If someone were to ask me exactly what started my interest in travel and acted as the catalyst for my experiences in Mongolia, China and other far flung corners, I would argue that amongst many contributory factors was a book I read when I was 16 years old. I found 'Lambada Country' by Giles Whittel in a second-hand book-store in Scarborough in north-east Yorkshire and was transfixed. Whittel, who would later become the Los Angeles correspondent for The Times, took a bicycle journey through Eastern Europe just months after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Communism. It was a fascinating book that did the job that good travel writing should always do: it made me want to get up and go.
Lambada Country fostered in me a general desire to travel and to see the world. It also sparked my interest in the post-Communist world. This is perhaps reflected in my trips to China and to Mongolia. In Mongolia, I was absolutely captivated by some of the relics of the relatively recent past that were still on show. For example, there were abandoned Soviet army bases in the Gobi desert and small harbours on Lake Khovsvgul with elaborate logos and statues proclaiming Mongolian/Soviet friendship. In China, with its rapid development and increase in shiny new skyscrapers. Such aspects of the past were not so clear to see or easy to find. But, the souvenir stalls selling Chairman Mao souvenirs and the schoolchildren still wearing red sashes over their uniforms showed it was there.
During my brief visit to Romania, there were plenty of echoes of the Communist era on show. The biggest and clearest of these was the lavish Parliamentary Palace constructed by Ceaucesu at the heart of the city that was designed to be the largest building on earth - by the time it was finished it was only big enough for second or third place. There were also scores of old run-down apartment blocks that provided a legacy that perhaps gave a truer reflection on the success of the Communist era. The staff at the airport harked back to a time before market economics as they grunted at travellers barely hiding their disdain for their jobs. As clear all these signs of the old times were, there was one other relic that probably caught my attention a little more: The Dacia.
Currently, there is an advertisement on French TV in which almost every guest at a dinner party is astounded that a shiny 4x4 produced by Dacia and driven by one sharply-dressed dinner guest costs less than 10,000 Euros. Before my trip to Bucharest, I never really paid it much attention. It was just another car commercial. However, after seeing the history of the Dacia driving around the city, it placed what I saw on French TV into extremely stark context.
For those who are unaware, the Dacia was the car produced by the state-owned factories in Romania during Communist times - the company continues to operate, although in a very different form. Dacia was similar to the Trabant in East Germany and the Skoda in Czechoslovakia. Just as with those companies, the cars produced were not of the greatest quality. They were slow, uncomfortable and prone to rust. All of these things were true of the Dacia. However, there is an another adjective we could add to the description, durable. 25 years after Ceaucescu was summarily executed and Communism rule was abruptly ended in Romania, the cars remain.
We saw several still puttering around the city, all of which were doing so at a rather sedate pace and seemed to be followed by a small cloud of smoke. They provided a fantastic contrast to some of the city's noveau riche drivers. On the way into Bucharest from Otopeni airport, there are dealerships for Ferraris and other super cars. We also spotted Rolls Royces imported from Germany drifting around the city. The Dacia's looked like they were from a different world and a different era (which of course they were) and probably helped the roads of the city to serve as something of a metaphor for the transformation of the city itself.
Seeing the Dacia's around Bucharest was not the most awe-inspiring sight in the world. If you wish to see something more dramatic, go to the palace. However, I found them to be a fascinating window into history.