It’s rare that Romania ever appears on any travel list of dream destinations. Unlikely to win many prizes for beauty, and outmuscled by the countries around it with sunny beaches and favourite stag do cities, it’s one of those places you might get round to visiting one day.
But with the travel landscape shifting during what is destined to be remembered as the summer of ever-changing traffic lights, holiday habits have followed suit.
When Romania was put on the UK’s green list, it became Opodo’s 10th most-booked summer destination, which is no mean feat seeing as Ibiza was eighth.
So with a renewed sense of wanderlust after being stuck on home turf for so long, we decided to book a break to Bucharest, Romania’s quirky capital.
At 92,045 square miles and home to one of the most well-known areas in the world, Romania is hardly a well-kept secret. But it does suffer from a bit of an identity crisis.
Even during the city tour there were many slip-ups as tourists accidentally referred to it as Budapest – and they weren’t the only ones.
After the notorious Communist regime governed by the hated Nicolae Ceausescu (more on him later) a liberated country proudly paraded Michael Jackson on the balcony of its grand presidential palace.
He was supposed to be the symbol of their new-found freedom and of course stood up and said, “Hello Budapest!” to the gathered masses.
Ah well, best laid plans…
It’s also world famous for being home to someone that doesn’t exist (well, hopefully) so you wonder what Bucharest – and Romania as a whole – has to offer which is unmistakably theirs.
A lot as it turns out…
Bucharest is quite picturesque if you look in the right places.
In the early 20th century, the city came to be known as the “Paris of the East” thanks to its Art Nouveau architecture and grand municipal buildings, often French-designed.
A lot of it is actually modelled on Paris and it even has its own Arc de Triomphe on a roundabout.
Ceausescu was fond of a grand statement and decided he wanted a wide boulevard.
On finding out that Paris had the largest in the world, he wanted the same, but bigger. So he cleared out all the buildings down a thoroughfare which now cuts the city in two and is home to grand fountains in Piata Unirii.
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It was a similar story for the Palace of the Parliament – a huge governmental building sitting at the end of said boulevard which is the second largest administrative building in the world after the Pentagon.
It took 13 years of double shifts for the people to construct, cost £4billion and is officially the heaviest building in the world, reportedly sinking six inches each year.
I’d definitely say go pay it a visit, but in truth you can see it from most parts of the city. Until it sinks.
After 42 years of communist rule, there’s no surprise that Bucharest sees itself as a party town.
The bars are mostly clustered together in the Old Town which offer a blow-out of booming music and pints from £1.70. Streets of Irish bars and dance clubs converge and mix together with fine Italian dining – Romanians love pizza – and traditional eateries.
The 130-year-old Caru’ cu bere and City Grill offer the best Romanian fare such as mici, translated as “the little ones”, which are skinless sausages with bread and a mustard-like dip – as well as Sarmale, cabbage rolls filled with mincemeat and soured cream.
As with most things in Bucharest it’s a mish-mash of the old churches, the opulent buildings of the early 20th century that Ceausescu didn’t get round to destroying, and the Eastern bloc crimes against architecture that he did get his hands on.
Still, £1.70 a pint though, eh?
Romania’s almost mythical region of Transylvania is a few hours away from the capital in a minibus.
Bran Castle is supposedly the lair of Dracula – the third most evil man in the country after Ceausescu and Adrian Mutu – it’s well worth a day trip set against the rolling hills of the Carpathians. Rich in folklore, you’ll learn everything from stakes in hearts and why he’s repulsed by garlic, to how you always have to invite him in.
Next day we set off early for Peles Castle in Sinaia, around two hours from Bucharest, to see the home of the royal family who rolled into town one day from Germany and built this impressive neo-Renaissance palace at the foot of the Bucegi Mountains.
This chap Ceausescu wasn’t fond of history and decided to ruin most of the places he visited. However he’s said to have somehow forgotten about this fairy-tale abode so lots of the original furniture and features survive. For a £15 fee, the absent-minded dictator’s loss was our gain.
On for a stop at Brasov which reminded me of a mini Krakow with a large square, medieval watchtowers and baroque buildings.
A must-see is the Black Church, one of Romania’s most beautiful Gothic monuments which boasts the biggest mechanical organ in the country and the largest collections of oriental carpets outside of Turkey.
But the coup de grace of any visit to this part of the world is the afore-mentioned Bran Castle with its conical towers. Said to be the inspiration behind Dracula’s castle, it dominates the landscape on top of a rocky promontory and was once owned by Vlad the Impaler – the main
source for the protagonist in Bram Stoker’s celebrated work.
History comes up everywhere in Bucharest. From Vlad, who got his name from you guessed it, sticking spikes where the sun certainly did not shine up his Ottoman pals, to Ceausescu who was their president and dictator and lived an opulent life until Romanians got their act together and had him shot by firing squad in 1989.
Horrors emerged from this country as it opened itself up to the outside world.
But they’ve healed and Romania is ready for a tourist influx.
Every tour guide we met kept saying: “Please tell people to come here and visit.”
Romanians, even as the world battles Covid-19, they’re always trying to invite you in.
Dracula would approve.
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