Christmas Abroad in Bucharest, the Little Paris of the East

Monday, December 23 – Sunday December 29, 2019
Vagabonding Days 84-90
Location: Bucharest, Romania

The Romanian Athenaeum

I’ve always wanted to visit Romania. I was first introduced to Romania in middle school when I was assigned to write a report on the country. Ever since then I’ve had a romantic notion in my head of Romanian peasants in the countryside wearing traditional clothing and folk dancing. As we began vagabonding across Eastern Europe, my interest in Romania was piqued even further when I heard rumors about the fabulous Christmas Market in Romania’s capital, Bucharest. So when Daniel and I planned our itinerary for December, we decided to stay in Bucharest for a week to enjoy the Christmas holiday and explore the city.

Bucharest Christmas Market (Târgul de Crăciun București)

We wrapped up our tour of holiday markets this year with a visit to the Bucharest Christmas Market on Christmas Day. Located in Constitution Square just opposite the Palace of Parliament, the Bucharest Christmas Market was easily the largest and most impressive Christmas Market that we visited this year. The market included over 100 beautifully decorated wooden stalls selling everything from traditional food and mulled wine to Christmas decorations and handicrafts. Other festive activities included a skating rink, a merry-go-round, a massive stage for musical performances and a Christmas Tree standing over 30 meters in height.

We only visited the market for a couple of hours and planned to return at a later time, but sadly illness prevented us from doing so. We didn’t need to travel to the market to get in the holiday spirit, however. The city also installed an impressive light display along 23 km of Bucharest’s major boulevards. We found the Christmas festival and decorations delightful, but were later to learn that the event’s costs were somewhat controversial to local residents.

Entrance to the Bucharest Christmas Market
The impressively large Christmas Tree at the center of the Bucharest Christmas Festival.
Skating Rink at the Bucharest Christmas Market.
Daniel strikes a pose in front of the Christmas Tree.
The massive stage at the Bucharest Christmas Festival. Photo by Daniel.
Merry-go-round.
Food booth at the Christmas Festival.
Christmas meats.
Christmas sweets.
Flaky pumpkin dessert. This turned out to be very pumpkin-y flavored and not very sweet.
Candy shoppe.
Daniel wishes you a very Merry Christmas!
The Palace of Parliament stands behind the Bucharest Christmas Festival.

Calea Victoriei Street and Revolution Square

When Daniel and I arrived at our apartment on Calea Victoriei street, I looked around in surprise. There were no peasants or folk dancing here. Grand buildings lined the street in a picturesque style that seemed reminiscent of Parisian neighborhoods. In fact, Bucharest was dubbed Little Paris” a century ago and it’s easy to see why. We had a fabulous view of some of these historic buildings from the windows in our AirBnB apartment.

Apparently, there used to be more buildings in Bucharest like this but many have disappeared over the years. Hundreds of buildings were destroyed in an Allied bombing raid during World War II. Even more buildings were destroyed under the leadership of communist dictator Ceaușescu when he built the Palace of Parliament. But Calea Victoriei Street and Old Town have survived and stand as magnificent reminders of times past.

We spent one pleasant afternoon walking along Calea Victoriei to acquaint ourselves with the area. We began our walk at the United Nations Square (Piaţa Naţiunile Unite), and then progressed to the National Museum of Romanian History. Here we expected to find the Statue of Trajan and the She-wolf, but were disappointed to find that it has been removed. The grandiose CEC Palace, which now hosts the CEC Bank Headquarters, is located directly across the street.

Eventually we made our way to Revolution Square, famously the location where Ceaușescu gave his final speech in 1989. He forced thousands of workers to attend the speech so it appeared as if he had a large crowd of supporters. The crowd turned on him, however, sparking the Romanian Revolution. Ceaușescu was forced to flee with his wife and they were later executed on Christmas Day. The Memorial of Rebirth now stands in Revolution Square to commemorate these events.

United Nations Square (Piaţa Naţiunile Unite)
The view from United Nations Square at night. Yes, that’s a Star Wars poster on the next bridge 🙂
View towards United Nations Square from our apartment window on Calea Victoriei.
View towards the National Museum of Romanian History from our apartment window on Calea Victoriei.
Reproduction of the Statue of Trajan and the She-wolf, which used to be located on the steps of the National Museum of Romanian History. Photo by Daniel.
CEC Palace.
Walking along Calea Victoriei towards Revolution Square.
Revolution Square, with the Memorial of Rebirth in the foreground.
Memorial at Revolution Square.
Statue of Carol I, Monarch of Romania from 1866-1914.

Romanian Athenaeum

Daniel and I ended our walk along Calea Victoriei at the majestic Romanian Athenaeum. Opened to the public in 1888, the ornate building was dedicated to the arts and sciences and now houses the George Enescu Philharmonic Orchestra.

As we stood outside the Athenaeum taking it all in, we found ourselves in front of a statue. An elderly man missing a few teeth wandered over and informed us that we were standing before Mihail Eminescu, Romania’s most important poet. He also told us that we could go inside the Athenaeum if we walked over to a side door hidden on the other side of the building. We were skeptical but decided to check it out anyway. Sure enough, we were admitted inside the building after paying a small fee.

Only a few other visitors were in the auditorium once we made our way upstairs past the grand entryway. Some members of the orchestra were onstage, warming up and tuning their instruments. It felt like we had a private performance of the orchestra all to ourselves. We sat in the back row and counted ourselves lucky to be there.

I’m not sure if the Athenaeum is open to visitors on a daily basis or only prior to performances, but I highly recommend going inside if you can. Hands down, it was one of my favorite experiences during our entire stay in Bucharest.

Statue of Mihail Eminescu, Romania’s greatest poet, in front of the Romanian Athenaeum.
The magnificent entryway inside the Romanian Athenaeum.
Another view of the Romanian Athenaeum’s entryway.
These stairs are pretty cool.
Walking up to the auditorium. Photo by Daniel.
The Romanian Athenaeum’s magnificent auditorium. Orchestra members are warming up onstage.
We sat in some of these box seats in the back of the room and listened to the orchestra warm up. It was a pretty magical experience. Photo by Daniel.
Yeah… I don’t think you could catch me standing on that ladder… Photo by Daniel.

Old Town (Centru Vechi) and the Old Princely Court (Curtea Veche)

Known locally as Centru Vechi (the Old Centre), Bucharest’s Old Town is a vibrant pedestrian-only zone filled with bars and restaurants. Bordered by Calea Victoriei on its West side, Old Town has a lively bar scene and is bustling with crowds in the evening.

Old Town is also the location of Curtea Veche or the Old Princely Court, a palace commissioned by Vlad III Dracula Tepes “The Impaler” in the fifteenth century. We were eager to see the famous statue of Vlad on display in front of the palace, but it was not to be. The entire building appears to be undergoing some kind of renovation and the statue is currently covered up.

Church next to the Old Princely Court.
Sadly, we were not able to see the statue of Vlad III Dracula Tepes due to renovations of the Old Princely Court. The statue is in the foreground covered with a black tarp.
Lupa capitolina monument.
Centru Vechi at dusk.
Macca-Vilacrosse Passage.
Walking around Centru Vechi.
St. Nicholas Church under construction.
Centru Vechi at night.
Restaurant Dracula.
Live band playing Christmas music at the historic Caru’ cu Bere restaurant.

Palace of Parliament

Easily the largest and most noticeable building in Bucharest, the Palace of Parliament is impossible to miss as it towers over Piața Constituției (Constitution Square). The building holds several notable designations including heaviest building in the world, most expensive building in the world, and second largest administrative building in the world (behind the Pentagon). Former dictator Ceaușescu commissioned the massive building as the headquarters of the Communist party and construction began in 1984.

After Ceaușescu was overthrown in 1989, the building was re-purposed to house the Romanian Senate as well as the National Museum of Contemporary Art. Apparently many of the rooms are still unused.

We were amazed at the sheer size of the palace as well as its opulence when we walked through the building. It’s not hard to see how this insanely expensive building would have contributed to civil unrest and Ceaușescu’s eventual deposition.

Daniel stands in front of the Palace of Parliament. Yeah.. that’s one big Palace…
Inside the Palace of Parliament. Ceaușescu originally planned for an enormous portrait of himself to hang on the wall. Now the space is empty.
Another grand room inside the Palace of Parliament.
More opulence inside the Palace of Parliament.
I thought this stairway was pretty awesome.
View of the Bucharest Christmas Market from the Palace of Parliament balcony. Michael Jackson greeted fans from this balcony in 1992.

Christmas Day Abroad

This is the first Christmas that I’ve spent away from my family and I was determined to have some sort of celebration to mark the holiday. We had no idea what kind of restaurants or shops would be open on Christmas Day, so we headed to the enormous Carrefour hypermarket on Christmas Eve to stock up. The store was an absolute zoo as hordes of last minute shoppers shopped for the holiday. I bought a little poinsettia to serve as our Christmas Tree and a strand of lights to brighten up our apartment.

We needn’t have worried about finding food on Christmas Day. While many businesses and all public buildings were indeed closed on Christmas day (and December 26 too which is known as “the Second Day of Christmas), plenty of restaurants catering to tourists were open in Old Town. Also, as mentioned above, the entire Bucharest Holiday market was open as well serving enough food to feed an army of people. But we spent the evening at home, cuddled up around our holiday poinsettia and watching Christmas movies.

Merry Christmas everyone!

Our Christmas poinsettia plus some gifts I wrapped up. The gifts were all food-related which we subsequently ate as we don’t have room to carry new items with us.
Setting up the Christmas poinsettia. Photo by Daniel.
Watching the movie White Christmas on Christmas Eve.
Our Christmas Dinner in our AirBnB apartment. Photo by Daniel.
Yummy Christmas desserts! These were the closest desserts we could find to pies.
The view out our balcony window on Christmas morning.

Where are we now?

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We are in Bucharest, Romania.

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