Dateline: Bucharest, Sunday morning
Are you impressed? You’d be more impressed if I was here on some journalistic endeavour to expose whether Romanians really are planning to flock to the UK next year when they are free to come and work; or if I were meandering Bucharest’s thoroughfares to reveal the hidden city that tourists never see. But in truth I had the weekend off and some frequent flier miles to use up and I thought: why the hell not?
After extensive research (I downloaded an app at the airport), I can pass on one golden piece of Bucharest advice. Book a taxi from the airport in advance. Actually, I will quote from the breezy In Your Pocket guide to the city, which has a knack of cutting through the travel-writer verbiage:
“You will be set upon by taxi drivers offering you a ride to the city centre: ignore them, they are after your money. Swear at them if you have to: they will eventually get the message.” I’m not making this up. And this passage explains why I didn’t hire a car:
“If driving in Romania – especially in Bucharest – you will need to have nerves of steel, and bags of patience. The rules of the road as you know them simply do not apply… a good rule of thumb is that the bigger and more expensive the car, the fewer rules of the road the driver has to obey.”
Among the other careworn gems: “One way signs are purely for decoration.” “Even at pedestrian crossings, drivers will disregard pedestrians as they cross the street.” And who is to blame for this? The In Your Pocket guide points the finger: “As with so many aspects of Romanian life, the fault for much of what goes on daily on the country’s roads lies squarely at the door of the police force. Once as corrupt as hell, they are now merely useless.”
My taxi driver was in fact about the most polite and knowledgeable I’ve ever had in any city. He pointed out sites, gave me leaflets and maps and didn’t at any stage mow down a pedestrian. He was most proud when he told me that round the next corner was the world’s second-biggest building (the Pentagon is bigger, apparently). And sure enough, the Palace of the Parliament is gigantinormous. I can see a corner of it now from my hotel. I gasped at first sight of it and am gasping still. Look it up. Getting on for 4 million square feet. It’s as though they made a huge building then put another huge building on top of it. It’s construction on steroids. The fashion may be to build high, but Ceausescu went large.
Saturday night in the throbbing heart of the city was spicy. Worried about pubs closing on a daily basis in Britain? Come to downtown Bucharest. And if you’re a smoker, you might want to move here. Smoking is still allowed indoors – it may even be compulsory, judging by the whiff. After sampling several bars and a nice pasta place I was a walking ashtray. I stumbled into a taxi that smelled like a wet dog had been chain-smoking in it, before it died.
This beautiful sunny morning I am tempted to spend my last four hours walking the perimeter of the Palace of the Parliament, but I doubt there’s time. I think I’ll just pop out and take my chances crossing the road.
Eddie Mair presents PM Monday-Friday at 5:00pm and iPM on Saturday at 5:45am - both on Radio 4