In many countries throughout Europe, May 8th- generally known as V-E day- is celebrated as the official ending of WWII and surrender of Nazi Germany. In the Czech Republic, all schools and many shops close for the day. My school was generous and also gave the following 2 days off. Hello 6-day weekend!
So, where to go for such a long break? I actually wasn’t sure at first. I wanted some place new and interesting, but not too expensive and touristy. Luckily, my friend Bethany allowed me to tag along on her plans to travel through Romania. As I had not been to Eastern Europe yet, this certainly fit my desire for a new atmosphere (plus, Eastern Europe is less touristy and a lot cheaper than Western Europe!)
To be honest though, Romania was never on my bucket list of places to visit in Europe. Like many people, my perception of Romania was limited to Transylvania (and the Romanian song, Panama, which was a big hit when I lived in Thailand…).
Such a shame, really, as the country offers a lot more than the origins of a vampire legend.
For this trip, Bethany and I stayed in Bucharest (Romania’s capital) and Brasov. We also took day trips to Bran’s Castle (AKA- Dracula’s Castle) and Sighisoara. To prevent any readers from information overload, I’ve divided my Romanian trip into 2 separate posts. This one will cover Bucharest and the next will talk about Brasov and the daytrips from Brasov.
To get to Bucharest from Prague, Bethany and I had to take a flight from Prague to Vienna (the shortest flight of my life) and then another from Vienna to Bucharest. And so, our first day was dedicated mostly to airports and finding our way to our Airbnb. By the time we checked into our place (there was a little delay in the check-in process due to incomplete/unclear instructions), most restaurants in our area were closed for the night. Instead, we ‘dined’ on apples and protein bars from a 24/7 convenient store while watching My 600lb Life on TLC (who knew they aired this channel all the way from the US?!).
The next day, we were up early for a proper meal and headed to Grand Café Van Gogh for breakfast.
This café did not fail in delivering. As we were some of the first in the café, we got to pick prime seats that gave us a view of upside down umbrellas, pretty archways, a moss wall, and replicas of Van Gogh’s greatest works (I finally found the Starry Night that was missing in Amsterdam!).
As we gobbled through our goat cheese omelets and cappuccinos, I kept anxiously looking up the weather on my phone to predict how happy I would be during our Free Walking Tour that day. Let’s just say that the weather channel had been predicting some very dismal “Transylvanian” weather for our whole trip. Luckily as we sat there, the weather during our tour kept updating to no rain until further and further in the day! No rain = happy Deanna.
The Free Walking Tour started at Piata Unirii Park, where we heard the history of the Bilevardul Unirill and the Palace of Parliament. The story about these places was quite interesting, so I’ll provide a brief recap:
In 1977, an earthquake partially destroyed the avenue. The communist president at the time, Nicolae Ceausescu, used this natural disaster as a way to integrate his building style preference during reconstruction (he was inspired by the architecture he had seen during his visit to China and North Korea). In addition to taking on a more “block-like” appearance, Ceausescu was determined that his boulevard be longer than Paris’s Champs-Élysées.
At the end of the street would be his Palace of Parliament, which he wanted as the largest administrative building in the world (it’s currently the second largest office building, the first being the Pentagon). His Parliament building would include a nice balcony where he could address his gathered people from.
Apparently though, the earthquake did not cause enough destruction and Ceausescu had many more buildings, churches, and neighborhoods completely demolished to make way for his dream. One Orthodox church was kept, only after church officials were made to swear that they would not speak out again Ceausescu’s regime.
As fate would have it though, Ceausescu never lived long enough to see his vision complete. At the short- yet terribly bloody- Romanian Revolution in December 1989, Ceausescu and his wife were captured and put on trial for the deaths of 60,000 people. They were found guilty and immediately executed moments later by gunfire on national television. This all occurred on December 25th. Merry Christmas to all…
To this day, the Palace of Parliament is still not complete and the Orthodox Church is having the last laugh- currently, a new church is being constructed right next to the palace that will be just taller than it. And that balcony in which Ceausescu would carry out his speeches? It was finally used in 1992 by Michael Jackson during his world tour. Jackson started his speech with “Hello Budapest…” (The people of Bucharest were not impressed, but that’s another story).
Next on the Walking Tour, we stopped by Manuc’s Inn- the oldest hotel in Bucharest (built in 1808). Throughout the years, the Inn has partially served as a restaurant, theater, office space, bar, and shopping center, as well as meeting place for peace talks during war.
The food at the restaurant is a bit pricey, but it’s still worth poking your head inside to see the pretty courtyard.
And speaking of pretty courtyards, one should definitely visit the Manastirea Stavropoleos Church to stroll around its courtyard garden and check out the church’s unique design. Just keep your voice down as the church still serves as a nunnery…
Next, we took a walk through the French-inspired Vilacrosse and Macca Passages.
The people of Bucharest were a bit obsessed with the French way of life. So much so that the city is sometimes referred to as Little Paris.
In fact, Bucharest’s famous Victory Avenue (Calea Victoriei) was even likened to Champs Elysees and people would dress in their best in the avenue to mimic the people of Paris (this is before Ceausescu came along and wanted to outperform the Champs Elysees with his own boulevard).
Another place worth checking out is the National Bank of Romania for its bizarre history (you can just view the building from the outside).
In 1959, the Ioanid Gang- consisting of 5 Jewish Romanians (and former members of the Romanian Communist Party) -robbed the National Bank of 1.6 million lei (about $1 million) in broad daylight.
Not for the riches (the Lei was useless outside of Romania), but to prove that the Communist government (which they had once felt so protected by) was flawed and not working for the good of its people.
The country was in a state of shock. Bank robberies were not supposed to happen in a utopia were everyone is equal. Especially by some of the Communist party’s most early members.
Two months after the robbery, the Ioanid gang was captured and sentenced to death (the 1 female in the group was spared as she had a child). As a twisted form of punishment though, the robbers were forced to reenact their own role in the robbery on film before their deaths.
The government released the movie under the title, Reconstituirea to promote the idea that Jews were the enemy. It was pure propaganda. In the movie, the robbers/actors were forced to act as if they had luxuriously spent the money they had stolen (in reality, this had not been the case).
Several documentaries were released in 2002 and 2004 that examines the original robbery and forced re-enactment, as well as the political climate and discontent before, during, and after 1959. Not into documentaries? The 2014 movie, Closer to the Moon, tells the whole story of the heist and the aftermath. You can view a trailer here. It’s definitely on my “to-watch” list this summer.
Ok, enough history lessons about Bucharest. However, I totally recommend taking the Bucharest Free Walking Tour if you visit (or any Free Walking Tour in any city- you learn so much!)
To lighten the mood after such an intense history lesson, Bethany and I headed to… a bookstore and pizza place.
I know, I know- “Wow, Deanna. Thanks for sharing this essential information.”
BUT, the Carturesti Carusel is no ordinary bookstore.
With spiraling staircases to take you to different levels and a café at the top, you could easily spend a whole afternoon in this bookworm’s dream.
And we did not stop at Pizza Colosseum merely for their pizza (which, by the way was delicious). Nope. We went most importantly for the beautiful alleyway of suspended umbrellas. Prefect photo opportunity.
And with that, we were finished with Bucharest! Many people will tell you that Bucharest is worth skipping, but I thought that the city was worth at least a full day in. The rich history and some umbrellas and books definitely made my time in Bucharest fun. Add in some of the other sights that we didn’t have time for- the thermal pools and abandoned buildings tour, for example- and I think you can make at least a weekend out of Bucharest.
Next blog post- Brasov and beyond!