Bucharest is a city of faded, crumbling glamour and concrete soviet apartments blocks, of fast cars leaning on their horns and simple bicycles, of road works and building works and sprawling peaceful oases of trees and cafés and lakes. The food in traditional restaurants is meat and polenta – the meat grilled or slow cooked in casseroles – but there appears to be a heavy Italian influence in the more modern restaurants. The beers are cheap, the red wines are fantastic and there are wonderful alcohol free options.
This is something that has started to annoy me about the UK – in so many pubs, bars or even restaurants the alcohol-free options are water, orange juice or a mass-produced fizzy drink. I want fresh lemonades, bursting with flavour, with mint and ginger and strawberry. Lemonades that taste like cocktails but that aren’t at exorbitant prices. I would drink a lot less in the UK if I could enjoy a mint and ginger lemonade.
Rant over. We were in Bucharest for one weekend only, for the wedding of one of James’ friends.
Our first evening we wandered down Calea Victoriei, past expensive jewellery shops, La Perla, Gucci and Max Mara, peering down faded side streets at the restaurants and cafés, their tables spilling over the cobbled roads. We stopped at a wine bar and had two glasses each of different Romanian reds, one fruity, the other drier, both delicious and served in fancy red wine glasses. We checked out the restaurant opposite, The Artist, the top-rated restaurant on Trip Advisor, known for its fancy artistry and exquisite flavours, and then shook our heads and walked on, down another quiet street towards Hanu Berarilor, a recommendation from James’ friend. The restaurant was sprawling, with ginormous gardens filled with small tables, waitresses dressed in “traditional” Romanian peasant gear and folk dancing in the middle. Although all this might seem quite touristy it didn’t seem as if the clientele were tourists from the hum of Romanian around us and the small kids playing on a play area nearby our table (and it was confirmed later that this is a typical restaurant for Romanians to go for dinner). We started with a cheese plate before moving on to beef casserole and James’ pork dish – confit pork, sausages and crispy pork fat served with polenta and sauerkraut – not for the vegetarian. Home for another glass of wine before bed and a hangover the next day.
The Romanian wedding had begun with a civil service the day of our arrival which we had missed due to a delayed flight. We went along for the religious ceremony, in a beautiful old church in the centre of Bucharest.
Everyone was crammed inside, no seating, peering over the heads of those in front to see. There was a lot of speaking by the two priests, with singing from a choir. The two priests stood by the altar with the bride and bridegroom in front of them. On either side were the ‘wedding godmother and godfather’ of the couple, and then one bridesmaid and one best man. No “giving away” by the father of the bride as in the UK. What looked like crowns were placed on the bride and bridegroom’s heads and the group joined hands to progress in a circle, twice, around the altar.
Obviously this was all in Romanian and we couldn’t understand a word – although the couple told us later that the priest had gone off track and begun ad libbing about the Old Testament and the perils of western liberalism…. The western liberals that made up the couple and their friends were slightly less than impressed at this!
Later, the party. Romanian weddings are crazy. We sat down at our table and the starters arrived probably just before 9pm. After starters was the first dance, followed by lots more dancing – a mix of old dance tunes to waltz to and more modern music from the past few decades. Everyone up and dancing from the old to the young. The fish course arrived at 11pm, followed by more dancing. The main course of duck arrived at 2am!! James and I danced and danced, attempting to waltz and salsa, occasionally having the dance floor entirely to ourselves when a favourite song came on that the other guests perhaps didn’t know quite so well. I even betrayed my feminist credentials by dancing to Blurred Lines – it’s okay though, I kept a grumpy face on as I strutted around the dance floor. There was no bride kidnapping as is traditional in Romanian weddings… Instead there was a groom kidnapping! The bride had gotten wind of the plans to kidnap her and, before the wedding had spoken to the kidnapper herself. So she and her husband are on a little walk with a bottle of champagne to get some fresh air and quiet time from the party, when all of a sudden the groom is bundle into a strange car! The car takes them to the bride’s old high school. As a ransome, to get the groom back, the whole wedding party had to dance the Macarena. The bride’s scheming was perfect as nobody had any clue that she was going to do the kidnapping!
James and I didn’t make it through to see the cake, leaving just before 3am to wander home through the streets of Bucharest.
Sunday, we found Eden, a sprawling bar/cafe five minutes walk from our hotel, behind an empty, crumbling historical palace 18th century palace. We walked past the dark, gaping windows and the bins around the side, wondering if we were going in the right direction, and found ourselves in a huge shady garden, filled with empty tables and huge beanbags – it was half a family hideout, with kids playing in one corner, and half ridiculously hipster with fashionable young people with facial hair and Dixie bikes.
We promptly found a beanbag in a quiet spot iin the shade and whiled away the hours reading and drinking fresh lemonades and coffees.
We were staying in Hotel Barrio – an old building with just eight rooms. The rooms were light, airy and comfortable but nothing special – but the hotel had a huge garden with tables and comfy seats, serving fantastic food at a discount of 20% between 12pm and 5pm. I’m not ashamed to say (because it was delicious) that I had the same lunch three days in a row – a salad topped with garlicky prawns and surrounded by huge parcels of goats cheese ravioli, with a smear of mashed avocado on the top of each. We spent Sunday afternoon with the newly married couple and their friends, sat in the beautiful terrace at hotel Barrio, eating and drinking lemonades and cocktails, chatting about politics and Romania. The people we were with were all ludicrously intelligent, with masters and PhDs, in a way that might have been intimidating were they not all so friendly.
We passed a few incredibly interesting and enjoyable hours learning about Romania – about the low salaries and high taxes that make life virtually impossible without petty corruption – for example a junior doctor after taxes would earn about 200 euro a month, which could perhaps cover the cost of a tiny grotty studio flat, but with nothing left over for rent.
It was a perfect afternoon – my favourite way to pass the time is sat outside on a comfy chair, a nice cold drink in front of me, chatting about interesting things for hours – but all too soon it was time for our taxi to the airport and flight home. The weekend finished when we arrived at our front door just before midnight, with work again on Monday morning.
The last week has just flown by with a fantastic holiday in Scotland and weekend in Romania – now back to the grindstone!