Travel

Belly of the Beast: Bucharest

The odd man of Eastern Europe, Romania’s capital Bucharest is one of the few that never quite emerged from its post-Communist transition era, holding on to an early-90s Prague version of ‘lifestyle’ that many of who rode the funny & chaotic nineties will find disturbingly nostalgic.

Gritty and hard on the outside, with crowded boulevards, ugly modernist architecture and decrepit neighborhoods, it lacks the laid-back charm of a Prague or Riga. And, though the stray dogs have all been shot in anticipation of EU accession, its unsmiling and sometimes suspicious residents seem still scarred by the horrid legacy of Ceausescu.

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Scratch a bit deeper as we did though (in the company of Omagiu, the city’s trendy, art mag) and the city reveals itself as having the energy and cultural sophistication of an Eastern Berlin. Contemporary art has a pull like nowhere else, and a new generation—who only came into being in the last few years—are busy fashioning an urban scene on the model of New York or London in the late 60s. Clubs, more numerous than elsewhere in the region, seem to capture the city’s giddy zeitgeist, its hunger for both the modern, Wallpaper*-designed nightspots and stylish, underground parties thrown together in an artist’s basement.

And, with Hollywood flocking East to shoot on the cheap, it even has its fair share of glamour, with Borat, Francis Ford Coppola, Wesley Snipes, Hugh Grant, and others passing through. Romanians, remnants of one of the last Roman tribes, have a Latin flair for dressing-up and partying, which belies the grim reality of their city.
Fortunately, the stags and other marauders who feed on new EU countries haven’t arrived yet, so head there now while it is still unsure of itself and keen for affirmation from the outside world.

NIGHTWATCH

Embryo

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This hi-tech, space-age club, with its white cylindrical interior and backlit bar vitrines, is to Bucharest today what Jazz Kafe was to Moscow of the mid 90s, or Radost to Prague of the early 90s. The beaumonde of this raffish, dizzying city gather here in their upscale clubbing best on most weekend nights, and dance around the DJ table with the cool restraint of the famous. Supposedly written up in a few cool architecture mags, Embryo is solid proof that Romania’s got some great designers and workers!

Nyets. Girls shy away when a stranger chats them up; a bit too pretentious for its own good; and, ridiculously overpriced drinks. €10 for a rum and coke.

Str. Ion Oteteleseanu 3a
Open: Thurs-Sat
www.embryo.ro

Kristal Glam Club

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Brilliant Commie-retro nightclubbing style that hasn’t really exploited in the region, except for Berlin. Giant 70s chandeliers hang over a vast auditorium—that must have been a theater in the old days—made bright with tens of giant TV screens, white couches on the bleachers, and black bars on both sides. No slacker on the musical front either, it brings top-name international DJs to spin for the cool crowd. We caught local sensation, The Model, and Munich’s DJ Hell, bootstrapping the crowd with their wicked tunes and VJ clips on a recent Saturday.
Nyets. Too many jealous boyfriends eager for a fight; too many TV screens; and, overpriced drinks.

Str. J. S. Bach 2
Open: Thurs-Sun
www.clubkristal.ro

Studio Martin

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We never made it here but all the top DJs, and party animals, speak of it with a certain reverence, so it must rock. An alternative to Kristal, it also brings in wicked DJs, and throws themed parties on the weekend that jam out the huge space.
Nyets. Bet there’s jealous bos prowling around here too.

Str.Iancu De Hunedoara 61

The Office
The first club to bring contemporary nightlife culture to Bucharest, its name elicits a sort of ‘ah, yes, that place’ response from the in-crowd. Once there though, it’s nothing impressive in comparison to Embryo or Kristal: its late 80s glam interior of dark leather couches and shadowed lamps is dated, and so is its pretentious, wanna-be-yuppie vibe.
Nyets. A club for bankers and other office worker types

Str. Tache Ionescu 2
Open: Thurs-Sunday
www.theoffice.ro

WebClub
An underground club, more like Prague’s Roxy, it has a more intimate and quirky feel than the others. Emerging DJs spin in the cosy dance area, while Bucharest’s bohemian scenesters cluster in groups in the front bar with its frayed couches, while cool films (Avalon was playing while we were there) are projected on the walls. Affordable drinks and chatty bartenders add to its convivial atmosphere. (Many Omagiu parties held here.)
Nyet. Might be too artsy for some. Two mainstream Dutch girls I met at Amsterdam Bar and brought along fled after ten minutes.

Bulevardul Mihalache 12
www.webclub.ro

GOURMAND

Waterloo
We love Belgian fondue, steaks and beers, and tend to judge Eastern European capitals by the level of their Flemish cuisine. Kiev has an excellent Belgian restaurant chain, and so does Prague, but the Baltics are lagging. (Open one in Tallinn or Riga please!) This intimate place, with its wooden tables and kitsch décor inside was an excellent hangover recipe. After a couple of strong Duvel beers, fondue, Belgian fries and spicy beef, we were ready for the streets of Bucharest again.

Str. Traian 188
Open: 12-24

Haveli
I’m Indian, and could easily devote a blog to the merits of the various Indian restaurants in this region. Things have improved considerably in most places, but I imagined Bucharest still liked its curry from tinned vegetables and ketchup, circa Prague 1992. “Visiting an Indian restaurant here will destroy your mood,” warned Ioana from Omagiu. But I stuck it out and dragged a friend to Haveli—and ended up overeating as always. This is Indian food good enough for most of us, with thick spicy curries, crispy papadums and fluffy rice. Sure, there were no condiments on the side, and the bread was dry, but give some points for their location.

Str. Episcop Rada 3.
Open. 12-23.30
Tel. 31-405 73 70

Uptown
Ioana adores this place and we can see why. The chic restaurant, snuggled in the city’s leafy embassy district, caters to the city’s moneyed scenesters who seem to like preening on its glamorous outdoor terrace or in the bright white rooms upstairs with their Nordic feeling. The Italianesque food is mediocre and a bit overpriced but that’s not the reason most people come here.

Str. Rabat 2
Tel. 231 40 77
Open: Daily 10am-12 pm

Amsterdam
Guidebooks rave about this Dutch-owned restaurant/café, but it left us cold. While the Belgians can cook, the Dutch copy their neighbors instead and so the European-lite that passes for their food is blander than most would assume. Although cozy and well-worn, with murals of Amsterdam on the walls, the place doesn’t really deliver. Prices are too high for the level of service and quality.
The Indonesian restaurant upstairs is also said to be rather bland. It has the feel of the Mexican restaurants opened by ‘gringos’.

Str. Covaci 6
Open. Everyday from 10 – 1 am

La Mama
Romanian food, like Serbian, is heavy, with lots of grilled meats, soups and heavy bread. There’s no better venue to dose up on the local food than this campy restaurant, with its live folk shows featuring semi-naked girls gyrating to gypsy music. The crowd’s pretty authentic too, made up of entire families celebrating together, heavyset businessmen and well-dressed couples shouting to talk over the music. Try shots of palinka, a local fruit brandy, to wash down dessert.

Str. Barbu Văcărescu 3
Tel: 212 40 86
MORNING AFTER (if you make it, that is!)

Palatul Parlamentuiui (Casa Poporului)
Just do it. We love this monstrosity, cos it’s not just a beast, but a two-backed ogre, buried eight floors into the ground. A nuclear bunker in case of emergencies, the white Christmas cake rises twelve stories high above and takes up at least sixteen city blocks. Separated from the rest of the city by massive walls, a leafy park and then a moat, it is a huge and lonely paranoiac still staring fiercely out at the city it once ruled.

A tour of the forbidding insides will take you past grand staircases, huge congress halls, vast chandeliers and miles of fraying red carpet. The largest room, the Sala Unirii, has a sliding ceiling that could accommodate a helicopter if necessary!
There were plans to blow up the building after Communism but common sense prevailed. Today it houses the parliament, a modern conference center and an edgy contemporary art museum (see below).

The National Museum of Contemporary Art
There couldn’t be a stranger location for an ambitious museum: Housed in the Communist monstrosity that is Ceausescu’s House of the People, Housed in Ceausescu’s House of the People, it only comes into view after a forbidding walk through a side entrance of the edifice. Once outside, metal detectors screen visitors as at an airport. It’s all a bit eerie but the imaginative and modern interior is worth the trip. Five floors are devoted to modern art, much of it video and installation art. A recent exhibition by Romanian artist Irina Botea is a video of students in Chicago auditioning for roles in the reenactment of the Romanian revolution.

PS. Best view of Bucharest from its outdoor terrace. You can even see the exit holes to Ceausescu’s underground nuclear bunkers in the fields beyond.

House of the People
Open. Wed-Sun 10-6
www.mnac.ro

Piata Revolutiei
Ceausescu gave his final speech on the low balcony of the Roman-style Communist Party building that still dominates this fair square that slopes towards downtown below. Booed by the crowd for the first time in his reign, the dictator angrily withdrew, while police fired on the demonstrators. Today, a white marble triangle with an eulogy to the martyrs points in the direction of the building. Bullet holes are still visible more than fifteen years later in the buildings opposite. Creepy!

Historic Center (Centru Istoric)
Yes, Bucharest does have a pedestrian Old Town. It’s tiny and more urban than charming city centers in Krakow or Riga, but it has a unique vibe heightened by the sturdy Baroque buildings that lend the area a Central European glamour. My friend had a balcony room at the Hotel Rembrandt and we spent hours drinking outside while soaking in the brilliant view above the city’s few golden domes. The House of People could be glimpsed solid in the distance beyond, like a sentry standing guard.

The streets of the quarter are vibrant with creative graffiti, kids playing hooky, and stylish lounge bars like Loggia, where Gojira was spinning. There’s a cool, very red, coffee place next door that has a Mad Hatter’s tea party feel about it. Amsterdam Pub is also in the neighborhood and so are some funky student bars. For the shopper, there’s quite a few small art galleries, antique shops and fashion boutiques to explore.

MORE HOT PLACES TO BE…

KIEV

MOSCOW

PRAGUE

RIGA

TALLINN

WARSAW

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