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Bucharest's Athénée Palace

The Athénée Palace was a prototype, and soon enough the other hotels in town followed suit. Everyone knew—except, presumably, the guests.The novelist Norman Manea, who left Romania in 1986, recalls with amusement hearing the story of a Frenchwoman checking into a Bucharest hotel in the eighties: "'Excuse me, I have a request,' she says to the Securitate agent working as a receptionist, 'I've been told there are microphones in the rooms. Would you be so kind...could I have one without?'"

The Cold War was good, obviously, to the spy trade, and the spy trade was essential to Ceausescu, who lived in luxury while his people lived in misery. It was widely believed that one in four Romanians was somehow complicit with the Securitate, either as an employee or informant. Manea says Romanians would joke that in a family of four you had to ask, "Which one of us is the guy?" (The real ratio was probably more like 1 in 20.) The assumption was that anything you said, anywhere and at any time, could be overheard, recorded, processed, and of course, punished. Furthermore, according to the former spymaster Ion Pacepa, who, after years as one of Ceausescu's top aides, defected to the United States in 1978, the theft of Western technology had become "the single most important component of the country's economy" by the time he fled.

In 1994, a few years after the supreme leader's downfall, the Athénée Palace closed its doors. It was sold at auction; Hilton International began a $42 million renovation in 1995, reopening the hotel in 1997. Expanded to 272 rooms (including five presidential suites), the Athénée Palace Hilton resembles the old hotel fairly closely, despite a healthy dose of modernization. The famous English Bar, dimly lit and full of plush red couches, is more likely to contain young American businessmen with the beginnings of wealthy waistlines than it is to hold femmes fatales eliciting state secrets.

But the future has arrived in Eastern Europe—at least in its cities—and the Hilton iteration of the Athénée Palace is ready for it, with conference rooms, a business center, a beauty salon, and numerous restaurants. Foreign investment has lagged in Romania, far behind the success stories of Poland and Hungary, for example, but the country joined NATO in 2003 and is set to join the EU in 2007. Perhaps a little like the Warsaw or Budapest of a decade ago, it's a strangely contorted city, a head looking forward and a body facing backward. For Romania is still a country mostly populated by citizens who grew up not knowing if they had any secrets to themselves. Today, Romanian businessmen tend to take the chip out of their mobile phones when they want to talk about a deal privately—cell phones are particularly easy to bug, and you can never be sure who might be listening. They may just be paranoid. But it's also possible that they know something we don't.

Athénée Palace Hilton Bucharest, 1–3 Episcopiei St., Sector 1; 800/445-8667 or 40-21/303-3777; www.hilton.com; doubles from $325.

DAN HALPERN has written for Colors, the New Republic, and other magazines.


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