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Ancient Romania was inhabited by Thracian tribes. In the first century BC, Greece established the state of Dacia there to counter the threat from Rome. Dacia fell to Rome in 106 AD, becoming a province of the Roman Empire. Faced with Goth attacks in 271 AD, Emperor Aurelian decided to withdraw the Roman legions south of the Danube, but the Romanised Vlach peasants remained in Dacia, forming a Romanian people. By the 10th century, small Romanian states emerged, and their consolidation led to the formation of the principalities of Moldavia, Wallachia and Transylvania. From the 10th century the Magyars spread into Transylvania and by the 13th century it was an autonomous principality under the Hungarian crown. In the 14th century Hungarian forces tried unsuccessfully to capture Wallachia and Moldavia.

Throughout the 14th and 15th centuries Wallachia and Moldavia offered strong resistance to Ottoman Empire expansion. During this struggle the prince of Wallachia, Vlad Tepes (known as the Impaler, because he rarely ate a meal without a Turk writhing on a stake in front of him), became a hero; he later became associated with Dracula. Transylvania fell to Ottoman control in the 16th century, and after this Wallachia and Moldavia paid tribute to the Turks but retained their autonomy. In 1600 the three Romanian states were briefly united under Mihai Viteazul, prince of Wallachia, after he joined forces with the ruling princes of Moldavia and Transylvania against the Turks. Unity lasted only one year, after which he was defeated by a joint Habsburg-Transylvanian force, and then captured and beheaded. Transylvania came under Habsburg rule, while Turkish suzerainty continued in Wallachia and Moldavia until well into the 19th century. In 1775 the northern part of Moldavia, Bucovina, was annexed by Austria-Hungary. This was followed in 1812 by the loss of its eastern territory, Bessarabia, to Russia. After the Russo-Turkish War of 1828-29, Ottoman domination over the principalities finally came to an end.

After 1848 Transylvania fell under the direct rule of Austria-Hungary from Budapest, and ruthless Magyarisation followed. In 1859 Alexandru Ioan Cuza was elected to the thrones of Moldavia and Wallachia, creating a national state, which was named Romania in 1862. Carol I succeeded him in 1866, and in 1877 Dobruja became part of Romania. Romania was declared a kingdom in 1881, with Carol I as king. He died at the start of WWI and was succeeded by his nephew Ferdinand I who, in 1916, entered the war on the side of the Triple Entente. His objective was to liberate Transylvania from Austria-Hungary. In 1918, Bessarabia, Bucovina and Transylvania became part of Romania.

After WWI, numerous political parties emerged in Romania, including the Legion of the Archangel Michael, better known as the fascist Iron Guard. Led by Corneliu Codreanu, this party dominated the political scene by 1935. Carol II, who had succeeded his father Ferdinand I to the throne, declared a royal dictatorship in 1938, and all political parties were dissolved. In 1939 he clamped down on the Iron Guard (which he had previously actively supported) and had Codreanu and other legionaries assassinated. In 1940 the USSR occupied Bessarabia, and Romania was forced to cede northern Transylvania to Hungary by order of Germany and Italy. Southern Dobruja was also given to Bulgaria. These setbacks sparked off widespread demonstrations, and the king called in General Marshall Ion Antonescu to help quash the rising mass hysteria. Antonescu forced Carol to abdicate in favour of his 19-year-old son Michael, and then imposed a fascist dictatorship with himself as

The Soviet-engineered return of Transylvania to Romania helped the Moscow-backed communists win the 1946 elections. A year later King Michael was forced to abdicate, and a Romanian People's Republic was proclaimed. A period of state terror then ensued, in which all pre-war leaders, prominent intellectuals and suspected dissidents were rounded up and imprisoned in hard-labour camps. In the late 1950s Romania began to distance itself from Moscow, pursuing an independent foreign policy under Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej (1952-65) and Nicolae Ceausescu (1965-89). Ceausescu condemned Soviet 'intervention' in Czechoslovakia in 1968, earning him praise and economic aid from the West. If his foreign policy was skilful, his domestic policy was inept and megalomaniacal. Most of his grandiose projects (the construction of the Danube-Black Sea 'Death' Canal and the behemoth House of the People in Bucharest, and systemisation) were expensive failures. His Securitate (secret police) kept the populace in check, recruiting a vast network of informers.

The advent of Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980s meant that the USA no longer needed Romania, and withdrew its 'most favoured nation' status. Ceausescu decided to export Romania's food to pay off the country's mounting debt. While Ceausescu and his wife, Elena (his first deputy prime minister), lived in luxury, his people struggled to feed themselves, as bread, eggs, flour, oil, salt, sugar, beef and potatoes were rationed; by the mid-1980s meat was unobtainable. In 1987 protest riots in Brasov were crushed. On 15 December 1989, as one communist regime after another collapsed in Eastern Europe, Father Laszlo Tokes spoke out against Ceausescu from his Timisoara church. That evening a crowd gathered outside his home to protest at the decision of the Reformed Church of Romania to remove him from his post. Clashes between the protesters and the Securitate and army troops continued for the next four days. On 19 December the army joined the protesters. On 21 December Bucharest workers booed Ceausescu during a mass rally and street battles between army troops and Securitate and the people began in the capital. The following day the Ceausescus tried to flee Romania, but were arrested. They were tried by an anonymous court, and executed by firing squad on Christmas Day.

It is now believed that members of the National Salvation Front, which took over government of Romania after Ceausescu's death, had been plotting his overthrow for months before the December 1989 demonstrations forced them to act earlier. Initially a caretaker government, it was elected to power in 1990, led by Ion Iliescu. Student protests against its ex-communist leadership were crushed when 20,000 coal miners from the Jiu Valley were brought in to stage a counter riot. The miners were drafted to Bucharest again a year later to force the resignation of reform-minded prime minister Petre Roman.

Iliescu and the National Salvation Front were reelected in 1992, but rampant inflation, unemployment, and allegations of government corruption, meant that in 1996 Iliescu was voted out in favour of Emil Constantinescu, leader of the reform-minded Democratic Convention of Romania. A dramatic about-face in December 2000 saw voters reinstate Iliescu as their president. Romanians probably considered Iliescu the lesser of two evils - his opponent was extremist Corneliu Vadim Tudor of the far-right Greater Romania Party.


Bucovina's painted monasteries were the first in the world to be adorned with frescoes on the outside. Painted in the 16th century, these frescoes also went beyond the confines of religious art, conveying political as well as religious messages. Painting on glass and wood, a traditional peasant art, has been widespread in Romania since the 17th century and remains popular today. Romanian literature draws heavily on the country's rich folkloric heritage coupled with its turbulent history as an occupied country inhabited by a persecuted people. In the 15th century an oral epic folk literature emerged, and writings in the Romanian language took shape around 1420. Modern literature emerged in the 19th century. Romania's best known writer internationally is playwright Eugene Ionesco (1912-94), an exponent of the 'Theatre of the Absurd'. Literature became a tool of the communist party from 1947 onwards. Since 1990 many works have been published attesting to the horrors of the communist period. Folk music and dancing have long been popular in Romania. Couples dance in a circle, a semicircle or a line. Modern Roma (Gypsy) music has absorbed many influences and professional Roma musicians play whatever village clients want.

Romanian is closer to classical Latin than it is to other Romance languages, and the grammatical structure and basic word stock of the mother tongue are well preserved. Speakers of French, Italian and Spanish won't be able to understand much spoken Romanian but will find written Romanian more or less comprehensible. Romanian is spelt phonetically so once you learn a few simple rules you should have no trouble with pronunciation.

Romania is the only country with a Romance language that does not have a Roman Catholic background. It is 86% Romanian Orthodox, 5% Roman Catholic, 3.5% Protestant, 1% Greco-Catholic, 0.3% Muslim and 0.2% Jewish. Unlike other ex-communist countries where the church was a leading opposition voice to the regime, the Romanian Orthodox Church was subservient to and a tool of the government. Today it is hierarchical, dogmatic and wealthy.

Romanians are extremely hospitable. They will welcome you into their modest homes, feed you until you burst, and expect nothing in return other than friendship. Don't rebuff it.

Those who live to eat have long found life pretty dull in Romania. Restaurants still serve traditional, sometimes tedious fare: grilled pork, pork liver, grilled chicken, tripe soup and greasy potatoes, though things are turning around. You can find excellent offerings in the larger cities with a little perserverance. Romania's most novel dish is mamagliga, a hard or soft cornmeal mush which is boiled, baked or fried. In many Romanian households, it's served as the main dish. The other mainstay of the Romanian diet is ciorba (soup). The sweet-toothed won't starve: typical desserts include placinta (turnovers), clarite (crepes) and saraille (almond cake soaked in syrup). Romanian wines are cheap and good. Tuica (plum brandy) and palinca (distilled three times as much as tuica) are mind-blowing liqueurs taken at the beginning of a meal. Noroc! (Cheers!) Avoid the ubiquitous Ness, an awful instant coffee made from vegetable extracts, and try cafea naturala, a 'real' coffee made the Turkish way, with a thick sludge of ground coffee beans at the bottom and a generous spoonful of sugar.

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