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 corners. Forget aesthetic architecture, picturesque lookouts, and grandiose squares the guidebooks lead you to. The grungy, decaying, and deteriorating part of a city, the ugly buildings which most of us turn our camera lenses away from, Robert sees beauty in.
“Adventure happens when you get off the tourist map.”
I met Robert in Bucharest and we hung out for the day to see the city through his eyes. He was born and raised in Bucharest and knows the city inside out. He’s part of Interesting Times, a sustainable organization that employs local street artists, historians, and photographers to run local tours around the city like Beautiful Decay. Robert reflects the youthful side 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”
Before 1989, all of the buildings in Bucharest were seized by the communists. By the mid 90s, they were privatized and property ownership was returned to the owners. In 30 years or so, since the fall of communism in Romania, the Bucharest capital is still undergoing a process of revitalization. Some buildings have been restored and modernized, while others are still waiting.
The first building we visited was close to University Square and dates back to at least 100 years. It survived two earthquakes (3 if you count the one Dan and I felt the night before from our Airbnb). Its edges are still rough from the tremors, the interior looks like it may have been designed as an ancient Roman church, and the backyard is storage space for old tombstones that were found broken at cemeteries around the city.
“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 in 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 that this high-class structure would be part of an alternative club 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.
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 was the positive work by Interesting Times in Romania which develops sustainable tours like this one to fund local projects. Their tours are designed and run by locals, each one is always created with the needs of the community in mind first, and tourists second. By taking one of their alternative tours, your tourist dollars will be supporting the local community.
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 Google AdGrants to revitalize their city. I wasn’t there to see it completed at the time, but I definitely see myself revisiting Bucharest soon.