Paris of the east
Bucharest is beginnning to reclaim its glittering pre-Ceausescu reputation, writes ADRIENNE CULLEN
IF YOU’D TOLD me in 1990 that within 20 years The Irish Timeswould be commissioning an article on breaks in Bucharest – one of the more recent additions to the list of EU capitals – I’d have cheerfully said you were raving mad.
My abiding memory of Otopeni Airport, outside Bucharest, is of an interior clad in dark wood panelling, with very few lights, taciturn passport officers who appeared not to speak at all as a matter of principle, and a selection of birds dive-bombing the bemused-looking immigration queue from the roof of the arrivals hall.
It wasn’t an auspicious start, and the other side of the passport booth didn’t get any better. Romania was still floundering. Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, had been shot by revolutionaries on Christmas Day 1989. And the world was just beginning to realise the horror of the orphanages to which they’d consigned a generation of children bred under duress to increase the country’s communist population – a story I’d tackle the following year in my book, Thursday’s Child: The Romanian Adoptions Story.
I’d probably have offered the opinion that this was a country rendered by its history of dictatorship utterly incapable of modernising – but as the past 20 years have demonstrated, I’d have been completely wrong.
As it did in Ireland, EU funding is already making a dramatic difference. Before the dead hand of Ceausescu descended on the country, in 1965, Bucharest was a cultured city with a buzzing cafe society, elegant restaurants, a vibrant theatre and opera scene, and friendly, open people. It was known as the Paris of the east – Romanians believe they have a particular affinity with the French – a moniker the city is working with determination to revive.
The caveats first: in high summer the heat can be very, very oppressive; traffic congestion is a serious problem and getting worse as poverty recedes a bit; and the standard of driving is universally appalling . . . You even need to mind yourself on the pavements. Other than that, this is a fascinating city with an almost palpable sense of excitement about the transformation that’s going on everywhere.
Happily, one of the most obvious manifestations of that transformation is that there are plenty of bright, new hotels, in pretty much every price range. The city’s pride and joy is the five-star Athenee Palace Hilton, in the centre of the city, with its rooms overlooking Revolution Square.
As any guided tour will tell you, Revolution Square is also home to the former Royal Palace, now the National Museum of Art; the Senate building, formerly the offices of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, from which the Ceausescus fled by helicopter on December 22nd; and the Memorial of Rebirth, which commemorates the overthrow of communism.
Predictably, that sense of a historic moment just past is everywhere. Ceausescu’s Palace – now the Palace of Parliament – is another must-see. The third-largest building on earth after the Pentagon and the Potala Palace in the Tibetan capital, Lhassa, it’s 12 storeys high, with more than 1,000 rooms, a nuclear bunker and, famously, 4,500 chandeliers. He called it Casa Popularii, or House of the People. The people called it Casa Nebunului – Madman’s House.
If all this sounds like a sombre experience, it’s far from it. This is not a city of historical artefacts. This is a city in the throes of change. For some of that atmosphere, take a stroll along the cobblestone streets between Calea Victoriei, Bulevardul Bratianu, Bulevardul Regina Elisabeta and the River Dâmbovita, home to a mix of clubs, bars, trendy coffee houses and restaurants that spill on to the streets in summer.
Strada Lipscani is an old merchant street with tailors and dressmakers selling everything from bridal gowns to jeans. Just off it, Hanul cu Tei is the Francis Street of Bucharest, filled with antique shops. The oldest church is the 16th-century Biserica Curtea Veche. And, a few steps away, the oldest inn is Hanul lui Manoc with its courtyard cafe bar – the ideal place to stop and take stock.
Aer Lingus (www.aerlingus. com) flies to Bucharest from Dublin.
Where to stay, where to eat and where to go
5 places to stay
Athenee Palace Hotel. 1-3 Episcopiei Street, District 1, 00-40-21-3033777, www.hilton.com. Built in 1914, this local landmark offers perfectly located five-star luxury. Rooms start at €185.
Hotel Lido. 5-7 Magheru Avenue, District 1, 00-40-21-3144930, www.lido.ro. A centrally located four-star hotel with a swimming pool, sauna, gym and jacuzzi. A double room costs €240.
Hotel Opera. 37 Brezoianu Street, District 1, 00-40-21-3124855, www.hotelopera.ro. A very stylish little hotel considering it’s a three-star. A double room costs €140, or you can have a small suite for €180.
The Tempo Hotel. 19 Armand Calinescu, District 2, 00-40-21-3101216, www.tempohotel.com. This is a chic little hotel with 33 well kitted-out rooms, where a double with private terrace costs about €130 a night at weekends.
Ibis Palatul Parlamentului Hotel. 82-84 Izvor Street, District 5, 00-40-21-4011000, www.ibishotel.com. A family-orientated hotel with 161 air-conditioned rooms and conference facilities. A double room costs €59, plus €10 for breakfast.
5 places to eat
Locanta Jaristea. 50-52 Strada Georgescu, 00-40-21-3353338, www.jaristea.ro. This restaurant certainly fancies itself as the best in Bucharest. The building and decor are beautiful, and although it’s expensive by local standards it’s reasonable compared with Dublin prices.
Caru’ Cu Bere. Strada Stavropoleos, just off Calea Victoriei, 00-40-21-3137560, www.carucubere.ro. Even if you don’t eat here, this magnificent old Bavarian-style beer hall is worth a look. It serves traditional Romanian fare and brews its own beer.
Casa Capsa. 36 Calea Victoriei, 00-40-21-3134038, www.capsa.ro. Service in many Bucharest restaurants is not always up to scratch, but this is one of the friendly ones, serving good food since 1852.
Hanul Hangitei. 16 Strada Gabroveni, 00-40-21-3147046, www.hanulhangitei.ro. If you’re shopping in the Lipscani district and fancy a good-quality traditional restaurant, you’ll do fine here.
La Mama. 3 Barbu Vacarescu, 00-40-21-2124086, www.lamama.ro. Serves traditional Romanian food, with generous portions and reasonable prices.
5 places to go
The Palace of Parliament. Bulevardul Unirii, www.cdep.ro. The sheer scale of this place makes it worth seeing. The largest building in Europe, it took 20,000 workers and 700 architects to build – matching, perhaps, the size of Ceausescu’s own ego.
The National Museum of Contemporary Art. 2-4 Izvor Street but entrance from
Calea 13 Septembrie, 00-40-21-33189137, www.mnac.ro. This gallery is in a wing of Ceausescu’s palace, so visit both together.
Museum of the Romanian Peasant. 3 Kiseleff Road, in the north of the city, 00-40-21-6505360. It sounds worthy and boring, but in fact it’s won many prizes. Fascinating, even for children.
Arcul de Triumf. Also on Kiseleff Road. This is a pretty-exact replica of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, built in 1935.
Zambaccian Museum. 21a Muzeul Zambaccian Street, 00-40-21-2121920 (closed Monday and Tuesday). The private collection of the late Armenian-Romanian art collector Krikor H Zambaccian, this is a rare opportunity to see works by Cézanne, Picasso, Matisse, Pissarro and many others.
Where to shop
The best shopping districts are Calea Victoriei and Bulavardul General Magheru, which has all the top European chains, from Benetton to Max Mara and Terzoatto, as well as local department stores Cocor and Unirea.
The club scene is booming in Bucharest. A recent addition is Pacha (Bulevardul Libertatii, District 1, www.pachabucuresti.com), based on the Ibiza club of the same name.
Lucky 13. 9-11 Selari Street, 00-40-21-3144066, www.lucky13.ro. A comfortable little cafe with friendly service, this is the ideal place to relax after exploring Lipscani. By night it’s a jazz and blues club.
What to avoid
There’s no doubt about this one: avoid driving in Bucharest at all costs. And if you must hire a car, be warned that traffic congestion is a serious problem, especially on the road from the airport.