Noah Bendix-Balgley: A Day Off in Bucharest

The orchestra arrived yesterday in Bucharest, Romania. Many of the stops on this European tour are familiar ones to the Pittsburgh Symphony. We are lucky enough to play regularly in Paris, Berlin, Vienna and Frankfurt. This is only my second European tour with the symphony, but I can see already that many musicians are familiar with these cities. When we arrive, they already have favorite restaurants, sights or museums to revisit. Returning to old favorites is good, but it is also wonderful to be in an unfamiliar city.

This is the first time that the Pittsburgh Symphony has visited Bucharest. We will play tomorrow at the George Enescu Festival. In Romania, the Enescu Festival is extremely prestigious and well known. On the way into the city, there are billboards and banners everywhere advertising it. The festival lasts the entire month of September, and brings many of the best European orchestras and soloists to Bucharest. The festival is named after the great Romanian composer and violinist George Enescu, who is something of a national hero here. In fact, he appears, with a small quote of his music, on the front of the 5 Lei note.

We were lucky that today we had a day off to explore Bucharest on Sept. 2 before we get back to playing. Walking around downtown Bucharest today, one would think that the Pittsburgh Symphony invaded town. Rarely more than 30 minutes passed before the group I was with encountered another group from the symphony at a landmark, restaurant or just walking down the street.

A group of eight of us set off this morning to take a guided bike tour of the city. It was a fascinating and enjoyable trip, and a great way to explore the city. We started north of the center at the Place Charles de Gaulle. There is a strong French influence here, which can be seen in street names, architecture and monuments, such as the Arc de Triumf of Bucharest, which could be mistaken for the one in Paris. This northern area is the wealthier part of the city, with large stately buildings from the 19th century that were preserved even when the Communists came to power. Now many of these buildings house embassies.

Bucharest is a city of contrasts. While there are opulent villas in this northern section, and luxury cars driving the streets, there are also crumbling apartment buildings, beggars on the streets and stray dogs wandering about (although considerable fewer than there used to be). I find when visiting a new city that the architecture tells amazing stories. In Bucharest there are stately pre-World War I buildings, huge Communist-era administrative buildings and apartments, sleek modern hotels and office buildings, and beautiful tiny Romanian churches that are nestled throughout the city between all of the other styles. It is a fascinating mixture. The most striking of the Communist-era buildings is the gargantuan palace that Nicolae Ceausescu had built from 1984 to 1989. Now the Palace of the Parliament, it is the largest administrative building in Europe, the heaviest building in the world, and has 3.7 million square feet of floor space. It is actually quite horrifying to look at, especially when you consider what the human cost to build it was.

In contrast, there is the beautiful old city. It is only open to pedestrians, and it is full of restaurants and bars. Even on a Monday evening, the energy on the streets was palpable, and throngs of fashionable young people were out and about. Since it is still comfortably warm here, most restaurants and bars have outdoor terraces and open windows. They all play their own music loudly, making for an interesting, cacophonous sonic mixture as one walks by.

For dinner, I went with friends to the Caru cu Bere, which is a Bucharest institution and one of the oldest beer halls in the city. There I enjoyed a traditional Romanian meal consisting of a huge pork shank, sauerkraut, horseradish and mamaliguta (polenta), while a band played traditional Romanian folk music right by our table. This music is infectious, and it was a perfect end to a day of exploration.

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