Travel: 48 hours in Bucharest

For an early summer blast of Gypsy music, exotic food and a bizarre mix of Byzantine and brutalist architecture, Robert Nurden recommends Romania's lively capital

Why go now?

High summer in these parts gets unbearably stuffy; winters are wet and freezing; but now is pleasantly warm. And, if you get there before 22 June, you'll avoid the locals' taunts after they've thrashed Hoddle's hod-carriers: Romania's team of wizards are in England's World Cup qualifying group.

Beam down

Romania's national airline Tarom (0171-224 3693) flies from Heathrow to Bucharest daily, taking three hours. For its lowest fares, the airline refers callers to Tradewings (0171-637 0555), which is quoting pounds 237 return in June. British Airways (0345 222111) flies daily from Gatwick for a fare of pounds 287.

A visa on entry costs $23, demanded in cash.

Get your bearings

Otopeni airport is 10 miles north of Bucharest. An express bus (No 783) runs every 15 minutes to the centre and costs 7,000 lei (about 50p). Or take a taxi and make sure the meter is working; it will cost pounds 5-pounds 10. In town there's a great metro system (3,000 lei/20p for any return journey); buses and trams are good, too.

Check in

The flashy Athene Palace (00 401 315 1212) with its history of no-holds- barred spying by guests and staff alike has just opened after refurbishment: a double room costs pounds 220. For character and old-world charm, it's hard to beat the Hanul lui Manuc (00 401 613 1415), set around a leafy courtyard. Doubles here cost about pounds 35. Even smaller and quieter is the Casa Victor (00 401 222 9436) - about pounds 50 for bed and breakfast.

Take a hike

Go straight for the bizarre Bucharest. To capture the city's weirdness visit an Eighties architectural folly - the Centru Civic. Take the metro to Piata Unirii 2 and walk past the dehydrated fountains towards the Palace of Parliament, the third largest building in the world and the monstrous, 1,100-room creation of Ceausescu in his maddest, final years. You can go in at certain times and see the marble and gold leaf and the 4,500 chandeliers (11,000 were planned). Go to the left-hand corner of the palace to sense its monstrous immensity - and gape. Wander back past Piata Unirii 2 to see the rest of the complex and its forest of rusting cranes lowering above unfinished cultural centres and socialist libraries. I never knew architecture could make your flesh creep.

Lunch on the run

After all that you'll need a beer, so hurry to the neo-Gothic coolness of the sepulchral Carul cu Bere on nearby Str Stavropoleos. A big bowl of hearty ciorba perisoare (meatball soup), with bread, will set you back pounds 1.

Cultural afternoon

Head for the superb Village Museum in Herastrau Park where more than 300 old houses from every part of Romania have been reconstructed beside a peaceful lake. Ancient thatched homes with cabbage patches on the roofs mingle with stately, wooden-spired churches, peasants' underground dwellings, carved wooden doorways.

Walk back to the centre. On the way, in Souseaua Kiseleff, drop into Europe's museum of the year 1995, the Museum of the Romanian Peasant, for a minimalist view of the simple rural life.

Window shopping

Bucharest can no longer claim to be the "Paris of the East" as it was in the Thirties with its stores selling silk, carpets and furs, but a faded elegance can still be seen, particularly in the shops along Calea Victoriei. It's the best street for stylish patisseries and here you'll also find a bewildering array of folk art antiques from all around the country. The nearby Piata Amzei and Piata Sf Voievozi boast good markets. And the Romanian Peasant Museum sells folk art, cloths and, best value of all, glittering painted eggs.

An aperitif

Your pre-dinner tipple may have to be taken in raucous surroundings - there are few quiet venues. At Sarpeletu Rosu, Str Eminescu, you can sample Gypsy music while you down a bracing beer.

Demure dinner

The Capa Capsa, on Calea Victoriei, is a spacious, understated restaurant dating from 1852, with white walls and polite, cheery waiters. Its musty sophistication contrasts with the perky fare - rich venison and wild boar, chunky fish dishes and unashamed lashings of veg, with wines from all over Europe. Sweets come with heaps of cream and calories, but the bill will make you smile.

For a grandiose Baroque interior, try the Cercul Militar, almost opposite, whose portions seem big enough to feed an army. Here, typical Romanian food - pork and chicken stews - is staple fare.

Sunday morning: go to church

Religious belief - Orthodox and Catholic - flourishes in modern Romania, perhaps a kind of pent-up spirituality after years of oppression. During church services hundreds are packed in, standing and/or sitting, while often outside there are disabled people and Gypsies in bright clothes begging for alms. At Byzantine churches such as Enei, Doamnei and Stavropoleos there are original 16th-century frescoes on display.

Sunday lunch

Romanian food, including sarmale (cabbage leaves stuffed with rice, meat and herbs with sour cream) and mamaliga (polenta with cream) is on offer, along with pork, chicken and fish dishes, at Bistro Atheneu, just off Piata Revolutiei. If you time it right, you'll munch to the strains of a Mozart piano sonata played live.

A walk in the park

Luckily Bucharest's concrete jungle is softened by a multitude of parks and avenues of plane trees. To the north (take the metro to Aviatorilor) lies Herastrau Park, which, apart from being a great place to relax, houses the Village Museum. Alternatively, head for the shady Cismigiu Gardens, west of the city centre. This area is delightful - a place for assignations, feeding the ducks, soft drinks, and games of chess for old men.

Outward bound

Take a bus or train to the pretty village of Snagov to see "Dracula's" grave in, believe it or not, a monastery chapel set on an island in the middle of a lake. Vlad the Impaler, on whom Bram Stoker partly based his novel, was murdered in the surrounding woods and the monks, to whom he'd donated vast sums of money, took his body in and buried it. On the way you'll see striking evidence of Ceausescu's systematisation programme: apartment blocks built for hundreds of thousands of Romanians after he'd demolished their villages.

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