Michael Jackson, Ozzy Osbourne, Metallica, Lenny Kravitz, Whitesnake, Iron Maiden—the list of touring rock stars who don’t know the difference between Bucharest and Budapest seems to grow every year. Following a trend started back in 1992 by Michael Jackson, so many musicians playing Romania’s capital have mistaken it for Hungary’s and come on stage shouting “how are you doing, Budapest?” that locals have moved on from amused indulgence to being seriously pissed off. Granted, some of these musical offenders would have trouble recognizing their home addresses or their own faces in the mirror, but when a (possibly mythical) story emerged last year of 400 Spanish soccer fans accidentally flying to Hungary’s capital for a Bucharest-based game, some Romanians decided they’d had enough.
To fight back, Romania’s capital has launched a “Bucharest not Budapest” campaign this summer, to encourage visitors to learn the difference between the two cities. Bankrolled by a Romanian chocolate manufacturer, the campaign features videos, T-shirts, airport billboards and a newly customized airport shuttle—the campaign has even installed a “Welcome to Not Bucharest” sign at Budapest airport. It’s not hard to see why Bucharestians find the confusion irksome. Their city is the European Union’s 6th largest, a national capital with over 2 million inhabitants, a fine cultural scene and a remarkable if mixed-up cityscape of historic buildings. While it doesn’t come close to matching Budapest’s grand opulence or tourist numbers, Bucharest is a fascinating place that doesn’t deserve to play second fiddle to its distant neighbor just because its name is similar.
Adding an extra dimension to the confusion is the fact that the political relationship between Budapest and Bucharest is often slightly tense. Romania has a Hungarian population of over a million, who form a majority in some districts of Transylvania, and the country’s treatment of this minority remains a hot political issue. By the standards of Southeast Europe, tensions have been pretty low-key, but demands for more autonomy from Romania’s Hungarians are ongoing as of this year. People are thus not just confusing Bucharest with somewhere else, they’re doing so with a city to which Romania’s government has threatened to send Hungarian diplomats back to on several occasions.
Beyond boosting local pride, Bucharest is a city that could really benefit from more international attention. With a city center mixing belle époque palaces, jewel like orthodox churches and twisting lanes with oppressively vast communist edifices, Bucharest is pretty unique—and its cultural heritage is arguably as much under threat now as it was before 1989. Nicolae Ceaușescu’s demolition of half the city center in the 1980s was much publicized, but current plans that involve tearing down historic markets and demolishing old buildings for highway construction and to let the city’s architectural heritage fall prey to developers have been largely ignored outside the country. Romania’s government is also continuing another longstanding practice by pumping huge funds into eye-catching monuments – nowadays it’s a vast cathedral—while neglecting the city’s historic fabric beyond a small, somewhat arbitrary “old town” area. Getting better international recognition for Bucharest might well help halt this process. With more visitors, its current fabric could come to be seen as a cherishable asset rather than a mere hindrance to major works. At any rate, getting prospective visitors to stop booking flight tickets to a city 500 miles away would be a good start.
Feargus O’Sullivan is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities. He lives in London and Berlin.