What can only be described as Eclipse Fever was gripping the nation when the first Bucharest In Your Pocket was published, at the end of May, 1999. Bucharest was, you see, being heralded as the best place in the world to view one of nature’s rarities: a total eclipse of the sun scheduled for August 11th of that year, an eclipse which would darken the sky for three minutes and make the stars visible at midday.
Bizarre as it may seem now but many people in Romania were counting on the eclipse kick-starting the country’s tourist industry. Official projections of visitor numbers went into the zillions, with Interior Minister Dudu Ionescu telling Reuters in April 1999 that he expected crowds to ‘overwhelm the capital.’ He needn’t have worried. For as it turned out almost nobody came, and the eclipse passed overhead without event. Indeed, a fair bit of cloud cover meant that many people in the capital - the majority of whom had assembled on rooftops and balconies wearing ridiculous sunglasses emblazoned with Coca-Cola logos – saw very little.
As the first genuinely objective Bucharest city guide, the welcome we received was muted, to say the least. Many locals didn’t quite get what we were about. Nationalists, such as the late Vadim Tudor of the fascist Greater Romania Party called the first issue of our guide ‘a swinery against Romania.’ The problem was that back then - as now - we told it as it is. We were not blind to Romanian realities. We printed the national average wage (1,172,000 lei, then US$82), and noted how pensioners were expected to ‘scratch out a living on US$35.’
We also – a publishing first in Romania, we believe – stated the price charged by the high-class hookers that frequented the city’s top hotels (US$200), as well as that charged by the less classy ladies at the bottom end of Calea Victoriei (US$50). It was that piece of information above all others which won us our first friends, not least amongst the diplomatic community.
Bucharest has changed immeasurably since 1999 and despite what the naysayers will have you believe it has primarily changed for the better. Back then there was little choice of anything: few restaurants, few bars, few clubs, few supermarkets and few shops in general. Bucharest’s first shopping mall didn’t open until we were on issue three. Homosexual activity was punishable with a prison sentence. Today there is an annual Pride parade through the city centre. To compare today’s increasingly hedonistic 24-hour city, packed with bars, pubs, restaurants, clubs, casinos, malls, massage parlours and just about anything you could want with the rather bleak Bucharest of 1999 is to compare two almost entirely different places.
Bucharest remains far from perfect of course. Endemic corruption - only now being stamped out by the courageous Laura Codruta-Kovesi, head of Romania’s anti-corruption unit, the DNA - has stifled the city’s development and incomplete infrastructure projects litter the urban landscape. Public transport is in a shocking state. The tragedy at Colectiv in October last year, when more than 60 young people died in a fire at a rock concert, was the culmination of years of negligence on the part of the local authorities. An election to replace the disgraced former mayor Sorin Oprescu (currently awaiting trial for graft) will be held in June, but with Gabriela Firea-Pandele of the eternally corrupt PSD the likely winner (its party machine is powerful) real change appears unlikely. BIYP by the way backs Nicusor Dan, leader of the Union to Save Bucharest, an organisation committed to clean, transparent, best-practice administration.
In the seventeen years we have been publishing our reviews - not all of which are of course complimentary - we have had far too many threats of legal action to remember. Only twice, however, have we actually been brought before a court on libel charges. And we are happy to report that on both occasions we won. The first case, in 2002, was brought against us by the Becker Brau Brewery on Calea Rahova, after we dared to criticize the service. The second case, in 2004, was brought by the Marele Zid Chinese restaurant in Brasov, after we told the readers of a special Brasov supplement to ‘run, run away’ before they were tempted to go inside and eat. In both cases the two judges dismissed claims of libel, invoking our right to criticise. Both places are now defunct, by the way.
Over the years though, no subject has been more controversial than the shaggy dog story that is (or was) Bucharest’s stray dog situation. We have gained a certain reputation for being outspoken on the subject, going all the way back to issue one, when we wrote: ‘In this town, you can’t swing a cat without hitting a stray dog.’
What had happened was that one of the writers of issue one, Leeore Schnairsohn, had been bitten by a stray dog in the city centre and was subjected to some nasty rabies shots, turning opinion in the office against the mutts, and the misguided fools who fed them. Lazy television journalists picked up the topic and broadcast nonsense, with Pro TV being the only station that bothered to come and interview us on the subject, running the full story on the evening news. Our comments in subsequent issues (including one which suggested ‘all strays should be exterminated and perhaps served as a national dish’) got us angry letters from a French animal rights association. One advertiser pulled an ad in objection to our stance. It is a sign of how far Bucharest has come that stray dogs no longer present a problem. These days you will likely not see any.
Of all the changes we have witnessed over the past 100 issues however, perhaps that which demonstrates most of all just how far the city has come is the smoking ban which came into force in March. Until not so long ago such a ban would have been unthinkable: Bucharest had become known as Europe’s Smoking Section, one of few places where innocent people who simply wanted to go out for a drink or a meal were still forced to breathe in the cancerous fumes of inconsiderate smokers. Now, everyone can enjoy Bucharest without risking their health. Progress is a wonderful thing.
Finally, a genuine word of thanks to the two groups of people who make the guide possible: our readers and our advertisers. Without the support of both groups we simply wouldn’t be here.
Now wouldn’t Bucharest be the poorer for our absence?