European Times: Bucharest: Paris of the East looks westward

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The Independent Online
IN THE 1930s, when Bucharest was renowned as the "Paris of the East" for its luxurious restaurants and exotic nightlife, the Athenee Palace Hotel was home from home to Europe's demi-monde of exiled royals, dispossessed aristocrats and lounge lizards.

The hotel was immortalised in Olivia Manning's bestseller The Balkan Trilogy, a barely veiled account of her and her husband's lives in wartime Romania. Televised as a BBC series The Fortunes of War, the programme helped to launch the acting careers of Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh in the roles of Harriet and Guy Pringle.

The history of Romania has unfolded along the hotel's corridors, stalked by generations of secret policemen - Monarchist, Nazi, Communist, especially the notorious Securitate of the hated dictator Nicolae Ceausescu - watching and monitoring Western guests.

The days of dictators have vanished and now Romania is a democracy, although one with a thin veneer, as last week's pitched battles between striking miners and police illustrated.

During the Second World War, the Athenee Palace was the favoured billet of German officers, as well as American foreign correspondents who did their bit for the Allied war effort by hiding the jackboots that were left out for polishing.

I first stayed at the Athenee Palace during the miners' riots of autumn 1991 - a fitting introduction to the Balkan intrigue that still characterises Romania. Clouds of tear-gas drifted by outside as hundreds of grimy miners ran amok across the city, wielding clubs and planks studded with nails. In every corner of the hotel foyer dodgy-looking men in badly cut suits sat obscured by plumes of cigarette smoke, while women of the night - and day - painted their nails.

There were dozens of empty rooms but I still had to bribe the concierge to find me a place to sleep and the telephonist to connect me to an international telephone line.

Those days are gone now, and the once gloriously Balkan pile has been given a post- modern makeover, transformed into a pounds 200-a-night Hilton. The service has improved but the atmosphere of intrigue has vanished.

The drivers of horse-drawn carriages that the Pringles used have also vanished, and now those seeking a quick passage across the city use Dacia taxis. Ask a taxi-driver how much is the fare, and he will, as often as not, tell you to pay however much you think fit, part of the engagingly laid-back Romanian charm.

As in pre-war days, the city's main shopping street is the Calea Victoriei. Under the madness of Ceausescu-era Communism, most of the shops and cafes that gave the street its former vitality vanished. But slowly, the Calea Victoriei, like its equivalents in Budapest, Prague and Warsaw, is coming to life. Once almost pitch black at night, the bright lights of downtown Bucharest rival if not London or Paris, at least east Berlin.

Here the city's nouveau riche may purchase all those accoutrements deemed necessary for capitalist life: make-up by Estee Lauder, clothes by Benetton and Stefanel and mobile telephones by Nokia.

As well as the ubiquitous McDonald's and Pizza Hut - both hugely popular with young people and still a novelty in a country where the tradition of eating out had been all but eradicated - Bucharest now boasts a mini- culinary renaissance of Romanian food, with many small family-run restaurants opening up.

In most post-Communist European capitals such events would be unremarkable, the natural progress of modernisation that follows a free-market economy. But even by Communist standards Romania was not a normal country.

Ceausescu's legacy to his people - apart from a wrecked economy and crumbling national infrastructure - is the massive presidential palace, on a hill overlooking Bucharest, that still casts a shadow, both real and metaphorical. ButCeausescu never got to stand on the palace's balcony to receive his people's acclaim. That honour was left to the former president Ion Iliescu and ironically, one of capitalism's ultimate icons - the pop star Michael Jackson.

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