It's a bit worn in places, but Bucharest makes for a capital weekend, says Nick Redman
Massive and monstrous against the Bucharest skyline, it stands there like an inter-war Gotham City structure with all the vaulting ambition, if not the height, of the Empire State Building. The Palace of Parliament is a tyrannical essay in Transylvanian marble - a million cubic metres of the stuff .
Through heavy double doors, there are hand-embroidered curtains in gold and silver honed by nuns in northern Moldavia, a five-ton crystal-and-gold chandelier and a rolled-up carpet weighing the same in the stadium-sized ballroom.
There are 1,000 rooms and more than 400 offices. In terms of surface area, this is the world's second largest building after The Pentagon. In terms of content, it is perhaps the greatest legacy of the country's feared dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu. In terms of intent, it is probably his worst.
One sixth of Bucharest was bulldozed for what Ceausescu called his "House of the People", an administrative centre begun in 1984. Nearly 700 architects directed 20,000 workers who toiled in 24-hour shifts, seven days a week, to finish it.
They never did. Inside, although home to the parliament and senate, it is still only 70% complete. Ceausescu and his high-maintenance wife Elena died at the hands of a firing squad on Christmas Day 1989 in the coup that dealt the death knell to Soviet supremacy in Romania.
But this freakish monument remains a compelling reminder of the unique brand of totalitarianism that moulded a country and its people for half a century.
Gritty not pretty
If you've ticked off the chocolate-box-cute cities that once lay beyond the Iron Curtain - Budapest and its gothic parliament, Cracow and its student-filled cafés - and come expecting more of the same from Bucharest, you're in for a big surprise. It is, let's face it, more gritty than pretty, although there's a familiar Eastern European sense of grandeur suppressed by Soviet interference.
Baroque churches and neoclassical municipal buildings sit alongside pitted streets of thrusting civic Stalinism and rust-streaked high-rises in various shades of February-sleet grey. Way out east, as close to Istanbul as to Berlin, Bucharest feels in many ways like one of those flat-pack Mediterranean cities such as Marseille, perhaps, or Tunis.
If you're looking for a wider perspective on southern European life, order the moreish mushroom risotto at Uptown, a restaurant in the ambassadorial district. With windowbox geraniums bursting out of their pots and a carafe of woozy rosé slowly diminishing at the table, you could just as easily be in a smart part of Barcelona, Naples or Athens.
Arcul de Triumf
Bucharest has a classic drama that predates the Communist intervention.
It is routinely green and leafy, sprinkled with parks, lakes and parades of horse chestnuts. It's spun with grand, cobbled boulevards, centring on monuments such as the familiar-looking Arcul de Triumf (that's right, a me-too copy of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris).
The roads radiate directly back to Bucharest's golden age - between the wars, when economic confidence bestowed an almost Parisian frivolity upon the ambitions of the town planners. As a result, sweeping, if slightly shabby, art deco and modernist architecture ripples before you at every turn.
However, the real pleasure of a weekend here is how often you feel like you have the place entirely to yourself. There are no snaking queues for over-subscribed museums, no dayglo tour buses obscuring the façades, no pavement cafés overcharging for crappy cappuccinos. Perhaps it's only to be expected. There's currently no tourism office in Romania. Right now, their loss is your gain.
A certain exoticism
An article in the New York Times epitomised the capital's singular appeal: "It may be that the real strength of Bucharest is in how much it pushes visitors to understand it on its own terms. Somehow it manages a certain exoticism without seeming too far removed from the norms of any other Western city."
A chance sideways glance along the airy Boulevard Balcescu confirms this sentiment. In a travel agent's window, reflections of grimy Soviet apartments and sooty, skeletal trees were superimposed on a sun-bleached poster of the island of Capri. A few doors down, Misiune: Imposibila III pulled crowds to Cinema Patria, the façade of which was so worn that it looked war-torn.
Spend, spend, spend
If you thought there was no money around Bucharest, however, you'd be mistaken.
On the contrary. Given the prospect of EU accession, a whole swathe of Romanian society is out to spend, spend, spend, as levels of corruption and inflation shrink and the economy grows. The whirl has been stimulated by international investment in banking and heavy industry, as well as that self-propelling consumer stimulus: keeping up with the Joneses.
People here will spend more on cars - especially Mercedes, Audis and BMWs - than on anything else. Fashionable restaurants such as Casa di David, serving sweet chilli prawns to an ostentatious clientele, are "full of Romanians who'll send the bill back because it's not enough money," says Craig Turp, editor of English-language guide Bucharest In Your Pocket - not entirely, you sense, in jest.
Painting the town
Come the weekend, everyone's up for it in Bucharest. The key to a good time lies, of course, in knowing where to go. There's a Time Out, but it's in Romanian, so your best bet is a copy of Turp's acerbically entertaining Bucharest In Your Pocket, available free from big hotels.
In an ideal world, you'd check in at the boutique Rembrandt Hotel and make instant friends with the owner, Jerry Van Schaik from Amsterdam. He'd then spend the weekend taking you to word-of-mouth bars and parties in rich Romanians' Le Corbusier-style villas on the back of his scooter: G&Ts for about a euro a pop and an arty crowd just in from Berlin. It worked for me, but don't tell him I told you. And good luck.
Do, however, try the Rembrandt. In a city of monotonous monolithic hotels, it's the closest thing Bucharest's got to an individually run, non-corporate check-in - all brown leather armchairs and views of red rooftiles. You're also handily placed for the so-shabby-it's-fab Lipscani quarter, the oldest part of the city. Here, while ogling the odd modish shop and gallery-front showcasing Roy Lichtenstein print armchairs, you can do your tourist duties on Saturday morning.
Tourist tick 'em offs
Start with coff ee in Manuc's Inn's sunlit courtyard, once the biggest in Bucharest, where there's an old cart artfully crippled on the cobbles. Later on, olde worlde folk bands pump their accordions here. Next, pay homage to Vlad Tepes - the inspiration for Dracula - whose inscrutable bust stands beside the Byzantine Old Princely Church. Then order that much-needed Bloody Mary at Amsterdam Café Grand - a fine, large-windowed corner joint with walls of duck-egg blue, a huge, stopped clock over the bar and Leff e on tap. Notting Hill for real people, if you like. And it's buzzier still by night.
A martini or three
Because of a predominance of north-south thoroughfares, there's no actual core to Bucharest's social scene. "You can argue about it all night," says Craig Turp. "There are good places to eat and drink, but they're all over the city."
On the positive side, Bucharest is compact and taxis are cheap. For my money, no Saturday night would be complete without a martini or three and, ideally, dinner at Bucharest's most fashionable restaurant, Balthazar. Situated in a villa, it has a whiff of Paris and Casablanca, but three courses and three martinis costs ?56.
Check out Embryo. It was under renovator's wraps when I last visited, but it was space-age and funky in a previous incarnation, so there's no doubt it'll return even sexier.
Try non-poncey, nicely boozy club Frame, or put your two left feet forward at Salsa - which is exactly as the name suggests and a bit of a legend. If you're flying back on Monday, The Office does the trick on Sundays. It's full of folk who favour mirrored shades and too-tight T-shirts surrounded by big, louche chandeliers wrapped in chiff on, bare brick, wood under foot, flickering candles and funky house from a DJ named Sasha. Just don't overdo it on the house white and the chit-chat with Sasha, or you might miss your flight. Then again, you might just be glad you did.
Info to go
Hotel Rembrandt Smart leather armchairs and bright, white sheets create a peaceful townhouse retreat that's handy for the Lipscani district. Rooms from ?63.
Smardan Street 11; Tel: +40 (0)21 313 9316; www.rembrandt.ro.
More hotels in Bucharest at www.inyourpocket.com
Eat & drink
Uptown, Rabat Street 2;
Tel: +40 (0)21 231 4077 Casa di David, Sos. Nordului 7-9; Tel: +40 (0)21 232 4715 Manuc's Inn, Franceza Street 62-64;
Tel: +40 (0)21 313 1415 Amsterdam Café Grand, Covaci Street 6; Tel: +40 (0)21 313 7580 Balthazar, Dumbrava Rosie Street 2;
Tel: +40 (0)21 212 1460 Embryo, Ion Oteteleseanu Street 3a;
Tel: +40 (0)21 727 379 023 Frame, B-dul Magheru Street 38b;
Tel: +40 (0)21 211 0144 Salsa, Mihai Eminescu 89;
Tel: +40 (0)21 723 531 841 The Office, Tache Ionescu Street 2;
Tel: +40 (0)21 745 110 064
Palace of Parliament, Constitution Square Old Princely Church, Franceza Street 3
Stolica Bułgarii bywa miejscami szara i zniszczona, ale to naprawdę doskonały pomysł na weekend, przekonuje Nick Redman.
Architektura tego monstrualnego budynku doskonale wpisuje się w stylistykę Gotham City. Jest tu 100 pokoi i ponad 400 biur.
To drugi pod względem powierzchni, po Pentagonie, budynek na świecie. Pod jego budowę trzeba było zrównać z ziemiš jednš szóstš powierzchni miasta. Zdołano ukończyć zaledwie 70% prac. W 1989 r., w wyniku przewrotu, Ceausescu, wraz z żonš Elenš, został skazany na rozstrzelanie.
Spod grubej warstwy patyny wyziera dawna świetność miasta. Wiele budynków nawišzuje do architektury Paryża, jest tu nawet, uderzajšco podobny do oryginału, Arcul de Triumf. Lata międzywojenne były złotym wiekiem Bukaresztu.
Na przykłady architektury modernistycznej i art déco można natknšć się dosłownie na każdym kroku.
Dobrze zdaje się podsumowywać to miasto fragment tekstu z New York Times'a: „Prawdziwa siła Bukaresztu leży chyba w tym, że potrafizmusić przybyszów do postrzegania go na jego własnych warunkach... Zachowujšc w sobie jakšś egzotykę, jednocześnie nie oddala się zbytnio od standardów miasta europejskiego".
A patina bája
Lehet, hogy nem a legmodernebb város, de nagyszerű helyszín egy hosszú hétvégére - mondja Nick Redman.
A Bukarest fölé magasodó épület, ami majdnem olyan magas, mint az Empire State Building, olyan hangulatot kelt, mintha Gotham City-be érkeznénk. A Parlament egy zsarnok megalomániája - erdélyi márványba vésve. Egymillió köbméternyi erdélyi márványba. A masszív bejáraton átlépve a stadion méretű bálteremben szemünk megakad a kézzel hímzett arany és ezüst drapériákon, az öt tonnát nyomó kristály és arany csilláron, és az óriási, feltekert szőnyegeken. Az épületben ezer szoba és négyszáz iroda van. Az amerikai Pentagon után ez a második legnagyobb épület a világon - már ami a lakóterületet illeti. Eredeti célját tekintve pedig mindenképpen első: az ország rettegett diktátorának, Nicolae Ceausescu-nak hatalmas víziója, az ország központi adminisztratív hivatala - az „Emberek háza".
Az itt töltött hétvége különleges élményét az adja, hogy olyan érzésünk van, mintha miénk lenne a város.
A múzeumok előtt nem kígyóznak hosszú sorok. A városnéző buszok nem okoznak közlekedési dugót, az út menti kávézókban pedig nem számláznak 1500 forintot egy íztelen capuccinóért. Ez még a jövő zenéje. Jelenleg azonban Romániában még idegenforgalmi hivatal sincs.