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.
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
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.
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…