My first trip to Bucharest, twenty years after the end of Communism, and Iâ€™m among few tourists on streets that feel a tad threatening. Now, a decade later, Iâ€™m stunned to find Romaniaâ€™s capital as inviting and â€˜happeningâ€™ as any Western European city. Indeed the reason for my latest trip is to see two of my favourite DJs (British) play an exclusive set together here.
After what is a massive gig (Romanians sure know how to party!), I set about getting an overview of the city via a free walking tour. I see one of Romaniaâ€™s oldest restaurants, Caruâ€™ cu Bere (The Beer Cart); the bust of Vlad the Impaler amongst the ruins of his medieval court, historic arcades Pasajul Vilacrosse and Pasajul Macca lined with Parisian-style cafes; street art; and several sites pertaining to the 1989 Revolution that overthrew an incredibly brutal dictatorship.
Communist Legacy: â€˜Palace of the Peopleâ€™
The last place you expect to find the worldâ€™s second largest administration building (after the Pentagon) is a small, developing nation. Yet that is precisely what Communism created in Romania.
For Romaniaâ€™s President, Nicolae Ceceascu (1965-89), the 1100 room palace was the embodiment of a fully developed socialist society, and he inflicted severe food and power shortages on the Romanian people in order to build it. I canâ€™t get over how big it is. Even more shocking are the excesses inside â€“ marble staircases and 2800 chandeliers. Nowhere better illustrates the dangers of totalitarianism.
Ceceascusâ€™ Mansion, Bucharest
Of course, the Ceceascus didnâ€™t sacrifice their lifestyle to finance the Palace or to live in principle with the Communist ideal of equality. I tour the mansion they kept secret all those years. There weâ€™re led through elaborate dining and lounge rooms; gold encrusted bathrooms; a huge theatre room; bar; beauty spa; indoor swimming pool and garden; and even wardrobes still full of their clothes!
Iâ€™m surprised to see a bright, sparkly mosaic of animals frolicking in the sun. Itâ€™s not something you associate with evil dictators! Book at least 24 hrs ahead: Located in a wealthy, pretty neighbourhood, the mansion is less than 20 minutesâ€™ walk from the largest park in Bucharestâ€¦
Herastrau Park, Bucharest
By one entrance stands a recently erected statue of Charles de Gaulle; by another, the Arc de Triomphe, built between the World Wars when Bucharest was known as â€˜Little Paris.â€™ I love how Eastern European parks always have so much going on: this one has botanic gardens, statues of famous Romanian and international writers including Shakespeare and Victor Hugo, a memorial dedicated to Michael Jackson (!), restaurants, cheap bike hire, boat rides, mini-golf, concerts and theatre performances during summer, and the open-air â€˜Dimitrie Gusti National Village Museumâ€™ showcasing traditional Romanian village life.
From the park you can also see the only building in Bucharest to feature the Soviet Hammer & Sickle and Red Star. Modelled on the famous Lomonosov Moscow State University, it brought together all of Bucharestâ€™s press and publishing houses.
Art Deco, Shopping, and Food
French influence is also reflected in the Art Deco apartments and buildings that sprang up in the 1930s. Iâ€™m ecstatic when I chance upon several in the city centre on or around str. BatiÈ™tei. The most spectacular of which is the ArCub Theatre (nr. 14, behind the Intercontinental Hotel) built between 1932 and 1934 as a recreational and meeting venue. Another striking example is the former headquarters of the national telephone company located on Calea Victoriei (next to the Novotel Hotel. Iâ€™m shown this on the walking tour).
Bucharest has all the chain stores found in Western Europe, within its ten shopping malls. I make a Communist history experience out of this Capitalism by visiting Bucuresti Mall, a grain storage facility under Communism.
I try the national dish of Romania, â€˜Mamaligaâ€™, which is polenta shaped into a cake. One time I have it with roasted gourmet vegetables; another time, dipped in a traditional bean soup.
Sampling Romaniaâ€™s chocolate brand, â€˜Heidi,â€™ is another priority. So many varieties. The dark chocolate range is vegan and gets as exotic as brazil nut, lime & passionfruit!
The World’s Most Beautiful Bookshops are in Bucharest
Amidst an era of bookshop closures, itâ€™s exciting that Romania launched the successful bookshop chain, CÄƒrtureÈ™ti, in 2003. Boasting numerous stores, the ones to see are CÄƒrtureÈ™ti Carusel (Strada Lipscani 55) and CÄƒrtureÈ™ti Verona (Strada Pictor Arthur Verona 13-15).
Carusel occupies an elegant, six-floor, restored 19th century building and has a cafe on its top floor serving food that includes raw vegan cake, and a basement selling records, CDs, and board games.
Verona is in a beautiful, historic house with bean bags to sit on and a room labelled ROD (standing for ROmanian Design) containing cool clothing, jewellery and other stuff made by local designers. Both stores sell a huge selection of books as well as library bags, shirts with author quotes, and other book-related novelties.
Incredible National Library, Bucharest
Opening its doors in 2012, the new National Library is very flash and somewhat akin to a shopping mall. Itâ€™s got escalators, glass lifts, shiny floors, and artworks that move. A gallery-sized space displays an exhibition of art from all over Europe, and a history exhibition documents Communism in Romania.
I tell a librarian how impressed I am. She just hopes the government will spend as much money on making it a functional library behind the scenes.
Thanking me for stopping to talk to her, she says I share her approach to traveling: â€˜To get to know a country, you need to meet its people!â€™.
Speaking of whichâ€¦ Few places in the world have I met so many strangers that offer to show me around or invite me to stay with them; and when I ask for directions, accompany me the entire way to my destination!
Nothing captures this generosity more than when I ask a couple whether Iâ€™m walking in the right direction for Bucharestâ€™s â€˜Ghencea Cemetery.â€™ The guy confirms I am but that Iâ€™d have to take a bus. This left from the very bus stop he was standing at. I thank him, concede I may or may not go (I wasnâ€™t sure I was that interested in seeing the Ceceascusâ€™ graves!), and leave the bus stop.
A minute or so later I hear someone running up behind me. Itâ€™s him! Handing me a 5 lei note, he says: â€˜This will give you about three bus trips; I really want you to see this cemetery!â€™
I cannot believe it.
The bonus of all these encounters, of course, is getting to talk to the locals. I learn about Romanian traditions; childhoods spent in villages; what itâ€™s like to work and study in Bucharest; and the problems besetting Romania â€“ from corruption in politics, business and medicine to the neglect of rural Romanians in recent socioeconomic development initiatives. Thus while I remain excited about Bucharestâ€™s transformation, one thingâ€™s for sure: â€˜To get to know a countryâ€¦â€™
When You Go:
Bucharest is well-connected by bus, train and plane (including several budget airlines) to Western and Eastern Europe and Dubai/Qatar.
Well-furnished inner-city apartments with all the mod-cons average 21 euro a night. A bed in a Hostel dorm with excellent reviews averages 6 â€“ 8 euro.
Self-caterers will find supermarkets stocked with innovative Romanian products, including health-conscious and vegan lines, as well as popular brands from all over the EU.
Free walking tour: https://bucharest.walkaboutfreetours.com/
Ceceascusâ€™ Mansion: https://casaceausescu.ro/?page_id=3415&lang=en
Guided tour Palace of the People: http://cic.cdep.ro/en/opening-hours-and-tariffs
Written by: Angela Lapham
Angela is a Melbourne-based librarian and history graduate fascinated with Eastern Europe and different cultures and histories in general. Every few years itâ€™s time to take off to Europe for another lengthy adventure!