A white limousine screeches to a halt and a bride, resplendent in a frothy gown and veil, is hauled outside by her abductors.
It's one of Romania's more colorful customs: bride-napping. And the tradition of snatching the bride from under the nose of groom and guests with the wedding party in full swing is getting bigger, brasher and an increasingly common sight in the Romanian capital, the Balkans' undisputed party town.
Every Saturday night, brides from Bucharest and beyond are dragged away in a mock abduction by friends and driven to a top tourist spot where they are "held hostage" — all the while pouting, dancing and striking provocative poses for the cameras.
The ransom: a few bottles of whisky or perhaps something more romantic, like a public declaration of love from the abandoned groom. The kidnappers negotiate by phone, working out the details of the payoff. It's all harmless theatrics meant to add a whiff of risque fun to the nuptials.
Mock abductions of brides are part of marriage ceremonies across the former Soviet Union. In some countries, guests lock up a bride or have her hide in a backroom during celebrations, demanding that the bridegroom delivers a "ransom" — like singing a song, dancing or sometimes paying real money.
In Romania, the custom took off a few years ago when a top football player rented Bucharest's Arch of Triumph, a major monument modeled after its iconic namesake in Paris, and proposed there to his girlfriend. There was no kidnapping involved but the scene stuck in the popular imagination as a symbol of marriage — and soon the monument became a sort of midnight mecca for bride-napping.
This past Saturday, about 20 brides were held hostage at the Arch of Triumph, which was built in 1922 to honor Romanian soldiers who died during World War I and to celebrate the reunification of Transylvania with the rest of Romania.
One bride was driven in from her wedding in a town an hour east of Bucharest with a gaggle of guests in tow. Another grabbed the toy machine gun of her kidnappers, dressed up as Taliban, and pretending to use it in front of the monument.
Authorities turn a blind eye to the partying under the monument, technically illegal because it's a historic landmark. Motorists cruise around the square honking, waving and cheering. The outdoor party is one way for Romanians, frustrated with austerity measures and feuding politicians, to let off steam.
One bride, 25-year-old Alisar Dragne, says her abduction was scripted from start to finish.
"Everything was staged and ready in my case. The limousine was waiting for me in front of the restaurant, I was given the 'leave' signal by my friends and together we came here to have some fun," she said. "Now everyone's thinking what ransom to ask the groom."
George Neascu, a Roma musician, who plays at the monument every week for small change, said the bride-stealing custom is as old as living memory.
"All sorts of people come here," said Neascu, "both those who have lots of money and those who have less."