When a good friend of mine mentioned last November that she was going to fly to Bucharest for a few days after Christmas I wasn’t all that excited at first. But a pretty cheap flight, a cosy apartment in the centre and Bucharest’s label as ‘Paris of the East’ proved just too tempting in the end. The deal was my friend was going to mainly concentrate on ‘church seeing’ while I was going to delve into Bucharest’s cultural scene, if there was any to speak of. So far, so good.
Spending a few days in a place you have absolutely no expectations of can be a great advantage. As the list of things I absolutely wanted to see was relatively small, I ended up spending whole days with my friend wandering through different parts of the city. We watched iceskaters doing their rounds in Cismigiu park, cuddled with some cats in the village museum (with buildings from different regions in Romania) in Herastrau Park and visited more churches than I had ever seen in one place before.
To my own surprise I became quite fascinated with walking past walls and walls of iconic images in the semi-darkness and watching young and old light candles for the living and the dead (or in some places the ‘sleeping’). Each church had a different feel to it, my favourites being the Cretulescu Church and the Stavropoleos Church. I was quite touched by how religious Romanians are, even some of the city dwellers, and how they seemed to draw a lot of strength from it.
The day after we arrived it started snowing quite heavily and the rest of the week was dry, so all the roofs of the buildings and the tops of the trees were covered in a magical, white layer like powdered sugar. The snow somehow helped to soften the edges of a city that, particularly in the old town, looked in parts like a set for a WWII movie while every other building was a (theoretically) depressing-looking Communist era apartment block. But instead of being disappointed I found myself more and more drawn to this city with its mix-and-match look and its wealth of Orthodox churches with old ladies, clad all in black, selling candles at the door.
Churches aside, of course I also discovered (or excavated?) the cultural side of Bucuresti (the Romanian spelling of the city’s name). As the language barrier was a bit of a hindrance for movies and theatre shows, we spent a lot of time warming up in cafes and bookshops. Our favourite haunt, and our usual place for meeting some of the local couchsurfers, was the café in the basement of the huge Carturesti bookstore near Piata Romana, a real haven for bookworms like myself. Another great café for coffee and chocolate fans was Chocolat in the old town, where they also served excellent savoury dishes. I also enjoyed browsing in the smallish Anthony Frost English bookshop and went to a concert by Ada Mileia (who sings in Romanian and English) in the Art Jazz Club, a mere one minute walk from our apartment. I can also recommend Green Hours jazz club for gigs and other arts events.
Despite the many social and economic issues the majority of Romanians are still facing, we were both surprised at how much we had fallen in love with Bucharest’s rough charme in those couple of days. So if a friend of yours suggests to fly to Bucharest for the Christmas holidays, just go along, talk to the locals, walk the city’s streets with open eyes and you might be in for a nice surprise. I certainly was.