The campsite at Bucharest sits in woods to the north of the city, a very pleasant and clearly affluent area – there’s a large US embassy building just down the road, together with a massive shopping centre full of western-brand stores, and right next door to a very flash looking restaurant set in verdant parkland complete with a day-glo clad tart touting for business right outside the restaurant door, clearly visible as we waited for the bus in to town. She seemed to be doing good trade, too. On top of that, just catching the bus itself was… entertaining. There isn’t anywhere to buy a ticket. The campsite can’t sell you one. There’s no booth nearby. The driver’s hidden behind a glass partition, and can’t sell you one on board the bus. The only solution is just to catch the bus, and hope you don’t get a tug from a ticket inspector.
Once into town, what greets you? A large city. Bucharest spreads far further than the other capitals we’ve visited recently – but, then, with a population about the same as the whole of Slovenia it would have to. Broad boulevards plough through the city, lined with buildings which leave you in no doubt as to the era of the city’s heyday – the late 18th, early 19th century.
The current name of probably the central square of the city, Piața Revoluției, also leaves you in no doubt as to the part it played in more recent history. One side of the square hosts a large, squat concrete building – now government offices, it used to be the headquarters of the Communist Party.
The first floor balcony above the main door is the one from which Nicolae Ceaușescu had to make a sharpish exit in December 1989, faced with the reality of public hostility. From the balcony, he left the building by helicopter – and only a few days later, faced a firing squad. Off to one side of the square, a surprisingly modest and elegant house was the headquarters of the loathed and feared Securitate – the secret police, whose informers were rumoured to be anything up to a quarter of the population – in reality, they were probably not even one tenth of that, but they were still truly fearsome. 20 years later, that building has been rebuilt and extended, in an inspired connection of new and old, a steel and glass rectangle shoots skywards out of the original facade. It works.
With the location of that pair in mind, the memorials to those who died in the revolution, in the centre of the square, are no surprise. What is a surprise, though, is the even larger building on the opposite side of the square – the Royal Palace, now the National Art Gallery. Right next to it, there’s the beautiful old Orthodox Crețulescu church built by the daughter of Constantin Brancoveanu. Inside, it’s as covered with frescoes as any of the other churches throughout the country – yet the location has meant that it’s born the brunt of bombs, revolutions and earthquakes.
Just a few blocks away, Piața Universitații continues a long tradition of protest. One of the traffic islands bears headstones of those who died protesting against the post-revolution government, basically a Communist party reshuffle (minus a certain leader) with a lick of paint to try to work around the wave of reform which swept the entire eastern bloc. When we were there, the square was occupied by anti-globalisation/EU/US protesters, with banners hung from a large and rather wonderful bronze statue/sculpture/installation of musicians.
I use the plural “protesters”, but there was only one present at the time. At least, I think the guy having a snooze on a bench was with the banners. Just behind there, the National Theatre was failing to provide a dramatic backdrop, due to being in the midst of very heavy reconstruction – from behind the builder’s shrouds, only bare steel girders were visible; whilst on the opposite side of the square a series of ramshackle trestle tables were overloaded with dog-eared and yellowed second-hand books for sale.
The third main square in the city is a slightly different beast. In the mid 1980s, once the regime had managed to fully pay off various international loans (by rationing food to the population, so that the maximum possible could be exported for hard currency), Nicolae thought back to an earlier visit to North Korea. After all, what totalitarian dictator could really justify the name without a series of truly world-scale boulevards and a massive palace of his own? And so, one day, a big black limo pulled up just across the river from the city centre, and an arm waved a huge swathe of the city out of existence. THIS was where the palace would be. THAT would all be cleared to make way. Today, when you walk across the bridge and into Piața Unirii, you walk past a large and generic shopping centre. The square that lies in front of you, though, is quite simply huge. It’s so big that the Metro has two stations – Piața Unirii I and Piața Unirii II – on opposite sides. On either side of it, Boulevardul Unirii spears through the concrete canyons towards the Palace of Parliament.
The boulevard is deliberately slightly longer and wider than Paris’s Champs Elysee. The Palace, though – well, that cannot be done justice without a post of it’s own. When Nicolae decided to completely redevelop 8km2 (yes, EIGHT square kilometres – no mucking about), a whole one day’s notice of eviction was given to the residents. All forty thousand of them. Oh, yes – and to top it all, no compensation was paid, and they had to buy new apartments out of their own pockets…
Once the land was cleared, construction of the Centru Civic began. We were quite surprised at how harmonious and elegant it all looked – we’d been expecting the usual bland and featureless walls of concrete, but that wasn’t what we found. Facing the palace, the boulevard opened onto a large crescent of ministry buildings, detailed in a sort of ageless semi-elegant way. If it reminded me of anywhere in particular, it was Canary Wharf – that same blend of pseudo-something-trying-a-bit-hard mixed with a “doesn’t quite gel” blend of retail and food establishments.
Just around the corner from that crescent, though, we found a little hidden gem – a wall with a large gate in it. One thing we’ve noticed in Romania, particularly in Bucharest, is that a large swathe of the population just cannot pass any church by without crossing themselves. On a bus, driving, cycling, walking – there’s a full-on Orthodox crossing (with a much more pronounced upward movement at the shoulders compared to Catholicism – done with verve, it resembles the swinging of the incense burner – and not just once, either – every patron or favourite saint deserves recognition). So it wasn’t much of a surprise when we peered round the gate and found a rather lovely old monastery hidden in there. When the area was cleared, several churches were left, and one or two others were actually moved completely on rails.
Going back across the river, the old town centre still kind-of peers out from behind a mess of very generic bars and restaurants. There’s some gorgeous old buildings – some decrepit, some restored – behind there. Somewhere. But, on the whole, the streets around Strada Franceză are a bit full-on tourist-trap.
Still, for Ellie’s birthday evening, we met up in town with a smashing couple we’d bumped into at the campsite – David & Tracey, on a long trip in a VW T4 van – and hit some bars. There wasn’t a lot to say for the first one – right in full-on tourist central – apart from the waitress’s very, very tight t-shirt. We moved on, though, via another couple of bars – including the Irish-themed “Gin Factory”, and found some food in the Caru’ cu Bere – Beer Cart – restaurant. It’s a bit of an institution, and the building hasn’t changed much for centuries, inside or out. The overall atmosphere has clearly changed, though – yep, touristy! We were initially a bit disappointed to be given a table outside, until the music got cranked up and the waiters started dancing inside…
The evening finished off with some mind-meltingly lethal cocktails, for ridiculously small amounts of money, at a small jazz cafe-bar somewhere off a main drag. It was only after taking a photo of us all that the camera popped up with the time on the screen – half two? How the…? Hey-ho. You only hit that particular nice roundy birthday once, right? Taxi! It wasn’t until the following day that we headed a bit off to one side of the main tourist drag, and found the (very, very sketchy) remains of the Princely Court – Vlad Tepes’s pied-a-terre in the embrionic city – and, right opposite, the very newly restored Hanul lui Manuc. Easily the oldest inn in the city, the elegant wooden cloisters around the sides might not be quite finished, but provide a wonderful location for lively bar & restaurant tables.
Just to get back to the guided-tour of the city itself, though, that jazz cafe was on the Calea Victoriei – once the swishest main drag of the city. It still is, kinda – if your thing is the odd big-brand clothes shop mixed in with could-be-anywhere chain hotels. And that just about sums up most of the swish bits of the city, to be honest. One of the books we’ve read whilst we’ve been away is Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy – the first half of the “Fortunes of War” epic. The first two books of the trilogy are set in early ’40s Bucharest, and her descriptions of the setting really do make you feel like you know the place. So, when we wandered around, it was always with the adventures of Guy & Harriet Pringle in mind. The Athenee Palace hotel is now a fairly generic Hilton – we wandered in, and the lobby has a series of “Then and Now” photo-boards clearly intended to show you how much better it is now than it was in the ’20s – except, to our eyes, they prove the exact opposite. Wandering up Calea Victoriei was the same – some utterly beautiful buildings, gently rotting into the ground, next to big flash nouveau-riche hotels and shops with similarly big flash Mercs and BMWs double-parked outside. The one sort-of exception to this was the Cișimigiu Gardens. Just off to one side of the city centre, the gentrification hasn’t quite reached this far. The park itself might have nice new garish outdoor gym equipment and plastic rent-a-pedalos alongside the rowing boats that’ve been there for decades, and the cafes have been definitely redeveloped, but on a sunny Sunday afternoon, the main clientele of the park certainly hasn’t changed a bit. Bench after bench was solid with little old ladies and little old men, in their slightly threadbare finest, just watching the rumours and gossip go by through gently dappled sunlight.
Once you’ve had a wander round the park, and wandered back into the city again, you reach Piața Victoriei at the top of Calea Victoriei. This is the start of one of the nicer bits of town. There were a few big broad roads of once-grandiose houses, but as the Calea turned into Șoseau Kiseleff and headed up towards the Arc de Triumf, they moved up a league. Better maintained (or just better restored), many housed embassies or ambassadorial residences. Some of the old buildings had been replaced with new – Peru’s embassy was a wonderful piece of modernism, as was Canada’s. About the first building as you head north from Piața Victoriei is the “Museum of the Romanian Peasant”. It’s an odd mix, with the basement still housing the remnants of the Museum of Communist Party History… The main areas contain everything from religious icons painted on glass, through handicrafts and costumes, to a complete house, church and windmill dismantled from their original locations and reconstructed inside the museum! Much of the layout was little short of inspired, with space and surroundings given almost as much thought and care as the artefacts themselves. Truly, one of the best museums we’ve gone round on the trip.
Heading north again, the other side of the Arc (almost a direct copy of that in Paris), the “Village Museum” provides a home to plenty of other relocated vernacular buildings.
Cottages, churches, everything – all clustered around one shore of a lake and park. Our visit felt a bit flat, probably due to being a Monday, as very few of the buildings were open – peering through windows just showed how much care had been taken to furnish and accessorise them.
Mass tourism is definitely hitting Bucharest. One evening, we returned to the campsite, to find that our nice quite enclave had gone mad whilst we’d been in town for the day. An organised tour of about twenty big fridge-freezer motorhomes had taken over, filling almost every spare centimetre of space, whilst the occupants headed off to the restaurant next door – then headed into town by coach in the morning. They weren’t staying long, though – the stickers on every van listed the itinerary – a month for all of Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria.