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  • 179 - the logo again.jpg

Bucharest

  
   - darkometer rating:  5 -
 
The capital city of Romania is at nearly 2 million inhabitants by far its largest conurbation in the country. As a tourist destination, Bucharest often gets a rough deal, described as ugly, harsh, unfriendly and in other negative terms. However, the city does have its charms – and particularly so from a dark tourism perspective. 

>What there is to see

>Location

>Access and costs

>Time required

>Combinations with other dark destinations

>Combinations with non-dark destinations

>Photos

      
What there is to see: more than you would think at first. Much of the dark side of Bucharest is related to Romania's 1989 revolution and to the communist period under Ceausescu that preceded it. But there's also an endearing little Jewish History Museum, and those looking for Romania's connection with the Dracula myth, can find a few things too.
 
These sites in Bucharest are given separate entries::
 
    Piata Revolutiei
 
 
Bucharest's premier sight is without a shadow of doubt the Palace of Parliament – the most drastic exemplification of Ceausescu's architectural megalomania. It thus deserves its own separate entry here.
 
The Palace is however not the only example of the city's characteristic socialist era architecture. In fact, Bucharest was probably changed more than any other old European city by the impact of its communist regime's architectural ambitions. Dictator Nicolae Ceausescu undertook a demolition and rebuilding programme in the 1980s that is sometimes sarcastically referred to as "Ceaushima" (a blend of his name and Hiroshima). It's reckoned that about a fifth of old Bucharest was bulldozed (including numerous old churches!) to make way not only for the Palace of Parliament but also for wide boulevards lined with huge housing blocks. Allegedly, Ceausescu derived his inspiration for this from a visit to Pyongyang in North Korea. And indeed, parts of Bulevardul Unirii in particular bear an uncanny resemblance to Pyongyang's cityscape.
 
Not all of this construction work was finished, so some buildings still look like abandoned building sites, while others have found new uses – there's even a Marriott Hotel in one of the big monsters of concrete behind the Palace of Parliament. The destruction that paved the way for all this brutalist architecture was not all just Ceausescu's fault – an earthquake in 1977 had done much damage before (and killed over 1500 people). But that hardly alleviates the tragedy that came after it. Whatever descriptive terms you may find for this kind of architecture, it has to be seen to be believed. The impact is dampened today, however, by all those huge advertising billboards on the rooftops or hanging down the facades of many of these buildings, esp. around Piata Unirii. But you still get the picture. B-dul Unirii extends for a couple of miles and sort of forms the southern boundary of Bucharest's historic centre or rather what's left of it.
 
Hidden behind the monstrous blocks of concrete are not only a few surviving or relocated churches, but also one of the city's synagogues, namely on Str Mamulari 3, just off B-dul Unirii, near Piata Unirii, behind the shopping centre at B-dul Corneliu Coposu. Since 1978 this has housed the Jewish History Museum.
 
A typical communist period building from the Stalin era (i.e. pre-Ceausescu) is to be found in the form of the Press House in the far north of the city – you pass it on the way from/to the airport. It's a pile in the typical wedding cake style of the day, though it's not quite as high and imposing as its equivalents in Moscow or Warsaw. Still, it's one of Bucharest's landmarks.
 
The acclaimed Museum of the Romanian Peasant (on Soseaua Kiseleff 3, Tue-Sun 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.) has a communist-themed room in the basement where you can see various Lenin busts (not all serious ones), standard oil paintings of Stalin, a tiny photograph of Ceausescu (half crossed out in biro!) and cartoons from the days of collectivization (whose humour doesn't reveal itself without knowledge of Romanian … or even then), walls plastered with copies of the communist newspaper "Scanteia" and other stuff. It's worth a look when visiting the museum – but the rest of it is surprisingly underwhelming, given the reputation of the museum, often hailed as one of the best in Romania (it even won a Best Museum in Europe award in 1996) … maybe it's a joke I fail to get, or maybe it's just that I find endless displays of icons, pots, peasant garments and the like boring, even stifling. If you're like me either go straight to the cellar room or maybe give it a miss altogether.
 
Bucharest now has its communism-themed bar/restaurant too, also called La Scanteia, on B-dul Ferdinand 73 – it's fun, though the communism theme isn't that heavily outrageous in the decoration … and it doesn't feature at all on the menu.
 
Also worth mentioning is the massive "Heroes' Mausoleum" and monument towering over the southern end of Carol I Park (south of the Palace of Parliament). It oozes Soviet "charm" – and the eternal flame in front of it is still guarded by two soldiers to underscore the solemn aura and several flagpoles now fly the Romanian flag.  
 
Infinitely less glamorous are the graves of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu at Ghencea cemetery – often rightly described as "paupers' graves" – out in the west of the city.
 
Many dark tourists visiting Bucharest will want to tour sites related to the 1989 revolution. The main ones are at Piata Revolutiei – but there are memorials dotted around all over the city, just keep your eyes open. Ones to look out for are the one outside the northern gate of the Romanian TV headquarters (from where the revolutionaries declared their victory after Ceausescu had fled …) or the one to Mihai Gatlan, the first victim of the revolution, at B-dul Nicolae Balcescu just north of Piata Universitatii. The latter was itself the site of some of the heaviest fighting in December 1989 and you can still see the marks left by bullets on the outer walls of some buildings.
 
A bit south of Carol I Park near Eroii Revolutiei and the Bellu cemetery lies the Martyr-Heroes of the December 1989 Revolution Cemetery. Many of the revolution's dead were buried here.
 
The National Military Museum, apart from the tanks, missiles, uniforms and other such stuff to be expected in a military museum, also has a small section about the 1989 revolution.   
 
Outside the Military Museum can be found (amongst others) a bust of Vlad Tepes. Another one stands by the remains of the Curtea Veche (the medieval royal court of Romania) in the historic centre, on Str Franceza.
 
Those who want their Dracula myth connection played up a little more should head to the Count Dracula Club – a themed restaurant/bar on Splaiul Independentei by the river, near the bottom end of Calea Victoriei. Its downstairs "dungeon" room is particularly vampiric in design, sporting all the clichés of fake cobwebs, blood-red lighting fixtures, drapes and the like. A monitor on the wall shows snippets from famous vampire films. And at 9:30 p.m. there's a special "live show" to heighten the experience further: the lights are dimmed and the Count himself – well a rather portly impersonator with a loud, clearly theatre-trained voice – appears, then vanishes inside a wall-mounted coffin only to reappear moments later to scare the kids and other (mostly foreign) guests a bit more and let them have their picture taken together with him. The menu features all sorts of vampirically named cocktails and "spookily" (if a bit clumsily) described dishes such as "Count Dracula's Beefsteak" ('bloody', i.e. 'underdone' and with a 'special sauce'), or "Black Cock Salad" (it's not what you think – they mean 'cock' as in 'rooster' … it's chicken-based, presumably … hopefully). As you would expect it's a very meat-based menu (they even do bear!), so vegetarians won't find much that's edible here. But it's still worthwhile popping in, just to have a drink and perhaps a more innocent salad and savour the bizarre atmosphere.
 
   
Location: in the south-east of Romania, about 120 miles (195 km) west of the Black Sea coast and roughly 30 miles (50 km) north of the border with Bulgaria, which is formed by the river Danube.
 
Google maps locator: [44.427,26.102]
 
 
Access and costs: easy by plane, also doable by train; fairly cheap overall.
 
Details: Bucharest's Henri Coanda Airport (also still known under its older name Otopeni) is Romania's main air traffic hub (it's the base of Romania's national airline Tarom) and is served by various airlines, some of which offer surprisingly good rates (e.g. AUA). Low-cost airlines also use Bucharest's other airport, Baneasa (e.g. Wizz Air). There are train connections in all directions, mostly from the Gara de Nord station. Most valuable for travellers are probably the direct train connections from the west, e.g. from Belgrade, Budapest and Vienna. Hire cars are also affordable, but whether driving in Romania can be recommended, is another question. Outside Bucharest it's not so bad, but within the city driving would require nerves of steel. In any case, it's actually fairly easy to get around by public transport within Bucharest. There's a fast and super cheap metro, of which the M2 line is likely to be the most useful one for tourists, as it provides the best north-south connections to/from Piata Unirii and Piata Universitatii. Tickets for two or ten journeys can be bought at booths by the barriers or from special ticket windows (even cheaper monthly passes are available too but are of little use for short-stay tourists – the simple tickets are more than sufficient). Above ground, trams, buses and trolleybuses provide a dense transportation network and are equally cheap. Tickets must be bought at little kiosks marked "bilete" by (most) bus/tram stations (single and dual tickets are the norm). You have to validate tickets on board in the little punch-hole machines provided – just watch other passengers operating them and do the same.
 
Accommodation in Bucharest covers the entire range from budget hostels to top-end hotels. One of the pricier hotels, the InterContinental, has a darkish link itself: from this typical early 1970s socialist architecture tower the demonstrators down on Piata Universitatii were shot at during Romania's 1989 revolution, both literally (by Securitate/soldiers) and "metaphorically": from its balconies some of the footage of the fighting was filmed by journalists. And if you want to lodge in one of Ceausescu's architectural monsters of the 1980s, then the (even pricier) Marriott Bucharest Grand Hotel behind the Palace of Parliament (and part of its overall architectural project) is the thing for you.
 
Food and drink are still comparatively cheap in Bucharest, unless you pick one of the few luxury spots. But even a solidly touristy haunt such as the marvellously gothic beer hall and restaurant Caru cu Bere (Bucharest's oldest – recommended!) isn't as much of a rip-off as you would expect (Bucharest isn't Prague!); it's on Str Stavropoleos 3-5. Those who want a theatrically "spooky", vampiric dinner could head to the Count Dracula Club theme restaurant (see under 'what there is to see').
 
Wheelchair access can be a problem in much of Bucharest – the cracked pavements alone pose problems, access to public transport isn't much better.
 
 
Time required: at least two full days are necessary to see all the dark sites in the city, three if you want to do it more leisurely. Add an extra day for an excursion to Bran Castle.
 
 
Combinations with other dark destinations: see Romania, and esp. Bran Castle. Bucharest also has both plane and train (!) connections to its eastern neighbour Moldova (see Transnistria).
 
 
Combinations with non-dark destinations: not all of Bucharest is dark and grey – the city was also once referred to as the Paris of the East, and there are plenty of traces justifying this too. In fact it's that particular contrast in architecture (the Parisian fin de siecle style and the later communist functionalism and monumentalism) that most pointedly defines the city's look. And in between, many Orthodox churches are dotted around (despite Ceausescu's destructive ambitions). Bucharest also has fine art and other museums and a lively student and music scene. So there's a lot to discover outside the strictly dark itinerary.
 
As the country's largest city and transport hub, Bucharest makes a good starting point for explorations of Romania at large, but esp. to the Black Sea coast and Danube delta areas to the east, and of southern central Transylvania to the north (cf. Bran Castle). The plains of Wallachia stretch out just to the west of Bucharest. For western and northern parts of the country, Timisoara makes a better entry point.
    
  
 
  • Bucharest 01 - Arch of TriumphBucharest 01 - Arch of Triumph
  • Bucharest 02 - cables and IntercontiBucharest 02 - cables and Interconti
  • Bucharest 03 - cables and riverBucharest 03 - cables and river
  • Bucharest 04 - demolished church monumentBucharest 04 - demolished church monument
  • Bucharest 05 - Piata UniriiBucharest 05 - Piata Unirii
  • Bucharest 06 - Piata 21 Decembre 1989Bucharest 06 - Piata 21 Decembre 1989
  • Bucharest 07 - Museum of the Romanian PeasantBucharest 07 - Museum of the Romanian Peasant
  • Bucharest 08 - Mausoleum in Carol I ParkBucharest 08 - Mausoleum in Carol I Park
  • Bucharest 09 - street and churchBucharest 09 - street and church
  • Bucharest 10 - Press HouseBucharest 10 - Press House
  • Bucharest 11 - communism-themed cafeBucharest 11 - communism-themed cafe
  • Bucharest 12 - Count Dracula ClubBucharest 12 - Count Dracula Club
  • Bucharest 13 - Count Dracula Club 2Bucharest 13 - Count Dracula Club 2
  • Bucharest 14 - Count Dracula Club 3Bucharest 14 - Count Dracula Club 3
  • Bucharest 15 - Vlad Tepes bustBucharest 15 - Vlad Tepes bust
  • BucharestBucharest
      
  
  
  
  
  

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