Post 2 of a series detailing our Eastern Europe road trip. View all the posts so far here.
We stayed in the Romanian capital of Bucharest with the express purpose of attending Summer Well Festival, but made sure to have sufficient time to explore the city as well. My enduring image of Bucharest is one of broad roads, high-rise offices and concrete – hardly a tourism destination. But for the tourist passing through to more picturesque spots it offers an endless supply of comfort food and an enlightening trip back in time.
Bucharest airport is not an efficient operation, and we endured a long wait to retrieve our hold luggage. Thankfully our Airbnb host was very patient, and, having told us exactly what bus to get, he then met us at the bus stop to walk us to the apartment. Once he’d given us a walk-round initiation we went to the supermarket next door to buy breakfast and snack supplies.
Introduction to the communist tower block
This apartment was the first of many on our Eastern European road trip to be housed within a tower block built in the communist era. For me these became defined by concrete hallways, tiny rickety lifts, and unreliable water supply.
The lifts in these buildings are narrow, flimsy-walled boxes large enough only for two people standing close together, with doors that have to be manually opened and shut every time you enter and leave. If anyone on any floor neglects to close the doors after use the lift will cease to operate. Most worrying of all was the violent mechanical shaking that happened every now and then after you pressed the button for the floor you wanted. Truly a claustrophobic’s nightmare!
The door of our Bucharest apartment frequently refused to open, requiring a very precise wiggling of the key to make it give way. Our host tried to fix the problem for us, but the struggle continued up until we left.
The biggest inconvenience – though it couldn’t have been helped – was the lack of hot water. When we reported this to our host, he phoned the council and reported back that there was a problem with the whole building’s water supply that was being fixed. The problem persisted throughout our four-night stay.
A pleasantly surprising dinner
Hungry after a long day of travelling, we went in search of food close to our apartment and found a Romanian restaurant called Thalia. We were spoilt for choice by the large menu.
I went for the ‘A La Romana’ chicken schnitzel while Steve chose a lamb dish, however, minutes later the chef came out to tell us they had “no more sheep”. Instead he offered to “make a surprise” and asked if Steve liked “pig meat”, to which Steve replied in the affirmative. The surprise turned out to be a delicious pork ragout with roast potatoes and sour cream. My Romanian-style schnitzel was bursting with oozing mozzarella, and accompanied by butter-sautéed broccoli that was the most delicious I’ve ever tasted. We were too full for dessert.
The Village Museum
The following morning began with croissants and tea in the living room, and our first taste of Romanian television. We identified our two favourite channels: one showing an eclectic mix of rock music videos, the other a continuous stream of people in traditional costume singing old folk songs. Afterwards we took a trip on the metro to the Village Museum.
Bucharest’s village museum is an impressive collection of houses and other buildings built at different points in time. They’re laid out over a large area of parkland as if it was a real village, which really contributes to the feeling that you’ve gone back in time. After paying the low entry fee you’re free to walk around for as long as you like, until the museum closes.
There are all manner of buildings to see, including straw-thatched cottages, log cabins, churches, windmills, barns, wells and weaving sheds. Each one is painted and furnished in a traditional style, and has an information board telling you when it was built. We also came across a lone donkey, and an animal pen filled with goats.
There’s a café and bar inside the museum where we stopped for lunch: a couple of lack-lustre salads. The saving grace was the ice cream, which we much appreciated in the scorching heat! That night we went to the Summer Well Festival ‘night picnic‘.
Bucharest’s old town
On our last day in the city we caught the bus to Bucharest’s old town, which appeared to me like an oasis of elegance within the urban sprawl. This central area retains pedestrianised streets and attractive classical architecture, and contains most of the city’s tourist attractions and shops.
As we wandered the area we dipped in and out of souvenir shops and peered inside the old churches. The most interesting church was the Stavropoleos Monastery, built in 1724. This small stone-built church is made special by its painted murals, which coat the church’s inside walls and ceiling completely. It’s free to enter.
Caru cu bere
The long-established and well-known restaurant Caru cu Bere is the jewel in the crown of Bucharest’s old town. Though a little more expensive than similar restaurants, it offers unfussy traditional Romanian food in a beautiful baroque building that’s filled with polished dark wood, spiral staircases and resplendent stained-glass windows.
We were sat on the dimly lit mezzanine level. From the extensive menu I ordered the Moldovian stew with polenta and grated cheese, while Steve had a traditional dish of pork and smoked sausage with polenta and picked cabbage. Both dishes were really warming and satisfying, and I particularly enjoyed the cosy combination of cheese and polenta!
For dessert we shared a single but giant serving of Romanian doughnuts with sweet cheese, jam, semi-dried cherries and sour cream. This traditional dish is called Papanasi, and is quintessentially Eastern European in its glorious stodgy sweetness. The restaurant generously offered to split the single dessert onto two plates, but we still struggled to finish our half portions! Yes, Caru cu Bere is touristy, but I’d still recommend it for a great introduction to traditional Romanian food.
There were many more indulgent Romanian dinners to look forward to over the rest of our Eastern European road trip. From Bucharest, we went on to see beautiful Brasov and charming Sibiu, which I’ll cover in my next blog posts.
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