Lifting the iron curtain by John Moore

“There’s a lot of history and culture here. It really should be a popular city . . . but things have prevented it from becoming one.”

Some of those “things” would be 50 years of Communist rule – the last 24 (until 1989) under the murderous dictatorship of Nicolae Ceacescu – then a bloody revolution followed by lingering political corruption and economic disorder, which left an impression that everybody here was either on the take or on the make. So, Bucharest was largely avoided as other post-Communist Eastern European cities opened up to Western travellers.

But things are changing. Thanks to the European budget airline boom and new direct flights from New York, Bucharest is beginning to be noticed, especially by young travellers seeking a novel destination that doesn’t cost a lot.

Don’t get the idea that Bucharest is just Prague-lite or a bargain-basement Berlin, though. It has its own dynamic cultural scene and a rich history stretching back to the Middle Ages.

“The overall picture of the city sometimes is not nice,” says my guide Razvan Balint, who operates both a tour company and an IT firm.

“But if you take it step by step, you’ll find some wonderful things.”

It’s easy to see his point as we drive through a neighbourhood that looks like a Cold War theme park, with block after block of identically shabby apartment buildings. Balint instantly pinpoints each one’s age, like layers in an archeological dig.

“Those were built in the ’60s, those were built in the ’70s,” he says. “It’s easy to tell … the government used to come up with one design for apartments and just use it over and over for 10 years, then come up with another one and do the same.”

The definitive Communist relic of the Ceaucescu era is the gargantuan Palace of the Parliament. It’s the second-largest building in the world and its stats are staggering: 360,000 square metres in area, 84 metres high, 1,100 rooms, massive marble staircases, 3,500 tons of crystal in its chandeliers. Marble tiles with the floor plan on them reveal the extent and the intricacy of the construction.

If it were somewhere else, it might be hailed as an architectural wonder – which it surely is in an overweening way. But for Bucharesters, the memories of its construction are still fresh and still dreadful.

Ceaucescu called it the “House of the People,” a cruelly ironic title since to make room for it, thousands of people were evicted, and neighbourhoods full of historic buildings and churches were bulldozed. The entire country was forced to endure crushing economic hardship to pay for it.

“For that bloody palace, we were all starving, we were all freezing . . . everything – bread, cheese – was rationed, and the heat in our apartments in the winter was set at 14 degrees C,” Balint recalls bitterly. “And nice streets with lovely houses, a lot of greenery. They were all through this area . . . and just wiped out to make that bloody palace.”

Ceaucescu intended to open it officially in 1990 to celebrate his 25th year in power, but the revolution – and an executioner’s bullet – prevented him from doing that.

Now it houses the Romanian parliament and hosts international conferences and while it’s more apt to inspire scorn rather than admiration, it’s worth seeing as an insight into totalitarian excess.

Fortunately, many genuine treasures from Bucharest’s past escaped destruction. Churches, palaces and museums that rival those in other European capitals are re-emerging after being hidden for so many decades behind the Iron Curtain. There are cultural wonders like the Romanian Atheneum, built in 1888 and now home to the Romanian George Enescu Philharmonic, and the National Museum of Art, a former royal residence that displays works by El Greco, Rembrandt and Rubens, along with Romanian artists.

In the northern part of the city, graceful residences and monuments – including a Triumphal Arch that’s a carbon copy of the one in Paris – occupy leafy boulevards and delightful parks that reflect a prominent French influence and earned Bucharest the nickname “Little Paris” at the end of the 19th century.

“A while ago, I was with an architect from the United States,” says Balint. “He was very excited when he saw these things. ask seek knock He said, ‘You cannot imagine, you don’t see this with the eyes of an architect.’ We just drove around and he kept saying, ‘Stop here, stop there . . . look at that house, that’s neo-classical, that’s Art Deco, that’s Beaux-Arts . . . now he’s putting together a group for a tour that just focuses on the architecture of Bucharest.”

Medieval wonders abound as well. The Curtea Veche (Old Court) is the ruins of a 15th century church and fortress begun by Vlad Tepes (Vlad the Impaler).

The Lipscani, the historic commercial heart of the city, which deteriorated under the Communists, is undergoing a facelift with new upscale restaurants, chic hotels, shops and bars as the city opens itself up to the world.

“This is a place where everything is starting,” says Balint.

“We have to have patience, some capital and good people to build businesses. There are lots of new ideas.”

Stefan Teris describes his new idea as he pours a glass of Feteasca Neagra (Black Maiden), a flavourful Romanian vintage. He calls it “The Library of Wines,” a wine club with a twist – a sort of salon dedicated to wine appreciation and cultural exchange.

“We are trying to educate the public about wine,” says Teris, a journalist-turned-entrepreneur. “We won’t just serve wine … this isn’t a liquor store. We’ll serve the history of wine, the story of wine. We will have pairings not just between food and drinks, but between wine and literature, wine and music, with programs prepared by experts.”

He hopes it will appeal both to a discerning domestic clientele as well as foreign visitors.

“This will be a place for anyone who is interested to learn about Romanian wines and Romanian vineyards,” says Teris. “It will also be where people can discuss our culture, our history, our religion . . . and learn to appreciate all aspects of Romanian life.” And perhaps also appreciate Bucharest’s many attractions – unconditionally.

John Moore Travel writer