Spying on Bucharest’s Cool Underground
Spying on Bucharest’s Cool Underground
By MATT GROSS - New York Times, 7/9/2008
About three years ago, Bucharest experienced a revolution that was entirely ignored by the international community. Granted, the coup was not as dramatic as Romania’s 1989 revolution, in which Nicolae Ceausescu, the Communist dictator who had brutally mismanaged this Black Sea nation for more than two decades, was deposed and executed. Nor was it as momentous as when the country joined the European Union in 2007, along with Bulgaria, its neighbor to the south.
So subtle was the transformation, in fact, that most Bucharestians probably didn’t quite realize what was going on.
Here’s what happened: All around the capital, with no formal organization whatsoever, bar and restaurant owners grabbed their chairs and tables, carried them outside and … put them down gently, creating terraces and sidewalk cafes. No longer would patrons be confined to electric-lighted interiors! Now they could eat stuffed cabbage rolls and polenta in the fresh air, shaded from the sun by umbrellas advertising Ciuc beer!
Open-air terraces may not sound like much, but according to my Bucharest-born friend Horia Diaconescu, a keen observer of the city in which he’s spent his 29 years, they represent a sea change. Under Communism, he explained, public life was restricted — people simply did not go out to meet friends (or strangers) in bars and cafes. They socialized in private homes, or not at all. Now, however, “terasas” had become de rigueur, and streets like the cobblestoned Strada Smardan, in the heart of old Bucharest, are filled on summer nights with Romanians enjoying the cool breeze and each other’s company. Viva la revolución!
It was just this kind of innovation I had come to this city of two million to discover. For about a year, I had been hearing of interesting developments — new museums, clever art projects, a film scene garnering international acclaim — and wanted to see how they meshed with Bucharest’s lingering old-world vibe and Communism-deformed mentality. It seemed in keeping with the high-culture principles of the Grand Tour, and affordable to boot, with tons of hotel rooms well below 100 euros.
So, from northern Cyprus, I flew to Istanbul (146 Turkish liras, or about $119 at 1.23 liras to the dollar, on the low-cost airline Pegasus, then caught the 18-hour sleeper train onboard the Turkish State Railways through Bulgaria to Bucharest. (A long trip, but cheaper than a direct flight.) I arrived in the early evening, and the setting sun made this attractive city — once dubbed Little Paris — all the more beautiful.
The columned-and-domed edifices of Bucharest’s pre-World War II glory days glowed in the reddening light, and even the Communist-era concrete monstrosities and newer glass-and-steel towers appeared warm and friendly. Okay, they were ugly, but they seemed to have their place.
I felt optimistic, especially after checking into my bed-and-breakfast, the nearly two-year-old Flower’s (2 Strada Plantelor; 40-21-311-9848), which was listed in my copy of In Your Pocket, a cheeky, well-written series of Central and Eastern European guidebooks. For 150 lei a night (about $65 at 2.30 lei to the dollar), I had a homey, top-floor room with dormer-style windows that looked out on a quiet square: old people chatting on park benches; an Orthodox church with an aluminum-topped, octagonal steeple; a weeping willow; an Art Nouveau house in need of repair.
The city’s historic center was just 10 minutes away by foot. I began in full sightseeing mode, eager to get up to speed on Romanian history and art, and so I walked through Lipscani, a network of alleys that formed the ancient commercial heart of Bucharest. This used to be where traditional artisans plied their trades, but today they’ve mostly been replaced by modern shops and restaurants, and much of the area is pedestrian-only.
But unlike, say, the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, Lipscani has yet to be taken over by international chains, and buildings like the 18th-century Stavropoleos Church, a surprisingly cozy house of worship, offer a hint of the neighborhood’s past.
In the Curtea Sticlarilor — the Glass Blowers’ Courtyard, a half-hidden complex down a Lipscani side street — I found a sign of Bucharest’s future. It was Rozalb de Mura(9-11 Strada Selari; 40-21-311-6215), a fashion boutique I’d heard about.
This was the avant-garde Bucharest I’d been seeking: blazers covered in carefully stitched “scars,” an elegant dress with multilayered lapels that would’ve looked great on Sean Young in “Blade Runner.” I came close to buying a white-cotton jacket with complicated pockets, but it was 488 lei — a bargain for high fashion, but not within my budget. Even the store itself seemed like a work of art, with one room designed to look like a Communist-era den (cheap dining table, glass display case of knickknacks) and the other all-white and filled with artificial mist. The theme this season: reality and illusion.
From Lipscani, I wandered north, past a Christian Dior boutique and the Art Deco “Telephone Palace,” to the colossal National Museum of Art (49 – 53 Calea Victoriei; 40-21-313-3030; admission 15 lei), housed in the former royal palace. The European collection was impressive (El Greco — not bad!), but I really came to see the extensive holdings of Romanian art and to get an idea of what this country’s art was all about.
In the absence of any explanatory placards, I had to do this by inference. My impression is that by the 1840s, after 600 years of mostly religious art — icons, carvings, tombstones and so on, mostly in the Byzantine tradition — Romania leapt into secular modernity with a vengeance. Wealthy businessmen and political leaders had their portraits painted, and artists turned to the natural world and nationalist themes for inspiration.
My favorites among these were C.D. Rosenthal, a Hungarian Jew who painted the iconic “Revolutionary Romania” (1841), and Nicolae Grigorescu, whose tense “The Spy” depicts the pre-dawn horseback pursuit of an Ottoman agent during Romania’s 1877 war for independence. What emerges from this collection is a portrait of a small nation struggling to define itself in contrast to the powers that surround it: Russia, the Ottoman Empire and Western Europe.
Today, at least for a visitor, Bucharest is perhaps less angst-ridden. My few days there were generally filled with the kind of cool, semi-underground culture I’d been seeking. I spent one long afternoon hanging out at the 115 Digital Art Gallery (115 Strada Mihai Eminescu; 40-21-210-1969, which claims to be the first gallery in Eastern Europe devoted to digitally created works of art. The current exhibition showcased Aya Kato, a young Japanese woman whose stylized images of women, dragons and imaginary worlds had been printed on huge mesh panels and hung, billboard-style, from Communist-era apartment blocks around the city.
Another afternoon, the recently begun comic-book newspaper Aooleu! held a party at the Capitol Cinema, an abandoned, decaying open-air movie theater. While rabbits hid in the foliage, Bucharest’s skin-baring, sunglasses-wearing cool crowd drank lukewarm Heinekens and giggled at Aooleu!’s hand-drawn accounts of strippers in the Bucharest metro.
“Many people say that Bucharest is the new Berlin,” Milos Jovanovic, a Serbian expatriate who is Aooleu!’s co-editor-in-chief, told me. “It’s a place where you can do some stuff, some projects —concepts that have been done all around Europe, but here never. Here there is no comics scene, so doing comics you are exotic.”
And with Horia — the bearded, Alice Cooper-loving flâneur I met through Couchsurfing.com — as my guide, I discovered some amazing places throughout the city. We drank beer made from tea (10 lei) at La Metoc (21 Strada Popa Rusu, 40-721-669-539), a century-old house with a lush garden, and drank normal beer at La Scena (55 Calea Calarasi, 40-21-320-3567), a lushly restored turn-of-the-century house that doubles as an avant-garde theater.
One evening, we took a 10-minute taxi ride out to Lacul Vacaresti, an unfinished artificial lake where we watched the sun set behind construction cranes and the hulking mass of the Palace of the Parliament, the Ceausescu-built neo-Classical castle that is, amazingly, Europe’s largest single building.
Then we went for shawarma at the renowned Dristor Kebab (1 Boulevard Camil Ressu; 40-21-346-8100). Not only was it delicious and cheap (13 lei), but, Horia pointed out, Dristor and its ilk were run by Romanians, not by Turks as in the rest of Europe. The kebabs had been fully assimilated.
But while I was falling in love with Bucharest, I noticed something else: Everyone I spoke to was a little depressed about the city. Artists lamented the weak market, and hipsters complained about the label-obsessed mainstream. Horia told me about a recent flash mob spectacle to commemorate the Mineriada — the 1990 crushing of student protests by mine workers — in which participants, following instructions delivered by text messages, reenacted the violence using feather pillows. But no one would describe Bucharest as a dynamic capital.
I could see what they meant. Bucharest is still a work-in-progress. The National Museum of Contemporary Art (2-4 Strada Izvor, entrance E4, 40-21-318-9137; admission 5 lei) is a great idea — converting one end of the Palace of the Parliament into a modern gallery — but the exhibitions were presented with little to no context. Meanwhile, the museum cafe didn’t actually serve food, and simply leaving there without a car was a nightmare in the summer heat. Perhaps that was why I was the only visitor on Friday.
Everywhere I went, taxi drivers tried to rip me off, usually by pleading poverty when I handed them a 10-lei note to pay a 6-lei fare. Eating well was a challenge, partly because restaurants were stuck in “rustic” mode, but also because their kitchens started closing around 9:30 p.m. And by midnight, the city itself seemed to shut down.
Give it five years, or maybe 10, people told me, and Bucharest will live up to its potential, and perhaps truly be “the new Berlin,” as the British newspaper The Guardian dubbed it in March.
But I liked Bucharest now. On Sunday evening, I was drinking cheap beers with new friends at La Motoare (40-21-315-8508), the open-air bar atop the National Theater (Piata 21 Decembrie 1989). Behind us, a Balkan movie was projected on a screen, closing out the Bucharest Film Festival, and somewhere across town Manu Chao was giving the final concert of the B’estfest music festival. And if I wanted, I could spend the rest of the night wandering the city, finding forgotten churches and secret passages that everyone else ignored.
In five or 10 years, such discoveries would be commonplace, as unremarkable as a table and chairs set out under the stars — but for now they were new, and they were mine.