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Published: August 30th 2018
Today we were travelling south from Brasov to Bucharest
We were catching an early train to Bucharest, so we had a quick breakfast of muesli, yoghurt, toast, cheese, salami, scrambled eggs and tea. We grabbed our packs, jumped into a taxi and headed to the Brasov railway station. We wandered through the virtually deserted station, found our train and settled in for the two hour trip to Bucharest.
The train was not overly comfortable – it was very hot with a strong smell of rotten eggs which we think was fuel-based and coming through the air-conditioning vents. However, once it chugged out of Brasov, the air conditioning kicked in (lightly) and the smell disappeared. We climbed through the Carpathian Mountains, with mist shrouding the tree tops, then sped along lush green agricultural plains which occasionally showed the scars of industrialisation, including gas refineries with flames spewing into the air from tall thin metal chimneys.
We arrived in Bucharest in the late morning, jumped off the train and caught a tram to our hotel. The tram was stifling hot, and we couldn’t wait to get out. It was only a few stops from the station, so we
didn’t have to endure it for long. We jumped off the tram and walked a short distance to our hotel.
When we were eventually assigned a room, we discovered it hadn’t been cleaned, so we left our packs beside the bed and informed a very militant guy at reception about the situation – and he wasn’t pleased. In fact, I don’t think he was pleased about much in general. He stormed off and told someone off, then came back and informed us the room would be cleaned. In a fleeting moment of madness, I considered asking when he thought that may happen, but I decided to err on the side of caution and remain silent. The atmosphere was becoming exponentially volatile, and I didn’t want to add to his heightened levels of stress. We were heading out anyway, so I took him at his word and hoped the room would be ready on our return. And of course it was.
With the hotel fiasco behind us, we made our way towards the Palace of Parliament, picking up some pastries and drinks on the way. The midday sun was intense, so we found some shade and settled in Izvor
Park, with Nicolae Ceausescu’s gargantuan (and megalomaniacal) parliament building shrouding the horizon in front of us. As we ate, I couldn’t help but think of Shelley’s Ozymandias:
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert... near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings;
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Ceausescu’s Palace of Parliament has not yet crumbled into the sand, but it has crumbled in sentiment to so many Romanians, and it is hardly used today. The Romanian government spends millions in public funds each year to maintain the building, yet only 5% of it is currently utilised.
We finished our picnic and walked towards the parliament
building for our scheduled tour. It was certainly opulent in every sense of the word, but the physical and psychological cracks were visible everywhere. Chandeliers (of which there are many) were crooked, and many were not functioning. Carpets were scuffed and faded, curtains hadn’t been straightened for years, marble was chipped and cracked, and ludicrously large portrait frames remained empty on the walls – they were meant for portraits of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu, but no-one wanted the two figureheads of communist rule looking down upon them. The only upside, if there is one, is that Ceausescu didn’t get to deliver any speeches from his purpose-built pulpits, or admire gigantic portraits of himself in the grand halls and rooms, because the people he ruled killed him before the building was finished. The same people who starved as he exported their food to pay for his palace.
Our palace tour guide was an extremely affable and likeable guy, and he was very open to questions. When I told him one of our minibus drivers had mentioned – in passing – that Ceausescu was a great man, he smiled and told me that some Romanians have struggled to accept change. He
was born in the 1980s, so he didn’t really understand life under communism, but his parents did, and he said they would often feel a little nostalgic when remembering Romania as a communist state. Pre-1989, they had state-sanctioned jobs and lived in a state-funded apartment with very low rent. Post-1989, the safety net of state-sanctioned jobs disappeared and rental costs skyrocketed. I could see his point.
While I’ve never been impressed by exhibitionistic displays of wealth, I did agree with him that the Palace of Parliament should be exploited in some way rather than left to crumble into the sand like the statue in Shelley’s poem. The people of Romania suffered considerably for this structure, so they should at least be able to reap some reward for its ongoing use, rather than continually having to pay for its upkeep. I was heartened by the fact that my entrance fee went towards its maintenance, but tourist dollars account for less than 10% of the building’s annual maintenance costs.
I really welcomed the honesty and openness of our guide. It must be hard to share the hardships of your parents with a group of strangers, but I think
he had an ulterior motive – he wanted to tell the story of Romania, and it was a story best told through the eyes of his parents.
After our Palace of Parliament tour, we headed out on a walking tour of the city. The sun was intense in the mid-afternoon when we left the building, but menacing clouds hovered overhead. Our local guide’s name was Rezvan, and he was much the same age as the guide that took us through the palace. Rezvan was born in 1985, so he was only four years old when communism fell. As we walked away from the palace through Izvor Park, he described the building as a blight on Bucharest’s cityscape. He felt it was not symmetrical, because Ceausescu was always visiting the construction site and demanding changes to the structure, which led to its non-synchronous facade. He felt it should never have been built where it was, and that he hated seeing it every day of his life. However, he also told us that independent costings have shown that it would cost far more to demolish than to restore, so the government is in a difficult position. The current policy is to
continue an annual maintenance schedule while looking at re-purposing options.
We made our way towards Bucharest’s Historic Centre (also known as the Old Town area), and it wasn’t long before the heavens opened. We sheltered under trees, in doorways and hallways, and under the eaves of buildings – anywhere to escape the deluge. We waited and waited until the deluge eased and then continued our tour in the rain. Photography was hard (if not impossible), as we didn’t want rain drops on our lenses. We marvelled at the art nouveau buildings, ancient orthodox churches and elegant boulevards. We dropped into the striking Stavropoleos Church, which offered timely shelter from the rain. The tiny church was guarded by an austere old woman, and it needed to be – people were leaning on the old stone walls, water was dripping from our raincoats and umbrellas, and some forgot to take their hats off. It didn’t take long before they received a tap on the shoulder, and on turning around found themselves on the receiving end of a very fierce stare and a shaking finger. We were all terrified! 😊
We made our way to Piata Revolutiei (Revolution Square), one of
the key public landmarks of the 1989 revolution and the subsequent overthrow of Ceausescu. We stood in front of the Central Committee of the Communist Party building, where Ceausescu gave his final speech from a balcony before escaping (albeit briefly) by helicopter from the roof of the building. We stood underneath the Rebirth Memorial, which unfortunately looks like an impaled potato – Vlad Tepes eat your heart out. At some stage in the recent past, an objector has hurled red paint at the base of the basket-like crown (aka potato) which sits hallway up the sculpted obelisk, and it has been left – almost as if it was intended as part of the original sculpture. I think the red paint gives the sculpture meaning – something it clearly needed from the start.
As we stood and reflected in Revolution Square, the late afternoon rain suddenly transformed into a torrential downpour, so we sheltered as best we could under nearby trees. As we waited for the rain to ease, I asked Rezvan if he felt communism could ever succeed in the hands of the right people. His response was as astute as it was succinct: “I believe in socialism, which
has been successful in some countries, but I do not hold any hope for communism.” I couldn’t help but believe him.
The deluge didn’t seem to be abating, so we decided to walk home in the pouring rain. We trudged through torrents of water overflowing from gutters and roads, and we were absolutely sodden. This storm caught everyone by surprise, but there was something refreshing about walking in the warm rain after our tour of Bucharest’s Palace of Parliament and Historic Centre.
We eventually arrived at our hotel in the early evening, where we peeled sodden clothes from our bodies and quickly showered before heading out to a nearby restaurant (Vatra) for dinner. I ordered chicken stuffed rolls (chicken stuffed in grape leaves and served with polenta, creme fraiche and chilli), while Ren opted for the Romanian stuffed cabbage rolls (pork and beef stuffed in cabbage leaves and served with polenta and chilli). Mine was tasty (Ren’s was less so), and it was a great end to an enjoyable and enlightening day of travel.
We woke late (7am) and headed straight to breakfast, gathering a spread of muesli, cranberries, dates, yoghurt, toast, jam, pastries and fruit tea.
Feeling refreshed and ready for the day, we headed out on an Urban Adventures tour titled Bohemian Bucharest: Markets & Mahallas
. Our local guide was Mircea, who was only eight years old when communism fell in 1989. He remembered his father carrying him on his shoulders during the revolution marches. After living through such a turbulent period, he loved Romania as a free and democratic society, and he wanted to promote it. Unlike our previous two Bucharest guides, Mircea wanted to paint a glass-half-full picture of his country. While there had been terrible times in the past, Romania was rebuilding, and it was time to celebrate the best parts of the country. His willingness to share this made for a memorable (and unforgettable) day.
We walked past incredible art nouveau architecture, and Mircea showed us his favourite buildings and villas – the ones he wished he could buy and restore. He showed us what the Soviet’s left – row upon row of endless high rise apartment blocks jutting into the sky, devoid of style or design. Romania, he told us, had always been on the wrong side of history, and as a consequence has always had to plead for
its existence. He desperately wanted this to change.
We walked past Bucharest’s largest university, an amazing and beautifully designed architectural landmark where anti-communist protests began a few days before Christmas in 1989. We walked past old buildings riddled with bullet holes – the scars of war still remain in Romania, almost 30 years after the revolution.
We stopped at a trendy secluded bar in a leafy part of Bucharest, where we enjoyed an amazing craft beer (Zaganu) with a large plate of bread, cheese, salami, prosciutto, onion, zacusca
(eggplant and vegetable paste) and gherkins. Man – this was amazing, and I could have stayed here all day. After a coffee at a nearby hole-in-the-wall cafe, we continued on our walking tour of this amazing city, stopping at a bar for another beer as the rain started teeming down. This was turning into an incredible day. We continued on to Obor, an organic farmers market, where Mircea picked up some bread, cheese, tomatoes and zacusca
We then walked a short distance to Terasa Obor, an outdoor mici
(skinless sausage) stall attached to the market. Mici
is marketed as the most loved street food in Romania, and I can
see why – this was such an amazing taste sensation, especially when dipped in the mustard sauce it came with. We started with a shot of palinka
(fruit brandy), then moved onto cold beer to complement the mici
sausages and the amazing spread Mircea had gathered from the market.
We finished the meal with gogoasa
(donuts) which Mircea purchased from a street stall as he guided us back to our hotel – via tram, underground metro and footpaths. We arrived back exhausted and exhilarated – it had been an amazing travel experience. We were crossing the border into Bulgaria the following morning, so we picked up some snacks from a nearby supermarket in preparation for the long train journey ahead.
As we relaxed in our hotel room, I reflected on the day. Mircea had said two things during his tour that had really impacted me. When summarising the outcome of the 1989 revolution, and when talking about his current life in Romania, he said: ‘You have to speak, and you have to travel’
. Ceausescu and his communist cronies made it difficult for Romanians to do either, and I realised how lucky and privileged we are to live in
a democratic society where we can speak and travel freely. It is not something to take lightly, and it is certainly not something to take for granted.
When describing Bucharest’s smaller orthodox churches, including the Stavropoleos Church in the city’s Historic Centre, and comparing them to larger and more ornate Catholic churches, Mircea said: ‘You are small, and God is close’
. I couldn’t help but agree. It’s almost impossible to know where God is lurking when you visit colossal cathedrals, but you are made to believe he is somewhere, watching and judging your every thought and action. However, in the smaller and less ostentatious churches, there is only just enough room for him to sit right beside you.
I loved Bucharest – a cornucopia of design, style and taste. However, I also struggled with what I heard, saw and experienced in this gritty city – buildings scarred with bullet holes, palaces of fallen tyrants and the unsmiling faces of those who have learned not to trust. You have to speak, and you have to travel. You are small, and God is close.
Mircea Constantin, 2018 SHE SAID...
Today was a travel day from Brasov
, by train.
We woke up a bit tired after another late night and got ready for our travel day to Bucharest – our last stop in Romania. I was a bit sad to leave Brasov, as we hadn’t seen everything we wanted to see in the city. After a solid breakfast of rolls filled with fried egg and fresh tomatoes, followed by pancakes with honey, my energy levels surged and I felt suitably ready for a travel day.
We caught taxies to the Brasov railway station in time to board the 8:40am train to Bucharest. We passed through the beautiful ski towns of Poiana Brasov and Sinaia, clad in their summer coats of dark green conifers. The train chugged alongside a beautiful river for a while as we meandered through valleys with light forest and stark mountains on either side. The small blink-and-you’d-miss towns were punctuated with derelict looking communist-era buildings and abandoned industrial estates. I wrote for a while and then napped for the rest of the trip.
Bucharest was the last stop on the line, and it was stinging hot when we walked out of the train station. We caught a trundling old
tram for the three stops to our hotel, but not before we had a close call with a pick-pocket. As we stood at the tram stop, there were many locals waiting with us, and I happened to notice a middle aged guy who appeared to have an intellectual disability… he circled us a couple of times and stared at our packs. As we swarmed to the entrance of the tram when it arrived, Mattia (our group leader) warned us to watch our bags, and I looked up to see the guy standing way too close to Narelle. I called out to her sharply and she realised his hand was on her cross-body bag. He scampered away without any harm done, but what a great ploy to lower people’s guard by pretending to be intellectually challenged!
Hotel Trianon was on a shady tree-lined street next to Cismigiu Gardens, the oldest public green space in the city. It would normally have been a nice enough hotel. However, it was undergoing renovations, and we walked into a reception area with temporary walls, a single office desk and plaster dust over everything. It was too early to check in, so we milled around
and sat on dusty walls as we waited. A few rooms became available, and we thought we were one of the lucky ones to get a room, but it turned out they hadn’t cleaned the room after the previous guests. Not only were there used toiletries and stained sheets, but the room stank of cigarette smoke! We’d normally have asked to change rooms, but we were about to leave for a few hours, so it didn’t really matter… and the room had been cleaned by the time we returned.
We bought pastries and drinks at a corner shop near our hotel and walked to Izvor Park for a late-lunch picnic. The park was hosting a Tribute Band Festival (yes, a festival of bands who play other band’s songs!) so we had to listen to their sound check while we shared various pastries filled with sour cherries and cheese. We were at this particular park because it was directly opposite the Palace of Parliament, which we were about to visit.
To say the Palace of Parliament building is huge doesn’t even begin to cover its scale. It looked ok enough from afar, but as we drew near I could
see it was a monstrous building where neo-classical improbably met communist-era design. Security measures were understandably tight – we had to show our passports and our bags had to be screened (luckily Andrew wasn’t carrying his Swiss army knife on him). I wondered why they didn’t just have a locker system for bags in the waiting area… it would have expedited every tour by at least 20 minutes, and the grumpy screening staff could have been utilised in jobs they actually enjoyed doing. 😊
The Parliament building is in a neighbourhood that was shaped by the grandiose vision of Romania’s former megalomaniac dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his ruthless wife Elena. Apparently a visit to North Korea in the early 1980s inspired Nicolae, and he displaced about 40,000 people and razed a vast portion of the Old Town to build a Civic Centre… a shrine to communism and their inflated egos.
We walked through a few floors of the building, trailing behind the guide through vast echoing hallways and even vaster rooms. The rooms we saw were heavy with masses of marble, tonnes of silk and velvet drapery, kilometres of carpets and whole forests worth of hard wood. They
only used Romanian materials (apart from a door famously gifted by a fellow dictator in Africa). The guide was affable and interesting, but the facts and numbers relating to the building were overwhelming, and I stopped listening after a while. However, I remembered the building has 1,100 rooms and they used something like 300 tonnes of crystals for the chandeliers!
Less than half the rooms were ever finished, and even those that are in use had a somewhat forlorn and haunted air about them. I liked the symmetry of design and some aspects of the intricate handcrafted craftsmanship, but I found a lot of it gaudy, hollow and insincere. Even though this was supposed to be an opulent-no-expenses-spared building, behind the grand facade the building felt exactly what it was like – a pre-fabricated 1980s building… albeit, a very posh one. The phrases ‘marble overdose’ and ‘marble graveyard’ kept popping into my head. It was the perfect example of more not being better, but more just being more! To put it rather crudely, there’s an Australian saying that encapsulates my feelings very succinctly: ‘You can’t polish a turd, but you can roll it in glitter’.
We ended the
tour at a balcony that overlooked the boulevard leading to Parliament and the vast surrounding Civic Centre with its apartment blocks built to accommodate high ranking officials. My feelings of hollowness and sadness persisted. Whole sections of 18th and 19th century neighbourhoods had been bulldozed for this. I should make the point that far from being against functionalist apartment blocks, I actually highly value their contribution to social housing. However, I will always support repurposing buildings over destroying them.
The Ceausescus never got to enjoy their masterpiece. Ironically, the palace was designed with underground tunnels to aid their escape in the event of a revolution, but it was still unfinished when they were killed after a brief but bloody revolution in 1989. I had thought that Romania’s government now occupied some of the building, but the guide informed us that apart from temporarily hiring out ballrooms and meeting rooms, the building is predominantly unoccupied. It’s the world’s second largest government administrative building (after the Pentagon). And according to the Guinness World Records, it’s also the world’s heaviest building. Well, given all the marble in the place, that’s probably not surprising.
After Ceausescu was overthrown, the people of Romania
wanted the unfinished building demolished. However, I think they calculated that it would cost less to complete it. So the money generated from tours and hiring out rooms goes towards its maintenance. But judging by the cracks in the walls, damp bubbling through plaster, chipped doorways and thin paint jobs, the money isn’t quite enough to sustain the beast.
I have mixed feelings about our guided tour of Parliament. On the one hand I liked listening to the guide’s personal stories, and seeing the architecture and craftsmanship up close; but I was also sickened by the criminality of creating such a pompous and pretentious object when the country’s people were starving!
However, regardless of how distasteful I found the building, my pragmatic side can’t believe that it isn’t used to its full capacity – leaving it empty is so wasteful! It seems right that the building should be utilised to serve the people who literally and figuratively paid such a high price for it.
An earnest and quietly spoken local guide called Rezvan met us outside the parliament building, and we joined him on a city walking tour. We crossed the Dambovita River and made our way
to Calea Victoriei. At this point, the weather changed drastically – one minute we were seeking shade from the intensely hot sun, then suddenly a cold wind whipped through, signalling an impending rainstorm. We continued walking, but the light drizzle quickly turned to heavy rain and our temporary measure of sheltering under a large tree didn’t quite work out. We ran into the hallway of an apartment building and waited for a break in the storm.
At the south end of Calea Victoriei we stopped to look at the very beautiful eclectic-styled 19th century Savings Bank Palace building from the ‘la belle epoque’ period in Bucharest. Very annoyingly the rain wasn’t letting up, so we had to cross the road and shelter under the columned arcade of the equally beautiful former Postal Services Palace. I meant to return to look at the rich architectural details in both buildings, but we never got the chance.
We crossed into Stavropoleos Street on the edge of the Old Town to look at the beautiful little 18th century Eastern Orthodox Church of Stavropoleos Monastery. I heard the Monastery described as ‘Romanian renaissance / Brancovan style’, which I’d never heard before (it’s a
17th century blend of byzantine, ottoman, renaissance and baroque styles). The tiny church held absolutely stunning frescoes and carvings, and the serene churchyard was home to sculptures and architectural fragments of old churches demolished during the communist-era.
Rezvan described an almost unbelievable activity which evolved when Nicolae Ceausescu began demolishing much of the Old Town to build the Palace of Parliament and surrounding Civic Centre. Several churches were saved by engineers by quite literally rolling them to safety on rail tracks – they dug under the buildings, created a concrete support, severed them from their foundations and moved them on tracks using hydraulic levers and industrial pulleys! Despite this engineering feat, they couldn’t work fast enough, and many religious and architectural icons were still destroyed.
I was only just starting to understand Bucharest’s long, complex and complicated history – it was as interesting and fascinating as it was shocking and awful! Our next stop was at the striking 19th century Palace of the National Bank of Romania building, also built in the eclectic style. It was quite beautiful, but I have to admit I was a bit distracted by the buildings reflected in the wet cobblestoned lane and
didn’t quite hear Rezvan’s explanation.
We walked through Pasajul Macca-Vilacrosse, a horseshoe shaped arcade with a yellow-tinted glass roof. It was originally designed to connect the National Bank to the Stock Exchange, but it’s now home to popular bars and eateries… with the distinct smell of shisha pipes hanging in the air.
We exited the Old Town and walked back to Calea Victoriei through the even smaller Pasajul Victoria (Umbrella Passage). The tiny lane was eye-catchingly decorated with strings of colourful umbrellas which were also functional for us as we continued to walk through the rain.
I realised I was starting to tire was when we reached the attractive art nouveau building that houses the George Enescu Museum, and I didn’t take a single photo! I remember admiring the clamshell awning over two lions guarding the entrance, but couldn’t be motivated to photograph them. George Enescu is the much loved Romanian musician and composer, with many statues, squares, streets and buildings named after him throughout the country.
The next stop made the hairs on the back my neck stand up. We were standing in Piata Revolutei (Revolution Square), where hundreds of people had been forced to
gather on 21 December 1989 to listen to Ceausescu give his Christmas address from a balcony of the former Central Committee of the Communist Party building. It didn’t take long for the crowd to turn into a mob calling for the end of Communism… amid cries of ‘Down with Ceausescu’. Many died when the crowd was sprayed with bullets, and that massacre most likely boosted public outrage even further and rallied the rest of the city. The Ceausescu’s helicopter escape was brief, and they were captured and killed on 25 December 1989.
The former Communist Party building we were facing looked like a benign enough administration building now, but those walls would have witnessed unspeakable horrors. As would the walls of the ruins of the old headquarters of the Directia V Securitate secret police (similar to the KGB in Russia and Stasi in East Germany), which was just off the square. However, a very bold and eye-catching renovation of glass and steel now topped the brick ruins of the secret police building. This fusion building isn’t widely loved by purists, but I found it incredibly interesting and highly innovative. Quite fittingly, it housed the headquarters of the Union of
Speaking of rebirth, we were standing at the foot of the awkward ‘Rebirth Memorial’ which sits passively on Revolution Square. The marble obelisk (which looks like it had skewered a bulbous black mass) wasn’t popular with the locals, who were displeased at how much it cost. They have taken to calling it ‘the impaled potato’ and ‘shit on a stick’, and the monument has been defaced many times. Curiously, I quite liked the red paint thrown at the ‘potato’ in the latest incident. It looked like weeping blood and gave the monument some much needed vigour.
Our last stop of the walking tour was at a landmark of the city – the beautifully ornate 19th century neo-classical Roman Athenaeum. I would have loved to look inside, but it was getting late in the day. I had enjoyed the walking tour – Rezvan had been a very informative local guide, and he had done a good job in trying weather conditions.
It had been raining on and off during the walk, but it really started to pour as we stood at the Athenaeum. We made our way back to the hotel in the heaviest rain I’d
walked in for a long time. By the time we reached and crossed Cismigiu Gardens, the streets were starting to flood and we were walking in ankle deep water. I was tired, cold and wet, but so happy and relieved to finally reach our warm and dry hotel. The rain had been unfortunate, but I’d seen enough of Bucharest to know that I really liked it, and I was eager to see more of it.
It would have been nice to reflect on the day for a while, but we only had a few minutes to have a hot shower and get ready for our final group dinner for the first part of the trip (from Budapest to Bucharest).
In hindsight I should have skipped dinner and had a quiet night in, especially as my meal at Restaurant Vatra was a bit average. The first sign of its averageness was when I was served a Bloody Mary that was nothing more than room temperature tomato juice with a splash of vodka... and my request for ice was met with a confused look. We ordered sarmale
(cabbage leaves stuffed with minced meat and rice) and sarmalute in foi de
vita (vine leaves stuffed with minced meat and rice). The stuffed cabbage leaves were average and very salty, but the vine leaves had a tasty filling. Both dishes came with mamaliga
(polenta) which was awfully dull. Like I said, we should have stayed in!
We had assumed it would be a big night out (as final trip nights usually are), but the long days and late nights had caught up with everyone and it was a bit of a subdued and anticlimactic night. We were so tired that Andrew decided not to set the alarm for the first time on the trip. We slept well and woke up naturally at 7am. However, I woke with a hazy headache which is usually an indicator of an impending migraine.
I thought I’d do some writing to record the events of the previous day before they escaped me, but my brain just couldn’t make sense of the city map I was staring at. Walking tours are usually a great way to get our bearings in a new city, but I realised that the rain and my fatigue hadn’t let me absorb any directions or orientations!
We’d booked a private Urban
Adventures Bohemian Bucharest
tour for the day. I contemplated skipping it, but we’d already paid and it promised to take us on a historical, architectural and culinary journey through unique Bucharest mahallas
(old neighbourhoods formed in Ottoman times)… which I really didn’t want to miss. So Andrew and I trudged downstairs to meet Mircea (our charming guide) along with Karen, Jenny, Bruce, Narelle, Cheryl, Greg and Dion.
We started our tour by walking through Cismigiu Gardens. It was a bright sunny day and the park was a lush oasis with lots of people sitting around the central lake or using its winding paths as a thoroughfare, as we were. Mircea told us that parks used to be a big part of local life (his father even proposed to his mother in this very park), but they’d lost popularity to shopping centres and cafes.
On the other side of the park we began exploring various streets which showcased architecturally diverse buildings, including the striking neo-Romanian style. This was a 19th century progression from the Romanian renaissance / Brancovan style we’d heard about when looking at the 17th century Stavropoleos Monastery the day before. It was born when Romania sought
to forge a visual national identity, and I was enthralled by it! Mircea shared his favourite neo-Romanian building with us – the very beautiful Romanian School of Architecture. And we promptly appropriated his favourite building as our favourite building too! 😊
We walked through the Batistei area where many of the building styles were from the ‘la belle epoque’ era, which gave Bucharest the nickname Little Paris. It also had lovely art deco and modernist buildings. Before our trip, I’d read many articles that claimed Bucharest’s streets were grey and devoid of character, and after just a day and a half in this city, I realised those authors seriously needed their eyes checked! Granted there are many drab communist-era buildings, and numerous buildings in various states of urban decay – but the eclectic mix of restored polished gems next to un-renovated rough diamonds very much contributed to the city’s charm… and it was definitely not boring!
Mircea described the anxiety Bucharest has with earthquakes, which went a long way to explaining just one of the issues that impacts the revitalisation of the city. A case in point was the very grand and beautifully renovated Grand Hotel du Boulevard
building. It was one of the oldest hotels in Bucharest (and also German army headquarters at one point), but just behind it sits a very decrepit looking apartment block that has been marked with the city’s ‘red dot’ which warns of likely collapse during seismic activity. As a result, the renovated hotel building can’t secure insurance to be legally occupied! There are many such red dot buildings around the city, and I assumed they would have been evacuated, but apparently rent is cheaper in those buildings and they are far from empty.
We walked past University Square, and then turned into a small street for our first food and drink stop. The small Dianei 4 cafe/bar is beautifully set in a grand old (mostly) un-renovated building, with lovely outdoor seating under grape vines. They specialised in craft beer, so even though I’m not a beer drinker, I was talked into having one. The beer was nice (which is saying a lot considering I normally can’t stand the stuff), but Andrew got most of my pint. We also shared a small ‘peasant platter’ of homemade bread, white cheese, salami, prosciutto, pickles and zacusca
(red pepper and eggplant dip). It was
a gorgeous location to listen to Mircea’s overview of the recent history of Bucharest.
We dragged ourselves away from the lovely alfresco setting, stopping briefly across the street at the very tiny T-zero coffee shop for a quick caffeine hit. My macchiato was truly excellent and pepped me up (which I very much needed). We proceeded to the nearby Mantuleasa area and Armenian Mahalla
(Armenian quarter), starting our visit at the main Armenian Church in the neighbourhood. The quarter was settled in the 18th and 19th centuries by Armenian merchants who prospered as business people during Ottoman rule. The lavish houses were built in every style imaginable, and they are now in every state of disrepair imaginable. I loved looking at the few well restored houses, but there was something very charming about the ivy-covered tattered ones too.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a wide-ranging collection of neo-classical, modernist, art deco and eclectic architectural styles in such close confines before – not to mention the neo-Romanian ones I’d only just learned to recognise. We had a look at the oldest recorded house in Bucharest (Melik House), which is understated and has concealed its age under many
renovations performed over the centuries. To be honest, in a neighbourhood with many eye-catching treasures, I probably would have walked past it without a second glace.
We stopped for another refreshment in a courtyard garden at Casa Cu Nuci just as it started to rain. Andrew had the recommended beer, but I opted for a lemonade with herbs that was absolutely delicious. When the rain eased we walked to the Jewish Mahalla
(Jewish quarter). The once large Jewish population was significantly reduced following the tragedies of WWII, the subsequent communist regime, and the fact that many immigrated to Israel. There isn’t much of the physical neighbourhood left either, as large portions of it were demolished for the Civic Centre. However, we did see more modernist and art deco houses, and the very unusual ‘Gaudi House’, dubbed for the owner’s fairy-tale and sinuous external conversion of an old mansion.
We walked to Mosilor Street for a short tram ride to Piata Obor (Obor Market), supposed to be one of the oldest and largest peasant markets in Bucharest. At the tram stop we started seeing the 1980s Communist-era apartment blocks that continued in a chain of tall square buildings to
the Obor Market and beyond. When we got off the tram at the market, there was absolutely no doubt we were in Communist Bucharest! We were surrounded in all directions by regimented apartment blocks and housing projects.
I know this style of architecture is usually associated with mass housing under brutal totalitarian dictatorships, but ironically the Swiss architect Le Corbusier who championed their cause intended them for upcoming middle classes to enjoy the view while being distanced from the squalor of the streets. The buildings aren’t loved by many people, and it doesn’t help that the swathes of raw concrete used in this brutalist architecture is more prone to ugly urban decay than other styles… but I still view them somewhat more sympathetically than most people.
At the market, Mircea bought bread, fresh goats cheese, aged goats cheese, branza de burduf
(soft sheep milk cheese), tomatoes, red currants, raspberries and zacusca
. We then walked to the outdoor Terasa Obor stall that specialised in freshly made mici
(garlic heavy skinless sausages). It was a Monday afternoon, so we were surprised that the outdoor seating area was packed, but when the hot-off-the-griddle mici
arrived we realised why – it was
seriously superb! It was made even more superb by a zesty mustard and the shots of palinka
(fruit brandy) Mircea poured us. There was also beer (which I dutifully passed on to Andrew). Mici
is supposed to be the most loved Romanian street food, and I can totally see why!
We had a delicious gogoasa
(Wallachian doughnut) from a local market bakery for dessert, and it was the perfect end to a fabulous day of eating and drinking local food. By now we were very merry (some of us more than others!), and Mircea’s efforts to guide us to the underground metro station was probably akin to herding cats – albeit, very happy and cackling cats. 😊
There was a busker on our carriage performing Sinatra’s ‘My Way’, and given our state of happiness, we thought it was rude not to join in… so the other commuters were entertained with a very loud Australian-accented and probably off-key chorus. We thought it was hilarious, and I sincerely hope everyone else did too! We caught two trains to the metro station closest to our hotel, and then a trolley bus to the hotel… essentially using all three forms of electric
public transport during our stay in Bucharest.
It had been an utterly fabulous day. Not only had it been great to see more of Bucharest, but I loved getting to know very local neighbourhoods that we probably wouldn’t have sought out on our own. However, what I valued most about the day was talking to a local who had seen the country go through a revolution and come out the other side. I particularly loved hearing Mircea’s frank thoughts on communism, religion and contemporary culture in Romania. This was very much helped by the fact that we genuinely enjoyed his company and sense of humour too. I should add that Mircea was only eight years old when communism ended, and he witnessed the protests and subsequent revolution on 21 December 1989 on the shoulders of his father!
It was time to say our final and very sad goodbyes to Greg, Jenny and Bruce. They had been awesome and fun travel companions, and we really wished they were continuing with us on our travels through Bulgaria. As we walked to our room, I realised that the masking effect of the palinka
was wearing off, and my headache was raging
an all-out war on me. In my defence, I had stayed away from the beer during the market tour, but thought it was culturally rude to refuse the offer of palinka
)… which although enjoyable, was probably a bad idea when I was on pain killers. We managed a quick hello to the four new travel companions who were joining our next trip, then opted for an early night to prepare for our border crossing into Bulgaria the following day.
Despite decades of Nicolae Ceausescu’s authoritarian stamp on Bucharest, it still has a feel of old Europe, with Middle Eastern influences thrown in (from when the Ottomans were in town). Its treasures are hidden gems and aren’t nearly as obvious as sights in other capitals, but I appreciated that we had to work to get to know them… and it certainly made our walking tours even more rewarding.
I have to admit my expectations of Bucharest had been low. From my pre-travel reading, I had pictured a dreary, solemn and serious city. But I’ll be the first to admit that I was wrong. Very wrong. While not the most picturesque or polished city, it has parts that are beautifully unique, charming, arty and cultured. And the gritty areas actually made the city more endearing to me, giving it a lived-in and very genuine feel. Andrew and I feel very strongly that we need to return and get to know Bucharest much better! 😊
Next we travel south to Veliko Tarnovo, our first stop in Bulgaria.
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