The Croatian visitor was clearly baffled. “Can you tell me,” he asked, “where the city centre is?” There wasn’t a simple answer, other than “There isn’t really a city centre. There’s a lot of city, but no centre to it.”
Thus is Bucharest. The great part of the blame for the fragmentation of the city lies with Nicolae Ceaucescu, the Romanian president for 22 years. Ceaucescu it was who commissioned the giant palace that he was never to see completed, an edifice so huge that much of Bucharest’s old centre had to be destroyed.
It wasn’t just the palace, but the other stuff that went with it; the enormous grounds, the luxury flats near it, built for the party apparatchiks and the wide, tree-lined boulevard that leads to it. The whole area takes up a huge amount of space and churches, shops, houses and even a football stadium and monastery were razed to make room for it all.
The palace, despite its enormity, is not architecturally appalling, but the hideousness is more in what it stood for. This was megalomania at its most extreme and Bucharest continues to suffer from the dictator’s giant ego.
The result is that Bucharest is not the most picturesque of cities, but there is still plenty to see, although you might have to hunt around a bit. One thing to be aware of is that Bucharest does not expect tourists and as such, finding anything by way of information locally is not easy. Even fairly straightforward stuff like finding out when the airport bus runs becomes something you need to appoint a project manager for (in fact, the buses are very frequent and cost less than a couple of pounds).
This has positives and negatives. The place is not thronged with visitors, so there is not a huge choice of cafes, restaurants and bars. On the other hand, while these may take a little more finding, there are some decent places and they tend to be quite cheap. There’s a small area to the north-west of Unirii Square that is packed with faux Irish pubs, sports bars and similarly unimaginative offerings, but keeping them all in one area at least means it’s easy to avoid them.
Something definitely worth trying is Romanian wine, which doesn’t get exported much. It is not expensive, certainly by western standards, and red wine in particular is very good. Food tends towards the meaty – Romanians seem to enjoy large chunks of meat – and don’t be surprised to see all sorts of animal on the menu. One restaurant was serving ‘bear in mustard sauce’, though presumably not the whole bear.
Nothing should cost very much, whether it be food and drink or cultural activities. Bucharest is full of theatres, though all productions are in Romanian. Visitors, therefore, might prefer to visit the National Opera, which performs regularly. Tickets are very cheap, as they are for another favourite Romanian pastime, football. Bucharest has three major clubs, Steaua, Dinamo and Rapid, each with its own stadium. The Steaua versus Dinamo derby might not be the ideal fixture for those of a nervous disposition.
Something else guaranteed to make one jittery is the plethora of stray dogs. There are vast numbers in Bucharest and they have organised themselves into feral packs. These are dogs that were pets, but have been abandoned. The authorities claimed that they had not tackled the problem because public opinion was opposed to the destruction of the animals, though if people were so concerned, would they be there at all? It is, though a serious problem and walking past a group of 50 or 60 hungry dogs can certainly be a disconcerting experience. Recently, though, a small child was killed by stray dogs and this appears to have forced the government to do something at last. Certainly, something needs to happen, with reported figures of 65,000 dogs on the streets and more than 10,000 people treated for dog bites in the first eight months of 2013.
On a more uplifting note, while Bucharest may not be overloaded with museums, it has some interesting ones. The National Museum of Romanian History is a fine neoclassical building and is also well worth seeing inside. The highlight is a full-scale replica and frieze of Trajan’s Column, depicting the conflict between the Roman Empire under the Emperor Trajan and the Dacians, an early Romanian people, in the early second century.
The Peasant Museum is, perhaps, even better. It’s a large museum with thousands of exhibits and it’s also somewhere to buy a genuinely decent souvenir in the museum’s shop. There are regular, usually monthly, craft fairs held in the courtyard. The seemingly innumerable hand-painted Easter eggs catch the eye, but there is a lot more besides. The prices here can be a bit steeper, but the quality of the crafts is a great deal higher than the standard kind of tat sold in the average souvenir shop.
It’s almost impossible to visit Romania and not encounter Dracula in some form and indeed, Bucharest has a restaurant called Count Dracula, where a waiter makes intermittent appearances from a coffin. Meanwhile, on the Danube, relatives of Count Duckula paddle along, though they are more interested by the tasty Romanian black bread that is thrown to them than in vampirical ventures.
Bucharest might not be high on the wish lists of many tourists and it’s true that the city has been left as something of a patchwork quilt, but there is plenty there if you look for it and that is part of the fun of visiting a place. Now and then, there’s a pleasant surprise waiting.