Bucharest, Romania – Waiting to be discovered!
By NR Venkatesh
I recently spent four memorable days in Romania, two in its capital Bucharest and two in Brasov, a historical city in Transylvania with Mann Rai, a good friend from Mumbai, India, and after we settled into an Airbnb, we took a tour of the city to get our bearings.
Our exploration of Bucharest took over eight long hours, started with a visit to Politehnica Metro Station to see fossilized marble flooring believed to have formed 65 million years ago.
Our tour included several places that we explored on foot, most of which could be reasonably categorized. The popular attractions that we took in included Revolution Square, Victory Square, Union Square, University Square, Victory Avenue and the equestrian statue of King Carol I.
Also, the memorial to the victims of communism ironically named the “Impaled Potato”, the headquarters of the former Communist Party’s Central Committee and the Amzei Church of Architecture (art nouveau).
It included Lipscani, the historical district and the Athenaeum (the concert hall), widely reckoned to be the most beautiful building in Bucharest.
Must-sees in this category also included Carturesti Carusel, an eye-catching bookstore, and Hanul Lui Manuc, a caravanserai, dating back to 1806 and Caru cu Bere, the famous restaurant and beer hall.
Seeing All of Bucharest’s Sights
Given Alexandra’s intimate knowledge of her beloved capital, we saw Casa Melik, the oldest House in Bucharest and we visited the Theodor Aman Museum. We saw the house of the most famous Romanian courtesan Mita Biciclista and Cada Capșa, the oldest hotel in Bucharest, from the outside.
We walked through the Macca Villacrose passage where millennials hang out smoking flavored water pipes. We visited more churches (many of historical significance) on that one day than we ever had done before. Starting with the Saint George New Church where the remains of Constantin Brâncoveanu are buried.
The Patriarchy Church, ostensibly the most important church in the Orthodox religious hierarchy. The Bucur Church, reputedly the oldest church in Bucharest and from which, the city derives its name.
A Long Tour
The Stavropoleos Church and the Armenian quarter and church. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that we implored Alexandra to call it a day, several times, but she persisted well-meaningly.
The French influence on Bucharest is unmistakable and pervasive.
We signed off for the day with a late evening visit to Romania’s Palace of the Parliament, the national legislature of Romania – the second largest building in the world, after the Pentagon. Many Romanians consider it a symbol of the megalomania of Nicolae Ceausescu, the country’s last communist dictator.
The financial and human costs of this building are staggering. Along with the Pentagon and the Great Wall of China, it is one of the few man-made structures visible from the Moon.
Alexandra touched upon the outrage of the Romanian people with their centuries-long subjugation by the Ottomans based in Turkey, whose unspeakable atrocities are well-known. Romania is proud of its uncompromising Christian identity and they are determined to preserve it.
She also voiced the dismal perception of the Roma peoples, pejoratively known as ‘gypsies’. They are widely perceived as dishonest and exploitative of the country’s social services and benefits.
One of the reasons that I chose to visit Romania was to see the Roma and understand their plight. There are conflicting hypotheses about their origins, their showing up in Persia around the 11th century and in Europe in the early 1300s.
The most plausible being that they are members of three nomadic tribes from north India who were captured and enslaved by the invading Muslims (then based in Iran and Afghanistan) and held in captivity in Iran for about 150 years.
Until the Muslims decided to occupy India instead of invading it repeatedly.
Suddenly free, the Roma headed West instead of returning to India to avoid Muslim persecution and to also escape the consequences of their inter-caste marriage during their captivity, which would have been frowned upon in India.
Due to a quirk of circumstances, some self-inflicted (nomadic lifestyles, a penchant for self-governance, refusal to assimilate) others not (widespread discrimination including slavery and massacre by the Nazis), the Roma are caught in a vice-like identity and existential crisis, doomed to poverty and misery across Europe. They are awaiting a savior.
Valentin, our Airbnb host gamely agreed to accompany us to the ‘Bazarul cu Amintiri’, a flea market and to also take us to Ferentari, considered the most dangerous neighborhood in Bucharest, where many disadvantaged communities including the Roma live.
The visit to the flea market was interesting. Scanning and scouring items on offer. Mann and I picked up objects of interest that could spark living-room conversation back home.
As we made our way around the various stalls, we noticed that some of the vendors were Roma.
As they made eye contact with us, their eyes lit up with a sense of camaraderie. They inquired if Mann and I were from India and when we said yes, they proudly referred to their own Indian roots.
Some of them shook hands with us while others agreed to be photographed, including with us.
After the flea market, we took the bus to Ferentari, where we walked around for over an hour. Not encountering trouble in Ferentari was anti-climactic but I was not surprised. I was aware that many of its residents stir from their drug-induced stupor only late afternoon every day.
Valentin, Mann and I then headed to Hanul Lui Manuc, the iconic caravanserai turned outdoor restaurant where we savored the ambiance, ordered Romanian sausages and a wooden platter with 10 pints of beer on it.
That seemed a fitting way to top our unforgettable visit to Romania. Incidentally, the 10 beers cost 99 lei (USD 25) and each dish of sausage was about 25 lei (USD 6).
The other memorable meal that we had enjoyed in Bucharest was pizza at Buoni E Bravi when we had toured with Alexandra.
Bucharest is a fun place with friendly people. It is safe and easy on the pocket, and not yet overwhelmed by mass tourism. Having local guides who spoke the language and were familiar with the city made a big difference!
Visiting Bucharest Details:
I eventually connected in the Airbnb with Valentin Moise, a young computer professional who speaks fluent English because of his CRM (customer relations management) work for US companies.
He not only agreed to receive us at the airport at 2 am, he tracked our flight online and was waiting in the arrivals hall with my name ‘Ven’ on a placard.
Valentin turned out to be a gem of a host. He more than made up for the compact size of his apartment and modest fixtures and fittings with his impressive English, prompt communication, honesty, reliability, and willingness to assist.
Valentin generously provided me his fully-functional second cellphone with a Romanian SIM card, unlimited minutes to use and a ‘hot-spot’ feature in it, which enabled us to seek Valentin’s assistance during our trip and to also keep in touch with family over WhatsApp.
I would highly recommend Valentin both as an Air BnB host and part-time tour guide. He can be reached via email on firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone on +40771640067.
Wanting to make the most of our trip, I used ‘Showaround.com’ to hire Alexandra as our guide for one day. Alexandra is a mature professional, who is knowledgeable and fluent in English.
She provided us an all-day immersion into Bucharest taking us not only to the popular tourist sites but also to hidden gems in the city.
I would highly recommend Alexandra as a tour guide. Just make sure that you advise Alexandra of your interests. She can be reached by email at email@example.com or by phone at +40 770 256 80.
NR Venkatesh was a top film journalist in Bollywood, India and a travel and creative writer in the Middle East, his wife Nirmala has worked with leading English dailies in the Middle East. And son Arjun, who both writes and takes pictures, is also the spark behind the family’s collective efforts at sharing their travel experiences with the world. Incidentally, Venkatesh is a Certified Public Accountant from the US, Nirmala an international banking professional and Arjun, a software engineer based in San Francisco.