Bucharest wouldn’t win any image awards. Described as either edgy, concrete, seen by some to be crime ridden (somewhat overstated in my opinion), the city is often seen as a stopover not by choice but necessity to go onto one of the numerous beautiful places in Romania.
However I have to say while it may not be the most beautiful city in Romania, it is nowhere near as bad as its reputation. It still has an essence of elegance and enough to do or see to warrant a stay.
I had passed through Bucharest on the way to Moldova meeting a kind Irishman living in Bulgaria in the maxi taxi to Bucharest.
However my first real introduction to Bucharest was when I arrived 7am on the way back. Cutting my shin by going into a rusty metal pole in the street that shouldn’t be there. Not a great start, fortunately things improved in my trip but not at the start.
As I was in the not so salubrious area around Gare De Nord I was approached by a guy. He asked me where I was going and from and then said
“Put away your camera and your guidebook. Don’t you know this area is dangerous? Last week an American guy, a basketball player was murdered just down that street! His things were stolen by a gipsy who murdered him! This is Gipsy town! It is not safe! Let me show you were you can get safe transport very cheap. It is yellow just over there, I am going that way… By the way, I am from Plovdiv, I don’t live here I work in tourism.”
Not quite believing him but only going slightly off track I walked a little as he then led me to a taxi area.
“No thanks. I am OK” I reply. My map says there is a metro around here I’ll just take that into town”.
As he departs I do no such thing but continue to walk to the town centre (after taking a stop at a restaurant). I went by foot. I wasn’t robbed. I wasn’t threatened. Yes there are gipsies and it is evident that many are on the outskirts of society hanging around but the guy’s story was only partially true. Like all scammers he mixed truth with error, pure lies.
You see, yes unfortunately an American was murdered recently, yes it was a basketball player but no it wasn’t down that street he said, it wasn’t even in Bucharest and no it wasn’t robbery but over a woman, a man’s girlfriend in a bar, a guy enraged when he thought his girlfriend was being seduced.
I met many travellers actually all Americans (nearly all from Utah) at the hostel I stayed. Everyone told me that Romanians were kind and I believe it. I need to spend more time there though to be able to experience Romanian culture to its fullest. In addition to the Americans, I met a nice Canadian called Lisa and several Israelis travelling
I had planned to use Couchsurfing but was let down by a host forgetting entirely so I arranged accommodation when I arrived.
Despite Bucharest reputation, it DOES have many attractive buildings, many old churches and classical European architecture. The old ‘Paris of the East’ is not short of nice buildings. It is just scattered between concrete blocks and too much traffic. Lipscani retains some of that charm, but it is not quite Vilnius. Having said that there is enough to do, enough museums and enough churches to enjoy your time once you can navigate the streets confidentially.
While walking I came across a 24 hour restaurant Ramayana. A bit mysterious. Kind of Hindu, Indian themes, part Arabic themes, it reminded of part temple, part middle east harem (although I have been to either, save a tour in Topkapi palace in Istanbul), and part Twin peaks. Incense filed the air, there was a statue of a Hindu god, yet the seats seemed Arabic, the colours mysterious, and the beautiful waitress Christine wore a long slit dress.
The food was not so mysterious but was good.
I met Lavinia, through couchsurfing and enjoyed talking with her immensely. I could learn about Romanian culture and we walked the centre in the night after eating. She is very culture aware and perceptive and it was great to meet with her.
Part of the reason why Bucharest is no longer seen as the Paris of the East is damage from WWII, and part down to the obsession of the crazed dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. Who for his own grand ego built the Parliament Palace. Described by virtualrmania.org as a monstrosity (by a Romanian who remembers Bucharest before).
To my eyes Parliament Palace building seems impressive, while not beautiful in itself, the World’s third largest building by surface area is impressive and the wide and very long boulevard. But once you lean that Ceausescu destroyed 1/6 of Bucharest including many old buildings and churches. And made 1/4 of the population homeless for his ego. It is easy to see it is a monstrosity.
The crazed dictator was also responsible for the stray dog problem.
Many old beautiful buildings were demolished to make way for this monstrosity. I remember a joke that was going around at the time: the boulevard that ends with the Parliament Palace (which used to be called The House of the People) was to be called “The Victory of Socialism” and the joke was that in fact its name is “The Victory of Socialism against Bucharest”. http://virtualromania.org/places/bucharest.vr/places.vr/
Despite Ceausescu’s intentions many old beautiful churches and monasteries remain in Bucharest. The Antim monastery. Paranoid Ceausescu finally met his end when trying to remove a respected Priest who spoke against his abuses. When resistance was met the effect snowballed. After the massacre of up to 1,000 students who dared stand up, momentum turned against him and his wife, and eventually the army too. You can visit Piata Unirii, Piata Rosetti, and Piata Roman where the protests and tragic murders of the students took place who bravely died protesting against Ceausescu.
Ceausescu and his wife were executed by firing squad and Romania once gain had the opportunity to start a new chapter.
Let Sleeping Dogs Lie
Over 100,000 stray dogs are in Bucharest. They can be aggressive and roam in packs but I never came across any problems. Fortunately there are all pets too. The stray dog problem was the cause of no other than Ceausescu and one of his grand ideas.
His forced location of many villagers and population into crowded tall concrete apartment blocks instantly met many owners could no longer keep their dogs and the dogs were abandoned, left to fend for themselves.
A truly sad story and example of the limitless ego of lunatics such as Ceausescu.