I was a bit worried that there wouldn’t be much to see or do in Bucharest except lots of traffic and heat. How wrong I was.
Sure enough, we had a disappointing start. After an endlessly cold and wet spring in Belgium, summer had finally arrived. We left Charleroi airport under a cloudless sky and a temperature that was already warm in the morning. In Bucharest, which has supposedly guaranteed hot and dry weather in summer, our first venture out of the hotel was under a heavy downpour of rain! I had decided to use buses to go around but we couldn’t find a map with the routes and the vendors in the public transport kiosks only spoke Romanian. Good thing that our hotel was situated quite centrally and we could afford to go on foot almost everywhere except the last day with just a couple of subway trips.
From the first full day onward there was no rain but we had a convenient partial cloud cover, enough to help us avoid sunburn and to keep the temperature bearable. We walked towards the centre through the neighbouring Cismigiu park and took the first few pictures of monumental buildings and beautiful Orthodox churches before heading to Piata Unirii (Union Square), which is the meeting place for a twice daily guided walking tour.
It’s the best possible introduction to Bucharest. Our guide, Vlad, was friendly, informative, funny and passionate about the subject. He started off with an explanation about the monstrous “Palace of the People”, now the Palace of Parliament, which we could see in the distance, built by the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu whose autocratic rule and eventual megalomania traumatised the country for generations. The construction of this extravagant palace absorbed much of Romania’s resources and severely impoverished its population. Large sections of the old town were destroyed to make way for it, and for the Unirii Boulevard in front of it that was specifically intended to be the biggest in Europe, at 3.5 km beating the Champs Elysees in Paris by a few hundred metres.
Vlad walked us through the old town. In front of a bust of Vladimir Dracula, who I was surprised to learn was actually a real person, Vlad told us the gruesome story of the ruler who was later nicknamed Vlad the Impaler. Eventually they chopped his head off – a very common occurrence in those times it seems. Am I not grateful to live in modern times, and in a civilised country may I hasten to add…
The tour covered a number of historic buildings and monuments and ended in Piata Universitatii with an emotional account of the years leading to the revolution and the final few days culminating in the murder of protesters in the same square where we were sitting. Nowadays, the transition from tyranny, corruption and chaos is well advanced and with Romania in the European Union the future looks much brighter. At the end of Vlad’s presentation we all burst into spontaneous applause!
We had lunch at a historical inn, the Hanu’ Lui Manuc, which has a large courtyard and used to serve as a safe haven overnight for traders, their wares, caravans and horses. Now it’s a restaurant, and it’s a pity we had to be careful not to eat too much as we were already booked for dinner later in the evening in the most famous restaurant in Bucharest, the Caru Cu Bere.
After lunch, we walked to the notorious Palace of the People to see for ourselves what it was all about.
Goodness. The place is huge! The halls are oversized, lavish and mostly covered in marble, scrupulously sourced in Romania itself. It’s about 14 storeys high and has a nuclear bunker underground which is believed to be even deeper, with much of it still unexplored. It’s the second largest administrative building in the world, after the USA’s Pentagon. It has thousands of offices, in fact two thousand government employees work there now. The Romanian parliament meets there. Conferences are held there. The gymnast Nadia Comaneci held her wedding reception there. The first person to address a crowd from its balcony was… Michael Jackson. Ceausescu had already been executed when the building was completed. The Romanians wanted to pull it down after the revolution, however by that stage it was considered cheaper to complete than to demolish, which is why it is still standing, thoroughly hated.
In the evening we went to another historic place to have dinner – the Caru Cu Bere, the house of beer, the very first beerhouse in Bucharest. You need to reserve a place there as it’s often quite full. We were given a table in the wine cellar, where there was a band playing some excellent music. We were sitting right next to them, and after we had finished our meal they came back from their break, so I had to order a Sambuca to give us some more time to listen to them playing. They acknowledged our appreciation of their performance as we left, waving to us as we stood up to go even as they were playing their instruments. Lovely place.
The second day we explored the southern part of the city. We saw a few splendid Orthodox churches on our way to the Patriarchal Cathedral Complex on top of a low hill up from Piata Unirii, one of the few hills in this flat city. It was morning and most of the churches were brimming with worshippers. The following day we learned from a guide that it was a day dedicated to Saint Ilie, who is much revered by Romanians.
In the afternoon we headed further south towards two parks situated close to each other. First we walked through Parcul Carol I, which has a large monument with an “Eternal Flame” dedicated to the Unknown Soldier. Across the road from this monument and passing through a short street you get into Parcul Tireletului. This was one of the “few good things” done by the Communists in Bucharest. Previously the area was a slum known as “Vale of Tears”. It was turned into a large park with a lake and playing areas, while the residents were relocated to social housing that was constructed nearby. Coming back through Parcul Carol I, we hired a boat which Gianluca rowed for a period of one hour around the lake there.
The third and last full day we went to the northern part of the city. Our first stop was Piata Revolutiei. It’s a large square surrounded by impressive buildings. The least impressive used to be the Communist Party headquarters, and from its balcony Nicolae Ceausescu delivered his famous last speech to the Romanian people, a speech that was interrupted in the middle by loud jeering and a great commotion in the crowd. After lots of shouting of “Quiet! Keep quiet!” mainly by his wife Elena, he managed to proceed with his speech until the end, after which Ceausescu was whisked away to safety by helicopter. Soon after the army turned against him and he and his (equally dictatorial) wife were captured and executed following a mock trial.
In one corner of this square lies the truly magnificent Romanian Athenaeum. This has a pretty front garden, a colonnaded entrance hall and spiral staircases leading up to the circular auditorium. The auditorium is famous for its acoustics and is used exclusively for classical music concerts. Most of the building is in colourful marble. The attendant there took us in for a nominal fee. He showed us around, speaking only in Romanian, and insisted several times that pictures were allowed, then proceeded to stay in the way of the some of the better views… This may well be the most beautiful building in Bucharest, although of course I can’t be sure as there are so many others that we didn’t enter.
We took the subway towards Charles de Gaulle Square at the entrance to Parcul Herestrau for our last main activity in Bucharest – a bicycle tour with a guide. This is my only regret in an otherwise very successful trip. It wasn’t cheap, and many of the places we went to we had already been. We should have hired a bicycle for a much cheaper price and explored the park, its lake and some attractions in the area like the Arcul de Triumf (a smaller replica of the original French version), the House of the Free Press and the Village Museum. The latter consists of many reconstructed rural houses from various parts of Romania illustrating the traditional way of life there. This we had no time to visit, unfortunately.
To be fair, the guide gave us further interesting insights into Romanian history, about the areas and some of the buildings we passed and on life under the Communist regime. They are still so traumatised by that era. He explained about the friendly Romanian historical connection with France, through its war for independence from the Ottoman empire and the First World War. The nation’s flag itself, according to our guide, is inspired by the French flag with yellow replacing white in the middle.
The bike tour ended in Tineretului park, where we left our bikes, paid and thanked our guide, Razvan, and (literally in my case) limped to the subway to go have a final meal, pack and have an early sleep as we needed to wake up at 3.30 am the following morning to catch our flight back to Charleroi airport in Belgium.
NOTE: The above happened in July 2016, one of a series of “adventures” with my son Gianluca. These started off as countryside walks in Belgium, where we live, but soon evolved into trips overseas. We both enjoy these adventures tremendously, and blog about them in Gianluca’s blog, Adventures in Dijleland