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Bucharest - don't overlook it!

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10.05.2009

Advantages:
Lots to see and do, loads of cultural and historical stuff, fairly cheap

Disadvantages:
Traffic, lots of concrete

Recommendable Yes:

Detailed rating:

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Since the fall of the "Iron Curtain", several of the eastern European capitals have become popular tourist destinations. Unlike, say, Prague, Tallinn or Budapest, the Romanian capital, Bucharest, has not enjoyed so much interest. There are, perhaps, three reasons that Bucharest has not caught the imagination of travellers in the same way as those cities. The first must be due to the reputation the city has as a dangerous crime-ridden place; certainly, television documentaries showing children living in underground stations and openly sniffing glue on the streets can not have done anything positive for the city's image.

Second, Bucharest does not have the well-known "Old Town" other eastern bloc capitals have; it lacks the golden onion domes of Sofia or the fairy tale towers of Tallinn or the romantic castle of Prague. In fact, many of the older buildings in the centre of Bucharest were bulldozed in order to make room for the huge monstrosity that was the bricks and mortar symbol of Ceausescu's regime, ironically named "the palace of the People".

Finally, the overthrowing of the Communist regime in Romania was much less peaceful than the events in other countries and it was played out on our television screens. Anyone old enough will surely remember the images of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu being executed and there are reminders of those bloody events all over the city.

It would be a shame, though, to let these things persuade you that Bucharest is not worth visiting. The city may not have an obvious touristic centre but there is still plenty to see and a real effort has been made to show Romania's cultural and historic heritage in other ways. The vast concrete square Piata Unirii is about as central a location as you can pinpoint in Bucharest; it's a huge, sprawling city (it has a population of around 2.6 million) with sights spread out in different areas. You need to use public transport or put on your walking shoes to make the most of your time there.

There is a useful underground station under Piata Unirii but check the names of the exits as you come out of the station otherwise you will come out of the wrong exit and have many roads to cross. It's much easier to stay underground and avoid the roads. Using this station can be quite daunting but if you are traveling independently you are likely to use it at some point because a number of sights are nearby. If you think Kings Cross is confusing, you will have a headache by the time you get out of this station! You can buy joint tickets for buses, trams and trolley buses from kiosks marked RATB, but Metro tickets are bought in the stations where you see the sign "Casa". You can buy a two or a ten journey ticket and must remember to validate them on the platform. There are four lines and these cover the city quite well, although you will see less, I would recommend the Metro as the easiest way to get around as the buses are quite confusing and working out where they leave from can be a nightmare.

One side of the square forms the wide boulevard that leads to the Palace of the People. The area is modelled on the Champs Elysees in Paris and Ceausescu's demand, the road was extended so that it would be longer than the French thoroughfare. It was this area that was demolished and in doing so several important churches and monasteries were lost. As monstrous as it is, the Palace of the People is a compelling place to visit; the sheer enormity and the grandeur of the materials makes uncomfortable viewing but it has to be seen to be believed. (See my separate review of this sight)

There are a number of other sights connected to the bloody revolution of 1989 and a good way to see them is to follow the useful walking tour outlined in the Lonely Planet guidebook. In Revolution Square you can see the former Communist Party Headquarters with its balcony where, in Dec 1989, Ceausescu realised, as he addressed the crowd gathered below, that his days were numbered. He and his wife escaped in a helicopter but were arrested just hours later. Nearby the old headquarters of the Securitate, the secret police, has been stylishly re-designed and is now the offices of a prestigious architecture firm. The former Royal Palace is now the National Gallery of Art and contains an impressive collection of work by noted Romanian artists which I enjoyed immensely in spite of knowing little about Romanian artists. There is also a small collection of work by very well knowns artists such as El Greco, Reubens and Renoir. Nearby is the Bucharest Hotel Inter-Continental from where foreign journalists covered the events and were able to film some footage of the violence. On this street there are ten stone crosses dedicated to those who lost their lives. Just beyond it is Piata Universitatii which was buzzing when we visited during July as students were hovering outside university buildings waiting for exam results to be posted.

Of course, there is much more to Bucharest than the revolution. After all, this is the city that used to be called "Little Paris" and "The Paris of the East". In the nineteenth century the centre of the city was re-modelled by French and French-trained architects and even today, in spite of heavy bombing during the Second World War and Ceausescu's demolitions, there is still plenty of charming Belle Epoque architecture on display. This is partly apartment buildings with wrought iron balconies that are very Parisian but there are a number of very special buildings that typify the style. The best is the Athenaeum, a huge concert hall designed like ancient temple. It's the home of the Gerorge Enescu Philharmonic Orchestra and the acoustics are said to be as good as those at La Scala. I had heard that the interior is fabulous and, although we could only catch a glimpse of the foyer, it didn't disappoint. The ceiling of the foyer is very lavish, decorated in gold leaf, and you can see the marble spiral staircase too. Next to the Athenauem is the slightly older but still very beautiful Hotel Athenee which featured in the "Balkan Trilogy" by Olivia Manning (brilliantly presented by BBC as "Fortunes of War" many years back with Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson). The Athenee was a hotbed of intrigue and a centre for espionage during the war. It was originally built in 1914 and had to be extensively re-built after being heavily bombed in WW2. Today it is rather lavish and way out of my league. However, I did get to see inside when I was looking for English newspapers (an upmarket hotel seemed like - and was - a good place to look).

To say Bucharest is a city with a lot of culture would be an understatement. It has (according to one website, not Wiki!) 37 museums, 18 art galleries (I'm sure this must be the larger ones as it surely can't include the myriad tiny independent galleries), 22 theatres and several opera houses as well as jazz clubs, a full-time permanent circus and dozens of live music venues. We chose two museums to visit and both were ones that needed plenty of time to properly appreciate their exhibits. We visited the Museum of the "Romanian Peasant", and in its basement the "Museum of Communist Iconography", and the "Museum Satului" which is a brilliant open air museum on the edge of a lake just to the north of the centre where peasant houses and agricultural buildings have been brought and rebuilt. The former is a huge museum over several floors which looks at Romanian peasant life over the centuries; there is a massive collection of traditional peasant costumes from all over Romania (which could have been a museum in its own right) as well as displays on domestic life, farming, textile production and entertainment. There is a very good section that covers traditional festivals based around the agricultural year. The Museum of Communist Iconography promised to be excellent and could have been created just for me but it was disappointingly small. In two rooms were photographs, busts and posters of Communist leaders from around eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

The other museum was enjoyable - and even better because we visited on a hot, sunny day and the grounds are beautiful - but could have been improved; there are around 50 buildings but unfortunately only one third are open one any one day, apparently due to a lack of volunteers. In each house or building you'll find someone in traditional dress, often carrying out some craft or chore in the way it would have been done at the time the house was first built. There is information outside each building about its age and which part of Romania it was from but rather limited information on the exhibits inside them.

Another echo of Paris is the Arc de Triomphe which is situated at the opposite end of Bulevarda Unirii to the Palace of the People, where it meets Soseaua Kiseleff on the edge of mansion district. It was first built in 1922 when it was constructed from wood but a new version made of granite was built in 1936. This arch commemorates the Romanian soldiers lost in the First World War. We had read that it's possible to climb to the top of the arch by means of an internal staircase but, having risked the crazy traffic to get to the arch which sits on a traffic island, we couldn't find a means of ingress. The arch is about twenty minutes walk from the Museum of the Romanian Peasant but there is a Metro station nearby or you could walk the length of Bulevarda Unrii. The mansion district is where you'll find many of the foreign embassies occupying magnificent Belle Epoque residences; I love strolling the embassy area of capital cities (I'm a flag nerd) and we spent a lovely hour peeping through gates and over walls to get a look at the grand houses. During Ceausescu's time, these houses were used by Communist party big-wigs.

Bucharest does have an old town, it's just that its chief sights are not as familiar outside Romania as, say, those of Prague or Tallinn. The Lipscani area is the oldest part of the city and it is gradually being restored and is well on the way to becoming one of the classiest parts of the city. The Old Princely Court and Church where, during the fifteenth century, Vlad the Impaler kept his prisoners in dungeons is only a few arches and ruins now but an adjoining museum displays a collection of ancient articles unearthed in and around the city. In this part of town there are a number of artisans' workshops, situated in picturesque courtyards, where traditional crafts are being kept alive and where souvenirs can be bought; the workshops were first used in the 1400s when the area was populated by Jewish, Serbian, Armenian and Greek craftsmen and merchants. There were also many Germans and the name Lipscani is thought to be a derivation of "Lepizig". This melting pot of nationalities accounts for the eclectic mix of architectural styles on display. This is the best area to buy souvenirs though the Village Museum and the Satului Museum both sell decent handmade items.

Some of the old inns have been preserved and two are of particular note. One of them, Hanul Lui Manuc, was built between 1804 - 1808 by a wealthy Armenian merchant and was during the early part of the twentieth century a fashionable place for the city's artists and intellectuals to hang out. Today it's a hotel and restaurant and the place we stayed while in the city. If you prefer your accommodation a little more upmarket and modern there are lots of brand new hotels all over the city and at the other end of the spectrum there are countless hostels and cheap hotels. The other notable building is The "Beer Cart" restaurant housed in a neo-gothic building with a memorable wooden interior and some great murals. It's not the best place to eat in Bucharest and some might say it's a bit of a tourist trap but it's worth a look.

Should the Beer Cart not interest you, do not fear, there are plenty of restaurants covering every cuisine and lots of places to grab a cheap snack too. I recommend Fornetti, a bakery chain that sells bags of lovely tiny pizza flavoured bread balls and a brilliant takeaway pizza joint just off Piata Unirri that sells whole pizzas or just squares. There are plenty of opportunities to eat traditional food but my pick of the restaurants was a Moroccan one (L'Harmattan) situated near Hanul Lui Manuc, just behind Piata Unirii. Nightlife is excellent and doesn't get going until late so if you prefer quieter evenings you can enjoy some of the bars earlier on without all the noise.

I can't deny that there are still issues with street kids and drugs, it is unlikely that you'd not see any evidence of this even on a short visit. However, I can't say I ever felt unsafe in Bucharest, even late at night.

It's not always a pretty city - I'd say that concrete is a dominant theme - but there are some stunning buildings if you look around. There are downsides; it's very busy and the traffic fumes are horrible in summer. However, there are lots of parks in which to escape the hustle of bustle and some lovely pavement cafes in the Lipscani area's pedestrianised streets. Another plus is that, for a capital city, it's still reasonably cheap although you can spends lots if you really want to be lavish.

Recommended in particular for people who are interested in history and the arts.

PRACTICAL INFO

European budget airlines tend to use Banesa Airport while flights from North America and other international destinations and more expensive airlines use Henri Coanda Airport.

There is a useful information office at the main train station for people arriving wihtout pre-booked accommodation.


Photos will be posted as soon as Ciao stops playing up for me


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Comments about this review »

hiker 16.06.2009 22:33

No city is "always pretty" - but lots of reminders that in some we need to look a bit more closely than in others. Excellent review. Lx

silverstreak 03.06.2009 12:49

Super review, and one of the few where 'myriad' has been used correctly.

MALU 17.05.2009 21:02

E!

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This review of Bucharest (Romania) has been rated:

"exceptional" by (59%):

  1. hiker
  2. silverstreak
  3. MALU

and 34 other members

The overall rating of a review is different from a simple average of all individual ratings.

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