Bucharest – A Servas Visit in a Communist Era Neighborhood

Thus far in my exploration of Bucharest, neighborhoods engulfed in communist era block buildings had become all too familiar. What I wasn’t used to doing was finding a flat in the middle of one of those neighborhoods.

But such was my plan the day I was to visit *Servas Host Dana in one of Bucharest’s densely populated suburbs. Now eight months pregnant, Dana didn’t feel comfortable venturing too far from home, so she asked me to visit her in her flat.

Her directions from a nearby trolley stop to her residence included navigating around numerous multi-story block buildings, taking a left on a street with no name, and finding the pharmacy which was across the street from her building. If I got lost, I was to stop at the police station and ask them to call her. I never did see the police station, but fortunately, after a few wrong turns, I found the pharmacy. She buzzed me into her building and I proceeded up the elevator to her tiny one room flat on the 7th floor.

Dana is a policewoman on maternity leave. She will receive 80% of her full salary for two years following the birth of her child.

She and her husband, Andrei, recently bought a new, stripped-down, three bedroom flat which is currently unlivable. It has nothing more than a few walls in it – no kitchen, bathroom, or plumbing. She informed me that this is typical of new properties in Romania. Andrei sells supplies to contractors, so he knows a lot about contract work. Dana is confident that the work will be completed in a few months and they will be able to move in.

Gone are the days of Romanian’s communist era of Nicolae Ceausescu when residential properties, which were built by the state, could not be bought by individuals. The elimination of Ceausescu in 1989 and the freedoms that ensued when the former East Bloc was turned upside down by Russia’s new **perestroika policy in the last part of the 20th century paved the way for the capitalist society Romania is enjoying today.

She cooked up a delicious Romanian dish of duck with cabbage in a big pot for us and her husband who would be returning from work later. We finished the afternoon taking an interesting walk with her dog.

We passed through a cluster of homes where Gypsy children were playing in the street just outside the historic Plumbuita Monastery Ensemble. Dana informed me that this was a Gypsy neighborhood.

Roma, or Gypsies, are the second largest ethnic minority in Romania after Hungarians. Out of a total Romanian population of 20 million, the Roma population is estimated to be around 1 million. They originated in northern India as a nomadic people and entered Europe between the eighth and tenth centuries. The largest concentration of Roma people today live in Spain, Romania, and Turkey.

This fortified church compound, founded in 1560, was originally an Orthodox monastery for monks.  Just inside the arched entrance to the old monastery a priest was being picked up by the driver of a mini-van as we approached.  As we walked around the inside of the thick-walled compound, I felt like I was passing through centuries of history. Included inside was a Princely House, which is now a museum, and an old parish church.

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My visit with Dana to this interesting, medieval, fortified religious compound gave me a taste of what was to come during my further exploration of Romania. Several days later I began exploring the nearby province of Transylvania with its plethora of medieval towns and castles.

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About a month after meeting Dana, I received an email from her with a treasured photo of her, her husband, and their newborn. It’s a girl!!!

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*Servas is non-profit international organization of hosts and travelers http://www.Servas.org

** perestroika – (in the former Soviet Union) the policy or practice of restructuring or reforming the economic political system. First proposed by Leonid Brezhnev in 1979 and actively promoted by Mikhail Gorbachev, perestroika originally referred to increased automation and labor efficiency, but came to entail greater awareness of economic markets and the ending of central planning.

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Market Day with a Servas Host in Bucharest

It was a brisk Saturday morning when *Servas Host Mihai picked me up downtown in his car and headed out on a day of market-hopping. Our first stop was Obor Market. I had a completely different experience there with him from the other day when I had visited it alone and used public transportation to get there and back.

Mihai parked conveniently underneath the marketplace. A couple flights of stairs put us in the heart of the produce market. We then proceeded to move quickly from stall to stall while he purchased a week’s supply of food for his family of four.

Mihai and his wife are both professionals working full time. Between them they speak six languages fluently, including English, German, Polish, and Russian. They travel internationally periodically for pleasure and business.

Our next stop was the nearby Agricultural Market, a small, but inviting weekend street market. Stalls lined both sides of the entrance to the grounds of Targ Expozitie (Exposition Fair). Here I was introduced to fresh gourmet products made by small, family businesses from around the country. I sampled my way through the market, stopping to buy the most enticing products. I passed two children who appeared to be enjoying eating some of the sweets as much as I did.

One section of stalls was serving Romanian meals prepared in a kitchen reconstructed from a traditional kitchen from the remote mountainous area of northern Transylvania. Colorful painted and woven handcrafts were scattered about. Mihai encouraged me to order a freshly prepared meal here, which included fish soup and grilled fish, while he shopped. I dined accordingly sitting at a nearby wooden table while watching women cook over big black steaming pots and woks.

I noticed a woman taking photos of the charming kitchen area, just as I had done before sitting down to eat. She was the only tourist I saw in the market that day. We chatted and agreed that the setting we were experiencing was so authentic that it felt like we had been transported to the far northern area of Transylvania where life in rural Romania is alleged to exist as it has for centuries.

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I said goodbye to Mihai later that day at the entrance to the National Village Museum where he dropped me off. The museum, established in 1935, is one of Europe’s oldest open air museums, containing a collection of over 300 historic wooden structures relocated from rural Romania.

I wandered for a couple of hours among old homesteads, churches, and mills. One building that particularly caught my eye was a large dance hall which was painted a striking shade of green.

Having seen colorful traditional fabrics earlier in the day at the Agricultural Market, it was not difficult to imagine rural folks in their finest local dress kicking up their heels to traditional Romanian tunes in the old country dance hall.

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*Servas is non-profit international organization of hosts and travelers http://www.Servas.org

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Bucharest – The Trolley Stop & Obor Market

The sprawling, atmospheric Obor Market, the largest produce market in Romania, and one of the oldest, dates back over 300 years. It is a convenient, short trolley ride from downtown Bucharest.

The day I decided to visit the market for the first time, I used my waiting time at the trolley stop to explore the nearby historic Apostle’s Church. This Orthodox church dates from the 16th century when it was part of a monastery. The cobblestone path on one side was filled with women lighting candles at the prayer niches which were perched on a stone wall. The lovely arched portico of the church drew me into the well-preserved, richly-painted interior. The old custom of having an open nave with no seats for parishioners enabled me to wander freely and admire the interior from all angles. The beautiful gilded screen which separated the nave from the sanctuary of the church was a highlight.

Off to the market….

Riding the trolley to Obor Market was an interesting experience. A local woman, seeing I was having difficulty figuring out how to validate my ticket at the machine provided on board, offered to help me. Mission accomplished. I gave her an appreciative smile. No language barrier there!

The low, two-story building which housed Obor Market was distinctive among the mid-rise communist era block buildings which lined the surrounding streets. Upon alighting from the trolley, I noticed other modes of transportation people used to get there, including the underground train and self-propelled scooters.

The massive Obor Market sprawled inside and outside.

At one entrance to the enclosed marketplace jewelry stalls, many of which were selling gold jewelry, flanked a huge currency exchange booth. Small shops and stalls selling non-food items fanned out in front of me as far as the eye could see.

In the food section of the marketplace, fruit and vegetables were piled high. Several stands of apples had bottles of juice displayed above the piles. The cost for a liter of this freshly squeezed juice was about US$.50. I purchased one and immediately drank some of the freshest apple juice I ever had. In the vicinity were wild berries and mushrooms from Romania’s mountains.  In addition there were teas, spices, honey, cheese, eggs, and meat products.

Several long lines of people at a huge machine along a wall caught my eye. I watched as people filled up their empty containers with fresh milk.

Just outside the enclosed market several racks of high-quality leather jackets were being offered for sale. Nearby a food stall was selling traditional Romanian fast food which included fries and sausages. The line was long, and the adjoining tented seating area was packed. The flower market, which was bursting with color and aroma, was beside a cascade of various red and green apples.

The Obor Market was an unforgettable feast of the senses. Etched in my memory forever is the man I saw counting his money in front of a historic photo of the market – knowing that this scene probably played out in real life thousands of times over the last 300 years.

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The Forgotten Jewish Neighborhood of Bucharest

The charming, light-filled Mil Pesos Penthouse Hostel which I called home while in Bucharest, was located on the top floor of a communist-era block building in the middle of what was the flourishing Jewish community of Bucharest prior to WWII. For centuries thousands of Jewish people lived in this area among a maze of lively, narrow streets.

A wide boulevard in front of the hostel cut through the old Jewish neighborhood like a knife. A large, modern underground passageway facilitated safe passage for me to explore what little was left of Bucharest’s rich Jewish heritage.

Fortunately several beautiful old synagogues survived the holocaust and the massive destruction of the Jewish neighborhood during the subsequent communist era. From the balcony of my room at the hostel, Carmen, one of the hostel owners, pointed out two spires of the historic Choral Temple that peaked out above the nearby rooftops. It is the city’s main working synagogue for many of the more than 10,000 Jews who currently live in Bucharest.

One morning I invited Simon, a hostel guest from Hong Kong, to explore the surrounding neighborhood with me. We planned to visit three historic synagogues, two of which have been preserved as museums – the Great Synagogue, and the Jewish History Museum of Bucharest.

All of the three synagogues were built in the mid 1800’s, desecrated during WWII, and subsequently beautifully restored.

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Jews and WWII in Romania

In 1930, there were 757,000 Jewish inhabitants in Romania. It was one of the largest Jewish communities in the world before WWII and the Holocaust. Romania allied with Nazi Germany starting in 1940 until Aug. 23, 1944, at which time the Romanian government was overthrown and the country switched sides and became allied with Russia. As a result of the German alliance, 200,000 Romanian Jews and 40,000 Roma (Gypsies) were killed in Auschwitz.

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The Choral Temple was just around the corner from my accommodations. A dramatic memorial to the victims to the Holocaust, in form of a large menorah, dominated the front courtyard, almost dwarfing the synagogue behind it. Built in 1865, the Temple is considered to be one of the most beautiful synagogues in the world with its Moorish arches and beautifully decorated walls and ceiling. Synagogue guide Noemi related passionately many details of the building and its history.

The Great Synagogue was built in 1845 by the Polish-Jewish community.  Original paintings, some of which were done by famous Jewish painters, were displayed on the walls throughout. 

One painting on a wall of the ornate first balcony was of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish family, probably from an Eastern European country. In close proximity was a circular window with the Star of David embedded in it. The combination of this painting, next to the Star of David in the window, along with the stunning Moorish interior of the synagogue, made me stop in my tracks. I suddenly felt like I had been transported to a 19th century *shetyl in Poland.

The Bucharest Jewish History Museum, formerly the United Holy Temple synagogue, was almost completely hidden by long, multi-story block buildings. We were lost for a while in a labyrinth of buildings that all looked similar.

Eventually we found a memorial to 125 Jews who were martyrs during a pogrom in 1941. I then surmised that a synagogue was nearby. And it was.

The beautiful, three-tiered, galleried synagogue was built in Moorish style in 1836. The focus of the museum was on how the once vibrant Jewish community of Bucharest used to live.

After visiting the these historic synagogues, both Simon and I felt like we had just had a fascinating history lesson in relatively recent Jewish history of Romania.

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Every time I passed by the Choral Temple, the Moorish architecture and the huge menorah always moved me. I couldn’t help feeling some the the passion that must have been behind the creation of the two structures which were built over a century apart, yet were inextricably intertwined in history.

The last time I passed by this Temple was on my way out of Romania several weeks later. There was a sign on the gate to the property saying the synagogue was closed due to the Corona virus. I was grateful I hadn’t missed the opportunity a few weeks earlier to visit such a profound historical site relating to the legacy of Jewish life in Bucharest.

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*Shetyl – a small town with a large Jewish population which existed in Central and Eastern Europe before the Holocaust.

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Old Town, Bucharest – A Delight Amid Communist-era Industrialization

One day I joined a few independent travelers on a walking tour of the Historic Center which started in the nearby lovely park in the city’s main square, Piata Unirii. Our knowledgeable guide, Alicia, informed us that in the ‘80’s until his death in 1989, Romania’s president Nicolae Ceausescu displaced over 40,000 people by bulldozing the inner historic city to create Piata Unirii and make way for the adjacent, broad boulevard.

Nicolae Ceausescu was a brutal dictator of Romania during the communist era. He was a Romanian communist politician, and President of the Republic of Romania from 1974 -1989. His excesses as a dictator lead to his overthrow and execution in the Romanian Revolution in December, 1989.

In the middle of Old Town is the small Orthodox Stavropolous Monastery which dates from 1724. Its picturesque courtyard, which is filled with old tombstones, brings to thought that during the middle ages there once was a thriving community in this area. The church’s ornate, beautifullyrestored wooden exterior was in stark contrast to the generally unrestored buildings around it.

Diverta retail store was striking along one of Old Town’s main pedestrian streets with its two level, stark glass storefront and artistic, colorfully-painted exterior. It sold an eclectic collection of books, toys, stationery, and gadgets.

This store, along with the plethora of bistros, international restaurants and trendy cafes, have helped Old Town take a few significant steps on the long road to restoration.

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Our guide had highly recommended eating at Caru cu bere (“The Beer Wagon”), Bucharest’s oldest beer house. The business originally opened as a brewery in 1879. Several of us decided to dine there that evening.

Classic Romanian dishes were promoted in a colorful sign outside. The restaurant was filled with an interesting mix of locals and tourists. It was here that I was introduced to mamaliga (polenta), a traditional dish made from coarsely ground cornmeal with cream or cheese on the top or side. It became my favorite dish in Romania. Martin, a pastry chef from southern France, feasted on a traditional dessert called papanasi, two donut-shaped pastries served with a dollop of sour cream.

Eating great traditional food, the Belle-Epoque interior of Caru cu bere, and traditional Romanian dancing among the tables with the guests, all contributed to a memorable evening shared with new friends.

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On the eve of Valentine’s Day, I made myself comfortable at the Grand Cafe Van Gogh in Old Town, with my computer in tow. Colorful copies of Van Gogh paintings of various sizes covered the walls. Red hearts were hanging in front of the windows and dangling from the ceiling. In between sipping tea and enjoying ice cream laden with colorful candy, I sent a Valentine’s Day greeting with a couple of photos of my surroundings to a few friends stateside.

A small group of people from an international company who were in town on business, were honing in on their painting skills opposite me at a long table in the corner. Each person had been given painting supplies and canvas. Each was attempting to copy a Van Gogh painting while enjoying food, drink, and conversation. They were delighted when I came over to their table at one point and complimented them on their artistic abilities. They eventually left, proudly carrying their creations with them which had been framed by the cafe.

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Bucharest, Romania – An Orthodox Church, a Medieval Court, & a Turkish Caravaransarai

It was early in February, 2020. My one and a half hour flight from Vienna crossed over Hungary, and then over Transylvania in the Carpathian mountainous area of central Romania, before landing in Romania’s capital city of Bucharest in an area known as Wallachia. Bucharest is situated in the southeastern part of Romania on the banks of the Dambovita River, which eventually flows into a tributary of the Danube.

Transylvania is known for its medieval towns and fortresses, and mountainous borders. The neighboring county of Wallachia was where Vlad Tepes (known as Vlad the Impaler) was born.  He was the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  He is often considered one of the most important rulers in Wallachian history, fighting ruthlessly against Ottoman Turkish aggression.

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I alighted from the airport bus in downtown Bucharest on the outskirts of Old Town where my accommodations were located.

Communist-era block buildings lined the busy streets. These buildings belied the fact that Old Town, Bucharest’s oldest neighborhood, which was full of picturesque streets, unrestored old houses, and lively restaurants, cafes, and bars, was nearby. Old Town was formed in the 15th and 16th centuries when Bucharest was emerging as a capital of Wallachia.

The air was brisk. I maneuvered around small piles of snow on my way to my hostel. The streets were humming with activity. The pandemic, which was starting to halt activity around Europe at that time, didn’t appear to affect activity in Romania until about a month later as I was leaving the country.

St. Anton Square, Old Town

One Tuesday as I walked down one of the narrow walking streets in the southern edge of the Old Town. I soon found myself in historic St. Anton Square. The lovely Romanian Orthodox Princely Court Church, dating from 1559, loomed up in front of me. A long line of women of all ages were waiting to get in. Along side it, many were lighting candles and praying. The ornate, dark, interior of the church was packed with even more women.

I returned to this square a few days later on one of Bucharest’s free walking tours. The church and grounds were nearly deserted. I asked our guide why was there such a dramatic difference in number of people from Tuesday. She explained that women who are looking for a husband flock to this church to pay homage to St. Anthony on Tuesdays. One person in our group asked, with a chuckle, if the men of Bucharest who were looking for a wife figured they might find one here on a Tuesday, and hang around accordingly. Our guide smiled knowingly.

I found the historic structures around the church in St. Anton Square intriguing. One was the archaeological site of the medieval Old Princely Court. It served as the early seat of the Wallachian princes, including Vlad Tepes in 1459, one of Romania’s most notorious leaders. The other intriguing structure was a former Turkish *caravansarai. This massive complex was built in the 1800’s, and now hosts a restaurant, several bars, a cafe, and an inn (currently under restoration).

Unfortunately the ruins of the medieval court were off limits. But the presence of this archaeological site whetted my appetite to learn more about the history of Bucharest and the nearby province of Transylvania, where the life and adventures of Vlad Tepes took place.

The extensive outer walls of the oriental caravansarai, Manuc’s Inn, spanned one side of St. Anton Square. One of Europe’s last remaining caravansarais, the two story structure surrounded a central yard where horses, carts, and cattle used to be hosted.

My imagination soared when I stepped into the massive courtyard and surveyed the wooden balconies that overlooked it. I felt like I was on the old Silk Road in Turkey where I had occasionally stumbled onto an old caravansarai during my travels many years ago.

Tables and chairs of cafes and bars were set up in the large courtyard, ready for customers. The restaurant on the upper level was reputed to have a great four-course lunch special of traditional Romanian food for under US$10. I never dined there, but enjoyed a similar afternoon special at several inviting, nearby restaurants in Old Town.

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*Historic roadside inns dating back to the time of the old Silk Road between the 2nd century BC to the 18th century

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