I’m becoming more comfortable using the metro and trams to get around town and learn about Bucharest. It’s a beguiling city, unlike any other I’ve experienced. After Romanians discover you’re a foreigner, they’re curious and cautious. It takes them time to warm up, but if they decide you’re OK, they’re open and great communicators. They don’t “mince with words”.
Some Romanians speak a little English, and also know romance languages – French, Spanish, and Italian. I understand that some prefer foreigners not “trying” to speak Romanian – a combination of Latin and Slavic languages that most people mess up badly.
I made a “dry run” of getting to the Opera House yesterday, since I have a ballet performance – Le Corsaire – tonight and don’t want to get lost or arrive late. The Opera House is on the outskirts of city centre, near the Dâmbovița River. After getting my bearings, I enjoyed a walk along the river. Autumn weather is crisp but warm in the sun. The riverside is gorgeous on a sunny autumn day!
Selfies and Photos
I bought a selfie stick and have it in my backpack. The smartphone is constantly in my hands, because I use mapping and other apps often. To access the heavy selfie stick, I have to stop, open the pack, take out the stick, and attach it to my iPhone. That sounds easy, but when you’re in a crowded, unfamiliar place with cars and swarms of people, it’s tricky and can be dangerous. Hopefully, before this trip is over, I will find the right place and time to take some interesting selfies. I took some of the attached photos, but online media shots are exceptional and much better than I can produce. Foreign travel keeps you on your toes, and stopping to take photos on busy streets isn’t always safe.
I noticed a massive number of bumper-to-bumper automobiles on the roads! There’s traffic gridlock all day, and definitely more people in cars than outside walking or biking. I made a comment about it and was told that most Romanians own two or more automobiles – maybe they’ve figured out how to drive more than one of them at the same time?
The Old Town area is “more or less all that’s left of pre-World War II Bucharest”.
Traveling via vehicle in Bucharest is a slow process reminiscent of other European cities where gridlock is an issue – Berlin, Rome, Istanbul, and Lisbon come to mind. Bucharest is unique, but parts remind me of Berlin, Buenos Aires, and Bogota. That comparison may not work for others.
There are many poor people and abandoned buildings throughout the city. You can see and feel the extreme effect Communism had on Romania. So far, I haven’t seen many immigrants. or any homeless encampments. There are several Turkish areas and restaurants. If you like döner kebap, you’ll find it in Bucharest.
Known as Centru Vechi, Old Town is bordered by Dâmbovița River to the south, Bulevardul Brătianu to the east, Calea Victoriei to the west, and Bulevardul Regina Elisabeta to the north. It’s the gem of the city.
The communists flattened a fifth of Bucharest city centre to make way for Bulevardul Unirii and Casa Poporului. Both “inspired by the architecture of the totalitarian regimes of the former socialist bloc“.
“Old Town was an important stop along the historic trading route from the Ottoman Empire in the south, to Leipzig, Germany in the north. The route took five months of traveling, and Bucharest was located midway.”
Bucharest has been under several different rulers, including Ottomans, Russians, and Germans. “The city changed beyond recognition after 1989, but nothing compared to the transformation of the Old Town / Lipscani area during the boom years of the late nineties.”
Old Town was “once a no-go area with almost nothing to offer visitors”. It changed into “a lively entertainment district”. Much of the development was “ad hoc, and as is often the Bucharest way, posh restaurants and trendy clubs opened in buildings that looked like they might fall down”.
After a horrific fire at Colectiv Nightclub in October 2015 where 64 people lost their lives, new legislation forced the closure of venues housed in buildings considered an earthquake risk. Old Town venues currently open are likely “as safe and secure as Bucharest gets”.
Bucharest was founded in the Old Town area. According to legend, “Bucur the Shepherd established the city between the Carpathian Mountains and Danube River in the 1300s. He built a church on the eastern bank of the Dâmboviţa River”. During the first reign of Vlad Ţepeş (1459-1462), there was a palace and court (Palatul Curtea Veche). The city of Bucharest grew around the palace.
By the middle of the 17th century and until the end of World War II, Old Town was occupied primarily by merchants. After the war, rightful owners of houses and businesses were arrested by communist authorities, and their property was confiscated. Many of the empty buildings were occupied (legally or otherwise) by Gypsies, who remain in them today.
“What World War II didn’t destroy, communism did. The fact that anything in Bucharest survived at all is little short of a miracle.”
Interesting districts in Old Town include:
- Merchant Streets and Houses
- Old Court
- Macca-Villacrosse Passage
- The Old Palace of the Chamber of Commerce
Merchant Streets and Houses
Today, old, narrow merchant streets are packed with bars and restaurants. At one time, they were Bucharest’s main commercial streets where “merchants brought goods from all corners of the world and sold products to the elites of the capital”.
Merchant houses are “aligned directly on the street with a narrow façade to save space”. More traditional Romanian dwellings have a garden near the street, with the house in back. The best-known merchant street is Lipscani. It’s named after Leipzig, the German city where merchants bought goods. Other merchant street names include Selari, Blanari, and Covaci. Gabroveni Street is named for Gabro, a Bulgarian city.
A century ago, Old Town was the financial heart of the capital city. The country’s most important banks like the National Bank of Romania, were located there. Banks were a “symbol of power and importance that peaked before the great depression and the world crisis of 1929”.
Other impressive bank structures in Old Town include the Genovese-style palace of the former Chrissoveloni Bank, the building of Marmorosch Blank Bank on Doamnei Street, and the former Banca de Credit Roman on Stavropoleos Street.
Churches in Old Town are magnificent structures! Some of the most elegant include Stavropoleos, Zlatari, and Selari (Church of St. Nicholas Shelari). Each one is an “exquisite religious monument”! Russian St. Nicholas Shelari is especially striking!
Stavropoleos and Zlatari are “inn churches from the 18th century”. Selari dates from the early 19th century. Stavropoleos is considered “one of the finest representations of the local Brancovenesc architectural style”. Zlatari and Selari have “unique interior paintings from more than one hundred years ago by Gheorghe Tattarescu, a Romanian religious painter.
Merchants traveling the commercial route linking the east and west stayed in 19th century Old Town inns. The accommodations were “fortified in case of a potential attack”. Two of the old inns survived – Manuc, near the Old Court, and Linden, on Lipscani Street.
Built in 1808, Manuc Inn is the “oldest operating hotel in Bucharest”. It has a restaurant that serves traditional Romanian food. Linden has small retail shops, and Șerban Vodă Inn is enclosed in glass in front of the National Bank of Romania.
The Old Court was the “medieval residence of princes, including Vlad the Impaler”. It was built in the 15th century and “flourished during the time of Prince Constantin Brancoveanu”. By the end of the 18th century, the Old Court was abandoned. Its land was sold to merchants. Since 1972, the ruins are “conserved as a museum”.
The stunning Macca-Vilacrosse Passage connects Old Town with Victoriei Avenue. It dates back to the end of the 19th century, when elegant “passages covered with colored glass were the fashion in Europe”. This “yellow glass-covered passage is one of the best-known images of Bucharest”.
The Old Palace Chamber of Commerce
Designed by architect Ștefan Burcuș and built between 1908 and 1911, this “Old Palace of the Chamber of Commerce was initially the Romanian Stock Trade headquarters. It was inaugurated in the presence of King Carol I and the royal family”. From 1955 until 2012, the Old Palace housed the National Library. Today, the building is leased to businesses, with an antique market on the ground floor.
The beautiful French neoclassical building is noted for its detailed sculptures, including a “lion surrounded by the carved representations of Industry holding a hammer, and the God Mercury holding an anchor”. The sculptings were created by Emil Becker, sculptor of the Royal House. Another sculptor, Alexandru Dumitriu, created the Palace roof decorations. He also worked on the roofs of the Athenaeum, Patriarchy, City Hall, and Gara de Nord railway station.
I’ve read recent articles about Romania’s prime minister-designate, Nicolae Ciucă, abandoning plans to form a new government. This is because his National Liberal Party (PNL) “doesn’t have enough support in parliament to get his proposed cabinet approved”. A former army general, Ciucă was nominated by Romanian President Klaus Iohannis to resolve the country’s political crisis.
Ted Coffee Co.
I discovered Ted’s Coffee! The cafés are located throughout Bucharest, and the coffee is fresh and strong. A shot of Ted’s espresso keeps you going, when you need a boost, and they have delicious sandwiches too! It’s great having extended time to experience this special place. I still have much to explore.