Bucureşti

From Arcul de TriumfI wake up a little late in the morning, and after checking out, I leave the car in the parking and go around the corner for a dekko at Gara de Nord. The station is grand, and it isn’t hard to see that this is the most important one in Romania. The building is not quite imposing, but it’s got that feeling of strength and wisdom.

There are florists all around the gara, and many of them carry flowers in the most shocking colors that I have ever seen – cobalt blue, shocking pink, and many others. And some of these florist have bouquets of interesting combinations of these bright colors.

As I walk along, one thing that puzzles me is the network of cables hanging 15 feet over the roads. What could possibly be their purpose? So far I haven’t seen anything utilizing them.

Anyhow, I go down one of the subway entraces to the Gara to check it out. But of course, there are turnstiles bloking the path and demanding a ticket, which I don’t have. And I have no intention of buying one, as there is nowhere I have to go.

So I walk back to the hotel’s parking, still wondering about the whole web of cables over the roads. This couldn’t be for the trams – trams would only need on straight set of cables directly above the rails, while these cables are all over and going in all possible directions. Could this be how electricity is distributed to buildings? Seems highly unlikely as it would be hugely wasteful and confusing. Besides, I can not see any of these cables actually entering any building.

I am still engrossed in this thought when a couple of kids shout “Salaam Walaikum” to me from the footpath. They probably think I am Egyptian or something. Not wanting to disappoint them, I yell back “Walaikum Assallaam”, and they carry on, giggling.

As I get out of the parking, I decide that my first stop for the day is to be the Palace of Parliament. Driving down to the palace, I notice some people driving over the tram tracks. Now, I haven’t ever driven over tram tracks, except in Microsoft Midtown Madness San Francisco, but I like the idea and take to it like fish to water.

The concept is especially appealing as the width of the roads is often deceptive. Driving down a wide, 3-lane avenue, one suddenly realizes that the two right lanes aren’t moving. It isn’t because of traffic lights either – these cars are parked in the middle of the road!

Palatul Parlamentului is unique for several reasons. For one, as everyone will go to great lengths to convey, it is the second largest administrative building in the world, bested only by the Pentagon (which, incidentally, was built to be converted to a library upon the end of the war).

While it was briefly called Casa Poporului, Palatul Parlamentului is the name that has stuck. And to me, that name speaks volumes. By no means have I travelled to every country around the world, but I suspect there is no other nation that calls the building housing its parliament a palace. The magnificent palace was built by Ceauşescu as his own residence, but winds of change blew fast and hard enough to substitute him with a parliament. And yet, how could you call such a spectacular building anything but a palace?

The biggest irony of all, I think, is how this palace has seen Romania’s move from one extreme to the other. While it was built by communist Ceauşescu, today one can rent many of the grand rooms for business conferences and even private functions.

There is a steep fee for photographing, and an even steeper one for videographing. But the 20 RON entry fee includes an English tour. The truth is, the only way one can get in as a tourist, is with the tour guide. Anyhow, though I didn’t notice it at the time, entry fee is RON 5 upon producing a student ID. I feel like a fool for not taking advantage of that. My only consolation, I guess, is that I did smuggle my camera in and clicked a few pictures.

The palace is as magnificent and elegant as it gets. The carpets, the curtains, the wood panels, the marble columns and floors, all are from another era. The tour guide explains that all the materials and workmanship is Romanian, though some rooms draw architectural inspiration from other parts of the world.

Legend has it that the construction of the palace created such a massive demand for Romanian marble that tombstones throughout the country had to be made from other materials.

Another much discussed fact is how numerous churches, synagogues and houses were razed to build the palace. Many of the people thus displaced to small apartments couldn’t adjust and committed suicide.

Notwithstanding the dark history, one can’t help but marvel about the sheer scale of the enterprise. The guide tells me that the palace contains 3500 tonnes of crystal – chandeliers, lights, mirrors, window & door panes, all are crystal.

The ceilings of most rooms contain holes for natural ventilation – not as a concession to the environment, I suspect, but a sign of the treacherous times where poisoning air vents would have been a very real possibility.

There is also an emphasis on natural light, with skylights and large windows in most rooms. The acoustics in this place are absolutely phenomenal, except in the one room that was built specifically for opera.

As always, my camera’s battery dies just before the best part. While I have wisened up and bought an additional battery for such eventualities, on this occasion the extra battery is in the car, and I am not allowed to just run out and get it. So I have to make do with a few pictures grudgingly taken with my good-for-nothing phone camera.

The palace also houses the Muzeul Naţional de Artă Contemporană, which, unfortunately, is evidently not open on Saturdays. So, it’s time to leave the compound. As I walk out, I catch melodious strains of music coming from the park across the road. Aha, a party under the sky. Wonderful! But not for me. Not today.

Upon reaching Arcul de Triumf, I try parking on the striped area beside another one parked there. Little do I know that this is an unmarked police car. Two cops come running and tell me that I’ll have to move.

I wonder whether the police is normally deployed in this area or it is here because of the protest march for which many bikers seem to be congregating. Anyway, I do have to move, so I slide out slowly and into a bylane to park in a private area.

The Arcul de Triumf is every bit as majestic as it looks in the pictures. It reminds me of India Gate in Delhi, though here the piaţă is smaller. In the flower-beds around the piaţă are bright yellow marigolds. I have never seen a marigold outside India before this.

One can climb up the Arc, passing through some depressingly dark and dingy landings. Once on the top, though, one doesn’t want to climb back down for one gets the illusion of being able to look at the whole of a green and enchanting Bucureşti.

Considering that the Arcul de Triumf is modelled after Arc de Triomphe in Paris, it is only fitting that the next piaţă I cross, just a few hundred metres down, is Piaţă Charles de Gaulle.

Not far from Arcul de Triumf is the Institutul Agronomic. And as luck would have it, they are having a Rural Romania exposition there today. I walk in and wander around in wonder, looking at the stalls promoting fabric, traditional clothing, handicrafts, and tourism. The fur caps look exactly like their Russian equivalents, but the handicrafts as well as costumes are enchanting. I see Peninsula Eden’s presentation, and make a mental note that Tulcea seems worth visiting. And then a folk musician starts to play his flute. Oh, the flute! I am not buying any souvenirs yet; perhaps I’ll be back.

I would really like to visit Mausoleul din Parcul Carol (Parcul Carol was called Parcul Libertăţii during the communist era), Avântul ţării, Memorialul Renaşterii, Ateneul Român, Curtea Veche, Hanul lui Manuc and Romanian Architects Association, but all I have time for today is Palatul Cotroceni. Maybe I’ll get another chance to visit the places I miss out on this weekend.

So I drive down towards Palatul Cotroceni and inevitably get lost. Stopping at a Farmacie to get directions, I am delighted to see an Indian brand of OTC (Over The Counter) drugs/ supplements prominently displayed in the showcase. The lady is really nice, and is able to give me directions to the palace, even though she hardly speaks a word of English. The great thing about asking for directions in this country is that people actually tell you distances in kilometers and meters (at most other places, they would either skip the distance part, or give distances in minutes…or sometimes in blocks).

En route, I am finally able to solve the mystery of the wild wired web: apparently Bucureşti’s multi-faceted public transportation system includes trolleybuses.

The palace is located in a large compound surrounded by a strong wall. Upon reaching the correct gate of Cotroceni Palace, I am told that the palace is open for visitors only Monday through Friday. Oh, well!

Lionel Richie is still singing “I wonder where you are, and I wonder what you do…” Is it just me or does the FM radio keep repeating the same songs over and over?

Next stop, Piteşti.

Click here to check out my pictures from Bucureşti of 22 Sept 2007.

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