Burying its Communist-era past, the capital of Romania reaches for respectability.
Nicolae Ceausescu would roll over in his grave if he could see the booming commerce in Bucharest today.
When the late Communist dictator and his wife, Elena, were executed on Christmas day in 1989, Romania began the slow and painful process toward a capitalist democracy. But with glue-sniffing orphans and stray dogs getting more international attention than state politics, and with the “Little Paris of the East” looking in some areas more like the Beirut of the West, few could envision the progress the country would make until ultimately being integrated into the European Union in January.
Though the deconstruction and gradual reconstruction of Bucharest has been, and continues to be, a thorny process, it’s the dichotomy of past and present, moneyed and lacking, that makes the city such a dynamic destination.
“The first time I came to Bucharest, everything was so broken and there were millions of dogs on the streets,” recalls Leslie Hawke, actor Ethan Hawke’s mother who lives and works in Bucharest running Ovidiu Rom, an organization she founded that helps get and keep impoverished Romanian children in school. “But every year it’s getting better and better. There’s a real energy, and there’s not much that you can’t do here.”
This is no longer the Bucharest of Soviet-era clichés. With outside investment pouring into the country and a rising middle class eager to spend, Bucharest is rapidly becoming a post-Communist melting pot of Romanian bougies and extravagant expats. They spend their days cashing in on Romania’s burgeoning economy and their nights indulging in haute cuisine, sipping cocktails and being entertained at a vast array of new and reborn nightclubs, performance halls and music venues.
“The change over the past few years has been spectacular, especially in the arts and entertainment,” says choreographer Razvan Mazilu from inside one of the grand upper chambers at the Art Nouveau performance hall Odeon, known for featuring avant-garde works. “I was a teenager in ’89, after which I felt I had that liberty to express myself here. I’ve worked here and I chose to stay here because I thought the challenge would be greater, as an artist.”
But despite Bucharest’s rampant revitalization, a certain tension still exists for the city’s citizens, who continue to grapple with all the changes.
“I love Bucharest and I don’t like Bucharest for all the same reasons. It’s a love-hate relationship,” says Cristi Puiu, the director of the critically acclaimed 2005 film Moartea domnului Lazarescu (The Death of Mr. Lazarescu). Puiu grew up in the city’s dilapidated Communist neighborhoods and the success of the film—a condemning tale of the Romanian medical system—emphasizes the paradox of life in Bucharest, that often being substandard is what makes it so interesting.
“[Bucharest] could become a true European city or it could become an outpost for the Russian mafia,” reflects Puiu offhandedly. “Anything is possible.”
Navigating the streets of Bucharest, one is overwhelmed by just that—a sense that this is a city teetering between success and shortfall. Along the uneven cobblestone streets of the historic center of Bucharest, Lipscani, soiled Roma (the ethnically accurate term for gypsy) children play in construction sites just outside the chic cafe concept shop Market 8.
Doru Frolu, a local architect and entrepreneur, is one of the city’s most outspoken advocates and critics. He has played a significant role in reshaping modern-day Bucharest, ranging from helping found the pioneering Amsterdam Grand Café, a restaurant, bar, nightclub and event space, to his urban revitalization projects, such as EUranus, an outdoor urban lounge that launched in May with the 10-day European Film Festival.
“Bucharest is a mixture of culture and influences—European, Balkan and Slavic. You have French eclectic style and then you have these strange Communist urban objects,” observes Frolu. “You have all these different layers, which are so interesting.”
Those layers are most evident in the city’s diverse architecture, a visual narration of the Bucharest story, which dates back to the 15th century. In fact, remnants of those early beginnings still remain in Lipscani, which is being reenvisioned as a pedestrian area. There lies the Old Court Church, which was erected in the mid-1500s. The many churches and temples throughout Bucharest are worth exploring as well, a voyage into the country’s religious and often most beautiful cultural past. Romania is predominantly Eastern Orthodox, and the corresponding churches are filled with gold-plated icons, intricate wood-carved interiors and colorful paintings.
As for the buildings, several Neoclassical structures survived the ruination of communism. Buildings such as the National Savings Bank and the Romanian Atheneum date back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the city’s planners emulated Parisian-style architecture. Bucharest is also a showcase for an impressive number of Art Nouveau and Deco buildings, erected during the Thirties and Forties, ranging from public service structures like the looming Telephone Palace, to apartment buildings and hotels with retro geometric details.
But some of the most awe-inspiring and simultaneously off-putting constructions are those of the Communist era. Most impressive in size is the Parliament Palace, or People’s Palace, the largest building in the world by pure mass. Also noteworthy is the ambitious attempt at a fountain-lined network of avenues and boulevards, known as Centrul Civic, extending from the Parliament Palace to Piata Unirii, Bucharest’s version of the Champs-Elysées.
And today, the capital city is abuzz again with the newest wave of construction, a medley of modern development ranging from the creative, such as the glass headquarters of the Romanian Architects’ Association built atop the ruins of the virtually destroyed Securitate building, to the purely commercial. Regardless, the armada of cranes soaring above the city’s skyline is testament to its potential and growth.
As an optimistic Frolu says about his city’s still-fragile future: “Bucharest, in the next 10 years, will be reinvented.”
WHERE TO STAY
The Rembrandt Hotel in the Lipscani area might be one of the only true boutique hotels in the country. With only 16 rooms, the hotel sits in an artfully renovated building that dates to 1925. For the traditionalist, the Athenée Palace Hilton Bucharest also is centrally located just off the historic Piata Revolutiei and has a see-and-be-seen Sunday buffet brunch on the outdoor terrace. For something in between, the Ramada Majestic Bucharest is housed in a historic building with a modern glass facade on one of Bucharest’s main shopping and social drags, Calea Victoriei.
WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK
Romanian cuisine is similar to Turkish and Greek fare with crossover dishes such as eggplant spread and Greek salad. But unique to Romanian kitchens, among other things, are standards like meatball and tripe soup; sarmale, or stuffed cabbage; mamaliga, a polenta-like side dish, and mititei, grilled ground beef links. The best place to go in Bucharest for mititei is La Cocosatu, or “hunchback,” after the poor-posture cook bent over the grill. The recently reopened Caru Cu Bere is a more formal setting for traditional Romanian cooking.
At the freshly unveiled La Mandragora, Puiu’s restaurant, chef Paul Kopij gives French and Italian cuisine a nouveau twist. The wine list is one of the best in town. An expat establishment, Barka by Amarjit, has an Indian- and Asian-influenced menu, along with mango mojitos and other cocktails. Bucharest also is cultivating a hip cafe scene, with places such as Charme and Market 8 in the Lipscani area serving up cappuccinos and bistro fare. At night, bars and nightclubs like Amsterdam Grand Café and Club Embryo are where the cool kids go to let loose. If visiting Bucharest in the summer, make sure to trek to the top of the National Theater at Piata Universitatii where the rooftop garden La Matoare serves up beer, bar food and outdoor film screenings.
WHAT TO SEE
Bucharest is a city of contrasts, so visiting is to embrace its schizophrenia. Tour the monstrous Parliament Palace, but make sure to go round back to the glass-encased Bucharest National Museum of Contemporary Art, MNAC. At the Piata Revolutiei, where Ceausescu made his infamous final public speech, pay homage at the memorial to those who lost their lives in the revolution. Then cross the street to the National Art Museum, housed inside the former royal palace, which holds the country’s largest collection of artworks. Journey into the country’s folkloric past at the Romanian Peasant’s Museum, then explore its more recent past at the Communist Iconography Museum in the basement.
For a lighter jaunt, stroll through the city’s sprawling restored parks, such as Cismigiu and Herastrau, or get out of the city entirely for a day trip. Forty-five minutes outside of Bucharest lies Snagov, the famous lake once frequented by Vlad the Impaler (yes, aka Dracula). Take a boat ride to the island where a charming monastery is said to house his tomb. Not far from Bucharest is the Black Sea beach city Constanca, and the Transylvanian towns of Brasov, a mountain ski resort, and historic gems Sibiu and Sigisoara. Visit the Peles Castle, Ceausescu’s onetime vacation retreat, in Sinaia, 78 miles outside of Bucharest. Though Romania has an adequate bus and rail system, the easiest way to get around outside the capital is by rental car. Just watch the potholes.
Str. Smardan 11
Athenée Palace Hilton Bucharest
Str. Episcopiei 1-3
Ramada Majestic Bucharest
Calea Victoriei 38-40
Barka by Amarjit
Str. Sanatescu 1
Str. Mendeleev 29
Str. Neagoe Voda 52A
Caru Cu Bere
Str. Stravropoleos 3-5
12, St. Smardan
8, St. Stavropoleos
Amsterdam Grand Café
6, St. Covaci
3, St. Ion Otetelesanu