About ten years ago, I was riding a train from Venice to Turin. I shared the cabin (this was one of the old-style trains that had little cars with seating for six) with two Italian businessmen. Over the course of the six-hour trip we talked about many things. One of them was Romania.
Romania was interesting to me as one of the lead characters in the novel I was writing at the time (The Salome’ Effect) was a Romanian woman living in Italy. Romania was interesting to the two Italian gentlemen because they were terrified by the massive economic potential there. Upon learning that, I made it a goal to visit. And I am happy to say I have finally done so.
First stop, naturally, was the capital city of Bucharest, where I spent three nights. I set myself up in a centrally-located three-star called Relax Comfort Suites Hotel. Pretty simple place, really. Nothing fancy but it was both clean and air conditioned. I met a woman named Raluca (she worked behind the desk) who was Bucharest born and raised. Based on her advice, this is what I did there.
In the northern part of the city, easily reachable by subway or bus, this enormous (187 hectares) and lovely green space surrounds a beautiful lake and offers a simply wonderful respite from the hustle of city life. Trees, gardens, walking and bike paths, plenty of eating and drinking options, boat tours on the lake, and an elaborate museum honoring Romanian village life are just a few of the reasons to spend a few hours here.
OK. It is huge. It is the second largest administrative building in the world (largest is the Pentagon). From a standpoint of size and imagination, I guess it is worth seeing. But the impression it left on me was of the sheer folly of it. Romania’s long time crazy and cruel dictator, Nicolae Ceauşescu started construction in 1984, trying to copy or at least pay homage to, the great European palaces of the 17th and 18th centuries. Thousands upon thousands of people were employed and much of the small treasury of the country was squandered on construction. It was never used by the Romanian government under Ceauşescu. He called it the People’s Palace, but the people wanted nothing to do with it or him and he was overthrown in a popular revolt.
It does house Parliament offices today but for the most part sits empty, a looming monument to the danger of placing too much power into the hands of one very egotistical man.
The National Museum of Art
I confess I can normally visit an art museum for about one hour, maybe 90 minutes if I am in a good mood. This stunning collection kept my attention for almost half a day. The building itself is beautiful, a palace dating back to the early 1800’s. But the collection of works from all over Europe were the real star of course. As I have lived in Europe a long time, and spend many one-hour visits in other art museums, I focused on Romanian artists. Plenty of those, for sure, but look up Theodor Aman. I had never heard of him before, much less seen any of his work. The 19th century master was a painter, engraver and history professor.
I am no art critic, certainly. But his oils were so life-like and believable. They had an almost ethereal 3-dimensional look to them. Really something.
All that exploring works up an appetite, right? Well, I found Bucharest has both plenty of traditional fare and an exciting international dining vibe. These were my favorites.
In the historic (and touristy but also fun) Old Town part of Bucharest. Kind of a fusion between Romanian and Middle Eastern cuisine, everything on my table was fantastic. Among other things, I enjoyed three kinds of falafel and the best baba ganoush I have ever eaten.
It was not a short trip (a metro ride of about 20 minutes and then a walk for another 20) but this South American restaurant is run by a young couple who had lived in Texas for 6 years. The menu is mostly but not exclusively Mexican, but Mexican is what I chose. And I was not disappointed at all. Plus the margarita was really terrific!
Caru’ cu bere
This is perhaps the best known of Bucharest’s traditional restaurants. I have to say the food was really terrific. But the place was hyper crowded as large tour groups (I am talking multiple groups of 30 -40 people at a time) were there. The name means “The Beer Wagon” so that’s a good start. The historic building was purpose built as a brewery and they still make an excellent line of beers. But now it is a also a restaurant that offers traditional Romanian fare from simple to gourmet. The inside is very Art Nouveau, so take your camera along with you. Worth a visit, for sure, but my advice if you are there during a tourist season is to avoid peak hours!
I really enjoyed Bucharest. I recommend not driving in the city. Ever. But it is a vibrant place with plenty to offer no matter what your taste.
As for the two Italian businessmen I met on that train so long ago, Romania has not yet realized its full economic potential (there is still a good deal of corruption in the government, it seems), but I am pretty confident it will someday. It is already worth a visit – a return visit, in fact. So don’t wait – go there soon!