Brave new world

July 16, 2006

Scotland on Sunday
Sun 16 Jul 2006

Piata Revolutiei, BucharestSOMETIMES I feel like a motherless child a long way from home.” Billie Holiday’s sultry voice drifts out from a Bucharest bar that’s built around a twisted tree trunk, in a courtyard surrounded by former communist government buildings. The shade from the canopy offers protection from the hot sun, and people sit peacefully, chatting, reading and gossiping.

Nicolae Ceausescu’s son held power here when it was the ministry of culture. Now the buildings house a bookshop, a newspaper office, an internet café, and this, the Green Hours 22 Jazz Club, which by day is one of the best, most relaxed cafés in Bucharest.

Bucharest old and new

The capital of Romania is a city in transition, as is much of the country. It was December 1989 when Ceausescu was overwhelmed by protestors while delivering a speech from his infamous balcony. Seventeen years later, you can see the spot at the renamed Piata Revolutiei. Next year Romania hopes to join the EU, in the second major round of accession.

This is a fascinating, largely undiscovered destination. Oppositions abound: Orthodox churches are reflected in new, shiny corporate buildings; it has an efficient metro system, but few stations have name signs; you can drink atop roof terraces with students, and then eat traditional food in dark subterranean cafés.

Villa 11, where I’m staying, is by the main train station, Gara de Nord. On arrival I phone, and they tell me to wait where I am. Promptly, three young boys come running down the street to show me to the hostel/B&B. The next morning, there are pancakes and fresh coffee for breakfast. This should set me up for my visit to the ironically named House of the People. The megalith, constructed by Ceausescu, now houses the city’s contemporary art gallery.

During my stay at Villa 11, the owners, in a characteristic act of trust, go away for two days to the seaside. And, in a typical act of Romanian engineering, the car breaks down on the way back, leaving them stranded. You may have to be flexible in Romania, but stick with the trains and you’ll be fine; they are cheap and reliable.

Wandering around a market near the station, where fresh dill perfumes the air, I buy some fruit for my train journey north-west to the university town of Cluj, Transylvania. On the way we pass houses painted blue, pink, pale cream and turquoise. If Romania’s cities are in transition, its countryside is in no rush. Horse-and-cart is still a common mode of transport and hay is mainly scythed. It is, from the outside at least, a pastoral idyll.

The much-recommended Retro Youth Hostel is my destination in Cluj-Napoca. It is advisable to book in advance since it’s very popular, thanks to the laid-back, friendly young couple who run it. An added bonus is that they organise local trips. Get a small group together and they’ll take you into Transylvania’s heartland.

Transylvanian farm

We go to a massive, deep salt mine, cut into one of the rock-faces, and then into the rolling hills of lush countryside. We walk through meadows dotted with small farms, the clouds high in the sky. As we descend into a dip beneath one hill, we come to a small farmhouse where a family has set out a table under the shade of some canvas. Lunch is accompanied by the ubiquitous plum brandy, tuica, served neat.

Back in Cluj, I sit down at one of the many cafés dotted around the main square, Piatr Uniril. Café Flowers is one of the newer ones, with trendy staff and gentle ambient music, and it’s here that I stop for a cup of clear chai (tea).

The times, they are a-changing, very fast. Romania is on the cusp between old ways and new directions. For visitors, it’s a special time to explore a place where tradition and innovation are living and breathing cheek by jowl.

Fact file: Bucharest

British Airways (www.ba.com) flies from Heathrow direct to Bucharest’s Otopeni airport for around £100 one way.

Villa 11, Str Institutul Medico Militar 11, Bucharest (00 40 722 092 495900)

Retro Youth Hostel, Str Potaissa 13, Cluj-Napoca (00 40 264 450452, http://www.retro.ro)

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