Here’s some of what the Lonely Planet – Romania & Bulgaria has to say about Bucharest:
“Romania’s capital gets a bad rap, but in fact it’s dynamic, energetic and fun. It’s where still-unreconstructed communism meets unbridled capitalism; where the soporific forces of the EU meet the passions of the Balkans. Many travellers give the city just a night or two before heading off to Transylvania, but that’s clearly not enough.
Allow at least a few days to take in the good museums, stroll the parks and hang out at trendy cafes. While much of the centre is modern and garish, you’ll find splendid 17th and 18th-century Orthodox churches and graceful art nouveau villas tucked away in quiet corners.
Communism changed the face of the city forever, and nowhere is this more evident than at the gargantuan Palace of Parliament, the craziest and crassest tribute to dictatorial megalomania you’ll probably ever see.
Lying on the Wallachian plains between the Carpathian foothills and the Danube River, Bucharest was settled by Geto-Dacians as early as 70 BC. By 1459 a princely residence and military citadel had been established under the chancellery of infamous Wallachian Prince ??Vlad P??epeş. By the end of?? the 17th century, the city was the capital of Wallachia and ranked among southeastern Europe’s wealthiest centres. It became the national capital in 1862, as it lay on a main trade route between east and west.
The early 20th century was Bucharest’s golden age. Large neoclassical buildings sprang up, fashionable parks were laid out and landscaped on Parisian models and, by the end of the 1930s, the city was known throughout Europe as ‘Little Paris’ or ‘the Paris of the East’.
Bombing by the Allies during WWII, coupled with a 1940 earthquake, destroyed much of Bucharest’s prewar beauty. In 1977, a second major earthquake claimed 1391 lives and flattened countless buildings. Former dictator ??Nicolae Ceauşescu??s massive redevelopment of the city in the 1980s, culminating in his grandiose Palace of the Parliament (sometimes still referred to as the ‘House of the People’), drove a stake through the heart of Bucharest’s elegant past.
The violent revolution of 1989 inflicted serious wounds, both physically and psychologically. Many buildings still bear bullet holes as testament to those chaotic days when the anticommunist uprising resembled nothing so much as a civil war. Less than a year later, in June 1990, miners poured into the centre to support a government crackdown on protesting students in a shocking wave of violence that reopened scars that had barely had time to heal.
Although it’s still haunted by its recent bloody past more than a quarter century later, Bucharest is clearly recovering. The Historic Centre, particularly the area around Str Lipscani, has received a long-overdue revamp and the surrounding neighbourhoods, while still derelict in parts, seem to get nicer and nicer with each passing year.
National History Museum
Houses an excellent collection of maps, statues and ancient jewels, and is particularly strong on the country’s ties to ancient Rome, including a replica of the 2nd-century Trajan’s Column. A local favourite, though, is not inside the museum at all, but rather on the steps outside: a controversial, and funny, Statue of Emperor Trajan, standing naked and holding a Dacian wolf.
The tiny and lovely Stavropoleos Church, which dates from 1724, perches a bit oddly a block over from some of Bucharest’s craziest Old Town carousing. It’s one church, though, that will make a lasting impression, with its courtyard filled with tombstones, an ornate wooden interior and carved wooden doors.
West of Calea Victoriei is the locally beloved Cismigiu Garden, with shady walks, a lake, cafes and a ridiculous number of benches on which to sit and stare at Bucharest residents passing by. From May to September you can rent pedal and paddle boats to splash around in a small pond.
Bucharest’s Historic Centre (Centrul istoric), sometimes referred to as the ‘Old ??Town?? or ????Lipscani??, lies south Piat??a U??niversiat????ii. It??'s a f??ascinating area that marks both the city’s historic heart, formed when Bucharest was emerging as the capital of Wallachia in the 15th and 16th centuries, and the centrepiece of efforts to transform the capital into a liveable urban centre.
The area around the Old Princely Court thrived from roughly the 16th to the 19th centuries as a merchant quarter for artisans and traders, whose occupations are still reflected in street names such as Str Covaci (street of the blacksmiths)?? and Str Selari ??(street f??or saddle-makers). During much of the 20th century, in fact until as recently as a few years ago, the area had become a slum, a poor excuse for public housing for impoverished Roma.
These days, the saddle-makers are long gone to make way for the dozens and dozens of restaurants, bars and clubs. It’s still very scruffy in parts, with gleaming clubs standing next to derelict buildings, but if you’re in the mood for a big night out, there’s no better place in town to party.
Old Princely Court Church
The Old Princely Court Church, built from 1546 to 1559 during the reign of Mircea Ciobanul (Mircea the Shepherd), is considered to be Bucharest’s oldest church. The faded 16th-century frescoes next to the altar are originals. The carved stone portal was added in 1715.
New St George’s Church
The New St George’s Church dates from 1699 and is significant primarily as the burial place of Wallachian prince Constantin Brâncoveanu (r 1688–1714). Brâncoveanu was captured by the Turks in 1714 after refusing to take part in the Russo-Turkish War (1711). He and his four sons were taken to Istanbul and beheaded.
Caru’ cu Bere
Despite a decidedly touristy-leaning atmosphere, with peasant-girl hostesses and sporadic traditional song-and-dance numbers, Bucharest’s oldest beer house continues to draw in a strong local crowd. The belle-époque interior and stained-glass windows dazzle, as does the classic Romanian food.’
KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
I had a hard time convincing Anil to venture into Romania. Four of our friends had visited the country about twenty-five years ago, and somehow only their negative comments about the Romania had stuck in his mind. I can’t say I remembered any positive remarks they’d made at the time.
However, we’d discovered that most of the eastern European countries have made great strides since throwing off the shackles of Russian domination, and I was sure that Romania would have as well. Besides, we were right next door, and thought it best to make a quick foray into the country and at least see the capital, if nothing else. I also wanted to check off another country of our list of places we’ve visited in our lifetimes.
We booked a flight from Sofia to Bucharest and also a centrally-located AirBnB apartment for one week. We thought that would give us enough time to explore the city on foot at a leisurely pace, before we were due to fly to Athens to meet up with my sister and her husband for our two weeks in Cyprus.
Once the decision to travel to Romania was made, I began to read more about the country in our guidebook. For some reason, I’d always imagined Transylvania to be in the far northeast of the country, and not just north of the capital. I voiced some regret to Anil that we hadn’t allowed more time seeing that the Bran Castle was closer to Bucharest than I’d previously thought. Anil agreed that it would be a shame not to see the infamous ‘Dracula’s Castle’, and began to research ways to get there on the train.
We pretty much decided to make an overnight trip to Brasov, taking the train each way, so that we could visit Bran Castle. It would mean we would be paying for two hotels for the one night we would be away, but we were sure it would be worth it. However, during the check in process at our AirBnB in Bucharest, I happened to mention our plans to our host, and right away, he rejected the idea, saying that many of his guests visit the Bran Castle as a day trip. He said it was easy to accomplish if you take an early train there, and return in the evening.
We were delighted, because that would mean we had an extra day to explore Bucharest. Seven nights in a city meant only six days to tour around, and the trip to Bran Castle would consume one of those days. I was happy because I’ve often thought it would be cool to check Transylvania off a list of spooky places to visit.
For our first morning in Romania’s capital, we decided to visit the National History Museum thinking we’d get an overview of past events, but the museum was undergoing a major revamp leading up to the country’s 100th anniversary and most of the exhibit rooms were off limits. We were able to visit the Lapidarium, which was filled with gold artifacts from antiquity right up to the Crown Jewels of Romania’s former Royal Family. It was a fascinating display of both craftsmanship and beauty.
The other interesting exhibit was the pieces of the replica of the 2nd-century Trajan’s Column. I’m sorry to say I didn’t know anything about the original in Rome, so this was quite fascinating to me. We spent some time examining the various panels from the column, and marveling at the detail on each of them. You’d think I’d have understood more of Romania’s ties to ancient Rome after viewing the extensive display of artifacts, but I have to say I’ve never made the connection of ‘Rome – Roman – Romania’ before.
Because of the renovations that were underway in the museum, visitors were directed to a rear entrance. When we emerged from the same gate, we walked along a backstreet and I suddenly spotted one of the most exquisite little churches I’ve ever seen in Europe. The Stavropoleos Church is mentioned in my guidebook, but I hadn’t expected to encounter it so near to our apartment.
I set about taking photos of the exterior of the church, and even the door to the chapel and then the amazing frescoes above the door. I didn’t imagine that one could enter, so I moved to the side when I glimpsed an adjacent courtyard almost buried in fallen leaves. It wasn’t till I ventured closer that I realized there were dozens of old tombstones on display along the cloisters.
While I was admiring the various tombstones, I noticed a local woman approach a nun who had emerged from the cloister. Together they walked toward the chapel, deep in what appeared to be a serious discussion. I circled around hoping to take a photo of them together, mainly because I admired the nun’s habit. Of course there’s no way I can be sure, but I had the feeling that the parishioner was making a financial donation to the church, perhaps in memory of a loved one.
Once the two women were finished their transaction, the nun opened the door to the chapel and they went inside without closing the door. I took the opportunity to follow them inside, and waited near the entrance to see if there was any objection to my presence. When nothing was said to me, I began to scan the walls and was astounded by the beauty of the interior.
Before too long, other people began entering the church, I started to capture the stunning interior with my camera. Again, I was ignored by the nun and the other visitors so I took several photos in an attempt to try and capture the magnificence before me. Yes, I know that I’m raving about this little church just now, but I’ve seen a lot of religious buildings in my travels, and I know this one will always rank high in my esteem.
We finished off the day by heading to a nearby restaurant called ‘La Mama’ to sample some typical Romanian dishes. Here’s what I’d read in our copy of the Lonely Planet – Romania:
“Romanian food wasn’t bred so much to dazzle as to satisfy. Mamaliga a cornmeal mush (often translated as ‘polenta’ on English menus), was seemingly designed to warm and fill the stomach. You’ll find it at restaurants, inns and family homes around the country – it can be disappointingly bland or stodgy in restaurants, but when homemade and served with fresh sour cream, it hits the spot.
Mamaliga pairs beautifully with sarmale the country’s de facto national dish (though it’s actually an import from the days of Ottoman rule) and comfort food extraordinaire. Sarmale are cabbage or vine leaves stuffed with spiced meat and rice; the Mamaliga here provides an excellent backstop for soaking up the juices.”
I’ve always been a big fan of Ukrainian cabbage rolls, and can rarely find good ones if they’re not homemade, so I was very keen to taste a Romanian variation. Anil wasn’t at all sure about what to order, but in the end went for a goulash, which is really a Hungarian dish. The food was delicious but decidedly salty. In fact, over the course of our week in Romania, we had to contend with overly salty food wherever we ate. Even the local bread was heavily salted.
The weather forecast for the day was looking very good, so we decided to explore more of the city on foot while the sun continued to shine. We started off by walking up the ‘Bulevardul Regina Elisabeta’, a main thoroughfare that I mistakenly thought must refer to England’s Queen Elizabeth. I had been puzzled the previous day when I saw an elaborate silver writing desk at the Lapidarium in the National History Museum. I learned it belonged to the former queen of Romania, but couldn’t understand why it had decorative British flags fashioned from precious stones worked into the silver metal.
Clearly, I hadn’t done enough reading about Romania’s history, and the puzzle would eventually be solved when we visited Bran Castle in Transylvania the following day.
Our destination that morning was the Cismigiu Garden, not just because it was beloved by the locals, but I wanted to see ‘the ridiculous number of benches’ for myself. I remember seeing tons of benches in New York’s Central Park, and was curious as to whether Bucharest’s garden could possibly out do New York’s. The garden was a short stroll from our apartment at the corner of Calea Victoriei and Bulevardul Regina Elisabeta.
Before entering the park, I stopped to admire Bucharest’s Town Hall, an imposing building facing the park. It wasn’t long before we came face-to-face with the long lines of Cismigiu’s distinctive green benches. They snaked along both sides of the long pathways through the park, but what really made them stand out in my mind was the fact that they were all single-seaters.
We wandered for a long time before I finally came across a bench that would allow more than one person to have a seat. I had to wonder whether the benches were a deliberate attempt to discourage couples from cuddling up together in public. I guess I’ll never know for sure.
The park was indeed quite lovely, despite the fact that the large ‘lakes’ were drained of water. At one point we could see workmen performing maintenance on an extensive array of pipes used to create an elaborate fountain feature. We had to use our imagination to envision the park on a lovely summer’s day, filled with children and senior citizens out enjoying the fresh air, freed from the confines of their tiny, stifling apartments. Apparently, summer temperatures can exceed 40C in the capital.
I checked my map of the city and noticed a narrow stretch of water identified as the Dambovita River, running from the west to the east, passing just below the Old Town. It was just a couple of blocks south of the garden, so we made our way through some narrow streets to reach it. I was surprised to see it was more like a canal than a river when we reached the concrete banks that channel the river through the city.
Busy roadways abut the canal on either side, but if one focused one’s attention on the water and not the traffic, there was a certain calm that settled in. We decided to walk along the edge of the canal and see where it took us. Here and there along our route we came across pedestrian bridges crossing from one side to the other. Just before we reached the Piata Unirii, we came upon a weir, where the water cascaded over the stone wall and created a small waterfall of sorts.
We were plunged onto the turbulence of overwhelming city traffic once again, so we turned away from the water and made our way into what had once been the Jewish Quarter and on into the core of the Old Town. We spent over an hour admiring several buildings including the Old Princely Court Church and the New St. George’s Church, as well as a former inn that once housed merchants who travelled from far afield to bring produce and other goods to Bucharest.
By mid-afternoon we were starting to get a little peckish, so we thought we’d try our luck getting a table at the Bucharest’s oldest beer house, the Caru’ cu Bere. We knew that reservations were recommended, but as it was just after 3:00pm, we thought we might squeeze in between the lunch and dinner crowds. It has the energy of the famous Hofbrauhaus in Munich, but was even more richly decorated inside.
We could see a few vacant tables here and there so we were very much surprised when the hostess took us down a flight of stairs to a large basement room. We hadn’t come to be separate from all the action, so we abandoned the table and when back upstairs to speak to the woman managing the seating arrangements. I explained that this was our first visit and we would prefer to be seated on the main floor. She found us a pleasant table but we had to assure her we wouldn’t say longer than two hours, as the table was reserved for guests coming at 5:00pm. No problem.
While we waited for our food to arrive, we enjoyed a small loaf of dark bread together with some refreshing drinks. I ordered the cabbage rolls again (just to compare with those from La Mama) and for the life of me, I can’t remember what Anil ordered. It was all good, as salty as all the other food we’d eaten in Romania, and very sleep-inducing. We headed back to our apartment and had a well-deserved rest after all our time on our feet.
We had a quiet evening as we knew we would have to be up early for our train to Brasov the following morning. I was able to spend some significant time editing my photos, uploading them to my trip journal and doing some of the writing before I got too very far behind. Anil was happy to stick his nose in a book.