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Graveyards are supposed to be creepy, right? Not in Romania. I’ve yet to to get to the Merry Cemetery in the north, but Bellu Cemetery in the southern part of Bucharest holds plenty of unique and captivating tombstones, crypts, crosses and other memorabilia to keep you occupied for hours.
I booked my Bellu Cemetery Darkside Tour with Interesting Times Bureau, a partner of Urban Adventures. I hear that you can’t take photos at the cemetery without prior approval (and there are guards all over the place), so I’d highly recommend going with Interesting Times.
Located just two stops south of the Universitate Station in the Old Town on the M2 metro line, Bellu Cemetery is open everyday from 10 am to 8 pm. Entry is free.
Bellu is the largest in Romania, measuring a whopping 54 acres. The denomination is mainly Eastern Orthodox, although some others have been buried there as well. The southern portion of the cemetery is Catholic, another is Protestant, and across the street is a Jewish cemetery. Nearly every notable Romanian has been interred here.
There are some really interesting facts about the cemetery. The land was donated to Bucharest by Baron Barbu Bellu in 1858, but it is not maintained by the city, nor the church. Rather, the citizens themselves tend their family’s graves, and sometimes their own.
Yes, even if you’re not dead yet, chances are that if you live in Bucharest, you have a plot ready for you, with your name already on the tombstone. It’s just waiting for someone to come along and chisel in the date of your passing. This does somewhat alleviate the guilt of photographing the dead, as many of the tombstones are technically for people not yet dead.
One of the more interesting stories is that of Iulia Hasdeu, a young poet who wrote her first book at the age of 6! By the time she was 11, she spoke English, French and German fluently, and had graduated from both gymnastics and music school! She continued to write and lecture until she was 18, when she contracted pneumonia and passed away. Her plot in the cemetery includes stone sculptures of books, and images of Victor Hugo, Shakespeare and Jesus. There’s also a hidden skull which you have to be a little nimble to be able to see.
Unfortunately I wasn’t so nimble. As I was leaning over the iron fence to get my shot, I slipped and my favorite Craghoppers shorts tore on the spike. Not only that, my underwear was caught on the spike through the hole in my shorts, and I was left hanging. Literally. Oh, the fun I have traveling!
Then there was the statue of Katalinei Boschott, whom I call “The Romanian Mary Poppins” for obvious reasons. Supposedly a doctor killed her either through malpractice or poison, and an unknown man commissioned a famous Italian sculptor to create a statue, which looks to the grave of the doctor on the other side of the cemetery. Behind her statue was a French inscription reading Cet animal de medecin m’a tuee (This physician animal killed me), but it has since been removed.
What baffled me was the diversity of tombs, statues, crypts and cairns. One guy built his tomb to look like a pyramid, and beside that was a fancy brick structure. In another part of the cemetery was what appeared to be a mound of boulders. Perhaps the guy was a mountaineer. And all around were stone structures, perhaps hundreds of years old and covered in moss. They would have fit better perhaps in Angkor Wat.
The “lanterns” around the graveyard also caught my attention. At first I thought someone had left their water bottle in the lamp post, but then it was pointed out that a cut-off water bottle of a local brand made the perfect windbreak and diffuser for a candle.
While 54 acres might seem huge, 159 years have filled up the graveyard to capacity. In stead of stacking up the graves in layers like Prague, they’ve just made the roads and paths smaller. So much so that many times I had to tread carefully between the plots. And there was always the watchful eye of the guards to ensure I stayed in line. Of course, if the guards aren’t around, quite a few cats roam the cemetery, although I’m not entirely sure if the cats are there to guard or just be photogenic.
There are plenty of attractions to see in Bucharest, but this one should be at the top of your bucket list. Make sure to book with Urban Adventures, and hopefully you’ll get the same guide I had. Anita was wonderful and provided lots of information you can’t even find online. Don’t forget a good pair of shoes. You might have to tread carefully too.
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