Bucharest has no signs!
When I got off my train from Budapest at Gara de Nord, I looked for signs to the metro (also at Gara de Nord – don’t worry, I wasn’t expecting directions to some random station).
Nothing. There were signs for ticket sales (also inadequate – domestic and international sales are in two different halls and the signs don’t say which is which) and a few other things, but nothing that would help me.
Unfortunately my hesitation immediately made me a target for taxi drivers searching for a fare.
Unlike in Budapest, where a simple headshake was enough to dissuade the men chanting “taxi, taxi”, in Bucharest they started following me. I kept walking, saying “no” repeatedly until they wandered off. However, one persistent man wouldn’t budge, so I turned back to him to say that I was looking for the metro.
“You go to the centre of city? I can take you, very low,” he indicated a small price with his thumb and index finger.
“Smaller than the metro?” I asked.
I shook my head.
“Okay – the metro is at the left,” he pointed to that side of the station.
I turned left but couldn’t see anything, so followed the footpath around the car park. Then . . . an M sign! Above a descending flight of stairs!
The metro also had no signs, and it was the same case when I returned to the surface – I knew which street I had to take to get to my hostel, but I came out at a big intersection with no signs. After about 10 minutes I found one – white and rusted with faded blue lettering and partially covered by the overhanging leaves of a tree, but it was the right street!
After being unable to find my next turn, I realised it was on the wrong side of the road and I was going the wrong way.
I eventually reached Happy Hostel and found the other extreme:
They were everywhere.
And check out the overuse of exclamation marks!!!!!
Finally settled in, I could see Bucharest. I visited The Palace of Parliament, The Village Museum and The Romanian Peasants’ Museum, as well as doing some general wandering.
The Palace of Parliament is worth a visit for its size alone – with a floor area of 360,000m2, it is the world’s largest administrative building for civilian use (the Pentagon is the largest administrative building for military use). It is also the world’s heaviest building and the world’s most expensive administrative building, with the costs of the structure estimated at USD4 billion in 2006. According to a Romanian guy on the train from Budapest, the communist government built this to send a message to the western world:
“Look what we did! Communism = awesomeness! You capitalists suck!”
Unfortunately the tour was a bit dry – it focussed on the facts and figures regarding the size and the architecture, whereas I wanted to learn about the gossip, conspiracies and politics.
The Village Museum was a really relaxing way to spend a morning (though afternoons are said to be a bit hectic). Founded in 1936, since then buildings have been moved from rural Romania to this outdoor museum, so it’s like wandering around an eclectic Romanian village. The Peasants’ Museum was more traditional – artefacts from around the country on display, and scary women on guard to ensure you don’t touch or photograph anything.
In general, Bucharest felt unfinished to me. True, there are some lovely areas, where you can see why it was once known as “The Paris of the East” or “Little Paris”, but so much of it deteriorated under the Communist Party that those names are no longer accurate. Restorations have started taking place, but the work is slow and patchy, especially in the Old Town.
In the Old Town there are some beautiful streets that have been completely restored and house expensive cafés for tourists. Then there are some cafés that are sparkling new neighbouring the abandoned shells of former shops, or buildings where the ground floor has been renovated to accommodate a shop, but the upper levels are crumbling. Some of the roads have their centres gouged out and are bridged by wooden planks, and several cobblestoned streets are so deep in mud that you can’t see the stones under the tyre tracks. And there are piles of rubble everywhere.
In some ways, this adds to the charm – I followed an old Romanian man across an unstable boardwalk into an ancient church to listen to the singing on Friday afternoon. It was spell-binding – one man’s poignant yodel reverberated through the small church and onto the street, while the second man hummed in harmony. And I worried about getting mud on the floor.
I think Bucharest is a place I’d like to return to in a few years, once the restorations are complete. I’m looking forward to the finished product.