Bucharest: First Impressions

Traffic. Fifth worst urban traffic on Planet Earth, according to the TomTom global traffic index. Visit and you’ll learn why.

Picture Venice Boulevard in L.A., or maybe Wilshire. Grant yourself godlike powers. Add a couple of lanes, dirty it up, kill most of the median landscaping. Plug in guaranteed-to-gridlock traffic circles, antiquated signaling.

Traffic on Bulevardul Magheru in Bucharest, Romania

Traffic on Bulevardul Magheru in Bucharest, Romania

Hoist this monstrosity into the troposphere, swing it across the Atlantic, slam it like a cattle brand or drunken prison tattoo through the heart of a European metropolis. Jam it curb-to-curb with smoking, rumbling, honking, squealing battalions of cars, cars, cars. Regiments of cars. Car brigades. Car armies.

Thoroughfares worthy of this gruesome imagery await your discretionary tourist funds in Bucharest. City traffic so depressed me that I twice abandoned evening sightseeing plans, instead holed up disgustedly in my hotel.

Late communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu’s systematization schemes deserve some of the blame for current Bucharest traffic woes, but only some. The man’s been dead for awhile: a Romanian firing squad gunned him down on Christmas Day, 1989.

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Ceausescu ruled the Romanian roost from 1965 until death. He visited fellow commie fiefdom North Korea in 1971, nodded approvingly at Kim Il-sung’s personality cult, decided to encourage a personality cult of his own.

1978 rally. Fototeca online a comunismului românesc, photo 45286X66X71

1978 rally. Fototeca online a comunismului românesc, photo 45286X66X71

Mass propaganda rallies packed Romania’s stadiums; a half-million informers tattled on free-thinkers. Bucharest U flipped a quickie chemistry PhD to the first lady, a former night school drop-out, once expelled for cheating.

Ceausescu’s systematization razed more than three square miles of central Bucharest’s old town — demolished churches, synagogues, monasteries, a hospital; evicted 40,000 with a single day’s notice — to clear space for his Centrul Civic, anchored by the People’s House: the surrealistically huge Palace of the Parliament, today the world’s second largest administration building after the Pentagon.

Palace of the Parliament in Bucharest, Romania

Palace of the Parliament in Bucharest, Romania

Lonely Planet lists said palace as Bucharest’s top sight. Their Top Sight #2 is the Spring Palace, the Ceausescus’ personal lakeside villa. (Which includes an indoor pool, gold-tiled bathroom, private theater; Ceausescu watched U.S. shoot-’em-ups here, especially enjoyed Kojak.)

Lonely Planet chose well, but consider the bitter irony for Romania. Both palaces are testimony to Ceausescu’s rape of his sovereignty. Neither should exist.

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Romania is poor, thirty-first of forty-five listed European states for GDP per capita. It shows. Some blocks could star in a behind-the-Iron-Curtain Red Scare documentary.

City block in Bucharest, Romania

City block in Bucharest, Romania

Tourists should not expect to speed between airport and central city aboard a plush express train, as in bucks-up Oslo or Stockholm. Prepare to ride among suffering Romanians in an old, slow bus sans air conditioning.

Metro stations show age, although many trains look new. Tram interiors are utilitarian, workmanlike.

Piața Romană metro station in Bucharest, Romania

Piața Romană metro station in Bucharest, Romania

I don’t mind that Romania is poor. I can ride a reasonably tidy old bus or tram. I mind that Romania doesn’t get the loathsome hordes of cars, cars, cars out of the way, so a bus or tram can go somewhere.

Herastrau Park is green, gorgeous, lushly-forested, well worth a stroll. TripAdvisor ranks it Bucharest “thing to do” #1. I’m a little amazed that car-crazed Bucharest hasn’t yet slammed a superhighway through the middle of it. (Maybe next year?)

Ceausescu didn’t leave future tourist entrepreneurs much Old Town to work with, but the remaining blocks are pleasant, visit-worthy, chock-full of nice restaurants. Bucharest churches deserve a long look, too, but you’ll have to deal with traffic to get to them.

Old Town in Bucharest, Romania

Old Town in Bucharest, Romania

Education First ranks Romania high for English fluency. The star test takers must have been stuck in traffic while I was there; I communicated often with gestures and facial expressions.

Three fellow tourists offered rich praise for landmarks visited in Romania’s hinterlands. The Bran Castle, perhaps. The Râșnov Citadel. These tourists visited Bucharest, too, but only for a single day. I visited for three.

Smart tourists! I suggest following their lead, and not mine.

Practical Information

()  Nope, you won’t use € here. Romanians buy stuff with lei, aka RON. Current exchange rates are about 4.6 RON to 1 EUR.

Henri Coandă airport in Bucharest, Romania

Henri Coandă airport in Bucharest, Romania

()  Only one ATM at the airport sported the Plus/Cirrus symbol I look for when withdrawing funds in a local currency. It worked, though.

()  My Spanish mobile phone plan lets me roam easily in Europe. I didn’t experiment with a prepaid SIM.

()  Two express-in-name-only buses serve central Bucharest from the airport: the 783 to the Piata Unirii city heart, and the less-frequent-running 780 to the Gara de Nord (train station). The  Multiplu transit card sold at a ticket window by the airport bus stop will cover your travel toward Piata Unirii or Gara de Nord, and back again. The price? I’ve forgotten. Sorry. It’s inexpensive.

Ceausescus in 1986. Fototeca online a comunismului românesc, photo 44348X171X226

Ceausescus in 1986. Fototeca online a comunismului românesc, photo 44348X171X226

How ’bout if you want to ride a tram or trolley bus in Bucharest proper? You’ll need another Multiplu card, you poor luckless traveler, you, and it will look exactly like the Multiplu card you bought for the 780 or 783, so you’ll be sure to mix them up. (Unless you scribble something on the front of one, as you’re free to do.) I bought my second Multiplu at a ticket window by the Piata Sf. Gheorge tram stop.

And if you wish to ride the metro as well? Another card! Yes! A third, separate, non-interchangeable transit card! At least it looks different. I paid the equivalent of four euros for a ten trip card, also sold at a staffed ticket window.

Traffic in Bucharest, 2009. User Babu, commons.wikimedia.org

Traffic in Bucharest, 2009. User Babu, commons.wikimedia.org

()  The Palace of the Parliament wants you to book tours by phone by calling +40 733 558 102 or +40 733 558 103 the day before your visit.  “I’ll listen to Your call is very important to us. Please continue to hold. for ten minutes, and then the line will go dead,” thought pessimistic moi. Wrong-o! A live human picked up after three rings, tops, booked me for the 9:00 a.m. English tour the following day.

(“The tour sounds like too much trouble,” you think. “I’ll visit without one.” If they’d let you, sure! But they won’t.)

Interior of Palace of the Parliament in Bucharest, Romania

Interior of Palace of the Parliament in Bucharest, Romania

Bring your passport on tour day, and be ready to hand it over to a security staffer before your tour begins. You’ll get it back when you leave. I did, or I might still be in Romania.

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Photos!  Bucharest photos galore:  https://www.flickr.com/photos/36217981@N02/sets/72157683099064191

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