As the UK prepares to leave the European Union, I travelled to Romania and Bulgaria – the EU’s two newest states – where the two nations are clearly embracing being part of the single market. Dramatic renovations in the Romania capital and improvements to infrastructure along the Black Sea coast clearly highlight the pace at which the two countries are embracing EU membership, which is also making them more accessible to tourists than ever before.
Bucharest’s Communist past
My trip began in the Romanian capital, Bucharest, where beautiful neo-classical buildings sit side-by-side with gigantic structural hangovers from the oppressive Communist regime of Nicolae Ceauşescu. His most obvious contribution to the city’s makeup is the Palace of Parliament, the world’s second largest administrative building after the Pentagon. Some 40,000 people were relocated from the old city centre to create the building, which, since the Romanian Revolution of 1989, has been the seat of the country’s parliament.
Mingling with tourists from across the continent, we spent much of our tour of the Palace of Parliament with our jaws wide open, struggling to come to terms with the sheer size of each room, chandelier and staircase.
As one audacious ballroom led to one that was even larger and more glamorous, I felt like I was walking through a young girl’s fairy tale dream – although the feeling came with a bitter aftertaste courtesy of a Communist dictator’s megalomania. Following a thorough two hour tour, the guide told us that we had seen only four per cent of the entire building.
The humongous figures of the Parliament called for a stiff drink and we spent the evening bar-hopping along the pretty cobblestone streets of Bucharest’s Old Town.
We followed the hordes to the famous Caru’ cu Bere, where we were instantly tempted by its menu of classic Romanian dishes, including cheese-filled Kransky sausages, vine leaves stuffed with goose and roasted pork knuckle. The prices are a bit steep compared to the rest of the city, but when your hearty meal comes accompanied with a couple dancing the tango to Tom Jones’ ‘Kiss’ in their most flamboyant polyester, you can’t really complain.
A stroll through Ruse
After a relatively wild night in Bucharest, we slowed down the pace, picked up the hire car and crossed the border in to Bulgaria for a relaxed afternoon in Ruse. Crossing the mighty Danube along Europe’s longest steel bridge, we were welcomed by a Vienna-lite city, complete with Neo-Baroque architecture, pedestrianised streets and elegant parks.
Lunch was taken at Chiflika and served by waiters in pantaloons. Yes, pantaloons. After devouring more reasonably priced grilled chicken than you can shake a kebab stick at, along with a mountain of salad, we managed to waddle our way onto restored railway carriages belonging to Bulgarian tsars at the National Transport Museum.
A special mention must also go to the scrumptious banitsa’s (cheese pasties) we picked up for the journey back too.
Beside the Romanian seaside
After another night in Bucharest we made our way towards the Black Sea, crisscrossing the Danube as farmers traversing fields in horse and carts, dilapidated factories and another one of Ceauşescu’s grand projects – the Danube-Black Sea Canal – rushed past us.
We soon arrived in the port city of Constanța, a place that will be best remembered as the city that said ‘no’. We headed for its famous Roman mosaic and I enquired to the lady at the door if they were open.
“Yes… tomorrow.” And with that, she turned away, bolted the door shut and sauntered off to do something more interesting.
Later in restaurant On Plonge, we were enjoyed harbour views any Balearic eatery would crave, yet there were only one or two dishes available among its voluminous menu. Clearly, ‘catch of the day’ has yet to take off in Constanța.
Furthermore, the city’s finest building, an Art Nouveau casino along the shore of the Black Sea, has remained vacant since 1990 and is desperate for some TLC.
Even Constanța’s most famous resident, the Roman poet Ovid, struggled to adjust when he was exiled there in AD 8 by Emperor Augustus. Whatever he thought of the city, the locals have let bygones be bygones, as his statue today stands proudly in the eponymous Piata Ovidiu.
Crossing the border once more the following day, we headed to Bulgaria’s maritime capital, Varna. As well as being a well-kept seaside resort, Varna boasts plenty of Roman sites to keep any classicist content, alongside a generous shopping and restaurant offer. We stayed in the Grand Hotel London, an opulent abode that looked as if it had stepped right out of a Wes Anderson film.
However, the remnants of communism was never far away and we enjoyed sweeping views of the Black Sea from the somewhat eerie Monument of the Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship, as the shadow of a gigantic EU flag wafted in front of us.
Stone and concrete
Having enough of the sea air, I drove inland for my last full day in Bulgaria, starting with the Stone Forest, a group of natural rock formations up to seven metres high. There are various scientific theories on how they were formed, but the guide there was more interested in explaining their holistic properties and encouraging me to enjoy their supernatural energies. The stones were all named, with ‘The Grumpy Man’ and ‘The Soldier’ embodying their titles, as did what the guide described as ‘Bulgarian Viagra’.
After making a quick stop to see the Madra Horseman, Bulgaria’s only known medieval rock carving, I entered the gloomy city of Shumen. Here, I was greeted by a city of half-finished buildings peppered among a confusing one-way system, plus there didn’t appear to be a soul in sight. However, this all added to the suspense as I snaked my way up the hills behind Shumen to the monolithic Founders of the Bulgarian State Monument.
Built in 1981 to commemorate the 1300th anniversary of the establishment of the Bulgarian state, I was immediately dwarfed by its 18 metre-tall Cubist sculptures that watched over me like stone Transformers. The entire monument reaches 70 metres, with 50,000 cubic metres of concrete alone used to create this memorial that really does have to be seen to be believed. If you’re looking for a destination wedding like no other, I’m told that you can get also get married there.
Back to Bucharest
Crossing the Danube one last time, we made our way back to bustling Bucharest to hand back the car. The Romanian capital is quickly shaping itself as the next major European city break destination and my experience there certainly reminded me of Prague, albeit without the large crowds and rowdy stag parties.
Despite Brexit looming, there are a plethora of airlines now offering cheap travel to Romania and Bulgaria from the UK, so I have already started planning my next trip to the European Union’s newest recruits – perhaps Transylvania or Bulgaria’ capital, Sofia.