When I first arrived in Bucharest, nearly eleven months ago, I was struck by the smells. It was summer when I first landed here, and it must be some old truth that humid, hot air tends to bring out a city’s strangest of odors: car exhaust and burnt rubber rising from the streets, old banana peels and rotting leftovers in the garbage bin, sawdust and body odor drifting from nearby construction workers, and that faintest scent of a puffed pastry coming from some unseen patisserie around the corner.
We’ve all heard it before, that a human’s sense of smell has the strongest tie to memory. I always thought this was just some outdated myth, some fact that was put out in the universe just to surprise people. But the more I venture out into the world, the more I believe in this saying. I’ll never forget these city smells. And the mixed up aromas that surround me in Bucharest are completely indicative of all the other mixed up eccentricities that compose this place — its a place strange and nearly undefinable.
And I suggest this: Come here. Come to Bucharest, to find your own definition for the place.
In the meantime, I’ll attempt to give you my long definition in an effort to lure you here.
Come to Bucharest. I even surprise myself by these words. These are not the words of the girl I was three months ago — heck, even one month ago — but I am sincere when I write them now. Though not a typical destination for a Eurotrip — this place is no Paris nor Florence nor Prague — this city should not be left unnoticed. To use the age-old cliche, it could be a destination unlike any you have ever been.
Come to Bucharest for its history. I don’t know how else to begin to describe the anomaly that is Bucharest. This city has a deep history with layers upon layers of different rulers and governments, tragedies and victories. Just last year, the city celebrated its 555th birthday, and just this past December, the country celebrated its 25th year free of communist rule. Romania is an ever-evolving country, and its capital is certainly a city still coming into its own.
Some Romanian traditions, fortunately, may never die: the step-dances to folk music, the bright red-threaded embroidery on fabric, the rich and wholesome food served at both high-end restaurants and Grandma’s dinner table alike. Meanwhile, other portions of history are slowly fading. The name “Ceausescu” can still be overheard from the mouths of middle-aged men chatting on the metro, and it is not uncommon for a Bucharest citizen to curse as they pass the “Beloved People’s Palace,” the world’s second largest building, that was built under Ceausescu’s ostentatious rule, signs that many Romanians are eagerly moving forward into something new.
History can easily be seen from the city streets alone, in the variety of architecture. Still, the city offers several museums and building tours which focus on anything from the unique “peasant culture” of the Transylvanian mountains, to debunking myths of Count Dracula (formally known as Vlad Tepes or Vlad the Impaler), to exhibits dedicated to Romanian’s prominent artists, such as composer George Enescu.
Come to Bucharest for its Grit. As I mentioned, this city is no Paris. Though Bucharest has claimed the title “Paris of the East,” I do not feel that the two should be compared. The beauty of Bucharest does not lie in 20th century street lamps or neoclassical archways that you may find in both, Paris and Buc. The beauty of Bucharest lies in its grittiness, the way its eclectic — sometimes even haphazard — mix of architecture, people, food, and events catch you by surprise. Old 19th century buildings are gorgeous and left abandoned. They are dormant alongside a standard bloc, built simply for the convenience for workers under Communism. Turn the corner and you may find one of the many century-old Orthodox churches, carefully preserved throughout the country’s many transitions.
Abandoned buildings are being renovated into hip bars and outdoor gardens, others into gallery spaces, and many are still left untouched. Bucharest is learning how to make use of all of its space. Invention and experimentation is the name of the game.
And if still not convinced, need I say, come to Bucharest for its Nightlife. The Old Center (Centru Vechi) is booming with restaurants and club after bar after club, an addition to the city that is not even a decade old. Centru Vechi is alive all night and day. Go to pour your heart out. Go to meet travelers and locals alike. Go to dance and drink and eat until 6 am. Sleep a little and do it all over again.
But really, I am convinced, above all, that you should come to Bucharest for its progress. A friend of mine, upon visiting, mentioned this: “ The thing about newly westernized countries is that they move so fast in just a matter of years. It’s amazing. They quickly catch up to those countries who took centuries to get to where they are now.” And in the year I have been here, through observation and conversation with other Bucharest-dwellers, this comment has rung vibrant and true. Bucharest is in the midst of change and transition, and it’s happening fast.
Like a toddler just learning how to run, or a teenager who has finally left the grip of his parents.
Restaurant owners are exploring new cuisine, the Romanian lawmakers are dabbling in new policies, the citizens are testing out new ways of thinking and living their lives. And I say, what a better time to witness a city than when it is finally coming into itself. So why not try out Bucharest for a flavor of something that is hard to describe, and should instead be experienced?