Bucharest, home to the worst drivers in Europe
A BMW undercuts me from the filter lane. Then a VW. Then a Dacia, of all things. City driving is an ordeal in this van, this seven metre long, three and a half tonne lump of metal that I must lug to the next set of traffic lights. And the next. And the next. I reach third gear but it’s a hollow victory. A row of five cars lay parked on the inside lane of the ring road. The outside lane is nose to bumper. Nobody lets me out. I squeeze the brake. Its madness. A horn blasts behind me as I edge my way out.
Welcome to Bucharest, home to the worst drivers in Europe.
Alexandru Ioan Cuza Park
Things improve when I reach my destination, a huge park with a lake in the centre and swings around the perimeter. High rise, Soviet style housing completely encloses the park but it doesn’t feel unsafe. Everyone is out in the beautiful sunshine and enjoying the space, from families and dog walkers to skateboarders and rollerbladers; under a canopy of trees a group of old men lounge about playing chess.
I meet Venera, fellow dog walker, vet, and owner of two beautiful golden retrievers, Aris and Eva. She adopts me and we walk around the park talking about the state of Romania. Her sister is in the UK working for a call centre whereas Venera stayed in Romania with the the dogs. She doesn’t regret her decision. She utilises her veterinary experience in a Government agency and although pay could be better, she seems content enough.
She knows many people in the park and we get talking to some young trainee lawyers, 25 years old or so. They bemoan the lack of opportunities and tell me about the English language exams they want to take. It will provide legitimacy to future employers for the impeccable English they speak.
“The problem is that the country is corrupt.”
“But how will it change if all the young people leave.”
“It will not change anyway. The corrupt officials in power will pass on their power only to people who will perpetuate the corruption.”
Palace of the Parliament
There’s no better example of this demonstration of power against the people than in the centre of Bucharest. The second biggest administrative building in the world (after the Pentagon) is a gross misuse of scant public money, costing $6m per year alone just to heat and light the thing. Why exactly the 20 million inhabitants of Romania ever needed, or continue to need such a building is not clear. Perhaps the Romanians should have done the world a favour and emptied Murdoch’s wallet when he offered to buy it in the 90s.
The Old Town
There’s a punchline, quipped by locals and adopted in a high-profile media campaign in 2013 that is part self-deprecation, part self-promotion. It was lovingly quoted to me on multiple occasions when I sought advice on the beautiful sights to visit: You know you’re in Bucharest, not Budapest don’t you?
There’s no smoke without fire; I’m sorry to say the old town of Bucharest is not up to much. I’m sure it’s thronging with people on a Friday night but on this Thursday afternoon it dozes in the afternoon sun. It reminds me of Soho in the late 80s, overrun with strip joints, seedy bars and dubious food joints. Judging by the amount of scaffolding, there’s some money sloshing about but it seems ill spent. It has none of the charms of the old towns of, say, Bratislava, Budapest, or Vilnius. There is little variety, no chic clothes shops, for example, or trendy local artists selling their work out of crumbling buildings ripe for renovation. Even the locals seem disenchanted: I catch a paint-flecked workman napping in the shade; the old couple running the antique shop are playing chess in the absence of customers. The only action comes from a couple on a moped, giggling as they try to manoeuvre the bike through a narrow gate with their newly purchased picture frame.
It’s a sad end to my time in Romania. The countryside and towns are vibrant, rugged and beautiful but the capital seems tired and stale and dirty. This is no reflection of the people because yet again, everyone I meet is friendly, helpful, curious and well-informed. It’s not news that young people are attracted to cities for the work and leisure opportunities they afford. Never mind the corruption in the upper echelons of the ruling classes, it’s no wonder they are leaving the country if even their capital has little to offer them.