Imagine a city covered in snow.
It sits on ladders and lamp posts, railings and rooftops, car windscreens and tree branches: inches thick, untouched and pure white.
The snow quietens the streets. Vehicles are notably absent, leaving vast stretches of open tarmac. People walk more slowly to avoid slipping on the ice; their bodies get closer together, and they hold onto each other’s elbows for better balance.
Bucharest in winter can be a snow lover’s dream. How do I know? Because midway through December 2014, I spontaneously booked a trip to Romania’s capital city for New Year’s Eve.
I’ve had enough less-than-wonderful New Year celebrations in the past to know that spending the week in a new country was a good idea – and because I’d been to Romania earlier that summer with a group of bloggers and social media obsessives, I already had a few friends living in Bucharest.
What I hadn’t really considered was how much of a factor the snow was going to be.
A typical Romanian winter?
Bucharest is a relatively temperate city for much of the year, and it doesn’t always get that much December snow. But on the night I arrived to my hostel the flurries were falling thick and fast, and my taxi driver had to circle the block to find a place to park.
The next day, venturing onto the streets of Bucharest was an exercise in snow safety.
I slipped and slid on the shimmering pavements, a constant stream of cloudy breath emanating from my mouth, and wished fervently that I’d brought a woolen hat instead of an Icelandic headband (which may feature cartoon puffins but still only kept my ears warm).
I often felt a bit like this guy.
But as the days went on and I perfected my thermal-clothes-layering system, I realised that exploring the frozen world of winter Bucharest was actually something rather special.
Walking in a Romanian winter wonderland
Under bright blue skies, we wandered through quiet, wide streets and past huge Modernist buildings. Amongst the ornate lamp posts and snow laden trees were government buildings, palaces and monasteries scattered all over the city, as well as fantastically intricate houses – all gated and padlocked shut.
It felt wonderfully bizarre, like a resolutely proud ghost city.
Eventually we reached Cişmigiu Park, where barely any of the snow had been touched except by a handful of walking, stumbling feet.
The golden sunlight fell past creamy yellow buildings and settled on the snow, the tree trunks, the weighed down branches – but the snow was bluish in the parts already touched by the shade.
What happens in Romania on New Year’s Eve?
On December 31st, various guests of our small hostel gathered together in the communal kitchen, amidst beer bottles and various Romanian spirits. We’d already discussed what might be expected of the night: nobody was planning to go crazy but we all agreed on experiencing whatever local celebrations Bucharest had to offer.
Of course, the city had its own plans for us.
Our transition into 2015 involved racing through the metro system in way too many layers for the suffocating heat; emerging into Bulevardul Unirii, the central street in Bucharest, at eight minutes to midnight; and being surrounded by crowds of locals lighting lanterns and setting off fireworks they’d placed directly on the pavement.
Our sudden group of new friends hugged and danced together to stave off the chill – because at the final midnight of 2014, Bucharest hit a record low of -21’C. I could feel the hairs freeze inside my nose.
In front of a live performance from Smily, Romania’s top singer, we stomped our hiking boots, waved our gloved hands in the air and took turns swigging from a bottle of fake champagne, the dregs of which had turned to slush ice at the bottom.
Until eventually the bottle ended up in the snow like all the others…
Back into the frozen streets
Once the New Year celebrations were over, Romanians relaxed back into their quiet, icy world. The first days of January coincided with a long weekend, and coupled with the weather, they had no reason to be outside.
So I walked around alone. The only figures I came across were statues, half hidden in the grounds of museums under tree branches laden with snow.
It was a good time to reflect and think, sliding my boots through the slush that blanketed every surface.
And just when I got a bit too chilly, my Romanian friend Alex introduced me to the cult of the Romanian tea house.
The Bucharest ‘Coffee Shop & Tea House’ tour
I whiled away an afternoon in the Camera din față teahouse surrounded by over 150 different blends of tea, all stacked precariously on wooden shelves up to the ceiling and the topmost ones only accessible by ladder.
Sat at a table that used to be a sewing machine, I sipped on a rooibos tea with vanilla, cardamom and a hint of spice – and I’d already downed a first pot of black jasmine tea served in a satisfyingly solid china mug.
Total tea heaven.
My final few days were spent predominantly in a cafe near to my hostel called M60. Beautifully designed by a Romanian and a Finn, there were copies of the New Yorker scattered on long tables and a number of women with new born babies.
I asked a young woman if a space on the sofa was free and ended up in intense conversation with Irina, an aspiring scriptwriter who pointed out that this new little cafe is remarkable because it’s one of the few non-smoking places in the city that’s actually cool and comfortable to spend time in.
We talked about how much Romania has changed, and how it’s happening ever more quickly. She wants to write scripts about the shift in people’s mentalities across the years. We also talked about writing, and being sparse with your words. She said that writing is a way of letting the world slip past you – but for me, it’s also a form of meditation.
Learning to relax in a snow-covered city
For a week, I was in a country where I didn’t have much else to do than relax. Walking slowly from tea house to cafe to coffee shop to restaurant, I had more than enough time to settle into Bucharest’s city vibe, and it was unexpectedly wonderful.
In amongst the days of snow and slush there were hours of reading and scribbling notes; a few too many cookies and slices of cake; a constant stream of fascinating people to observe, from the dog who wouldn’t listen to his owner to the young girls with younger lambs cradled awkwardly in their arms.
I relished the ability to travel truly alone again, but appreciated the people around me when they appeared, striking up conversations with Romanians and fellow Englishmen alike. After making some huge changes to how I lived that year, I had the chance to finally start thawing out.
As the snow began to melt, so did I.
I left Bucharest just as it was coming back to life, but I’m grateful that I caught it only in its frozen state. For a week, the city paused itself: long enough that I felt sequestered; quiet and reflective.
Ready for the new year, whatever that held.