Thursday, July 1, 2010

Bucharest and Bicycling: First Impressions

I am spending a few days in Bucharest for work and I am amazed by it. Even to someone familiar with many Eastern European cities, the capital of Romania stands out. It's not just the culture and the language (Romanian is a Romance language in a predominantly Slavonic region, and it sounds approximately like Italian with a Russian accent), but the very look of the city.

Never before have I seen such a head-spinning mix of old and new, big and small, restored and dilapidating - and yes, I've been to East Berlin and many formerly Soviet areas. Here is a gorgeous pre-War villa with wrap-around wrought iron balconies (notice the bicycle path, too).

And here is the view directly across the street.

Construction and renovation projects are everywhere, and it is clear that the city cares about preserving its unique historical buildings.

More variety.

Unusually shaped gables and towers; intricate art nouveau details.

Imposing facades stand "shoulder to shoulder" with tiny houses more characteristic of the countryside.

Wrought iron latticework is everywhere.

And grapevines.

But what about bicycles? Well, a few of the streets in the center do have bike paths. And I was pleased to see that the bicycle symbol in Bucharest comes with a full chaincase. But I do not see many actual bicycles on the streets, let alone any with a chaincase or other classic features.

The lack of cyclists is rather a mystery, because there are clearly some attempts at infrastructure and bike-friendliness going on - like these adorable bicycle racks at a local park.

And this bikeshare station, which appears to be sponsored by a mobile phone provider.

And this advert for a concert. Yet, hardly any any actual cyclists.

One reason for the lack of cycling could be the traffic patterns and the layout. Many streets in the center are wide, multiple-lane boulevards that go on forever and are gridlocked with cars. They do not look very inviting for cyclists. But I have no idea to what extent this is really the cause.

Another thing I am wondering about here, is the abundance of the telephone(?) wires. There are literally wads of wiring hanging off the poles. My colleagues who are traveling with me are all wondering about that.

Here is another view of the wires. Any ideas?

It is too bad that the cycling situation in Bucharest is so dire, because otherwise I like it here very much. It seems that a great deal of resources are being allocated towards keeping the city clean, improving urban infrastructure and transportation, renovating historical buildings, and supporting the arts. There are several sprawling parks here - all beautiful and meticulously well-kept. I have not used the subway yet, but the buses are shiny and new. Little convinience stores and kiosks sell water and ice cream on every corner. People are friendly and polite - no pushing on the streets, pleasant facial expressions, holding doors for each other. If you don't speak Romanian it should not be a problem, as a surprising number of people speaks very fluent English.

Being in Bucharest makes me wish I knew some locals and could get to know the place better; maybe even figure out the cycling mystery. I hope to have another occasion to come here in future.

26 comments:

  1. I see you've been mainly in the center of the city.

    I travel approx 20 km per day in Bucharest, in my way to job and back. This town has now bike infrastructure. Those lines drawn on the ground are nothing but simple lines :)

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  2. Emillian - Yes, I cycle right on the roads in Boston and sometimes in Vienna, so in theory I agree. But I do not see many cyclists in Bucharest, on the road or otherwise. I am mainly in the center because not too much time to wander away from work. Where do you suggest I go? - I am here until Saturday.

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  3. Velouria - beautiful photos! Maybe S. from Simply Bike can tell you more about biking there since she is originally from Romania :)

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  4. I find Romania fascinating. It's one of my favorite places I've ever visited, and I would love to go back for more than a week. Will you get a chance to travel outside of Bucharest? The countryside is so, so beautiful.

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  5. Hey,nice blog,nice to see u in bucharest.Not by far the most bike friendly city around,but things are looking bright and we have a lot of friendly cyclists;)
    We'd like to take u for a bike tour,if u have time..we can even lend u a nice bike if u need one.By "we" i mean www.frepets.ro and bikeblogbucuresti.blogspot.com and our friends(who all have lovely bikes)

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  6. How cool to be in Bucharest. It seems amazing, especially to explore by bike. That chaincase on the bikelane bike is classic.

    PS - That poster is for MIKA, a brit pop singer. It makes me very happy that MIKA hearts bikes.

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  7. bucharest seems nicer than i had imagined. then again, the conjured image that's been lodged in my mind dates back to the immediate post-soviet era, when romania was the poorest post-east bloc country, even by soviet standards.

    i'm guessing that membership in the EU has brought about a large influx of EU money for improving infrastructure and economy.

    the architecture does look interesting, and there seem to be similarities to prague in the variety, in the sense that there is an integration (for better or worse) of old and new, along with soviet-era monolithic style thrown into the mix. in downtown prague, you can find find 1970s monolithic concrete buildings erected next door to 17th century baroque buildings.

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  8. Hey Velouria,

    how fun that you should be in my home country! Your observations are pretty spot on, it's what makes Bucharest so unique for me too - the very interesting juxtaposition of old and new; Communist era ugly and pre-Communist elaborate; the renovated and the falling apart....it's just such an eclectic city. But you're right - Romanians are very friendly and my husband, who's American and doesn't speak much Romanian, has always felt like lots of people made an effort to speak English with him and to make him feel welcome.

    As for biking in Romania, I tried very hard to make it happen for us this past June when we were just there. Having successfully done a bike tour of Prague, we really wanted to rent bikes and even pay for a guided bike tour in some Romanian cities but couldn't really find any companies offering that. There are some multi-day Alps bike trips through Transylvania, but not really what we had in mind. I think the cycling culture in Romania is still a work in progress. But based on a number of Romanian based bike blogs I've come across, I think there is an interest there for sure.

    As for your question of what to see... here are some tips although I don't know where you are and where you can go...

    You should definitely check out the Parliament Building if you can. It was started by Ceausescu during the Communist era (and never finished) and it's the largest civilian admin. building in the world. It's really impressive and both sad when you think of how poor people where while all these resources were being spent on building it. After the revolution, people wanted to tear it down but it would cost more to destroy it than it does to maintain it, ha!

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palace_of_the_Parliament

    Another cool place is the rooftop terrace and bar/restaurant on top of the National Theater Building that is located at the "Piata Universitatii" (translation: University Square). The place is called "La Motoare":
    http://www.panoramio.com/photo/19419572
    Great beer and awesome graffiti art work.

    And also a great evening spot to check out: This alley with cool bars and hookah cafes called "Valea Regilor" (translation: The King's Valley), located in the "Calea Victoriei" (Victoria's Path...something like that for the street name in English)..

    http://maps.google.com/maps?hl=ro&um=1&ie=UTF-8&q=bucuresti+valea+regilor&fb=1&gl=ro&hq=valea+regilor&hnear=bucuresti&cid=0,0,16814208669462831120&ei=_raOS5mFEqLqmwOTmuCRCw&sa=X&oi=local_result&ct=image&resnum=1&ved=0CAcQnwIwAA

    Great outdoor seating and people watching and very unlike the rest of the eating spots in town...has much more of a Moroccan vibe than a European one.

    Sorry for the very long comment, I was just so surprised to see you there and I wish you a wonderful stay in my home country :) If you have any other questions, don't hesitate to shoot me an email.

    S.

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  9. This post in a lot of ways reminds me of Vilnius, Lithuania. It also has the language disparity, being from the Baltic language group (which it only shares with Latvia), in an area again mainly surrounded by slavic languages (or Finno-Ugric in the case of Estonia).

    One of the biggest things that struck us there was both the preservation of historic buildings, and the mix of old and new, large and small, and so many different styles of buildings. You have a church that was built in the 1300's, and re-decorated in the 1600's sitting next to this awful concrete soviet apartment building, and just down the block is a modern glass sky-scraper.

    It makes for a very interesting cityscape.

    I never rode a bike when I lived there, though looking back I think I could easily have done so, because the traffic was very light, and often restricted, especially in the center of the city and the old town.

    We'll be back there in September, so I'm excited to see what has changed in the last 6-7 years.

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  10. somervillain - The "poorest country in Eastern Europe" was basically my pre-visit impression as well, based on things I had read and heard. The other thing I heard was "lots of new money and huge shiny SUVs". In reality? Okay, there is some visible poverty and some display of new money. But if you compare the atmosphere to say, Belgrade or Sofia, or even Moscow, I think Bucharest has much less of either, and there is generally a less materialistic feel to it. Also, I feel that Bucharest has chosen to use whatever money is coming in from the west in a way that more obviously benefits the city and its residents as a "community". In particular, the parks are so nice and so clean that I am stunned. Even the garbage containers are beautifully designed. The streets, at least in the center (and that's a pretty large area) are safe at night. People are dressed nicely, but any country's standards. I don't mean to make it sound like some shiny new paradise; it is not. But the atmosphere is open and positive without being hyper, for lack of better description - which I do not see in other Eastern European countries.

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  11. Iulia - Thank you so much for the invitation; I will have to see what my work-schedule tomorrow is like and will try to get in touch!

    Simply Bike - Thank you for the suggestions! I have walked through most of the center now and have been to the Arcul de Triumf and Parcul Herastrau (where I finally rode a bike! - more on that later). I have not been to most of the other places you mentioned and will try to go tomorrow (my last full day). This is also the first time I hear about your website; will definitely stop by!

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  12. http://www.portocalamecanica.ro/bucharest-as-seen-from-abroad.html

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  13. Anonymous - thanks for the mention. I had no idea there were so many cycling blogs in Bucharest - I have been informed about 4 today already!

    Margo - I am pretty much chained to Bucharest while here. I have passed through the Romanian countryside when I was young and remember how beautiful it was.

    Kara - This goes to show how out of touch with popular music I am!

    portlandize - I have never been to Vilnius, though many of my friends have. I look forward to your report in September!

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  14. Hello Velouria :) How nice that you are in Bucharest. If you don't have time to see us, please let us know next time. It would be a pleasure to meet you.

    @ Simply Bike - If you want to discover some beautiful places in Romania I recommend you to check this: http://www.carpatbike.ro/index.htm You'll find a lot of information that might interest you. CarpatBike is offering fully supported cycling holidays in different regions of Romania :)

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  15. nice blog! living in this city my whole life and trying to bike in it, I agree with most of your post.

    from direct, personal experience I can tell you that there are very few cyclists that really bike in Bucharest. a lot of people attend cycling-related events, but very very few of them actually bike- during the summer it's too hot to cycle, winter is too cold and snowy, and spring and autumn are, of course, rainy :))

    a lot of the wires are, I think, for internet- you probably noticed that we have very good internet speed- that comes with a price:-)

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  16. Velouria - can't wait to see the rest of your posts on Romania! (As for my blog, it's still in the baby stages, but I'd be thrilled to have you stop by!)

    Andreea - thanks for the tip! I would definitely love to do an extended bike tour of the Carpati or other parts of Romania at some point. Right now, my time there is always spent with family and friends so I was trying to find just one day bike trips to enjoy. I was surprised that places like Cluj or Brasov didn't have guided bike tours available, seeing how developed and modern they are. I only found a place in Sibiu where bike tours where available.

    S.

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  17. Velouria,
    you could try biciclete Brompton, or Brompton fanclub by Veloteca. These folks are Brompton (folding bike) users. There are vids of their rides cycling and chatting as they glide through..I don't know what part of Romania. Bromptons are expensive, so these folks may not be typical.
    I hadn't thought to associate the bunches of overhead cable with the internet. It used to be that in parts of Ireland you could see something similar, but this was because underground cable-routing was too expensive. Milo.

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  18. Oana - Yes, there is very good internet coverage here : )

    Milo - Thanks for the suggestions. I am going to compile all these local resources in my next post for anybody else interested, too.

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  19. Welcome to Bucharest, Velouria! :) Because I saw that you travel a lot, I hope that you’ll have the occasion to come back again in Romania in order to complete your overview on our country, also with beautiful landscapes taken on country roads, wild nature, romanian customs...

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  20. Those overhead telephone lines (some may carry electricity)are 'remanents' from the past system - they are still in use in some eastern Euro and Asian towns.They would eventually be underground when the governments/city or town councils 'modernise'/refurbish infractures or when they adopt 'new technologies' - such as the use of optical cables, etc.

    Yes, many of east European towns and cities have extremely beautiful 'ancient' bulidings and the juxtaposition of such buildings and modern monstrous skysrapers (most are 'ugly' to me)is unfortunately unavoidable. What is/would be most regrettable is that a number of such architecturally unique & beautiful buildings 'might actually' be lost in the hands of 'undiscerning' city fathers who are wantonly (and 'irrationally' ... in some cases) exuberant in wanting to completely and speedily 'modernise' their countries (This is more so in Asia than in Europe).
    L.

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  21. Oooops .... 'infractures' should read 'infrastructures' . Sorry, huh! :P

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  22. Romanians are a Latin race in a Slavic region. Their Dacian ancestors were conquered by the Romans and forcibly Romanized. The name of the country pays tribute to the Romans and Romanian is the nearest living descendant of Old Latin - if it had survived down to our day. Modern Bucharest has been referred to often as "Paris Of The Balkans." A visit amply confirms the judgment.

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  23. Hello. Stumbled upon your article about your trip to bucharest and couldn't help myself from sharing a few words. I've been using my bike as my only means of transportation in bucharest for a while now and it's not exactly a picnic. Those bike lanes in the centre tend to be full of pedestrians and parked cars and they also begin and end quite abruptly - they're nowhere to be found if you venture away from km 0. Most people i know find it too scary to ride on the street and too inconvenient and slow to use the sidewalks. Pedestrians and drivers here both frown upon (or openly curse) passing cyclists. Our major problem is bike theft - from central locations, from blocks and balconies, from school courtyards, anywhere really.. and not only good and expensive ones, any kind of bikes, from last year and from 20 years ago, functional or otherwise. It's our infrastructure and the immense number of cars in Bucharest that make it virtually impossible to have a proper system of bike lanes - that's why it's not a popular means of transportation. You have to be able to appreciate a jolt of adrenaline once in a while if you take your bike into the streets and then again if you lock it somewhere not tried and tested. (mine was actually stolen from a church's courtyard). In this domain as in all others, our country needs education. I'll end my babble here. Ps - that girl you photographed is a childhood friend, you've made me realised i miss her - thank you! As for those cables, if they ever decide to bury them, bucharest is going to look bombarded for the countless years it would take to complete..

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  24. The cables look like a part of some sort of mass-transit network for birds and squirrels.

    Your descriptions and photos of Bucharest are fascinating. I, too, have always had the impression that most people have had since the days just after the fall of the Soviet empire. (All empires fall after they meddle in Afghanistan.)

    The photo with the traffic patterns is interesting: the wires form a kind of fence or halo, depending on how you look at them, around that building.

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  25. All the phone wires remind me of Haiti, There it is the product of alot of handy/resourceful people picking up the slack from a utility system that can't keep up. Maybe some of this is freelance infrastructure as well.

    Bucharest as you show it does not agree with the John LeCarre novel inspired vision in my head(big surprise, huh). It sheds a little light on something I have wondered about sometimes when listening to Andre Codrescue(sp?)on N.P.R.,"How can he fit in so well down there in New Orleans?" Now I know. I love New Orleans and the vibe I get from your photos and prose is so like my memories of there that I understand how Brother Codrescue could slip right in.

    Cracking post!
    Spindizzy

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  26. you should visit it on bike in weekend because the traffic is very good

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