Little Paris – Bucharest, Romania

Bucharest (Bucuresti) was once called “Little Paris” because of its lovely architecture, influenced by the elegant interbellum Parisian building style. Although I’m from Romania, I never got the chance to actually visit Bucharest properly, so when two of my American friends decided to see my home country, I took a couple of days to sight see the capital of Romania.

Our travel day started as usual, on a Thursday. For once, I finished packing in advance and with room to spare! We caught an Uber to Tyson airport and proceeded to the TSA PreCheck line. I may be spoiled but I was expecting the usual Southern hospitality from the Knoxville airport staff, but for some reason there was a total lack of smiles and hellos – not sure why everyone was so grumpy. We flew to Newark and transferred to a Lufthansa flight. The captain informed us that the flight was going to be relatively quick – under 7 hours. Our joy at the news was diminished though when a storm made us wait on the plane for more than an hour before takeoff.

Once again, Lufthansa didn’t impress by being too friendly. With the slight delay in our flight, many passengers missed their connections in Dusseldorf, where we landed. The staff made announcements regarding domestic flights and assured the German passengers that they would be re-booked. Not a peep about international flights…

The airport in Dusseldorf was small, so at least we wouldn’t have to run too far to find our connecting flight. Luckily, we had about 45 minutes until our next flight, so I figured we’d be OK. We stood in line to go through customs only to be told we didn’t need to. There were no signs or airport employees helping passengers, so we all stood in line for nothing. We left in search for our gate, B 74, I think. I found signs for all other numbers but no Bingo for our number… It turned out that our gate was downstairs. For some strange reason, any American with a boarding pass had to have one re-issued – I would guess most likely due to miscommunication between the United Airlines and Lufthansa systems. Brand new boarding passes in hand, we embarked a bus which took us to our flight.

Quick note to all airlines: If a plane is late, causing passengers to miss their connections or having them wonder how fast they can run to make their connection, please help them by:

a. Asking passengers without connecting flights or with longer layover time to give priority to the passengers in a hurry when existing the plane.

b. Same as above for going through any security checks, etc.; ideally, add/assign separate lines for those passengers in a hurry (Atlanta airport, I’m talking to you!)

c. If possible, provide passengers with more information about where they can re-book their tickets.

Phew, well, we made it to Bucharest and, surprisingly, so did our bags. Soon, we were on our way to our Booking.com accommodation in Old Bucharest. Ideal Apartment was clean and tastefully decorated. It came with a door man, and elevator, and was conveniently located within walking distance from a main touristic area with restaurants and shops. Our friends stayed at the Hilton Garden Inn, which was a modern building just up the street from our apartment.

And as always, after settling in, we went out in search for food. We managed to dodge the eager lures of the many restaurant hosts on the main drag, and landed at Sindbad, a middle-eastern restaurant on Lipscani Street. We were looking forward to a light dinner but found the food to be dry and tasteless. The house white wine I ordered was almost undrinkable. Luckily, there were herbs planted by our table, so I added basil to make my drink palatable. I could tell that the waitress didn’t want to be there – in fact, her shift might have ended while we were still eating because a different guy came over with our bill. He never brought us any change, giving himself a tip although we certainly didn’t think he deserved one.

After dinner, we caught up with our friends, who had also been delayed getting out of the U.S. We walked past old and ornate buildings, illuminated by old street lamps and the restaurant lights below. An old monastery stood in the midst of the restaurant section, and I can imagine monks living there having an extra incentive to pray. We enjoyed the buskers playing Argentine tango and resisted the temptation to dance (all four of us ballroom dance). Passing lively restaurant terraces gave us the hankering for a nice glass of wine – I had to redeem the last one I had… We tried Macca Villacrosse Passage because it looked beautiful and old but were chased away by the cigarette smoke. The passage qualifies as outdoor space, so smoking is allowed. However, the glass dome covering it allows for no air flow. Regretfully, we had to walk away.

We finally settled at a nearby bar. We chose an indoor table by an open window with plenty of fresh air and OK drinks. I was amazed by the level of energy my friends had after a long day of travel – I feel brain-dead usually, since I can’t sleep on a plane. The eight hours of sleep that followed were much needed and welcomed!

For our full day in Bucharest, we decided to take a guided walking tour and hit some of the highlights. I wanted to hear more about the history of the city and its points of interest. I had used TripAdvisor to research and book our tour with Mr. Tripp before heading to Bucharest. I had my printed email instructions leading to the meeting point, Bucharest National Theatre (TNB) for our 2:30 p.m. tour. We picked up our friends at the hotel and walked the few blocks over to the meeting point. I was proud of myself one more time for arriving early by 2:15 p.m. We had some time to admire the interesting statue called Wagon with Clowns (Caruta cu paiate) and of the famous Romanian playwright who inspired it, Ion Luca Caragiale.

When 2:30 p.m. came and went, I started to get worried. I used my friend’s phone to call the tour office. The unfriendly voice on the line informed me that the tour had started without us, early, at 2:00 p.m. She insisted that the office tried to contact me – of course, when I finally had WiFi on my phone, I saw her 2:07 p.m. message about the change. Not cool. Luckily, Daniel, our tour guide was a sweetheart and returned by van to pick us up. We really enjoyed the rest of the tour, having missed only the drive by Palace of the Parliament. The building is so big, though, that we could still see it as we drove around later.

Traveling, I always find out that it’s still a small world out there. The other tourists were all American, with one of them having attending the same high school as my husband, in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. What are the odds? We got along well with our group and really enjoyed learning about Bucharest.

For me, one of the special places I visited was Revolution Square. It is the place I had only seen on TV when the revolution against communism happened in 1989. Our dictator gave his last speech from the balcony of the building in front of us. When the crowds got angrier, he took a helicopter ride from the rooftop to what he thought would be a safe place. He was diverted and landed in the midst of a trial by the people. I was twelve at the time, and I remember the events vividly. There were riots and demonstrations in my home town and in all major cities around the country. The revolution was televised. The shock came when I watched the public execution of our dictator on TV. As traumatic as that sounds, both Daniel and I agreed that our childhood was good – even with the sparsity of food, heat, and electricity. We benefited from a great community feel and long-lasting friendships. We found entertainment outdoors and celebrated life with family and friends. We felt safe playing outside unsupervised or walking home alone at night, and we refer to our generations as to the generation with the key around our neck – because while our parents were at work, we were outside, often wearing the house key on a string around our neck.

Our next tour stop brought us even further back into the Romanian history. In the National Village Museum tourists can admire the traditional houses, dishes, rugs, and crafts from various parts of the country. Our traditions are rich and I was so happy to see a revival of the crafts, as well as a sustained effort to promote our treasures. My friend scored some really nice gifts – some for family, some for herself. I usually cannot resist the pottery and I wish I could get more of the hand-woven wool rugs (too heavy for this time around; I really should bring an empty suitcase next time).

We admired the beautiful 17th century Romanian Orthodox Patriarchal Cathedral, browsed through the luminous Carturesti book store, admired the old terrace garden of the old historic inn Hanul lui Manuc, and the impressive stature of the 1900 CEC Palace.

After hours of touring, we were ready for dinner. I had made (and confirmed) reservations at Caru’ cu Bere, an exquisite 1800s old building serving traditional Romanian food. We thoroughly enjoyed sarmale (stuffed cabbage rolls) and mici (grilled minced meat sausages) nicely complemented by Eclipse feteasca neagra wine from Basilescu Wineries (we had the 2011 but my favorite was the 2009). We were suitably entertained by singers alternating between traditional 1930s by Maria Tanase songs (Ciuleandra is a famous song) and Italian opera. It was a wonderful day and the perfect ending to our tour of old Bucharest.