Paris of the East rises again
It’s fair to say that Bucharest lacks the photogenic razzamatazz of other former Soviet bloc cities turned tourist hotspots such as Prague and Krakow. The Romanian capital is also forever associated with the Ceausescus, whose abrupt fall from power in 1989 was one of the defining moments in the demise of communism.
However, as I stroll through the Centrul Vechi — a pleasantly walkable web of spruced-up cobbled streets in the city’s historic core — I sense a new-found confidence in a city that has emerged as a fun, vibrant addition to an eastern-European itinerary (as well as being the gateway to the bucolic region of Transylvania, home of “Dracula’s Castle”).
Transformed by extensive regeneration projects — many funded by European Union grants — the “New Old Town”, as Bucharest’s antique quarter has been dubbed, is chock-a-block with restored 19th century mansions which house an array of browse-worthy spots. I pass galleries and antique shops, fashion boutiques, bookshops, theatres and a multitude of trendy alfresco bars and restaurants, which serve everything from seared snapper and sushi to pork goulash and “gourmet” pizza.
Thousands of young Romanians have emigrated to find better-paid work elsewhere in the EU but youthful vibes course through this quaint district — particularly on balmy summer evenings, when the Mediterranean feel is enhanced by the fact that Romanian, a Latin language, sounds more Italian and Spanish than the Slavic dialects you normally hear in this part of Europe.
In the mornings, I’m struck by espresso fumes drifting from Romanesque cafes and the smell of fresh bread and pastries wafting from Parisian-style bakeries.
At the turn of the 20th century, Bucharest was known as “the Paris of the East”. But its picturesque streets were devastated, first by an earthquake in 1977, which levelled scores of historic buildings, then later by the grandiose schemes of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, who ordered the razing of thousands of homes and dozens of churches and synagogues.
Fortunately, some survived the cull. Built in 1724, and full of gorgeous frescoes, the Stavropoleos monastery is Bucharest’s prettiest holy building. It faces Caru’ cu Bere, a newly refurbished 19th century beer house specialising in rustic Romanian dishes such as sarmalute cu mamaliga (stuffed cabbage leaves with a side of polenta). From noon onwards, attractive raven-haired waitresses, dressed in kitsch peasant costumes, try to lure passers-by into this Centrul Vechi favourite.
At the old quarter’s southern edges, the Old Princely Court was once the seat of power for Romanian princes, including Vlad Tepes (aka Vlad the Impaler), the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. A spooky statue of Tepes stands outside the complex.
The biggest project — and the megalomaniacal symbol — of the Ceausescu era sprawls west of the Centrul Vechi. Labelled the “Romanian Versailles”, the Palace of the Parliament is said to be the world’s second-largest building after the Pentagon. When construction began in 1984, about 20,000 labourers and 700 architects worked round the clock, fitting the palace with gold, the finest wood from the Romania’s Carpathian forests, stacks of Transylvanian marble, a tonne of expensive paintings and more than 4500 bejewelled chandeliers. A nuclear bunker was built beneath the palace, the construction of which bankrupted Romania (it accounted for an estimated 40 per cent of the country’s GDP).
The Palace of the Parliament, an iconic symbol of the Ceausescu era, looms over Bucharest. Pictures: Steve McKenna
Post-Ceausescu, there were calls for it to be dynamited. But the building was kept, and though it remains unfinished, it now hosts the Romanian parliament, civic offices and conferences, weddings and fashion shows.
You get a sense of its pompous absurdity by walking round the lawn-edged perimeters (it takes almost an hour).
On a guided tour, you only see about 5 per cent of the opulent interior, and a fraction of the 3000 rooms, but it’s a great insight into Ceausescu’s hubris.
The palace’s main balcony, where Ceausescu had envisaged addressing his subjects, looks down over the tree-lined Unification Boulevard, which was modelled on Paris’ Champs-Elysees but is a few metres wider and 100m longer than its French counterpart.
The Ceausescu legacy continues to fascinate tourists. One of Romania’s newest — and more bizarre — attractions is the former military barracks where Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, were shot dead by firing squad on Christmas Day, 1989.
The barracks where the Ceausescus met their end. Picture: Steve McKenna
I board a train to the sleepy city of Targoviste, 80km north of Bucharest, where the barracks house the “Exposition: 25 December 1989”. A slice of “dictator tourism”, the museum retraces the downfall of a couple who had lorded over Romania for more than 20 years.
I walk through the spartan sleeping quarters in which the “first couple” spent their last few nights. The narrow, iron-rimmed single beds ooze discomfort; a stark contrast to the luxury the Ceausescus had become accustomed to.
The couple’s fate was sealed across the corridor, in another claustrophobic room dotted with dial-up telephones and communist-era furnishings. As millions of Romanians tucked into their Christmas dinners, a secret military tribunal — criticised by some as a kangaroo court — found the Ceausescus guilty of several charges, including genocide.
While other Soviet bloc governments had dissolved without major resistance following the fall of the Berlin Wall, the hardline Ceausescu regime reacted violently to pro-democracy demonstrations — opening fire on, and killing, protesters.
The couple were eventually overwhelmed by the scale of public dissent and famously fled crowds in Bucharest by helicopter, only to be tracked down and arrested by an army that had turned against them.
Following the verdict, the Ceausescus were walked to the courtyard, hands tied behind their backs, and shot.
For one of the most momentous sites in late-20th-century history, there’s an element of tragi-comic farce about the execution spot. Etched into the concrete floor of the drab courtyard, below a crumbling beige wall speckled with bullet holes, a crudely concocted paint job marks a pair of fallen bodies.
The white outlines are child-like, almost Hobbit-esque, in stature. I have to remind myself that they signify the death of two of communism’s most notorious characters — the last people to be executed in Romania (capital punishment was abolished in 1990).
Later, back in a sunny Bucharest, I enjoy a walk around the lovely, leafy, lake-studded Cismigiu Gardens. I pop into the city’s exceedingly fine art museums. I pass two memorably whistle-happy traffic policeman theatrically trying to control the city’s notorious congestion.
And I stumble across some ramshackle market stalls coated in fabrics, pottery and mini Palaces of the Parliament ornaments. On a rack, there are T-shirts splattered with images of Dracula and Nicolae Ceausescu.
Beneath their faces are the words: “I’ll Be Back!”
For more information on Bucharest’s sleeping, eating and cultural options, see en.seebucharest.ro and romaniatourism.com.
Trains to Targoviste (also called Tirgoviste) leave Bucharest’s Gara du Nord station throughout the day, taking about 90 minutes. cfrcalatori.ro.
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