A Winning Gamble: A Dispatch From Bucharest

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Bucharest wouldn’t have been my first choice holiday destination, in fact, I hadn’t ever considered going there at all, but after several beers in a pub on a cold January evening with my friend, we got to talking about how we hadn’t been away together for a couple of years and how we needed to remedy that.

We started flicking through the Ryanair and Easyjet apps for some inspiration and Bucharest jumped out at us. £150 return flights were booked and shortly after, we realised we needed to break the news to our respective girlfriends. My girlfriend was fine, his not so much, but we both made it there with our relationships still intact.

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Piața Revoluției and the Memorial of Rebirth statue.

I confess, I didn’t have high hopes for Bucharest. A couple of my Romanian friends, whenever it was mentioned, would speak of it unfavourably. Just over four months after booking, I find myself wondering what on earth they were talking about.

My first impressions are what you’d expect from a former Communist city that suffered under a dictatorship; grey high rise buildings completely enclose it, but once inside, you start to glimpse some of the charm that earned it the moniker “The Paris of the East”.

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The Bucharest skyline. A glorious mismatch of styles.

Long boulevards are lined with art nouveau gems and brutalist structures alike, giving the city a pleasing hotchpotch of architectural styles. There’s a charming Old Town that is absolutely bonkers come night-time, some surprisingly excellent coffee shops and a burgeoning dining scene all wrapped up in a compact metropolis with genuinely friendly locals, even if they’re a little indifferent at first.

The Old Town is very touristy, filled with kitsch souvenir shops and touts trying to pull you into restaurants with pictures on the menu but away from these, the winding streets offer glimpses of what it once was; a truly elegant Belle-Époque city. Wandering around, it’s hard not to lament what has been done to some sections of the city.

Entire sections of the city were levelled to make way for Ceausescu’s megalomaniac passion piece, The Palace of the Parliament, the second largest administrative building in the world after the Pentagon. The area surrounding it is completely charmless: very grey, square, and gritty but change is coming, it’s incongruously home to a cafe for breakfast cereal, much like London’s ‘Cereal Killer Cafe’.

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The huge Palace of the Parliament.

The Old Jewish neighbourhood too, has been stripped of its charm and is quite run down. This isn’t the typical Jewish quarter you may be used to i.e. historic and quaint. There are only traces of its past as the hub of Jewish life in the city, with only the Templul Unirea and Sfântă Sinagoga Mare synagogues left, the latter housing a Holocaust Museum displaying exhibits about Romania’s role in the Holocaust.

Back in the Old Town though, specifically around the Strada Episcopiei and the Ateneul Român (Romanian Athenaeum), it’s a very different story. You’d be forgiven for thinking you were in the French capital, with beautiful buildings, museums, art galleries and elegant cafes the order of the day. It’s jarring when compared to other, less aesthetically pleasing parts of the city.

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The Ateneul Român: The home of classical music in Romania

There’s a fascinating history here too. From being the seat of power of Vlad the Impaler in the Middle Ages, to its time under Soviet rule, with the city irrevocably changed from its time under the latter. Piața Revoluției is where the death knell for Communism in Romania tolled, with some of the heaviest, bloodiest fighting taking place here. Upon close inspection, you can still see bullet mark scars on the buildings. The balcony of the Communist party headquarters, where Ceaușescu made his last speech as leader before fleeing and eventual capture, is nearby.

We were fortunate that the weather was great. It was sunny and pleasant and a breath of fresh air. It’s also left me wanting to explore more of the country with Brașov, Timișoara and the Transylvania region now on the never-ending, ever-expanding list.

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The excellent Origo on Strada Lipscani. Bucharest’s best coffee.

After 3 action packed days here it was time to return home. It did have one final adventure in store for us though. Our taxi journey back to the airport was an unforgettable experience. We made our way there in an old Dacia Logan with almost 1 million kilometres on the clock. It cut out twice, the gears grinding with every shift and his driving was not for the faint hearted and we weren’t sure we’d even make it, but it was certainly memorable, like much of this crazy city.

Often acting as only a gateway to the more popular parts of the country, which is a shame, Bucharest sometimes suffers from a bad reputation, from organised crime to rampant pick-pocketing but I never once felt in any danger, even at 5 in the morning on the way back from one of the many, many bars and clubs.

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A happy violinist enjoying himself in Bucharest Old Town.

Straddling East and West, there’s a strong Balkan influence, from the myriad of beautiful Orthodox churches to the insane nightlife in the Lipscani Distict. You’re in Europe, but it’s not quite what you’re used to; it has a libertine, care-free attitude that is quite refreshing but most of all, it’s just flat-out fun. Put any preconceptions aside and come give it a try. See for yourself why I think it’s Europe’s most under-rated capital.

Thanks for reading,

Terry.

 

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