Most university kids head to the clubs or pick up a sport when they’re not studying. Robert started weaving through old abandoned buildings and crumbling structures. Urban exploration he calls it. The underground culture and alternative angles, even the grungy, decaying, and deteriorating part of a city that most of us would turn our camera lenses away from. But Robert seeks them out to document and photograph them. Forget the aesthetic architecture, picturesque lookouts, and grandiose squares the guidebooks lead you to. It can be an adventure when you get off the map. I mean really off the map.
I met Robert in Bucharest and we hung out to see his city through his eyes. He was born and raised in Bucharest and knows the city inside out. He’s part of Interesting Times, a local non-profit that uses sustainable tours to help fund and support local, cultural and artistic projects that relate to urban life and environment. I found Robert reflects the youthful part of Romania. They see the glass half-full and want to “make an art out of Bucharest”, even in urban decay, crumbling sights, and deserted places.
“Locals assume it’s just another ugly building”
All of the buildings in Bucharest were seized by the communists before 1989. By the mid 90s, they were privatized and property ownership was returned to the owners. The first building we visited was close to University Square and dates back to at least 100 years. It survived two earthquakes (3 if I count the one Dan and I felt one night earlier from our flat). Its edges are still rough from those tremors, the interior looks like it may have been designed as an ancient Roman church, and the backyard is storage space for old tombstones found broken at cemeteries around the city. I thought to myself, couldn’t an historical building like this be turned into a museum, an embassy, or residential space?
“Sometimes owners don’t have the money to restore it so they wait for it to collapse unfortunately”.
I could see parts of the foundation unleveled, and while there were a few people in the building when we visited (it houses some of the city’s archaeological archives), Robert tells me even most locals don’t know the history of their own building and they are especially not concerned with the foundation – sometimes it’s more important for them to have a job even if it’s not the safest building.
The Royal Palace was also seized by the communists but the underground culture decided to turn one of the rooms into a night club. Passing by you would never know this otherwise high class structure would be part of an alternative scene.
A local hotel designed in communist-style (basic lines, small windows and washed out white concrete). It’s still riddled with bullet holes.
Nearby, discreet and unassuming, is an old bunker used by the Nazi occupation for protection from falling bombs and attacks, and which connected secret passageways underground, even as close as buildings across the street. Sometimes we never realize the history or stories some buildings leave behind just by passing it by. I wondered if this cyclist knew?
In 1885 the English Passage was used as a hotel but it couldn’t compete with the newer ones popping up around it so it shutdown. It soon became a brothel as the passageway made for a discreet entrance. Women used to display their goodies on the upper balconies and rumour has it, their king, Carol III was their most prominent guest. In 1947 it was shut down by the Communist forces that made prostitution illegal. If you watched the movie Dracula II, this is where it was shot.
Street art is still perceived as vandalism by local people and especially authorities. It’s interesting to see how some post-communist cities like East Berlin have embraced street art and moved forward quicker than other cities after Communism. In Bucharest the local art community is small but they are leading a movement to revitalize crumbling walls and the public space.
Romanian street artists are creative with colourful, psychedelic, and cartoonish style and they don’t often intend their work to be political, economical, or controversial. Instead, it’s merely a form of art and creative expression for them. This parking garage a few blocks north of Piaţa Universităţii is one of them. Built in 1923 it’s now an alternative art space.
On the other side of the city is a deserted area. We risked getting caught by passing police cars. It’s off-limits and entirely restricted. You need guts to come here. It was near the end of the red metro line is an old industrial area that has been abandoned since the communist era – and strictly for the adventurous. You climb open staircases without railings, walk along beams and shaky-looking turf. It is sadly a waste land now since chemical factories at the time destructibly contaminated the soil and groundwater beneath it so there is no chance of development.
“Forty years of communism did more damage to this city than 400 years of Ottoman rule.”
Some street artists use the space to practise their murals, obviously after dark.
Thanks to Robert for his alternative glimpse of Bucharest (you can follow his urban feet on Instagram) and showing me a side of travel that can be just as artful as the traditional and conventional passages. But what intrigued me most to support this tour was the positive work that Interesting Times is doing in Romania by developing sustainable tours to fund community projects. Their tours are designed by locals, first to cater to the needs of the city and secondarily to the needs of the tourist market – each one is created with the community in mind.
They just recently completed a mural of dragons (it took 36 hours to complete) in St. George Square (Romania’s km 0) which was funded entirely with money from their tours and also Google AdGrants. I wasn’t there to see it completed at the time, but I definitely see myself returning to Romania soon and revisiting Bucharest.