BUCHAREST – A CITY IN TRANSITION
Cath Aubergine 14th March 2011
“It’s very… brown.” We have just landed at Baneasa Airport and Alistair’s observation is indisputible: the sun is bright, the sky cloudless, and the muddy earth dotted with half-dead grass. Could be somewhere dusty and Mediterranean… except for the piles of shovelled-up snow. The grass hasn’t baked to death, it’s frozen. We’d heard that predicting Bucharest’s weather in springtime was a bit like throwing darts at a sheet of meteorological symbols and it seems this was correct: the snow piles can’t be more than a week or so old, but later we’ll be sat in the park soaking up the warm sunshine in T-shirts while a shopkeeper on the neighbouring boulevard clears the residual snow from around his doorway.
Alistair is the bassist with Leeds post-rock-indie band I Like Trains, who are here to play a gig at the city’s number one indie joint Control Club – more on which later – and we thought it’d be fun to come along and make a weekend break of it. Yes, I have form for this (with various bands, although this is the first time I can recall being on the same flight as one) – I like cheap European city breaks, I like live music, and I particularly enjoy combining the two. This one was a bit last-minute, after discovering the twice-daily WizzAir flight from Luton was about 35 quid each way even at a week’s notice; much the same as the train ticket from Manchester to London. Interestingly, few of our fellow passengers are English. In fact most of them seem to be a single enormous Romanian family group trying to keep tabs on ten small and very mobile (if impeccably behaved) children. Bucharest clearly isn’t on the regular British weekender destination list yet, but give it a year or two…
The city centre isn’t brown, it’s grey. Lots of greys – the concrete and stone is of varying vintage and state of cleanliness – but there’s plenty of it. Bucharest is, like most eastern European capitals, a city in transition – here however this is as much a literal as a philosophical description: whole streets and squares around the centre are absent, with deep ditches lined with slightly precarious wooden walkways in their place, and you’re rarely beyond earshot of some drilling. It’ll be nice, as they say, when it’s finished. By which time you can probably reckon on prices doubling at least: right now two of you can dine out royally with wine for about RON120 (30 quid) even in the more tourism-savvy areas. It’s a few years behind Prague, but probably heading the same way: there are flyers for stag-weekend type “gentlemen’s clubs” in the hotel reception and posters advertising Erotic Massage, but it’s not in your face at all, yet, and we hear very few English voices all weekend. Most people here don’t even speak it, which is as oddly refreshing as it is occasionally mildly inconvenient.
The woman in the little wooden cabin at Izvor Metro station doesn’t – our attempts to communicate a desire to buy tickets are unsuccessful (they’ve not quite progressed to ticket machines). We end up walking to the next station – Piata Unirii – which is bigger and staffed with more tourist-ready assistants as well as what appears to be an endless underground shopping centre invisible at ground level! Once aboard the train (RON3 = about 75p for a return ticket anywhere in the city zone) it’s clean, fast, efficient – and (Londoners may wish to sit down at this point) you can even get a mobile signal! This is possibly because many Romanians seem inextricably glued to their phones. Don’t be surprised if someone checks you into your hotel, sells you a ticket for a museum or takes your restaurant order without breaking the flow of their cellular conversation…
– – – TOURISM – – –
To try and understand this place in the space of a weekend there are two things you have to see: Muzeul Satului (Village Museum) on the north side of the city centre and Casa Poporului (House Of the People) on the south side. Muzeul Satului is an area of the massive Herastrau Park in which, in 1936, King Carol II decided to instal genuine houses, farmsteads, windmills and even a couple of churches which were brought wholesale from across the country and reassembled so that Bucharest’s urbanites could see how the peasantry lived.
Which, amazingly, included mud huts: the example here, brought to the park in 1949, was actually someone’s house until the year before. A couple of hours in the park sets you up with a working appreciation of the history, geography and culture of the country up until the middle of the last century – and it’s also a rather beautiful park, too. Just don’t be tempted to pack a picnic – this, apparently, is (bizarrely) illegal not just in the museum space but in all they city’s public parks. An odd and incomprehensible piece of draconian sounding legislation – but that’s nothing compared to how the residents spent the second half of the 20th century.
Izvor Park, just south of the centre, is a vast open space surrounded by wide boulevards, in the middle of which stands the largest administrative building in Europe (worldwide only the Pentagon’s bigger): this is Casa Poporului and absolutely nothing – not my pictures nor any you’ll see in a guide book – prepares you for the sheer scale of this thing. Construction started in 1984 under the orders of Nicolae Ceausescu: once a relatively moderate Eastern Bloc leader but long turned megalomaniac dictator and possibly insane. It’s a sobering thought to stand in awe of this incredible construction when you know – as the young tour guide (who would have been a small child when the despot was finally overthrown in 1989) ensures you do – that thousands of ordinary people’s homes, churches, sports stadia and two hospitals were razed almost overnight to create the space.
On a lighter note, we’re delighted to see a Trabant parked nearby. Anyway as demolition of the colossus was ruled out on cost grounds it now houses the country’s Parliament, and the guided tour is basically a chance to go “wow” at some seriously big stuff and statistics. One million cubic metres of marble! An energy bill of $3m a year! And look at the suite for presidential receptions, all pink and ornate with Louis XIV chairs and gold leaf trim, kind of like you might imagibe Elton John’s living room to be, only about 15 times bigger. And if that doesn’t all blow your mind, while you’re in the area the Radu Voda Monastery is worth a look – if only for the sheer incongruity of this beautiful 17th century church and grounds squeezed between a collection of particularly brutalist tower-blocks.
– – – GOING OUT – – –
There’s not much left of the Old Town, and what there is has now become the city’s Going Out District with streets lined with cafes, pubs and bars – very lively, at least at weekends, but in a very non-threatening way. There’s very little violent crime here (watch your pockets, but only as you would in any busy city) and even the city’s legendary population of 75,000 stray dogs is barely evident. (Everyone does seem to own a dog, though). The main hazard round here right now would appear to be falling into a ditch – whole streets are effectively missing due to being dug up and the precarious wooden walkways that line them would give a British public safety officer a coronary. And there does seem to be an infestation of “Irish pubs”. Why pub owners across Europe think that stuffing their establishments full of wooden furnishings, green paint, vintage Guinness adverts and corny slogans and caling them things like Trinity College and Temple Bar is a good thing escapes me. That said, Charlatans (disappointingly an “Irish” bar not a north western English indie theme bar) is a decent place and became our centre of operations largely because the beer and coffee were cheaper and nicer than those in our hotel bar. You’re looking at about RON6 (ÃÂ£1.50) a pint here.
Food? Even the guidebooks say you don’t go to Bucharest for the food. In general, it’s bogstandard Mittel-European fare heavy on the five S’s: steak, stew, schnitzel, sausage and salad. The plus point being you won’t pay more than about RON50 (ÃÂ£12.50) for a main course even in the four-star hotels’ restaurants (most of which are open to non-residents) and the norm seems to be half that, and there’s the usual smattering of Italian places you get pretty much anywhere. Asian food, be it curry, Chinese, sushi or Thai, is starting to take off here – the huge sushi bar bang in the middle of the Old Town seems very popular with the young, modern elite – but they’re hardly commonplace. If you’re vegetarian, you’d better like pizza; if you’re vegan you’re going to struggle (oddly, given Romania’s closer geographical proximity to the Middle East than most of Europe, that cheapo street-food staple of the falafel wrap – or indeed the carnivore’s equivalent doner kebab – doesn’t seem to exist here). Both are catered for at the Ayurvedic place (Casa Satya) tucked away in a particularly uninspiringly concrete part of the northern centre, but be prepared to pay British prices.
– – – MUSIC – – –
There is live music everywhere, although a lot of it’s cover bands or jazz (I know I should grow up and overcome my fear of jazz, but this hasn’t happened yet); the recommended Mojo Music Bar appears to have been (currently, at least) a casualty of the street reconstruction; but we don’t need it because we have “Control”…
Review of a gig in Bucharest
Blue Nipple Boy
at the Control Club
CONTROL CLUB, bang in the centre near the university, is officially my new favourite venue and their mission is to bring the best international post-rock and alternative music to Romania alongside a healthy calendar of local talent. God Is An Astronaut, PVT and Damo Suzuki are all paying a visit in the near future and I’m sure they will all love it as much as we – and I Like Trains – do. The Leeds boys play one of their best gigs ever to a crowd that loves them, and the run on the merch table afterwards is amazing.
It’s a real rabbit-warren of a place, all underground and with more rooms than I could accurately count, mostly tiny, some with bars, some with sofas, a couple of club spaces and the dark, sweaty live room. The DJ stricks on the latest singles by British Sea Power, Lykke Li and, um, Beady Eye (and later on we have a little hometown cheer when The Whip’s “Trash” prompts a mass exodus from bar to dancefloor) – alongside some Romanian-language synthpop, indie and psych-gaze that tells us this country could be a massive, untapped (to us) seam of music. I have no idea if the local bands we saw are in any way representative, but two of them were as good as anything you could see at an unsigned night back in the UK – and the third absolutely brilliant.
The local support for ILT, Traum have been around for about four years and do fairly generic alt-rock but do it pretty well. Especially considering that this is apparently the first ever live show for this formerly studio-based outfit, due to members’ commitments in other bands Dekadens and Hotel Fetish. They sing largely in English, although god only knows what the song featuring the repeated line “a samurai in a union jack tank top” is on about. Elsewhere in the set – well, we’d never previously considered what Yes’s “Owner Of A Lonely Heart” might have sounded like covered by a Nirvana-ish grunge act, but we sort of find out. (it wasn’t actually a cover, but it pilfered the riff wholesale). Very tight and full of energy though, they have a lot of their own fans there.
According to their band biography – which is decidedly scant on any unseful information – “the symbolic translation of Nipple Boy Blue is: Pure Sex Spirit”. Now either Google Translate is having a surrealist day or this band is completely bonkers; well you’re not going to forget the name in a hurry, are you? And we can’t get anywhere close enough to the stage to know if it’s actually true. They start off with some dark acoustic guitar led post-punk with a country edge and a slightly disturbing (again, English language) refrain of “I’ll find you and I’ll kill you” and singer Adrian seems to carry an inherent darkness into what’s otherwise quite upbeat music. The guitarist does all the smiling. And just when we think we’ve got them nailed down they hit us with an acoustic reggae cover of Damian Marley’s “Welcome To Jamrock” – and this time it really is a cover. Really shouldn’t work but somehow does.
I’ve been looking forward to seeing this band since I first looked at the club’s website (which was admittedly only about a week ago). Doru Trascau (guitar/vox), Dorian Cazacu (drums), Florin Vasile (guitar/back-vox) and Alex Voicu (bass) have been around the local scene for a while in other bands but formed the Mono Jacks in 2010 and immediately topped the country’s Alternative chart; this is the launch gig for their debut album “Now In Stereo” and the place is absolutely rammed with the sort of buzz I’ve seen countless times back home around bands just on the cusp of a breakthrough. They describe themselves in terms of Interpol, Editors and White Lies – but I’d say they’re doing themselves a disservice with the latter two. Trascau even looks a bit like Interpol’s Paul Banks, only with better hair – and much better cheekbones – and within a couple of songs they have played something that sounds like it could have escaped from one of the New Yorkers’ earlier albums, the better ones, with that combination of solid bass, rattling drums, sweeping guitars and energetic tension. Although their surprise cover is Tom Petty’s “Free Falling” – a great tune, and not one any credibility-obsessed British indie band would touch with a ten-foot pole. And if their own songs wear their influences boldly – which they undoubtedly do: not just the Chameleons via Interpol axis but early U2, or from more recent times the dramatic drum-driven mini-anthems of The Twilight Sad – then it doesn’t matter. I’ve seen most of the British bands ploughing this particular furrow, and Mono Jacks have better songs than pretty much all of them. This is a band who could more than hold their own on a British festival stage or support tour, and with the right backing could be the first Romanian band to break out internationally. Well worth a listen or indeed catching live should you find yourself in Bucharest.
WizzAir flies twice daily from Luton Airport to Bucharest Baneasa.