By Giles Eldridge
A curious thing occurred whilst writing this. I set out to select what I consider to be a few places of hidden interest in Bucharest and soon realised that there was a connecting subject – Water. Now this particular element is not, for me, the main identifying aspect of Bucharest especially since the Dâmboviţa is little more than a conduited canal of a river stripped of any grandeur or even function, slipping rather unnoticed through the city. However, I do think of Bucharest as having a certain fluidity of character, sort of difficult to grasp, so perhaps one could think of it in these terms?
BENEATH THE SURFACE
So, the cliché is, it seems, that most foreigners live or work in the north of Bucharest; the archipelago of islands known as Dorobanţi, Floreasca, Pipera and the much loved Herăstrău park, with its sprawling serpentine lake. Apart from regular sorties into what is called the Old Centre, maybe your view of Bucharest is largely confined to these areas. At any event maybe you feel that your Bucharest could be expanded a little? There certainly is more to fathom but I admit it takes a bit of digging around along with word-of-mouth suggestions and legwork. Actually this latent nature of Bucharest is one of the aspects of the city that I like most. It is not a place that gives too much away, what is here is often beneath the surface and not necessarily explicit. Given it’s history it’s not surprising. No one should complain that it is not like Rome, Paris or London; it simply does not have the post-colonial history of these cosmopolitan places, this being the very thing that, in my view, forms Romania’s positive sensibility.
I would like here to list a few varied features and places that make up some other points on Bucharest’s compass that are perhaps a little overlooked by the foreign resident or visitor.
FRESH FOOD AND FOUNTAIN WATER
So, east of the celebrated north, our first stop is Obor market. Now of course many people will know of this place but I am often surprised by the number of people I meet who do not use it. This is a tremendous market for just about everything. The main focus is on food. Two large halls and outside stalls display seasonal vegetables and fruit in copious abundance, from piles of watermelons in summer to the first pressing of grapes (must) in autumn. In addition there are numerous places to buy cheese, meat and fish. In shop units on the upper floor of the second hall, highlights include Cramă Murfatlar for wine and a very good place for Greek olives and oil. A truly overlooked aspect, though, is the drinking water spring on one side of the small Parcul Obor called Fântâna Armoniei (Harmony Fountain). Here you can fill as many containers with apă de izvor as you want from multiple taps, for free. There is a similar water source in Parcul Cinematograf in Floreasca, where I regularly go to fill up a couple of bottles. This represents a substantially sound alternative to endless plastic bottles or relying on Apa Nova. There are others in many other parks, including Parcul Tei and Naţional.
BIG JOY FROM SMALL DAY-TO-DAY LIVING
Next point round the compass is due east and the area of Dristor and Titan. For me there is simply a good feeling about the atmosphere in this neighbourhood. Walk from Dristor Metro to Titan Park in summer and see what my friend Anamaria describes as a place where real Romanians live. Every part of the district is used, shops are open, people use all the outside space and gardens flourish. Yes, people complain about the apparent negative aspects of the Communist era housing blocks but I visit friends who love living here and I think there is definitely more joie de vivre in Dristor than on Blvd. Magheru in the centre of the city. A small but very good food market operates from the corner of Str. Liviu Rebreanu and Blvd. Camil Ressu. Further up the road is the renovated and well kept park, made up in fact of two parks; to the north, Parcul Alexandru Ion Cuza and Parcul Titan itself, across the road, with the merits of a truly splendid display of cherry blossom in spring and a free open air cinema on one of the lake’s islands during the summer. In the northern section of the park stands a 1997 Maramureș style church looking just slightly out of place in a municipal park. It’s close to the Metro station at Titan, which is easily the best station on the network. Built in 1981 it is constructed without columns and has a single island platform. This engineering and design thus yields a beautifully simple wide open subterranean space, like a non-denominational cathedral. It needs to be big, something like a quarter of Bucharest lives in this sprawling region of the city.
Pantelimon water tower
Further east in Pantelimon is the multidisciplinary art project space Make a Point (www.makeapoint.ro) undertaking a range of activities from photographic exhibitions to yoga sessions. Having its headquarters in a former textile factory, the most surprising aspect is that they also have the creative use of a fully functioning water tower. With considerable verve, Make a Point convinced the local authority to allow them to build a system of steps around the tower allowing visitors to climb to the top and view the surrounding environs. Lit up at night the turnul de apă with its green painted top acts as a beacon just north of Costin Georgian metro station.
Titan metro station
FLEA MARKETS AND BIRDS IN THE URBAN DELTA
From here we are going to the second hand car market in the south of Bucharest at the corner of Soșeaua Vitan-Bârzești and Splaiul Unirii. Well, ok, that doesn’t sound all that exciting, unless you are wanting an ageing classic Dacia 1300. The more interesting and compelling event, towards the back of this petrol engine fest is a Sunday Talcioc. This is the closest you’ll find to a flea market, selling mostly, but not exclusively, secondhand goods. It is where you can buy just about any conceivable item from a chess set to a jar of pickles to some bicycle parts. The last time I went I left with a huge loaf of potato bread and a black and white architectural photograph. Now, perhaps, even more interesting than all of this is that next to the markets is the Văcărești “Delta”. Now a park with “protected area” status, it’s origins lay in a failed/abandoned Ceaușescu engineering project that was part of the larger scheme to unite Bucharest with the river Danube. Essentially it is a concrete lined 180 hectare area that has returned itself to the wild without any human intervention.
Engineering work ceased some 30 years ago and with the active ingredient of good water (it’s there again) provided by natural springs that feed the land, this sunken arena has become a glorious cornucopia of flourishing flora and fauna including, turtles, snakes, otters and some 96 species of birds! If, in the end, everything in the world goes pear-shaped for good it’s comforting to know that Gaia will simply take over, the Bucharest Delta proves it. The place is very easy to visit, simply walk up the embankment and drop yourself in as the sound of the traffic disappears. Alternatively you can walk round the edge or even jog, if you must. The easiest access point is from the north west corner near the Asmita Gardens modern housing blocks, a 10 mins walk from Piaţa Muncii Metro.
POETIC NAMES AND ATMOSPHERIC SCENERY
If we now head way out west to Păcii Metro we find a second Talcioc taking place from 05.00 to around 15.00 Thurs/Sat/Sun. It’s another 10 mins walk from the metro station down Valea Cascadelor, which lyrically translates as waterfall valley and, whilst it is not a valley and there are no waterfalls, it is true to say that the only things that numerous outlets sell on this street are tiles and bathroom fittings! The market itself is even better than the previous mentioned and has been tidied up slightly in recent months. Again, go as early as you can to find the really interesting stuff.
Finally, north of the market is Lake Morii, nearest metro at Crângași. This place is particularly atmospheric when covered in snow. It’s an opportunity for a walk in a wide open space and is yet another large scale 80s Ceaușescu project, this time developed to regulate the flow of the river and provide an overflow to prevent flooding. The place is now simply a large lake with an island at one end that can be accessed via a walkway. The remarkable thing about this is the seemingly abandoned architectural aspects, which look like, intentionally or not, remnants of a modern day Greco-Roman temple. Within the last few years some trees have been planted and in the centre of the island there is a sort of small pavilion on the floor on which someone has written Ai grijă să nu te pierzi, în timp ce te cauţi! – be careful not to lose yourself while looking for you!
With these suggestions my argument is that what is good about Bucharest is often rather hidden. It is likely that this is contrary to some other cities that you may have lived in before. Yet this characteristic of Bucharest is what saves it from turning into a gentrified tourist brand, it’s a positive thing.