That’s right, it’s Tram Week at Bucharest Life.
If you want to see the real Bucharest, sod the tourist bus and get yourself on the No. 1 tram. (Our regular reader, Mrs Trellis of North Wales, may well remember that we have done something similarly daft in the past: our trip on the No. 32 tram).
Boarding at Piata Vitan, we sat on board for an hour and a half as it trundled its way – at about 20kph – around the city. Though we had initially intended to make copius amounts of notes about the many sights we saw along the way, the truth is there were surprisingly few.
Not that that should put anyone with 90 minutes to spare off doing the trip: as a sociological exercise and as a way of seeing the real people of Bucharest living real lives, it is well worth doing. Public transport is a great leveller the world over.
The first landmark – if it can be called that – is the Bucuresti Mall, noteworthy as it was the first shopping centre to open in Bucharest, in the summer of 1999. We remember the opening day (we were working for a local newspaper and had been invited), the highlight of which was interviewing a pensioner who asked ‘How much does it cost to get in?’
Anyway, the No. 1 tram fills up quickly as it shuffles along Mihai Bravu, and by the time it reaches Piata Obor is full to bursting point.
Obor – perhaps the most famous of Bucharest’s markets – is not altogether as rough and ready as it was until quite recently, but remains a place that oozes with life. Packed with chancers, thieves and speculators, half the city appears to buy its produce here at the weekend, and judging by the smell in the tram after they all pile on, there is usually a good offer on onions.
Heading west along Bulevardul Iancu de Hunedoara, the next landmark of any note is probably the police headquarters, home to perhaps Bucharest’s finest crenellations (look out for them on the top of the building). Next door is Dinamo Stadium, still owned by the Ministry of the Interior, and still home to Dinamo Bucharest, one of the city’s big three football teams.
The stadium is crap, its entrance a real mess despite the presence of one of the most bizarre statues you will ever find at a football ground. The statue is of four-time Olympic gold medal-winning canoeist, Ivan Patzaichin, made to look like some kind of proto-neanderthal man, complete with undercrackers on display.
From here the tram heads for Piata Victoriei, diving underneath the square at the Victoria Depot, from where the annual parade of vintage trams departs from each September. Except that this year they did not hold it. The tram then heads through the Pasajul Victoriei.
Surfacing on the other side of the square, on Bulevardul Titulescu, the tram passes the legendary Dubliner – the first real pub to open in Bucharest – before heading for the city’s new pride and joy, which it is keen to show off at every opportunity: The Basarab Bridge (Podul Basarab).
Impressive from afar (especially when passing under it on a train, at night) Podul Basarab is even more impressive close up. Shiny and new it is a wonder of the modern age. Whether or not it will help the flow of traffic we have no idea. Perhaps somebody who actually lives in the area could tell us.
We should add that the bridge is almost certainly the holder of at least one world record, probably the much sought after ‘Tallest bridge called Basarab within one kilometre of a railway station‘ record, or something like that.
Once over the bridge it all gets a little industrial for a while, although it is worth noting that from here on in Casa Poporului is an almost permanent presence in the distance.
Soon there is also yet another mall to admire, the AFI Palace – worthy of mention for being the home of Bucharest’s only IMAX cinema – where the tram turns left and heads back towards the city centre.
The big junction a short way from here is Piata Danny Huwe, named for a Belgian journalist and photographer killed druing the Romanian Revolution.
Abandoned train tracks on Strada Progresul – along which the tram travels for a good couple of kilometres – betray the fact that the street used to be at the centre of one of the busiest industrial estates in the city. Now, alas, there’s little industry left. There is – you’ve guessed it – another shopping mall, however, the Liberty Centre, the saving grace of which is its year-round (if small) skating rink.
After a couple of sharp turns you will arrive at Eroii Revolutiei, home to the wonderful Bellu Cemetery, an essential sight for any visitor to Bucharest.
A little further on there is another former industrial site of note at Timpuri Noi. The huge space on your right, once the home of the Timpuri Noi engine factory (founded in 1874 and which once employed thousands people) has been cleared ahead of construction of (we hear) an IKEA warehouse. Opposite used be to another huge factory, Crin, which made textiles. It was demolished a couple of years ago.
You can see a couple of photos of Timpuri Noi in its heyday here.
The last point of interest before the tram arrives back at where it started is the huge empty space opposite the DoubleTree by Hilton hotel, to your left if you are still on the tram, between Bulevarduls Marasesti and Unirii. On this site was meant to be built a new National Opera House (according to one source) or a new Casa Pionierilor (Young Pioneer Palace) according to another. Some foundations are visible, but work stopped abruptly in 1989.