Duncan Rhodes (picture, left), a former travel blogger born in London, UK, is the founder and blogger-in-chief of urbantravelblog.com and splits his time between London and Barcelona. After plenty of trips in Central and Eastern Europe, and having lived in Poland for four years, he traveled to Bucharest this spring. The Romanian capital had much more to offer than he had expected.
In an interview for Romania-insider.com, Duncan speaks about his Bucharest experience, the two stories he wrote about the Romanian capital and his plans to return to Romania.
Romania Insider: What did you know about Bucharest before coming here?
Duncan Rhodes: I didn't know too much about Bucharest before arriving, except what I'd heard, and the truth is that what I heard wasn't great. People generally said it was big, ugly and completely devoid of charm. Somehow that intrigued me.
RI: When did you come to Bucharest and what brought you here? How long did you stay?
DR: I came in April of this year for five days. I saw on a Facebook post that a private company were inviting applicants for a press trip of 30 bloggers to attend the Romanian Digital Travel Awards and to spend several days exploring the capital. I hardly ever go on press trips, as they can be a little contrived, but this one promised a fair bit of free time for exploring, and overall I didn't want to miss a great chance to visit Romania for the first time. Luckily I was selected as one of the 30 to attend.
RI: Was Bucharest how you thought it was going to be? What about Romania?
DR: I have traveled a lot in Central and Eastern Europe, and in fact I lived in Poland for nearly four years, so I was able to predict to some degree what I'd find in Bucharest. Yes, there is the sometimes unwelcome or unattractive legacy of Communist times (depending on your point of view) visible in the city's architecture and infrastructure, but there remains a grandeur from before those times as well as, plus a lot of attractive parks and plenty of new developments as well. I was expecting a city in transition, and this is what I found. That makes it an exciting place to visit. And I was glad to find the stray dogs that I'd heard about were completely gone!
We didn't travel outside of Bucharest so I can't really comment more about Romania in general.
RI: Please share some interesting/funny stories from your experience in Romania, if you have any.
DR: It might not sound too rock and roll but I spent a really interesting day exploring the city's bookstores. In the course of my research before arriving, I'd come across several articles about a "magical" bookshop called Carturesti Carusel. More than the stylish design of the place, I was really fascinated by the idea that, in the age of the Kindle, a bookshop could be thriving (when they are mostly dying out!) so I decided to investigate further. Luckily I discovered a friend of a friend who worked for them so I was able to interview her and understand how this brand is bringing cafe culture, books and cool-hunting together to build a sustainable business model. There was also some other really cool book stores in town as well, so I visited a few, spoke to the staff and owners, and made that one of the Bucharest reports for my blog.
RI: What were the highlights of your Bucharest experience?
DR: Probably my favorite day was the one I spent at the Sole & Shape event, which is a twice yearly "buy, sell and exhibit" event for sneakers and streetwear fashion. What I love about my job is that I get to interview interesting people and learn what they're doing: on this occasion I talked to several people about their vintage trainers obsessions, their Romanian-designer fashion brands, their custom made clothing projects and their recycling skateboards initiative. I am always inspired to meet creative people starting things from scratch (so of course I made this another story for my blog!).
Another more typical tourist highlight was watching Steaua Bucharest play in the national stadium. It was strange because one minute we (the thirty bloggers on the trip) were sitting down to eat and the next one of the organizers asked if any of us would like to see a football match. In the end only myself and Erick (from Minority Nomad) decided to go, but it was great fun. We bought the cheapest tickets and sat with "the ultras"... so it was probably a good thing that Steaua won! I didn't know that coins weren't allowed in the stadium (in case people throw them at the players) and on the way in I had to empty about five euros from my pockets onto the floor, which I thought was pretty ironic as that was more than the ticket cost.
RI: What were the least pleasant parts of the experience in Bucharest?
DR: I was quite annoyed when I turned up to the airport on the way home to find that none of the shops accepted Lei. I wanted to take back some Romanian wines, but it didn't make sense to convert the Lei into euro just to buy them. Also on one of the days I made the mistake of walking all the way around the back of the People Palace (I don't need to tell you how long this takes!) to find a soup bar called Ota that I'd heard a lot about... only to find it was closed. I nearly keeled over and died of starvation on the spot! Wild soup chases aside, there was nothing seriously bad to report at all, and the city felt very safe.
RI: Please mention a few places in Bucharest you were impressed with.
DR: A great city needs great venues and Bucharest didn't disappoint... I wish I'd had a bit more time to discover more! I've already mentioned Carturesti Carusel, but the Verona branch is way cooler with an amazing beer garden. I found the bistro of Gradina Eden in a wonderful old mansion that it shares with an art gallery. Here I was pretty shocked, amused and even pleased to see the bartenders casually smoking a cigarette on the bar whilst they prepared the fruit smoothies and handled food: it was great to go back to a time before everyone became so neurotic about every little thing. The old Pionierul factory complex was probably my favourite place though. It has a lot of potential to be an unofficial bastion of alternative culture and nightlife in Bucharest, and with bars like Colectiv and Eleven Social Club it seems like it's off to a good start.
RI: How would you rate Bucharest compared to other Eastern European cities you've visited and what are the criteria for this ranking?
DR: It's hard to rate cities against each other, especially after one short visit. So much depends on when you go, who you meet or even what the weather is like. Overall I could compare Bucharest a lot to Warsaw... a little rough around the edges, a little unloved, but take the time to get to know it and you'll find it has a helluva lot more to offer than people give it credit for.
RI: Would you recommend other people to visit Bucharest/Romania? Why should they visit/not visit Bucharest?
DR: I would definitely recommend visiting Bucharest. There are some great attractions you can visit during the day, but the major strength of the city I would say are the cool hangouts and the nightlife. So my advice is to make friends with a local (maybe via Couchsurfing... or even Tinder if you're single! Or just saying hi in a bar, as the people are pretty friendly) so that you have someone who can show you around and help you "live the city" a little. If you just come here and see the People Palace and the inside of your hotel room you will probably be bored and continue the negative stereotypes that sometimes accompany Bucharest. Overall it's not the kind of postcard pretty place, like Prague or Krakow, where you just wander around aimlessly and feel happy... you need a bit of adventurous spirit and initiative to make the most of the city.
RI: Are you planning to return to Romania, visit other cities here? If so, which cities?
DR: Either next year or 2017 I would like to go all the way through Romania, taking in the more famous touristic cities like Cluj and Timisoara, calling in on Bucharest again, and then heading out to the Black Sea to see what a Romanian-style holiday looks like!
Irina Popescu, [email protected]
(photo source: minority nomad on instagram)