After getting back from our action packed couple of days in Sibiu then Rasnov and Bran, the next day we met with ES’s friend Oana at Ploiesti Sud railway station and caught the train to Bucharest. Armed with bags of pillows, duvets and inflatable mattresses we caught a bus which took us through the centre of the city, along Unirii Boulevard towards Oana and her partner Liviu’s apartment. The bus was busy, hot, sweaty, and made even more uncomfortable by our bulky luggage which meant we had to trigger a mass migration just to get off the bus at our stop. We were impressed to see and hear electronic screens and p.a. announcements informing of the next stop. It might seem a simple thing but so many cities in England don’t have this and simply being able to see or hear the name of the next stop is incredibly useful if you’re visiting a city you don’t know and where you can’t speak the language.
We arrived at the flat to drop off our sleeping equipment. Oana and Liviu have recently moved here and are thinking about how to go about making the most of the space and light so we got straight to work looking around all the rooms and coming up with with some ideas. Before we got too carried away we got ourselves back on the move.
We walked to Alba Iulia Square which anchors one end of Unirii Boulevard; a wide, imposing and dominant road which runs straight for 3.5 km until it reaches the enormous People’s Palace. The boulevard was built in the mid 80s under the Communist regime and the neo-classical/communist/modernist apartment blocks which line its sides were apparently inspired by the North Korean regime. Initially named ‘Victory of Socialism Boulevard’ the thoroughfare certainly isn’t a victory for urbanism. While there are some stretches where the wide pavements attract a bit of street life, the overwhelming majority of the building ground floors are lifeless, putting the pedestrian in an uncomfortable sandwich between ugly post-modern facade renovations and a torrent of car traffic.
Approaching the People’s Palace is always a little daunting. The scale of the building, apparently once the largest building on earth, combined with the lack of other humans makes you feel a bit like you’re about to embark on an improbable mission. Architect Anca Petrescu won the competition to design the building, commissioned by the wife of Communist Party leader Elena Ceausescu. Construction started at the same time as the boulevard and caused the relocation of the Uranus neighbourhood and of around 40,000 people who previously occupied the site. For a building of such undeniable presence, its one which evokes little pride for the people of Romania, or at least those i’ve met.
Next on our walk was Lipscani, the most historic and popular district of the city. Here is where you can find the centre of Bucharest’s cafe and bar scene as well as the best preserved examples of pre communist architecture which give a taste of the times when the city was known as Little Paris.
On my first night of my first visit to Romania almost couple of years ago, I came to Lipscani with friends and the feeling of life and enjoyment was a great introduction to the country. Although a little quieter in winter, on our walk around there was still a sense that this area is the energetic centre of Bucharest.
By now it was time for a coffee so we went to Carturesti, a locally based book shop chain which always takes care to create buildings and spaces worthy of being full of books. This store in Lipscani, named Carusel, is their newest and it’s renovation designed by Square One Architecture is exceptionally beautiful.
White steel inserts around the central atrium leave the space generously open and uncluttered. It’s incredibly refreshing to see architects and clients resisting the lure of commercial floorspace in favour of open space and light. While the coffee was among the priciest you’re likely to find in Bucharest, almost English prices, the view down over the bookshelves from the top floor makes this space one of the calmest and most relaxing places you can sit in a city centre. We took our time to enjoy the atmosphere and architecture before leaving to meet Liviu. We walked towards Piata Romana and quickly called into another Carturesti store because we have no discipline when it comes to book shops.
Hunger struck so we picked up the pace and hurried to Caru’ cu Bere, one of the most popular restaurants and beer houses in Bucharest. It’s ornate interior takes you back in time as you move through the revolving door, but unfortunately the only space they had for us was in the generic basement so we decided to move elsewhere.
After food and a couple of beers we went to Bicicleta, which, as the name might suggests, is a bicycle themed bar. The bicycle concept with which interior has been designed has been pulled off fairly well, going beyond the odd piece of framed cycling memorabilia on the wall. Furniture crafted from disused components, a curtain of rusty chains and a piece of chainlink artwork behind the bar show a degree of commitment to the cause. The fact that a sole member of staff was in charge of everything from serving customers to the choice of music helps to create a more informal, personal, and unscripted experience.
As we drank our beer we discussed the huge difference in atmosphere between going out for a drink in England compared to going out in Europe. We really enjoy how european drinking establishments are more cafe/bar rather than bar/club. This means that the clientele can steadily change throughout the day with coffee drinkers and book readers often remaining until late into the evening, moving from coffee to a glass of wine or beer. This diversity of users creates a relaxed and more civilised atmosphere both inside the establishments and on the streets at different times through the day.
After Bicicleta we walked the streets on the lookout for our next stop. During our time in Lipscani we’d become aware of the increasing number of ‘Massage’ clubs. The recent disaster at Club Colectiv in which 63 gig goers lost their lives in a fire thanks to severe breaches in fire regulations has caused the local authorities to undertake a long overdue clampdown on the enforcement of licences and regulations. This also includes buildings at risk of collapse or damage in the event of an earthquake. The result being that many cafes and bars have had to close down. As ‘Massage’ establishments are not classed as public businesses, they aren’t required to conform to the same legislation. This sad situation has lead to the disappearance of many places which all contributed the great life of the district, replaced instead by the increasingly overwhelming sex industry which imposes its less than amicable character on the area.
With our choice of bars limited we went to a bar with a live band and european football on the screens. Not long after getting our drinks, female dancers took their places on elevated platforms and added to the choice of entertainment. Initially concerned the mood would turn seedy, we were pleasantly surprised, and even informed that the following evening would see male dancers take to the podiums. After a long day of moving, many discussions, a few beers, and indecision about what bar to go to next, we caught the night bus back to the flat. Before getting the sleep we all craved we were treated to an hour or so of airbed-inflating-and-organising madness. It was all very funny, but I shan’t ruin it by trying to explain, you just had to be there.