Communist patina, ancient monasteries, and giant pork knuckles – Bucharest

We just came back from our extended weekend trip to Bucharest. The trip had started with a bit of a disappointment. We had booked a four star hotel, but upon arrival were told without much of an apology, that the whole floor was under water, because a pipe had broken. We were told that another hotel of the chain only five minutes’ drive away still had rooms and that we could stay there at no extra cost. We asked if the other hotel was also four stars, and were told that it had. When we arrived, it turned out to be three stars, with bad wiring, no WiFi, a broken fridge, and a balcony (cool!) with cigarette butts everywhere (not so cool). The manager was quite rude when we complained, and more or less implied that we had already paid, so in his mind that was the end of the story; in the end we got a 50% refund, which is fair enough in our book.

Besides of this, we both really enjoyed our stay, and the hotel’s location turned out to be more convenient than the one’s we had initially booked. Quality of service was not always up to scratch, but you could say the same about a lot of countries, and we didn’t let it dent our experience.

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Of the few Central and Eastern European countries we have visited, Bucharest felt the most ‘ex-communist’, much more so than St. Petersburg, for example. St. Petersburg is picture book perfect, every building in town (well most buildings in the centre of town) are beautifully renovated there. In Bucharest not so much. Whole areas of the centre of the city still look similar to what they might have looked during Ceaușescu’s times, when this man single-handedly drove this beautiful country into the wall, while other communist countries were going the opposite way, at least slowly seeing some gradual improvement in living standards over the decades. In Romania living standards deteriorated year on year over the decades, only leading to the dictator becoming even more extreme in his measures and more violent and outright mental. You feel for the locals, who have been through so much suffering in such relatively recent times.

The Palace of the Parliament, whose completion Ceaușescu did not live to see, is the second biggest administrative building in the world after the Pentagon, and costs more than US$30 million per year to maintain, a gigantic sum of money in a country where most people in the rural regions still live of less than US$ 400 per month (the national average wage is only just above US$ 9,000). The quality of the construction is of a standard that would make any third-rate builder in the poorest sub-Saharan countries want to die of shame for his profession. You can literally watch the building fall apart in real-time right in front of your eyes, with bits of the stairs breaking off while we gently walked over them when entering this monument of madness.

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It is impossible not to be fascinated by the scale of the madness, though, the building is one of the most memorable and impressive ones we have seen on our travels. During our 3-hour tour we only saw less than 2% of the rooms, even though it felt like we were in constant motion hasting from one room to the next. 70% of the gigantic 1,100 rooms are empty.

After an earthquake in 1977 Ceaușescu had decided to rebuild Bucharest as a replica of Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, and the Palace was one part of this project. The boulevard that leads to the Palace was another part. It was built to exceed the length of the Champs Elysees by a few metres, easily exceeding them in terms of width.

More than 7 km2 of the medieval city centre were demolished, including ancient monasteries, a hill was flattened, and 40,000 people were relocated from this area. The works were carried out with forced labour of soldiers to minimise the costs. At times, up to 100,000 people worked on the site in three shifts 24/7. At least 2,500 people died during construction.

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There is a Top Gear episode, where you can see Clarkson, May, and the Hamster drive supercars through the many tunnels below the palace. Some say the real size of the Palace is much bigger than commonly known, with most of the space below the surface. Our tour guide didn’t agree with that interpretation, but then again, she wasn’t even aware of the Top Gear episode and that there were tunnels below the Palace. Some say that the dictator built an enormous nuclear shelter some 50m below the Palace, that had enough space to house his government, family and friends for unlimited periods of time, and that was linked with other government buildings and family residences through these tunnels, so that everyone could make their way to daddy without the nasty fallout that would by then have eradicated the general populace.

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There are many beautiful sites to visit in the old town of Bucharest, with plenty of medieval buildings scattered across it. One of the highlights for us was the Stavropoleos Monastery, built in 1724 in Brâncovenesc style, also known as Wallachian Renaissance and Romanian Renaissance, an architectural style associated with Prince Constantin Brâncoveanu that developed in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Brâncovenesc style combines the best of Byzantine, Ottoman (Islamic), late Renaissance, and Baroque architecture. It is impossible not to fall in love with it.

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In terms of food, we have to admit we didn’t expect much. Neither of us had ever consciously had any Romanian food and decades of food rationing are typically not considered to be conducive to the evolution of national cuisine, but we couldn’t have been further off the mark! The only place we visited that didn’t blow our minds, is the beautiful Hanu’ lui Manuc, or, in English, Manuc’s Inn, the oldest operating hotel in town. It was built in 1808, and originally owned by a wealthy Armenian entrepreneur, Emanuel Mârzaian, better known under his Turkish name Manuc. By the middle of the 19th century, according to Wikipedia, it was Bucharest’s most important commercial complex, with 15 wholesalers, 23 retail stores, 107 rooms for offices or living, and a large inn. We would still recommend going there for a pint to enjoy the atmosphere, we just didn’t think the food was special, and it was certainly overpriced.

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Every other restaurant we visited, was pure bliss, with our favourite being the admittedly rather touristy Caru’ cu Bere, where we dined twice. The atmosphere inside the neo-gothic building with its art nouveau interior decoration feels at the same time traditional, rustic, and grandiose, cosmopolitan, don’t ask me how, it simply does. Service is very professional and friendly, and on our second visit we were immediately recognised, greeted, and led to our table. On our first visit I made the mistake of not taking the time to read the menu properly and, as you would in Bavaria, where I’m from, just ordered the pork knuckle, without much ado. Would I have taken the time to read the small print, then I would have seen the words “~1.5kg, for two very hungry persons”. My word, you have not seen a pork knuckle like this in your life! It looked like a protein Palace of the Parliament. I ate without interruption for nearly two hours and I could see from the waiters’ faces that I had earned their respect when they picked up my empty plate. On our second visit we tried the menu up and down (mainly starters, we’re not animals) and loved everything we had.

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It is worth doing your research before you pick where to go. There are apparently many bad restaurants around, and the majority of restaurants in the centre do not seem to be Romanian, but other cuisines.

On our second day we did a day trip (it came rather close to be 24h, because we left at 8am and came back at 1:30am the following morning because of various traffic jams, mainly on the way back) to the famous Dracula’s Castle, a trip which we wouldn’t want to miss.

Another highlight of our trip was a two hour walking tour, which focused on the last years of the dictatorship and the violent years that immediately followed it, with civil unrest, corruption, and more hardship for the poor, lovely people of Romania. At more than one incident many among the  audience quite understandably got emotional, it’s just so moving to hear about all the terror that happened in the recent past, but great to see how Romania’s economy and society have improved so much over the recent years, starting more or less from zero.

We would recommend Bucharest to anyone who’s looking for a great-value adventurous weekend trip.

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