On the road, we headed west and south from Toulcea. After a bit of GPS only guidance, I tried to find our place on the map book and eventually found it. The countryside had gently rolling hills and flat farmlands that stretched to the horizon. Farms were bigger here with fewer houses–there were times you couldn’t see a single anywhere or evidence of anyone working in the fields, much different than in the north, where farms were smaller and we would see people everywhere out and active.
The villages seemed more prosperous, cleaner, with more trees and flowers and care. We drove through another town that had those Romani houses, but not so garish. Along the road, we saw men standing, arms up high holding live fish they had caught. The fish were flopping–or maybe they were made to look like they alive by the men waving them back and forth. Made me sad to see.
At one point, we paid 11 lei to cross big bridge over a river, the Danube, I think but I couldn’t find where we were now on the map. Next, we were on a dual highway, a freeway, but we were weren’t going through the same towns that were listed on the roads in the map. The confusion came clear after a bit. We saw, lower, on the map a “proposed highway.” It was A2 and we thought we were following 2A. The map book Dorin had loaned us was about 10 years old, and the highway that had been proposed was now a reality.
The drive from Tulcea to Bucharest was one of the longer travel days we have had, but the roads were generally flat and for the most part pretty light on traffic until we approached the city. Like most large metropolitan areas, as we approached, the arterial highways began to clog with traffic and branch out into boulevards and side roads as the buildings got larger.
Wide boulevards with tree-lined parkways graced the main thoroughfares in Bucharest.
We got to Bucharest and from what we saw, it wasn’t as ugly or as dirty as we had been led to believe–but we’ll see more tomorrow.
We had set our GPS to the AirBnB location and started navigating towards the south central section of the City.
This was one of those rare cases in which I had spent time writing several exchanges of emails through the AirBnB platform trying to set up a personal meeting and introduction to our place and to have some live exchange of ideas about the place we were visiting, only to have that meeting fall completely flat.
Our AirBnB stay for two nights was modern, relatively inexpensive, but our host was a no-show!
Although the place was super, and a bargain at that, our first disappointment was the fact that the location advertised “on-site” parking. When we arrived there, I found out that the on-site was simply an acknowledgement that there were often spaces available, but not guaranteed, and certainly not “on-site.” Our second disappointment was when we learned that the place would not be available as we had communicated at 3pm, but our host was kind enough to offer to pay for a drink at a local restaurant while we waited. “Ok,” I thought, we’ll get a chance to meet our host and get some tips on the neighborhood and learn about Bucharest. That led to our third disappointment: Our host was now (as he revealed through a text) located some 4 hours north of Bucharest and would not be coming back until we were long gone. Was this a misunderstanding, or was he intentionally misleading me about meeting us personally? I am never really sure since the language issue is always a factor, and whose fault is that?
We had a light refreshment before getting in to see our apartment.
So much for that. But it was a nice apartment–very modern with, of all things, a washer AND a dryer. Rebecca told me that the shower looked like the tele-porter in Star Trek. She was afraid to use it because she might be beamed back to Vienna or somewhere! We found the apartment to be clean, spacious and pretty close to the downtown places that we wanted to see, so all in all, it was a great stop, despite the fact that the personal touch was lacking.
I gave the night watchman five Euros to watch the car. He came up about three hours later and said a space had opened up just across from his night watch booth, so I went down and moved it to just across the narrow street from the apartment building.
We went out for dinner at a Turkish restaurant called “Turquoise.” They advertised it as Oriental. There were lots of people sitting in a large enclosed smoking porch, so we went inside. Once again, we were the only ones IN the restaurant. We had a kind waiter–I asked him later, what would you recommend we see in Bucharest, and was surprised when he said, “a different city.”
Our dinner only dinner out was at a Turkish Restaurant called “Turquoise.” It was advertised as “Oriental” food, (as opposed to occidental food?). The restaurant was packed with people in the big enclosed outdoor seating section where smoking was allowed. We got to enjoy the main indoor part of the restaurant almost alone.
The next morning, we tried a new form of transportation, Taxify. It was amazing! I loaded the app onto my phone, entered credit card info, then ordered a taxi. Within five minutes, a taxi showed up, he took us to our desired location and would not take a tip! The estimate on the app was 13.2 RON, but the traffic was light, and I was only charged 10 RON. (about $2.50) for a 20 minute taxi ride.
Downtown Bucharest is a city of contrasts. Ultra modern buildings stand next to buildings from the 15th and 16th Centuries.
We arrived early and were able stop for a coffee for me and Rebecca had a smoothie. We made it to the giant horse statue with King Carol to meet up with an acquaintance of our friend, Tamsen Bechech (who lives in Winters), Dana. She was lively and energetic and was able to weave into our conversation bits of history, points of interest, political commentary, and anecdotes about Bucharest. King Carol I was to serve a starting point for us in our Romanian history lesson.
Our Taxify driver was nice and dropped us off at the horse statue. Only one problem. It was the wrong statue! Fortunately, we were only about six blocks from the right one, and we made it in plenty of time to meet our friend, Dana, who would show us around Bucharest. Here Rebecca poses in front of the King Carol and his horse statue.
The history of Bucharest is relatively short, compared to most European capital cities. Rumored to have derived from Bucur, a legendary shepherd or fisherman or, perhaps, outlaw, it is probably root of the name which means “joy” that contributes more to the etymology of Bucharest and initial hopes for the growing city than the actual character.
The history of Bucharest was anything but joyful. It reads like a political struggle of four centuries between half a dozen power centers surrounding this region. The Walachian warrior, Vlad Tepeş, (the Impaler, who we would learn far more than we really were interested in soon) dominated this region in a series of campaigns against the Ottomans in the mid 1400’s, becoming the voivode (prince) of this region when the city began to grow in size.
Several power struggles later, (and some devastating earthquakes) the Turks had regained control but handed it over to Greek administrators, ruling it as a Greek principality for over a century. Then, after a Russian occupation in the early 1800’s brought in some sweeping changes, some stabilization and much modernization.
This all led to the selection of Prince Carol I, a German prince, to take over after a political coup d’etat. He eventually became king of Romania until his death in 1914. The king is in high regard among most Romanians to this day. We would see German influence in architecture and culture here and throughout the south and central part of Romania, due in no small part to King Carol I.
Romania, and Bucharest in particular, had enjoyed a heyday in the late 19th Century. It was called “Little Paris in the late 1800’s. The 20th Century, however, would pull it back into war, beginning with The Great War, WWII and the Soviet Era and the ominous Ceauşescu regime, into which Dana was born.
We saw interesting architecture, and historical places, including churches, banks, old houses, the People’s Palace, and a beautiful modern bookstore. She told us good things and bad about her town. One sad thing is that there are many buildings that are condemned, but the people who live in them have no options because no one will buy their apartments, and there is nothing for them to do until the next big earthquake (like the one in 1990 in which one pancaked down.) The condemned buildings are marked with big sort of red bull’s eye. The city absolves itself or the responsibility, but the apartment owners are stuck. At the end of our walk about the downtown, Dana took us to eat at the oldest restaurant in Bucharest, the Caru’ cu Bere, (literally the “beer wagon”).
The restaurant was large and dark and full of customers. Dana showed us that all the standard tourist meals were translated into English. But she turned the page toward the back of the menu to a page that was not translated into English. “These are the budget, non-tourist meals,” she pointed out. For about $6, you could get a five course dinner with soup, entree, sides and a dessert. For each course, there were about three or four choices, so it took us a while for Dana to translate each set of choices.
Dana told us what she remembered from before the Revolution in 1989. She remembered that they had to put blankets on the windows because you could hear shooting in many pirate of the city. They never had any sweets. Once in a while, they would get some candy from Venezuela sent through Cuba. They called them “Cuban candy. “It was was one of the rare treats, but even those had to be ordered, and scarce indeed, she told us.
As non-Communists, there was a professional “ceiling” above which one could not pass. Her great-grandfather was a simple man, but very clever. He became an inventor and invented gadgets that were very useful. He spoke out against the Communist regime and he was punished. He was stopped from traveling. “My great-grandparent had their lands confiscated by the communists, and one of them was sent to the ‘Canal’ as punishment for speaking out against the regime. (The Danube-Black Sea Channel) People were sent there to build the channel and very often died in the process, as it was harsh, forced labor.” I noticed a glint of wistfulness in Dana’s eyes. What might have been, otherwise, I thought I saw those eyes.
After the Revolution, Dana remembered going into the first Metro Store. There was an unimaginable availability of products she had never seen.
As Dana grew up, she was fascinated with English. She learned, as did many, her first words by hearing cartoons on television. She loved to get the chance to talk with anyone who could speak English and help her improve. She studied English in school and eventually became a translator. She became a manager, but found that she hated being in charge of other people. Later Dana responded to an ad to become a tour guide. She went on various tours and was given a reading list. After about three months, she was ready to begin giving tours.
“I really like to personalize the tour as much as possible,” she told us. We noticed that she seemed to listen to us as much as she talked to us. It really felt like Dana made our experience in Bucharest what WE wanted to see, rather that what she wanted to tell us.
On the way back, Dana showed us an old hotel that was built to look like an English style inn, with a narrow street between two large sets of rooms. It was situated poorly, and so it went bankrupt and later became a very successful brothel. We saw a lovely section with tinted glass roof that has become a hookah Mecca. We also saw churches that were hidden behind other buildings in order to protect them from notice during the Communist Era. Lots to see.
Dana helped us find a print shop so that we could get our ballots printed. We’ll vote and fax them back by election day. Dana waited with us until our “Taxify” ride came, then we kissed her on each cheek and said “la revadere.” We went back to the apartment and had a quiet evening. A very full day!
On our way out of town the next morning, we happened to pass by the Ethnographic Museum. Dana had mentioned it as one of the best in the country, and worth our time. Initially, we had decided to skip this one, since we had seen similar places. They move old houses from around the country to assemble a little village of various structures that represent homes and lifestyles around the country. But, since we were driving by, it was on our way, why not? It was a nice way to end our stay in Bucharest and a nice transition as headed up into the mountains that separate the lowlands from Transylvania.
We hadn’t seen much of Bucharest, but with Dana’s help, we got a great view of Romania’s largest city.