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Posts tagged ‘bucharest’

the follies of dictators

I am going to finally write my last Bucharest post – a bittersweet moment.  My new Romanian friends encouraged me to check out the Palace that Ceaușescu built as a temple to his self-proclaimed emperor status.  As he showed little regard for the citizens he was bossing around, it is likely not surprising that there is nowhere to sit but lots of time to stand around waiting to actually get on a tour.  When I was there, there were various maintenance issues so only the standard tour was available. No chance to check out the bunkers.

It required standing around for about an hour – or giving up and sitting on the floor.  It seemed a big commitment but I had already learned how to use the metro and walked across a large park to get there so I thought I might as well see something before I repeated the process.  I would highly encourage you to do the same.

You will never see anything else like it.  If you are lucky, you will also have an excellent guide who speaks English very well and has a sly sense of humour.  Now that Romania is no longer a police state, poking fun at the past seems to be a bit of a hobby.  You can’t blame them.  Ceaușescu makes Donald Trump look like a humble pussy.

It’s mind-boggling how dictators convince themselves that they are not auditioning for evil wizard roles in the next Harry Potter movie and that the public loves them – even if they can only get that level of adoration via fear and violence.

meglomania personified

meglomania personified

Perhaps they are mentally ill.  That would definitely explain the Presidential Palace in Bucharest…   It is the second largest administrative building in the world.  Only the Pentagon is bigger!   The Palace was part of a more ambitious Project Bucharest to apparently create a replica of the North Korean capital.  One can certainly imagine Ceaușescu as a Kim-Il-Sung fan-boy.  Someone who rejected Mao and Khrushchev as being too progressive and idolized Stalin was certainly a role model… poor Romania!

Is there something viperous about women whose names start with “E”???  No doubt Nicolae had plenty of issues of his own and very little education but hooking up with Elena added an “Eva Peron” element to his maniacal quest for power and adoration.  Apparently she modelled herself on the evil queen in Sleeping Beauty.

If you check out the Palace, you can learn more about the terrible twosome.

And the Palace itself (since the revolution dubbed the “People’s Palace”) is a physical manifestation of megalomania.  Huge tracts of land were razed, 40,000 people were relocated and soldiers were forced to work on the construction to reduce costs.  It cost billions to build and a ridiculous amount to maintain.

It’s the Sagrada Familia of administrative buildings.  Work began in 1984 and is not yet totally complete.  When the government fell in 1989, it was unclear how to proceed.  The building is a nutty mess built by an idiot but it would have cost more to get rid of it so they have just tried to work with it but the government only uses about 30% of the building.  You can rent a room if you’d like 😉

The building has eight underground levels and apparently can survive a nuclear war.  It is 2% larger than the Great Pyramid of Giza – megalomaniacs think alike 🙂

Almost all the materials used for the building came from Romania.  Selling those natural resources to trading partners no doubt would have been a more sensible strategy for the citizenry.  It does mean that it is fascinating to see as a tourist.  Chandeliers, carpets, mirrors, wooden ornamentation – everything is totally over the top.  Some carpets are so large machines had to be brought into the room to weave the carpet on-site.  The palace includes 220,000 square metres of carpet, 3,500 tons of crystal and one million cubic metres of marble.  The carpet in the main Union Hall weighs 1.5 tons.  It’s like being in someone’s crazy fairy tale palace.

Like something stuck in the past, the building is a mess of ancient architecture styles with little regard for function.  You will get a lot of exercise on the tour as mostly you have to take grandiose staircases to get around.  Apparently the government has established some services within the building as it takes a long time to get to any shops outside – or even to a meeting in another part of the building.

As a reward for all the stairs, you get to go out on the famous balcony for an overview of a large swath of Bucharest.  And you will hear the Michael Jackson story – do NOT stand on the balcony and declare “I LOVE BUDAPEST”.  Hey, international geography is not an American strength.

worth all the stairs

worth all the stairs

as good as it looks!

as good as it looks!

After you’ve checked out the monstrosity, head to the Old Town.  Some parts of it are crumbling but there are still lots of magnificent buildings from Bucharest’s fin-de-siècle heyday.  If you need refreshment after all that walking, find the Emilia Cremerie.  Possibly some of the best ice cream in Europe.  Romanian culture is closer to Italy than to Slovakia, which is probably why they also make excellent wine.  There is a local grape called Tomani that I really enjoyed.  I learned about it at Abel’s Wine Bar, which boasts lovely service and a gigantic wine list.

The Romanians really deserve your love – and tourist dollars – after the hand they have been dealt by life.  Somehow they have managed to be hopeful instead of bitter – with a wicked sense of humour about their past.  Go and meet them 🙂

who needs noma? ;)

I hope no one will get vertigo as we bounce around the world and I catch up on the stories from past travels that have been floating around in my brain for some time but have not yet made it onto a keyboard…

First, we are going back to Bucharest.  Even though it’s been months since I was actually there, it was such a fun and memorable trip, it feels sad to be typing the final posts.

It’s not that I wouldn’t love to go to noma 😉  Perhaps someday…  I only saw El Bulli in the film.  I am sure a meal at an institution of that stature would be worth all of the trouble of securing a reservation but I have managed to stumble upon places with a level of culinary artistry such that you will remember the meal for a very long time.



As usual, I arrived ill-prepared but the hotel did have a copy of the in your pocket guide so I knew I would figure something out 🙂


Had some time to kill before it would be time for dinner so just started randomly walking the streets near the hotel.  They were filled with fin de siècle architecture, graffiti and the occasional KFC or Pizza Hut – a fascinating and unusual mix.

who needs disney to act like a princess :)

who needs disney to act like a princess 🙂

I definitely wasn`t dining at either of those options but no other restaurant screamed `pick me` so I kept wandering.  I was starting to get tired and hungry so decided to venture into the Grand Continental Hotel where I found Concerto.  There are several versions of Romania one can explore.  That night I was channeling a Habsburg princess.  It`s not my usual style but fun for a couple of hours.


The service was very formal and the dining room was opulent.  There were only a handful of diners so it felt like I had servants at my beck and call.  The meal was delicious and I had my first discovery of Romanian wine (it`s very good and great value).

If you like a side of history with your beverage, check out the English Bar at Athénée Palace Hotel.  It was a den of spies, political conspirators, adventurers and their assorted entourages in the years leading up to World War II.  It was then nationalized by the Communist government and filled with bugs and informants.  I just had a glass of wine while I read my guidebook and planned my next move but it would be the perfect setting to have a “martini, shaken, not stirred“…


I was on my way to Eden on the recommendation of my server in Amsterdam who loved Bucharest and was jealous of my impending journey.  Unfortunately, I was in the wrong season for the nightclub but it was still a very pleasant place to have lemonade after all my fervent trekking to see the real Bucharest.


I eventually got to the Old Town, which is even more spectacular with note-worthy architecture.  Since it is also a tourist zone, it`s easier to find intriguing restaurants – and also lots of spots obviously dedicated to tourists 😉  I spotted a place called Nouvelle Vague.  It looks like it belongs in Gastown so I decided I would ask for a table.  My instincts are solid.  Had an excellent main course called “sparkling fish“ and equally excellent Romanian sauvignon blanc.  The service was a wonderful treat and I found out they had only been open for three months so it was nice to support some young entrepreneurs.


By the next night, I had carefully read the in your pocket guide and had zeroed in on The Artist as my dining location of choice.  But then I got more typical Eastern European service… apparently, all the tables were booked even though the restaurant was empty and I wasn`t planning to linger BUT I was able to make a reservation for the next night.

But that meant I still had to find somewhere to have dinner that night.  So I continued on my wandering and consulted the guidebook and decided to select la Bonne Bouche.  Yet again, an outstanding dinner.  Was really craving beet salad by then (just getting salad in Europe can be a dilemma) and there it was!  Accompanied by delicious moules frites and a flight of Sauvignon Blanc to expand my knowledge of Romanian wine.


And then it was finally time for my dinner reservation at The Artist!!!  It`s run by a Dutch chef who I gather fell in love with a Romanian woman.  Now, Dutch and chef is not a word combination that normally makes one salivate but, given my obsession with the Dutch and the amount of hours I have spent in recent years in Amsterdam, I knew that was changing and it was now possible to find a good Dutch chef.


But The Artist is not just a good Dutch chef.  It is the kind of meal you will remember for the rest of your life.  It`s not Eleven Madison Park but it`s not something you would expect to find in Bucharest either.  The food is exceptional and creative but there is also a little theatre to make sure the meal takes you to the next level.

The meal began with a literally smoking amuse bouche.  Each course was accompanied by different bread, chosen to compliment and expand the flavours of that element.  There is also a `spoon` selection for each course so you can have a large spoonful of each option.  So I got to try ALL the appetizers.  Each was a great pop of complex flavour.

food as poetry...

food as poetry…

I stuck with sea bass for my main course and chose the cucumber sorbet for dessert as I had observed it came with a side of theatre.  First, you are presented with a mortar and pestle and a nest of herbs.  The chef then appears with a ball of sorbet.  You are encouraged to mix the herbs with the sorbet to create your own dessert.

You finish with sublimely rich chocolate truffles.  The entire experience was accompanied by champagne and an excellent Romanian white wine.  I can`t remember the exact cost but I think it was around $50 USD.

Bucharest is a total bargain.  What I hadn`t expected was the delicious modern food and Romanian wine.  You can eat even cheaper if you are into sausage, sauerkraut and offal but, if you are more a beet salad kind of person, you will be equally well-served.  Just arrive hungry! 🙂


la belle époque

Marion Cotillard’s character in Midnight in Paris would love Bucharest 🙂  I first saw the film on a flight to Paris so it will always be a little extra special.  It’s about our nostalgia for the past and how we often imagine it as better – and more romantic – than the present.  I definitely think the 21st century has done a lot to kill romance but I am not a believer in trying to relive the past.  The film is brilliant as the main character, Gil, actually gets to time travel and cavort with Hemingway and Dali in the period he believes to be the most golden, Paris in the 1920s.  Marion’s character is living in the 1920s but pining for La Belle Époque.

I’m listening to Leonard Cohen as I write this, just a random choice, but the perfect accompaniment to writing about nostalgia.  When I was younger, I tried the usual things – drinking at Café de Flore in Paris pretending I was Simone de Beauvoir, drinking a wildly overpriced Bellini at Harry’s Bar in Venice imagining I was getting soused with Hemingway, enjoying a nightcap with a friend at the Algonquin Hotel in New York wishing I was as witty at Dorothy Parker.  But I always felt like a tourist trying to channel a ghost that wasn’t present.

in the zeitgeist :)

in the zeitgeist 🙂

It was in Shanghai that I had my real epiphany.    It was 2008, just as the world was melting into financial chaos, but it was National Day Golden Week in China.  Everybody in China gets the same days off and, during this week, people flood the roads and airports.  Shanghai already had over 16 million people but Golden Week meant there were a few million more!  The biggest highlight was having a five course tasting menu in a fancy French restaurant in my hotel served mostly by an enterprising young French chef who had come to China to further his career.

It’s impossible to describe what it was like to be in Shanghai at that moment.  It was like being part of a party attended by 20 million people.  The west was predicting the next great depression.  I saw it on CNN and wondered if I should do something… but then I stepped out of the hotel and the party was in full swing so I just embraced it.  The reason we are nostalgic about de Beauvoir, Hemingway and Parker is that they were living in the Zeitgeist of their time – they were at the pulse of history.  That’s also why trying to duplicate their actions feels so empty.  Paris in 2016 is nothing like Paris in the 1920s.  The Zeitgeist is constantly in motion.  If you want to feel like Hemingway did in 1920s Paris, you need to find the future, not the past.

In 2016, Shanghai looks a lot shakier than it did in 2008 and the Zeitgeist may have passed it by.  You never know if you were in a place at exactly the right moment until you are looking at it years later (unless, of course, you were in Berlin in 1989 when the wall started to come down – YOU KNEW you were in the Zeitgeist that week).  The point is – try new places, don’t copy, be original, be curious, search for the future and enjoy the contradictions that over 2,000 years of human history have imbued.

One great place to do all of that is Bucharest!  While Dracula hunting is very popular with tourists to Romania, there is lots to see in Bucharest.  Even better, you will be visiting a very interesting city at a very interesting time in its history (and, if channelling Hemingway really is your thing, you can drink cheaply pretty much 24/7 it seems… I am sure Hemingway would have moved on from Paris 😉  It seems the glory period for much of Bucharest was La Belle Époque.  As already noted, there is a magpie quality to Bucharest architecture, but there is also significant 19th century French influence.

I never even managed to see all the attractions in Bucharest but the ones I did see were very worthwhile.  I normally start my day in a new city by walking the streets and trying to suss out its character.  In that regard, Bucharest is very intriguing.  There are beautiful 19th century buildings in the same block as Pizza Hut and KFC.  Beautiful architecture is mixed with graffiti.  It’s clear this is a complicated place.  I knew a little of Romanian history before I got to Bucharest but my knowledge was very shallow.  I still have much to learn but what is most impressive about Bucharest – and Romanians – is how they have survived and thrived given all the crap thrown at them in the 20th century.

Bucharest in 2016 feels more like Prague in 1999 (my first visit).  It’s why you should go now.  I absolutely want the Romanian economy to improve and for Romanians to enjoy a better standard of living but that will mean Bucharest will start to look more like other cities.  With luck, the beautiful old buildings will be restored, rather than replaced, but there is no guarantee – so go now while they are still there.

One of the most beautiful is the Romanian Athenaeum.  It was completed in 1888, astonishingly financed almost entirely by money donated by the

easily rivals paris!

easily rivals paris!

general public.  Europeans love classical music, especially in the middle where most of the dudes were born hundreds of years ago.  I haven’t been to Greece yet but this is a little slice of Athens.  Marble, gold leaf, all that gorgeous over-the-top decoration so popular in the past.  The building is stunning and apparently the acoustics are also outstanding.  I wasn’t fortunate enough to hear an actual concert but did get to witness some musicians practicing.


perfect for lovers :)

perfect for lovers 🙂

Another attraction I discovered by accident on my random walk the first morning was the Cișmigiu Gardens.  It is the oldest and largest park in Bucharest and a beautiful place to stroll, partly because it is actually a gigantic garden, rather than a park, so much thought was put into the design.


It would have been a perfect place for Marion Cotillard’s character in Midnight in Paris to stroll with a lover.  Bucharest evokes La Belle Époque more than Paris.  That era was the height of its 20th century glory.  A manicured garden, rather than a wild park, is very Parisian.  This is the city nicknamed “Little Paris”.  So, if your budget is tight, skip Paris and come to Bucharest 😉  Big spenders can compare and contrast…

the Habsburgs make the Khardasians look like amateurs ;)

If you have travelled in Europe, you have no doubt encountered remnants of the House of Habsburg.  It was one of the most important royal houses in Europe and the throne of the Holy Roman Empire was occupied by the House of Habsburg from 1438 until 1740.  Like all the royals, they made marriage for alliance and power, not love, so they controlled most of Europe until the late 18th century.  They are especially in evidence in middle Europe.

That is why it should not have been such a surprise to find a lot of German influence in Peles Castle.  The building of the castle began in 1873 under Viennese architect Wilhem Doferer and continued in 1876 under his assistant.  Work was abandoned during the war and the castle wasn’t completed until 1883.  It was built for King Carol I, who became the first king of an independent Romania.  The general style is German Renaissance but, like most buildings in Romania, it is a magpie construction that includes Italian Renaissance, Gothic, German Baroque and French Rococo.


It is situated in the gorgeous Carpathian Mountains near Sinaia.  It is not as over-the-top as Versailles but it is a very impressive building in a spectacular setting and well worth the visit.

I would also highly recommend the hotel I stayed at in Bucharest.  It’s the K+K Hotel Elisabeta.  It’s in a great location close to the Old Town, the city centre and the metro.  The staff and service is outstanding.  It has an exceptional breakfast.  One of the other great perks was that they organized tours for me so I just had to show up.  Of course, that also meant I was already scheduled to go on a gigantic tour of the Romanian countryside even though I had only had a couple of hours of sleep.  There are a lot of mountains and trees – I did sleep through some of the scenery 🙂


I had a very friendly driver named Marco who was a James Blunt fan.  American media has taken over the entire world but the Brits still hold their own when it comes to music.  It was a big day but very worthwhile.  First, we had to get out of Bucharest.  Our first official stop was the Sinaia Monastery.  There was an Orthodox Church with a separate bell tower.  Like Poland, church is important in Romania, but the vast majority are not Roman Catholic but, rather, Eastern Orthodox.


byzantine magic

byzantine magic

The monastery and church were first built in 1695 to commemorate a religious pilgrimage to Mount Sinai made by Mikhail Cantacuzino. The church is old Orthodox so there is no organ and no seats.

We then headed to the main attraction for the day, Peles Castle.  We actually also saw Bran Castle that day, so, that statement might seem surprising but Peles Castle is absolutely the star.

Romania is still fairly new at the tourism game – and capitalism’s penchant that the customer is always right – so the organization part was a total gong show.  Marco got my ticket organized and put me in the right place but then I was on my own.  There was a long wait as the room filled with a large crowd of Romanian speakers.  I had understood I was joining an English tour but they forced me in with the Romanians.  I think they likely enjoyed the tour.  Our guide was a mumbling robot with a Romanian accent, so technically things were repeated in English but I only managed to understand random

worth the hassle ;)

worth the hassle 😉


Nevertheless, the place was fascinating.  Full of wood, crystal and weapons!  The wood carving was especially over the top, gorgeous and ornate.  No surface was left without ornamentation.  There was beautiful stained glass and many chandeliers.  It was tough to photograph with all the dark, heavy wood and shining, glittering objects.

There are also lovely gardens and it was a perfect blue sky day so it was a spectacular sight.

would fit right in at disneyland :)

would fit right in at disneyland 🙂

From the castle, we headed on to Brasov.  It started medieval but added on some gothic, baroque and renaissance architecture, making it another super cute town that looks as though Disney came to town with some pixie dust.  I only had a fleeting visit but you can take the train from Bucharest and spend more time.  I did get to check out the Black Church, the largest gothic church in Romania, so named due to the damage sustained from the Great Fire of 1689.


The city was at the intersection of the trade routes linking the Ottoman Empire to western Europe and allowed pre-Communist Saxon merchants to make fortunes and meddle in politics.  Once you have some money, you need a gated community to keep out the riff-raff so some serious city walls were erected along with several towers maintained by the different craft guilds, as was the real estate development custom in medieval times.

After lunch, we strolled through the town square (full of completely adorable buildings just dying to be photographed) and then took a walk around the remains of the city walls.  Marco convinced me I should climb to the top of one of the towers to get a view over the town.  It was a serious workout and the view was a bit hazy but it was good exercise 🙂  Of course, I have climbed to the top of a lot of towers in Europe and seen a lot of terracotta roofs but – if you haven’t – you may be more impressed…

The terracotta roofs of Brasov may have been underwhelming but the other sights were anything but and – not only should you check out Romania while it is still under the radar – you should get out of Bucharest and see the bucolic countryside.  You can always pretend to be a Habsburg checking out your territory 😉  They apparently died out due to in-breeding… there is a mini-series here…

let’s get this party started ;)

Right now I am reading a book I bought when I ran out of reading material in Prague.  It’s called Revolution 1989 The Fall of the Soviet Empire by Victor Sebestyen.  I highly recommend it.  I am fascinated by history in general but having been in Berlin in November 1989 makes the events described in this book especially poignant.  And it felt like something I should start reading in Prague…

I am always reading several books at the same time so I am only about half-way through this one.  Merely by accident, I just finished a chapter describing Romania under Ceauşescu.  I knew the dude was evil but it’s hard to imagine someone treating other people the way that he did.  Of course, psychopath dictators likely didn’t score points for sharing in kindergarten.  That period of Romanian history is shocking.  Hollywood loves to keep blaming the Nazis long after Germany has cleaned up its act.  There are plenty of other evil guys – and their Lady MacBeths.  They really need to branch out.

You, on the other hand, should just book a plane ticket to Bucharest!  I feel very guilty that it has taken me this long to write about Romania but I did make notes so will try to do it justice over the next weeks.  There is lots of talk of Cuba and of Myanmar.  I have already booked to see the first and am hoping to get to the second before 2016 is complete.  But there is little talk of Romania – or Bucharest.  I think it’s a place to go now before it becomes totally sanitized and you aren’t sure exactly what city you are in.  The internet is a wonderful thing but it – and the Americans’ incredible skills at marketing – are destroying the differences between cultures and making the world more homogeneous.

bucharest pre ceausescu

bucharest pre ceausescu

At least for now, Bucharest feels unique.  It’s an eastern European former communist city with a Latin soul.  It’s a bit like Las Vegas.  Nothing seems to shut and you lose track of time.  The first night was safe because I didn’t know my way around the city yet so didn’t want to be wandering the streets at 3am.  The second day I did a gigantic tour on a very jet-lagged sketchy night of sleep so partying hard was out of the question.  But then I caught up on my sleep, knew how to get back to the hotel in the dark and was ready to fully experience Bucharest 🙂

There is the quintessential charming European Old Town and it’s a tourist mecca.  There are the bars catering to the drunken lads and ladettes celebrating stags, hen parties or just the fact that beer is really cheap in Bucharest.  You will see them roaming in packs.  If that’s your thing, there are definitely lots of options catering to that type of tourist.  I am always hoping to meet locals and get a sense of the culture of the place.


Once again, I found the in your pocket guide very helpful.  I also just roamed around looking for something interesting, which is how I discovered XIX.  Alex was singing in the window and he was fantastic.  You could just watch from the street but I spotted a free seat and thought I should support the bar.  At the time, it was pretty new on the scene so the servers were very enthusiastic.  Had a lovely conversation with two of the staff, one Romanian and one Russian.  They were sure I had to try a Black Mojito.  It was too sweet for me but the Black Ursus beer is excellent and costs about $3

serendipity in bucharest

serendipity in bucharest



Alex was a revelation.  It was covers but his range was amazing.  Music is definitely globalized.  It is always disconcerting to hear people singing English lyrics in foreign countries but he is an amazing singer.  From AC/DC Highway to Hell through the BeeGees, Leonard Cohen, Coldplay to Roy Orbison “In Dreams” and Radiohead “Creep”.

The “scene” is still under development – and especially as a foreign tourist – it was hard to figure out what to do once Alex had ended his set.  I tried a few places recommended by in your pocket but they were either empty or full of sweaty people singing karaoke without air-conditioning so I ended up at the Control Club.  It was also a bit quiet but there was music so I bought a beer and figured I would finish it and then head to the hotel.


But, unlike Paris and London, Bucharest is not yet overrun by tourists so the locals are very friendly.  I was invited to join a bachelor party and ended up having one of the most memorable nights of my life.  I am always hoping to meet locals and get a real sense for the place, not just tick off the tourist sites.

Life in modern day Bucharest is interesting.  It is no longer a violent police state and you can sense the optimism but it is also still an emerging market country and – as someone born in the first world, you appreciate how privileged your everyday life really is.  What I have found most interesting in emerging market countries is that generally people seem smarter and better informed.  They have to try harder than the privileged children of the west with their over-sized sense of entitlement.

It all started as just a friendly sharing of information.  The group was composed of civil engineers and architects so my kind of people 🙂  I forgot to check the time.  People started going home.  The bachelor left.  It was just George, Marius and me.  George was interested in Canada so we got another beer and somehow it was 4:30am when I got back to the hotel!  The young guy on the desk was super friendly so just added to the glow of a wonderful evening where I transcended being a tourist.

Everyone was so friendly and welcoming I went back to XIX the next night and met David Dango who was the musician in the window.  The friendly Russian server was on again and I met the owner before I left to head for the Control Club.  Once again, expected the night to end at normal time but a friendly Romanian guy had just broken up with his girlfriend and I don’t think the Control Club ever shuts… evening ended at 5:30am this time.  I needed to go back to Amsterdam to get some sleep!  On second thought, we’ll go with the whole sleep when you’re dead concept…

My time in Bucharest was far too short.  I only really scratched the surface.  I would love to see the country prosper.  At least, it is really heartwarming to see people having a chance to speak their mind and party like it’s Vegas.  And they can even joke about the evil Mr. C.  Check it out while it is still has the sense of opening a time capsule.  Even if history is not your thing, just go for the Romanians 🙂



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