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Exploring the Communist Legacy in the Balkans 

Slovakia, Bulgaria, & Romania.

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Slovakia

Slovakia is a relatively small landlocked country with 5 million people located between Poland, Austria and Hungary, often confused with Slovenia.  As with many of the former communist countries, it has been part of other states as the result of wars or treaties.  Most recently, it was originally part of Yugoslavia and then Czechoslovakia until its independence in 1992. We spent our time in Bratislava, the capital, a city on the Danube reminiscent of Vienna. 

 

The picturesque old town captured our hearts with its charming cobbled streets and historic Austrian architecture.  There are lots of unique old churches, curious statues and fountains everywhere.  One of the most charming statutes was the Man at Work  with a man popping his head out of a sewer which stood as a reminder of Bratislava’s industrious past.   It was originally a walled city but in order for the city to expand in the 1700s, the queen at the time, Queen Maria insisted the walls and gates come down.  The only gate left, Michael’s gate in the heart of the city, is a reminder of its medieval past.  

 

Bratislava castle dominates the city.  It is located high on the hill and offers panoramic views of the city, a testament to its rich history having been a fortified site for more than 1,000 years.  Its latest iteration was constructed in the 17th century.  Today it serves as a venue for parliament and houses the Slovak national museum.

 

We stayed in the old town overlooking one of its large squares.  Today it is lined with lively restaurants to suit many tastes.  We had an interesting locatio  as it was directly next to the non-descript American embassy!  One afternoon, our hotel was abuzz with lots of official people arriving for some sort of reception.  Turns out the outgoing Chinese ambassador was being feted at a reception.  We were not invited!

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Ever the adventurer, Mark found a rowing club on the other side of the Danube while out for a run.  When he mentioned SDRC, Yuri’s name came up and he was promptly invited to row the next day.  The Danube has quite a current so it made for an interesting ride.  That and the calls were all in Slovakian!

 

Today life in Slovakia is pretty good compared to other Balkan countries.  It is the largest per-capita car producer in the world.  Over a million cars per year are made for VW, BMW, Peugeot, Kia and Jaguar are all made for export.  Bratislava is clean, upbeat and friendly.

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Bulgaria

Next stop - Sofia, Bulgaria
Bulgaria is the oldest country in Europe that hasn’t changed its name since it was established.  Sofia, the capital was founded 7,000 years ago!  The city is covered and layered with archeological sites which makes new construction challenging.  The city planned to put in an underground subway line near the hotel where we were staying.  When they started digging, there were significant ruins covering the whole area.  Instead of laying a line, the archeologists were called in.  This is a common occurance in a city so old.  If you dig, you will hit ruins from one time period or another. 

On our walking tour, we discovered Bulgarians were pretty tolerant of other religions.  Mosques, churches, synagogues and orthodox churches were all in close proximity.  One of the more interesting churches we saw was the St Alexander Nevsky Cathedral.  It was built in the early 1900s to honor the Russian soldiers who died helping Bulgaria escape from Ottoman rule in the Russo-Turkish war. An orthodox church, built in a neo-byzantine style, it is the largest cathedral in the Balkans and is a prime tourist destination. During the communist era, religion was much less tolerated.  Some churches were actually physically moved, relocated between large communist buildings so the party could keep an eye on who was coming and going.

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Sofia the city was named after St Sofia the ancient Greek goddess of Wisdom.  In 2000, a  statue of her was erected in a spot where a statue of Lenin once stood.  The statue is still controversial today because some consider it erotic and others claim that it is pagan.  Guess it’s better than Lenin.  Some gen-x’ers wonder why a statue of John Lennon was taken down.

 

Speaking of communism, on a city tour we discovered it ended very abruptly and peacefully in Bulgaria.  The day after the Berlin Wall fell, the communist party had a meeting where the deputy got up and thanked the longtime leader of the country for his service and told him (the leader) to retire.  When elections were held shortly after, the same cast of characters were elected but they announced they were all socialists - hence the end of communism!  

 

We took a day trip from Sofia to Plovdiv, another ancient city about 2 hours away to see it’s Roman theater of Philippopolis.  It is supposedly one of the best preserved ancient theaters and it’s huge!  Mark climbed down its steep steps to get a better view.  Unfortunately, there was a lot of staging from concerts held recently to do much exploring but it was still pretty impressive.

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Romania

We’re splitting Romania into two different blogs because we spent a lot of time here.  But first, a bit of an overview.  One thing we learned is that Romania had a long history of being occupied by other governments and had borders that changed regularly.  As a result, it is made up of 3 distinct regions driven by cultural traditions and historical boundaries.  There’s the northeastern area which was originally part of Moldova, the northern area which was historically part of Hungary and the southern region which was at one time part of Turkey.  Outside the cities, the cultural differences can be significant.  More on this when we get to Transylvania.

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Bucharest

We were only in Bucharest for a few days but the wide boulevards and some of the architecture transported us to a city with aspirations of emulating Paris. What is left of the old town is in the heart of the city. The Communist government tried to hide it by constructing big buildings around it but some of the churches and alleyways are still there.  One particularly beautiful one is the small Stavropoleos Monastery built in the early 1700s.  It’s small but has lovely frescoes some of which have been restored.  The colossal Parliamentary Palace (second in size only to the pentagon at the time it was built) spoke of Nickolai Ceaușescu’s rule in the 1980s. The bigger and grander the better even if it was built by prisoners and men from work camps. 

 

Bucharest was a place of significant history lessons for us.  Here was the most brutal end of communism after a particularly brutal regime.  Ceaușescu, faced by many thousands of protesters around the country, could not believe his country would not wait for his “reforms”.  In the meantime, 60,000 had been killed during his reign of terror. On his last day, he and his wife were helicoptered away supposedly for their safety but they were tried and executed by firing squad the next day (Christmas day) on live television.  Justice was swift though many would say it took too long.  There have been many growing pains since that turbulent time but gradually free market reforms and privatization took hold.  It is still a work in progress.  Some of the older generations remember some of the stabilities of communism - always food, a roof over your head and a steady paycheck.  Others remember losing their homes, farms and wealth to the state.  The younger generations definitely believe the country is on the right track.