What do you do when you repeatedly find yourself in a city you hate? And moreover, when that city is the capital of the country you were born in? And your friends are divided about it as well – some love it and some hate it? I tried answering that question during my last two trips to Bucharest this summer. I met with people that see beauty in the city, I revisited the few places I loved and explored some new ones that took me by utter surprise. And I ended up fancying a city I had hated for over two decades. Here are the spots that made me change my mind.
Martisor (Casa Memoriala Tudor Arghezi)
Address: Strada Mărțișor nr.26, București 041241, Romania
The Martisor is the memorial house of one of the most known Romanian writers, Tudor Arghezi. It is a fairly large house, surrounded by a green garden, right in the heart of the city. It goes unnoticed to the passersby because of the large terrain in front of it, and most of my own friends had no clue it even existed. It is a museum nowadays and can be visited for the meagre sum of 10 RON / 2€, and while the house won´t mean much to you if you haven´t read Arghezi´s books, if you have, you´ll find it an oasis of peace within the busy city of Bucharest. In the yard, you´ll find the tombstones of the Arghezi family, but also that of the beloved Zdreanta dog, who rests peacefully next to his owners. You cannot take pictures in the house, except if you pay extra. The tour guide is not the friendliest either, but you can rest outside on a bench, reading a book or eating a snack, and if you close your eyes, you might just feel that you travelled back in time to the early 20th century, a time when I am sure that even I would have loved Bucharest.
Address: Bulevardul Primăverii 50, București 014192, Romania
A polar opposite memorial house where I didn´t necessarily feel serene, nor nostalgic, is the Ceausescu House – the house where Romania´s last (official) dictator lived with his family, a house that is now a much more popular museum than the above. While it was neither built by them, nor for them, the Ceausescu couple had a big influence on how the house that you see today looks like. They decorated it based on everything they liked during their travels to Western Europe (mostly) and they did not spare a dime when it came to opulence and luxury. One interesting thing about the house is that the materials used in its built and decoration are remarkably balanced between materials brought from abroad, and local wood, marble or stone, showcasing Ceausescu´s nationalism. Sure, Elena Ceausescu´s closet looks a bit like what I would imagine Dolores Umbridge´s would look like, and sure, it is infuriating to see what luxury they had on a daily basis when the country was starving (although interestingly enough even though after their death a huge scandal on tv showed their golden bathroom, the entire house has no more than 150g of gold). Despite this, visiting the house and this weird parallel universe on a guided tour (for the price of 55 RON / 11€) was much more fascinating than I expected.
Casa Poporului (The House of the People/The Palace of Parliament)
Address: Strada Izvor 2-4, București, Romania
The House of the People, built (but not finished) during Romanian dictator Ceausescu´s regime is the second largest civilian administrative building in the world, and the heaviest – weighing 4.1 million tonnes. Built in a socialist realist style, the main architect of this humongous project was 27 year old Anca Petrescu. As for the team building it, it is said that one million people (5% of Romania´s population) was involved in the project. I´ve always had mixed feelings about this building, feeling intimidated by it every time I´d pass it by, always unsure what lurked inside (it is apparently unknown how many floors it has underground and how many secret tunnels it shoots out). So it took me 30 something years to finally build up the courage to go see it on a hot September day, and oh wowza. The only way to see the palace as a visitor is on a guided tour, and although the tour only covers a mere fraction of it, it´s absolutely spectacular and possibly the most majestic building I´ve ever seen. Two tonne chandeliers, carpets that need to be rolled out by 10 people at a time, tall ceilings and huge conference rooms stretch over the two floors you´ll visit and although my mixed feelings about the palace remain, I have to say it´s most certainly a landmark I´ll recommend everyone visits. A tour is 40 RON / 8€, takes about two hours, can be done in English as well, is only available at set times and will require you let your ID be scanned and recorded for safety reasons.
Carturesti Carusel (Bucharest´s Prettiest Book Store)
Address: Strada Lipscani 55, București 030033, Romania
A dream in white, the Carusel book store is the closest thing to heaven in Bucharest (shhh, the second closest thing is Cremeria Emilia, my favourite ice cream shop just couple hundred meters away from it). The place is absolutely beautiful, maybe most of all in winter when the garlands hanging from the high ceiling make you feel like you´ve reached winter wonderland. Stretching over four floors, when it comes to books the book store doesn´t have a variety as huge as I would like, and there are times when I leave it having bought only a magazine, but I still always come back to it. Even if just to wonder its aisles, marvel at how beautiful a book store can be (Lello, you´re a close silver medalist, no offence), and discover the latest boardgames. Thoroughly recommended to all my fellow book lovers.
The Stavropoleos Church
Address: Strada Stavropoleos 4, București 030167, Romania
Never in a million years would I have thought I would list a church as a Bucharest favourite, but here we are. The Stavropoleos church (or monastery) was built in the 18th century in Brancovenesc style, in what is nowadays downtown Bucharest. I personally walked by it countless times without noticing it, which I in hindsight find absolutely magical. Sure, it is small, especially considering the huge buildings around it. And sure, it is quiet, considering the loud bars just two blocks away. But boy, is it pretty and magical. The church (as most of the old monastery doesn´t stand today anymore) saw a lot in its time. It suffered during an earthquake, survived the commies, not to mention wars, and yet it quietly stands in a most unusual location in the old town, with a small interior courtyard where almost magically, no sound comes through, and you can close your eyes or read a book for a minute, feeling like time has stood still (you probably see a pattern of me liking places that have a strong nostalgic element to them). I understand the church also has a fantastic library with the largest collection of Byzantine music books in Romania, but I am unsure if you can visit it. However, even if you just have 10 minutes, I recommend you enter the little church to gaze about, and spend five minutes in the courtyard, on one of their wooden benches. You´ll leave much calmer and refreshed, ready to take on the bustle of this city I used to hate, and now kind of like.
Now tell me – what are your favourite spots in the city?