Bucharest: Between the Past and the Future

Ugly, uninteresting, and yet to escape its history, Bucharest isn’t blessed with great PR. Yet beyond routine clichés and lazy perception sits a city full of life and contrast… just as long as you’re prepared to look

Article by Duncan Harman | 12 Oct 2015
  • Bucharest

The bars and restaurants of Lipscani do brisk business when the heat turns dry and tungsten. A block north of the Piaţa Unirii – where even at 3am the temperature displayed beneath the billboards sits in the upper 20s – and the narrow streets of Bucharest’s Old Town coalesce with drinkers, smokers, dancers and chancers.

“Ten years ago, none of this was here,” says Alina. “Well, the buildings are old, of course, but places to eat and drink, not so much.” A textiles student at the Universitatea Naţională de Arte, she sits with friends at an adjoining table, curious as to why we’re visiting. “It’s a beautiful country. A proud country,” she adds with a wry smile as we try to explain. “But Bucharest – and Romania in general – is still trying to work out what it is.”

The idea had been a simple one: to spend some time in one of Europe’s less celebrated capitals, peeking beyond the lazy stereotypes frequently peddled by Western perceptions – all those travel pieces focusing upon Ceauşescu kitsch and dark tales of medieval rulers; the damaging front pages (in certain newspapers) that whip up migration hysteria on slow news days.

And it’s not as if Romania is without serious social issues. The transition to free-market economics has passed entire swathes of the population by, particularly in rural locations, where subsistence farming traps many below the poverty line and where mains water remains a luxury (even in major towns you can still find unpaved streets and abodes unconnected to gas, electricity or sanitation). The trains are crap, the roads are crap, and sometimes it’s not easy to work out what’s higher – the stray dog population or the number of politicians and officials on the take.

Yet what these generalisations demonstrate is that unflattering portraits are easy to paint. Just as Lipscani – with its (mostly young, mostly local) crowd and burgeoning night scene – isn’t necessarily representative of the city as a whole. “The changes have been enormous,” explains Craig Turp, a British journalist based here since the 90s and editor-in-chief of guidebook series In Your Pocket. “When we first started publishing back in 1999, Bucharest had about 80 restaurants. Now there are that many in Lipscani alone.”

Renewal is the calling card of the dynamic city, even if – amid the big-brand lagers, the Italian food and all that listless techno pumping out from various PA systems – there is a discernibly generic feel behind the mesh of the Old Town’s tight streets; squint, and we could be anywhere from the Med to the Baltic, with a party of loud Brits on a stag-do strip-joint prowl just around the corner.

It’s back on the Piaţa Unirii – the outsized and rather ugly Union Square – where the real city comes into focus. Bisected by the Bulevardul Unirii (or Victory of Socialism Boulevard, to give the street its original name), and with the pomposity of the Casa Poporului (Ceauşescu’s neoclassical, gateau-esque, still half-empty palace) dominating the view to the west, it’s a complex space; a bricolage of social-realist urban planning – architecture inspired as much by Pyongyang as Moscow – and a city in the process of getting on with things. One minute you’re standing amid traffic fumes and the banks of the pungent, stagnant Dâmboviţa River, the next it’s all florist kiosks and chic, summer frocks. Heading in the direction of the main railway station, and wide avenues – at first glance dominated by unexceptional façades – disguise pockets of Art Nouveau grandeur when least expected, while the ecclesiastical architecture, predominately (though by no means exclusively) Romanian Orthodox, gifts otherwise undistinguished corners a baroque, Eastern presence. It’s actually the modern construction that’s the disappointment, much of it unimaginative, carrying the airs of corporate anywhere.

As Craig Turp suggests, “Bucharest is never going to win any beauty contests, yet it does have some glorious architecture to admire, even if you do need to look for it. But it is a city that rewards the visitor prepared to simply wander the streets and get off the main thoroughfares.” And inasmuch as a serendipitous stroll or two is a fascinating way of exploring any destination, it’s in this manner that Bucharest’s charms and rhythms are fully appreciated (even if the charms end up as little more than a pleasant little park hiding at the end of a graffiti-plastered alleyway).

"Trams and buses are cheap if crowded, the Metro curiously retro in feel, as if one source of inspiration was the Glasgow Subway circa 1984"

Because this isn’t about preening or showpiece physicality; it's more a city beholden to contrast – what Turp describes as its “idiosyncratic, hectic and downright life affirming” nature. “Hectic” is certainly one word to describe the traffic, with parking often erratic and pedestrians frequently treated as little more than a nuisance (for visitors planning to traverse the city, trams and buses are cheap if crowded; the Metro curiously retro in feel, as if one source of inspiration was the Glasgow Subway circa 1984).

“Idiosyncratic” works better on a macro level, illustrating social and cultural mores (and, perhaps, the contradictions therein). Not everybody here smokes but they may as well do, such is the gleeful abandon with which so many cigarettes are wielded. Not everyone is welcoming, but many of those we spoke to – such as the well-educated and relatively affluent Alina and friends – were open and optimistic, with excellent English and an enthusiasm for Europeanism (however loosely defined).

“I suppose this can appear a strange place,” Alina tells us, back in Lipscani. “There are rich people here, driving Audis and living in smart villas. But there are many more who are poor. Ordinary people sometimes feel that others are setting the agenda on their behalf – business people, politicians – which leaves many people, and older generations especially, confused and guarded.”

Does this mean that Bucharest is something of a contradiction? Stuck between the past and the future, between East and West?

Alina considers this for a moment. “I think that, for ordinary Romanians, many promises haven’t been met. Aspirations have not been met.” And then she laughs; “it’s why everyone in Bucharest is still living in these damn blocs.”

By which she means the utilitarian Communist-era apartment blocks that dominate the cityscape, define the cityscape, making Bucharest (population: two million) a compact and densely populated setting for everyday life. A couple of minutes in any direction, and you’re amid ugly buildings and sharp, unloved angles. Yet even the grimmest-looking streets suggest something above inertia; a recent lick of paint, a well-tended garden, an irreverent phrase – Against Modern Football – spray-painted onto a garage wall.

“The city is changing. Its people are changing,” Alina concludes before heading off into the night. “It’s change that’s too fast for some and too slow for others, but I think we have to embrace it, because what else have we?”

Turp too alludes to momentum when discussing Bucharest’s fortunes. “Recent changes have unquestionably been for the better, although as with any city that grows so quickly, the lack of a real vision for what kind of place Bucharest wants to be has meant that much of that growth has been chaotic, to say the least.”

Can chaos help to define the charm? 3am on a sultry, Old Town night, and with fresh beers on the table in front of us, it seemed as good a conclusion as any. In many respects, Bucharest feels like any other European capital you’d care to mention. Yet in others, it’s as if the chaos and the contrasts exist to undermine preconceived notions of what the urban represents in the early 21st century. Bucharest is flawed – like everywhere else – but it isn’t vain enough to scrape on face paint in an attempt to draw attention away from those flaws. For that stance alone, whether by accident or design, it’s a city that demands appreciation on its terms, not yours – elegant chaos, elegant contrasts, and all.