The Heart of Romania
24 April 2016
Exploring Bucharest (not to be confused with Budapest) means getting to know a city marching to the beat of its own drum, writes Tatyana Leonov.
In 1992, a few years after the fall of communism, Michael Jackson arrived in Bucharest, the capital of Romania, to perform to a crowd of 70,000 people. The mob was ecstatic – times were changing and one of the greatest entertainers of the era was performing live in their city! The stadium was pulsating with energy, the revellers eagerly anticipating what was to come; Bucharest was ready to welcome Michael Jackson. That’s when the superstar hollered, “It’s great to be here in Budapest ...”
Quite a few celebrities have made the same mistake – Ozzy Osbourne, Lenny Kravitz and Metallica, to name a few – and the confusion reached new heights in 2012 when 400 soccer fans mistakenly flew to Budapest in Hungary instead of Bucharest for the Europa League final. To combat this unusual problem, the Bucharest government even introduced welcome signage a few years ago to differentiate the two cities – partly to assist visitors and partly to poke fun at the situation. It’s refreshing to discover a city that can laugh at itself.
Romania’s capital is nothing like Budapest. Sure, both capital cities start with the letter B and are made up of three syllables; yes, Romania and Hungary are neighbouring countries; and it’s true that there are some similarities in terms of cuisine and architecture. But Bucharest is like no city I’ve ever been to. It’s not immediately striking, but scratch the surface and you’ll find the heart of Romania marching to the beat of its own drum.
Bucharest has taken on many personae through its long life, perhaps the most notable of these being between World War I and World War II, when Bucharest was nicknamed “Little Paris”, thanks to its stylish architecture and a chic, elite crowd who even spoke Romanian with French accents.
The Arcul de Triumf is a good example of the Paris-Bucharest comparison, namely because it was actually modelled on Paris’s Arc de Triomphe. Inaugurated in 1936, the arch boldly stands as a monument to Romania’s independence. On my visit, I admire the impressive structure from the outside and then head inside, where I climb the internal staircase to take in the city vistas from the top.
The wide, tree-lined boulevards and leafy squares are still there, as are many magnificent buildings that are a reminder of Bucharest’s past. One of the most beautiful of them is the Romanian Athenaeum, the place to hear classical music in Bucharest. Opened in 1888, the neoclassical domed structure has an interior exquisitely embellished with intricate mosaics illustrating Romanian life. The best way to experience the majestic venue is by attending a concert – and watching the George Enescu Philharmonic Orchestra perform in such stunning surroundings is a magical way to ensure a memorable evening.
Even my glorious hotel, the five-star Grand Hotel Continental, is a place steeped in history. A meeting place of Bucharest’s elite (previously and presently), it’s conveniently located on Victory Avenue, a picturesque boulevard that has been the centre of Bucharest’s high life since the 1800s.
There are many stunning buildings dotted along Victory Avenue and in Bucharest’s historic core, the “Old City”, so every morning I take my stroll slowly to study their intricacies. Some, like the Grand Hotel Continental, have been restored to their former glory, while others – evidently once-magnificent structures – are decaying beside ruptured roads. It’s a mishmash of restoration and rot; a dynamic blend of glamour and grit; a vision that inspires while also revealing the city’s tumultuous past.
Bucharest holds claim to the world’s second-largest civilian building with an administrative purpose (only the Pentagon is bigger) – the Palace of the Parliament. The floor area measures a whopping 360,000 square metres and the structure is made up of 12 storeys and eight underground levels. I tour just a few of the 1100 rooms: highlights include elaborate crystal chandeliers, gigantic bronze doors and curtains made of silk from worms shipped from China. There are mammoth spaces within the sprawling grounds, and even the locals don’t seem to know what they’re used for.
Locals often seem to not know what’s going on. The statue of Trajan and the She-wolf, on the stairs of the National Museum of Romanian History, stood covered in plastic wrap for a year, yet no one knew why. Eventually, the mayor unwrapped it in 2012, but residents quickly decided it was one of the ugliest statues they’d ever seen. So famous is its hideousness, there’s even a Facebook page dedicated to it – another example of locals taking the mickey.
Behind this humour and hardship lies a city perpetually adapting. The fall of communism in 1989 prompted the first wave of change; the second was in 2007, when Romania became part of the European Union. Many residents left to work abroad (millions currently live overseas) but lately, thousands are coming home and investing the money they’ve made into their motherland, bringing new skills and inspiring visions to help develop this beautiful country.
Expats, too, are adding their touch to Bucharest, in the dining scene in particular. Dutch chef Paul Oppenkamp heads up fine diner The Artist, where he takes a Heston Blumenthal-like approach – using regular ingredients in interesting ways, he aims to transform the way people experience their food.
Bucharest is not new to transformation, but exploring the capital of today means getting to know a city that’s finally getting to know itself. Previously known for its imitation, the new Bucharest is an adaptation, a fusion – indeed, an original, exciting creation.
When to go Any time from April to October sees pleasant weather, although June, July and August can get quite hot.
Where to stay For serious indulgence, the Grand Hotel Intercontinental is the place to luxe out. See continentalhotels. ro/Grand-Hotel-Continental-Bucuresti.
More information romaniatourism.com