Bucharest : Some time in the Unloved City

Bucharest Travel Blog

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“I haven’t met a single person who says they’ve spent longer than one day in Bucharest!” pipes up the lass form Sheffield in the Rolling Rock hostel in Brasov some days later.  I gently raise my arm in an “I have” gesture.  Not per se in the city’s defence.  I remain, let us say, friendly but indifferent about Bucharest after spending a total of about 4 days there off and on in my first week in Romania.  But rather in defence of the idea that (almost) any place one travels to, if the time is available - and it isn’t always I fully accept - needs to be “given a little chance to breathe” I explain to her.

Old and New, shoulder to shoulder in Bucharest.
 

Yes, poor old Bucharest.  Not treated kindly by the 20th Century and not much loved by Romanians; many of its residents and certainly not by travellers today.  Sheffield Lass is right in the main.  Everyone else I speak to too within The Community (of travellers) basically uses it as nothing more than a transport hub.  Some never even getting further than the Gara du Nord main train station.  “Hey, if you say ‘Bucharest sucks‘ to a Transylvanian you will be getting on immediately with them!” explains George (a Transylvanian) a week later in Sibiu.  Bucharest does not suck (sorry George), it’s just a slowly recovering trauma victim in need of a lot of ongoing TLC.

Bucharest Fly Poster Abstract 2

So having spent some good time there; giving the city a few days to speak to me I’m not sure how forgiving or generous to be to Bucharest myself.  My eyes and pen have a tendency to be a little too much so from time to time I know.  It’s a hard city to assess.  Broken down at a historical crossroads with all the financial life siphoned out of its rusted petrol tank ever since the Romanian Revolution in 1989 (and long through the Eighties already), it’s only just getting the jump-start it needs to head in one direction or the other.

Bucharest bears the scars of the troubles and uncertainties it’s faced in the last hundred years most notably to the casual visitor in its schizophrenic architecture.  ‘Eclectic’ is often the adjective of choice but is too kindly a word as it implies a certain amount of intent.

The Roman Arteneum.
  The truth is that a combination of wars,  an extremely large earthquake in 1977 and the cannibalistic devastations of Nicolae Ceausescu’s Communist regime and its innumerable aesthetic massacres all combined to ravage, and in the latter case, near enough eradicate historical Bucharest.  In its place often now you are faced with an elephant’s graveyard of massive, mouldering ferro-concrete monsters.  Or their all too rapidly rotting carcases.  A great big Biblical flood required to wash them all away so Old Bucharest can stand tall again.

The stupefyingly large Palace of Parliament ( often claimed to be the 3rd largest building in the world depending on how you assess these things - so probably not actually the 3rd ) combined with the Civic Centre urban restructuring (read - urban scarification) projects alone, rolled out by Ceausescu in the Eighties required 19 Orthodox Christian churches, 6 Synagogues, 3 Protestant churches, 8 church ‘relocations’ and 30,000 historic residences to be razed to the ground.

*

In fact those churches that remain, hemmed in and hunched down in the shadows of the many concrete high-rise blocks that denote the jaundiced Communist era approach to architectural pragmatism look to me like scared and timorous creatures.  Not the confident sky-piercing houses of God they once were.  Still afraid to open their eyes, ruffle their feathers and shine again.  Afraid to look and see if the same fate as befell their historical brothers and sisters still awaits them.  A small one room exhibit inside the National Museum entitled ‘In Memorium Vacaresti’ houses what tiny fresco and architectural remnants were salvaged from the early 18th Century church of that name demolished at Ceausescu’s behest between 1984 - ‘87.

A strange state of affairs for such a clearly devout people as the Romanians are.

'Church Refraction'
  Most Romanians will draw the ‘Cross’ by its four points from their forehead to waist and across their chest 3 times when they have sight of any church.  Even if it is a good distance off.  Even if other buildings obscure it by line of sight but they know it to be there.  At lunch time in the blazing hot, concrete-fuelled heat long queues of people, young and old, kneel scribbling on small sheets of paper headed ‘Acatist’ that they then queue to hand to priests inside the church.  Christina explains to me that these are on one side prayers for the living and the loved and for the dead on the reverse.  Prayers that will be read any number of times by the priests depending on the size of your ‘contribution’.

The one part of town that still retains some minor flashes of Medieval Bucharest is the Lipscani area of downtown.

Lipscani Reconstruction 3
  Historically the banking district of town, and still so, although a healthy flock of nice cafes, restaurants, bars (‘terraces’ to the Romanians) and trendy shops now line the majority of its cobble-surface streets.  Well, actually on that last point, for the most part there are no surfaces to the Lipscani streets right now.  Subject to a long term rejuvenation program Lipscani doesn’t know whether it wants to be an archaeological site; a reconstruction of the First World War trench systems or a bright bold hope for the future or what and you spend your time carefully picking your way along wooden walkways and planks and around piles of rubble. 

Tudor explains “Yes there have been many problems.  The Government tried to cancel the restoration contract with the Spanish company but it would cost too much to break the contract, so now things are stuck.

  But I think they will improve soon.”  They need to.  I am reminded about the debacle of Wembley Stadium’s reconstruction in England.  I also shudder once more at the prospect of the 2012 Olympics to be held in London.  I think 99% of the British populace live in mortal dread of how much we’re capable of f**king that one up.  The other 1% are the politicians who “thought it was a good idea at the time” and the corporate and construction contractors who will line their pockets with public gold whatever happens and so couldn’t give a fook either way. 

Following inspiration from the ‘exposed’ foundations of a Church in Sofia I’d recently visited I suggest to Tudor I’d love them to do something like finish all the archaeological uncovering that’s going on under Lipscani and for the streets to then be covered in cobble surrounds and long glass or Perspex strips with under lighting so come night or day you could walk along on route to your beer or glass of wine and beneath you, look down to the beautiful old skeleton of the city visible beneath your feet.

Bucharest's very own L'Arc de Triumphe.
  He says such a solution was mooted.

I also ask Tudor about the wildly varied architecture to be found in his city too.  “Well, we Romanians like to be individuals.  Although we are a joined people these days, we are a very individualistic people so when one person built their home next to the other, it could not be of the same style”.  I see.  This visual variance has only been further exaggerated by the encroachment of modernity.  Shopping malls, hotels and skyscrapers.  “Bucharest… you know what it used to be called?” Tudor asks.  “Yes, ‘Little Paris’” I reply.  ‘Little Paris of the East’ actually.  “That’s right.

Classic shot view of the National Bank of Romania from the streets of Lipscani.
  And this area where we are, this was called ‘The Little Paris of Little Paris’” he proudly explains as he shows me around a particularly pretty part of the city centre, hidden from the main thoroughfares.

So as I say, Bucharest.  A historic centre.  A modern ’work in progress’.  A lot of it under wraps right now.  Old Romani women and their girls sit in doorways of faded grandeur and trim bunches of lavender stalks to sell in front of the mass shrouds of tarpaulin and masks of scaffolding and the ratta-tatta-tatta-clang of jackhammers that denote urban regeneration.  Bucharest is hiding.  Healing.  One to watch for the future.  For now you’ll have to use your imagination.  Look past the boarded windows of once grand buildings.

Grafitti City
  Now shells.  Past the graffiti and litter and bill-board advertisement banality.  Bucharest might just be Europe’s great cocoon.  Swathed in plastic sheeting and bandages, covering the ravages of social history, urban poverty and neglect.  It’ll take time and a lot of money.  Eligible for EU funding now, a large enough transfusion of funds might one day help the city to re-emerge, butterfly like, and reclaim its old glories and moniker.  (Just don’t mention the EU funding in front of Brits “All we eva do is give, give, give to that bloomin’ EU and do we neva get nuffin’ back? Nah we don’t!” ).  Whatever.   

And what’s there to do in Bucharest?  What did I do?  Well, a bunch of stuff I guess.

In The Park 2
  There are some interesting enough museums.  The Statului or ‘Village’ Museum that houses an excellent collection of relocated or reconstructed traditional Romanian abodes and churches from over the centuries.  However do note that if you’re to travel extensively in Romania you will likely end up in Sibiu which houses a much larger - and I’m told - much more impressive museum of the same nature.  There are good art museums I stroll  around, some parks, and also the so-so Muzeul Taranului Romana ( Romanian Peasants Museum) which at one point amuses by informing me that ‘These are part of our chair collection, which is very rich.  Here, in Romania, we are still in the chair zone.  The more you advance towards the East, the more people you will find sitting on the ground’.
A traditional Transylvanian region wooden church.
  So I wonder TB chums are you sat there reading this from ‘The Chair Zone’ (cue eerie Seventies theme music ‘You have just crossed over into…’ ) or from outside of ‘The Chair Zone’?  The Other Side where presumably people still know how to park their arses without pomp or affectation.  Let me know.  I take myself to see 'Transformers' at the cinema as it tends to p*ss it down in the late evenings when I'm here and 'cos I was visiting the Giza Pyramids (featured prominantly in the film) when Shia and Co were filming it there last October and I'm curious.  And, and, and? … I’m sure I did some other sh*t too but I’ve let your coffee get cold already.  So until next time…

* Specific details gleaned from Wikipedia

Marius1981 says:
haha “Hey, if you say ‘Bucharest sucks‘ to a Transylvanian you will be getting on immediately with them!”
thats true
but also from all the EU capitals bucharest earns top sport for ugliness; just another victim of fanatic communism i guess
Posted on: Mar 09, 2010
dothoin says:
Great blog
Posted on: Sep 07, 2009
Stevie_Wes says:
Cheers Carole... yeah it has it's virtues, they're just all a bit tarnished still for the time being. A lot of the Eastern European capitals are surprising me in their calmness and charms actually. I'm in Zagreb now and it's a cool place, but again not top of peoples lists to stay.
Posted on: Jul 17, 2009
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Old and New, shoulder to shoulder …
Old and New, shoulder to shoulder…
Bucharest Fly Poster Abstract 2
Bucharest Fly Poster Abstract 2
The Roman Arteneum.
The Roman Arteneum.
Church Refraction
'Church Refraction'
Lipscani Reconstruction 3
Lipscani Reconstruction 3
Bucharests very own LArc de Triu…
Bucharest's very own L'Arc de Tri…
Classic shot view of the National …
Classic shot view of the National…
Grafitti City
Grafitti City
In The Park 2
In The Park 2
A traditional Transylvanian region…
A traditional Transylvanian regio…
Bucharest Fly Poster Abstract 3
Bucharest Fly Poster Abstract 3
Bucharest Fly Poster Abstract 1
Bucharest Fly Poster Abstract 1
Varying architectural styles next …
Varying architectural styles next…
Low rise / High rise
Low rise / High rise
Advertise
'Advertise'
Damn ugly seaguing to not quite so…
Damn ugly seaguing to not quite s…
Arteneum (detail)
Arteneum (detail)
Fly posters pasted ten-deep and of…
Fly posters pasted ten-deep and o…
In The Park 1
In The Park 1
The imposing Palace of Parliament …
The imposing Palace of Parliament…
Lipscani Reconstruction 1
Lipscani Reconstruction 1
Lipscani Reconstruction 2
Lipscani Reconstruction 2
R.I.P MJ etc, etc...
R.I.P MJ etc, etc...
Lipscani Reconstruction 4
Lipscani Reconstruction 4
Does any else think this bit of br…
Does any else think this bit of b…
Traditional home at the Village M…
Traditional home at the 'Village …
Traditional home interior.
Traditional home interior.
Mallards
'Mallards'
Bucharest
photo by: tm16dana