Strangely I used to brag that the only places that I had ever been outside of the UK were Disney theme parks. I must admit that I was, and to an extent still am, obsessed with these parks. They are pure fantasy (Even the lands that are not called Fantasyland) and offer an amazing place to escape from all of the worlds issues and problems. I had always fetishized Disney, with it being my childhood goal to get to see one of the castles and meet Mickey Mouse. I did this when I was 12 and up until 21 I was content with this being the extent of my travels. That was until I was pushed to travel outside of my comfort zone.
I will be the first to admit that I actually had no idea which country Bucharest was in when we first booked it. In all honesty I think it was booked because it was the cheapest place to go to and had a really gorgeous AirBnB for a ridiculously low price. I will also admit that I have never had any conviction to go to Bucharest. It is not like Berlin where I have always had an interest in the history of the city with my studies of the Cold War. Or even like Rome where there are things like the Coliseum that I have always wanted to see. Bucharest was a complete non-entity in my knowledge, a place that I knew nothing about and had no idea what would have in store. I could not even locate it on a map.
So after a 4 hour Journey to what would turn out to be one of the most easterly points in Europe I arrived in Bucharest, flanked by a stag do. A bus journey from the airport to the centre of Bucharest gave us a favour of what Bucharest was like. Acres of empty space followed by large retail parks were all along the route. The roads filled with cars that seemed to be from the early 2000s. Bucharest was obviously not the buzzing metropolitan city that London seems on first glance from any of its airports. It was not the face of extravagance that Central London and its outskirts, the only other capital city I had ever visited, is. This was a place that, in all honesty was a complete culture shock.
I am not oblivious to the makeup of capital cities not being that of nothing but pure luxury. Once the confines of central London, such as Knightsbridge, Mayfair, Chelsea and Westminster are broken you quickly enter the likes of Mile End. But Bucharest differed in so far as there did not seem to be this divide. There were not the capitalist shrines to wealth, although there were some fancy buildings. The majority of the area felt very much like it was still struggling to emerge out of the cocoon of Soviet Rule. I still have practically no idea of the History of Bucharest but I know it was under soviet rule during the Cold War and that it has the largest building the world (This means in terms of area and things, not in height).
Bucharest therefore does not sound anything like Disneyland or anything like London. But Bucharest is its own entity. Bucharest is an incredibly poor place, the cost of living is incredibly cheap. We managed to eat at a beautiful restaurant that was once a church and had exquisite décor for barely anything and were served amazing traditional Romanian Food. Romania is amazing for the tourist as it is so cheap a little in English money goes a long way in Romania.
However this sounds like mild exploitation. A sense of bragging that the wages of Romanians are so low compared to the British that we can go over there and live like royalty. To go to Bucharest and not explore and wander is doing the city a disservice. Although I mocked my travel partner for their, and in all honesty “our” because I did little to help, ability to find the markets on the outskirts of Bucharest, exploring the routes that we did showed me the side of cities you barely see. Sticking to the tourist paths results in hundreds of shops, both tourist traps and artfully done stores that are vying for custom. But the residential backstreets of Bucharest, although not the most exciting, are peppered with communist architecture, so close to the city centre and yet so far removed from what I had traditionally seen in these metropolitan capitals. Romania is not rich enough for a Shard or an OXO building. It does however have a charm all of its own.
So far the portrait I paint of Bucharest and Romania is one of voyeurism. An encouragement to go and explore a place because of its economic poverty and the interestingness of that. But what it lacks in finance Bucharest has a wealth of character.
Bucharest is still an incredibly Catholic country. Although religion was frowned upon by the soviets the churches and cathedrals survived. Exquisitely maintained and extraordinarily decorated shrines are dotted all over the city, much like McDonalds in London or Merchandise Shops in Disneyland. I will not go into the impact of religion in Bucharest here, although the extravagance of these churches in comparison to the relative basicness of standard Romanian architecture is blatant, but such incredible beauty is well preserved.
My two favourite things about Bucharest however were two its takes on staples of any capital. Museums and Bookstores. Although I must confess that I am a lover of both of these things already, the Bucharest interpretations are two of my favourite places in the world.
Starting with the Modern Art Museum, Bucharest is such a diverse place that seeing the art that its inhabitants create was always going to be eye opening. What took my imagination and piqued my interest the most were the observations on religion, the art that was critical of Bucharest. Whilst at the Museum we came across the only other British person who we met in our entire time in Bucharest. An Artist who himself was married to an Bucharest artist, this man who’s name I unfortunately forget seeing as I am writing this 9 months on was insightful. Describing Bucharest as his favourite place in the world, it was interesting to see a British insight into a city that so few of us know anything about.
The most interesting thing he had to say was about the massive construction happening across the road from where we could see at the top of the museum. All sorts of heavy machinery was working hard during the harsh Romanian winter in order to complete this super structure. It turned out that it was a super Cathedral, The Romanian People’s Super Cathedral that will have a capacity of 6000. From my brief time in Romania I would argue, like the artist I spoke to, that this investment would be better used on infrastructure and other such changes to Romania.
With this in mind it is no surprise how critical the artistic community are other the seemingly massive intertwining of religion and government. A whole floor was devoted to political statements on this and many other matters including a play box of toys that visitors were encouraged to play with showing, albeit bluntly, the childishness of war. In this regard I found the Museum of Modern Art to be a brilliant reflection of Bucharest. The struggles, fears and discontent felt by some sectors of the community with the running of the city.
The Carturesti Carusel was the other highlight of the city for me. When explaining other highlights of places my mind does not usually jump to a bookstore. If I were to recommend any place in Portsmouth I would recommend the Historic Dockyard, Gunwharf Quays or Huis (Which has a genuinely spectacular selection of German and Belgian beers) not any of its bookstores. But The Carturesti Carusel is not an ordinary bookstore.
Situated in The Old Town, which doubles as Bucharest’s club and bar district, Carturesti is 5 floors of bliss. Selling Vinyl, books, board games and just miscellaneous cool things Carturesti appeals to all of my dearest loves. But it is not as much what it sells but the environment in which it sells it. Carturesti has a bar on the top floor that sells cocktails and you can look over the whole store from. It is a place where you can just sit and chill, there is no expectation to sit and buy something. There is a whole floor that is completely blank for people to just sit, write, draw or do whatever they want to. Carturesti is a place where you can just create or not create. There are things to buy but more than anything it seems to be a place just to exist.
This time last year all I knew about Romania is that they are a member of the EU and that there was a shop in North End that sold loads of Romanian stuff. Now my knowledge is still not extensive. I do not know much about the history, the culture or anything like that. But what I do know is that Bucharest is a place that I will always hold dear in my heart. A place that is not perfect, no place is, but is interesting. A place that is weird and sometimes made me feel uncomfortable but is ultimately a place that needs to be experienced.