2023 Travelogue: Bucharest

I spent most of a week in Bucharest for work, and took the opportunity to do one of my favorite things: exploring how post-communist cities have gotten on.

In the last year, I’ve added a pan-European responsibility to my job. I pair with my colleague in the UK to help shape our data business across Europe, and one of the implications of this is that I have to travel from time to time to visit offices in our various countries and to convene with regional leadership. I was actually thrilled to learn that we’d be setting up a series of workshops in Romania this winter, as it meant I’d get the chance to see a city I’ve wanted to see for a while: Bucharest.

When I started traveling Europe in early 2017, I was fascinated by how communism fell in Europe. As an American, I was taught/propagandized that life in the communist era was dictatorial and restrictive. I know now that this was overblown; at the same time, the Berlin Wall existed, and the revolutions to overthrow communist dictators happened. I started my travels in Prague six years ago. Last year, I visited Albania, one of the last regimes to fall. A few months ago, I visited Gdańsk, where Lech Wałęsa helped lead a workers' movement and helped found the Solidarność movement.

In 1989, a wave of revolutions swept across communist nations in Europe. These ranged from the Singing Revolution in the Baltics to the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia. Most of these revolutions were peaceful; of them, only Romania’s involved large-scale deadly violence.

Visiting post-communist cities is like watching capitalism as an experiment in real-time. In Tirana, a boom of competing investment between Türkiye and the European Union has led to a somewhat chaotic and imbalanced investment, visible in conflicting architectural styles and infrastructural conditions from street to street. In Czechia, EU membership (and proximity to Germany) has led to significant development investment in the urban centers, but the satellite cities still bear crumbling façades of the unkept soviet concete.

Bucharest remains in a similar transitional phase. Smog-stained concrete buildings slowly chip and weather in front of sidewalks and streets dotted with construction zones. The wide, straight, planned city boulevards are designed now for cars. Modern standards like curb cuts are largely missing, making the few times I rented a scooter somewhat perilous. I crashed once, twisting my ankle but ending no worse for wear. At time I couldn’t really determine if the city was half coming apart or half coming together. There’s probably a bit of both that’s true.

The Bucharest TV building, a gorgeous brutalist structure with a big antenna on top

Still, it’s hard to determine what forces are to blame? Is it the lingering legacy of Ceaușescu’s failed economic policies that held the people in poverty, or is it the viscious indifference of capitalism that has had the greater effect? I visited the week of the horrific earthquake in Türkiye. On a tour, our guide told us, “we are worried here because we had an earthquake in 1977. But we are scared of the new buildings, because after the earthquake Ceaușescu ordered buildings to be built as strong as possible, and today they just make them cheap.”

The tour was arranged by my company, and we took a small excursion to Ceaușescu’s mansion, which is a fantastic example both in the contradictions (see what I did there) of his regime as well as the somewhat overstatedness of the western propaganda. His mansion was certainly decadent, with its own indoor swimming pool and apartments for each of his three children, particularly when viewed in comparison to the poverty of rural Romania, but compared to western elegance, it was fairly mundane. It was certainly no “let them eat cake” vibe.

Mural in the pool room of Ceaușescu’s mansion

Bucharest’s old city is punctuated by clubs and strip bars, by hispter cafés and quirky shops. It’s pleasant, like the Innenstädte of so many other cities. One of my colleagues told me, “sometimes people come here and ask, ‘do you have coffee?’ Come on, we are a European city.” Indeed, “Paris of the East” is an appropriate moniker for its architectural charm, just with a bit more Brutalism sprinkled between the Art Nouveau and Neoclassicalism.

A creperie food truck

Bucharest’s jewel is the Palatul Parlamentului, which after the Pentagon claims the title of second largest administrative building in the world. It is truly a wonder to behold, a massive structure built as the “House of the People”. Ceaușescu demolished parts of the old city to build a massive civic district, following North Korea’s lead. He wouldn’t live to see it finished, as he was executed years before its completion in 1997.

A couple hugs in the plaza in front of Palatul Parlamentului

If there is one complaint to make about my trip, it’s that Berlin’s airport is so badly connected that our only direct flight is with the unforgivably bad Ryanair. I was happy enough to transit through Vienna, but it added significant time to my travel in both directions. Berlin not having direct flagship carrier connections to EU capital cities is unforgivable. But my complains about Berlin’s airport will come in a future post. Bucharest is a city whose charms lie in its blemishes and its history. It’s people are charming and hospitable, and it endeavours very much to be like its western counterparts. I’m looking forward to a summer visit sometime soon.

Posted: 05.03.2023

Built: 22.02.2024

Updated: 24.04.2023

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