Without knowing much at all about Bucharest or even Romania we decided to spend our first Christmas abroad there. What I discovered was that exactly thirty years earlier on Christmas day, one of the soviet’s most brutally repressive dictators Nicolae Ceausescu was executed by firing squad after a bloody people’s revolution in 1989. This history, like all of the places we have visited recently, is all around you. The lavish pre-soviet buildings of a better time, now crumbling and grey with age, just beginning their rebirth and reconstruction. And the dominating communist buildings designed to crush the common man under a boot heel, now taken back and housing members of a democratic parliament or open to people for enjoyment. The flood of western capitalism rushes in, with its malls and conspicuous consumption, and its corruption and its imbalance, where some Romanians flourish in the cities and the rural workers are impoverished and left behind. A sort of grim wheel of fortune where shiny promises infected with greed bring similar fates. But what is clear is that nobody misses Ceausescu and his murderous secret police. After giving the order to kill them all, he fled to save his own skin, and in the end his own army joined the protesters.
Bucharest is considerably larger than most cities we’ve visited so far with 2 million people in the downtown area. Lots of noise and traffic, shopping malls and restaurants. We stayed mainly in the old town area which was quite fun. Thumping clubs that go till dawn if that’s your thing. Quiet pubs too. This area is dense with what’s left of Bucharest’s amazing architecture from the turn of the century that survived the soviets. We spent most of our time walking around pedestrian streets and the must-see spots are walking distance away. We were still nursing our colds and lost a couple of days to Christmas but I thought Bucharest was a pretty fun town with lots to do, even in the middle of winter. Definitely worth a visit.
Old town (Lipscani district)
Old town is at the center of Bucharest and is a major metropolitan hub. It’s packed with bars and restaurants from gaudy tourist traps to quiet dive bars. And a fair share of massage/jacuzzi/strip club joints mixed in with the pizza places. The years of communist rule have definitely taken it’s toll. The impressive architectural marvels, reminders of a better time, are now falling into disrepair, crumbling beauty all around in need of a coat of paint. And over that, construction, rebirth, new beginnings. The city is coming alive again. And you can sense the optimism in the people you meet.
Bucharest Christmas Festival
This was the fifth christmas festival we’ve attended this month (Katy is a fiend for christmas festivals) but this one, hands down, was the best. First, it was enormous. Easily twice the size of all the previous festivals combined. The scale was obscene. A giant christmas tree, a stage you would imagine an audience of 50,000 to huddle around, a life size manger, a full size ice skating rink. It’s big I tells ya. Secondly, the food. So much food. Stand after stand grilling up gargantuan piles of meat, little swimming pools of cooked kraut, all sorts of yummies. We walked into one entrance, overwhelmed by the variety of choices, only to find the same food village created around the far entrance. I couldn’t try it all in a month of bad life choices.
Revolution Square and the Memorial of Rebirth
Previously Palace Square, this was the location where the previous dictator would bus in local workers to witness his annual speech to the nation. Confident in his iron grip, he thought his speech would quell the protests that had been springing up in the west, maybe the most famous example of misreading a crowd. Soon the crowds for the first time did not stay quiet. Boos and calls for protest came from the crowd as Ceausescu retreated into the palace. That night hundreds were killed as protesters were randomly gunned down and crushed by tanks. But tensions only grew. Soon Ceausescu’s regime would be gone along with Ceausescu. Today the square is called Revolution Square with several memorials to the revolution.
Bellu cemetery, created in the 1850s, is where all of the famous Romanians are buried. Actors, scientist, authors. It’s a who’s who of people I don’t know. But if you’re like me and have a fondness for amazing grave yards this is a must see. It’s a not that far from old town but tricky to get to. I took an Uber and it was much easier than public transportation. The interior roads are muddy and it’s not maintained all that well, but the tombs are spectacular. I visited the day after Christmas and it was crowded with visitors. I didn’t want to seem disrespectful so I only snapped picks when I was alone. But this should be a sample enough to raise your interest.
Macca – Vilacrosse Passage
The Macca-Vilacrosse Passage is a horseshoe shaped street covered in intricate yellow glass creating an open air mall.
Completed in 1891 this passageway mimicked similar grand malls in Paris at the time. Originally the building in the middle was to be purchased and demolished but the owner wouldn’t sell so the passage was constructed around it creating it’s unique shape. Today the passage is full of cafes, restaurants, and shops. It’s right off a main street in old town but is quite hidden if you’re not looking for it. Worth a visit.
Katy found this theater and it was only a short walk from our apartment. There were no public shows advertised while we were in town and it’s only open to the public when shows are playing. While standing outside a man with very few teeth approached and raved about the place and told us we could go inside. So we tried our luck through the small visitor door on the side, and were shown right in to look around (for a small fee). The inside is amazing. Gold pillars and broad spiraling staircases lead up to a theater with box seats and ornate decorations. The orchestra was just arriving and tuning and we were allowed to wander around.
Palace of Parliament
Perhaps one of the greatest monuments to hubris in the modern world, Ceausescu attempted to build the biggest palace the world has ever known. 20,000 workers and 5,000 military members worked in shifts 24 hours a day seven days a week from 1983 until 1989 when we was deposed. He destroyed a fifth of Bucharest to build it including almost all of the previous old town and the hill it sat on, displacing over 50,000 people and destroying 19 Orthodox Christian churches, 6 Jewish synagogues/temples, and 3 Protestant churches. Unofficially the building cost over $5 billion USD and is the second largest government building in the world (second to the pentagon) and supposedly the heaviest building anywhere. To pay for it Ceausescu starved the Romanian people while living in opulence. This, I’m sure, hastened his overthrow.
Christmas abroad and Christmas dinner
I have never spent a Christmas abroad and haven’t had a Christmas without my daughter in 19 years. So it was a bit strange to find ourselves in Bucharest so far from our family. Even a bit stranger since we can’t really receive gifts because we can’t carry anything. Our Sofia apartment had a full Christmas tree but we had to do our own here. Katy got a tiny Charlie Brown of a poinsettia and some Christmas lights and wrapped up the snacks we had bought at the grocery store and made us a festive little display. We connected with loved ones online but it just wasn’t the same.
As it turns out, Bucharest closes down on Christmas day and the day after so we cooked the best Christmas dinner we could scrounge together including a chicken, deviled eggs, mashed potatoes, asparagus, and various goodies and snacks. It was fun!
Caru Ce Bere
Caru’ cu Bere is a bar and restaurant opened in it’s current location in 1899. It’s a huge ornate place with live music and like the big place for tourists to go supposedly, but it seemed filled to the brim with locals having christmas celebrations when we were there. The food is traditional Romanian and really good. The beer, also good. Also the tuica and palinka. I suggest you make a reservation a couple of days out. They were all booked up for us. But when we showed up in person they squeezed us in for an hour.
I was really disappointed by Maize. This was my big meal planned for Bucharest, a farm to table traditional revival place with famous chef and a tasting menu. I’ve been eating cabbage rolls and goulash for weeks and I really wanted a bit of extravagance. It’s a bit of a cab ride up north from old town and the place is on the third floor of what looks like an apartment building. The inside is quite well put together and I had every indication things would go well. I had called earlier about reserving the chef’s table but the restaurant never called me back after they said they would or answered my email. But that’s ok, I was happy with the normal tasting menu. After a bit the waiter comes to take our order and only then informs me that the chef was out for vacation and that no tasting menu would be available. I was forced to order a la carte. The wine was excellent but the food was only so-so, pretty, so good for photos, but nothing particularly outstanding. The slice of white bread with butter was really great, especially for it’s simplicity, but as I spread my little black paper napkin (not even a particularly good one) over my lap, it started to feel like school cafeteria white bread plopped on a plate. The bread for the amuse bouche was stale. My smoked fish appetizer was ok but the standout dish of the meal was Katy’s hen soup which featured a rich umami broth, house made noodles, and a yolk topped with caviar. The meat of my entree (cheek) was only so-so. I’d been eating veal and pork cheek regularly over the past couple of months and this didn’t even hit my top 3. Katy’s entree was ok but there were definitely some missing notes in the sauce, the whole dried coriander seeds were overpowering and there was a distracting bitter note that didn’t blend well with the bee pollen. It was forced and nonharmonic. My ever sinking evening was brought together by the lack of a lock on the men’s bathroom door, more cheap paper towels, and a single roll of toilet paper perched precariously on the sink half soaked with water.
Save your money. I got more joy from the Dristor Kebap shop in old town and barely spent $2. I was supposed to write a full review of the meal and restaurant but I just can’t bring myself to do it.
I like the graffiti in Bucharest. Most of it was of the graphic tag sort like NYC in the 80’s. But there was a lot of effort there, much better than tagging. And some really creative work mixed in there as well. I saw a willingness to try out some abstract styles and lots of good character work. I think you can often get the flavor of the city’s underground in its graffiti. In this case it seemed to be having a good time. I also noticed a lot of adolescent work in playgrounds. Usually when public art is highly policed you don’t see as much younger stuff but it was everywhere here.