Our first visit to the huge Bucharest market at Obor would have been some time early in the summer of 1998. We were looking for one of those little metal devices you shoved into your television cable in order to get free HBO. In those days that’s the kind of place Obor was: a byword for chaos and dodgy deals. The old market hall where you bought your meat was accompanied by an open-sided building where costermongers sold fruit and vegetables, while the surrounding area was a kind of shanty-town where traders sold just about everything, and where you didn’t ask any questions about where the goods came from. It looked like this:
Not long after we first visited we moved to an apartment rather close to the market: we would come at least once a week, usually to eat mici. When we finally get round to completing our series of posts about the various parts of Bucharest in which we have lived, we will go into a bit of depth about the Obor area itself, which is not as dull as it looks at first glance.
This post, however, is dedicated to market alone: glorious Piata Obor. We realised the other day that we hadn’t been for a while – for far too long, in fact – and with half an eye on a possible feature for the next issue of Bucharest In Your Pocket we decided to pay the place a long overdue visit.
First off though, a little history.
Obor has been a market since at least the 18th century, when it was known as the Piata Targului de Afara, a place for traders from outside of Bucharest to do business; the name Obor came into use during the early part of the 19th century. During this period Obor was infamous as the location of Bucharest’s gallows: public executions would take place on market days to ensure a good crowd.
The practice was halted in 1823, but the gallows itself remained in place until 1870. In 1877, market traders raised a stone cross on the site of the gallows to commemorate those killed here. The cross, despite being declared a protected monument in 2004, was nevertheless moved in 2009 during the renovation of the market. It today stands in front of the Sector 2 Town Hall, a hundred metres or so to the right of the market itself. It has been re-dedicated as a monument to Romanian independence, and its original purpose played down. Indeed, when the Sector 2 council published a history of the Obor area in its mouthpiece rag Foisorul de Foc in 2012, no mention of the gallows was made.
Obor’s main market hall – an elegant, linear and modernist building known as Halele Obor – was built in the 1940s. Its architects, Horia Creanga and Haralamb Georgescu, also designed the Patria Cinema block on Bulevardul Magheru, as well as the art deco Aro Palace Hotel in Brasov.
Much as it has been since it opened, the interior of Halele Obor is today mainly given over to fresh produce, primarily meat. Prices are decent if not cheap, and judging from what we saw as we walked around, quality is high. We also found a few things we don’t usually see in our average butcher’s or supermarket (we saw lamb’s liver on sale yesterday, for example). There are also a number of stalls selling all sorts of crap from Lenin caps and fur hats to cheap children’s toys. There are also – mainly upstairs – a few wonderful reminders of the past, not least the shoemender’s shop, alongside an outfit we doubt will be troubling McDonald’s any time soon:
Indeed, when it comes to eating at Obor, the only food permitted are mici: you will find them at far left hand entrance/exit to the main market hall (just follow the smell). We have been eating the mici at Obor for years, and – still served on a bit of card with mustard and bread (which costs extra) – they remain amongst Bucharest’s best.
Yet mici and the old market hall aside, today’s Obor is a hugely different place to the shanty town we first visited in 1998. In 2009 the old open-sided fruit and vegetable market was abandoned and the impromptu stalls removed: replaced by a new, shiny, purpose-built mall.
The fruit and vegetable sellers are now inside this new building, on the ground floor, although a few who can’t afford the price of a pitch hang around outside selling celery, turnips, onions and the like. In a month or so – as Easter approaches – you can probably expect to see the odd live spring lamb for sale, although in theory live animals can no longer be sold at Obor.
That’s the theory, however, and given that this is Bucharest, a theory remains just that. On our visit yesterday we were offered two smartphones, saw a ton of clearly fake Lego on sale, counterfeit Violeta dolls (we bought two: our youngest is a huge fan) and gallons of moonshine. No, Obor is not as chaotic as it once was, but scrape the surface just a tiny bit and you can still find the old roguish place we grew to love.
So while we are happy to admit that Obor was almost certainly a lot more fun in the old days before it got a facelift, and before the new hala was built, it nevertheless remains one of those quintessential Bucharest experiences which really ought to be part of any visit to the city. If your idea of Romania is old women selling turnips on street corners, Obor is where to come.
To get to Piata Obor, take the metro to Obor.