When Two Became One

The Artist and the Dictator
Tuesday 14th October 2014


After last night's partying this morning called for very late breakfast. We crawled out of bed at the very last moment before the service closed at 10am. They put on a good spread to be fair, yogurts, cereals, cheese and ham slices, they even had smoked salmon which Julie really enjoyed. From the hot buffet I had delicious mushrooms but rubbery scrambled eggs whereas Julie had tasty bacon but didn't lke the salaminess of the sausages. The orange juice was amazing whilst the coffee was attrocious.  Overall breakfast was worth getting up for.

Before we left the hotel we asked at the concierge desk how we could book a tour of the Parliament Palace. It had been on my very long bucket list since I saw Dan Cruckshank enthuse about it on his TV series Great Architecture of the World or something like that.

They did the booking for us there and then. The instructions were we needed to arrive 10 minutes before our 2pm tour and were required to show our passports.  

Off we set with a small map in hand. First on my agenda was to have a look at the Parliament Palace, albeit from a distance, from the end of Bulevardul Unirii.

To get a better, more centred photograph we crossed the busy boulevard to the middle, where a series of fountains repeated all the way to the palace.

In my eagerness to get the best most central position for the photo I squeezed myself in between two large boxes, only for one of them to topple over. "Shit" I said multiple times when I noticed a lot of electrical cables coming out from underneath the metal box. I could only imagine the chaos I may have created. Phone lines down, power to traffic lights disrupted.

Before I got arrested we made a hasty retreat back towards the hotel and kept on walking in the opposite direction to quickly distance ourselves from the scene of the crime.

There were some impressive historical buildings along the river, such as the Palace of Justice, which wouldn't have looked out of place along the Seine, in Paris.

In fact Bucharest has often been called Little Paris and it was easy to see why the comparison.

As we turned away from the river, walking up Calea Victoriei we passed more buildings of great stature, like the National Musuem, which looked really interesting and directly opposite was the spectacular headquarters of the CEC bank.  A reminder of the city's glorious past.

From here we turned back towards the old town, on the lookout for "the oldest restaurant in Bucharest" for our lunch later, as well as one of the oldest churches in the city. But first we passed a cafe and decided to stop for a break. It was called Chocolat and they specialised in hot chocolate.

We don't drink hot chocolate that often but I do enjoy a well made cup of luxuriously thick melted chocolate.   On their menu, which was printed in the form of a small book, they had a choice of five different styles. I went for the Classic, Belgian dark chocolate with milk and whipped cream.

It arrived, served in a bowl, on a slate board, with a biscuit on the side. A lot of thought had clearly gone into its presentation and to be fair the hot chocolate was delicious. Often when the focus is on how it looks they often forget about how it tastes but not here. 

After a mild sugar rush we continued down the street, noting where Restaurant Caru' cu bere was for lunch later.

We soon reached the Stavropoleos Monastery Church, a stunning little church in the middle of the street.  It's marble columns, arches, the iconocgraphy were really beautiful and all of this was all on the outside. It had quite a distinctive look, a style known Brancovenesc, heavily influenced by Eastern architecture whilst blending in Italian renaisance. It almost looked like a Persian rug draped around it. 

Built in 1724 it's one of Bucharest's oldest surviving churches.

The doors were open, inviting us in. It was dark at first until the eyes adjusted to the dim light. Then we marvelled at the wonderful frescoes that covered every square inch of the walls and ceilings creating such an aura, a real presence. Not so much of God but of the worshipers, the mourners, the sinners and the repenters, who have looked up to the heavens, to these frecoes for answers.

We've been inside plenty of similar churches before but there was an indescribable sense of a presence. I don't know why.  

Stepping back out into the light we entered the beautiful courtyard of the Stavropoleos Monastery. The original monastery was demolished after it was damaged by fire. It was never used as an active monastery after that.  In 1904 it was rebuilt and became a museum.

We left the monastery and attempted a return to Calle Victorei. We wandered off course slightly reaching University Square where we came across the horseback statue of Michael the Brave, (Mihai Viteazul) a 16th century Prince who briefly united the regions of Wallachia, Transylvania and Moldavia and a bonafide Romanian national hero. 

Back on track, we continued North, reaching a car park also known as Revolution Square, (Piața Revoluției) one of the most known squares in the city.

 A tall spike impaling an object rose from its centre. It was known as the Memorial of Rebirth honoring the victims of the 1989 revolution.

I'm old enough to remember 1989, the fall of communism and how it swept through Eastern Europe. I still remember watching the news of the Romanian president and dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu standing on the balcony of the Communist Party headquarters here in this square as he addressed the people.

The crowd turned on him, jeering and chanting the name "Timișoara"

A few days earlier he had ordered the military to brutally end a protest in Timișoara, a city to the West of the country. They fired on the demonstrators killing 117 people.

Ceaușescu knew his time as ruler was at an end. The day after his speech he and his wife attempted to escape the country in a helicopter but were captured by the military. A few days later they were both  tried for the attrocities in Timișoara and on Chrismas day 1989 they were executed by a firing squad.

I remember feeling shocked by it all.

The Memorial of Rebirth was a very peculiar design.  Unsurprisingly it spawned quite a few nicknames like the potato on a stick or the skewered brain.

Two years ago, in an act of vandalism, albeit a very artistic one, someone splashed blood red paint at the base of the "object" which then dripped down the marble spike. It seemed to add another dimension to the memorial, a reminder of the bloodshed. The authorities thought so too and left the paint where it dried.

We kept on walking past the equestrian statue of King Carol I and the vast Royal Palace until we reached the Romanian Athenaeum. It was a conecert hall, although it looked worthy of the grander title of  opera house but it was just a concert hall, home to the George Enescu Philharmonic Orchestra. 

Above all it was a stunning building. We didn't go inside. The doors were locked. Ot at least the ones we tried. And anyway the temptation of a park bench outside lured us into sitting down and admiring it from afar.

The Greek temple like portico and the baroque dome were striking. Five Romanian rulers were protrayed in mosaic above the entrance doors. Moldovian Basil the Wolf (Vasile Lupu) and Alexander the Good (Alexandru cel Bun), Wallachian Neagoe Basarab and Matei Basarab, and the ruler at the time the Athenaeum was built in 1888, King Carol I.

Along the rim of the dome were the names of great artists such as French playwrights Moliere and Corneille, Italian painter Michelangelo, and ancient Greek and Roman poets. I was a little confused as to their connection to a concert hall. A list of great composers would have made more sense.

Despite the park bench being rather uncomfortable we sat here for quite a while, watching people come and go and the pigeons flap about. Eventually we returned back the way we came, through Revolution Square.

Here, at the far end we came across Biserica Kretzulescu, a rather plain red brick church, if we were to compare it to Stavropoleos Monastery Church we saw earlier. However I had read that the frescoes in the portico were worth the slight detour. 

 The original artwork from 1722 when it was built was indeed marvelous, The church had been restored many times over the centuries from earthquake damage and conflict but the frescoes here had remained untouched.

Moving on, and getting a little hungry, it was time to return to Strada Stavropoleos to find Restaurant Caru' cu bere  for lunch. The "Beer Cart" (as it translates) is a Bucharest institution, serving diners since 1879.

It's humble name does not prepare you for the oppulent interior. Beautiful vaulted ceilings, painted a dark green with teak brown marble columns, which matched the wood paneling, growing like tree branches, meeting in the middle where chandeliers hung.

Faded murials and stained glass windows gave the restaurant an almost religious feel. It was quite easy to forget that we were here to eat some food.

I tried to catch the attention of the busy staff.  The male waiters wore braces and dickie bows which made them look like waiters whilst the female staff were dressed in a dark green medieval costume that made them all look like elves.

It all accumulated into a wonderful experience.  

A quick browse of their menu left me impressed by the labelling of meals suitable for vegetarians with a leaf symbol. I opted for a very traditional rustic dish of Mushrooms with Mămăliguță, a cornmeal porridge similar to polenta.

The gloopy gruel was surprisingly tasty and a perfect accompaniment to the mushrooms in a rich tomato sauce. I scooped it all up in a flash. I couldn't have eaten it any quicker if I had inhaled it!

My urgency was partly because it was delicious but also time was against us.

I actually tried to get the bill as soon as they brought our meals to the table but that request simply confused them. Fortunately there was plenty of staff to catch their attention for the bill as soon as we had finished. 85 lei was a very reasonable total.  

The Palace of the Parliament was some distance away so we quickened the pace as we marched  across the Dâmbovița river and then followed Boulevard Națiunile Unite that brought us along side the colossal building.

Our next challenge was to find the entrance. We had been told it was at the back so we were in the right area at least.  It was now beginning to rain and our quick march was bordering on running.

With some luck we came across the visitors entrance on our first attempt and we walked inside the Parliament Tour reception, huffing and puffing but precisely at 1:50pm as requested.

We joined a queue, paid the 45 lei each entrance fee and handed over our passports. We then shuffled through security gates as thorough as an airport with our bags x-rayed and ourselves scanned by walk through metal detectors.

Our group consisted of about twenty people of varying ages and nationalities. Our guide introduced herself as Ivana. She explained that it was OK to photograph everywhere with the exception of any security stations like the one we had just walked through.

Also no photographs of staff. They took their security very seriously. Whilst this was one of Romania's most popular tourist attractions it was also still an active government building.

We began by walking up a level into a long red carpeted hallway where Ivana gave us the option of starting at the bottom and working our way up, or the other way around. We were booked on the full tour so we would get to see it all anyway.

There was a lot of shrugging amongst our group. It was a bit of a daft question really as we didn't know enough to have an informed opinion. In the end she said the basement is really boring and the top level is the best bit, so with that we all decided as a group to get the boring bits over and done with. 

A huge staircase took us down several floors until we reached a door behind which the marble stopped and we entered the palace's underbelly, the bowels of the building, the engine room and unless you were a civil engineer, the really boring part. 

There literally wasn't anything to see other than the ventilation system. To alieviate the boredom they had put up a display illustrating the construction timeline. Work began in 1984 as the warped vision of communist leader Ceaușescu, apparently inspired after a state visit to North Korea.

 A large area of the city was demolished, churches , monasteries, a hospital, factories, homes all had to be raised to the ground to make room for the construction. Not only for the palace but for Union Boulevard which Ceaușescu wanted to be wider and longer than the Champs Elysee. It's estimated that 40,000 people were forcibly relocated to make room.

The work wasn't completed by the time Ceaușescu fell from grace and was executed. 

After the 1989 revolution the newly formed Romanian government controversially decided to continue with the parliament's construction as they believed the alternative would have been more expensive. 

We returned back up the stairs to the marble corridors of power.  There were literally miles of them. Some more ornate than others. All marble, red carpet and chandeliers. There must have been hundreds if not thousands of chandeliers. It reminded me of Moscow's metro system with such grandeur for just a corridor.

"This is the third largest building in the world" explained Ivana "behind Cape Caneveral hanger and a Mexican Pyramid" although when I fact checked her, according to wikipedia, the Palace of Parliament is the third largest adminstrative office government building, way behind to the Pentagon in Washington and the Sappaya-Sapasathan in Thailand .

Oddly enough it is the world's heaviest building and the world's most expensive.

We didn't stop anywhere for too long. Ivana kept a relentless pace. The weak were left behind, well almost.  It was always the same two. A pair of middle aged indentical twin brothers. They had the same camera, wore the same style glasses, had the exact same haircut,  same trainer shoes, same black trousers. The only way you could tell them apart was their shirts. They both wore a red checked shirt but one was small checked and the other a wider checked.

They even took the same photographs. Small Check would take a photo, whilst Wide Check waited, then Wide Check would stand in the same spot and take the exact same photo. Very odd and most entertaining to watch. 

At a crossroads of corridors we came to a stunning chandelier centrepiece hovering above us like an alien spaceship.  Much to Ivana's irritation we all huddled beneath it to get a photograph of its beautiful design.

"We will be coming back this way" she said in a vain attempt to get us moving again. "we are now going to the top" she added, which did catch our attention.

We followed her to the elevators where they could only take six people at a time. It would have been seven but there was a lift operator stood in the corner.

We were in the first batch who got up on the roof. Ivana had stayed behind to chaperone those still waiting. Unsupervised we roamed around outside checking out the view over Bucharest.

There wasn't much to see. It was a grey day which made the grey buildings look even greyer. To be fair to the dead dictator the tree lined Union Boulevard was the only worthwhile feature in the midst of all the concrete.

On the opposite side there was a construction site. An unfinished red brick buidling covered in scaffolding. It wasn't much to look at but Ivana later explained it was going to be the city's new cathedral.  Work had started two years ago which when finished will make the Catedrala Mântuirii Neamului (People's Salvation Cathedral) the largest Eastern Orthodox church in the world.

We were up on the roof for quite some time, waiting for the rest of the group to join us and then of course they needed ample time to see the views before Ivana herded us back together to return down in the elevators.

Six of us stepped inside but this time the elevator didn't move. The lift operator pointed to a flashing warning light. We were too heavy!  One person stepped out but the light still flashed. It took a second, rather large gentleman to get out before it was safe to move. 

Julie's eyes were almost popping out her head. She hates elevators at the best of time but being stuck in one with a flashing warning light was tipping her over.

To her relief it was all staircases after that.

When we were all back down from the roof, and after a head count, we moved on, past the massive chandelier and down a swooping staircase to a series of large reception halls.

We ended up in this enormous room, the Grand Hall, the tallest room in the palace.  The palace was not designed with natural light in the mind but here it was bright and airy with its large windows and glass roof.

The ball room was designed to entertain, made to hold lavish banquets & parties. Ivana told us that the most famous event to be held here was probably the wedding reception of American gymnast Bart Conner and Romanian gymnast, Nadia Comaneci. Even I had heard of Nadia Comaneci. She became a household name when she won three gold medals in the 1976 Munich Olympics when she was only sixteen years of age.

I remember her in a Romanian tourist board commercial a few years ago alongside other Romanian sporting heroes, Ilie Năstase the first ever No.1 ranked tennis player (using the current ATP points system) and world renowned footballer  .

From the Grand Hall we returned up the swooping staircase and followed Ivana into a large meeting room, the type with a large round table and microphones set up at every chair. It did host the 2006 NATO summit.

Next we entered a room filled with rows and rows of chairs, as if it was a theatre. We weren't here for a show but instead we walked out onto the presidential balcony. This is where Ceaușescu imagined himself standing greeting his adoring public. 

It was a wonderful feeling looking directly down Bulevardul Unirii with the Romanian flag flapping in the breeze next to the more flacid flag of the European Union. There was something quite powerful standing here looking out over the best view in the city.

We were given plenty of time to soak it all in.

This was the end of our tour. We followed Ivana back down to the security station where we collected our passports and left the building.

It was now 4pm and time for a siesta. So we walked back to the hotel, down Bulevardul Unirii , stopping frequently to check if we were in a better position to take yet another photograph of the Palace of Parliament. Eventually I got the best I could and we marched on to Hotel Europa.

It wasn't too difficult to fall asleep in the afternoon. We were shattered. It was a few hours later when we dragged ourselves out of a deep sleep and got ourselves dressed in our tidiest clothes. We had a table reserved tonight in one of Bucharest's best restaurants.

It was only a few minutes walk to reach The Artist, still in the Old Town on pedestranised Strada Nicolae Tonitza. It was only a small place. We were so looking forward to this meal. We had been checking out their menu on-line from the moment we made the reservation. They didn't have a vegetarian main course but when we booked they said it was not a problem at all.

We made our choices from the menu but even that didn't prepare us for what was about to be served. It began with a complimentary dish of olive oil. It was absolutely fascinating. There was a butter made from just olive oil, and a white powder which was dried olive oil. Amazing.

On the plate were a few drops of thickly reduced balsamic vinegar and served with a piece of warm bread to mop it all up. We've all had dipping oil and vinegar before but this was on a different level. And this wasn't even on the menu!

Next to grace our table was another complimentary dish, another amuse bouche not listed on the menu. It was served in a glass dish with a deep well in the middle, filled with some dry ice. The waiter then poured a liquid into it which produced a dramatic billowing mist, like a minature smoke machine. 

Placed in its centre Julie found foie gras wrapped in white chocolate, whilst I had soft goat's cheese quinelle on a mango coulis and lemongrass parfait. Our bouches were certainly amused. Not only was it inventive and theatrical it was also incredibly delicious.

Next came the appetisers we had ordered. Julie had the scallop cerviche, thinly sliced scallops cooked only by the acidity of a little lemon juice. The plate was arranged beautifully with several colourful tidbits like black garlic, wasabi, mango and a greek yogurt dollops. She also had a small piece of goat's cheese wrapped in a mango gel, both ingredients on her least favourite list yet somehow it all worked. Another amazing plate.

My smoked cherry tomatoes arrived at the table still smoking!  A glass dome captured the smoke above my plate which the waiter then lifted and wafted the glorious woody aroma.  I actually gasped. The cherry tomatoes had been skinned and were served warm on a chickpea fritter, a slice of goat's cheese and wild rocket and it tasted sensational. 

Our fourth dish arrived in a test tube, a very playful way to serve a green pepper and jalapeno soup. It had a lovely warmth to it, cleansing the palate and opening up the tastebuds for the main course.

Julie had the duck confit. It arrived on a long rectangular plate served with some white cabbage, a red cabbage sauce and a few expertly baked minature apples. It looked wonderful.

My surprise vegetarian dish was served in a very funky bowl, jet black with a very wide rim set at an angle. In the middle were circular slices of set polenta, fried until golden, served on white truffle foam topped with tiny wild mushrooms and shavings of black truffle and a scattering of large watercress leaves. It looked stunning, it smelt stunning, it tasted stunning.  

Course number six arrived in the form of a truffled chocolate. This was no ordinary chocolate truffle. This was truffle infused chocolate truffle. The very thought of it was messing with Julie's head. "You can have mine" she offered.

I ate the one in front of me and "Oh My God" it tasted incredible. I couldn't help but enthuse about how magnificently well it worked. I was promoting the fungi cocoa so much that Julie even decided to have a try. She bit half of the other one and couldn't believe the flavours in her mouth. It was such a playful tiwst on the chocolate truffle and it just tasted so amazing.

Finally the waitress asked us for our dessert choices. Julie declined as she felt rather full. Whilst the dishes looked delicate they were infact plentiful. Also served with almost every course was bread of some description which was perfect for wiping the plate clean but also quickly filled us up.

However, I do have a seperate stomach for pudding and can always squeeze one in.  I chose the cucumber sorbet.

Course number seven arrived in a heavy pestle and mortar.  The pestle was filled with mint leaves, slithers of rose petals and some orange peel. The chef, Openkampf came out and poured liquid nitrogen over them. They instantly froze into a crisp. He then instructed us to use the mortar to break up the freeze dried bits into fine pieces.

He then dropped the cucumber sorbet into it and asked us to gently roll the sorbet around to coat it in all the crushed leaves, petals and peel.

 This was so exciting, innovative and theatrical but above all fabulously full of flavours. All the hype would have been for nothing if it hadn't have tasted superb. It blew my tastebuds away.

And that was that. With the last mouthful the meal came to an end.

The bill arrived and it was of course the most expensive of our trip but at 315 lei (about Ł56) it was insanely good value. It would have been more expensive for us to have eaten a three course meal of insepid boil in a bag dishes at a Toby Grill in London. Fact.

The night was still young, certainly by last night's standards so we headed up the bar filled streets stopping at one called Cliche. What attracted us was the large patio heaters and comfy looking chairs, perfect for sitting outside and people watch. We sat down and were immediately asked to move to a smaller two person table. We didn't mind but we were a little confused. It wasn't busy. They had plenty larger tables available.

We had a round of drinks, a wine and beer for 25 lei.  The waiter was a bit quick with his bill and very surly in his service. We felt that he was eager to move us on. I guess we weren't exactly the young and beautiful clientele he wanted to serve.

With the sole intention of annoying him we ordered another round.

We left after that, returning to the hotel. It wasn't late but we were travelling home tomorrow.

 Along the way we passed an open air museum, enclosed by iron railings. We had walked past it last night but paid it no attention. Tonight however the statue of Vlad the Impaler caught my attention. I recognised him from his portrait in Bran Castle.

This was the site of his Old Princely Court or Curtea Veche in Romanian. This would have once been a fortress around which the old town grew, the district of Lipscani. I guess you could call it the birthplace of Bucharest.

We stopped in front of the statue admiring his moustache for a while. we then spent a moment looking with bemusement at the excavations not really knowing at what we were looking.

Hotel Europa wasn't far from here. In fact our room overlooked the Curtea Veche. Within five minutes we were in bed, switching off the lights on our last night in Bucharest.

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