Today marks my last day in Bucharest, which is bittersweet. On the one hand, almost a month in the Balkans has been a fantastic experience, exposing me to so much more history, culture and food than I ever expected. On the other hand, a month alone in a completely new part of the world is, frankly, a lot – and I’m ready to head for Spain, where I know my way around, know the language, and know what to expect! That being said, I’m so glad I extended my time in Bucharest and am glad I’ve had the chance to continue exploring.
Today I hit two of the museums I was most excited about (museums are closed on Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays depending on which museum it is, so part of my trip extension was giving myself the opportunity to go once things reopened). Both museums were located in northern Bucharest, near the Herăstrău Park, which I’d liken to Bucharest’s “Central Park” (although I’m not sure if that would be appreciated by either New Yorkers or Romanians!). Getting off the subway, I was immediately greeted with a familiar sight – the Arc de Triomphe or Arcul de Triumf, in Romanian. There was also a statue of former French president Charles de Gaulle in the same part – I’d later learn this was because de Gaulle actually installed the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor on former Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu in 1968, a huge early validation of Ceauşescu’s “presidency”.
Although it was ~93 degrees outside and the only other people with me were a very rambunctious group of Romanian elementary school-age kids dressed in “folk” garb singing loudly (I assumed it was some kind of “dress up for Romanian heritage day!” school outing as their chaperones were all dressed normally), I persisted in my mission: to see the “Dimitrie Gusti” National Village Museum, which houses hundreds of traditional Romanian homes gathered from rural areas starting in the mid-1900s as a method of preserving the culture for posterity.
Interestingly, you can get a discount at the museum for being a “revolutionary” in addition to your typical student and senior discounts – I have no idea how they track / prove that, but it seems like a cool thing to offer!
According to the museum, the original owners of these properties were “paid” (it’s unclear how much / how forcibly) to provide their homes and properties to the museum, and were then given replacements to live in. Some properties were also salvaged from ruin after being abandoned or left in disrepair, and the park has continued to add to its collection even relatively recently (the most recent addition I saw on a sign was 2004, but I think it’s still an ongoing initiative). It was truly incredible – the properties span from the 1700s to the mid-1900s, and reflect a huge variety of architectural techniques, cultural norms, and materials, showcasing differences across all the regions of Romania. Unfortunately, many were only viewable from the outside, but some did have the original interior available for viewing as well. In addition to residences and farms, there were also some churches, outhouses, windmills, and storage units available for viewing.
I’ve tried to pair each property I captured with its respective sign – these signs were great as they usually provided detail about the region, the construction, the family, and some of the possessions that would have been collected with the property when it was moved to Bucharest. Several of these more recent properties looked very similar to the ones I’ve seen on my travels through rural Romania and even rural Serbia (which makes sense, given Serbia is bordering Romania and would historically have shared many of the same cultural traits).
There were a couple properties I found especially interesting – the first was a set of “half-buried” houses which appeared to be subterranean, dated to the early 1800s. According to a local guide (who I overheard as I was wandering around), this was both to keep the home cool, as well as to add a level of protection for its occupants. It also helped them save on construction materials, as it was tiresome and expensive to build log cabins and putting your house underground saves you a lot of time on building above ground.
The next one I found especially interesting (I thought I had taken a picture of the placard, but apparently not!) was the home below. Interestingly, the circular structure behind the “house” was actually used as a living space too! As most of the hay barns look similar here, I thought for sure it was a storage space / livestock-related storage area. However, the placard had a fascinating description of the interior with pictures from when it was acquired in the 1950s – essentially, it’s an unfinished wood “cabin” that was big enough for 1-2 people to sleep in, with that little trap door.
After that, I checked out the lovely stave church from 1773, which still has its original artwork. It was beautiful – such a treat to be able to see these hundreds-of-years-old items, pretty much in their original state.
The interior was gorgeous – not quite as ornate as the modern churches, but definitely an obvious precursor to the more decorated versions I’ve seen.
After the Village Museum, it was time to start my trek to the other side of the park, which houses the “Primaverii Palace” aka the former home of dictator Ceauşescu. On the way, I passed a lovely clock and stopped for a snack, a Romanian staple dish called Salata de Vinete (eggplant salad, usually served cold with onions and roasted red bell pepper).
Casa Ceauşescu was fascinating, both in terms of the architecture and the random collection of diplomatic gifts and decor it contains. Don’t be fooled by the outside – the property is MASSIVE.
The only way to view the house is as part of a tour, so myself, about 35 other people, and a very rehearsed guide (she was very tongue-in-cheek though and made some great deadpan jokes!) stuffed ourselves into the entryway of the palace. She started off by warning us against taking video – unless we wanted to pay 1000 Euro, which we should do up front. She also then warned us that we should stick close to the group, as tourists occasionally get “lost” in the palace (I truly wasn’t sure how this was possible since everything was cordoned off, until she shared that one group had been wandering unsupervised for 3 hours until their rescue and, on another more unfortunate occasion just this morning, a woman who was both deaf and unable to speak had gotten separated from the group and was unable to communicate that she was lost). So, sternly admonished and shoulder-to-shoulder despite the body heat in the room, we began our journey.
First up, Ceauşescu’s office and then his waiting area, where he would welcome and receive official visitors. I wish I’d had a bingo card, because this house was basically the greatest hits of both 1970s architecture and the world’s most notorious communist dictatorships / regimes (oh, and the Syrian and Kuwaiti embassies are literally the two next door neighbors on either side to this day!). In this room we had a couple treasures: first, a Persian rug (under the green chairs pictured to the right), from the last Shah of Iran. Second, Ceauşescu’s famous chess set – he was said to be a chess master who never lost a game, although our guide pointed out that this may have been a self-preservation strategy on the part of his opponents. Hilariously, if you look closely at the set, you’ll notice the “pawns” are literally fashioned to be Romanian peasants. You can’t make this up!
Next up, we had the first bedroom, which I believe belonged to his son (Ceauşescu had two children from two marriages; his daughter and the wife that survived the Revolution both died young; he and his then-current-wife were executed by firing squad during the Revolution).
The dictator bingo continued, as displayed in the room is an (admittedly gorgeous) North Korean artwork, gifted by Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-Un’s grandfather.
In other rooms, we’d also find Chinese vases gifted by Mao Zedong, and incredibly gorgeous and pristine ivories (so much so, they almost looked like plastic, I wish I’d gotten a photo!) gifted by the former leader of the “Democratic” Republic of the Congo.
Then we moved into the 1970s-greatest-hits portion of the decor, and I got a good chuckle out of the various pink bathroom sets (several of my friends have said they think this decor is beautiful, so perhaps I’m just jaded after living in a very old, unrenovated 70s-era property with a pink bathtub of my own!).
The remainder of the property was beautiful, I have to admit. Each of the rooms was styled for Ceauşescu’s wife, his children, or his own needs. I loved the silk fabrics on the walls, as well as the Murano glass. The indoor / outdoor lounges and mosaics were also amazing.
Ceauşescu’s private apartments were amusing. The museum still has their bed (the least ornate thing in the whole palace, probably) as well as their original pajamas. The docent made sure to call out that the tall mannequins on display (not pictured) were not to scale – apparently Ceauşescu was only 5’6″ and his wife was 5’4″. Way to hit a guy when he’s down!
Apparently, the Ceauşescu’s also had several black labs, who of course had their own room and their own bed right off of the apartment.
Then, we made our way into the famed “Gold Bathroom” – I’m not sure the exact story behind it, but the impression I got was that at the time, this bathroom was perceived as being a somehow more offensive (?) display of opulence during this reign. In the period since, they’ve done additional testing on the bathroom, and apparently the gold used was “industrial” gold vs. “precious” gold (i.e., the kind of gold that is now used in all sorts of tech products as a mega conductor), so it actually isn’t worth very much (for contrast, the guide told us the imported Indian blue marble that lines the following hallway was INCREDIBLY valuable but received very limited attention).
That being said, it does look incredibly opulent and I can understand why the press at the time had a field day.
Other rooms were also beautiful.
Ms. Ceauşescu’s closet was incredible – apparently this represents only a small portion of her collected wardrobe (apparently she had something like 135 boxes – moving boxes, from what I could tell – of shoes). During the revolution, apparently most of her clothes were either burned or sold at auction, but they’ve kept what they can / have gotten period replacements.
The sitting room / indoor lounge was also incredible – it puts Changi Airport to shame!
Of course, they had to have an opulent indoor swimming pool, which includes a mosaic that apparently took ~2 years to install. Ceauşescu apparently loved peacocks (and there are still several that call the property home!) so they are featured heavily in the design, as are astrological signs, the “female sun” and squirrels.
Of course, there is also a “summer garden” outside as well.
The pièce de résistance in the communist leader bingo was the patio adjoining the summer garden – apparently, when the Ceauşescus visited Fidel Castro in Cuba, they loved his patio so much that they had a 1:1 recreation installed on their property.
After the Ceauşescu home, I visited one more spot my Transylvania guide had recommended for lunch: Osho, a modern “no frills” steakhouse. It was fine, although it definitely continued to hit on my trend of Bucharest’s well-rated “fine dining” restaurants being underwhelming, while the places with lower rankings online having better quality food and service.
I hope this isn’t disgusting, but I got a good chuckle out of a soap dispenser labeled as “care mousse” in the restroom; it’s Europe, so bidets are very common here, which would have made this unnotable. However, this was a single stall restroom – after running a paper towel under this dispenser, I realized it was literally the same as the hand soap, just with no water source to remove it. Use at your own discretion and mileage may vary, I guess, lol.
Anyhow, it was a great day in Bucharest, and I’m glad I spent a couple days extra here in order to see more of the sights and see more of the Romanian history in town!