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Introduction to Romania
Forgive the cliché, but Romania is hotbed of contradictions these days. Its majority rural, peasant society is coping with dizzying new farming and livestock rules that EU membership brought with it and trying to keep its identity in the face of MTV and Redbull. BMWs and horse-drawn carts jockey for position on city streets (neither looking out for the other) and fashionable youth loiter in parks with Ceausescu-era survivors.
While this clash of attitude is arresting, it doesn’t hold a candle to Romania’s true appeal, mind-bending mountains, cinematic scenery, painted monasteries, Europe’s second largest delta, the Black Sea, castles, palaces and draculas just to name a few.
It can be a challenging place to travel, but the rewards are tremendous, plentiful and relatively cheap (for now)!
There are few places in the world with this much bang for the buck, assuming you avoid the crap, and dodge the scams while you home in on your travel goals.
Ancient Romania was inhabited by Thracian tribes that were a combo of Getae and Dacians. In the 7th century BC the Greeks started establishing trading colonies along the Black Sea at Callatis (now known as Mangalia), Tomis (now Constanta) and Histria (still Histria, good one!). In the 1st century BC, King Burebista attempted to defy the Roman threat by establishing a Dacian state. The last Dacian king, Decebal (ruled AD 87-106) made progress in uniting this nascent state, but ultimately he was unable to hold off attacks by Roman emperor Trajan in AD 101-02. More attacks thrashed the area in 105-06, until the Romans won the deciding victory at the Dacian capital of Sarmizegetusa, absorbing Dacia into the Roman Empire.
The Romans eventually swarmed north of the Danube and determinedly grabbed most of what is now Romania, including the Transylvanian plateau. The Romans mixed with the conquered tribes to form a Daco-Roman people who spoke Latin and inherited a much improved standard of living in the process. The Roman retreat ensued after Goth attacks started in AD 271. Emperor Aurelian (ruled 270-75) withdrew his legions to the area south of the Danube. Meanwhile, Romanized peasants stuck it out in Dacia, mixing with the locals and laying down the Roman heritage of contemporary Romanians.
The Middle Ages were busy. Goths, Huns, Avars, Slavs, Bulgars and Magyars (Hungarians) all rotated in and out of the territory from the 4th to the 10th centuries, leaving behind fragments of culture, language and of course the gene pool. By the 10th century a fragmented feudal system had developed which was ruled by a military class.
At the same time the Magyars moved into Transylvania in greater numbers, taking up areas north and west of the Carpathian Mountains and by the 13th century pretty much all of Transylvania was under the Hungarian crown, ruled as an autonomous principality. With Tartar raids on Transylvania in the mid-13th century getting more frequent and effective, King Bela IV of Hungary decided to bulk up his presence in the area, luring German Saxons to settle there with offers of free land and tax incentives, as well as giving the Székelys – a Hungarian ethnic group – in the region total autonomy in return for their military support.
In the 14th century, Prince Basarab I (ruled 1310-52) succeeded in uniting the region south of the Carpathians, creating the first Romanian principality – Wallachia. The indigenous peasantry there were dubbed ‘Vlachs’.
As was the case in much of Europe in the era, any period of peace and/or organization was short-lived. The Ottoman Empire was resolutely fanning out across the Balkans and were soon chipping away at defenses in Wallachia and Moldavia the 14th and 15th centuries. During this time, Mircea cel Batrân (Mircea the Old; ruled 1386-1418), Vlad Tepes (‘The Impaler’; ruled sporadically in 1448, 1456-62 and 1476), and Stefan cel Mare (Stephen the Great; ruled 1457-1504) became legendary in their resistance to the Turks.
The Turks finally trounced Hungary in the 16th century and Transylvania became a part of the Ottoman Empire. They were allowed autonomy, assuming they continued to cough up cash tributes to the sultan. Wallachia and Moldavia were also forced to pay tributes to the Turks in order to keep autonomy, which kept out occupying forces (as well as any trace of Turkish culture, architecture, etc). In 1600 Mihai Viteazul (Michael the Brave; r 1593-1601) briefly united Wallachia, Moldavia and Transylvania. Their combined forces successfully overran Turkish strongholds in 1594. A truce was finally called in 1595. An internal power struggle ensued almost immediately, which opened the door for a joint Habsburg-Transylvanian noble army to move into Transylvania. When the Turks were defeated at the gates of Vienna in 1687, Transylvania came exclusively under Habsburg rule.
The 18th century was filled with serf revolts, marking the start of Transylvanian Romanians’ fight for political emancipation. Eventually, serfdom in Transylvania was abolished on 22 August 1785 by Habsburg emperor, Joseph II. Meanwhile Wallachia was enjoying relative peace and prosperity punctuated by a cultural and artistic renaissance while under the lengthy reign of Constantin Brâncoveanu (ruled 1688-1714). Poor Moldavia was being diced up, losing its northern territory (Bucovina) to Austria-Hungary and its eastern territory (present-day Moldova) to Russia. The Russians and Turks finally went head-to-head in 1828-29 and Wallachia and Moldavia confusingly became Russian protectorates while remaining in the Ottoman Empire.
Transylvania got caught up in the Hungarian revolution in 1848, as Hungary tried to end to Habsburg domination. Feeling revolution fever, Romanians started their own campaign for political emancipation and equality. The Austrians convinced Transylvania’s Romanians to go after the Hungarian revolutionaries in Transylvania with the incentive of national recognition in return. Transylvanian Romanians agreed, enthusiastically assaulting Transylvanian Hungarians, fueled by the desire of vengeance for centuries of mistreatment by the Hungarians. Russian intervention ended this duplicitous arrangement and Austria-Hungary took control, ruling from Budapest. The Hungarian language was imposed and anyone who resisted was punished.
Outside the spotlight, Wallachia and Moldavia prospered. In 1859, Alexandru Ioan Cuza was elected to lead both Moldavia and Wallachia, creating a noncontiguous, but united national state known as the United Romanian Principalities on December 11th, 1861. They prudently shortened the name to Romania in 1862. Cuza was ousted four years later and Prussian prince Carol I stepped in. With the Russians behind them, Romania finally shrugged off the Ottoman Empire in 1877 and grabbed Dobrogea a year later. Romanian independence was recognized under the Treaty of San Stefano and the Congress of Berlin in 1878. In 1881 it was declared a kingdom and Carol I was crowned the first king of Romania.
Romania expanded in WWI, taking Transylvania, Banat and Bucovina from Austria-Hungary and Bessarabia from Russia forming modern Romania. WWII was another story. Domestic political turmoil combined with having too many agreements with too many conflicting entities caused havoc. The USSR re-occupied Bessarabia, Romania was forced to cede northern Transylvania to Hungary by order of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy and Southern Dobrogea was given to Bulgaria.
Polarized by the loss of so much territory, popular demonstrations ensued. King Carol II had to step down and his 19-year-old son Michael took over and General Marshall Ion Antonescu imposed a fascist dictatorship with himself as conducator (supreme leader).
Still grasping for a quick solution to everyone snatching their land, Romania allowed German troops to enter in October 1940 and General Antonescu joined Hitler’s anti-Soviet war in hopes of recovering Bessarabia, which he did in August 1941. Meanwhile over 200,000 Romanian Jews – mainly from newly regained Bessarabia – and 40,000 Roma (Gypsies) were deported to transit camps in Transdniestr and murdered in Auschwitz. It didn’t last. Antonescu was grabbed by the Soviets and condemned to death, while Bessarabia fell back into Soviet hands. When the Soviets threatened Romania’s borders, the nation lost its nerve and suddenly changed sides (again) on August 23rd, 1944. They started off with a bang, capturing the 53,159 German soldiers stationed in Romania at the time. Romania salvaged its independence, shortened the war and eventually got most of its territory back, while suffering appalling losses of its soldiers.
With Moscow guiding them, Romania’s Communist Party went from just 1000 members to over one million in 1945. King Michael abdicated under extreme duress and the Romanian People’s Republic was born.
After furiously rounding up all prewar leaders, prominent intellectuals and suspected dissidents and locking them up (or working them to death), the Communists embarked on their whimsical, ill-considered and violent reign. Moscow decided to let the Romanians fly solo, withdrawing Soviet troops from the country in 1958, and Nicolae Ceausescu eventually came to power in 1965.
Romania never totally cut ties with the USSR, but Ceausescu’s ego engaged and he began resisting Moscow, most notably when he refused to assist the Soviets in their 1968 ‘intervention’ in Czechoslovakia. He went on to publicly criticize the Czech situation which drew attention (and economic aid) from the West. In 1975 Romania was granted ‘most favored nation’ status by the US, who shoveled more than US$1 billion into the country in the following decade. Emboldened, Ceausescu ripped the Soviets for their invasion in Afghanistan and sent his athletes to the Soviet-bloc boycotted 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games. Ceausescu was even decorated by Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II, all the while the Romanian people suffered. Thousands were imprisoned or repressed by the much-feared secret police (Securitate), huge amounts of money was squandered on megalomaniacal, grandiose projects and the population lived in abject poverty.
After 25 years of this insanity, the hot Latin blood took over. While communist regimes were dropping like flies, desperate and pissed off Romanians united against Ceausescu and the Securitate, first in Timisoara and then in Bucharest. What started as public condemning of Ceausescu by Father Làszlo Tokés on December 15th, 1989 mushroomed into crazed violence as the Securitate tried to regain control and culminated with the Ceausescus fleeing Bucharest by helicopter on December 22nd. They were captured, taken to Târgoviste for a quick and dirty ‘trial’ and executed in a hail of bullets on Christmas Day (Merry Christmas indeed!). For a more detail analysis of the events that led to Ceausescu’s fall, read this Wikipedia article.
Romania has been trying to find its feet ever since, greatly hampered by a series of half-wit, self-serving leaders, who did nothing to improve the lives of the people. Marginal progress and stability eventually developed and the government cleaned up their act enough to draw EU funding while they prepared for membership. Incredibly, even with the eyes of the EU fixed on them, government officials pocketed large portions of these funds, a problem that has continued even as Romania was conditionally accepted into the EU on January 1st, 2007. A series of high profile corruption scandals meant to appease the EU has done little more than set political enemies against each other, offering one another up as scapegoats. Meanwhile, the money is still disappearing. Romania has since been threatened with EU sanctions after reviews in both 2007 and 2008 for lack of progress, though at the time of writing none had been handed down.