Bucherest, Romania. A First Look at Eastern Europe.
Bucharest, Romania is one of those cities that takes work. It’s not going to give up its secrets to you easily, or all at once. You have to wade into it’s streets and alleyways and search around for yourself.
Though a member of the European Union, Romania is not part of the so-called, Schengen Zone. This is good for travelers. If you’re spending a bunch of time traveling, you won’t be burning up your maximum Schengen days (90 days within six months for westerners, if you’re curious) by visiting Romania. It still carries its own currency, so make sure you prepare yourself in advance, both monetarily and with visas (if needed. US citizens don’t need a visa to enter Romania.)
Bucharest has a completely different feel to it than the other Eastern European cities I visited during my journey. It’s harsher and more rugged than others. Not less refined, but definitely less polished. The Romanian people know this, and are pulling the city into the current age as best as they can.
I enjoyed my stop in Bucharest. It gave me a real contrast to my other stops. But it did require more work to enjoy.
If you read an earlier post about my stop in CluJ, Romania, you get a completely different feel for the country. CluJ is young and hip, while still embracing its past. Bucharest is much older and more languishing, like CluJ’s doting grandmother. It’s the contrast of places that makes travel interesting.
Following, I’ll try to do three days in Bucharest justices, without being overly critical.
Getting There, and Escaping.
Considering I was coming out of Israel, the easiest way to get to Bucharest was to fly. It was pretty easy to find a flight, as there were multiple international carriers making the trek in one direction of the other.
I chose the most reasonably priced ticket I could get, which led me to getting into Bucharest late in the evening. Too late to figure out buses and taxis. This led me to set up an airport transfer to my hotel before I left Israel. The transfer turned out to be a good idea, as the section of town that I found my hotel in got super sketchy after dark! (Like the hotel was locked up after dark sketchy.) it was reported to me that they had large problems with crime from the Gypsy population.
It turned out that, as long as the sun was up, the place wasn’t so bad. This made it possible for me to walk from the hotel to the train station for an early morning exit. Getting train reservations handled at the station in Bucharest wasn’t even remotely straightforward, as nobody spoke anything but Romanian. (Stay calm and smile Aaron. Keep looking harmless and you’ll get what you want, eventually) Getting my rail pass stamped and a reservation for the trip over to CluJ took me four ladies, at for different windows (one lady twice), and about an hour, but I got it done. And, I got a crazy lost in translation story out of the deal.
It was in and out via public transportation on this trip. I find it the easiest way to get around places I’ve never been. Don’t know that I’m excited about driving in Romania just yet.
Coming to terms with Eastern Europe.
Most of Eastern Europe is definitely in a state of transition. Countries that are trying to pull themselves out of communist depression and insert themselves into the new E.U., represent every level of this transition. Romania, though not a member of the Schengen Zone yet, is still doing all it can to survive and thrive in this new economic landscape.
At first sight, It is a lot to take in. The social feel of Romania is quite different than anything you will find in the west. They are holding on to their stoic, rural past, attempting to adjust as a slower pace.
The second definite thing that can’t be overlooked is the effects of Communism on the country. I literally mean you cannot not see it. Communist depression had a larger effect on Bucharest that it did on other Eastern European stops I made in my continued travels. Bucharest will need to work harder to dig themselves out.
And, they are definitely trying. New infrastructure and building projects are evident in many parts of the city that I visited. Old buildings are being repurposed, and new areas are being created from urban renewal. Just down the street from the building above was a fantastic green space with a fountain that fronted a modern shopping mall, with major retailers.
I suggest you just take it slowly. Don’t expect too much from the city and it will no doubt reward you with more than you plan on. Keep an eye open for change, and you’ll find it.
I became quite comfortable in the city, once I understood its nature. You just have to take it at a slower pace than other cities.
Happiness in the Despair.
The state of Bucharest reminds me of something Mark Twain said. It has “the mold and decay that go with antiquity.”
As you make your way around the sections of the city that have not received any major rehabilitation (where I spent the majority of my time), you can feel it’s pre-communist charms. One of a handful of cities to wear the Moniker “Paris of the East”, the city’s architectural connection to the French capital is impossible to miss. Numerous examples of the French style exist around the city.
Sadly, with decades of communism came rot and ruin. The majority of the different structures I saw where in some state of advanced disrepair.
Happily, the city also seems to be becoming aware of the value of these old gems. Although it will be a slow and laborious process, I have faith the conservation efforts will begin to prevail as money is infused into their economy.
Definitely get out and walk around the side streets. I found numerous structures that made me believe in the previous splendor of the city. The architecture, even such as it is, is quite amazing.
Some Cultural Highlights.
I confess that I’ve been beating the place up. It does have a real depression about it in some areas. That being said, it also has some real gems. Here are just a few of those.
The Kretzulescu Basilica is a small but otherwise completely over-adorned church, just down the street from the Royal Palace of Bucharest. The church is free to enter (or it was when I visited) and is a good look at past religious representations.
Every inch of its interior surfaces are covered in paintings or reliefs. Even the inside of the exterior entryway is completely covered. The works are almost completely intact and well-maintained. It’s a lovely distraction while you’re out exploring, and I would suggest checking it out.
Directly next to the Royal Palace of Bucharest, and sitting inside the same courtyard, you’ll find the National Museum of Art of Romania.
I found a tour of the art collection to be a wholly satisfying experience. The collection, laid out over multiple floors in the museum, is a mixture of painting and sculpture. The exhibit is quite enjoyable, but not exhaustive. I toured it in an hour or so.
Unlike museums in the west, there was no line to queue in. I walked straight in to the ticket agent. She was warm and welcoming. The museum was also sparsely inhabited, which gave it a very intimate feeling. I enjoyed the stop very much.
The Romanian Athenaeum, up and across the street from the Palace is a lovely and magnificently well-maintained concert hall. It is also where you will get your lingering post-communist welcome. The man working as the ticket seller and security enforcer has no sense of humor that he knows of. Just kidding, I’m sure he’s a likable old dude, but he’s a little stiff.
The concert hall is amazing in its architecture and decoration. The quick tour is well worth your time.
Directly adjacent to the Athenaeum is a restaurant called Trattoria II (I think). Anyway, you can’t miss the signs. It’s worth stopping in the outside courtyard for a cool down beer, if nothing else.
Though I confess I was a little harsh on Bucharest, I am truly happy that I made the trip there. Travel, to be truly rewarding, shouldn’t always be easy. I think we forget that, at times.
You should make more time in your travels for places more remote, wether that be in location or economy. The lack of ease adds to the experience you take away.
I would recommend a stop in Bucharest. I would also recommend you follow it up with a stop in another Eastern European location. This way, you will get context. Without context, you can’t form an accurate opinion of a place. (Or, that’s my opinion on the matter.)
Now, go somewhere and do something. Have a new experience!