“Hello. My name is Emil and it is my pleasure to show you around the Palace of the People,” said our tour guide, finishing with a flourish. Forty of us had gathered to hear Emil at Ceacescu’s palace, which the dictator never lived to see in use. I know that it was forty, because Emil had only allowed forty to enter with him, citing ‘regulations’. Some twenty or so tourists looked annoyed as we passed our bags through x ray machines while they waited another hour for the next tour. Especially annoyed because 25 of the lucky 40 had just arrived as part of a package tour. They were all elderly Americans with name badges reading ‘Dwayne – Kansas’ and ‘Marge – New York’.
Emil swept us through the building. He was in his early 20s, short and chubby. As he spoke, he rocked about on his feet and even wandered around a little, struggling to remember, in English, the number of rooms, or tonnes of concrete, or the area the Palace covers. He seemed annoyed while telling about life under Ceacescu when one of the visitors kept interrupting with her own anecdotes – she was Romanian born and not much older than Emil. He seemed a little overly pleased when she made a slight mistake in her facts and he tersely slapped her down. He moved on to talk about the difficulties after the revolution. Intellectuals and students were associated with communism, and the university was ransacked and students attacked. “I am a historian,” stated Emil, “and I too have been attacked in the street for being an intellectual.” One wondered if it was not rather wearing his grandfather’s trousers well over his navel that had attracted the thugs’ attention.
Emil took us along a corridor, showed us a room then announced it was the toilet stop. We had been on the tour for ten minutes. 25 elderly Americans dutifully queued at the entrances either side of a grand staircase. Fifteen minutes later, Emil set off again, and we looked into room after room decked out in poor imitation of Potsdam or Versailles, although spectacular given its size and luxury, built by ‘volunteers’ and believers amidst the squalors of 1980s Bucharest.
It was not long before we were at the Ballroom, the grandest room. A carpet was rolled up on the side, supposedly the largest carpet in the Palace. “It’d take a lot of steam cleaners to clean that puppy,” said an enormous man with a buzzcut next to me. His name badge read ‘Don – Texas’.
“PROSTATA!” came the shout from behind the flimsy barely closed curtains in the medical centre in Sinaia. Having arrived by train from Bucharest at this mountain resort, I had come to have my dog bite inspected after some concerned messages from the UK. The curtain was the only element of privacy between the consulting room and the waiting area. Evidently a rather deaf old man was having a check-up. “RESPIRA!” the doctor shouted and soon the sounds of an elderly man’s wheezing could be heard.
The consulting room seemed to have more people on its side of the curtains than the waiting area. People wandered in and out of both areas, and it wasn’t clear if the people crowded in the waiting area were there to be seen, accompanying a loved one, or just there for the gossip – they all greeted their neighbours as they came in and out. The old man could be seen putting on his shirt again through the gap in the curtains and soon came out to sit on the one bench in the waiting area. He beckoned over a policeman and began to tell him some long anecdote about a policeman he once knew, laughing to himself through the story.
Soon it was my turn to be seen, and I lay down on the bed for the doctor to check my leg. With his excellent English he reassured me that there was no problem, the bruising was to be expected but I should have a tetanus jab to be sure. I whipped out my EU health card after the injection and he made a few notes. The power of EU membership means that I could benefit from Romania’s excellent medical services (even if my privacy wasn’t at the forefront of their bureaucrats’ priorities) with just a small delay while they noted down my details off a little piece of plastic.
The waiter looked me up and down, my shorts and sagging socks, the sweat on my brow and my obvious need for a drink, and said, “We’re full.” A moment before he had been beckoning me through the glass door and smiling. He softened and pointed me to the terrace. I wandered through the empty resturant and found a table under the awning outside.
After my experiences with dogs and taxis in Bucharest, I was aware that one danger as listed by Lonely Planet still eluded me – bears. I had found this tavern in the woods on the way to the royal palaces of Sinaia, and it specialised in game. Bear salami and bear pastrami were the house specialities. I decided not to tempt fate – best not to continue through the woods smelling of cooked ursine – so I went for the deer meatball soup and deer steak with potatoes.
The terrace hadn’t seemed a bad idea when the once-friendly waiter had offered it to me. Within minutes of arriving, it began to pelt it down with rain. I checked the weather on my phone. 33 degrees and sunny across the Balkans, it said. Not in the Carpathians clearly.
Earlier, having left the medical centre, I had taken a cable car up into the hills and bought roast sweetcorn and a pot of blackberries from sellers by the side of the mountain path. So I wasn’t too hungry now at lunch. But the soup and venison steak were delicious and I finished every bit. Neglected thanks to the downfall, I wandered back in to the restaurant to pay.
Naturally it was still empty, except for the 20 stone goth girl in the corner. Another day in the Balkans.