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The rediscovery of Bucharest – why you should visit too

Bucharest-National-Theatre-Intercontinental

Think back to the end of February. How do you see it now, as we fight the pandemic? Does it feel unreal, a lifetime ago? When I look at the last (extended) weekend in February, I see one of the most magical trips I ever took in recent years. I visited Bucharest on my own to spend time with friends and go to the theatre. Those four days reconnected me to the rhythm of a city which I both loved and loathed once.

I asked the above questions for a reason. Time passed in a completely different manner over the last two months. The UK went into lockdown and so did Romania, with even stricter measures there than here. Everybody has experienced tremendous changes to their lifestyle. I faced two difficult events which affected me personally. Each felt like being hit by lightning. It took me a while to find the ground under my feet after these shocks and reorganise my life, again.

Now, that I managed to pluck myself out of the rubble, I can look back to my February 2020 trip to Bucharest. With this blog post I invite you to discover the city as I have rediscovered it. On both recent occasions, it felt bubbling with a new vibe which left me so enriched. What I gained then sprouts inside and nothing will take it away.

The way I knew Bucharest in 2011

Last year in September, my partner and I spent two and a half days in the Romanian capital. It was our mini holiday together. I promised, to both of us, I wouldn’t record any video footage on that occasion. However, what we saw then – more tourists, more focus on the hidden treasures of Bucharest, a bigger variety and better quality in the restaurants industry – gave me a boost of enthusiasm towards the city where I used to live and work.

Bucharest Cismigiu 2008

As a journalist in the Romanian capital from 2005 to early 2011, I did struggle back there. Despite working for mainstream quality newspapers, I did not earn enough to afford buying nice clothes, for example. On a regular basis, I afforded a coffee, a drink and a pizza out, but sometimes I tightened up on other expenses even for such things. Lacking money for travels hurt most.

True, I enjoyed great theatre, literature and cultural events all the time. While I worked for the newspapers, I benefited from free press entry to most events and theatre plays. This made Bucharest so enticing at the time. In everyday life though, it felt cunning, ruthless and a little bit monstrous with its hidden threats. I battled misogyny and dreaded the Hydra heads of corruption preying at every corner of public life.

That was the city I left behind in 2011, when I moved to the UK to work in the social care industry. I visited the place several times since, but never bonded with it as I did this February. Maybe it was so special because I went to the theatre again there for the first time after I left Romania. I am still in awe with what I saw on stage.

It was also the first time that I sat in the official balcony at one of the best plays I saw in my life. A show by my favourite Romanian director, Radu Afrim, it touched on a few strong humanist issues we face in the world today. Now it could even relate to the Coronavirus situation. I will review this play and illustrate it with photos from the director’s social media channels.

For now, I want to show you Bucharest the way I rediscovered it in February. Images and emotions of those four days trigger a special tenderness in my heart, specked with sadness. I was so relaxed and enjoyed everything so much that now it seems even a bit surreal.

In between the National Theatre and the Old Town

I booked for myself the same flat in the city centre where we stayed in September 2019. Very spacious, very well furnished, it also features three balconies out of all its three rooms. The front one overlooks Coltea Hospital, the National Theatre and Intercontinental Hotel – such a great view!

Bucharest view

Being so close to the Old Town in Bucharest offers clear advantages. The Old Town is well known for all the bars and restaurants around. You will also find here one of the most famous bookstores in Eastern Europe, Carturesti Carusel. Instagramers turned it into quite the attraction – everybody wants photos inside. It was packed with people on the day I was recording video for my vlog. At the door, while I was setting up my gear, I heard a group speaking Spanish as they entered. Asian people were taking selfies on the white cast iron balcony at the second level. I did the same, as I needed a thumbnail for the vlog I will soon published on my YouTube channel.

Carturesti Carusel

The Old Town is the place at the heart of Bucharest to admire many renovated historical buildings. These changes happened mostly over the last decade. When I still lived there, some streets were dug out, in continuous works, full of mud, no pavement or cobblestones. I remember walking on shaking wood planks. Some buildings looked then like they were going to collapse any minute.

Now this side of the city centre grew, like a Phoenix, out of its own decades long destruction.

My tour of Bucharest in Romanian food restaurants

While I had a very special reason for this trip (theatre and writing), I very much enjoyed the food offer of the Romanian capital. The restaurants I chose, and to which a foodie friend also took me, serve Romanian dishes . What culinary delights I treated myself to!

Tasteful traditional décor, mouth-watering dessert

For the first of the two theatre evenings, I booked a table at Vatra Restaurant. Researching for somewhere nice to eat around Bulandra Theatre, I liked the menu on their website. Once my friend and I arrived there, I was much satisfied with my choice.

Romanian folk costume

 

Vatra restaurant

 

Moldavian sausage egg stew

They put a lot of effort into decorating this restaurant with samples of traditional arts and crafts. The visitor admires old Romanian costumes, with details on display about where these came from. Details are given about the period or even the year when the garments were made. Beautifully carved wooden spoons and painted clay plates, together with hand sown tea towels, adorn the walls. Romanians used to proudly create such displays in their traditional houses.

The food itself was, just as I read in a review, tasty, but very conservative. I didn’t mind that. I thoroughly enjoyed my portion of papanasi for dessert (deep fried sweet cheese doughnuts), one of the best I’ve had recently. The delicious gooeyness of the cheese under the slightly crispy outer layer, the velvety sweetness of sour cherry jam on top, my mouth waters at the memory.

High cuisine with Romanian specialities

Next day, I met a foodie friend who “angers” everybody on Facebook with photos of the food he eats out. He took me to the amazing Zexe Restaurant, close to Aviatorilor Boulevard, the high-class area by the city centre. The cold served vegetable stew, called zacusca, popular across Eastern Europe, was spot on. For mains, I ordered pig brains croquettes, served with ginger vegetable stir fry, Romanian style. It might sound a bit awkward for British people, but this has always been a favourite of mine.

Zexe pig brains croquettes

Then for dessert my friend drove me over to the brasserie part of the same chain. Their cakes taste as scrumptious as they look. I now plan to take my partner to both Zexe restaurant and brasserie on our next trip to Bucharest.

The reign of delicious soups at Blid

The third food place I really wanted to visit was Blid – Locanta Romaneasca. A small restaurant tucked away on a side street at a bit of a distance from the city centre, this is special to me for a reason. My friend Cosmin Dragomir, journalist and food writer, is a co-owner at Blid. I’ve known and appreciated his cooking since we were colleagues, working for the same newspaper. I’ve also followed his career over the last decade. He founded a successful publishing house specialised in food history. Naturally, I needed to eat there.

On my last day, I took a lovely stroll in the historical Cismigiu Park with a friend I hadn’t seen in nine years. We so naturally shared what our lives had been meanwhile, as if we just parted the day before. Then we walked to Blid, where I tried their Transylvanian soup with smoked pork meat, and my friend tucked in the Russian sour soup. We both savoured our dishes just as much as we savoured catching up.

Last meal in Bucharest

As I had a late Sunday evening flight, I left the Airbnb flat for the owners to tidy up in the evening. I grabbed my small luggage and spent couple of hours at the historical Hanu lui Manuc (Manuc’s Inn).

Built at the beginning of the 19th century by a wealthy Armenian entrepreneur, it even hosted important political meetings through ages. It remained an important landmark during communist times and a favourite spot for televised folk-dance shows. I took Adrian there two years ago for dinner and he enjoyed it. We watched the regular dance show they put up on certain days over summer, one of the reasons I took him there.

This time, my last day in Bucharest happened to be March 1st. Every year, on this date, we celebrate the beginning of spring in Romania. Young people give each other a good luck charm called martisor, while in some parts of the country only women receive them. Nowadays, in big cities, it is mainly women who are given martisor and a small bouquet of flowers. At Hanu lui Manuc, they offered a glass of Prosecco and a flower to each lady eating in. Needless to say, it felt like a very sweet perk.

I ate duck leg here, on a bed of fried soured cabbage, yet another beloved Romanian dish. Since it was my last dinner on this trip, I decided to indulge in dessert as well. So, I chose a Turkish inspired cataif, thinking it would be a smallish portion. Instead, a huge cut of the thin-noodles layers with pistachio and walnut paste in the middle arrived. No, I wasn’t going to waste any of it. I can almost taste the syrupy honey coating the filling as I think back about it.

I flew back to Romania that night with a stomach full of delicious food and a new poem in my notebook. The atmosphere at Hanu lui Manuc and the gentle breath of the city at dusk nested in my heart. Besides eating, I spent my time writing over dinner that evening.

Bucharest started to attract more tourists

One of the delights I relished on this trip was breakfast at the patisserie in the morning. Us Romanians love our French style pastries, filled with salty cheese, meats, spinach, fruit or nuts. Every morning I walked across the Old Town to one or another of the small places serving them.

On these strolls I regularly noticed several groups of tourists taking guided tours. This joyed me. To see this trend of growing tourism continue meant another boost of positivity. On our September trip, I concluded that the waiting staff worked to higher standards than I used to see a decade ago. As more and more tourists visit the city, restaurant owners must realise they need to keep their good staff motivated. When the  food offer is more varied and customers have more choice, well-manner waiters and waitresses also bring people back.

Will coronavirus kill Romanian tourism?

Now, with the coronavirus pandemic, I worry that Bucharest will be hit hard. Romanian still suffers from corruption and chaotic government. How many of these restaurants where motivated waiting staff serve much better food than I remember from years ago will survive now?

Many might consider this a trivial worry. However, take a look at what happened recently with thousands of Romanians flown to tend crops in Germany. That is how desperate many are back there. Imagine the progress Romania and Bucharest reached in tourism over the last decade nullified. If the hospitality industry in the UK struggles now, consider how bad Romania will be hit.

I ponder whether recommending you visit Bucharest and my home country in the near future is fair. Countries with tradition in tourism, such as Spain and Italy, suffer deeply from coronavirus. Still, I think the smallest support and interest people can show towards Romania as a touristic destination will help. It will help these hard-won achievements, after decades of communism and then just simple decay, to survive.

Stroll down the streets of Bucharest city centre, like I did, for a different feel than anywhere else you’ve been. Enter the bookstores, each of them decorated with a concept in mind. Have a cup of tea and something sweet there. You might find yourself buying a souvenir, as these places offer a varied collection of tea pots, mugs and home décor objects. To be honest, I haven’t yet seen such variety in this respect in any bookstore in the UK. If you wonder, yes, I used to visit the big Foyles in London, by Oxford Street, regularly.

If you read this blog one day when we can all travel again and want to ask about Bucharest, do so in a comment. Alternatively, drop me a DM on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. I’d be more than happy to introduce you to a city and a country unlike any other you’ve visited before.

Bucharest University

 

Bucharest Military Headquarters

 

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