My wife and I travelled to Romania last month for a reunion with friends with whom I canoed down the Danube River in 1964. We arrived in Bucharest on a Saturday afternoon, and our friend Dan Dimancescu drove us into town from the airport.
As he drove us, Dan drove us into town from the airport, he remarked on the variety of architectural styles we were passing. The buildings are cross-dressers, a dogmatic architect’s nightmare. Cheek by jowl are houses that were unselfconsciously bedecked Victorian gingerbread, or Austro-Hungarian monumentalism, or concrete excrescences that might as well be tombstones, and too much more to put into one sentence.
Romania has been invaded by Romans, Saxons, Ottomans, Austro-Hungarians, Russian czarists, Russian communists, and now an assortment of Western Europeans. All of these invaders have left their mark on Bucharest. The diversity of styles has to be seen to be believed. A quarter century after the fall of the Iron Curtain, the rebuilding efforts have been similarly diverse and uneven.
In the old town, we stayed in a seven-storey hotel that used to be a gin factory. Next door was an equally tall relic with what seemed to be mostly vacant units, but the top floor was obviously being used. The windows weren’t cracked or broken as on the other floors, there were some flower boxes, an air conditioner hummed, and at night a few lights appeared.
Bucharest is full of derelict buildings such as this one, occupied by what seems like a few squatters. Right next door to one of these half-vacant buildings will be a resplendent copper dome capping a structure that appears to have been used as target practise by German tanks.
The whole effect was disconcerting to us. While it was easy to relish the diversity of styles, the whole city seemed a bit like its individual buildings – a bit of this, a bit of that, magnificently restored and totally run down, with reconstruction proceeding in fits and starts.
We in North America who are anxious to make our settlements more sustainable often look longingly to Europe’s cities as examples of sensible urban development – better transit, less sprawl, less garbage, careful energy policies, and greener streetscapes. Unfortunately, much of the Bucharest that we saw (granted, it was right downtown) was lacking in greenery, although farther out there were some large parks. Here and there, however, there was unexpected and wonderfully welcome greenery, some of it like this tiny cloister next to a beautiful old church in the heart of the old town.
In the old town, where we stayed, there is a warren of car free streets packed with restaurants. The diners we saw were mostly twenty-somethings, most of them smoking. There are other districts of the city with small, leafy streets, but they are all separated by busy six- and eight-lane arterial roads. While the old town was mostly pedestrian-oriented, in the rest of the city the car rules. Driver aggressiveness rivals that in Paris and Toronto. As tourists we felt quite restricted by these big arteries, which were barriers to our getting around.
Bucharest, then, seemed fragmented and a bit shopworn, but it also had signs here and there of real exuberance and even artistic vitality. As North Americans we appreciated the city’s diversity, which is missing in most of our cities.
After Bucharest, we spent four days at an inn in the Transylvanian Mountains. It had been built by our friend Dan Dimancescu, who grew up and lives mostly in the U.S., but whose ties to Romania remain strong. We drove north from the city into the steep winding valleys, flanked by high peaks, spending an hour in fading light trying to find the badly marked dirt road that wound up the mountainside to the inn.
It was a terrible road, full of potholes that shook us to the bone. We climbed up through a replanted forest for fifteen minutes. Then the trees vanished and the road, if possible, got worse. We were on top of a ridge, with steep meadows falling away on either side. To our surprise, there was a small tourist hotel, a newly built church near a big house, and a number of other buildings scattered about. We learned later that these smaller structures were barns where farmers from the valley stored their hay cut from fields they own up in the high meadows.
Dan’s inn is at the end of the road. It’s meadowed ridge is at a thousand meters and looks like the back of a dragon. Looming over it to the east is a 2500-meter massif with a rocky shale top that is treacherous to climbers, but sacred to Romanians as the center of the world.
Somehow, a few centuries ago, they managed to put a cross on top, which is seldom visible because the mountains’ summits are usually shrouded in clouds.
But when we arrived that night, and for the next two days, we couldn’t see all this splendour. We were socked in with fog and rain. Our focus wandered to the sodden meadows at our feet, where another splendour awaited us. The different grasses were set off by brilliant wildflowers, millions of pinpoints of intense colour. The red clover made my back garden’s versions look positively anaemic. There were field daisies, lupine, buttercups, snapdragons, miniature bachelors’ buttons, even yarrow.
The grass seed heads, gently purple, were bending gracefully under their loads of moisture, perhaps the most breathtaking beauty of all.
This wildflower diversity was as uncontrived as the architectural diversity of Bucharest. The meadow was still a human artifact, but Mother Nature’s abundance and creativity had been allowed to express themselves as well. Rebuilders of Bucharest, take note.