Over the course of my many travels, and before touching down in Bucharest, there had only been two places that set really over-powering first impressions as I landed. The first was Ulaan Baatar in Mongolia. I flew there from Shermetyevo in Moscow and, in so doing, passed over the frozen and unspoiled wilderness of Siberia. It was miles and miles of pure white snow. This was only broken by the huge smoggy cloud that hung over the Mongolian capital. It gave the impression that I was witnessing man's best attempts at sullying nature. The areas surrounding the airport were similarly tainted and dirty as they took in the majority of Mongolia's industry. The second place was Muscat, the capital of Oman into which I flew from Dubai along the coastline on the Gulf of Oman. All I saw from the window of the plane was golden sands and unbelievably blue seas. It genuinely looked like paradise and I can remember feeling a great sense of elation and curiosity as the plane banked towards Sultan Qaboos airport.
Both Oman and Mongolia created extremely strong first impressions that still linger in my mind today many years after my first contact with either country. However, both of them actually proved to be slightly misleading as neither was Oman a paradise nor Mongolia a smog covered mess. Oman proved to be rather dusty once you moved away from the coast and the areas outside Ulaan Baatar were absolutely stunning. A country that created a similarly negative first impression was Romania. However, just like Mongolia and Oman, it managed to redeem itself somewhat.
From the air, things in Bucharest didn't actually look too bad. The approach to the city was very rural, but it all looked rather pleasant. However, as we neared the runway, it began to look rather unwelcoming. The first aspect of this was the array of military aircraft parked close to the landing area as though ready for instant deployment against unruly tourists. This was not all that welcoming, but not particularly off-putting. However, as we then taxied around the runway for 15 minutes taking a tour of broken down Communist-era aircraft and decrepit Communist era hangars, I was beginning to think Bucharest was not my dream destination. Even thought it was 2012, it felt like 1987. The whole scenario conjured imagery in my brain from the excellent novel, 'The Last Days' by Patrick McGuinness that is set in Romania in 1988 and 1989 and paints a bleak picture of the airport as a pace to which people only go in order to escape the country.
The terminal building managed to undo some of the damage done by the outside areas of the airport as it was shiny and new and - in the design at least - owned nothing to Communist planners. However, some of the sights inside were not what you would expect in a modern European capital. The first thing was the immigration officers who were frighteningly rude and obtrusive (they seemed genuinely loathed to let anyone into the country). The second was some of the advertising on show. Instead of ads for major banks or culture in the city as you tend to find in most airports, the only advertisements on show were for a casino. All of them featured scantily clad models apparently winning big and gazing out invitingly.
As I stepped out into Romania proper, I was not feeling good about the place. And, unlike in both Oman and Mongolia, I did not have the chance to get to know it in intimate detail. However, as we drove into the centre, it quickly became clear that the city was badly misrepresented by its airport. The roads seemed to all be tree-lined boulevards with lush grass on either side. There were also scores of wonderful villas that are now used as foreign embassies. This whole area seemed far closer to images of Paris or Rome rather than an ex Eastern-Bloc capital. Then, the centre of the city loomed upon us as we began to see huge fountains, vastly wide boulevards and magisterial buildings. At this point I would argue that it would be wrong to paint Bucharest as akin to Paris or Rome, but there were certainly impressive elements to the city. However, to counter this, there was a plentiful supply of old apartment blocks that looked rather run-down. However, in general, the state of the city was far better than its horrific airport suggested it might be.