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Bucharest, Romania

The drive to Bucharest was not easy going, getting stuck in the hordes of cars making their weekend getaways. Many towns we passed along the way contained roadside stalls, slowing traffic down even further. To make matters worse, roadworks held us up for about 20 minutes, followed by an accident for another 10 minutes. It was a relief when we finally arrived at the campsite.

 

After parking the van we walked to the nearest supermarket, which happened to be possibly the world's largest (or so it appeared). There were over 50 checkout lanes (they were numbered) and more food than we have ever seen in our lives. Each aisle was endless, and the enormity of the store left us gobsmacked. I don't know how much time we lost in there. They had a tempting cooked food section, where we stocked up on sausages, meatballs and potato nuggets, covering our dinner for the night. Even after we left we couldn't stop talking about how gigantic the place was.

The next morning we looked out the window and found the weather to be cold and overcast, with light rain coming down. It made sense to wear long pants and sneakers. Within an hour it was sunny, hot and humid. We sweated profusely for the rest of the day. 

Our guide book stated that Bucharest is not the prettiest of cities in Europe, so we didn't have high hopes. As Bucharest is a massive, spread out city, we started at the top and made our way down from there, hoping that at least part of it was worth seeing. We walked through a park containing swans floating on a lake, fountains, shrubs pruned into various shapes, and a Michael Jackson memorial - not what we expected in Romania. The park came out at the Arcul de Triomf, closely resembling the Paris version. So far, so good.

From the park we headed towards the centre of the city, a journey of about three kilometres, passing leafy parks and grand mansions. One of the streets we walked down was blocked off for a kilometre and set up with sports such as basketball, table tennis, badminton and fussball. It was hugely popular with the Romanian locals. At this point the city didn't look ugly at all - I'm not sure what the guide book had against Bucharest.

When we finally arrived at the centre we hit the unattractive part. Drab, grey concrete, crumbling buildings, and no attempt to dress it up. Although the majority of the city looked like this, there were more appealing sections with noteworthy sights to explore. One plaza contained a Roman amphitheatre that amazingly wasn't a ruin, but instead was beautifully decorated and was functioning as a performance venue. A garden in the centre of the plaza was packed with people and various sources of entertainment, including a band belting out American classics that the oldies were dancing to. The Romanians seemed to be outdoorsy sort of people.

We made our way to the Palace of the Parliament, and it really was like a palace. Supposedly it's the second largest administrative building in the world (after the Pentagon), and after trying to take in the sheer size of the place I would believe it. We didn't bother walking all the way around because it would have taken too long. Apparently it's still not finished either, 30 years after construction started. Honestly, Romania isn't the biggest country - how large does it need to be? The Palace is at the head of a street called Unirii, which was modelled on the Champs-Élysées, but it was deliberately made six metres longer just to stick it to the French. The one kilometre of it that we walked was bordered by trees and exhibited a stream of fountains through the middle. Unirii Street passed through Unirii Plaza, which had to have possessed at least 50 fountains, as well as a gargantuan amount of advertising (making sure that every photo I took also came with an ad in the background). 

After escaping the fountains we wandered through the Historic Quarter. Every road in this Quarter was made of dirt and it was anything but flat. There was construction around the area, and I wasn't sure if they had ripped up all the roads or if they were always unpaved. The whole Quarter seemed to consist of cafes and pubs - that's it. We didn't see anything else. Every road we turned down led to more cafes and more pubs. Not very "historic" really.

The traffic wasn't as bad leaving Bucharest, despite driving through the middle of the city. Initially Garmin told us it would take 11 hours to reach Veliko Tarnovo, in Bulgaria, which seemed ridiculous as it was only 200 km south. We changed the settings to allow tolls and the trip time dropped down to three hours. We knew which option we were taking. There ended up being one toll that cost us €12, and I was more than happy to pay this to save eight hours of driving. At the border Danny (with his British passport) was allowed to cross freely, but I had to be registered (along with the car), which involved me standing around for half an hour while other non-EU European passports were sorted first. I was one of the last to be processed before the next wave of people arrived at the crossing. What did Australia ever do to Romania?