After some days in Venice and some weeks in Croatia and Spain, I have landed in Romania. Right now, I am sitting in the kitchen of a farmhouse in the rural region of Maramures. But when I first got here, I spent a few days in Bucharest, a place that many travelers don’t seem to have to much of an interest in. But me being me, I went anyway. And I can safely say that it is one of the most intense, nutty places I’ve ever been to. Last Wednesday night, my landlord picked me up at the airport and drove me to my apartment. It was one of those drives where I tried not to watch the road, or him because he drove like a cab driver in Naples Italy but one on speed. On the way (and on the preceding car’s bumper) he pointed out (literally) several of Bucharest’s famous squares and monuments. Later, I would realize that my landlord, by Bucharest standards, was a pretty tame driver – he even stopped at red lights.
My apartment was in a large, communist era apartment building with two elevators, one of which my landlord said he did not like to take because it jiggled around inside. (It did, and in a fairly unnerving manner.) The hallway lights did not come on until you walked under them and there was the occasional cockroach on the hall floor. However, my apartment was very cute inside, and very clean, and had a view out over part of downtown Bucharest. It was evening, so the first night, I just went out for dinner.
My first impression, after the crazy drive and the communist block apartment building, was this:
A once beautiful building, now looking like a real version of the Haunted Mansion, with dirty drapes hanging off it, just a total waste of a spectacular structure. There were other examples of this decay on the same street, everything just rotting. I was on my way to the Vatra restaurant down the street (you can see the sign in the picture) and the restaurant was a restored building, clean and fresh, with traditional decoration. I had a cheap and decent meal there, with lots of other tourists. As I ate a little dance troup came out from time to time and danced. One of the dancers looked like a young Ciaran Hinds. Bonus.
The next day I had to get some work done so I did not make it out until mid afternoon. I walked around in the old town, which is PACKED with bars and restaurants and also, renovation projects. Construction everywhere. I walked around the university area, and down to the Palatul Parlamentului, Nicolae Ceaușescu’s massive palace that he razed a huge chunk of Bucharest’s historical center to build (and which he never got to see completed, as he was overthrown and executed before it was done.)
There were once 30,000 residences on the site where this behemoth is now. Ceaușescu called it Casa Poporului – the “People’s House.” Guess it wasn’t the people who lost their homes in the razing. I walked back down the wide, fairly run down Boulevard Unirii (“Unification Boulevard”) thinking maybe Bucharest wasn’t really my thing. Hot, dirty, more screeching brakes than I have ever heard, anywhere, too many dudes with their bellies hanging out, more exposed beer bellies than I have ever seen, anywhere. I went into a Carrefour market and some lady started waving a package of coffee around at me, going on and on about something. I told her I was a tourist, but she kept talking in a borderline insane manner. However, I noticed that she moved on to the next person in that aisle after I walked away, waving the package and ranting about something at them. Maybe she just wanted to know if it was good coffee. Who knows.
But of course, places like Bucharest need more time than just one night and one day before one can say it’s “not their thing.” The next morning I got out early and set off by foot in a northern direction. I wanted to go to the fine arts museum, but I couldn’t find a way in. (Turns out it is closed on Fridays – huh?) So I kept walking, up into a more upscale part of Bucharest. There are some very cool buildings up there.
Like this one. It was some kind of cultural center, and they have live music and things inside. (I think.)
My landlord had told me (actually pointing to them and looking at them when we were driving at high speeds past them) about two museums, the folk museum and the village museum. I was headed up there. He also told me that from my apartment, to up to the Village Museum (roughly) was three kilometers. More on that later.
Outside the folk museum, there was an outdoor market going on, sort of like a crafts and antiques sale. Inside, there were some cool things, like religious imagery painted onto glass.
But there were also a bunch of woman guards who followed me around EVERYWHERE like I was going to steal a relic or something. It made me uncomfortable. Also I was getting hungry.
My landlord had also told me about the Hard Rock Cafe which was just above the Village Museum. I love some of the Hard Rock Cafes in Europe so I headed up to check it out. However, I am not sure where this “three kilometers” my landlord told me about landed in the realm of reality. I walked and walked for what seemed like miles (later I would find out it WAS miles.) I walked past many more cool buildings, a giant park, and the Arch di Triomph, Bucharest style.
I told you drivers were crazy in Bucharest, right? They are crazy. It is in your best interest to get across the street in a hurry.
Finally I made it to the Hard Rock Cafe. It is the nicest Hard Rock I have ever seen. Huge, clean and with lots of nice staff people wandering around. I was directed to the “non-smoking” side of the bar where I ate a really tasty hamburger and watched the cute bartenders juggle cocktail shakers. It was so nice and cool in there, and I was so tired from walking but I couldn’t hang out in there forever so I headed out and back down to the Village Museum.
The Village Museum (http://www.muzeul-satului.ro/) covers a large area in a park and has homes, churches, and farm buildings from all over Romania. The buildings were dismantled and brought into Bucharest and put back together complete with furnishings. You can look inside many of the structures to see what life was like for the people in various parts of the country. It was very spread out and there weren’t too many people around, and I had a great time wandering around.
In my time at the Village Museum I stumbled on a sort of Indian festival thing. There were workshops with what appeared to be Indian motivational speakers, stands selling Indian food and clothing, and a stage where eventually there would be some kind of entertainment. Indian sitar music played over loudspeakers. It was very hot and I suddenly felt a feeling of total wellbeing, and also, hey, I kind of like it here.
I took the metro back and when I got back to my ‘hood went into the Radisson Blu hotel for an overpriced Absolute Mandarin and Soda. Can you believe this place is in downtown Bucharest? It seemed like we were in Hawaii, except here there were speedo-clad dudes with yamachas sipping cokes and talking on their cell phones by the pool. The people watching was well worth the extra seven bucks I paid for my drink, and I even got hot roasted nuts included.
Boy did that drink go down well. I got home and realized my feet were completely destroyed. A quick google search and I found I had walked SIX kilometers, not three, and not including the walking around the museums or back and forth to the metro stops. So maybe it was more like eight, or even ten, kilometers. But I had a great day and saw a lot. The next day would be even better, but I’ll save that for the next post.