Long obsessed with the Western Balkans, NEWSWEEK's Ginanne Brownell has trudged through former war zones and explored the Adriatic's breathtaking coasts. But with Bulgaria and Romania (in the Eastern Balkans) now members of the European Union, she felt it was time to expand her Balkan repertoire. She headed to Romania for the weekend to discover the villages, countryside and the capital, Bucharest, of this intriguing nation.
Sleeping: Bucharest's hotel scene got a lot more posh this summer with the opening of the sumptuous Carol Parc Hotel (www.carolparchotel.ro), a five-star boutique residence within walking distance of downtown. Walking into the hotel, which is at the end of a quiet cul de sac, feels like entering a palace. And the hotel--which takes its name from a nearby park--was a former palace of a German architect friend of King Carol I of Romania. During Romania's communist days the building was the center for the secret police. After 6 million euros' worth of renovations, the hotel has reaffirmed its palatial roots with gorgeous marble floors and a stunning Murano chandelier resplendent with more than 2,000 crystals--one of the largest of its kind ever made.
Eating: Bucharest has some fantastic eateries, and Balthazar (www.balthazar.ro), close to the strip of spectacular gothic embassies, is one of the best. When I walked in I was struck by the cool minimalist design: there were several small potted tress throughout the restaurant with branches decorated with handwritten notes and marvelous little baubles. Though the music was a tad loud, the food was fantastic. The Thai-French fusion included marinated eel with coconut and pepper garnish and other interesting starters. For my main course I had sushi--a mix of sashimi, nigiri and maki rolls--that was some of the best I've ever had. The udon noodles with tofu also looked good, and their steaks and seafood are said to be divine. For lunch, head to Bistro Vilacrosse, right off of Bucharest's main drag, Calea Victorei. The chicken livers with peasant potatoes are delish!
Visiting: No trip to Bucharest is complete without a tour of the Palace of Parliament (known still as the Palace of the People). After the Pentagon, it's the world's largest building; it takes 20 minutes to walk from one side to the other. It was dictator Nicolae Ceausecu's whim to build a grand palace in 1984 (while the population was starving), and one-sixth of Bucharest was bulldozed--including historic churches and grand palaces--for this monstrosity. Though there is no estimate on the cost, several books quote a figure of about 3.3 billion euros. Today the building houses the country's parliament, and you can take a 45-minute tour of several rooms. Walk around to the other side of the palace and visit the National Museum of Contemporary Art. Be forewarned there aren't any guidebooks in English, but the building is good for a wander and the art ain't bad either.
Driving: Transylvania has stunning forested landscapes and stupendous castles, such as Peles, Rasnov Fortress and Bran (closely, but wrongly, associated with Dracula). If you have time and really want to explore the land of Dracula, head to Sighisoara. This charming medieval town is the birthplace of Vlad Tepes, who was the inspiration for Bram Stoker's famous blood-sucking character. Britain's Prince Charles has been involved in the Mihai Eminescu Trust, which works on conservation and regeneration of Saxon villages and communes nearby. The city has a citadel and an announcer who wears traditional dress while he welcomes tourists to the city.