Matthew, a friend from Austin, Texas is in Europe for a month. His first stop, Bucharest, produced some interesting thoughts:
In his 1944 memoir, The Long Balkan Night, Leigh White states, “Bucharest is like no other city in Europe. Superficially, it reminded me of Tulsa, Oklahoma…Food and liquor cost next to nothing; and mistresses—with mink coats at $350—were no more of a luxury than automobiles…Compared with Bucharest, even Paris was a prude.” Nearly seventy years later, the description remains astonishingly accurate. Bucharest is a city of corruption haunted by the lingering specter of communism.
The veracity of warnings about Bucharest was proven within hours of arriving. So, yes, the sex workers are bold, the cab drivers are crooks, decay is rampant and the streets are overrun with stray dogs. Bucharest is not a city of great first impressions. And yet, in spite of these issues, it is the moments of surprising beauty that attain prominence in my memory: the sun emerging after the snow to turn the Palace of Parliament ephemeral in the distance and a magical amber sunset as Christmas lights flicker on over University Plaza. Wandering Cismigiu Park is a step back in time: the laughter of skaters on the ice, vintage park benches buried under snow and a dizzying array of belle époque roofs above the trees.
Bucharest is also home to a number of fantastic museums. The Museum of the Romanian Peasant receives the most praise, but it is the National Museum of Contemporary Art attached to the Palace of Parliament that caught my imagination. Currently, the museum is exhibiting a collection of Czechoslovakian Film Posters from 1960 to 1980, a subReal Retrospective and “Please, No Photos,” an exhibition of Angelika Platen’s photography. I loved the museum, but The Czech Film Posters stand out. As a record of cinema advertising under a politically restrained regime, the posters evoke history and adopt design elements of minimalism, surrealism and pop-art. The artists often created their images without viewing the films, drafting based on a title or a brief summary, and in turn producing images fantastic and allegorical. A lot of my admiration for the museum also stems from Octav in the gift shop. Friendly and informed, he is a fount of knowledge about local arts and artists. The museum is open Wednesday through Sunday, but call ahead. The first Saturday I attempted to attend, the museum was closed for a private workshop.
Also worth a visit is The Romanian National Museum of Art. The space may be in need of a facelift, but if you can see beyond the dingy fifties décor, the artwork is spectacular (check out the painting by Aurel Popp and the sculpture by Dmitirie Paciurea) and provides a strong overview of Romanian artists along with the typical European Masters like Monet, Holbein and Seurat.
Generally speaking, I despise group tours but the one-day, two castles tour by Travelmaker was exceptional. The benefit of travel in winter is a relative dearth of tourists, so our group of two plus guide packed comfortably into a Dacia. Our guide was informed and personable, transforming the tour into an outing with friends rather than a daily hire. The tour consisted of stops at the Monastery and Peles Castle in Sinaia before heading on to Brasov and Bran Castle.
If at some point you decide to venture into Romania, head the warnings. Don’t take a cab in Bucharest. The bus from the airport is convenient and cheap and you don’t have to worry about having your luggage or your life held hostage. You are better off. The surprises of the city come from wandering, of finding a historical treasure buried between communist monstrosities. And bring some sausages with you as you wander. The strays will appreciate it.