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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Romania's Capital City, Where Centuries Collide

If you plan to travel to Bucharest, set aside all memories of picturesque Eastern European cities along the lines of Budapest, Prague and Cracow. Instead, prepare yourself for a city full of contradictions, a place where decrepit 19th-century mansions exist alongside concrete housing blocks and outlandish monuments to the old communist regime.

Here you will find roving bands of gypsies, old people dressed in their simple best, children in rags and teenage hustlers in flashy black suits.

Romania is one of the poorest countries on the European continent, and it shows. Known as the "Paris of the East" until World War II, its capital city underwent a severe transformation in the 45 years of communist rule. The "Age of Wonderful Accomplishments," in fact, led to the devastation of many beautiful old buildings and the creation of entire neighborhoods of ugly apartments. Many of them are not only falling apart, but surrounded by streets of rubble and litter. Parts of the capital city are so tumble-down that they look like an earthquake occurred a few weeks ago. As it turns out, there was an earthquake here -- in 1978 -- and the city never completely recovered.

Instead of clearing up after the disaster, Romania's infamous dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, demolished historic districts in the center in favor of grandiose new buildings, many with marble pillars and large entryways in neo-pharaonic style. These days, the street facades often consist of big apartment blocks. But if you explore behind them you will find smaller traditional buildings in French or Romanian turn-of-the-century styles. The contrast between the two is quite jarring.

To understand the megalomania that characterized Ceausescu's 10-year reign, a trip to his one-time abode is an absolute must. Ceausescu invested a large part of the country's revenue in the construction of this 1,000-room Palace of the Republic, which is the second largest government building in the world after the Pentagon in Washington.

The Casa Republici, complete with its own secret metro network and underground bomb shelter, is at the end of the B-dul Libertatii, which Ceausescu named the Boulevard for the Victory of Socialism. The palace's decadent splendor is contrasted by the slums and degradation of the real Bucharest only a few blocks away. In recent years, there has been talk of converting the Casa into a conference center but, for the moment, it is closed to the public. You can still get a good view of the pyramid-shaped monstrosity from the Dimbovita river.

In the wake of the 1989 "revolution," when Ceausescu was killed by the security forces, many inhabitants of Bucharest were determined to resurrect their "Little Paris" and overcome the years of devastation and poverty. A lot has already changed. Part of the rubble has been cleared and flowerbeds have been planted on central squares. While it was difficult to get hold of basic foods only two years ago, many new privately-owned cafes and pastry shops have sprung up, as well as the international fast food joints like McDonald's, Burger King and Pizza Express.

Bucharest wields a certain fascination, perhaps, because of all its contradictions. The city's bygone glory is reflected in run-down 19th-century homes, back alleys and the university quarter, which were mostly untouched by Ceausescu. I recommend visiting the two large parks Herastreau on B-dul Aviatorilor (metro: Aviatorilor) and Cismigiu (metro: Universitatii). The former boasts magnificent examples of Art Deco architecture from the 1920s, while the latter is right in the center and borders Boulevardul Kogalniceaunu -- which is possibly Bucharest's most pleasant avenue, and is home to many coffee houses and pastry shops.

The Hanul Manuc Inn (metro: Unirii) is another oasis in the otherwise dreary cityscape. Incorporating two buildings of what used to be the princely court, the inn was built between 1806 and 1808 by a wealthy Armenian in traditional Romanian style, with engraved balustrades overlooking a central courtyard.

Not far on St. Patriarhiei, off B-dul Cosbuc (metro: Unirii), the splendid Cathedral of the Patriarchate and the adjacent Patriarch's Palace make you appreciate the spiritualism of eastern Christianity, especially on Sunday mornings during mass. This center of Romanian religion is a testimony to the bitter, century-long fight to hold on to the Orthodox religion in spite of numerous invasions.

Romania's history can be described as a fight for national survival by any means possible. In the 15th century, Vlad the Impaler, the prince closely associated with the fictional Count Dracula, fought a savage battle against the Turkish invaders. Through a combination of determination, cruelty and luck, the three principalities making up Romania remained independent throughout the centuries by taking advantage of the rivalries between the expansionist Ottoman, Hapsburg and Russian Empires. National unity was brought a step closer by the union of Wallachia and Moldova in 1859, and completed in 1918 following the World War I, during which 800,000 Romanians lost their lives. The ins and outs of this history are illustrated in the Muzeul de Istorie Nationala (12 Calei Victoriei, metro: Unirii), including a low-tech demonstration of the major battles and events.

In the two decades following World War I, Romania had a monarchy and experienced an economic and cultural boom that was cut short by the advance of fascism. Not surprisingly, most people feel nostalgic about this era, and calls to reinstate the monarchy are quite common. Although a third of its territory was in 1940 annexed by neighboring powers, Romania remained independent as a result of open cooperation with the Germans by the fascist leader Antonescu, who helped clear Bucharest of its large Jewish population. This dark chapter is often ignored by the new wave of self-styled historians praising Romania's democratic traditions.

The traditional Jewish quarter is located not far from Piatsa Unirii (metro: Unirii), but you won't find any Jews there these days. Most of the country's Jews were either deported by the fascists or forced to emigrate as a result of pogroms in January 1941. It soon after became home to families of gypsies who inhabit it to this day, much to the resentment of ethnic Romanians who often treat gypsies as uncivilized second-class citizens, and would like to see the center gypsy-free.

A trip to this gypsy neighborhood offers a glimpse of another world. Many of the buildings are in a state of decay, yet have been in limbo in light of a strong possibility for gentrification in the future. The streets are full of frenetic activity, with laundry strung between windows and vendors selling wares from makeshift tables. The open-air flea market at Strada Lipscana, named after the long chain of shops which used to sell goods from the German town of Leipzig, provide gypsies with an income from commercial activity. The tape cassettes, women's underwear and track suits are nothing special, but you will still relish the exotic scene.

While in Bucharest, keep your eyes open for gypsy holidays. While there, I came across a roving band of gypsies in the midst of celebration. One man was dressed up as a rooster in a costume made from recycled paper and cardboard, and was banging a home-made drum. He was followed by a group of gypsy men, some of them strumming guitars, others playing flutes.

If you want to find out more about traditional Romanian culture, the Village Museum (Muzeul Satalui) bordering Lake Herastreau, and only a short walk from Park Herastreau, might be the answer. Established in 1936, the open-air museum contains more than 80 replicas of peasant homes and churches, letting you experience rural life without having to travel there. On Sunday mornings, people dressed in traditional peasant garb play folk music on the central square.

Romanians are generally quite friendly, but this is a country where foreigners are still somewhat of a novelty. Some people will go out of their way to show you the remnants of old Bucharest, others will simply stare at you. For starting a conversation, French is your best bet since many people studied French in school. Few people seem to understood English, but it does carry connotations of wealth and power.

While it is generally safe to walk around the streets, visitors should be wary of wily pickpockets. I had my purse stolen and the thieves were so quick I never saw them. In addition, women traveling alone should shy away at night from beer gardens, which are predominantly frequented by men getting thoroughly drunk. For all others, these unpretentious hang-outs provide a break from the hustlers, black marketeers and pushy waiters who prevail in restaurants.

In regard to night life, Bucharest has rapidly left the years of darkness behind and accommodates a large number of theaters, restaurants and night clubs. The Laptania Enarche-Prima Club (B-dul Ealcescu, in one wing of the Teatrul National; metro: Universitarii), a rooftop blues and jazz bar, lets you forget that you are in Bucharest and gives you the chance to meet bohemian types while listening to a jazz combo from the American Embassy. The Club A (14 Str. Blaari, metro: Unirii) is another escape from the outside world, attracting an arty crowd and playing carefully selected indie and rave music.

If you want to enter yet another universe -- that of medieval Europe -- visit the Gara de Nord, the main train station, in the evening. You'll feel as if you just stepped from one century into another with cripples and madmen rolling in dirt, toothless old women and scrawny little kids begging for money, boys exploding fireworks, lots of crooks and pushy cabbies waiting for their turn amid thousands of people milling about.

Getting There

Aeroflot and Tarom, the Romanian airline, sell return tickets valid for a month for $299 each. A three-month ticket costs $398. Most foreigners require a visa. However, Americans and Russians should be able to visit the country without a visa, although customs officials may sometimes demand money at the border. A Romanian visa valid for a month can be obtained for $32 on the border, or through the embassy, (tel. 143-0424).

Where to Stay

For travelers on a big budget, the Sofitel is one of the most comfortable hotels in Bucharest. It is centrally located on B-dul Expozitiei and charges between $200 and $240 per person, per room, (tel. 8-10-401-614-4930). The Ambassador on B-dul Magheru is a decent hotel with modern amenities. It has doubles costing about $98, and singles for $85, (tel. 8-10 401-615-9 80). The Hanul Manuc Inn is a more moderately-priced option, but perhaps your best choice. With its quiet rooms overlooking the central courtyard, it is the perfect escape from city life. It also has a renowned on-site restaurant. Singles cost about $35, and doubles $60, (tel. 8-10-401-613-1415).

Budget travelers can try the Hotel Muntera, one of the best bargains in central Bucharest. For its clean rooms, some with a bath, it charges $5 for singles and $7.50 for doubles.

Where to Eat

For traditional cuisine, try the Restaurantul Ambassador at 8 B-dul Magheru, which offers good food amid a 1920s ambience. The Restaurantul Pegarus, hidden away inside the Parcul Herastreau, offers traditional dishes such as fleica, or steak, and clatile, or crepes, folk music and dancing. It charges $1 admission after 7 p.m. Casa Capsa, at 17 Str. Edgar Quintett, was established in 1852 and is one of the oldest restaurants in the city. Its ornate interior gives you an impression of what Bucharest must have been like in its heyday. Fish and vegetarian dishes are available here.

The Hanul Manuc Restaurant, in the 18th-century inn, is known as one of the best in Bucharest. Recommended are its cirobade peste, or fish soup, and good Romanian beer.

Restaurantul Mercur, at 48-50 Pasaju Victoriei, is one of the few restaurants open until 2 a.m. It sells a full dinner for about $2.

Travel Tips

?Take heed of my experience: Keep your finances in a money belt.

?Waiters in restaurants generally expect a tip.

?The semi-helpful staff at the Gara de Nord tourist office provide some information about rooms and transport, but there are few maps and brochures.The tourist office ONT Carnai S.A, also representing American Express and Tarom, at 7 B-dul Magheru, provides a money exchange, booking facilities and some information about upcoming events.