nor the Enlightenment. Only the French Revolution permeated.

There is nothing as enjoyable as a driving holiday unless it is a train holiday. A cumulative diagonal biopsy of Romania.

Arad so briefly I can’t remember it. A flash of C18th buildings and the poignant late nineteenth century Hungarian stuff when Magyars were momentarily a great power.

Maria Radna not far from Arad with its Hungarian or is it Swabian Catholic monastery towering on steep steps disproportionately over the little village. No time to find out its history. Although two generations older and baroque not neo-classical something about it reminds me of Esztergom.

Is this one of those parts of Romania near the border, like Arad or Oradea, which should really have been left in Hungary one wonders. I can’t help asking myself if Transylvania and the Banat could have been independent countries after 1918 instead of being taken from one procrustean national state to another. The short-lived Republic of the Banat failed in 1918. The Swiss ideal does not seem to work outside Switzerland. It remains to be seen how a multi-racial Western Europe will work out.

The corridors of the monastery are lined with the usual plaques in German and Hungarian recording the gratitude of the devout for intercessions by the Blessed Virgin but also by many paintings on the same theme many movingly naive. A brunette adolescent girl beneath the wheels of a car. A patient in a hospital bed attended by doctor and nurse. The Blessed Virgin appearing at a bedside. How far from Orthodoxy but far too from the understated murmered politeness of Anglicanism.

We decide not to take the shortest route to Szeged, fearful of hold-ups with lorries and instead take one of Geo’s imaginative routes which I come to learn do not save time. The heat is merciless and this is somehow fun. We are in central Europe in its tropical summer. We visit a village to try to find Geo’s grandparents’ grave without success.

We cross finally the Hungarian border and suddenly the ennui is palpable. Roads like roads in a child’s toy town. Neat grass verges. No no no I think. This is not what I want.

Szeged 18 years after my last visit, once more in stuffy intense heat, once more en route to the Voivodina. Szeged was destroyed by a flood in 1879 and rebuilt at the apogee of Hungarian self-confidence. The heat is in the upper nineties and cities in landlocked countries seem intolerable. I disliked the place in 1992 and do so again at first this time but staying till evening and a breeze I reconsider and find I like it. It is 18 years older and so am I. Now that the sooty London of my boyhood has been cleaned up and so have almost all the other cities in Europe, Szeged looks as old as anywhere else. Szechenyi Ter is reminiscent of a square in Lisbon a century or more older. And Szeged has a number of really splendid ‘Eclectic’ i.e. Art Nouveau buildings, much more beautiful than the pompous monstrosities found elsewhere in Hungary from the same period. And the wide turbid Tisza lined with Sunday afternoon crowds searching for a breeze.

We had dinner with some nice but slightly yeastless people who want to organise more festivals and I see that Geo surrounded by Hungarians from Hungary, Serbia and Romania is vulnerable. People might make jokes about Romania or criticise his country and he is alone and defenceless. His car with its unreliable klaxon is far away but everyone skirts controversial subjects.
We rather liked the town and Geo tangoed on the embankment of the Tisza with an astrophysicist but it is good, Geo and I agree the next day, to shake off the dust of Szeged and the EU.
Across the border in the Serbian Banat, Subotica 18 years on is very charming far warmer than Szeged, though without Szeged’s architectural distinction. Southern, even though the population is mostly Hungarian. Balkan by osmosis. I remember an old woman selling newspapers from a kiosk her wrinkled brown face alongside startling graphic covers of hard porn magazines. To my surprise they still sell hard porn alongside the daily papers but the vulvas and labia are less in your face.

Novi Sad. Very short time but a really excellent beef sour soup. Several baroque churches. The fortress overhanging the Danube and below it an ignored old town built in the 18th century and now empty dusty boarded-up and dilapidated. Like Lipscani ten years ago except it is old.

Just time for one of the lovely monasteries of the Fruška Gora: the Novo Hopovo monastery. Do the Serbs think the Romanian painting too frivolous perhaps. These dozen or more monasteries were I told founded by monks fleeing Turkish rule when Serbia was captured or recaptured by the Turk. The monk who sold us our postcard and keyring was thirty one from Bosnia and too young to have served in the war.

The Novo Hopovo monastery has magnificent wall-paintings which are comparable with those in Romanian monasteries but miss I think the vigour and colourfulness of the Romanian ones. Do the Serbs think the Romanian painting too frivolous perhaps. I think of Slavic countries for some reason as metallic. I supposed this is meaningless but Geo says he agrees with me; the Slavs are cold.

Off the useful highway to Nis and the roads are bad and the villages delightful. The Timoc valley. We spoke to several Timoc Romanians who speak an archaic Romanian. One said to me that he is proud to be Romania but his children do not speak the language. The Serbian government wants to make Serbians of them and is succeeding. Why? Because of TV or schooling I wonder. He had never been to Bucharest but I forgot to ask if he had ever been to Romania.

Zaijacar on the Timoc close to the Bulgarian border enchants me. 18 years ago compared even to Hungary Serbia seemed Western and uninteresting. It still feels comfortable but one has the feeling of a weight off one shoulders being in an obscure town in an obscure part of an obscure country. Yugoslavia was not obscure but Serbia is. The statues to the heroes of the 1878 War. I am put in mind of the imaginary country in Nostromo or of a Graham Greene setting – perhaps the border town in Argentina in The Honorary Consul. The Communist hotel with its inevitable net curtains and solid breakfast. It reminds me of Tulcea at the mouth of the Danube.

Zaijacar is gratifyingly obscure but should not be because five miles away are the extensive ruins of the palace of the Emperor Galerius whose father was a Thracian shepherd and his mother a Dacian (ancestors of the Romanians). He became a soldier rose from the ranks and married Diocletian's daughter. The man at the ticket office displayed an encyclopaedic knowledge of his life and reign but did not mention his savage persecutions of Christians. The persecutions attributed to Diocletian seem to have been instigated by Galerius or at least took place while he was Caesar (junior Emperor). A bad Dacian clearly and not one in whom Romanians can take pride. I would like to know more about the ancient Roman class system or lack of one. How English I am.

Interesting also that he went to war with Persia. The clash of civilisations between Iran and the West predates both Islam and Christianity.

Then Bulgaria, an easy border surprisingly. We stop in a small place Kula which also has a well preserved Roman fort the Castra Martis. And a sleepy small town down at heel Balkan feel that Bulgarian country towns have and which I love very much. The calm of the place is extraordinary.

A dog barks and the caravan moves on. We come soon to the ferry to Calophat which has no schedule and comes and goes as it listeth. We wait 90 minutes in the heat clinging to the shade from the customs building. I buy fun-sized mars bars from the duty free shop to keep hunger at bay and to pass the time.

Calophat with its one large white shiny hotel. Geo surmises it was built by and for smugglers in the time of the Serbian embargo. Ten years ago Geo says Romania and Bulgaria started building the bridge which will replace the ferry and carry a motorway to Timisoara. A few pillions are visible on the Bulgarian side, on the Romanian side almost nothing. These things are a parable.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

Things I love about England

Things I miss about England

Nothing really except my mother's cooking and pantomimes at the Players' Theatre; neither still exist.

Things I love about England

The late Monsignor Alfred Gilbey
The late Alan Watkins
London, but not Greater London
Bowling greens
Irish priests
Indian food
Second hand bookshops
The Daily Telegraph
The Spectator
Radio 4
Milk and suet puddings
Lemon meringue pie
Beef casserole and dumplings
Justin Webb
The civil service
Alan Bennett
The North
Hardware shops
Watch repairers
Piano tuners
Lonely people who feed pigeons
Formerly young fogeys
Girls from Chelsea and South Ken
Traditionalist Catholics
Nice couples who marry young
Hunting types
The Prince of Wales
Lord Salisbury
Wendy Cope
The Importance of Being Earnest
E Nesbit
Melancholy Essex marshes
The Beano etc
Sheridan Le Fanu
Will Hay
London clubs, especially the ones that do not admit women
The Ingoldsby Legends
Point to points
Bacon sandwiches
Black pudding
Pub theatre
The East End
Jews especially Nigella Lawson
Lord Skidelsky
Northern Ireland
The Windsor Castle, Kensington, The Seven Stars, Holborn, The Surprise, Chelsea

Things I don’t like

Leftish Anglican clergymen
The Liberal Democrat Party
Oxford and Cambridge teaching 'Business'
The ubiquity of professors, universities, firsts
Gastropubs except the Tickell Arms
Garden centres
Harriet Harman
Johann Hari
Polytechnic educated MPs
The monstrous regiment of women
Leftish schoolmasters
Preoccupation with property prices
Shopping centres
1960s and 70s architecture and town planning
Chain stores
Pedestrianised areas
Public relations companies
Child centred activities
Anti-discrimination as a secular religion
Eastenders and all soap operas except Coronation St.
Social engineering
Local government
Bitter - beer or people

My friend, Alexandra

Alexandra is grateful to God now for things which are being done in His way. She will write in time because she is meant to. Or if she does not because she is not meant to. Learns every day. Given up resisting and fearing things knows things will happen at the right time and she will one day be a writer. She does not try to control events but has let go. She is very grateful to God for these insights. She does not want to be rich or important or famous. She is very happy. She accepts she makes mistakes and that we all do. We are not perfect and perfection is boring anyway.


Referendums are the solution to the democratic deficit in Romania and elsewhere in Europe. But do EU countries still have more free will than Thomas Hardy's definition: 'The freedom of the pianists' fingers while he plays the piano'?

Eugen Ionescu on religion in Romania

Eugen Ionescu: Religion in Romania means something entirely different from what it means in Catholic or Protestant countries.

The Communist Origins of Political Correctness

The Frankfurt School of Marxism was a real school. It was really a building in Frankfurt and received gas bills. It was a think-tank set up to marry Marxism-Leninism with the insights of Freud. After the failure of the revolution in Germany, Austria and Hungary, Marxists had to conclude that the workers had failed to rise against their oppressors because of their false consciousness. From the Marxist point of view this was absolutely true, of course. This false consciousness included, in Lukacs’s words, the whole of western civilisation. Western civilisation was itself the enemy of the people. The Frankfurt school was excommunicated by Stalin for heretically adopting insights from psychoanalysis and expelled from Germany when the Nazis came to power (its members were Jews to a man). They sought refuge in academic tenure in third-rate colleges in the United States where they remained like a dormant bacillus. And there in the late 60s student radicals wanting a justification for free love, bohemianism and revolt discovered a philosophy much groovier than that contained in Das Kapital. Foucault was horrified by the student radicals and summoned the police to rid his lecture room of his long haired admirers but Adorno in Pittsburgh sprang from obscurity hoping to achieve the long delayed apotheosis of his revolutionary ideals.

If you seek the monument of the men and women of 1968 look around you. Not to be sure in the economies of western Europe. The moth-eaten phylacteries of Marxism Leninism have been discarded for the free market goose which lays the golden eggs that the welfare state redistributes to its clients. But in an attitude that rejects authority, tradition, organised religion (as opposed to personal, privatised spirituality), rejects parents, rejects the masculinity of the nation in favour of the maternal values of the social worker. The ideas of the Frankfurt School, that marriage was oppressive of women, that bourgeois sexual morality was a means of oppressing workers, women, homosexuals, became the ideology which took over the universities and therefore opinion formers despite the right being in office in America and Great Britain in the 80s and early 90s. None of it is new. All was invented during the Weimar Republic by Leninists seeking to replace bourgeois civilisation with Bolshevism. The student radicals of 1968 included Schroeder, Brown and many people who now help run the E.U.

Old joke about Khrushchev

The old joke about Khrushchev on his state visit to England boasting about the long hours worked by Soviet factory workers. SuperMac: ”You couldn’t get British workers to work those hours. They’re all bloody communists.” The British way of life is so much more left-wing, Romanians so much more right-wing.

Saturday, 10 July 2010


“In my country”, I said, “ It’s considered slightly shocking to commit adultery or not to pay your taxes.” The Romanian replied: "It’s wonderful knowing that country is there."

A History in Fragments

I recommend Richard Vinen’s A History in Fragments: Europe in the Twentieth Century. The book I'd like to have written. Unlike histories written twenty or more years ago this gives Eastern Europe as much or more space as Western Europe (whose history post-1945, as Norman Stone said of British history in the same period, is about as interesting as that of the North Thames Area Gas Board).

Communism was brought down in a management buyout by the nomenklatura. An apt description of the Romanian Revolution. 

'The history of post-war Europe is a meditation on Nazism.' Yes indeed though not in post-Communist Europe. As always many wrong lessons are drawn from history. Auschwitz is the reason for multiculturalism, mass immigration and the political correctness which so closely resembles fascism. 

Gabriel Chevalier's Clochemerle rightly gets a paragraph, Julie Burchill a sentence. 

Not a great book but worth the (very easy) read. 

The central event of the 20th century however is not the holocaust but the absolutely extraordinary economic miracle in Western Europe (and the rest of the developed, i.e. non-Communist white) world. This is not really explained, at least not to my satisfaction. I suspect it can't be.

The Romanian way of dying

Tim talks about the smell from his girlfriend’s father’s corpse sitting on the kitchen table for three days and the food that was placed there afterwards the smell not gone which he could not stomach. The old women who come out at crossroads to bless the corpse in its progress.

No inner cities in Romania

Childhood: those so very long, empty days. I don't think everyone's childhood is the same. For some it is bucolic rural life, some Belgravia. 'Nothing, like something, happens anywhere' but in retrospect Westcliff-on-Sea Essex still feels unliterary and not very interesting. On the other hand, twenty-five miles further up the Thames, Tilbury and Gravesend which I passed through as a child once a year on my way to see an uncle in Kent are truly eery place places, settings for a gritty film noir. East Tilbury too and especially Stanford le Hope the most depressing place I ever set foot in. Much more so than the forests of jerry-built tower blocks in Bucharest. Gravesend cries out to be written about by Peter Ackroyd except I think Peter Ackroyd pretty talentless. I suppose Joseph Conrad did it on the first pages of Heart of Darkness. Not a place I would like to live (unlike the rather cheerful council estate in Woolwich which I enjoyed living in).

The great difference between tower block life in England and in Bucharest is not the width of the walls (paper thin in Romania) but that Romania like Eastern Europe in general doesn’t have an underclass. Not much street crime or drugs though both are becoming more common. There are still child beggars who make a decent income for those running them and some children are preyed on by foreign or native child molesters. No yobs or hoodies though there are plenty of sad soft faced boys burying their faces into plastic bags filled with glue. Until a few years ago, almost everyone, except the secret police,senior party members and lucky remnants of the old upper middle classes, lived in tower blocks. They are not class ghettoes but places where Romanians preserved the gentility of pre-Communist life. The children are well brought up, play in the street and are unafraid to tap the arms of passing foreign suit-clad bloggers and say ‘Ghinion’ which means ‘You’re it.’ A good country to bring up children. They also usually grow up to believe in God.

Ignorance is a delicate bloom. One touch and it is gone.

I very often wish people wouldn't travel abroad even on holiday. Ignorance is a delicate bloom. One touch and it is gone. I imagine most Western Europeans feel the same though not East Europeans who rightly delight in their new freedom to travel.

Foreign travel broadens the mind, gives people ideas. That's the whole problem. And not always very new ideas but often the same plastic ideas, music, films, celebrities, as millions of other people who are also milling around. Good luck to them but the world is becoming more and more deracinated. Much energy is spent talking about endangered species of wild animals but no-one discusses the endangered cultures of the world. As I rode in a bus in the Syrian desert watching with the sound off a British thriller on a TV screen (I could see the black protagonist punching gangsters was a cool updated Richard Hannay while the upper middle-class senior civil servant inevitably was the villain) I couldn't help feeling sorry for Al Qaeda whose crusade (the wrong word) against modernity and modernism is doomed to bloody failure.

I am absolutely not advocating traditionalism which is a dreary, dead thing but living traditions. The worst culprits are British: all those second homes. 90,000 British subjects own property in Bulgaria Martyn Birchall told me.

What are the best five things about Bucharest?

What are the best five things about Bucharest someone asked and found he could only think of four. He included decent primary schools (sounds like damning with faint praise but then I am not a father). My list? The people, the decrepit late nineteenth century Franco-Oriental streets, the humanity of Romanian life, the sense that the modern world is still a fair way off in the distance, the energy. But I could have gone on with many more examples. The folk religion, the jokes, the parties, the second hand booksellers, the wartime egalitarianism (people who sleep rough sit watching open air film shows without exciting the disdain that their counterparts would do in Western Europe), the gypsies, manele, the old-fashioned terraces where one can get a bottle of wine and a Bulgarian salad for a song, the serendipity, the way that every day is completely different from the day before (unless you work in a big foreign firm), the daily problems which you come to enjoy (or else go mad), the courtesy and great kindness that counterbalances the gracelessness and mercilessness. Food well...yes....up to a point. The Antim monastery which I visit every 5 or 6 years. The Stavropoleos Church. A number of the churches. Most of all the broken run-down streets. Until recently the slummy Old Town now drowning in a sea of wine-bars. Cismigiu. The beauty and femininity of the women which is unparalleled.

The present is a foreign country

The heart is the undiscovered country. You travel to a foreign country to discover your unconscious mind.

Laurence Durrell said you have two birthplaces. The place where you are born and the place where you learn about life. My second birthplace was Bucharest.

For some people who do not put their feet on the ground there can be a transparent sheath between themselves and life. They are tourists all the time, even in their home town. Perhaps I am one of these people. I felt throughout my four years as an undergraduate at Cambridge that I was a tourist there. In London where my contemporaries were pursuing paths to money and love I walked around with an acute overwhelmingly passion for the city which you can only feel if you grew up in Southend-on-Sea. As Philip Guedalla said of Micheael Arlen’s characters they walk down Jermyn St with such an acute sense of its being Jermyn St that one almost suspects them of being in London for the day.

Is this how I have lived in Bucharest in the last twelve years? Better to live in a foreign country than feel a foreigner in your own country. How awful to feel at home somewhere. Does anyone feel? Does anyone interesting? Perhaps grown-ups do. Perhaps that is one definition of being grown-up.

If as Malcolm Muggeridge said sex is the mysticism of materialism, then this can also be true of travel too. And not particularly the beach holiday kind of travel so much as the more adventurous travel. Travel agents sell dreams. Only books and travel have the qualities of dreams and for the young only dreams are real. Reality is a terribly dull thing. When one gets older life acquires a texture and begins at last to one’s surprise to feel real, which means like a novel. About the same time novels seem less interesting. For some people perhaps travel does too?

When I came to live in Bucharest in 1998 I felt that I was a character in a novel by Joseph Conrad in the South Seas in the 19th century. The foreigners who had floated here after the Revolution who could have been created by Conrad in ironic mode. Bucharest had changed a lot between 1990 when I first visited and 1998 when I came to live here but it seemed extremely far away from the western world and it seemed in some ways still living in if not a nineteenth century novel then at any rate 1954. Later I refined it to 1959 .

Whenever I flew back to Romania in the late 90s I felt for a few hours like a character from Star Trek materialising slowly on another planet. Now Romania, last of all the former Communist countries to become globalised, has a painted face and a new spirit. People struggle with mortgage repayments and have less time for flirtation and books. But to me it still seems much less like everywhere else than anywhere else except for Belarus and Albania. And is the western world a concept which is time limited?

Romania has changed in part because countries mean less than they did before the internet and cheap travel(budget air flights came to Romania only three or four years ago). Where will Romania be in fifty years, I asked an academic economist friend. I don’t think it will still exist he said. But the language will still exist. He wasn’t sure. Perhaps the languages of minor countries are economically inefficient. Instead a future of English, gadgetry golf-courses instead of the eighteenth century countryside and shopping malls instead of grimy jerrybuilt Communist towns and cities.

Travel books are like all literary genres from another age, when abroad had another meaning . When John Paget wrote almost no-one among his readers, all people who paid income tax and a tiny fraction of the English population had been to Hungary or heard of Transylvania. For a long time travel was expensive and difficult and travel writing was information for the curious and a story with the writer as protagonist. (And funny foreigners. All foreigners for the most liberal Englishmen were very faintly comic until some moment some time in the second half of the 1980s.) Now they are something to help us choose where to go on holiday, to prepare for holidays and to compare notes afterwards. And writers create the country they write about. Arabia is about Wilfred Thesiger. Delhi is now about Sam Miller and William Dalrymple. It is a literary construct.

And countries are an idea which is changing. And the word foreign is changing too. The Guardian newspaper seems to think it a word to be avoided at all costs, like manly.

Will Romania be a country in fifty years time or a part of a big non-country called Europe? Countries are about traditions and traditions are now at best anachronistic at worst oppressive or racist. And about excluding foreigners which seems xenophobic and discriminatory. And about violence in the past the future sometimes in the present. And about languages but languages are being subverted by English. Countries are a difficult concept in the post-modern post-Marxist world.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Otopeni is not interesting

I grieve very slightly whenever I return to Otopeni airport and it is normal, dull, like anywhere, no longer people smoking everywhere and disorganisation and friendly chaos. I wonder if I have a frivolous or profound nature. There is however still Baneasa with standing room only for stoical confused budget travellers before dawn like a daguerreotype by Gustave Dore of one of the circles of Dante's inferno.

The Impaler - even Bucharest’s germ is dark, unwholesome, fascinating

File:Vlad Tepes 002.jpg

The first record of Bucharest is a document dated 1459 six years after Constantinople fell signed by Prince Vlad III - Vlad the Impaler! –so named generations after his death for his characteristic and unspeakable method of impaling his victims on pikes. And yes alas much better and erroneously known to a wider world as Dracula. If we put aside Bucur, the improbable shepherd of legend (his name means joy) who is said to have founded Bucharest, even Bucharest’s very germ is dark, morbid, unwholesome.

“From the distinctly inadequate material at our disposal it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that Vlad was a man of diseased and abnormal tendencies, the victim of acute moral insanity.” 

This was the judgment of R.W Seton-Watson the great English historian of Romania writing in 1934 when it was still possible to believe in progress and enlightenment values. In fact Vlad did not invent this horrible method of killing his victims by insertion of a pike in and out of orifices. A wooden stake was carefully driven through the victim’s anus, to emerge from the body just below the shoulder in such a way as to not pierce any vital organs. This ensured at least 48 hours of unimaginable suffering before death. King Stephen the Great of Moldavia for example also impaled Ottoman prisoners, was acclaimed by Pope Sixtus IV as the athlete of Christ and was canonized several years ago by the Romanian Orthodox Church. (St. Stephen is also said to have fathered an illegitimate child at every town to which he lay siege). Impalement was used in Scotland and the Turks made more use of it than any other army. Nevertheless the history relates that the sight of an Ottoman army defeated by Vlad the previous year impaled on pikes in concentric circles, their leader’s modesty protected by his ceremonial robes and turban, moved to tears even Sultan Mahmud II the conqueror of Constantinople he who had lived all his life among abstruse and elaborate methods of killing.

Many brave men lived before Agamemnon; but all are overwhelmed in eternal night, unwept. What Homer accomplished for Agamemnon Gutenberg did for Vlad Tepes whose deeds were saved from oblivion by a squib printed there several years after his death.

It was Vlad who a few hundred dingy yards from my flat built the Old Court whose ground floor was brought to light in the 1950s, the only building in Bucharest old enough for an Englishman to consider truly old. The Impaler was a Wallachian ruler who swore allegiance but then fought against the Turk in the period immediately after the fall of Constantinople. A distant parallel can be drawn with Artorius a millennium earlier fighting English pagan invaders after the Roman legions left Britain. Both men obscure enough and scarcely recoverable for history became important myths: the one King Arthur and the Matter of Britain, the essence of chivalry which inspired Malory, the other by the grace of an Irish hack writer and the silent films Dracula.

Footnote stuff. American historian Kurt Treptow was sentenced to prison for much graver offences but his coining ‘Vlad III Dracula’ is also difficult to forgive. Patrick Leigh Fermor was stretching things as far as they could be stretched when he opined that Draculea was just allowable. (The Impaler’s father was Vlad Drac, Vlad the Dragon, and Dracul could be a diminutive, the little dragon).

That there is no link between Vlad and Dracula has finally been put beyond all doubt by the publication of the wretched Stoker’s notes. But in any case, Dracula is a fictional character in a cheap horror story who is a Szeckler (cousins to the Hungarians) vampire and resembles if any historical figure Elizabeth Báthory the beautiful Hungarian countess who bathed in the blood of the village virgins she sadistically murdered. (Another digression: the Countess Bathory always puts me in mind of a beautiful Romanian lady I once knew.) The Impaler was indeed born in Transylvania but he ruled Wallachia and waged war against the Ottoman Empire and Islam. He was a cruel and perverted killer of a very different kind. But the times were brutal. His father was assassinated on the orders of his uncle John Hunyadi, his elder brother, Mircea, was buried alive by the Saxons after they gouged out his eyes with red hot pokers. His wife (or mistress) committed suicide by defenestrating herself when she learnt that the Turks had surrounded his castle in Tirgoviste. Vlad had his illegitimate half–brother, Vlad the Monk, killed after he tried to seize the throne.

Tepes's ruined palace in the Old Town in Bucharest

What to make of the Impaler this bizarre if not very momentous figure of whom only a few facts are known, an exotic and terrifying figure to begin the line of rulers whose capital was Bucharest that leads through Greeks, Russians, fascists and communists to Mr Ion Iliescu and Mr Traian Basescu? He was considered a great man, a progressive force and national hero, in Communist Romania. (I recall my surprise in 1990 to find myself walking down Vlad Tepes Street in Brasov but I should not have been surprised. I already knew Attila the Hun was a Hungarian hero though he was not a Hungarian.) And indeed Romanian history is full of curious parallels. Legend says that Vlad forced the members of boyar (noble) families who were implicated in the deaths of his father and brother to build a castle for him with their bare hands a project in which many died. Four centuries later the new rulers in Bucharest in the early 1950s - the young Ion Iliescu the leader of the Communist students’ association among them? -sent many thousands of enemies of the people to build the never completed Danube-Black Sea canal, the canal of death. To admire murderers like the Impaler and Attila is shocking but then in what does greatness consist? And what was St. Constantine or Napoleon? Or Stalin?

King Stephen the Great also impaled many infidels and he is the greatest Romanian hero. Pope Sixtus IV called him 'the athlete of Christ' - popes in those days were less bothered about interfaith dialogue. Stephen was canonised a few years back by the Romanian Orthodox Church despite having been said to have fathered an illegitimate child in every town to which he laid siege. I mentioned this to an extremely, in fact passionately devout Romanian lady I know and she replied 'Well, he was  a man.' As Eugene Ionescu said, 

'Religion in Romania means something completely different from what it means in Catholic or Protestant countries'.

I picked up a couple of years ago in a second hand bookshop an essay by Mircea Eliade and idly opening it I had an odd experience. As I read Eliade say the historical destiny of Romanians, Serbs and Bulgarians was to spill their blood to protect an ignorant and ungrateful Europe from the danger of Muslims I recognised that I had heard similar ideas many times in guide books and inscriptions in places as far apart as Poland and Greece. They were the kind of local patriotic white noise one shut out but now the words had a chilling clarity. The war that the Impaler fought for the religion of Jesus of Nazareth with a perverse savagery which moved even the infidel army to grudging respect is one that was fought by Charles Martel at Tours, by the Impaler’s patron John Hunyadi at Belgrade, by Jan Sobiesky at Vienna, by John Buchan and his colleagues in Milner’s kindergarten during the Great War and in Afghanistan today.

Adolf Hitler holding forth in Berlin as recorded by Martin Borman said: 

“Had Charles Martel not been victorious at Poitiers — already, you see, the world had fallen into the hands of the Jews, so gutless a thing is Christianity! — then we should in all probability have been converted to Mohammedanism, that cult which glorifies the heroism and which opens up the Seventh Heaven to the bold warrior alone. Then the Germanic races would have conquered the world. Christianity alone prevented them from doing so.”

And Gibbon in a simpler age in which Anglican divines knew nothing of comparative religion mused that had Martel lost, 

“Perhaps the interpretation of the Koran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford, and her pulpits might demonstrate to a circumcised people the sanctity and truth of the revelation of Mohammed.”

I hate the new Lipscani

I hate the new Lipscani including the man dressed as Charlie Chaplin. I liked it when it was a slum. Now every time I set foot in Strada Lipscani which is most days a small part of me dies.

I went downstairs last night and had a good meal in one of the dozens and dozens of places that have opened in the last year or so in place of hardware shops and locksmiths Yes it adds a fair bit to the sum of human happiness. Yes it was inevitable . Yes it is very convenient to me to suddenly find myself live in the midst of trendy bars and restaurants. But I hate it. These old towns come by lorry are invented somewhere else by design companies and they all look the same whether it is Belfast or Havana or Minsk. Yes Minsk has all this stuff too. The same bars the same restaurants the same old same old. You don’t even need tourists. Belfast and Bucharest don’t get many and Minsk, well. Their old towns cater for the people who live in the real town to which the old town has become a lifeless pendent.
When I came to live here eleven years ago Bucharest was the only capital city in Europe whose old town was a slum. I was fortunate to have found the street to suit the morbid taste I share with quite a number of foreigners who like Eastern Europe for squalor and broken things. The local people quite rightly do not share it. The next street even in that distant era had – something then quite outlandish in Bucharest in 2000 – a Belgian chocolate shop. And round the corner 400 yards away stod the national bank a white battleship overshadowing the crooked and ill-slated houses. But my little street was satisfyingly riven by potholes and lined with shabby shops and tenements filled with illegal gypsies. As Bucharest changed, as malls darkened the land and nobody any more shopped in the market or the corner grocery shop the alimentar I the Englishman continued to buy my supercristal toothpaste from Vasile whose shop doubled as a bar or from the shop across the street where Radu played backgammon and drank tuica with his customers who seemed to be a kind of surrogate family. People even three years ago were asking me how I could bear to live here. One Englishman whose intelligence I respect though not his taste said the place depressed him.
The first thing to say about the old Town in Bucharest is that is not very old. Most of it is built after 1850 and is about thirty years older than the rest of the so-called historic centre. All that is truly old in the old town are the labyrinthine street plan (after ten years living in this tiny postage stamp I still get lost), three beautiful churches built in the 16th 17th and 18th centuries respectively, two Turkish hans from the early 19th century, two or three other Ottoman wooden buildings and the Curtea Veche, the old court. The Curtea Veche is incontrovertibly old. It is the ground floor of the palace built of terracotta brick by Vlad III the Impaler himself - the Impaler ! Dracula! -in the 15th century. Fallen into disrepair and disrepute it disappeared under other buildings as the ground level rose and was brought to light when a row of shops on the site was demolished in the 1950s. It stands to this today without postcard shops or guide book stalls a puzzle of diverse busts tombstones and architraves littering the paved surface as if in a surrealist painting but passing it today I saw some tents and painted wooden wagons that spoke obscurely of history as bloodless entertainment industry. The curator who is a mine of information speaks no English which is reassuring. A downward flight of stairs into the basement level takes you into some eery tableau from Eugene Sue’s Le Juif Errant or the Phantom of the Opera, a vast brick catacomb shadowy and chilly on the hottest day. Michael Wharton once expressed the hopeless wish when a fragment of Roman road was discovered at York that it should be left enigmatic unexplained and unsignposted among the Edwardian terraced villas . Michael Wharton staunch reactionary, hater of the modern world and of progress, would have loved the old town in Bucharest until the last four year have brought in many things he loathed: worst of all, people employed to wear historical costumes.

I like manele

I like manele. Played from tinny transistors in villages. The 'Romania profunda'. Or by my gypsy next door neighbours who always play good tunes but alas are nowadays mostly silent for whatever pragmatic reason. First because it is catchy. Second because it is something authentically Romanian (yes, OK Romanian gypsy) in a sea of globalised mass-market rock music about which i share the opinion of my spiritual sovereign Pope Benedict XVI long may he reign. I don't know though whether His Holiness would grant his imprimantur to manele. I should add in self defence that I also liked Vama Veche (until it became just too built up) which was the antithesis of manele.

Fell like Lucifer

Pride is a mental illness as well as the greatest sin of all. It seems particularly widespread in Bucharest for some reason

I read to be taken out of myself, to become ecstatic

I read to be taken out of myself, to become ecstatic. - Henry Miller


Pentru Roma, cuvantul e "sex", pentru New York-
"a realiza", pentru Los Angeles- "a reusi", iar pentru Stockholm-
"conformism". Ma intreb care este cuvantul reprezentativ pentru Bucuresti?

"One travels to think."

"One travels to think." Mircea Eliade.  
"One travels for architecture and food and America has neither." A.J.P. Taylor. 

One reason to travel is to have uncomfortable thoughts that one avoids at home.


Good, the new Protestant parson in Bucharest is an Oxford man.

Romanian negroes

Transylvania can scarcely be considered an aristocracy any more than America can. The native Indians and negroes of America—the free negroes of the North, I mean, for Transylvania knows nothing so degrading as absolute slavery—occupy the place of the gipsies and Wallacks of Transylvania ; the rest of the inhabitants of both countries enjoying nearly equal rights.
Hungary and Transylvania by John Paget (1839)

This wonderful book is now available on never to be sufficiently esteemed Google books. It brings back memories of my wasted undergraduate years. It is better says Chamfort to misspend your youth than to do nothing with it and the latter was my case. At Cambridge, alas, alas, I couldn’t find even an ounce of self discipline to do the amount of work (and I am not sure whether it would have been even so very much) to have taken my first and spent the rest of my life perhaps as a bachelor Cambridge (better Oxford) history don. I did spend much time in the University Library’s Mussolini fascist precincts reading Hungarian history, which made up one twentieth of a possible question about the 1848 revolutions. Eastern Europe stirred me very deeply and I decided to adopt Hungary as my country (vague recollections of attractive Magyar Post stamps, paprika, hussars and boisterous polkas?) I read Paget to give me the background to the 1848 Hungarian war of independence which I am ashamed to say I studied from a Hungarian nationalist point of view identifying the Hungarians with the cause of unionism in Ireland and the Romanians with Fenians. I was very struck by Paget’s descriptions of nomadic Wallachs. Knowing Wallachia was a province of Romania I assumed he was describing Romanians as picturesque savages. Only years later did I learn he was talking about not Romanians but their cousins the Aromanians, distributed around the Balkan peninsular who have now lost their nomadic character.

In this quotation Paget does use the word Wallacks to refer to Romanians. Any Englishman who visits Sibiu or Cluj is immediately aware that these are Protestant ascendency towns in Ireland. The comparison with negroes is more pointed. I hesitated to put the quotation on my Facebook page and quickly took it down not wanting to inflame anti-Magyar feeling among my Romanian Facebook friends or have them think I was deprecating the Romanian race. Romanians are extremely sensitive about their national honour and do not always have a post-modern attitude towards negroes.

How wonderful and dangerously addictive a thing the internet is. I discover that Benjamin of Tudela, a Spanish Jew who travelled through south-eastern Europe and the Middle East between 1159 and 1173, alludes to the Vlachs in The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela. He claimed that they enjoyed some measure of independence on their Valachian mountain tops.