It's easy to hate this city. The way it sits there, its contours blunted by light, petrified in the continental heat, deafened by the honking of car horns and, all in all, a little tattered. What first-time visitors to Bucharest see is a mess, a jumble of crazy architecture that looks like it's on steroids, inhospitable housing blocks hidden behind billboards that seem to scream their messages in the Esperanto of capitalism, and on the horizon, looming high-rises.
Throughout history, wise Romanians have been asking themselves why their capital had to be built here, of all places, amid the swamp and dust and bad air of a lowland plain, where the winters are grim and the summers merciless. Even the Danube, down in the south, gives the city a conspicuously wide berth. Bucharest wears its checkered history on its sleeve, flaunts its scars. It deserves a declaration of love.
The best way to get into the Bucharest mood is to take a walk. Other cities have been explored on foot to death. Berlin, London, Barcelona. For that reason alone, contrary to the locals' explicit recommendations, Bucharest merits the epithet "Europe's Flaneur Capital." You read it here first.
Perhaps the Romanian poet Tudor Arghezi was right. He once wrote that there must be some inexplicable spell that makes even strangers to Bucharest stay here. But first, the city has to cast that spell. Ideally before an SUV gets in the way. In Bucharest, it's worth not only keeping your heart and mind open, but your eyes too. Intrepid tourists momentarily overcome by a death wish can try to cross the six-lane (or is it 100 lanes?) Bulevardul Magheru without being run over by a neon yellow Ferrari or one of the beat-up taxis, with their strawberry-scented air fresheners and desultory meters, that come tearing around corners, pushy as can be. Unless, of course, all the cars are stuck bumper to bumper, putrefying in tailbacks because it takes even longer for the lights to change than it does for the country to get a new prime minister.
A few years ago, a private company came up with a plan to introduce a bike rental system to the city. Ever since, a collection of aesthetically dubious silver bikes has been rusting away on the square in front of the university, resembling a herd of stray rhinos. It's safer to just walk. And you'll also be less likely to miss something if you do.
On foot, you have more time to look around and ponder the word "parcul," which sounds nicer than park, and "Aeroportul," which sounds nicer than airport. In general, Romanian can leave you feeling like a spurned lover, admiring the object of your devotion from a distance, but never really getting close. The vowel combinations, the collection of diphthongs and triphthongs that look like magic spells designed to make the world more beautiful even when they're just describing some household implement or other, or mean "No Smoking." In Bucharest, there are place names that sound like the villains in fantasy novels -- Izvor, Dristor, Pantelimon.
Calea Victoriei, on the other hand, is a name that evokes some long-lost utopia. Which isn't altogether wrong. It's the city's oldest boulevard, a street with a turbulent past, lined with bronze busts of forgotten Romanian heroes, equestrian statues, the Memorial of Rebirth, which looks like a baked potato on a spit, Cantacuzino Palace, which houses the George Enescu Museum, the Romanian Athenaeum, abandoned former banks, the usual run of sad conference hotels and the anything-but-sad magnolia trees. Before you know it, you've drifted off into a reverie, imagining yourself in villas with windows that have become so dirty over the decades they're impossible to see through, with gardens left to grow wild because no one knows who owns what. Sometimes people climb behind the iron gates and sit around in the grass, drinking Carpathian water from the prettiest plastic bottles in the world, in the shadow of unclaimed property.
By the time you've reached Calea Victoriei, at the very latest, you'll have realized that Bucharest shares the sky with what's called "Old Europe," which is usually mentioned in the same tones that missing persons are talked about. A mythical place whose denizens wore spats, pocket watches and monocles, traveled in horse-drawn carriages and strolled on squares flanked by rose bushes, where eligible young men read poetry aloud to one another and fought duels by moonlight. The avenue used to be paved with oak planks, before the days of the politely impecunious aristocrat flaneurs that Romanian playwright, poet and journalist Ion Luca Caragiale wrote about. They would collect in Café Capșa, bang on the table, order mocca and pastries, and discuss the weather in their best French. Capșa still exists and the ghosts of the past supposedly still linger there -- although perhaps that's just an urban legend.