Romanian Journey 2019

Last year we had a magical holiday in Romania. This year the holidays were much shorter, we stayed mainly in Bucharest and I didn’t expect any magic (and, indeed, none was forthcoming).

My parents are getting old and frail, so they wanted to talk mainly about what to do in case of ill health, emergencies or if one of them should die. I also tend to forget just how difficult it is to live in the same house as my mother until I am confronted with it on a daily basis. Last but not least, Bucharest is as chaotic, busy and polluted as most capital cities, plus a generous extra portion! So it was not the most restful of holidays.

However, there were some good bits, most of which I tweeted about while we were there.

It was nice to see that some of the 19th century architecture of Bucharest had been renovated and lived up to its reputation of ‘Little Paris’.
Just opposite this, however, and right next to the 1930 example of architecture of the Post and Telephone Building, you have this horror of a Novotel modern extension to an old facade (former National Theatre building, bombed during the WW2 and never rebuilt).
Other highlights include telling my older son (the history fiend) about the time when Ceausescu spoke live on TV from this balcony at the Central Committee of the Communist Party building on December 21st 1989 and was booed, sparking the full-scale public protests in Bucharest.
This building belonged to the Securitate forces and was riddled with bullets during the bloody days that followed the victory of the revolution on 22nd December 1989 (inevitable glass monstrosity was added later).
Rooftop bar can be used on rainy days thanks to these ingenious (heated) bubbles.
More examples of preserved architecture: the George Enescu museum, in one of the most impressive mansions on Calea Victoriei. Sadly, the exhibition itself is quite small and you can’t visit the entire house.
The Museum of the City of Bucharest in the Palais Sutu is really worth a visit: a carefully curated trip back in time in the history of the city.
For example, here is a portrait of a typical Phanariot of the 18th century – Greek administrators from the Fanari neighbourhood of Istanbul, imposed as de facto rulers of Wallachia by the Ottoman Empire for nearly a century.
I was somewhat shocked at the excessive luxury (and prices) in this giant shopping mall, complete with skating rink, climbing wall, food court, Imax cinema etc. when you consider that 80% of the population can probably not afford to buy anything other than a drink here.

I was discussing with my boys why Bucharest can feel like a shock to the system to those who live in other capital cities. It has all the traffic jams, lack of parking, crowded places, noise and building sites that we also associate with Paris and London. But, unlike those two cities, wealth and poverty jostle here more openly side by side. You can live in your protected bubble in the 6th and 7th Arrondissements in Paris, or in Chelsea and Hampstead in London, without ever coming across the less salubrious examples of daily life. That is simply not possible in Bucharest. You come out of the most extravagant restaurant and end up in a back street with crumbling old buildings. You drive your fancy Lamborghini through terrible potholes. On public transport you see fine ladies with expensive haircuts and camelhair coats as well as bow-legged peasant women with knotted scarves covering their hair – and both of them might be making the sign of the cross whenever the tram passes by a church.

The best bit was seeing that some of the beautiful older buildings had been sensitively and lovingly rehabilitated, rather than having ugly extensions built behind them.

If you are a foreign tourist with a bit of money, you can have a great time in Bucharest. For me, it will always be a city where pain and joy, anger and nostalgia blend. I can never ignore the dirt or inequality or those who have been left behind. I cannot unsee the price of foreign investment: people of my generation and younger who are being eaten alive by the Western corporations, a form of indentured labour for the present-day. The city will never be relaxing because there are too many threads binding me to it and never enough time to meet and greet all the people that I want to see – or that my family feel that I should see.

If you know the Cavafy poem ‘The City’, you will understand how I feel about this fascinating, infuriating, sleazy, beautiful, ugly city.

You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore.

This city will always pursue you.

You’ll walk the same streets, grow old

in the same neighbourhoods, tunr grey in these same houses.

You’ll always end up in this city. Don’t hope for things elsewhere:

there’s no ship for you, there’s no road.

(transl. Keeley and Sherrard)

My dream of trawling through bookshops and cafés remained just that: a dream. Nevertheless, I did experience two nice restaurants while meeting up with people and one café for breakfast. I only entered three bookshops (two of them quite small), but somehow managed to return with a massive pile of books. More about that in my next post!

Friday Fun: Unusual Gems

OK, gems might be stretching the truth a bit, but certainly some quite unique architecture or setting or both…

Who doesn’t want an indoor swing or hammock or whatever you call this thing? From couturebreakfast.tumblr.com
I assume there is no one opposite to look in on you? From decoraiso.com
You too can experience the feeling of being burnt alive at the stake, from houzideaz.com
Not quite sure where the rest of the house has gone, but this looks like a nice pool house, from livingxdesign.wordpress.com
Traditional architecture in a stunning location – unless you suffer from vertigo! From myluxepoint.com

Friday Fun: Mediterranean Inspiration

You don’t have to live in the Mediterranean to be inspired by its architecture and allowing the outdoors indoors.

Hobbit house and modern Med inspiration for this house in Africa, from designrulz.com
Like floating on your own island in the US, photo credit: Hardwood & Hemingway on Tumblr.
New Zealand house with restricted garden space, from NaturalHabitatsLandscapes.
Cape Town beauty from the 1960s, from contemporist.com
The plant life may be different, but what a holiday feeling for this Med inspired villa in Vancouver, from onekindesign.com
Even Russian oligarchs get inspired by the Mediterranean, photo credit: Roman Vlasov from photogrist.com

Friday Fun: Balcony Railings

I know this may not seem like the most absorbing topic in the world, but if I were an architect, I could write a book about balcony railings. They never cease to fascinate me. Sadly, most of them nowadays are quite boring – in fact, there is a shortage of balconies in general!

Well, we all know the French are masters of the beautiful wrought iron balconies, from Instagram.
Very different style – the American wooden beach house balconies. From justcallmegrace.tumblr.com
American northern style is very different – and can tell a whole story, from Lez Get Ideas.
Rough-hewn rustic look – or an imitation thereof, from Mountain Laurel Handrails.
Small is beautiful, but check out the heads in the corner, from Musafir.
For those of you who have an excess of green fingers, from nurserylive.com
Gorgeous Art Nouveau villa and balcony in Torino, from Flickr.
Last but not least, my favourite balcony of them all, from the Chateau de Voltaire in Ferney. Perhaps not as decorative as the others, but newly renovated and now bright pink, Voltaire’s study and its balcony have an incredible view over Lake Geneva, Mont Blanc and the Alps.

Friday Fun: The Power of White

The White House in a certain country may have become a laughing stock but white houses have undeniable decorative cachet.

Hidden in the woods, from architecturelove.net
Super modern or sci-fi spaceship like, from Casa Dupli by J. Mayer H. Architects
Indoors can be stylish white and yet not feel like magnolia, from homebunch.com
Art Nouveau style in Sydney, from designsponge.com
Restyled Texan villa, from contemporist.com
The first house that Le Corbusier built: for his parents in his home town in the Swiss Jura. Bet you weren’t expecting such a ‘traditional’ style!

Friday Fun: Symmetrical Beauties

I like quirky, unusual, characterful beauty when it comes to human beings, but I have to admit that I am a bit of a classicist when it comes to buildings. Much as I admire daring modern architecture, there are few things that can be better than the perfect proportions of the Greek temple, which has been the inspiration for so much of Western architecture. So here are a few symmetrical houses that I admire.

Tha quintessential neo-classicist architect is of course Palladio: this Italian Palladian villa has it all. From theartpostblog.com
There is, of course, a Palladian villa on English soil: the gorgeous Chiswick House. From Britain’s Finest website.
The French love this symmetrical style, from Pinterest.
This villa in Provence is available for wedding hire, via Brides.com
Even more recent, more modest houses still sport the symmetrical facade, as in this maison de maitre from Normandy. From terresetdemeuresdenormandie.com
And why would you not want to dine against this backdrop? Another French villa available for weddings, from simplyluxuriouslife.com
This looks more like a Stuart house, although it too is set in France. From visitedeco.com
But it’s the Italians who excel at this, rightly so, with their love of all things Renaissance. Vila Cetini, from their website.

Romanian Road Trip: Mountain Country

When I was young, I always wanted to go to the seaside on holiday in Romania and couldn’t understand why we had to follow the national tradition of a week at the seaside followed by a week in the mountains. Nowadays, however, I much prefer the mountains (at least in my home country – for beaches are pretty similar everywhere in Europe).

The first part of our road trip was heading north out of Bucharest up the picturesque Prahova Valley (particularly colourful at this time of year) to Braşov. We only stopped for lunch because both the cable car at Buşteni and the Peleş Palace in Sinaia were closed on a Tuesday, but if you ever go that way, you should stop and check out both. (By the way, the s with cedilla is pronounced ‘sh’).

Peles, the summer residence of the Romanian kings in the 19th/20th century. From gandul.info
The Sphinx, rock formation caused by the heavy winds at the top of the Bucegi mountains, accessible only on foot from the Busteni cable car.

We stayed a few days in Braşov, also known as Kronstadt in German, because its symbol is of a crown on an oak tree. Not to be confused with the Russian Kronstadt near St Petersburg, it was a bustling medieval and Renaissance town of craftsmen and merchants, where German, Hungarian and Romanian ethnicities lived together in something resembling harmony.

The coat of arms of the city on the town hall.

While it does not have the grand architecture of Sibiu (which is where the Austro-Hungarian aristocracy lived), it is still full of beautiful old buildings, some of them more renovated than others.

Nightfall in the main square of the Old Town, with the Hollywood-style lit-up sign of Brasov.
View of the city from behind the sign.

It is also home to one of the narrowest streets in Europe, appropriately known as ‘Rope Street’. Each window looking out onto the street has been decorated by a different artist.

I have a soft spot for Braşov, though, and not just because it has been the scene of many an escapade during my high school and university years (it is only 2 hours from Bucharest, so we went skiing or hiking nearly every other weekend). It is also surrounded by mountains, so in just a few minutes you can be in the forest and feel that you have left all the urban hustle and bustle behind you.

We stayed at a very nice hotel here too, in the Schei neighbourhood, which was just outside the Old Town walls and was traditionally the only place where Romanians were allowed to settle. This was the view from our balcony.

The weather was not as kind to us here as it was throughout the rest of our trip. It only rained a little bit, but there was cloud cover, which meant we didn’t get the best views of or from the mountains. And it was very cold for two days, with some snowfall, especially up in the ski resort Poiana Braşov, where I learnt to ski again as a grown-up after a ski accident in my childhood put an end to winter sports for me, as far as my parents were concerned.

A world away from the mellow autumnal landscape below.
All is well, however, when you can warm up your icy toes in a hot tub at the Hotel Sport.
Since it was out of season, we had the whole place practically to ourselves.

But it was the interplay of nature and architecture, as well as the friendly cats, which made us love Braşov.

Gate to the Old Town.
The tower of the famous Black Church in the background.
We kept passing this abandoned house on our way back to the hotel. I would love to renovate it and keep a few cats there. 

This is getting too long, so I will have to tell you about the next stage of our journey in a separate blog post. I had some hard choices to make about which route to take to Sibiu, where my younger son’s godparents live. I was initially planning to go via Sighişoara, which is the most beautiful medieval towns in Romania, but a bit farther away. In the end, time and other circumstances made us opt for another route. But, as you will see, we discovered a lesser-known treasure there as well.

One last fond look at Braşov. 

If you go there, try their Bulz (a sort of polenta and cheese mix rolled up into a ball) and their Papanaşi – enormous doughnuts traditionally served as a pair with blueberry jam and cream. Extremely filling – I can’t believe I used to be able to tackle those as a dessert. I now could barely finish one as a main course!

From retete.unica.ro