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Published: September 26th 2008
Even a mother wouldn't say Bucharest is good looking. Our night train from Chisinau pulled in past foreboding grey suburbs, while everyone both inside and outside the grotty Gara du Nord station seemed to be whispering "taxi" in a highly suspicious manner. We had been warned by our Lonely Planet oracle to give these a wider berth than a crocodile with BO so, heads down, we headed for the sanctity of McDonalds. We had nowhere to go, anyway. We would stay within the golden arches for three hours.
Our apartment would not be ready until 10am at the earliest. It was 6.30am, and we reasoned that wandering around a city where most things wouldn't open for three hours, with massive backpacks weighing us down, would be pointless. Fortunately, we found a copy of The Guardian on sale (that phrase has never been used before) and managed to while away the time before catching the metro to our apartment just south of the centre. Never has a man made a large Coke last so long.
On arrival at our spacious base we were delighted to find Liverpool v Man Utd live on the television, so after a brief nap we sat down to the first half of that before heading to the supermarket to arm ourselves with the ingredients for a cheap dinner. Pasta and sauce - it was like being back at university all over again.
At around 5pm we decided we ought really to get out and see a bit more of the grey, drab city centre. We strolled along the Romanian 'Champs Alysee' to the monstrous Palace of Parliament. The second biggest building in the world behind the Pentagon, nothing symbolises the extravagant ruthlessness of Romania's infamous former dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu like this. In the 1980s, he ordered the bulldozing of hundreds of buildings including churches and homes to make way for the palace, which stands 86m high and 92m underground. It has 1,100 rooms, only a fraction of which are still in use today. Some of it isn't even finished.
The 'systemisation' programme that also destroyed towns and villages across Romania as Ceaucescu tried to rebuild everything in his own style produced another legacy. Family pets had to be set loose when their owners were rehoused in smaller homes, and strays are now a common sight particularly in Bucharest where up to 200,000 are estimated to be living alongside the human population of two million. When a Japanese businessman was killed by a bite which severed an artery two years ago, hundreds were rounded up and killed by lethal injection. But there are still plenty about, and they really aren't the kind of pooches that you would go up and stroke. Only the fittest and meanest have survived and many roam in packs behind buildings. We passed a few milling about on our way to the palace.
That night we were to experience what domestic football in Romania had to offer us. The Stadion Giulesti, in Bucharest's north western suburbs, was our destination. We dediced not to follow the Rapid fans that got off a stop earlier than the nearest metro station to the ground. It puzzled us then, but the reason became clear once we had alighted.
Our map wasn't clear so after some dithering we followed some people down a dimly-lit alleyway. After wandering into a pitch black unpaved yard with dogs roaming around, a woman in a dilapidated hut directed us to a bridge over the main railway line. It was deserted, unlit, and decidedly eerie. It led to a backstreet behind a huge mazy estate. Dogs barked territorially as we tried one exit out of the tower blocks without success, then another. Again, streetlighting was a luxury we had to do without and as an experienced football supporter I knew this was prime ambush territory. I had been to some dodgy grounds in my time but this made Millwall, Cardiff and Tottenham seem salubrious. Poor Carmel was pretty terrified and even with my experience I was uneasy. Luckily eventually we found an alleyway which took us through a mini-cemetery and out onto the main street which looked towards the floodlights.
The game was much more relaxing. Inside the sparsely populated stadium, the bulk of fans had gathered behind one goal and as in Krakow, sang for their team the whole way through, which took some doing seeing how badly they played. We had paid extra for a seat on the side, which had a good view but was exposed to the unexpectedly freezing cold weather with a stiff breeze.
Rapid suffered an early setback when a visiting AFC Unirea Urzicani player sent a half-volley into the corner of the net. The home fans called for offside but nothing was given. Rapid spent the rest of the half trying without much guile to break down their opponents, and the standard was probably below that of League One in England. During the second half, Rapid equalised with a header from a corner and, with the fans making plenty of noise, looked for all the world like they would score again. However, they were caught napping at the back, and a wind-assisted cross hit the bar, falling to a Unirea striker who buried the ball into the net. The visitors held on and celebrated wildly at the final whistle with the small pocked of 100 or so visiting fans who had braved the journey - and hopefully had got off at the right metro station.
Now mapless after Si had mislaid it during the game, we opted to walk south east on the main road until we came to another metro station rather than retracing our earlier route. We walked for about 20 minutes, during which time the supporters walking with us had completely dispersed, before realising we were lost. It was 11.30pm on a Saturday night and a few 'characters' lurking around the streets didn't help our mood. We got some vague directions, first from a petrol station and then a hotel, and set off for Grosavesti station. We thought we'd gone wrong again after another 10 minutes of walking around the grim, unlit suburbs before we eventually spied an illuminated 'M' in the distance. No, not McDonalds, but the sign for Metro. I was walking ahead and we were almost there when Si, panic raising his pitch an octave or two, warned "Jai, we're being followed by a pack of dogs. Let's get in that fucking station quick!!" Sure enough, I turned to see about ten rather uncute canines trotting intently behind us. Luckily we made it before I had to follow my brother's survival advice, which involved jumpers, arms, and eye-gouging.
Such excitement was mercifully absent the next day when I decided to explore the city alone. The metro took me to Piata Universitatii. In 1989 fighting had broken out here when protestors rose up in protest against Ceaucescu's reign. On 21st December, a rally nearby was interrupted by demonstrators. Police and militia forced them back to Piata Universitatii where bullets were fired into the crowd. Crosses and memorials now stand to those who were killed.
From there, I made my way to Piata Revoluliei. Here stands the shell of the former headquarters of the Central Communist Committee building. The day after protestors were killed at Piata Universitatii, angry residents rose up again and Ceaucescu appeared on the balcony here to try and calm the mob. He had to flee by helicopter for his own safety, and was later arrested and executed. Six months later, Romania threw off the shackles of communism.
Around here were some attractive buildings including the Athenee Palace, the Art Museum and Cretulescu Church, which is obscured from view from the west by the imposing apartment buildings that line the city's streets. I found an English bookshop to my delight, and made a couple of purchases before heading south west down Calea Victorei, one of the main throughfares.
Bucharest does get a bad press, mainly because it really needs a good lick of paint. There are interesting things to see though, and while many tend to steer clear because of the stray dogs, the ugly housing blocks and the rip-off merchants trying to relieve you of every lei you have, fortune favours the brave. We weren't sorry to leave, but I'm glad we went and we certainly came back with a story or two.
From dogs to vampires now as we set off to Brasov, the gateway to Transylvania.
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