Bucharest, not Budapest

On Saturday night, I returned from Bucharest, the charming capital of Romania. Prior to buying my ticket on the way there, basically all I knew about the country was that their infamous dictator Nicolae Ceausescu ran the country into the ground, and that they had a checkered past between their stints as a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire and being a Soviet satellite. So, I didn’t know what to exactly expect; I had heard good things about the country, especially outside of Bucharest. (Alas, I didn’t get a chance to see other cities/regions of the country. I’ll definitely have to return one day!) However, I was pleasantly surprised with what I experienced!

My first impression was from the airport, which was about a 30 minute taxi ride away from the center, where I was staying. At first glance, it seemed like Bucharest was full of gray houses, with police waiting for the occasional speeding car. And speaking of that, I noticed that a recurring theme during my stay was how crazy the drivers were. Heck, my driver literally was straddling between lanes, and several times he came within less than a foot of rear ending cars. I’m no stranger to obnoxious drivers, as I’ve been living in Moscow, but Bucharest took the cake, no contest; it seemed like a free-for-all at times. However, I’m happy to report that these were false alarms! Once we got past the outskirts, a very long, impeccable French-inspired boulevard greeted us. As it turns out, a lot of the architecture was inspired by France, and I did see an abundant amount of it (more on that later). As I quickly realized, the locals spoke English very well, which made the entire trip go even smoother; as an acquaintance explained it to me, it’s taught in schools from a very young age. Even then, it wasn’t just in the tourist traps-I ran into fluent speakers all around the city.

One thing I really liked was how walkable the city was. My hostel (The Cozyness Downtown, which I’d highly recommend!) was about a 10-15 minute walk from the center/old town, and getting around other places maybe took about 30 minutes tops. Then again, the weather was consistently around 85-90 degrees Fahrenheit, so I was a bit of a masochist to walk that much. I also was fortunate to spend some time in the metro, and it was a delightful alternative. Moscow’s metro has spoiled me, so I do admit to having so apprehensions about Bucharest’s, but as the recurring theme of this trip, I was pleasantly surprised in what I found. The metro is a comprehensive thing,  with a sizeable presence in the city, and like Moscow’s, was clean and efficient. While I didn’t utilize it all that much (a grand total of twice), I saw that a decent amount of Bucharestans taking it. One thing that was slightly different was how it took a bit longer for each train to arrive, which was about four minutes on average; I guess I’ve been spoiled by Moscow, though.

To prove how easy it was to walk throughout the city, I took an excellent walking tour on the morning of my first full day there. It was a bit of a rough start getting there, as I admittedly spent the previous night hanging out in some of the excellent bars, so getting up to walk around didn’t seem ideal at the time. Despite having to drag myself out of bed, it was a fantastic time, despite being a little late to get to the meeting point. For the tour, we walked primarily around Piaţa Universităţii, which was where the historic buildings/museums were. Our guide pointed out that since Romania was under the Soviet influence, churches were tucked away out of site. In one case, a Greek church was literally moved out of the way, in order to preserve it; we visited it, and I can absolutely see why-it was a testament to the architects who designed it! Finally, we came to the National Theater Bucharest to conclude our tour. As most of Bucharest circa Ceausescu, the design of the building was changed during the communist era, from its original red roof. However, once Romania became an independent country, the design reverted back to its original design. In a way, that symbolized Romania-the flavors, ideals, and all-around uniqueness came back post-independence.

When doing my research for Romania prior to leaving, I was told that the Palace of Parliament, aka Ceausescu’s Palace, was the thing to see in Bucharest-it is the second largest administrative building in the world! The one thing that visitors need to know is that you need to bring your passport with you, as it is necessary to enter. If you want to take pictures, and I would highly, highly suggest so, you also need to pay a fee, so overall I paid about 55-ish lei. Without a doubt, it lived up to the hype, as it is/was the textbook definition of what delusion of grandeur is. Ceausescu, being the nutty dictator he was, decided to show off to the world by building a grand palace that he and and his wife Elena literally changed the design of several times over. An entire district of Bucharest was bulldozed for the construction site, and the residents inevitably saw no compensation for being evicted. On the national stage, Romania was set into poverty thanks to this folly, as he forced laborers to work on site for entire days on end, siphoning off most natural resources from the country. Even then, it was completed in 1994, taking roughly 10 years to complete; even then, 70 percent of the building is not used. To give you an idea of the sheer scale of it, the area of it is 365,000 square meters, and  $6 million a year is spent on heating and lighting (and it’s why a significant chunk of the lights are turned off-to save money). There also are 480 glass chandeliers, so Ceausescu wanted to make it as opulent as possible. On opposite sides in the ballroom, we noticed that there were two obvious spots on the wall where something should have gone. Marius, our wonderfully self-deprecating tour guide, told us that Ceausescu wanted to have two mirrors: one for himself and one for Elena. However, the idea was scrapped because it would’ve meant that nutty Nicolae and Elena would be equals, and that wouldn’t have been okay. So, to solve this potentially fatal issue, the mirrors were put across from each other-one for Ceausescu to look at, and the other so that it would show his reflection. Ultimately, this didn’t happen, so the walls remained naked. At the end of the hour-long tour, we were taken to the balcony, where one could look out and take in the sight of the main square of the city. (I admit to temporarily feeling a bit grandiose, given that I could imagine myself addressing a nation. Can’t quite blame old Nicolae there for wanting that balcony.) It was here that many celebrities and politicians have made their presence felt, and one anecdote highlighted this. After Ceausescu’s infamous stint in power and the ensuing revolution, the country was in need of something to cheer about. This is where the King of Pop, aka Michael Jackson, comes in. In 1994, he was invited to give a concert in Bucharest, and of course he wanted to make his mark. From the top of Parliament, he cheerfully shouted to his adoring fans, “Hello, Budapest!”. Whoops. As Marius went on to explain, other celebrities have made their way further west, with greetings of “Hello, Belgrade” and my personal favorite, “Hello, Boston!”. So, the late, great Michael Jackson was a bit of an inadvertent trend setter. All in all, I came away with a better appreciation for (relatively) contemporary Romanian history, especially after feeling massively inadequate after walking through this massive building. Check it out if you’re ever in Bucharest!

One underrated aspect of Bucharest I feel obligated to mention is the beer. Yes, the beer! Not only is it cheap (about $2.5, which is an absolute bargain), but I found that the beers were amazing. In particular, I’d recommend a cold Ciuc or Timișoreana, as those were the most common. Making the atmosphere even homelier was how cozy downtown was. Maybe it was my lack of research (which surprisingly happened to work out this time), but I was impressed at how chic things were. Off of Piaţa Universităţii, the cobbled streets were filled with tourists and locals alike. Feeding off of the Euro 2016 spirit, which Romania put up a valiant yet ultimately futile effort, there were screens installed with updates as well as an abundant supply of TVs carrying the matches. However, the place to get a beer was the Caru’ cu Bere (The Beer Cart), a Bucharest institution. Founded in 1879, it has been fulfilling the alcoholic and culinary needs of locals and tourists alike. Just walking inside will blow you away, as it’s quite possibly the most ornate pub you’ll come across! Case in point: I felt decidedly under dressed even when contemplating the thought of getting dinner there. Since this blog was founded to help give travel tips, here’s mine: no matter what you get, the food is fantastic and the beer is cold. Cheers!

There’s something to be said about the museums of Bucharest. Ranging from what you’d expect to ones fulfilling certain niches, you’re definitely in luck when trying to decide which ones to visit. The first one I had the pleasure of attending was the Natural History Museum, and the centerpiece was the cast replica of Emperor Trajan’s Column. The pieces were dispersed throughout the gallery, so I was fortunate enough to see the masterful engravings, which in turn helped me to get a glimpse into history from that period. What does Romania have to do with this? Well, under Trajan’s reign, the Roman army fought the Dacians, who proved to be a bothersome lot. However, the Romans eventually conquered them and thus expanded their empire’s borders. I spent a good hour just walking around and digesting the magnitude of the column, as the sheer magnitude of it all sucked me in. After that, I got to see a smaller display of gold coins and trinkets from early Romanian history, and they were impressive! After that, I trekked out to the National Military Museum, which was in the city’s northwestern district. Covering the history from prehistoric times to the modern day, it was a great insight into a lesser known country’s armed forces. In the main hall where you enter, it covered history up until the 18th century, but once you went outside, you were greeted by miscellaneous vehicles from the past 50 or so years. Other displays featured the uniforms worn over the centuries, and were more colorful than I expected, as well as my personal favorite, the armory. Not only did it display Romanian armaments, but Western armies’ ones as well. Finally, the last museum I visited was the Village Museum. As the name of it indicates, this focused on traditional Romanian houses from previous centuries. Making it even more special is that the museum actually purchased the houses from the owners and brought them to Bucharest, so they were the real deal. Personally, the exhibition was nice, but I would say spend maybe 20-30 minutes at best in it, as there wasn’t too much more to see there. On the way back to the metro, I walked past the Arc de Triumf and a statue dedicated to Charles de Gaulle, attesting to the level of inspiration France has had. Hey, it makes an already charming city even more aesthetically pleasing!

My final thought about Bucharest is that it is a city with lots of charm. It felt small at times, but again, I’m sure to some extent that’s my adopted Muscovite mentality. Admittedly, it felt like you really did and see all you needed to, but I would absolutely love to give it more than a week to explore, if not with other cities as well. But for now, mersi, Bucharest!

The Cozyness Downtown: thecozyness.com

Caru’ cu bere’s website: Caru’ cu bere

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3 thoughts on “Bucharest, not Budapest

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Playing the Moldovans at Tennis | Travel perspective, tales, and advice

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  3. Pingback: Best beers I’ve had while traveling | Travel perspective, tales, and advice

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