It was Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy that first drew me to Bucharest. I had been sent on a consulting assignment to Budapest in the summer of 1987, and only three weeks into the assignment couldn’t resist travelling, a long and arduous overnight journey, in appalling heat, by train, to its like-sounding and neighbouring capital (famously, an international rock star recently greeted his Bucharest fans with ‘Hello, Budapest!’). A sinister security man inspected every item in my luggage as we crossed the border, and then pronounced, like Dracula on the threshold of his castle, ‘You are welcome to my country.’
My Hungarian colleague were astonished that I wanted to visit Romania. The country was skidding into its last two Ceausescu years, and Hungary’s relationship with the regime, despite fraternal socialist solidarity, was hostile. Ceausescu was bent on ethnic homogenisation, apparently destroying traditional Hungarian villages and collectivising their inhabitants into insanitary concrete bunkers.
So, I was realistic about what I might find in Bucharest. I didn’t imagine that the shabby grandeur and glamour that Olivia Manning describes would have survived. Olivia and her British Council employed husband, Reggie, arrived in Bucharest on 3rd September 1939 (the day war was declared in Britain) and remained there as the country succumbed gradually to German influence. It was then, as now, all about oil. Romania possessed vital oilfields of strategic significance to the Reich.
I’m in Bucharest, again, 28 years after my first visit, staying at the Athenee Palace Hotel. I visit often, since LLP Group has a branch in Bucharest, but I don’t usually stay here. It’s a five-star Hilton Hotel and expensive. But business deserts Bucharest during the heat of the summer and I got a very good rate, and thereby access to the cooling indoor swimming pool.
This hotel plays an important walk-on role in the Balkan Trilogy. Its English Bar is the scene of social ascent and descent, political gossip and shamelessly overt spying. Olivia Manning and her husband lived just around the corner in a flat that I think is one of these:
The Balkan Trilogy is largely autobiographical and one can plot Olivia’s and Reggie’s lives directly from the pages of these three novels. She found the city daunting – exciting and appalling in equal measure. She described it as being on the margins of European civilisation, “a strange, half-Oriental capital” that was “primitive, bug-ridden and brutal”, whose citizens were peasants, whatever their wealth or status.
When Romania became a dictatorship a couple of years later, Olivia and Reggie escaped on ‘the Lufthansa’ to Athens, and then, when that city fell, to Cairo.
Whatever charm the hotel once possessed has been subtracted by the Hilton chain, so there’s little to remind you of the dreadful but fascinating first years of the Second World War.
After the Communists came to power the hotel declined rapidly into socialist shabbiness. Whether it’s true that every room was bugged and every waiter a spy I do not know. I can’t imagine that anyone of interest or note stayed here.
I saw the hotel myself during its lowest years in 1987, during my weekend away-break from Budapest, mainly to drink in the atmosphere of the Balkan Trilogy, and I found myself drinking a warm unlabelled beer in the courtyard of the hotel as a toast to Olivia and the past. I waited nearly 40 minutes for it and nearly missed my train to Brasov.
In 1989 the changes came, Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu got shot, and in due course Bucharest became less interesting, more modern, and, as the years passed, even service at the Athenee Palace became sharper. I’m sorry that the hotel is a bland ghost of its former self, but I don’t think Hilton had much of a choice. It’s comfortable, and I’m grateful for the air-conditioning during this summer’s European heat wave.
The only spying you’ll find is on the contents of your minibar.