Art/Style/Travel Diaries

Bucharest on our days off

Our hotel is in the ‘old town,’ an enclave of shops, cafes,
restaurants on quaint cobblestone streets

The author captures a Bucharest that’s been frozen in time. (Photo by Bart Guingona)

(Early this April, the country got a good news—a rare occurrence these days—that Filipino actors Soliman Cruz, Bart Guingona and Noel Sto. Domingo have been cast in a movie, “To the North,” a psychological thriller co-production of producers from Romania, France, Bulgaria.

Coming  during the pandemic which has left the arts and culture as one of the worst devastated sectors in the country, the news became a welcome celebration, more so because it became yet another confirmation that the Filipino artists are among the best in the world. They have always been and continue to be the nation’s pride.

The three actors are now filming in Bucharest.

With the readers of, Guingona, the multi-awarded actor and director and the moving force behind a few leading theater companies in the Philippines, shares a bit of his sojourn in Bucharest.—Editor)

We spent a week in Bucharest rehearsing with the international cast (a Bulgarian, a couple of Asian-French and the Romanian lead), costume fitting, doing make-up tests.  Outside of that, it was mostly routine—breakfast, rehearsals, lunch, more rehearsals, cocktails and then studying for the next day’s scenes.

There were days I was excused from rehearsals early. On those afternoons as well as on our days-off, I would just walk the city, playing the casual tourist, taking in the sights.

One of the more prominent landmarks of Bucharest is the Ceaucescu project Palatul Parliamentulul (Parliament Palace), which is so massive I was told it’s visible from outer space. It houses the Romanian Senate and lower house but 70% of the building remains unoccupied. The Romanian autocrat began the project in 1984 but didn’t live to see it finished.

The ‘old town’ keeps its quaintness. (From the author’s video)

Our hotel is in the “old town,” an enclave of shops, cafes, restaurants (many of them closed due to COVID) on quaint cobblestone streets. The buildings, many of which are classical French with the steep rectangular sloping roofs and ornate decorative reliefs, are mostly old and mostly in some state of decrepitude. I was told that many of them, abandoned and rotting, are still undergoing ownership disputes because they were expropriated by the Ceausescu regime during the cold war.  Others were destroyed by the great earthquake of 1977 and have been left in disrepair. And I was also told that the “old town” was considered one of the toniest areas in Bucharest, never mind the proliferation of graffiti.

Down the street from our hotel is the oldest Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Bucharest, Biserica Sfântul Antonie Curtea Veche, and across the road from that is a restaurant housed in the oldest surviving inn (though just a restaurant now) Hanu Lui Manuk. One afternoon, our director cut short the rehearsals and told us there was a ceremony ongoing at the Cathedral. So we went to witness it. It was the beginning of the Greek Orthodox Lent, a fasting and abstinence period of 40 days.

On another afternoon, I went to Hanu Lui Manuc just to experience it. I ordered traditional pork rinds to go with my cocktails expecting chicharon but finding something akin to rubber bands. They tasted oddly like chicharon but chewy, a tougher version of the jellyfish you get as an appetizer in Chinese restaurants.

Outside of the “Old Town,” ‘70s Soviet-block style buildings become increasingly predominant, bare trees and the wintry gray all contributing to seeming drabness outside the “old town.” Oh, and did I mention parking is one of the biggest problems that the city faces? Apparently development during the Iron Curtain years never anticipated the subsequent boom in automobile ownership.

One afternoon, while walking around I discovered the place we all made into our second home—a two-story Carrefour Supermarket! It was heaven-sent for those of us needing stuff like super glue, or booze, or cigarettes, or even just rice! The turo-turo section of the supermarket was eye-popping, mouth-watering and  best of all, always had one rice dish or another on offer. One of our companions, wanting other than the “continental” hotel food, began making it a habit to buy enough rice here, have his hotel food brought up to his room, and do the Pinoy thing—down the ulam with spoons-full of rice.

Bart Guingona plays the casual tourist around the city during his downtime.

Across the cobblestone street from the hotel lobby was a bar called The Urbanist that played very cool contemporary electronica  and it was always filled with a young, hip crowd. Right after rehearsals, we’d find ourselves sitting out there under an umbrella, as close to the outdoor heater as possible, blankets (provided by the establishment) over our laps. We would have a shot or two of vodka (neat, which in the cold weather was really comforting), make friends with the bartenders, and being tipsy, sometimes strike up conversations with other patrons. Soliman Cruz and I would laughingly tease each other about being the only DOMs in the bar.

You can only imagine our horror when, just two days after ECQ in Manila was announced, Romania too announced a nationwide lockdown. All establishments would be closed at 8pm and people “discouraged from going out. On weekends establishments would only be allowed to stay open up to 6pm.  We ironically escaped the hard lockdown in Manila only to be subjected to a harsher one.  Protests broke out in the streets, largely peaceful, mostly far from where we were. Instead of burning effigies, they burned masks. Thanks to Carrefour, though, our liquor supply remained steady.

One day, our producer whisked us off to a clinic to get a general checkup for insurance purposes. I was relieved to know that I had nothing I didn’t already know about. Two days later, we were swabbed for COVID. These were all done in preparation for the trip to the coastal town of Constanța (pronounced Kon-stán-tsa) where shooting (on a ship) would commence.

Bart Guingona does the ‘old town’ during his free time. (Video from Bart Guingona)

About author


He’s one of the most sought-after actors in the country, whose affiliations covered leading culture institutions such as the Cultural Center of the Philippines, Repertory Philippines, Gantimpala Theater, The Necessary Theatre, Red Turnip Theater.

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