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New Europe

Day Sixty-four: Bucharest to the Iron Gates

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Buzescu, a Gypsy Beverly Hills in south-west Romania. The mansions are heavily guarded.
Michael Palin - New EuropeBucharest is particularly well blessed with theatres and one of the smaller, more attractive of them is the Odeon, its old-fashioned classical facade squeezed between taller neighbours. They perform European classics, and currently have Shakespeare's Cymbeline, Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray and a play about the Marquis de Sade in production. One of their leading actors is Dan Badarau, a soft-voiced man of striking good looks, in his late forties, with long hair tied in a ponytail. He's a provincial, born and raised in the south-western town of Drobeta-Turnu Severin. He won one of only four places at the Institute of Theatre Drama School in Bucharest, from 400 applicants. As he has a couple of days off he's going back to see his parents and has agreed to escort me to his home town, and to put me back on the Danube.

We drive through flat, forgettable country. Towns and villages of small, red-roofed houses augmented with grubby concrete blocks, like chunks of overcrowded city broken off and dumped in uncrowded countryside.

There is nothing remarkable to see until we come to the village of Buzescu, an hour and a half south-west of the capital. Buzescu is a Gypsy Beverly Hills, and on the few hundred yards of Main Street are clustered the fanciful houses of successful Roma families, each one trying to outdo the other with another pinnacle or an extra silvery flourish.

Spiky turrets sheathed in beaten metal rise above balconies trimmed with filigree carvings which in turn spring from clusters of plaster columns. Some of them bear the owner's name, picked out in large metal letters and slung between brick chimneys. Many of these tinny mansions have forbiddingly elaborate gates covered in swirling tendrils of wrought iron, outside which large men with dark leather jackets hang about, exuding menace.

No-one knows exactly how many Gypsies there are in Romania, numbers vary from half a million to two million, but it's the largest Gypsy population of any European country.

This short strip of grand mansions, many of which are just for show, are symbols of success, in music, or trading cars or whatever, but the lot of most of the Roma people is not much different here than it was in Bulgaria. They are generally poor, ill-educated and treated with suspicion if acknowledged at all.

Beyond Craiova we pass fields of oil-donkeys and small yellow-painted derricks. In the middle of the nineteenth century Romania was the first country in the world to start oil exploration and was for a time the largest producer. Their oil reserves, coveted by Hitler, were largely the reason why Romania was forced onto the Nazi side for the first few years of the Second World War, resulting in the shameful rounding-up of Jews and Gypsies, many of whom were herded off to concentration camps in Transdniester. Romania now imports more than half her oil supplies.

As we draw closer to the Danube, low, wooded hills replace the monotonous flatness and Dan becomes quite nostalgic. These verdant valleys close to the Serbian border were where his childhood holidays were spent. He remembers playing cowboys and Indians, inventing stories and adventures. Like me, he always enjoyed acting things out, playing all the parts, and like me, his parents had been dead set against his becoming an actor.
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  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Sixty-four: Bucharest to the Iron Gates
  • Country/sea: Romania
  • Place: Buzescu
  • Book page no: 157

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