Most people that I’d met who had been to Bucharest – including some Romanians – told me not to bother even spending the night, that it was an incredibly ugly and boring city and not really worth visiting. Still, I decided to go there, and I must admit that after all the negatives I’d heard from people, I wasn’t expecting much. It turned out to be far better than I’d expected [perhaps a bonus of having low expectations] and while it’s certainly my favourite city around, I did have a good time.
I arrived into Bucharest in the late afternoon, and my first experience of the city was being stared at in a very unpleasant fashion by a suspicious looking fellow on the metro. My suspicions proved correct when he followed me from the train down the little streets to the hostel and tried unsuccessfully to snatch my handbag, thinking me a helpless target with a big pack on my back. There are benefits to wearing big chunky rings sometimes…that and growing up with brothers.
That was pretty much my first and last dodgy experience in Romania. And it can happen anywhere, so I wasn’t going to judge the city or country based on that. I arrived at the hostel and it was wonderful – I stayed at Doors Hostel, a place that is brimming with character and with amazingly friendly and helpful staff. After I dumped my stuff in my room, filled up a map with suggestions and recommended that I take the free walking tour. It isn’t supposed to run every day from November, so the girl at the hostel called them to make sure it was happening before sending me off. What was different about this walking tour was that it was at night – it starts at 6PM. In summer that would be lovely; in the dying days of autumn, it was dark and freezing. And wonderful, once I was sufficiently wrapped in virtually all the clothes I had, plus gloves and the world’s ugliest but warmest beanie.
I met up with the tour guide, Andrei, at the clock in Unirii Square. For a while I thought it was going to be just little old me, but a few more people arrived late – I, being a bit obsessed with punctuality, was ten minutes early. Once we had a group, and Andrei’s guide-in-training Alex had arrived, off we went. It was fantastic to explore the city at night – not many people were around despite the early hour, the roads were not busy, and it felt as though we had the place to ourselves – a crazy feeling in a big metropolis.
We stayed primarily in the old part of town, with all the pretty buildings that make it believable that before WWII and Communism, Bucharest was called the ‘Paris’ of Eastern Europe. What remains of the old town is beautiful. It’s lit up with the usual soft golden lights, and the streets were almost empty. My favourite place was the Stavropoleos Church, a divine little Orthodox church on a corner in the historic district. It was beautifully painted and there was a service when we stopped by it – the church was packed though so we didn’t go in.
We walked past the national bank, and through little streets lined with historic buildings, many now restaurants, hotels, bars and souvenir shops. There’s a section of a ‘medieval’ wall – apparently it’s not so medieval after all, being built during Ceaucescu’s long rule so it looked as though he was preserving Romania’s cultural heritage.
We visited Piaţa Revolutionarii, the square where Ceaucescu made his final speech before fleeing as the crowd amassed to support him in response to the revolution in Timişoara and elsewhere in the country instead turned against him, live on TV. The footage from that pivotal moment in Romanian history is easily found on YouTube for anyone who is interested. Today there’s a monument dedicated to those who lost their lives during the revolution of 1989. The tour ended at the Romanian Athenaeum, which I thought looked much nicer at night than in daylight. It had been interesting and informative, and both Andrei and Alex had been fantastic.
The one thing that I really wanted to do in Bucharest was visit the Museum of the Romanian Peasant. I’d heard that it was a good museum – boy were all the people who told me that wrong. It was AMAZING – easily one of the best museums I’ve been to on this trip. I hired an audio guide as well, and was simply blown away by every part of the museum. It was simply incredible. It was an ethnographic museum which, if you’ve been following my blog, you’ll know that I love. This was the best. It was huge, it was well documented, and it was simply beautiful; showcasing different aspects of Romanian village life from traditions to handicrafts to costume to house design itself. I hardly know where to start. It had two rooms filled with icons, the first the traditional type on wood and the second with icons painted on glass – some in a traditional style, others in a very naive style. There was a room dedicated to mourning rites, another to embroidery, another to the tradition of roadside crosses to protect villages. There was a collection of traditional ceramics, of textiles, and of folk costumes from the Balkans and Eastern Europe. Everything about this museum is amazing, and if you do only one thing in Bucharest this is it. I can’t recommend it enough. The only strange thing was that there was a small room in the basement that was filled with busts of Lenin and Stalin and pasted with Communist propaganda. It didn’t seem to fit with the rest of the museum, and felt a bit like someone just didn’t want to throw them away so instead hid them under the house in case one day they would be worth something.
I spent the afternoon wandering around the city, revisiting some of the places we’d been on the walking tour and just looking around. There was a market going on in one part with lots of crafts and sweets, and near the market I found a very strange sculpture.
I also went back to the Stavropoleos Church to have a look inside and a wander around the garden. I found it just as lovely as the night before, and the garden was covered in soft yellow autumn leaves.
That evening I met two Brits at the hostel, Stephen and Adam. Adam cooked us dinner, I donated some pears and we shared a bottle of wine late into the evening.
The next morning, there was one more thing on my to-do list before leaving Bucharest and Romania: visiting the Palace of the Parliament. You can visit on an official tour only, and you have to book in advance, but thankfully not by much. The guy working at the hostel called them for me and booked me in; just as he hung up the phone Stephen appeared and decided he’d come, so another call was made. And, once this was done, Adam turned up to join us and yet another phone call was made, the poor hostel guy undoubtedly wishing we’d been a little more organised. We had some time before the tour, and as I’d spent the most time in the city it fell to me to direct us first to a shopping mall so that Adam could buy some new jeans, and then to the monstrosity that is the Romanian Palace of the Parliament.
We walked along Boulevard Unirii, a testament to the massive ego of Ceaucescu, to get there. This is Communist Bucharest Central, a massive boulevard ordered by Ceaucescu [and then called the Boulevard of the Victory of Socialism] to demonstrate the majesty of Communist Romania – and what was important was that Ceaucescu be able to say that Bucharest bears a boulevard wider than Paris’ Champs-Élysées. It’s not the most attractive street, despite the fountains down the centre. Apparently he was inspired to rip apart the district and create his communist heaven after visits to Pyongyang and Beijing…
After providing our passports to the security staff at the Palace of the Parliament, we had to go through airport-style security to get in – pulling everything out of our bags, taking off belts, everything through the x-ray machine. I’d forgotten to take my pocketknife out of my bag before leaving the hostel, and it was swiftly confiscated. I was given a numbered card so that I could retrieve it on the way out. ID badges around our necks, in we went. We were told to stay with the group at all times to prevent security problems…like being shot. I like to think that was a joke. Having paid 35 lei just to get in, it wasn’t exactly cheap, and if you want to take photos? They charge an unbelievable 60 lei – $20. I decided I could do without, although will admit to snapping some sneaky ones on my phone.
I must admit that my impressions of the Palace of the Parliament were not that positive. Honestly, I felt that everything about the place was offensive and ostentatious, and it just didn’t work. Except the light fittings…I’ve discovered that along with things like doors and locks I also have a bit of an obsession with light fittings. They were awesome. I loved them…even the crystal chandelier that weighs five tonnes. However, as for the rest of the place? This was what made it into my journal after visiting the place:
TACKY – TASTELESS – EXCESSIVE – OSTENTATIOUS – PINK?! – UGLY – WASTE OF MONEY – STILL UNFINISHED – MASSIVE ASSAULT ON SENSES – RIDICULOUS EGO OF CEAUCESCU [deflated] – OBSCENE COMMUNIST ARCHITECTURE – WTF WERE THEY THINKING?
Nice views from the terrace. Rocking the chandeliers.
So, I don’t have much good to say about the place, although it is definitely worth visiting. There seems to be mixed feelings among Romanians regarding the palace, with some proud of it while others despise it. It’s an interesting building, a monument to an ego that almost destroyed the country. I asked our guide why so many of the rooms were painted in pink or decorated with pink curtains or furniture. Apparently pink is a colour that doesn’t offend anyone, unlike red which would irritate the US and other Western nations. They do get the red in there with carpets though. I find pink more offensive than red, but that’s because I just don’t like the colour – not because it has any political or philosophical connotations for me.
After leaving the museum, I had enough time before my bus to Bulgaria left to take the guys to an incredible little sweets stand I’d found the day before. It was brilliant, and we left laden with bags of caramels and chocolate fudge, nougat and jam-filled biscuits, sugared jellied fruit and things that turned out to be something like marshmallows. Just so you know, not all of that was mine. I regret that.