After filming more than 100 episodes of Rick Steves’ Europe, Rick and the crew have seen most everything…until they got to Romania. While we wound up with a great show, the crippling red tape didn’t make things easy.
I want to be clear that we worked with dozens of exceptionally gracious, helpful, and capable people in Romania. Sadly, they all seem to be trapped in a ridiculously dysfunctional system. They tried to help us — they really did. At every major sight, the tourist authority would dispatch little delegations to greet us: guides, local tourist board representatives, big-name hoteliers, and so on. But at the end of the day, all of them answered to a higher power that seemed to relish saying “no.” Our contacts’ main function seemed to be commiserating with us when things fell through.
The tourist authority was over the moon that Rick was going to film in Romania. But they were also nervous. Apparently, another American travel TV personality filmed a show in Romania a few years back, and it did not go well. We were told that the presenter — known for employing his sharp tongue to call it like he sees it — grew so frustrated with bureaucratic snafus that he decided to take it out on Romania itself, producing a show that made the country seem like a miserable wasteland. The tourist authority was terrified that Rick, too, would present Romania in a negative light. And so — as if to guarantee the very thing they feared most — they gradually tortured us by trying to (subtly and not so subtly) exert control over the project.
Their paranoia bred paranoia in us. The night before we arrived in Romania, I got a call from the tourist board. Due to a “clerical error,” we had been assigned a guide who would accompany us at all times. He explained that this mistake was only just discovered, the guide had already been booked, and it was impossible to cancel. Rick — who remembers traveling here during the communist era, when any visiting foreigner was assigned a “minder” to report their activities to the authorities — wondered whether this “tour guide” was only there to keep us in line.
It turned out that he was a great guy, and that it really was just a mistake…probably. However, because we had already arranged our own, trusted local guides all over the country, our government-provided guide had literally nothing to do the entire time. We began brainstorming errands we could send him on, just so he could feel useful. (He was.)
The biggest headaches came along with Europe’s biggest building: the Palace of Parliament, which was built to accommodate communist dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu’s ballooning ego. It was a must to film the palace’s jaw-droppingly vast and opulent interior — a priority we had made explicitly clear to the authorities months before we arrived. They repeatedly reassured us that all was being arranged.
But then, something happened. The night before we were to film, we found ourselves being told by the honcho of the tourist authority that we probably wouldn’t be allowed official access. It was suggested that we show up anyway, buy a tourist ticket, and send our cameraman in with the regularly scheduled tour to film it on the fly. It wasn’t ideal, but it could work. It had to work.
The next morning, we were greeted by a half-dozen tourism officials. As instructed, we bought tickets for the official tour and lined up. But then, moments before the tour began, we were told that the authorities were onto us. To keep a low profile, we decided to send only our cameraman, Karel.
Karel hung his DSLR around his neck and headed inside to “play tourist.” Rick, Simon, and the entire delegation waited nervously outside, hoping Karel could get the shots we needed. But just a few minutes later, Karel walked out the door. “I got kicked off the tour,” he said apologetically. Nothing could be done.
We decided to bail on the parliament and began filming other sights around Bucharest. A few hours later, as Rick was filming an on-camera with the parliament in the distant background, my phone rang.
“I am sorry to say there was a misunderstanding,” came the voice of our tourist authority contact. “But we have now obtained permission, and you may go film at the parliament.”
We didn’t buy it. “Are you sure we have official permission to film?”
“With our big camera?”
“And with our tripod?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Do we have to tag along with a tour?”
“No, you may go wherever you like. They will provide you with your own guide. In fact, do not go to the tourist entrance. Go to the parliamentarians’ entrance. ”
Still skeptical, we hopped a taxi back to the parliament to be warmly greeted by a literal red carpet and a press secretary. Sure enough, we had the run of the place. Talk about a turnaround: from being kicked to the curb, to VIP treatment…in just a couple of hours. (And the Palace of Parliament segment turned out great.)
While much of Eastern Europe is doing well these days, Romania still struggles. Throughout our shoot, we got to know many wonderful Romanians grappling with a system that simply doesn’t understand how to function. When pressed, many locals deny that this is an artifact of Ceaușescu’s brutal rule (embodied by the opulent palace that he literally starved his people to build). But, given the success stories I’ve seen in so many other formerly communist countries, and the number Ceaușescu did on poor Romania, it feels like they protest too much. Are they in denial? Or still trying to hide the damage that was done?
Thanks to the help of many fine individuals, we came home with 30 glorious minutes of TV celebrating the beauty of Romania. On my scouting trip, several locals quoted a cryptic saying: “Romania is a beautiful country…what a pity it’s inhabited.” I’m charmed by Romania, and couldn’t understand where this cynicism came from. But after dealing with the red tape of filming a show here…I have a new appreciation for the unofficial national motto.
This is part eight of my “Behind the Scenes” blog series about Rick Steves’ Europe Season 9 — now airing nationwide (check your local listings). You can also watch the Bulgaria and Romania episodes for free. And in case you’re in a gift-giving mode, the brand-new, 10-episode Season 9 DVD is currently on sale in our Travel Store.