Hidden Treasures Walking Tour Bucharest
Walking tours had never appealed to us when we first caught the travel bug. We take a lot of long weekend trips throughout the year and are tight for time. When we are abroad for more than a week, we’re normally hopping from one country to the next, so we only ever spend a few days in one place. Seeing a group of tourists following a guide waving a big lollipop of sorts in the air, like mother duck and ducklings, didn’t seem like a good use of time, when ours is always so limited.
Getting lost and exploring on our own, free of tour routes, is much more up our street.
However, while we don’t regret our directionless wanderings around cities in the past, we shouldn’t have poo-pooed walking tours so easily! Guided tours of main attractions still doesn’t appeal (you can do the ‘normal’ tourist stuff easily, without a tour guide), but we’ve now been on three brilliant ‘alternative’ tours that have totally changed our minds about the way we use our precious time! We’ve learned so much than we would have done otherwise.
Our blog name, The Finders Seekers, represents our love for finding new and exciting things, and seeking out the lesser known, off the beaten track places. So when we saw the Hidden Treasures Tour run by ABC Travel Romania, ahead of our recent trip to Bucharest, we couldn’t resist booking up!
We met with the highly knowledgeable Carmen and ABC Travel Romania founder Roxana, at Romana Square station, kicking off the walk away from the hustle and bustle of the Old Town.
Our addiction for derelict buildings was satisfied from the start, as the first point of interest was a disused building of Bucharest Academy of Economic Studies. It was donated to the university by a professor’s wife after he passed away. Unfortunately the university couldn’t pay for its upkeep, so to this day it is left in an abandoned state until funding can be found to bring it back to its former glory.
Heading away from busy Romana Square, Carmen began to tell us a little about the history of Romania. And so, a quick history lesson…
Bucharest is in a part of the country that used to be called Wallachia – one of three areas that formed a union to become what is Romania today. The other two areas were Transylvania and Moldavia. Barbu Stirbey ruled Wallachia in the mid 1800s, and reformed much of the principality’s judicial system, making life (slightly) easier for ‘the little people’. By 1859, Moldavia and Wallachia united and Alexandru Ioan Cuza became leader. He was overthrown, and Carol I of Romania ruled from 1866 – 1914! Fastforward to 1918, and Transylvania finalised the union just after World War I ended. Fastforward AGAIN to 1965 and Ceausescu becomes Romania’s Communist leader (successor to the late Gheorghiu-Dej), until he is overthrown by revolution on December 21st 1989, and executed four days later on Christmas Day. ‘Leader’ is not really the right word for Ceausescu, though. ‘Dictator’ is far more suitable.
Back to the tour. Hanging a right, at Lahovari Square, we took in a beautiful baroque building. We were going to walk up to it to take a closer look but a wedding was taking place! One of many that day, we found out on a number of occasions on this tour!
Some of the photos on this post are not necessarily specific points of interest on the tour, but I happily snapped away at the interesting buildings I was drawn to along the route.
Stopping outside a very neat, grand building, Carmen explained it is the Central School for Girls. Stirbey established the school in 1852 for girls of the upper classes, and today you can see the names of a few notable alumni, including Elena Cuza, wife of Alexandru Ioan Cuza, and Carmen Sylva. Carmen Sylva is the literary name of Elisabeth of Wied, wife of Carol I.
Chatting to our tour guides, Carmen revealed that when she first explored the area herself, she was amazed that although we were only a few streets away from the busy Bulevardul Nicolae Bălcescu, it could be so utterly tranquil. It was quiet anyway heading away from the Central School for Girls, but ‘there’s just one road that is totally silent and peaceful, like you’re no longer in Bucharest!’ Carmen exclaimed. And she was absolutely right. Turning into a particularly empty road bar a few cars (there are cars lining EVERY street in Bucharest), it was like there was some kind of sound barrier! Even though it was a residential street, it was so quiet you could have heard a pin drop.
Next stop was an Orthodox church. I’m not religious, and I’ve never felt I could just walk into a place of worship as an atheist to, for all intents and purposes, have a nosey around. But there were plenty of people milling around outside and we were more than welcome to go in and take a look. We were all silent as we walked around, our eyes adjusting to the dark, waiting for the rich reds, blues and greens to eventually present themselves to us. My photo doesn’t quite do it justice! I wasn’t using the flash of course, because that would disturb the tranquility of the small room. There was just a small sliver of light piercing the roof where the bells sat on top.
Leaving the Orthodox church and heading just 30 seconds round the corner, the scene could not have been more different! On the one hand, you have this classically pretty architecture, elements of Romanticism, neoclassical and even Art Nouveau. Much of it looks rather gothic. On the other hand, you have imposing, uninviting, cold, Communist architecture. While I am fully aware that Communist rule under Ceausescu was awful, and that high-density, ‘functional’ living in small spaces was indeed no luxury, I do have a bit of a thing for Communist architecture. There is something about it’s harshness that draws me in. Something about the geometry and starkness. I love Brutalist architecture for the same reason. I can’t really explain it.
We walked past another building that Carmen wanted to take us into but Roxana swiftly pointed out there was another wedding! I managed to pap the entrance… It is now a restaurant, but was once the house of Ion Luca Caragiale, a famous Romanian playwright.
And back to the more traditional style of architecture, the third one in this set is my favourite (if a bit Instagrammed!).
The side streets we’d been meandering through spat us out at the National Theatre. At the front of the theatre is a group of statues – comedy character’s from Ion Luca Caragiale’s plays. Caragiale himself also takes pride of place in front of the theatre, on a perch of his own.
A few feet away stands KM 0. It marks the 1989 liberation of Romania from Communism. We then crossed the main road to explore over the other side.
Street art! We love street art, from stickers to murals! I don’t know how long that first wheatpaste has been up but it was going mouldy!
Revolution Square was next on the list. In the photo below, you can see the balcony (where you see the three dark arches behind the statue) where Ceausescu made his last speech, before a revolution quite literally started before his eyes. In the next photo, the Memorial of Rebirth pierces the sky. That red paint isn’t supposed to be there. It makes it look rather vicious, as if it wasn’t already! Basically the sculpture was supposed to represent life after Ceasescu and Communism, but instead it looks hostile and nobody actually likes it. I bet that’s why it’s been vandalised (again).
Wandering past the Athenaeum we came across yet another wedding! I would have liked to have had the chance to take some better photos but I didn’t want to look weird snapping away when the bride and groom were mid photo session… so instead I got the pretty roof through the trees and snapped a pic of the impressive columns (plus happy couple).
Anyhoo, the Athenaeum was built in 1888, it a neo-Classical style, and is currently home to the George Enescu Philharmonic Orchestra. George Enescu was a musical genius, and the orchestra was named after him upon his death in 1955.
And for some more photos of buildings I quite liked…
Earlier in our trip, we’d visited the Cărturești Carusel – a beautiful bookshop in Lipscani, in the Old Town. Cărturești is a bookshop chain, and the Cărturești Carusel was the 16th branch to open. It opened in February this year and is stunning, but very new. Although it’s housed in an 1860s building, all the recent renovations means it doesn’t feel particularly old. Enter Cărturești Verona.
Cărturești Verona is a branch located in a historic villa. I’m not sure when the branch was opened, but the original detail of the building itself is much more apparent. I was more interested in the intricate patterns on the ceiling, old fireplaces in the corners of some of the rooms, original brickwork and ornate placards adorning the big wooden doors, than anything the shop was selling! There was everyone else, flicking through books, and I was taking photos of ceilings.
Nearing the end of the tour, Carmen and Roxana took us down Strada Arthur Verona to see some more street art. There was a street art festival here, and this street was a hub for artists to display their work. I love the murals!
Last two stops before rewarding ourselves with beer, were the Parcul Grădina Icoanei and Parcul Ion Voicu. Grădina Icoanei is a park with an artificial stream, which takes the general route of the historical Bucureștioara stream that was once present, having dried out in the 1870s.
Parcul Ion Voicu is a pretty park surrounded by grand villas, which were built in the early 1900s for the upper class and educated, to live in close proximity with each other, and of course to enjoy the views! The park is named after Ion Voicu (funnily enough), a violinist who was a student of George Enescu. His statue has welcomed people to the park since 2003.
After around 2.5 hours of walking around Bucharest and absorbing Carmen’s interesting, insightful stories and accounts, we rounded off the tour with a beer at cool little hipster spot Acuarela.
If you’re visiting Bucharest and you want explore beyond the typical tourist attractions, I highly recommend you get in touch with ABC Travel Romania and do this wonderful tour yourself. I promise you will learn much, much more than what I’ve managed to get down in this post. And not to mention, Carmen and Roxana are super friendly and so easy to chat to.