Thursday, 17th May, 2007 – Bucharest, Day 1
Well, Bucharest… The sound of traffic chaos (engine’s revving, horns blaring, traffic cops blowing whistles) and of dogs, feral or otherwise, barking their heads off. The scent of honeysuckle mingling with poor drains and cigarette smoke. The sight of beggars with faces so wrinkled they could be a map of the street system, the decaying grandeur of the houses in Sector 4, all crumbling porticoes and potholes in the streets, and the absurd opulence of the Presidential Palace, with 200 crystal chandeliers, silk and gold curtains, and marble columns as far as the eye can see. It’s a place of contrast so extreme as to make it feel as if you’re not in an EU country at all.
We arrived on Thursday after a long journey, what with the time difference (GMT+ 2), and the fact that it’s a good 3 hours flying time. It didn’t take us long to get through passport control and retrieve our baggage, and we were rapidly out into the arrivals area. As promised the hotel had sent a pair of cars to collect the five of us, and we very quickly found out why the advice we’d been given was very firm about not getting a hire car. The traffic is insane. There may be three lanes painted on the road, but there were five or even six lines of cars occupying those lanes. Our driver chopped and changed lanes in the blink of an eye, and made us very glad we’d fastened our seat belts (the driver tried to tell us it wasn’t necessary – hah!). The traffic was unbelievably snarled up, not helped by the fact that some of the roads had been closed off to accommodated the race meeting. None of that phased our boy though. Nor did the roadworks. He just jinked onto the coned off bit and kept going till there was a digger in the way. Then he just barged back through the cones again… It was all rather disconcerting recently, as was the solid bang when he clipped a kerb, forcing his way through a gap that didn’t entirely exist. I’ve had some scary taxi rides in my time, but this one went right to the top of the list. Worryingly, both cars left the airport together, but our driver made it to the hotel about 20-25 minutes ahead of his colleague! We eventually made it to our accommodation, the rather impressive looking Prince Residence, where we’d booked a collection of apartments. The neighbourhood has obviously been very impressive once in the past, but is now rather broken down and crumbling. It’s possibly on its way back up now, but maybe not. I could see why some travellers reviewed the hotel by saying they felt the neighbourhood was too dangerous to go out in, but frankly they hadn’t looked properly in that case. Apart from the odd feral dog, it was perfectly safe to go out at night, so long as you watched where you put your feet (dogs) and didn’t fall down any of the numerous potholes and bits of broken kerb. Oh, and so long as you also didn’t get run over by speeding madmen in old cars… The Romanians park on the pavements (presumably to avoid the maniac drivers running into their cars), so mostly you have to walk in the road outside the city centre! We discovered that our apartment overlooked the Patriarch’s Palace, which the hotel rather grandiosely – in an attack of ludicrous hyperbole – claimed was Bucharest’s equivalent of the Vatican. Er… no, not really. Judge for yourselves.
Here are the gardens… And yes, that’s about all there is of them!
And the building, or at least as much as we could see of it.
Anyway, we unpacked and then decided to head out to eat. We took advice from the guidebook found on the very useful inyourpocket.com, a site that seems to cover a number of places in Eastern Europe. They were very scathing about a number of restaurants, so we located some in the old town that they actually recommended and so we set off armed with a list, a map and a determination to eat dinner! After taking our lives in our hands crossing the Piata Unirii – yes there are pedestrian crossings but a red light has no effect on most cab drivers, tram drivers, bus drivers or any other homicidal maniac in charge of a vehicle – We found the very wonderful l’Harmattan, a Moroccan/French restaurant, where aubergines, couscous royale, and some excellent red wine didn’t exactly break the bank at around £15 a head! It was very good and we eventually waddled back across the Piata – dodging the traffic which never seems to stop and being barked at by every dog we passed – and so back to the hotel and bed. We had an early start ahead of us on Friday.
A corner of the Piata Unirii in a relatively quiet moment – this in no way does justice to the mayhem…