Former Eastern bloc countries have been attracting visitors since the fall of the former Soviet Union. Cities like Prague and Budapest have long been on the list for tourists seeking beautiful architecture, history, and modern attractions. But 13 years after joining the European Union, Romania still trails neighbouring countries in terms of numbers of international visitors and domestic participation in tourism. Its capital, Bucharest, once known as the Paris of the East, remains relatively free of Hen Nights and Stag Parties and holds many hidden gems.
Formerly a hilly city with lush pockets of greenery, Bucharest was hit by an earthquake in 1940, and again in 1977, when damage unrepaired after the first quake was rocked again and caused widespread devastation. Dictator Nicolae Ceausescu used the ruins as a way to pursue his vision for the city, which involved razing beautiful landmarks and neighbourhoods, such as monasteries, churches and a 1930s stadium.
These days, the results of Ceausescu’s concepts are still very much in evidence. Monumental tower blocks that feel like ghost towns line some boulevards, and the ‘People’s Palace’ which at over 2.5 million cubic metres is the third largest administrative building in the world, after the Pentagon and the Long Ao Building. It houses the parliament as well as the National Museum of Contemporary Art – and yet is still around 70% empty.
Monolithic constructions are fascinating insights into the former regime, but Bucharest is more than just the sum of its former Communist parts. Many young professionals are the first generation of their family to leave their rural backgrounds and this is a city where you can feel social change at work. Shady offbeat cafes and cocktail bars, small churches and oases of greenery can still be found all over the city, and one of the most unusual is Văcărești Nature Park.
Ceausescu’s urban plans involved 189 hectares of land in the southern part of the city being enclosed by a concrete dyke during the construction of an irrigation and flood defence network that was never completed. For a period, the Dambovita river was pumped to flood the area. Work was finally abandoned in 1989 with the fall of the dictatorship. Natural springs continued to bubble up and over time, nature reconquered the forgotten site.
When I visited, there was no formal infrastructure. In a semi-barren, semi-commercial part of the city, you could venture around the back of a supermarket car park and across dusty wasteland to find the dyke wall, like an enormous velodrome. From there, a descent across cracked and baking concrete slopes led into the vast reedy wetlands below, colonised by European otters, turtles and wetland birds. Humans too lived on the edge of the water, some of them for generations, in shanty-like huts, with goats tied up under trees nearby. One enterprising local even offered me a trip in a small rowing boat.
In May 2016, after a long campaign, the Văcărești wilderness was granted much-needed ‘nature park’ status, preventing its transformation into an entertainment complex or mall or apartment block, like the one that stands at the park’s edge and where a 60m high viewing observatory has now been installed on the top floor. Visits are free but must be booked in advance. Thematic trails across the park have also been established, with information posts about the park’s flora and fauna, a viewing gazebo and an otter’s den.
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