Bucharest

Bucharest is situated in the Romanian plain, and has a continental climate: dry hot summers and cold winters. There are several lakes  in the city (Floreasca, Tei and Colentina), as well as an artificial lake called Cismigiu in a vast park of the same name.

The city was probably founded in the 14th Century, and was repeatedly attacked by Ottomans, Austrians and Russians. In 1861 when Wallachia united with Moldavia to form the Romanian Principality, Bucharest became its capital. It saw German occupation during World War I and heavy English and American bombardment during World War II (Romania having sided with Germany). The darkest years of Communist rule were from 1965 to 1989 under Nicolae Ceausescu, one of the worst tyrants in Europe. His regime was overthrown after mass-scale, blood-stained protests, and the ex-dictator was summarily court-martialled and executed together with his infamous wife Elena. Since then, Bucharest has been undergoing a difficult period of economic renewal and restoration of the historical centre. The construction sector registered a significant growth, and many international companies opened offices in the Romanian capital.

The city's landmark is, of course, the immense building of the Parliament, the second largest building in the world after the Pentagon, the visual result of Ceausescu's megalomaniac ambitions. It is indeed huge, measuring 270 by 240 metres, and is lavishly decorated with Transylvanian marble, crystal chandeliers and mirrors, and brocade curtains. A fifth of the historical district, including 26 churches, was razed to the ground to open space for the grandiose project. The Triumphal Arch was built in 1935 and modeled after the one in Paris. It was intended to welcome the victorious troops, and is adorned by sculptures by leading Romanian artists. Another emblematic building is the Romanian Athenaeum, a domed circular structure housing the largest concert hall in town. Worth visiting is the 18th-century Stavropoleos church which is not too big but has a beautiful colonnaded façade and outstanding frescoes and icons.

The Lipscani area in which some of the historical architecture has survived was pedestrianised and is undergoing restoration. Another place frequented by tourists is the Village Museum, an open-air ethnographic exposition presenting traditional village life in 272 authentic buildings. The Romanian Peasant Museum displays a rich collection of national costumes, ceramics and icons. The Botanical Garden is the richest in Romania, featuring some 10,000 species, including many exotic ones.

Some of the monumental Communist buildings have been transformed into modern shopping centres and hotels, including a Mariott.  In the recent years, a number of modern offices buildings were erected, changing the aspect of the city.

Bucharest is the starting point for tourists who wish to explore Romania, this relatively little known destination. The most popular trips are to Sinaia, a fine mountain resort which attracts visitors with the good skiing facilities and the beautiful royal Peles Castle, Bran with its castle, presumably used by the notorious prince Vlad Tepes, the prototype for the Dracula legend, the painted monasteries of Bucovina, and charming preserved Medieval cities such as Brasov and Sighisoara. They offer an insight into a little known but fascinating history and tradition, combined with Balkan hospitality and taste for fun.