Bucharest: a young window into the past

If I’m completely honest, it wasn’t because of Bucharest’s rich history and vibrant cultural scene that my friends and I decided to go to the Romanian capital, nor was it because of the city’s reputation as “Paris of the East”. The truth is, the cheap Ryanair flights were what initially attracted our attention and led us to booking a weekend away there. Despite our motives- or lack thereof- we were nonetheless very taken by this Eastern European gem.

If you’re looking for a break somewhere that’s a little bit off the beaten track and not too touristy, Bucharest is ideal, offering a lively nightlife scene, engrossing historical museums and hearty, traditional restaurants. With it’s imposing grey socialist architecture and high rise buildings, it’s easy to feel like you’ve gone back in time, but this city is far from antiquated or outmoded- it’s energy and hip nightlife scene give it a young, cosmopolitan vibe.

piata unirii
Piata Unirii, the heart of Ceausescu’s urban overhaul of the 1980s

The city centre is a tangle of concrete and streets haphazardly laid out without rhyme nor reason, containing a mish-mash of various types of architecture, from Baroque public buildings, Eastern Orthodox churches to dull, drab Socialist tower blocks. Much of the city centre was destroyed by the Communist ruler Ceausescu’s bulldozers, however, the old part of the city centre mercifully remained untouched. In some ways, the architecture is like a mirror reflecting many historical periods of Bucharest’s past- the French Classical buildings represent the art deco phase of the 1920s while the colossal Palace of Parliament is a stark reminder of Ceausescu’s penchant for ostentation and excess as he aimed to transform the city into his own idealistic Communist image.

What to see and do

Centre your trip around the charming Old Town, the throbbing pulse of the city, and one of the only parts of Bucharest that wasn’t destroyed by the Communist government. Airbnb offers lots of central apartments and rooms in this area which are very reasonable- this is what my friends and I opted to do. The Old Town, or Lipscani as it is also known, is a compact, lively area lined with restaurants, bars and churches.

My friends and I arrive at Piata Unirii after dusk on a cold evening at the end of November when it is shrouded in a thick blanket of fog, the only source of illumination coming from the slanting streetlights which penetrate the mist. This is the city’s buzzing main thoroughfare and is flanked by towering, high rise socialist apartment blocks and features huge fountains which act as a roundabout for cars which zoom past. The fountains, which were eerily empty when we visited, apparently don’t contain water during the winter months as they would freeze over- instead they’re left as barren, grimy vessels in the middle of the city centre. Aside from the capitalist billboards atop of the tower blocks advertising Coca Cola and Rolex watches, you’d be forgiven for thinking that you’d arrived back in 1980s soviet style Romania.

My friends and I had planned on doing the 10.30am free guided tour the morning after we arrived, but things didn’t go as planned, so to speak. After a night of pub crawling, club hopping and attempts to sing Irish rebel songs with buskers in the small hours of the morning, we didn’t get to sleep until about 8am- 2 hours before the planned guided tour. It wasn’t until about half one in the afternoon that we resurfaced, then groggily headed down to Harp’s Bakery for a caffeine and sugar boost. While they don’t serve up the Irish baked goods that their name suggests, their quiches and croissants don’t disappoint.

We eventually did go on a guided tour with the same company at 3pm (a time we all knew deep down was the most realistic from the very beginning.) Our tour guide was a local called Elena, a loquacious, energetic young woman full of enthusiasm and passion for her home city who seemed impervious to the cold and threw out chocolate and rum biscuits to people if they answered her questions correctly. Walkabout Tours in English take place daily at 10.30am and 3pm, the meeting point is at Piata Unirii.

Elena takes us on a trip around the Old City, bringing us to various churches and historical sites. The Stavropoleos Monastery, an Eastern Orthodox Monastery was one of our first stops. One of the most beautiful churches in Romania, this church was designed in the Brancovenesc style and dates back to 1724 when it was founded by a Greek monk. A monastery and an inn were originally built alongside the church, however these were badly damaged by fires and bad administration in the 19th Century. By the end of this century these buildings were demolished and the church was restored. The church is characterised by the Brancovenesc style, which makes it very different to any other Gothic or Renaissance church I had ever visited in central Europe. This is because this style combines a mix of Oriental, Byzantine and late Renaissance elements.

stavropoleos
The Stavropoleos Monastery

During the Communist regime, it was not unusual to look out your window and see a church or major public building rolling by on a railway track. In the 1980s, dozens of churches and other public buildings were moved hundreds of metres to save them from destruction when the Communist dictator Ceausescu set about radically redesigning the city in his own socialist image. During this period, 30,000 people were displaced from their homes while roughly 9,000 churches and other buildings were demolished. Typical Communists, Ceausescu and his wife Elena were notoriously anti-religious and would not tolerate having a church in view from the grounds of their newly built palace.

As a joke, Ceausescu commented that these buildings would be destroyed unless they could be moved to someplace else. However, this witticism got certain people thinking. The idea to move whole buildings on a railway like structure was the brainchild of Iordachescu, a civil engineer who was deeply troubled by the prospect of so many beautiful, old churches being demolished. He set about devising a strategy that involved digging out ground from underneath the building and severing the foundations with a large concrete support being created. The buildings were then moved using pulleys and hydraulic levers along the tracks. Despite initial scepticism and a lack of resources, all the buildings were successfully moved to their intended destinations. Unfortunately, Ceausescu was so impatient to continue with his urban transformation that he demolished over 20 other buildings which otherwise would have been moved to safety if engineers had had enough time. On our tour, we visited one of the churches that had been moved, Schitul Maicilor, which is located near the former offices of the Securitate, the Romanian equivalent of the KGB.

During this period of reconstruction, a massive parliament building was being constructed at the behest of Ceausescu. This colossal, luxurious building, The Palace of Parliament as it is now known, was to house the leader and his wife and contained only the finest, most luxurious materials. The sheer scale of this building is breathtaking- with 12 storeys including four underground levels and a nuclear bunker, it contains 1,100 rooms, over 4,500 chandeliers and is filled with marble, gold and silver. The sheer opulence and excess of the building is disconcerting when put into context: at the time of it’s construction, the government’s harsh austerity measures meant that there were major food shortages and energy usage was severely restricted.

Bucharest_House
The colossal Palace of Parliament, the world’s 2nd largest building after the Pentagon. It’s austere, boxy facade betrays its opulent, ornamental interior

Many Romanians have never set foot in this building as a matter of principle: it was constructed when the country were so low in funds they had to impose rationing and energy shortages.

In previous years, the agricultural sector had been severely neglected as the government focused on industrialisation, despite 30% of the workforce being employed in this sector. This resulted in chronic food shortages which led to rationing of the most basic foodstuffs being introduced in the 1980s. Ceausescu claimed that the population was eating too much so he devised a “Rational Eating Programme” in order to try to limit the calorie intake of the Romanian population by 9-15%. The usage of electricity and heating was often severely restricted, leading to unbearable winters. The availability of hot water was restricted to one day a week in most apartments, while the usage of heating was limited to an hour per day even in sub-zero temperatures. Unannounced power cuts even affected hospitals: for instance, in the winter of 1983, dozens of babies in neonatal incubators died due to the power cuts. These austerity measures were a factor which contributed greatly to the revolution of 1989.

Where to eat

caru cu bere.jpg

A student on a shoestring budget probably isn’t the best person to advise you on where to eat in any given city, but one of the joys about travelling around Eastern Europe is that eating out in a nice restaurant is often just as economical as going to KFC would be at home. If you’re in Bucharest, dining at Caru Cu Bere is a must. Situated in an old Gothic building with arched ceilings and wooden panelling where musicians play local tunes as waiters donned in waist coasts scurry around carrying trays to and fro, the authentic atmosphere of this restaurant takes you back to another era. It’s traditional menu offers hearty fare such as stews, ragout, grilled fish and meats and all dishes are served with locally sourced, seasonal veg. Mains cost an average of €10 while beer will set you back a mere euro- a price range which beggars belief when you consider that this is one of the most famous restaurants in the country.

Language guide

‘Buna’ (pronounced boo-nah) is ‘hello’, or you could say ‘bonjur’ in the morning time
goodbye- ‘la revedere’ (la-ree-ve-day-re)
please- ‘va rog’ (va- rog)
thank you- ‘multumesc’ (mul-too-mesk) or ‘merci’

You might have noticed the connection these words have with other romance languages. Romanian is a language of Latin origin and is the only Romance language still spoken in Eastern Europe with native speakers in countries such as Moldovia, Serbia, Greece and the Ukraine, among others. Romanian is different to it’s Romantic counterparts in that it has evolved in south eastern Europe, an area dominated by Slavic languages. These languages have had an effect on the orthography and phonetics of Romanian, which is why it seems more Slavic than Romantic.

Nightlife

When the sun goes down, the shutters of clubs open up and nocturnal buskers begin to tune their guitars as hoards of young people spill into bars and clubs giving the Old Town a new, eclectic vibe. While some shops call it a day around 9 or 10pm, other entrepreneurial shopkeepers stay open all night, closing their doors but keeping their windows open to sell beers, spirits and tobacco to the public. Trinity College Pub and St. Patrick are two fun spots (you’d swear I was Irish), or if you’re into techno try out Control Club for a mix of pop and techno with an eclectic vibe. If you’re more of a mainstream pop fan, try out S Club which is essentially a bar with a big dancefloor that belts out pop anthems until the wee hours and even boasts a stage that you and your friends can commandeer after the professional dancers have left. Great fun.

Forget the capitalists and their Big Apple, Bucharest is the city that never sleeps.  With a history as complicated to get a grasp of as trying to read a map over here is, you can still get a raw insight into the culture, past and lives of the people here- something that can’t be said for a lot of former Soviet capitals that are now filled with street vendors shoving fake designer handbags in your face and throngs of selfie-taking tourists. Bucharest still manages to retain a strong sense of identity in our globalised world that is getting smaller and smaller each day. Maybe that’s what happens when you have a psycho ruling you for so long.

 

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