Lined with ornate art nouveau, once brightly gilded and now faded buildings, amidst luxury shopping, haute cuisine and its own “Arcul de Triumf,” is the unknown, seldom-visited, quirky city, Bucharest.
“Little Paris” has come a long way from the Communist, desolate concrete desert it was until 1989.
Romania, with Bucharest as its capital and largest city, has shaken the stigma of former leader Nicolae Ceau?escu and is blasting into the 21st century.
The excitement of this growth can be felt on every inch of the still-cracked and bumpy sidewalks, and ironically what keeps the edge, is the dark shadow of its past.
SO, BUNA ZIUA AND WELCOME TO BUCURESTI
Best described, Bucharest has the charm of Paris, the sleaze of Amsterdam, the drivers of Mexico, and the aggressive self-preoccupation of a place reborn.
One enters the city to find gorgeous, detailed old buildings, complete with frosted glass, wrought-iron awnings, high ceilings and carved archways. Sadly, many of these gems are faded and falling, but no doubt some brilliant buyers will soon scoop them up, and in a few short years, the city will shine with its original beautiful architecture.
In the meantime, more and more sleek and sophisticated cafes and restaurants, nightclubs, and trendy stores are popping up next to street kebob, and Orthodox churches smoky with incense.
While Bucharest is not Milan or Paris, the heart of the city has a slew of affordable and stylish shoe stores, situated on nearly every block. Don’t be surprised to find your suitcase over-packed with new footwear upon your return. It’s nearly impossible to dismiss these buys, as they are the ones you had to pass on at the Beverly Hills Neiman’s last-call sale.
Usually costing no more than $60 a pair, you can fulfill your shoe fantasy by actually purchasing and not just looking in Bucharest. Must-buys include leather gladiator sandals in bright red for about $20 or classic loafers in every color of the rainbow. It is impossible to list the stores, there’s too many, and finds are in nearly all.
The trendy area of Bucharest is the neighborhood surrounding the Athenee Palace Hilton, which lies on the boulevard Calea Victoriei (Victory Way). Lined with shops like Escada, Bluemarine and Armani, this boulevard is clearly the hangout for the new consumer bourgeoisie. The real treasures for young American buyers are hidden behind the chain emporiums. Nearly every block houses four or five courtyards, showcasing small boutiques and local designers.
Aiurea’s shoes is one such line that has taken one of the main industries of Romania—manufacturing shoes—into uncharted territory. Aiurea designs and manufactures the shoes herself, the result being homemade and soulful original works of art. It is designers like Aiurea that are representing Romania’s equivalent to American hipsters and avant-garde artists. https://atelieraiurea.blogspot.com
Other surprises include the folk crafts, such as embroidered clothing and linen. These can be found at the Romanian Peasant Museum and some department stores too, where traditional clothing (men’s felt coats and women’s embroidered skirts and blouses) hang alongside Transylvanian ritual masks. The sought-after embroidered tunics and peasant blouses were unfortunately hard to find, and then once found, extremely expensive (figure spending $200-300 at the Peasant Museum for a lovely hand embroidery).
Surprisingly, the best shopping deals for your dollar include Romanian wines, including a sweet red Feteasca Negra, a sparkling Feteasca Regala, full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignons and Pinot Noirs. Tuica, a Romanian liquor made from plums, is also popular.
Ten years ago, the culinary situation in Bucharest was grim. Locals could rarely find decent eats at a restaurant. Tourists gritted their teeth on faceless hotel fare. Not the case anymore.
Taverna Sarbului is where classic Romanian dishes such vinete, the national pureed eggplant, are done with a delicious light hand inside what looks like a beautiful hunting lodge. Being located in Herastrau Park, away from the traffic madness, makes Taverna even more pleasant. (www.tavernasarbului.ro)
Back in exhausting/exciting downtown, a must is Caru’ cu Bere—a beer hall old enough to have hosted Romanian royalty, the Romanian Communist moguls, and now just ordinary mortals relishing ambiance, old furniture, and stained glass. It’s utterly cool. This stop features traditional Romanian fare, not top gourmet but with extremely kind prices: mamaliga (polenta, Romanian style), mititei (spiced ground beef) and stuffed cabbage, all served for just a few dollars each. The menu is so extensive it’s best to come with a group. www.carucubere.ro
If you’re lucky enough to stay in the area surrounding Calei Victorie, you will no doubt either run into, or be directed to, French Bakery for breakfast, and La Mama for lunch.
French Bakery, a small chain with several locations around the city, offers freshly baked croissants, brioches and quiches; the coffee of choice is Illy—the best we tasted in Bucharest. Their adjacent restaurant is also open for lunch and dinner. Though on the pricier side, you can find delicious steak frites and onion soup actually resembling real Parisian fare. (www.frenchbakery.ro)
La Mama is a neighborhood magnet serving up a wide range of salads, omelets, and traditional dishes. You can sit outside on their patio and watch Bucharest life walk by.
One must mention the exploding nightlife scene. It’s impossible to name them all, as new ones seem to open weekly. A new club worth a mention is Pacha, Bucharest’s first mega-club, an off-shoot of a club in Ibiza. Even if it’s not entirely your scene, it’s worth stopping by to spend a night watching modern-day Romanian hipsters who party hard while downing expensive drinks. B-7, B-dul Libertati
If you have an extra day and you’re in the mood for museum-type sites, Palatul Parlamentului, dictator Ceausescu’s building folly, is the best way to understand the “1984” that Romania was before the revolution. The same day, visit the Old Court Palace (Curtea Veche), and then on to the monastery Antim, or Mogosoaia Palace, for Romania’s exquisite folkloric architecture and traditions.
If you have an extra two days, drive or take the train to Sinaia, a famed mountain resort in the Carpthians, or even to the fortified old city of Brasov, for a taste of the Transylvanian middle ages. Or visit the vineyards north and north-east of Bucharest. Most hotels can arrange day and overnight excursions; the train station is located centrally, and the rates for first-class travel are modest in relation to Western prices.
The best time to visit Bucharest is now. Although it just became part of the EU, Romania’s currency is still the lei, which is very advantageous for Americans. The country will switch to Euros eventually, but now, to visit and shop, the dollar will go a long way.
Bucharest is not the “new Berlin” or the “new Prague”; it is its own enigma, defining itself daily. If you’re looking for a place that has not yet been exploited by tourism and is still raw and authentic, Bucharest will deliver an unforgettable experience.
By Iris Friedman and Chloe Popescu for PeterGreenberg.com.
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