Romania is a place I’ve wanted to go for a while now. I was inspired by the mental images of its old Eastern European traditions, the imposing Government palaces, locals driving Dacia branded cars, meals consisting mostly of cabbage and/or polenta and perhaps bumping into the legendary 1990’s footballer Gheorghe Hagi. Probably not wearing his conspicuous yellow Romanian football top though so maybe I did see him and just didn’t realise it! So how better to experience some of this than on a Bucharest walking tour with Bucharest Walkabout Free Walking Tours.
Bucharest walking tour
My friend Ket had already mentioned the walking tour to me for our first full day in the city … on a cold, late February Saturday morning. You never quite know what to expect with free tours where you simply turn up (no booking required) so we were pleased to see about 50 people gathered for the tour. We were split down the middle into two groups and ended up with our guide Alex. She spoke ever so clearly and had an array of A3 size laminated photos to aid the tour. Fact: apparently Romanians can understand many other languages although it’s not so easy to understand Romanian due to its Slavic influences.
The meeting point
You meet at Unirii Square Park, by the clock next to the fountains for 10:30am. We were giving an initial spiel about where we stood in the old Uranus-Izvor neighborhood and how unbelievably it had been full of houses and churches. Until that is in the mid 1980s when Nicolae Ceaușescu wanted to replicate other cities’ Communist boulevards by flattening it all to create Bulvardul Unirii (Victory Boulevard). Chauchestu supposedly said “If you want to keep the buildings then move them” So they did! And on rails somehow!
You don’t get to see the Palace of the Parliament on the tour, which lies at the western end of Bulvardul Unirii so make sure you go and see it afterwards! It’s supposedly the heaviest building in the world and is instagrammable at both night and day … although it’s not as lit up at night as I thought it might be. Romania saw France as a flourishing culture in the 19th/20th century so they named lots of the buildings Palace something, even ‘Palace of the Telecoms’ and ‘Palace of the Post Office’.
Some local alcohol
First up on our walking tour was a stop at St Anthony Church, next to Hanu’ Lui Manuc restaurant. The church is one of the oldest buildings in Bucharest. It looked far too new to be old, so none of us got the answer right when asked. After which we headed over to the restaurant opposite and saw the last remaining outside wooden flooring. It looks just like stone until you get up close and personal to it. We also sampled some Tuica, a local spirit (not included in the “free” trip but about half of the tour coughed up some money to try some). Hanu’ Lui Manuc is indeed a lovely building and one saved by an architect back in the 1980’s when he told a “white lie” stating that the Turkish building had been a secret location for Communists to meet, ultimately saving it from destruction.
Vlad and Dracula
Next up was a stop at the ruins of Vlad’s Citadel and a bust of Vlad the Impaler. In reasonably specific detail Alex described why Vlad the Impaler was called Vlad the Impaler. And yes – he impaled people, but by doing so dabbled in one of the earliest known forms of physiological warfare. Unfortunately he didn’t meet his maker by the same technique so never got a taste of his own medicine! It’s here that Alex touched on Dracula and Transylvania. Dracula by Bram Stoker is the 3rd most sold book in the world after the Bible and Harry Potter!! However in reality there are no vampires in Romains (they come from Serbia) and Bram chose the castle as it looked like it “could” be Dracula’s castle rather than it actually being Dracula’s castle!
Soon after we skirted around the 3rd best bookstore in the world Cărturești Carusel (according to The Telegraph newspaper that is) so go and give that a look after the tour too. Another stop en-route was the Greek nun monastery called Stavropoleos Convent which still has 6-7 nuns living there. We entered the courtyard and had a look around but couldn’t actually go inside as a service was taking place at the time.
Coffee and lunch!
The penultimate stop was in a coffee shop next to Caru’ cu Bere. Some advice! Be first in the queue like we were otherwise you’ll have a long wait to be served. After this much needed caffeine stop we made our way to the University Square for a few final stories, before giving Alex a well-earned tip for 2 hours well-spent. If you fancy learning a bit more about Romania then this Bucharest walking tour is well worth booking up.
It was a friendly little group and we’d befriended a backpacker from the UK, a Geordie lass from Newcastle and an American girl from Arizona. It was cold. We needed some food so we headed to Dianei 4 just 200 metres away. It was the perfect way to end the morning, drinking soup in a “haunted house” feeling restaurant with peeling wallpaper and dilapidated looking furniture! It was actually pretty cool and ended a great morning in Bucharest.