First day in Ploiesti

It has been a quiet time on the blog recently, the reason being our big move to Romania. We arrived in Ploiesti on Saturday, and we relaxed in the evening so we could have all day yesterday for visiting the town.

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Ploiesti, where I (ES) am from, is an industrial town in the south of Romania, about 40 minutes drive from Bucharest. It started flourishing as a centre for trade and handicraft manufacturing in the 17th and 18th century. It became an important transport hub with the building of the roads and railway connecting the capital with the mountain region in the second half of the 19th century.

It was known in the mid-19th century as a world leader in oil extraction and refinery, nicknamed The Capital of Black Gold. The oil production became a target of the Allies in WW2, as the city was an important source of oil for Nazi Germany. Although badly damaged during the war, the oil industry was nationalised by the new Communist regime after the Soviet troops captured Ploiesti in 1944, who managed to modernise it through huge investments.

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After the Romanian Revolution of 1989, Ploiesti had a rapid economic growth with the help of investments from foreign companies, interested in the central location of the city in the country and its ties with the oil and petroleum industry.  Huge international companies have also brought investment recently, making Ploiesti into a retail and distribution hub.

Architectural remnants of all these historical periods are scattered around the city centre, and we managed to visit a few today.

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The Art Museum was our first stop. It housed The Iosif Iser International Contemporary Engraving Biennal Exhibition. The building however, looked closed, so we rang the bell at the door, feeling like we are being let into someone’s house.  My first interaction with another local (other than my parents) proved to be quite odd, as, although we were at first offered student discounted tickets, the offer were retracted as soon as the cashier heard English being spoken. Taking us downstairs to pay, she served us a short rant about how discounted tickets should only be for Romanian students, not for foreigners who are coming to take over the country! We entered the large lobby with pink marble columns, gold painted acanthus leaves and herringbone parquet flooring. The first, small room had a few nice landscape paintings by Romanian Impressionists Nicolae Grigorescu and Stefan Luchian and other uninspiring portraits. We then had a look at the print exhibition that was on display in the rest of the building. The hundreds of prints on show, by international artists,  were of varying styles, some of them quite bold and innovative in their use of other materials in their printmaking. They were in contrast with the neo-classical rooms, decorated with golden ceilings, intricate chandeliers and a grand piano. The whole setting had a very informal, domestic feel, with plants and big windows in the galleries and the prints hung on strings. This made the spaces feel very light and pleasant. The building was constructed between 1885 and 1894, designed by Romanian architect Leonida Negrescu and built by Italian builders. Its most impressive feature was a grand staircase, of which we made a quick sketch, as we weren’t allowed photos.

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Walking towards the town centre, we observed more grand buildings in neo-classical/Romanian styles, smaller houses dating from later Art Deco period, Communist and Brutalist blocks of flats or Council buildings, as well as the glass and aluminium Postmodern eyesores that are the companies headquarters built after the Revolution. Groups of old men were playing backgammon and chess in the park. We stopped for a coffee at Hotel Central to do a few more sketches, and then walked around the centre for a bit. Casa Sindicatelor, a concert and event hall, is probably the most interesting Brutalist building in town, with the Town Hall coming in a close second. Most Romanians have mixed or generally negative feelings about the architectural heritage of the communist times, but we enjoy the innovative uses of concrete and the statement that these buildings make: they are places for the people. However, we cannot forget the troubled history of erecting these edifices, with countless beautiful historical buildings being razed to the ground to make room for these architectural proclamations of the state and leader’s power.

We then went through the open market, making our way towards the History Museum, which houses the clock collection from the Clock Museum temporarily. The clocks, watches, musical boxes and mechanical toys on display come from all over Europe and are truly unique. Unfortunately, we weren’t allowed pictures so we had to settle for doing a quick sketch.

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Our final stop for the day was the Ivan “Hagi” Prodan House, or the Old Merchant’s House. The oldest building in town, it was built in 1785 by an Aromanian merchant from the Southern Balkans.  The well-travelled merchant established himself in the small market town and married a local woman, building this house in the Romanian traditional style with Turkish influences. Small rooms with low ceilings fan out of the main hallway space, which also doubles up as a day room with a large bay window. Here is where the Hagi and his wife would entertain guests and business partners, lying on red divans and cushions and smoking hash pipes. “Hagi” is the title given to men who have travelled to Jerusalem and brought back to Romania a holly icon or relic.  This icon is exhibited in the living room, a large Byzantine-style painting showing the Bible in pictures, from 1819. The living room also displays an impressive timber ceiling decorated in a radial manner, as well as old furniture and a large lime plastered stove used to heat the room.  The kitchen and main bedroom equally had an array of old utilitarian utensils and decorative objects from the 18th and 19th century, giving the whole house an authentic feel of the life in the old days in Romania. There are places in Romania, off the beaten tracks, where these objects are still being used and where traditions persist, but they are slowly being replaced by modern comfort in the form of electrical appliances and badly made double-glazed windows. A wide porch and a basement storage – which is now strangely in use as a pub – complete the old merchant’s house.

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We decided to take the tram for 3 stops towards the South Train Station, but the trip was probably less romantic than its equivalents in sunny Portugal or Spain. We then walked home after stroking a pack of stray dogs.

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The day ended with a semi-traditional meal of Branza cu smantana si mamaliga (Cottage cheese, sour cream and polenta) and some pork steak with chips and pickles, after which we paid a visit to my aunt and uncle who live in the next-door flat. Here, over a glass of wine, we chatted about politics and current affairs, the favourite subject for Romanians, obviously without reaching a conclusion!

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