After a snowy drive to the airport, we got our Wizz air flight from Stockholm Skavsta to Bucharest Henri Coanda/Otopeni (OTP) Airport which departed an hour late and arrived in Bucharest just before 1pm. We also had a delay awaiting our ‘meet and greet’ for the car hire also; however, after a few calls we were collected and taken to the off-site car hire location. Our first impressions coming into Bucharest were that they had had a lot of snow and this was apparent on the sides of the roads and pavements also. Off we set in our hire car heading for the estimated 30-minute journey into central Bucharest.
What we were not prepared for was the driving! The estimated 30-minute journey took nearer an hour and a half and within minutes of driving we were getting honked at. Why we could not understand at all; I wasn’t driving dangerously or erratically and I wasn’t doing anything wrong! After a while we realised this is just the style of driving they adopt in Romania, they appear to honk their horn if you change lane, don’t move within a millisecond at the traffic lights or just for the sake of it! After the drive which seemed like an eternity and navigating an Arc de Triomphe style roundabout which was certainly an experience, we arrived at our accommodation met by our host in central Bucharest.
Sweet Story Studio is based right on the edge of the Old Town, Lipscani, close to the Banca Nationala a Romaniei (National Bank of Romania) and we were very happy with our accommodation which was a self-contained flat, ideal for the two of us with cooking facilities, breakfast and also a washing machine. The only slightly scary thing was the lift which was very old and didn’t always land completely in line with the floor!
We had had great communication with our host prior to arrival on Whatsapp and upon arrival he provided us with a welcome drink before assisting us with the interesting parking system on the street outside. It appears there are official and unofficial car parking attendants and therefore it is confusing as to who you pay especially out of hours. Whilst there were more official sites these were 4x the price of the street parking (approx 25 RON (£4) instead of 80 RON (£15)).
After settling in we headed out into Bucharest to explore what it had to offer. We had done limited research about Bucharest itself; more about where to visit in the car so we were open to new experiences without any preconceptions. The weather was pretty cold and wet when we arrived but we managed to see a few sights on our way.
We headed towards the Old Town, Lipscani, the popular area with stag parties and where the majority of the bars and restaurants are located. Our first stop was the Big Ben pub; cheesy especially for British tourists however we were cold, wet and in need of a pick me up! The pub was ok; local beer was ‘buy one get one free’ (however we ordered this and ended up with 4 pints!) and we also tried Tuica, a Romanian shot which is made from plums. This resembled some kind of paint stripper and certainly not as nice as the hosts’ welcome sherry drink made by his mother in law! The beer was nice and only 9 RON (approx £1.60) for 2 pints due to happy hour so for the price we couldn’t complain.
We headed further on into the Old Town and took in the ambience. It was dark by now and so we headed off to find some food and decided on Zamon which is a bar and restaurant by day and club by night. We were in there for a while and although it was quite quiet the service was pretty slow; nevertheless we had a nice meal from their worldwide menu (I had steak and Nigel had soup and a chicken souffle meal). It was a nice environment and has definite potential with such a multicultural menu; It cost £8 for a steak and £3 for soup so could be considered high by Bucharest standards but value for money for us Brits. Whenever and wherever we travel, we can’t fail to notice how far other countries are behind us musically. The soundtrack in Zamon emphasized this, with a muzak style that I imagine has oft been used as a 70’s adult movie soundtrack.
We headed on back to our accommodation (probably took a long route as we didn’t really know our way around) and settled in for a good nights sleep.
The next day we didn’t have any set plans just decided to have a look around. We googled tourist attractions in Bucharest and off we set. First stop for us, however, was to find and post a card for a certain little lady who collects them; therefore we had to venture quite a way and wait in a very long queue for a stamp at the post office (which appears to be the only place they are sold). Reminders of their Communist days are very apparent in their postal system. After about an hour we headed to the metro to head to Carol Park; it would be wrong not to visit a park named after me after all!. The Metro was something of a letdown compared to the lovely system in Stockholm and certainly was not spectacular! It was however only 90p for a single ticket so definitely a cheap option. Although the station wasn’t much to look at the train was surprisingly modern although cramped.
After struggling slightly with direction by following google maps we finally made it to my park! The park is a public park named after King Carol I of Romania (not me after all boo!) and is of French design. It is has been officially marked as a historical monument since 2004. After a short wander, we stopped at Carol Cafe for a coffee and cake!
Next visit was to the Palace of the Parliament; the second largest administrative building in the world after The Pentagon. The building is 84 metres tall and covers an area of 365,000 square metres. We unfortunately approached from the completely opposite side of the building to where the entrance was and therefore we didn’t go in.
We headed back into town taking in different sites as we went, crossing the Dambovita River and passing the Stavropoleos Monastery and the CEC Palace.
Bucharest is known as Little Paris and we had read that one particular passage, Macca-Villacrosse, particularly had a French feel to it with its bistros and cafes. We took a short pause to take it in and then headed on to Passajul Victoria; I had seen this in photographs with the whole passageway covered in colourful umbrellas. We located it and were slightly disappointed the heavy snow had clearly caused some damage to them; however, it was still a pretty sight and we stopped for a quick refreshment in the passage before heading back to our apartment.
After a bit of a sleep, we headed back to Lipscani for a bite to eat. Nigel also agreed to do some ‘research’ into the nightlife in Bucharest for a friend who was planning on visiting. We did not visit any of the establishments however it was clear that there were plenty of options available for stag groups/lads weekends away. We managed to grab a pizza before closing time and headed back to the apartment for our early start in the morning.
The next day we were up early for what we felt would be the highlights of this trip. We had prearranged to visit a bear sanctuary prior via email and also planned a visit to see Dracula at Bran Castle. Due to the distance and the Bucharest traffic we left at 6.30am in order to try and beat the worst of it. It was a foggy and quite challenging drive; there were copious potholes to avoid, heavy traffic out of Bucharest even at that time and we also needed to check the tyres on the way. One particularly challenging piece of road is highlighted below; there were several hairpin bends which we drove round in the snow avoiding potholes and whilst the scenery was fantastic it wasn’t a great driving experience. Also at one point on our route, a wolf ran out in front of the car which was quite spectacular; however he escaped unhurt as did we.
We had booked in for the 11am tour at the Bear Sanctuary and made it with about 20 minutes to spare. The Liberty Bear Sanctuary is located in Zarnesti, just outside of Brasov approximately 172km from Bucharest and is reached by driving up quite a dodgy clay path. It was slightly wet when we visited but could imagine in the rain the path could be problematic. The sanctuary is clear in specifying that it is not a zoo and does not receive any public funding. Due to safety concerns under 5’s are not allowed to visit and any groups over 15 need to be booked in advance. We had emailed in advance and were informed we could visit at either 11 or 12 that day as the Sanctuary only opens in the mornings.
We paid 45 lei (approx £8.50) and were taken by a guide to a hut where we watched a video on the history of the Sanctuary and some of the bears they have there. Many were rescued from circuses or private homes and lived a confined life in small cages mistreated and undernourished. One bear rode a bike for a circus and when he refused one day to enter the ring the sanctuary was contacted and arranged for his rescue. The sanctuary was started by a couple who were made aware of the plight of Maya, a bear caged outside of a hotel near Bran Castle. The couple visited every day for 4 years to feed her and to try and restore her faith in humans however it was not to be; she was too psychologically harmed by her mistreatment and self-mutilated her paws. Maya died in the arms of her carer and from that day Cristina Lapis vowed to start a sanctuary to save other bears like Maya and dedicated the sanctuary to her. Construction started in 2005.
After we watched the video we took a tour of the bears there who had been rescued. For the safety of the bears and the staff, there were electric fences which we were quite disappointed about but understood; many of these bears were psychologically damaged and because of that, they led a more peaceful existence being cared for in captivity. The bears would never be able to live in the wild but had big areas of woodland in which to explore and now had safety, security and were well cared for; however, they are still wild animals who would pose a risk to anyone approaching them.
It was a visit of mixed emotions; it was great to see these bears were now being cared for but saddening to see the impact humans had on them both physically and emotionally. There were some mischievous bear cubs there who happily climbed trees and played together which was lovely to see and also some rescued wolves. We were glad we went but it was a humbling experience. One thing that is not made clear also is the fact the sanctuary is not easy for people with limited mobility; it was very hard for me and I had to take it slow due to the hills and uneven surfaces and if I had been aware in advance this may have deterred us from visiting. The sanctuary also offers a train ride which we were looking forward to but this was unfortunately not running.
After our tour, we headed on to Bran Castle which was a short drive away (approx 20km). Bran Castle is known as Dracula’s Castle due to the similarities in Bram Stoker’s book about a Transylvanian count who lived in a castle above a valley overlooking a river. Bran Castle is the only castle fitting with this description and has been associated with Dracula ever since.
The castle lies on the border of Transylvania and Wallachia and was built in 1338 for the Hungarian King Louis the Great. It is believed the story of Dracula is loosely based on Vlad Tepes, (Vlad the Impaler) the ruler of Wallachia from 1456-1462 who was known for his bloodthirsty torture and killing methods. What was obvious upon arrival was this was a big tourist trap; we had read reviews and spoken to a couple of people who felt this was an overrated attraction but decided to visit anyway. We paid our 40 lei (£7.50 entrance fee, plus we also got an audio guide for an extra 10 lei (approx £1.88). Again this is not a disabled friendly attraction with a steep incline to reach the castle; also inside this was very difficult with lots of stairs.
In all honesty this wasn’t a great visit; although we had kept an open mind there were groups of school children who just pushed their way past, the audio guide was pointless as none of the numbers matched, the English accent was hard to understand and it was very cramped and claustrophobic with lots of people. It really did not seem that impressive inside either with limited exhibitions and certain areas cordoned off. Nevertheless, there were really great views across the valley and we could now say we had visited the home of Dracula!
We decided to start heading back towards Bucharest but it was recommended by our accommodation host that we should also visit Peles Castle, I had read about this previously and it was said to be way more impressive than Bran Castle. It is located in Sinaia, approximately 40 miles south of Brasov and was just slightly off route on our way home. The Satnav was very handy here and managed to navigate us directly to the entrance at the bottom. After paying a 15 lei parking fee at the bottom we drove up the hill towards the castle. We parked at the allocated car park and walked a short distance (yes again uphill ouch) to locate the castle; we were not disappointed as it was way more impressive than Bran Castle.
Peles Castle is found at the foot of the Bucegi Mountains and is a ‘masterpiece’ of German new-renaissance architecture. The castle was built in 1873 after being commissioned by King Carol I and was the first European castle completely lit by electricity produced by the castle’s own plant. We didn’t go in due to both time and the fact I was very sore by this point but we did check out the local stalls located just underneath. The snow was very heavy here and therefore Nigel decided to make the most of the opportunity for snow angels!
We enjoyed visiting here and wished we had longer to explore the castle itself, however, would recommend visiting Peles Castle if you were in the area or if it was included in a tour. We headed back to Bucharest and hit heavy traffic again coming back into Bucharest finally arriving at 8pm back to our accommodation. It was a long and enjoyable day and despite the traffic and somewhat difficult driving conditions at times we were glad we had the flexibility of having our own car. Tours to Bran Castle are approximately 60-80 euros each with some including Peles but many didn’t incorporate the Bear Sanctuary; whilst that may suit many people due to not having to worry about the drive we were glad we didn’t have to consider a timetable or have set times at places. We also were able to stop when we wanted and enjoy some sights along the way.
After a short rest arriving at our accommodation, we headed out to Lipscani again for some dinner and a drink. We settled on Jack’s bar and restaurant and had mini burgers and wedges and had a couple of drinks before heading back. The next morning we were due to leave our accommodation at 12pm and our flight wasn’t until 18.15 so we headed out for our last morning into Bucharest and took in the street performers, had coffee at a pavement cafe and visited some of the bookshops which were quite impressive.
We had enjoyed our time in Bucharest and it certainly had a lot to offer; we could see why it would be popular with stag parties in Lipscani but there was plenty to do for everyone. We also enjoyed our trip out in the car to Zarnesti, Transylvania and Sinaia; however I would be lying if I said I was not very relieved to drop the hire car off in one piece due to the erratic driving conditions in Romania; its not for everyone, however, it certainly added a bit of excitement to our stay and gave us more flexibility. It was, however, time to leave Romania’s capital and head north to visit our next stop, Timisoara!
Carol & Nigel xx