By David McLean Shoup

For the average weekend tourist in Bucharest, Văcărești Park is a hidden gem tucked away off the beaten path. But to make the walk along the southern bend of the Dambovița River and up over the tall concrete embankments is to step into an epic ecosystem steeped in a Romanian story of history, tumultuous change, and natural rebirth.

Despite the beautiful 200 hectares of natural wetlands home to hundreds of flora and fauna, at first glance, Văcărești Park can be intimidating. On a recent spring excursion, Adam Kit, a visiting American physics student, wanders through a field of meter high tall grass until he comes across a small watery cave surrounded by broken concrete blocks. “On the one hands it feels like a Hunger Games arena set in post-industrial Europe,” he jokes. “But it’s beautiful. I’ve never seen open nature like this in any other European capital.”

The five meter tall sloping concrete buttresses ringing the park provide a glimpse into the epic demolition and reconstruction efforts of the 1980s. Although no relics of earlier times remain, Văcărești enjoyed a long history as an eclectic working class neighborhood for hundreds of years. Named after the Văcărescus, a family of aristocratic boyars who held high administrative titles during the days of Ottoman rule, the park was once a sprawling suburban village watched over by the early 18th century Văcărești Monastery. Situated at the site of Piata Sudului, the monastery was destroyed in 1984 during the surge of Nicolae Ceaușescu’s massive reconstruction efforts. Ceaușescu envisioned a great reservoir lake on the outskirts of the city. But the construction for this project, from 1988-1989, couldn’t come at a worse time. Although the basic foundation for a man-made lake was completed before the Romanian Revolution, fundamental drainage and elevation problems were quickly discovered. Coupling this engineering downfall with the uncertainty that followed the chaotic revolution, Văcărești was left to the wayside for two decades.

It was in the following decades that Văcărești developed an unfortunate reputation as a dangerous blemish of failed urban planning and a hub for garbage, stray youth, and wild dogs. Many Romanian millennials still view Văcărești through the lens of a pre-EU Bucharest. Longboarding down the paved pathways at neighboring Tineretului Park, medical student Dennis Ursachi still recalls the recent past when Văcărești enjoyed less of a family friendly vibe. “That’s a place where people used to dump dead bodies, not to take picnics,” he says with a grin.

This is precisely the attitude that Park ranger and environmental communications graduate Gabriela Poiana is working to change. Poiana wrote her thesis about the environmental wonder of Văcărești while at the University of Bucharest. Now part wetlands, part sparse forest, and with acre upon acre of willows and swaying tall grass of various shades, the park has become home to over one hundred species of birds, amphibians, and even otters. Spurred on by the work of founders Cristian Lascu and Dan Bărbulescu, the government officially took over the land in 2016 and the Văcărești Natural Park was founded. The organization of committed volunteers and staff has since built bird watching posts, a wetlands boardwalk, and dotted the diverse biohabitat with signs educating visitors about the plethora of flora and fauna to be found.

“Organically, the park is becoming more and more popular,” Poiana says. “We receive more and more visitors and groups, more and more people from both within the country and abroad are becoming interested in the park.” One way Poiana hopes to build interest and encourage sustainable tourism is through social media and community education. The team released their first vlog, complete with drone flyover footage, on YouTube in February (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DXf4xsKKPio&t=7s). Gabriela says this is just the beginning.

“There’s a big potential here for reaching out to young people and helping them understand, love and respect nature. We want to show them how cool it is to be a biologist, a geologist, or a ranger, and that starts with getting them out to the park for a visit.”

Challenges to preservation as well as public perception still remain. On a recent visit, one needn’t wander more than a hundred meters down the western trail before encountering a modestly concealed camp hidden under a pair of willow trails, complete with an unoccupied tent, rotting mattress and debris field of paper and plastic garbage. And yet, just another two hundred meters west, visitors on the last beautiful weekend of March could come to the wetlands viewing spot to find a scene of smiling young families strolling along the boardwalk, children scrambling up and down the bird observation post overlooking the prettiest stretch of pond, and binocular toting retired couples peering through their lenses at a flight of cuckoo birds recently migrated from Africa, just in time for a warm spring. To walk along the outer path on a windy day, then hop down the concrete slope and jog into the tall grass, one feels as if they are entering a new world. There exists an air of calm, punctured only by the scampering of a muskrat or the dropping flight of a cormorant across the still water. Steeped in history, lush in nature, and a five minute metro ride from the center of Bucharest, Văcărești Park is the new place to spend your next sunny day.

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