Where: Romania (Bucharest and Brasov in Transylvania).
When: July 2009.
Why: Me and G (my brother and I) went to the B’Est Fest in Bucharest Est and had a city break in Bucharest whilst there.
Bucharest surprised me in a way I haven’t been surprised in a long time. Romania felt very ‘abroad’, which you don’t find so much in this globalised-generic world. In Romania everything was familiar and yet slightly different. It wasn’t an easy place to be in – but my God, it was fascinating. No matter what I write later, no matter how frustrating it was, I left feeling that I really liked Romania and would love to go back – even though whilst we were there, at times I thought ‘I’m really not enjoying this.’
Bucharest is a city of contradictions and contrasts. For example, Bucharest is full of beautiful, Parisian style buildings right next to ugly, concrete, Soviet tower blocks, falling to pieces. Romanian is the language most closely resembling Latin (which French, Spanish and even English are based upon) but it was virtually impossible to understand and the Romanians didn’t understand us when we tried English, Spanish, French or German. Bucharest has a great public transport system, but it was almost impossible to understand how to use it.
At times we felt as if we were in Paris or Milan because Bucharest has many wonderful tree-lined, wide boulevards, great parks and its very own Arc de Triomphe. In places it is very, very beautiful but in others terribly ugly. A very interesting place to visit.
We went to Bucharest primarily for the Bucharest B’Est festival, but we had a few spare days after the event and so we had time to explore Bucharest and time for a day trip. We knew we didn’t have time to see a lot of the country so we decided to take the train to Transylvania. We should have had some time in the medieval town of Brasov, but it didn’t quite work out (see below). However, we still really enjoyed the train journey, as it was wonderful to see more of Romania. Transylvania is amazing. The Carpathian mountains are stupendous. This area is very wild, rural and very undeveloped. There were tiny cottages in the woods with haystacks in the back garden. They looked like something from a fairy tale.
Romania has come a long way in the last 25 years, though it’s still not perhaps as developed as some of its European neighbours, such as Hungary. Romania underwent a violent and dramatic revolution in 1989. I can remember watching this on television: bullets being fired in the city, big crowds hiding and Caucescu and his wife trying to escape. I also remember all the poor children in the orphanages after the revolution and the work that was undertaken to help these children. Although Romania is developing it does seem to be much poorer than the rest of Europe and much less developed – but in some ways this is what makes it so magic and unspoiled.
I’d love to go back to Romania to explore further; to get away from the cities and into the mountains. I suspect it has developed a lot since we were there, but hopefully it is still just as fascinating and cool.
Whilst researching this page I have discovered that Baneasa Airport has now closed and most flights come into Henri Coandă International Airport, which is slightly further out of the city.
Getting to the city from the airport
Ha. Don’t ask!
We were told in every guidebook not to get a taxi from the airport as we’d be ripped off, and as it initially looked quite easy to get the bus we decided to do that. However, there were no signs for buses anywhere at the airport and after tromping around for a bit, ignoring all the blatant lies the taxi drivers told us, we finally asked a policeman. ‘It’s over there’ he said, generally gesturing in the direction of the main road. Just as we got to the main road a bus pulled up saying Plaza Unrii – which we knew was in the city centre, so we jumped on. Again, in the guidebooks we’d been told you could buy tickets on the buses. We couldn’t. We tried to ask the driver where to get tickets but he just ignored us. Then we realised that the bus was travelling in the wrong direction and we were actually travelling out of the city…
Eventually, we came to the other, bigger airport and we got off here as we thought there might be someone who could help us and direct us to a bus going in the right direction and show us where we could buy tickets. Here we were directed to the right bus and to the tiny window from which we could buy tickets. It cost us 50p to get to get to the city centre. It took us three hours to travel the 8km to our hotel.
On the way back into the city we did pass the right bus stop. It was on the other side of the crazy busy, main road. There was no crossing and there were huge road works and big holes in the middle of the road.
So, I’ve discovered that finding out information about Romania is never easy and even whilst updating this page I’ve found loads of misinformation. I wrote a huge section about how to get into the city from Baneasa airport, but then I found out that the airport closed in 2012 and all flights now apparently go into Henri Coandă International Airport.
Bus 783 runs from Henri Coandă International Airport to Piața Unirii. Bus 780 runs to Bucharest Nord station. Catching the 780 back to the airport is complicated. Wikitravel can explain.
Bucharest has trams, buses and a metro system. However, most of the main sights are in quite a compact area and so if you’re just visiting the centre of the city you probably won’t need to get public transport, apart from to and from the airport.
We walked for most journeys in Bucharest, apart from when we traveled to Bucharest Nord station on the Metro.
Google maps has a local journey planner embedded into its map.
What we did on our holiday
We primarily went to Bucharest for the B’Est fest (Bucharest Est Fest – see what they’ve done there).
The festival was held in a concrete car park at Romexpo (the Romanian exhibition centre) and it was good. It was small, there was a fake beach, lots of places to sit, loads of bars, clean loos with no queues, interesting sausages, a silent disco, two adjacent stages (so you didn’t have to wait through sound checks) and it was £1 a pint!
We saw Gabriella Climini (who’d flown in on the same flight as us), Us 3 (replacing the Klaxons), Franz Ferdinand and Orbital. We ended the day in the silent disco, with the Klaxons and Franz Ferdinand on the decks.
What I remember about this day is that it was the day that Michael Jackson had died and so one of the DJs in the silent disco was only playing Michael Jackson songs, including the Richard Cheese covers. It was really surreal dancing to Richard Cheese in a silent disco in Romania.
A one day ticket for the festival cost 150 lei (about £30) and we bought the tickets at the festival gates. We could have bought the tickets in advance online, but the payment section was in Romanian and very confusing – so we just decided to get them on the gate. At the gate we had some trouble with touts, who were standing by a metal barrier pretending to be security guards, checking and selling tickets. Luckily I guessed that they weren’t legit (no lanyards, outfits, official merchandise etc) and so I insisted that we wanted to go to the main gate to buy the tickets – which we did.
B’Est fest appears not to run every year and their website doesn’t have anything on it at the moment, but they do have a Facebook group where you can find out more information.
Train to Transylvania (Saturday)
After a late night in the silent disco, G dragged me out of bed (thanks kid) to get a train to Transylvania.
We caught the train from Bucharest Nord station. We bought our tickets at the train station.
We planned to go to Brasov, which is in the heart of the Carpathian Mountains, near to Dracula’s castle, which is actually called Bran Castle. We knew we wouldn’t have time to visit Bran castle as it is still an hour from Brasov, but we wanted to visit this medieval, Saxon town which has a citadel and ancient walls.
In the end though, because our train was delayed, we only had half an hour in Brasov – just enough time to buy some bananas. The advertised train times were not the current train times and our train out was delayed by a massive thunderstorm. As the town centre was 2km from the station, we only had time to see a car park and a supermarket before we had to get the train back.
However, the train journey was wonderful and well worth the time and cost: it was great to clickety clack through the wild woods of the Carpathian mountains; past small, isolated cottages sitting in clearings in the forests, with haystacks and smoking chimneys; past raging, whote water rivers. On the train back (a Rapide) we had our own compartment and we could hang out of the window in the corridor and gaze up at the stupendous mountain vistas. It was a great way to see more of Romania.
The countryside in Transylvania is wild and beautiful. The train trundles along through a landscape of fairytale forests, where Goldilocks and the three bears and Hansel and Gretel live; past the craggy Carpathians, where the Snow Queen and Dracula hide amongst the craggy peaks. It’s a magical landscape which I’d love to explore further.
The journey from Bucharest to Brasov took three and a half hours each way and cost us 75 lei for a return ticket (£15 ish). Buying the tickets, and ensuring we’d been sold the correct tickets was really hard – but we got there in the end.
You can find Romanian train times and book tickets (in English) at bilete.cfrcalatori.ro. On this website, Bucharest is Bucuresti.
The Man at Seat 61 website has information about travelling by train in Romania, including information about the facilities at Bucharest Nord. However for specific train times you need to visit the website listed above.
The toilets at Bucharest Nord station were horrible and so were the toilets on the train. However, there was a MacDonalds at the station which had pretty clean loos.
Explored Bucharest (Sunday)
Bucharest old town
The historical district of Bucharest sits north of Piața Unirii, south of Plaza Revolution, west of Plaza University and Plaza Romana and east of Calea Victoria. Here there are many beautiful buildings, lovely churches and great outdoor cafes.
Graham and I spent a few hours wandering around and exploring in the glorious sunshine.
In particular we went to:
Piața Unirii (Unification Square) is a very large square in the centre of Bucharest. It is a good place to head to if you are looking to orientate yourself within the city. It feels like the heart of the city.
Apart from the fountains, a few shops, a large shopping centre and some Soviet tower blocks, there is not a lot actually in the square – but it is an interesting place to visit, and feels like the heart of the city.
The boulevard which runs to the Palace of the Parliament runs through the south side of the square, roads lead off south to the cathedral and to the north is the historical district.
Piața Unirii is one of the main transport interchanges and here you can get many buses (including the bus to the airport), the underground and the trams.
Palace of the Parliament (PoP)
The Palace of the Parliament (PoP) is the gigantic parliament building commissioned by the former Romanian dictator, Nicolai Caucescu. It is said to be the 2nd largest building in the world, though according to Wikipedia it is only the third largest in the world after the Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center in Florida and the Temple of the Feathered Serpent in Teotihuacan, Mexico. It is, however, the heaviest building in the world.
The PoP was commissioned by Nicolai Caucescu after an earthquake in 1977 destroyed much of the city. To build the palace, a large area of the old city was knocked down and 40,000 people displaced. To keep construction costs low, the building work was done via the forced labour of soldiers. Apparently many people died during construction; perhaps thousands.
The Palace of the Parliament really messed with my head because my eyes simply couldn’t comprehend the sheer scale of the building: It’s ginormous! It’s obscene. It has the weirdest perspective. If you have a look at the photo above and then look at the size of the flag in front of the palace or the people on the balcony – this is the only way that you can appreciate how BIG this building is.
The building today contains the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies, the National Museum of Contemporary Art (MNCA), the Museum of Communist Totalitarianism (which was created in 2015, so after our visit) the Museum of the Palace AND a conference center. Even then, it is 70% empty. The PoP also has an extensive tunnel network underneath which the Top Gear boys raced around in the Top Gear Romania special.
We wanted to take an official tour of the inside of PoP so that we could see the infamous opulence and decadence of the previous administration but we couldn’t find where to get in. We walked pretty much all the way around the building and couldn’t find the tour entrance anywhere.
We did manage to get inside to see some of the building though, as at the rear was the National Museum of Contemporary Art (MNCA) which contained some interesting, modern art exhibitions. This was free.
Nowadays all the visiting information is online and you can find opening times, ticket prices and book tours (in English) at cic.cdep.ro. If you do go on a tour you need to take your passport with you to get past security.
Piata Revolucion (Revolution Square)
Situated at the north end of Calea Victoria is Piata Revolucion. Piata Revolucion used to be named Palace Square, as this is where the royal palace is, but after the 1989 revolution the square was renamed.
In Piata Revolucion you’ll find the old Royal Palace (now the National Museum of Romanian Art), a nice red church, some interesting statues and, just around the corner, the Roman Archaeology museum.
Piata Revolucion is where the focus of the 1989 revolution was and there are a number of statues here in tribute to those who died. The communist headquarters were located here and it was from here that former dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu and his wife tried to escape the revolution by helicopter (I remember watching that on TV).
Unfortunately we did not have time to stop to explore the square and the buildings as we had to get the bus back to the airport. If we do go back however, this is the first area that I would like to return to to explore further.
What we didn’t on our holiday
Arc de Triomphe
Between the airports and the town centre we passed Bucharest’s very own Arc de Triomphe (Arcul de Triumf), which sits in the middle of a traffic roundabout.
Bucharest is full of wonderful parks. When we drove to the airport, we passed by many of these and they looked like wonderful places to go for a stroll and a relax, with boating lakes and designed gardens.
Wikitravel has a list of the parks.
Palace of the Parliament tour
As noted above, we walked around the outside of the Palace of the Parliament but we couldn’t work out how to go on a tour of the interior. If we go back, this is definitely something I would do. More details and links for booking the tours are above.
Bucharest also has lots of small, interesting looking museums, though the only one I think I would really make a point of visiting is the National Museum which contains paleolithic and Roman remains from Romania.
Where we ate and drank
Quite surprisingly, Bucharest had some really nice bars and restaurants and quite a happening nightlife. Goldie played whilst we were there.
Cara cu Bere
Possibly one of the most beautiful pubs I have ever been in. Cara cu Bere is a traditional Bavarian beer hall, filled with beautiful dark wood walls, stunning stained glass and opulent paintings. They had great beer, great sausages and a really good menu. The service was atrocious, though I’m sure boys will appreciate the Bavarian milkmaid outfits the waitresses wore.
About half way along Calea Victoria is the beautiful, horse shoe shaped Macca-Villacrosse Arcade. Here there are many cool bars and restaurants, serving cocktails and shisha-pipes. Chairs and tables spilled out into the arcade, creating a large, friendly amalgamation of a crowd, relaxing and having fun, clouded in sweet smoke and cool music. A capriani cocktail cost me about £3.
Calea Smardan is the road which runs between the old post office and Piata Unrii.
We found lots of lovely and funky bars on Calea Smartan. We had pizza here at 1 o.clock in the morning.
Where we stayed
Ramada Bucharest Majestic Hotel
This was an okay hotel though not as nice as some other Ramadas I have stayed in. Our room was okay, they had a good breakfast and it was in a central location. They had a swimming pool but it cost £5 to use, even if you were a resident. (Boooooo).
- When we were there in 2009, many of the squares, roads and the airports appeared to have been renamed relatively recently. At the time we found that some places had two names, and this could be confusing. Luckily, Google Maps now covers the city and so could help with navigating.
- There were loads of ATMs across Bucharest.
- The weather when we were there was really hot, although we did need jackets in the more mountainous areas.
- Try to avoid touts and just stick to official services. Wikitravel seems to suggest there are a lot if tout scams in Bucharest, especially with taxis.
- Romanian customer service was rubbish.
- What’s through the little window? It’s the ticket seller or a shop.
- We didn’t see any Dracula merchandising. Boo.
The Telegraph has a pretty good, up-to-date article about Bucharest: 16 reasons you should make Bucharest your next city break.
Please note, some, if not much of this information may not be correct, or may be out of date. All these articles show is how we found these places when we visited and what we personally thought of each place. Where possible I will include links to site which will contain more up-to-date info. All of this is my own work and any opinion expressed is that of the author only.
If you think I’ve missed something important or have got something wrong, please let me know in the comments section below.
All photos copyright of J Clemo-Halpenny. If you would like to copy or reproduce any of these images, please email me to ask permission.