Romania is mostly traveled for Transylvania, the Danube Delta, the ancient regions of Maramures and Bucovina. The capital is often skipped or allowed one night before moving elsewhere. Yet, Bucharest has a feeling of his own: a curious blend of decorative elegance and a soviet rigor made of concrete and straight lines.
My visit to Bucharest was marked by places and themes that surprised me and made me love this city, often underrated.
I’m from a predominantly Catholic country, and I was charmed by Orthodox churches: their architectural style and their rituals, familiar and unusual at the same time. Small built buildings with an excessive decorative tendency, the abundant fragrance of incense, prayers and litanies chanted aloud, people crossing themselves from right to left, women with their head covered, faithful standing up or moving, kneeling, bowing.
If Bucharest’s wide boulevards remind of magnificent military parades, churches wedged among huge condos clearly reflect the balance of power in communist Romania.
Some basilicas were even relocated to make room for new buildings and to hide symbols that were too dear to the faithful. The Mihai Vodă Monastery is one of the oldest and best-known in town. Built in 1591, in 1985 it was moved about 300 meters on rails. During this procedure, its medieval cloister and ancillary buildings were demolished.
Some of my tours were planned. I couldn’t miss the climb to the hill of the Catedrala Patriarhala (Romanian Patriarchal Cathedral) and its golden interiors, the allegorical frescoes at Biserica Sfântul Gheorghe Nou, the Biserica Sfântul Anton or the Manastirea Antim (Antim Monastery). But I also wandered, following my curiosity, the chants, and the prayers spread outside the churches through powerful amplification systems: a modern touch in a ritual that has an “antique” feel.
The Palace of Parliament
The Palace of Parliament (Palatul Parlamentului in Romanian) is a well-known place in Bucharest. Built by the dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu in 1984 and still unfinished, this mammoth building is the biggest in Romania and it’s one of the biggest government structures in the world, second only to the Pentagon. It is also one of the latest examples of Stalinist Architecture.
Being in front of the House of People – as it was formerly known – it’s a unique experience. You can’t imagine its size until you are in Piata Unirii where it appears down the boulevard as a huge marble mountain. The closer you get, the more it’s hard to take in its bigness at a single glance.
The sense of “heavy bureaucracy” which radiates from this palace, reminds me of the elderly lady I met on the airplane.
Her son graduated from a good Romanian University but he works as a mason. «In Romania, it’s difficult to get a good job without the appropriate channels», she said.
I wanted to tell her that this also happens elsewhere, but facing this building, I truly get what she meant.
The Palace of Parliament is the emblem of one of the most authoritarian regimes of the second half of the last century. Curiously, in Piața Constituției a Christmas fair is held. The current Romanian middle-class meets here to listen to live music, consume meat and alcohol. Like a symbolic act of liberation from the weight of poverty, from which Romania still struggle to free itself.
Lipscani (Old Bucharest)
Lipscani is the heart of Old Bucharest where Vlad the Impaler, Prince of Romania, settled his princely court. Nowadays, almost nothing is left of the Curtea Veche (Old Court) other than some ruins and a bust of Prince Vlad. Yet it’s still worth visiting.
Lipscani is the ancient trading center of the city, where many inns were active in the past. Some of them exist today as historical buildings and one – Hanul lui Manuc – is still running.
This area is also home to the fabulous Biserica Mănăstirii Stavropoleos (Stavropoleos Monastery Church). Built in 1724, the church is what remains of the original monastery for nuns, while the ancillary building – which hosts a library and a collection of antique icons – dates back to the 20th century.
Lipscani is the vibrant young heart of the city, of nights spent drinking, of clubs with girls dancing in fancy underwear behind glass-doors to pull in clients, music played in pubs and spread in the streets through loudspeakers, making almost impossible to rest until late night.
If in the afternoon there’s excitement in the air, in the morning Lipscani has the sleepy mood of districts which have long lived the night. The rubbing sound of street sweeper’s brooms, the rattling carts loaded with bread and meat, which suppliers pull towards restaurants that are opening again to offer a non-stop service until the next night.
Caru Cu’ Bere is a must do if it’s your first time in town. A traditional Romanian restaurant, an amazing location, with traditional dance shows and live classical music. Prices are slightly above average however it’s worth one visit.
Sindbad is a Lebanese restaurant with great food and friendly staff. Other restaurants include the historical Hanul Lui Manuc and La Mama, a local franchising with decent food at a fair price.
But beware. Lipscani also holds some typical tourist traps where the food is awful (as well as the bill).
Carturesti is what I believed to be the largest bookstore in Europe. Well, it isn’t. Besides its size, it’s a beautiful bookstore combining art nouveau and a white minimalist environment.
Six floors of books, with a nice selection of English books, souvenirs, gifts, and a restaurant.
The relationship between young Romanians (at least those living in the cities) and books is evident when you see the surprising number of bookstores in Bucharest. It’s not rare to see people reading on trains, public transport, and books vending machines are found in some subway and railway stations.
It’s not Bucharest, but the Mayor of Cluj Napoca, in northern Transylvania, offered free rides on public transport for readers.
Bucharest parks are well known. I admit I was a bit reticent about visiting a park in the winter and I guessed I should have toured the city in spring or summer, to get the most from those. Being born on the Mediterranean, I’m often worried about low temperatures. I went to Bucharest equipped like I was going to Himalaya and discovered worrying was useless. Bucharest climate is generally dry, you can stroll even with temperatures below zero and, if it’s a sunny day, enjoy one of its great parks.
Even if it’s not properly a park, I loved the Bellu Cemetry and its adjacent parks, in the southern part of the city. But the one I loved the most is the Herastrau Park, in the north.
Herastrau Park also houses the popular Muzeul Satului Dimitrie Gusti: an exhibition of traditional Romanian houses built in 1936, among the first open-air museums in Europe. This area is better enjoyed in the summer since most houses are closed for maintenance during the winter.
Herastrau Park, is worth a visit, especially if you love long walks. The afternoon is the ideal time to observe families, listen to the joyful screams of children, smelling the fragrance of butter and sugar coming from the stalls selling cakes and candies, or the toasted aroma of mulled wine and roasted chestnuts.
A lake divides the park into two halves. A boat service allows to cross it and also offers mini-cruises.
It’s the ideal park to go for a walk after lunch, then sit on a bench and read, until the sky is tinged with a purplish-pink glow, and the evening cold starts to get into your bones telling you it’s time to go: back home, in a bar, to enjoy something warm and get ready for the evening.
When I think of theatres, especially those where classical music or opera is performed, I think of countries that made of this long-lasting tradition an expensive and elitist genre.
There are many theatres in Bucharest: from the smaller ones with experimental or children’s programs (such as the Comic Opera) to larger theatres with a more traditional programming, like the National Theatre with its modern architecture. Or the Romanian Athenaeum, dedicated to symphonic and chamber music, another historic symbol of the city, of which you can visit the richly decorated interiors.
What really surprised me, were the affordable ticket prices that make to attend a show a possibility within the reach of many, if not for everyone.