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Romania's lures: rough edges, rich traditions

Email|Print| Text size + By Necee Regis
Globe Correspondent / June 5, 2005

BUCHAREST -- One of my early impressions of Romania, after strolling the capital city for a day, was this is a country that doesn't know how to flirt.

If you are used to vacationing in Western Europe -- say, France, Spain, or Italy -- you know that all the little exchanges that make up a visit, like buying ice cream from a vendor, or even walking down the street, involve a certain amount of playful communication. In Bucharest, people pass by as if they don't see you.

At first this was unnerving, but then I thought: Who can blame them? After surviving decades under communist rule, and being terrorized by the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, it may take awhile to regain the cosmopolitan atmosphere that existed here between the two world wars, a time when Bucharest held the glamorous nickname ''Little Paris of the East."

Romania is making a great effort to distance itself from its repressive past, and to embrace a new identity as part of the European Union, which it is scheduled to join in 2007. That said, it's worth considering a trip now, before the transformation is complete. If you can handle things being a little rough around the edges, you will be rewarded by Romania's beauty, culture, history, and cuisine, unfiltered and raw. Some say it's how Europe was 40 years ago, before tourism became an industry with a capital T.

It's also affordable. Think of Europe without the euro; Romania's currency, the lei, offers a better exchange rate for your dollar. Good meals can be as little as $10, even less in the countryside. Hotels are a fraction the cost of their Western neighbors.

Like Paris, Bucharest has wide, tree-lined boulevards that radiate from government buildings and monuments, like spokes in a bicycle wheel. ''Belle Epoch" French neoclassical buildings were popular in the late 19th century, and many have survived. There's even the Arcul de Triumf, a replica of Paris's Arc de Triomphe, at one end of the elegant boulevard Soseaua Kiseleff, which, Romanians like to remind you, is longer than the Champs-Elysées.

In terms of pure spectacle, not much can outdo the Palace of Parliament, formerly the Palace of the People, Ceausescu's vainglorious attempt to build the largest public building in the world. (He almost succeeded; only the Pentagon is larger.) The statistics are staggering and sound like something out of the Roman Empire: More than 10,000 Bucharest homes were razed for the $1.5 billion project that employed 700 architects and 20,000 workers who built the structure in a mere five years. Using only Romanian materials and products to construct and decorate more than 1,000 rooms and 3 million square feet of space, Ceausescu plundered the country's resources for his pet project. The excesses include cherry, walnut, and marble wall panels and floors, specially commissioned hand-woven tapestries, lush carpets, velvet draperies with gold and silver threads, and 3,500 tons of crystal in the chandeliers.

The project was cut short in 1989, when a popular uprising ended Ceausescu's reign and he and his wife were executed. Today, although the exterior is finished, only 50 percent of the interior is complete. A portion of the building is used for government administrative purposes, and it is possible to get a tour through part of the premises. Even a partial tour is a jaw-dropping experience. It's hard to imagine such decadence is merely 16, and not 500, years old.

The antidote to such opulence is at the Romanian Peasant's Museum, in a sturdy, turreted, red-brick structure. A rich collection of folk art, including pottery, costumes, textiles, furniture, painted eggs, and icons, are imaginatively exhibited in two floors of galleries.

In one room, a grid of painted wood crosses on the wall looks surprisingly like a contemporary art exhibit. These reflect a custom from the village of Ceplea, where a cross is made 40 days after a funeral and is hung from the tallest living tree in the village. On the opposite side of the gallery, an actual tree is festooned with brightly painted crosses, giving a sense of experiencing them in the larger world. In Romanian folk traditions, both the cross and the tree are symbols that link the earth to the sky.

Bucharest can boast of having one of the largest and oldest outdoor museums in Europe. The Village Museum is like an architectural theme park, with examples of houses, churches, windmills, even dog houses from every region in Romania. In 1935, 83 buildings were disassembled, moved, and reassembled in this 183-acre park that runs along Herastrau Lake. It is possible to feel as if one has walked the entire country by strolling through the park. As you enter, a numbered map directs you along winding paths to each regional destination. The steeple of an 18th-century church from Dragomiresti in northern Romania stands tall in the bright fall light. In contrast, a late-19th-century fisherman's hut, from Jurilovca on the Black Sea, sports lacy curtains and bright blue shutters that glow against the bright white exterior. The color blue was used not as a reflection of the nearby sea, as one might easily assume, but to ward off insects and ghosts. Inside the structures are examples of household objects -- furniture, carpets, pottery -- that reflect each region and time.

Traditional Romanian cuisine varies by region, though often is united by themes such as salads of cucumber, tomatoes, onions, and mild cheese accompanying skewered grilled chicken and vegetables, grilled sausages, eggplant dip, pickles, stuffed mushrooms, cabbage rolls, and, curiously, polenta. It's worth trying the local wine with your meal, as there are many vineyards throughout the country.

If you can't make it north to Transylvania and the alleged castle of Vlad the Impaler, you'll find the next best thing in a kitschy themed restaurant in the heart of downtown Bucharest. A simple black plaque with the name Count Dracula Club scrawled in red identifies the place. Pull the chain to ring the bell, and a door panel pops open as in the Wizard of Oz. Inside, you're escorted downstairs to a black-and-red lair, where house specialties include The Evil Salad (with fresh basil to resuscitate evil spirits) and a Transylvania Cold Dish (with smoked ham and, what else, blood sausages).

Bucharest is a great jumping-off point for exploring the rest of Romania. It's a short train ride north through the Carpathian Mountains to Brasov, Sinaia, and Poiana Brasov. To the east, the Black Sea beckons, and above that, Bucovina is a county full of painted monasteries.

With so much to see, at reasonable prices, who needs flirting?

Contact Necee Regis, a freelance writer in Boston, at neceeregis@yahoo.com.

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