Bucharest Not Budapest

The decision on which way to travel after after Sofia, Bulgaria was hard. Being this far East put us a very reasonable plane ride away from some unique destinations that all topped our list. However, we had heard from our Romanian friend whom we had met sailing in Mexico, that this country was beautiful and worth a stop. Our interest was peaked.

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Arriving in Bucharest

Ironically continuing East from Sofia made more sense to fly West back to Belgrade’s Nicola Tesla airport to catch another flight East to Bucharest, Romania’s capital city. It may seem counter productive but everything we read about train lines were not good in this area. Plus flights were very reasonable.

Our Airbnb host picked us up from the airport for a small fee. During the ride from the airport he talked a bit about Bucharest and expressed his disapproving sentiments of the communist rule, leaving the city as he put it, “stuck in the past 40 years behind the present day development in Western Europe.

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Walk About Free Tour

We enjoyed the Free Sofia Tour so much that we decided to seek one out for Bucharest. With excitement we found another company called Walk About Free Tours offering tours twice daily rain or shine! We met our guide and joined the large group of visitors at Unirii Square Park. The tour guides are comprised of passionate local individuals who support traveling and curiosity, respect and fun! The ultimate goal of Walk About Free Tours is to improve Romania’s image by promoting its touristic potential. 

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Time for a free tour!

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Presidential Palace

Nicolae Ceausescu was Romania’s second and last communist leader. The legacy to his people – apart from a wrecked economy and crumbling national infrastructure – is the massive presidential palace, on a hill overlooking Bucharest. But Ceausescu never got to stand on the palace’s balcony to receive his people’s acclaim. That honour was left to the former president Ion Iliescu and ironically, one of capitalism’s ultimate icons – pop star Michael Jackson.

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Romania was communist for more than 40 years from 1948 through 1989. Michael Jackson’s visit to the country in 1992 was more than just a concert put on by the popular pop star. It was also a symbol of the Western World. The people of Bucharest flooded the streets to welcome the pop star where he graciously stood at the balcony and to his embarrassment shouted “Hello Budapest!

The confusion between Bucharest and Budapest the capital of Hungry continued to bewilder additional American bands such as Iron Maiden, Lenny Kravitz, Ozzy Osbourne, and Metallica. The confusion was even more embarrassing in 2012 when team of 400 Athletic Bilbao fans flew to Budapest, rather than Bucharest for the Europa League final!

The Old Court – Princely Palace

In front of the Old Court Princely Palace is a statue of Vlad Tepes, otherwise known as Vlad the Impaler. Vlad was the founder of the Voivodal Citadel built in 1458 -1459. From this point Vlad could follow the position of the Turkish armies at the Danube.

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The Old Princely Court Church; one of the oldest in Bucharest dating from 1546 and recently renovated.

Caru’ cu Bere

One of the most historic restaurants in Bucharest is Caru’ cu Bere serving standard Romanian food. The inside of the building shows a lot of character with fantastic painted ceilings and a folklore show most evenings. It is one of the most popular restaurants in the city where beer is made from a unique recipe dated from 1879. The grilled mince meat rolls are enough for a small meal on their own.

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Statue of Trajan and the She-Wolf

This odd looking statue stands in front of the National History Museum. Its artistic interpretation shows a naked Roman Emperor Trajan carrying a wolf. The bronze statue by artist Vasile Gorduz, portrays the genesis of the Romanian people emerging from the former civilizations of the Romans and the Dacians, with the wolf as a symbolic animal.

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The statue is a series of three identical pieces created by the artist, two of which are in Seville, and one in Rome. The strange posture of Trajan with his limp arms, the nudity of the male character, plus the odd appearance of the wolf, has received much criticism in Romania. However the oddity remains popular for photos.

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The statue Romanians love to hate!

Bucharest History Museum

Originally serving as headquarters for Poşta Romană, the Romanian postal service was replaced by the History Museum in 1970 when the post office moved. Inside the museums most important collections are Trajan’s Column and the Romanian Treasury.

Trajan’s Column

A full-size replica of the original Trajan’s Column in Rome is housed at the Bucharest History Museum. The Column shows scenes from the original Roman conquest of Dacia. It is a very large paneled sculpture to which you can walk around the space and follow the scenes uncovering the story up close and personal. Impressive alone is how large each panel is, and the detail of carving that went into each section.

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Romanian Treasury

The Romanian Treasury includes jewels from the Geto-Dacians, as well as the current Romanian Crown Jewels, including the King’s crown and an amazing selection of emeralds made for Queen Marie, wife of Romanian King Ferdinand.

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Saving Churches

Our tour guide brushed a little on what life was like during the 40 years of Communist Rule in Romania. A couple things stood out. Communism in Romania was just a stifling as Communism in Bulgaria and became increasingly anti-religious. Any monument that reminded the people of their religious past was either set ablaze or hidden. An architectural massacre occurred only to be replaced by the uninspiring concrete blocks of Communist housing.

Engineer Eugen Iordachescu came up with a brilliant idea for how to move churches. The idea came to him after watching waiters carry many glasses on a tray in a restaurant. It is believed the Ceausescu family approved Eugen’s technique for moving the churches because they were convinced he would ultimately fail. Instead he became known as the “Church Saver” and was able to preserve 13 by moving them behind other buildings, and away from the city center.

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Food Shortages

The goal was to reduce internal consumption as much as possible, and to export anything that was worth something to the international markets. The citizens of Romania could only enjoy any leftovers that could not be sold for export. Intensive construction projects and the repayment of all external debt of the nation are to blame for the stifling economy and poor living standards of the Romanian people.

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Romanian people started suffering from food shortages, as well as regular cuts in electricity, heating, warm water or gas. Food became rationalized, and food coupons became the norm, with people being allowed to purchase only limited quantities of basic goods, such as eggs, bread, or cooking oil.

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Unfortunately, food stamps were not a guarantee that people would actually receive a certain quantity of that good, but merely a restriction on how much a family or a person was allowed to buy. Lines for grocery stores were long, and shelves were empty.

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Propaganda was made to cover up the reality. In photos it would look like markets were full of goods, but a closer glance revealed the store was only comprised of 5 items stocked to the brim. This left Romanian’s questioning even the chickens, which they noticed had sufficiently decreased in size. Some speculated they had been replaced with pigeons.

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Through it all Romanians kept their sense of humor, and were very careful to freely offer complaints because they never knew who was listening.

Calea Victorei

Victory Avenue (“Calea Victorei”) is the major boulevard running through Bucharest. It has many unique building and monuments, full of people going about their daily lives. In 1989, the square is remembered worldwide for a mass gathering that marked the final fall of communism in Romania.

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Library of the University of Bucharest

West of Calea Victoriei is the well-loved Cişmigiu Garden – shady walks, a lake, cafes and plenty of benches to sit down and people-watch. Go for a stroll!

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Overall impressions

Bucharest is a city with lots of hidden charms. Great museums, beautiful parks, and trendy cafes line winding streets. Modern architecture surrounds you, but so do Orthodox Churches and art nouveau villas. It is certainly worth a visit.

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The National Theatre
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One of the many great hidden courtyards in town
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The iconic CEC Bank building

 

3 comments

  • We were in Bucharest quite recently and thoroughly enjoyed it as well. It’s good to hear some positive reviews of the free walking tours, I’ve heard many say they are simply to advertise and push you towards longer paid tours they offer as well which always put me off. I’ll give one a go next time we travel 🙂

    • Yes! We thought they were a great introduction to each city that offered them and presented some inside trivia. They do ask for a donation at the end because the guides are unpaid, but the Free Walking Tours were very well done so we always gave a little something. We never received any hard sales tactic to do any of the paid tours. Cheers!

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