Travel to Bucharest, Romania

An ornate section of the George Enescu Museum, which highlights the life and work of the Romanian composer and musician. It is housed in a palace that became state property in 1955. (Laurie Hertzel/Minneapolis Star Tribune/MCT / January 19, 2012)

BUCHAREST, Romania — On Sunday morning in Bucharest, I knew just what I wanted to do: I wanted to go to church. I also wanted to go down to the Old City, visit a few museums and buy a warm pretzel from a sidewalk stand. But mostly I wanted to go to church.

Bucharest is studded with nearly 300 exquisite churches, some dating to the 1500s. During Communist times, Nicolae Ceausescu tore some of them down, and he hid others inside mammoth apartment blocks, but Romania has always been a religious country and even he knew he couldn't obliterate them.

My plan was to find St. Nicholas, a Russian Orthodox church with seven onion domes, which I had happened upon a few nights before in the rain. I had peered inside and watched a dark-clad figure light candles and was captivated by the gold and icons and extravagant, over-the-top beauty.

The last time I was inside an Orthodox church was in Russia, 20 years before. Old women in headscarves knelt, crossing themselves and kissing every icon within reach. The doors of the iconostasis swung open and the priest sailed out, gorgeous in tall hat and robes, swinging his incense shaker and followed by a cloud of sweet smoke and chanting boys.

I wanted to see all this again. So on Sunday, my last morning in Bucharest, I packed up my camera, 50 lei (about $17), and my map, and set out.

Almost immediately, I heard singing.

When a friend asked if I wanted to go to Bucharest, my reply was flippant. "Sure. Will I have to learn Hungarian?"

"That would be odd," came her dry response, "since they speak Romanian."

Bucharest, Budapest — I knew nothing about either. Exploring Bucharest, though, turned out to be a fascinating trek through a city of contrasts — ancient churches next to crumbling Communist-era flats; deserted storefronts with broken windows next to vibrant cafes; sophisticated hipsters texting on iPhones and sharing the sidewalk with packs of feral dogs.

In the past few weeks, University Square in Bucharest's city center has been disrupted by demonstrations against the president and the government. But on this Sunday in November, all was peaceful.

Now a member of the E.U., Romania is on the Black Sea, tucked between Hungary and Ukraine. It spent 34 years as a reluctant member of the Warsaw Pact, but it has always looked to the West — especially to France — rather than the East. Its language is similar to French and Italian.

Bucharest's many parks, wide boulevards and broad sidewalks are reminiscent of Paris. Its architecture is a glorious jumble of Baroque, Byzantine, neo-classical, Art Deco, traditional Romanian and Communist hideous.

Officially, the population is 2 million, but the actual number is probably closer to 4 million because of unregistered residents who have moved here for jobs and school.

At one time, Bucharest was known as "Little Paris," and as I walked the streets of the city center I could see the French influence in ornate buildings adorned with scrolls, cupids and marble pillars.

At the end of Kiseleff Boulevard stood a little Arc de Triomphe — quite like the one in Paris, but only about half its size.

The singing led me to St. Basil the Great Church, a tidy white building with gold trim and a bell-shaped gate. A carved wooden troitsa (traditional Romanian cross) stood in the front garden, across from a small, roofed structure glowing with burning candles — one end marked for the living, the other for the dead.

I pulled my scarf over my hair and climbed the church steps. Inside, it was much as I remembered from 20 years ago — every inch of wall space devoted to icons, some painted, some pounded out of silver or gold. The vaulted ceiling was covered in murals, and overhead a blazing chandelier dripped with crystal beads, icons and golden-winged birds.

The nave was packed, and I stood shoulder to shoulder with worshipers, listening to the priest sing the liturgy. A woman knelt and closed her eyes. I was suddenly seized with the uncomfortable voyeurism of a tourist and tiptoed back out the door.

But as I walked down Calea Victoriei (Victory Street), I heard singing again and again; there were five old churches along this stretch, and at each one, the haunting sound and beautiful architecture pulled me in.