For many people, initial impressions of Bucharest (Bucureşti), a sprawling, dusty city of some two million people, are less than favourable. It’s Romania’s centre of government and commerce, and site of its main airport, so most visitors to the country will find themselves passing through the city at some point, but its chaotic jumble of traffic-choked streets, ugly concrete apartment blocks and monumental but mostly unfinished communist developments is often enough to send most travellers scurrying off to the more obvious attractions further north. Yet it’s a city that rewards patience, with a raft of terrific museums, first-rate restaurants and bars, and, behind the congested main arteries, some superb architecture and abundant greenery.
The architecture of the old city, with its cosmopolitan air, was notoriously scarred by Ceauşescu’s redevelopment project in the 1980s, which demolished an immense swathe of the historic centre – including many religious buildings and thousands of homes – and replaced it with a concrete jungle, the compellingly monstrous
The heart of the city is the
North from Piaţa Victoriei, along the broad sweep of Şoseaua Kiseleff, lie Bucharest’s two best museums – the
From Bucharest, there are excellent rail and road connections to the rest of the country, but local bus and train services to the towns and villages in the immediate vicinity are often limited or tortuous. There are, however, some enjoyable visits to be had just outside the capital, most notably the lake and monastery at
Bucharest’s festival scene has been slow to gather pace but there now exists a handful of excellent events. The undoubted highlight of the city’s cultural offerings is the biennial (odd numbered years) George Enescu Festival in September, which features three weeks of classical concerts by some of the world’s finest musicians, including the likes of the Berlin Philharmonic and the London Symphony Orchestra. The event features a full programme of concerts at the Atheneum and Sala Palatalui venues, as well as recitals, movie screenings, events on Piaţa Revoluţiei and exhibitions on Enescu. Taking place in the second week of May, Europafest is the year’s most eclectic event, a gathering of Europe-wide artists performing pop, jazz, blues and classical music concerts, plus workshops, competitions and jam sessions at venues around the city. The big screen is represented courtesy of the April Bucharest International Film Festival (BIFF), which features an impressive roster of both new domestic and foreign (mainly European) movies, with screenings at Cinema Studio on B-dul Magheru and Elvira Popescu inside the French Institute. In November, the UrbanEye Film Festival presents an intriguing selection of films centred on urban themes, with a strong architectural bent to many of the works.
Bucharest hosts some terrific – if occasionally chaotic – markets. The daddy of them all is the recently modernized Piaţa Obor (Metro Obor), which offers all sorts, from fresh produce and clothing to communist-era memorabilia; you can grab some superb mittitei here too. On Friday, Saturday and Sunday mornings, there’s a terrific farmer’s market (Targul Ţaranului) at the intersection of B-dul Unirii and Str. Nerva Traian (tram #32 from Piaţa Unirii), where you can pick up all manner of fresh foodstuffs. Otherwise, the best of the daily food markets are Piaţa Amzei, near Piaţa Romană, and Piaţa Matache, near the Gara de Nord, the latter useful for stocking up for before a long journey. The vast Sunday-morning flea market (Târgul Vitan) on Şos. Vitan-Bârzeşti, fifteen minutes’ walk south of the Dristor I metro station (or bus #123 from Piaţa Unirii), alongside the Dâmboviţa embankment, is something to behold. Beware of pickpockets here.
Originally laid out in the late seventeenth century as a wood-paved avenue named Podul Mogoşoaiei, Calea Victoriei (Avenue of Victory) has been Bucharest’s most fashionable street since wealthy boyars first built their residences along it. The arrival of the boyars encouraged Bucharest’s most prestigious shops to open along the avenue and, after it was repaved and took its present name in 1918, strolling along the avenue became de rigueur, causing the writer Hector Bolitho to remark that “to drive down the Calea Victoriei between twelve and one o’clock will prove you a provincial or a stranger”. Along the street were “huddles of low, open-fronted shops where Lyons silk and Shiraz carpets were piled in the half-darkness beside Siberian furs, English guns and Meissen porcelain”, while lurking in the side streets were starving groups of unemployed, lupus-disfigured beggars and dispossessed peasants seeking justice in the capital’s courts. An avenue of marked contrasts, the quieter northern end still seems verdant and sleepy with touches of Old-World elegance, while to the south it becomes an eclectic jumble of old apartment buildings, upmarket hotels, shops and banks. A more recent addition is an excellent cycle lane (a rarity in Bucharest), which, encouragingly, the locals seem to have taken to with relish.
In 1971, Ceauşescu visited North Korea and returned full of admiration for the grandiose avenues of Kim II Sung’s capital, Pyongyang. Thirteen years later, inspired by what he had seen, Ceauşescu set out to remodel Bucharest as “the first socialist capital for the new socialist man”, and to create a new administrative centre which was to be “a symbolic representation of the two decades of enlightenment we have just lived through”. In truth, of course, this Centru Civic was meant to embody the state’s authority and that of Ceauşescu himself. Implementing this megalomaniac vision entailed the demolition of a quarter of Bucharest’s historic centre (about five square kilometres), said to be slums damaged by the 1977 earthquake, but in fact containing nine thousand largely untouched nineteenth-century houses, whose forty thousand inhabitants were relocated in new developments on the outskirts of the city. There was worldwide condemnation of this vandalism, particularly since many old churches were to be swept away. Though some of the churches were in the end reprieved, they are now surrounded by huge modern apartment blocks and are separated from the urban context that gave them meaning. The core of the complex was largely completed by 1989, just in time for the dictator’s overthrow.
Uniting the two halves of the Centru Civic is Bulevardul Unirii which, at 4km long and 120m wide, is slightly larger – intentionally so – than the Champs-Élysées, after which it was modelled. Midway along is Piaţa Unirii (Square of Union), an oversized expanse of concrete dominated by traffic, and notable only as a key metro interchange, as the site of the city’s main department store – the slicked-up Unirea – and as the best place to view the extraordinary Palace of Parliament.
Dominating the entire project from the western end of Bulevardul Unirii is the colossal Palatul Parlamentului (Palace of Parliament), claimed to be the second-largest administrative building in the world – after the Pentagon – measuring 270m by 240m, and 86m high. It epitomizes the megalomania that overtook Ceauşescu in the 1980s; here he intended to house ministries, Communist Party offices and the apartments of high functionaries. Built on the site of the former Spirei Hill, which was razed for this project, the sheer size of the building can only be grasped by comparison with the toy-like cars scuttling past below. It has twelve storeys, four underground levels (including a nuclear bunker), a 100m-long lobby and 1100 rooms, around half of which are used as offices while the remainder are redundant. The interiors are lavishly decorated with marble and gold leaf, and there are 4500 chandeliers (11,000 were planned), the largest of which weighs 1.5 tonnes, but the decoration was never finished due to the Ceauşescus’ ever-changing whims. They were demanding patrons, allowing little more than a technical role to the architects, of which there were around seven hundred – one staircase was rebuilt three times before they were satisfied.
This huge white elephant was officially known as the Casa Republicii, then as the Casa Poporului, but more popularly as the Casa Nebunului (Madman’s House), before taking on its present name. The new government spent a long time agonizing about an acceptable use for it, and in 1994 it was finally decided to house the Senate and Parliament here; it is now also used for international conferences.
There are several different tours available. The standard one is a 45-minute trek through ten of the most dazzling, most representative or simply the largest of the halls, such as the extraordinary, glass-ceilinged Sala Unirii (Unification Hall), where legendary Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci was married in 1996. One of the last chambers you’re led to is the Alexandru Ioan Cuza room, whose balcony offers defining views of the city. Other tours take in the basement, terrace or both. The palace is so popular (particularly with tour groups) that you’d do well to time your visit for the start or the end of the day.
Located in the building’s west wing (to the rear of the palace) is the Muzeul Naţional de Artă Contemporană (National Museum of Contemporary Art). Accessed via a specially constructed glass annexe and external elevators (which, as they take you up, give you some idea of the breathtaking scale of this building), it’s a superbly designed space covering four floors. All the works on display are temporary (typically two- or three-month rotating programmes), featuring both Romanian and international artists, and mostly take the form of multimedia installations (including large-screen projections), sculptures, collages, montages and photographic displays.
Some 40km southwest of Bucharest is the small village of CLEJANI, renowned throughout the region as a centre for Gypsy music, spawning members of the world-famous bands Taraf de Haidouks and Mahala Rai Banda, as well as a number of other wonderfully talented musicians. If you’re a fan of such music, or if you’re just interested in experiencing Gypsy culture close up, then take half a day to visit the village – if you’re lucky, you may get to hear some of the spellbinding music first-hand.
Bucharest does not immediately strike visitors as a place bursting with nightlife, but this is partly because, like the best of the city’s restaurants, many places are discreetly tucked away or concentrated in unlikely areas of the city. That said, the Old Town quarter has undergone a remarkable resurgence, and on any given night you’ll find the tightly packed ranks of cafés and bars full to the gills. It’s here, too, that you’ll find a growing number of wine bars, something that it was hitherto impossible to find in Bucharest. The city’s club scene is among the best in the Balkans, and there are now some choice venues scattered around town, increasingly catering to a more discerning range of musical tastes. Bucharestians, however, have long been starved of decent live music, a situation reflected in the dearth of quality venues.
Between the World Wars, Bucharest was famed for its bacchanals, gourmet cuisine and Gypsy music – but all this ended with the puritanical postwar regime of communism. The immediate post-communist era was little better – a veritable culinary wasteland – but in recent years the restaurant scene has improved beyond all recognition. There’s been a welcome diversification in both the range of cuisines available and the types of establishments entering the fray, such as The Artist, currently performing gastronomic wonders, and Beca’s Kitchen, where fresh, inventive cooking is the order of the day. Moreover, eating out, even at the more upmarket places, remains remarkably affordable.
Bucharest’s cultural forte is undoubtedly classical music, thanks largely to the work of the internationally renowned George Enescu Philharmonic Orchestra. Opera, ballet and theatre performances, too, are invariably excellent, with ostentatious sets and huge casts. Prices for performances are incredibly cheap, typically costing between €2 and €15. It’s still the case that few genuinely major rock or pop stars play Bucharest, and – with a few exceptions – those that do tend to be past their sell-by date. Note that most theatres and concert halls close during the summer.
The lovely palace at MOGOŞOAIA, 10km northwest of Bucharest along the DN1, is perhaps Wallachia’s most important non-religious monument. Designed by Constantin Brâncoveanu between 1698 and 1702 as a summer residence for his family, it’s a two-storey building of red brick with a fine Venetian-style loggia overlooking a lake. After Brâncoveanu’s execution, the palace became an inn then, after a fire destroyed the interior, a warehouse. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the palace was passed to the Bibescu family (descendants of Brâncoveanu), before finally being handed over to the state in 1956, following the arrest of Martha Bibescu (1886–1973); one of Romania’s great literary heroines, Bibescu spent the remainder of her life in Paris.
The Şoseaua Kiseleff, a long, elegant avenue lined with lime trees, extends north from Piaţa Victoriei towards the Herăstrău Park and the Village Museum, one of Romania’s best open-air museums, before heading out towards the airports and the main road to Transylvania. Modelled on the Parisian chaussées (typically, long straight avenues made from gravel or crushed stone), though named after a Russian general, Şoseaua Kiseleff is a product of the Francophilia that swept Romania’s educated classes during the nineteenth century; it even has its own version of the Arc de Triomphe.
Bucharest’s most outstanding sight is the Muzeul Satului (Village Museum) on the shores of Lake Herăstrău – the entrance is on Şoseaua Kiseleff, just up from the Arc de Triumf. Established in 1936, this wonderful ensemble of over three hundred dwellings, workshops, churches, windmills, presses and other structures from every region in the country illustrates the extreme diversity of Romania’s folk architecture.
Most interesting are the oak houses from Maramureş with their rope-motif carvings and shingled roofing, and beamed gateways carved with animals and hunting scenes, Adam and Eve and the Tree of Life, and suns and moons. Other highlights are the heavily thatched dwellings from Sălciua de Jos in Alba county; dug-out homes, or “pit” houses (with vegetables growing on the roof) from Drăghiceni and Castranova in Oltenia; colourfully furnished homesteads from Moldavia; and windmills from Tulcea county in the Delta. Keep an eye out, too, for the beautiful wooden church from the village of Dragomireşti in Maramureş. Mud-brick dwellings from the fertile plains ironically appear poorer than the homes of peasants in the less fertile highlands where timber and stone abound, while the importance of livestock to the Székely people of Harghita county can be seen by their barns, which are taller than their houses. The terrific souvenir shop here is the best place in the city to buy folk art objects, including textiles and costumes, ceramics and woodenware.
Laid out in 1936, Parcul Herăstrău provides welcome respite from the city’s sweltering heat. Beyond the entrance, paths run past formal flowerbeds to the shore of Lake Herăstrău, one of the largest of a dozen lakes strung along the River Colentina. Created by Carol II to drain the unhealthy marshes that surrounded Bucharest, these lakes form a continuous line across the northern suburbs. Arched bridges lead to the small and fragrant Island of Roses, where the alleyways are lined with the busts of Romanian and foreign luminaries – Brâncuşi, Eminescu, Shakespeare and the like (some are more convincing than others). Beyond here, paths wend their way round to numerous lakeside snack bars and restaurants, as well as a landing stage from where you can rent rowing boats or take a thirty-minute lake cruise. Located near the park’s other entrance, which is at the northern end of Şoseaua Kiseleff, near Piaţa Presei Libere, is the Expo – an enormous pavilion now hosting what must surely be one of the biggest beer halls anywhere in Europe.
The residential area east of the park is one of Bucharest’s most exclusive neighbourhoods. It is where the communist elite once lived, cordoned off from the masses they governed; the Ceauşescus lived at the east end of Bulevardul Primăverii, in the Vila Primavera, which is set to be opened to tourists. The area is still inhabited by technocrats, artists and members of the elite.
The Skopţi coachmen, who worked along the Şoseaua Kiseleff until the 1940s, made up one of the curiosities of Bucharest. Members of a dissident religious sect founded in Russia during the seventeenth century – and related to the Lipovani of the Danube Delta – the Skopţi ritually castrated themselves in the belief that the “generative organs are the seat of all iniquities”, interpreting literally Christ’s words on eunuchs in the Gospel of St Matthew. This was done after two years of normal married life – a period necessary to ensure the conception of future Skopţi. Driving droshkys pulled by black Orloff horses, the coachmen wore caftans sprouting two cords, which passengers tugged to indicate that the driver should turn left or right.
Bound by Piaţa Unirii to the south, Calea Victoriei to the west and Bulevardul I.C. Brătianu to the east, the Old Town – an area more commonly known as Lipscani – was mercifully spared Ceauşescu’s bulldozers, and it now offers a welcome respite from the concrete monotony of the Centru Civic. The main thoroughfare is Strada Lipscani itself, a lively street named after the merchants from Leipzig who traded here in the eighteenth century. An otherwise picturesque and agreeably ramshackle maze of streets and decrepit houses, Bucharest’s oldest neighbourhood has been undergoing painfully slow regeneration for years, and while many parts of it remain desperately run-down, the sheer volume of restaurants, cafés and bars in the area makes it the place to party in town.
Piaţa Revoluţiei (Square of Revolution), a large, irregularly shaped square sliced down the middle by Calea Victoriei, was created in the 1930s to ensure a protective field of fire around the Royal Palace in the event of revolution. While Romania’s monarchy was overthrown by other means, the square fulfilled its destiny in 1989, when the Ceauşescus were forced to flee by crowds besieging Communist Party headquarters; two days of fighting left the buildings around the square burnt out or pockmarked with bullet holes – with the conspicuous exception of the Central Committee building, which was at the centre of the storm.
Across the road from the Royal Palace, you can’t fail to notice the 13m-high statue of King Carol I on horseback, erected as recently as 2010, though not without controversy. The original statue, by renowned Croatian sculptor Ivan MeŠtrovíc, was melted down by the communists in 1948 following the abolition of the monarchy (conveniently, the bronze was reused to make a statue of Lenin), though this current edition is widely regarded as far inferior to MeŠtrovíc’s, in part because the authorities failed to reach agreement with the MeŠtrovíc family over the use of the sculptor’s original sketches. Behind the statue is the University Library, totally gutted in December 1989 – with the loss of some half a million books – but now rebuilt and housing offices. Piaţa Enescu sits just to the north of Piaţa Revoluţiei, and is notable for a couple of historically and culturally important buildings.
Laying fair claim to being Bucharest’s finest building, the Ateneul Român (Romanian Atheneum) is a magnificent Neoclassical structure built in 1888 by French architect Albert Galleron. It’s fronted by six elegant columns, behind which, in the peristyle, are five circular mosaics, each one depicting a Romanian ruler, including King Carol I. Funded almost entirely by Bucharest’s citizens, after the original patrons ran out of money, this is one of the few remaining circular auditoriums in Europe, the magnificent interior featuring a rampantly fin-de-siècle dome decorated with lyres. If at all possible, you should try and catch a concert by the resident George Enescu Philharmonic Orchestra, named after Romania’s beloved national composer. Piaţa Enescu, the tidy little park in front, features a statue of Enescu, who first performed at the Atheneum in 1898.
The most imposing of the buildings surrounding the Piaţa Revoluţiei is the former Palatul Regal (Royal Palace), which occupies most of the western side of the square. When the original single-storey dwelling burnt down in 1927, the king, Carol II, decided to replace it with something far more impressive. The surrounding dwellings were razed in order to build a new palace, with discreet side entrances to facilitate visits by Carol’s mistress, Magda Lupescu, and the shady financiers who formed the couple’s clique. However, the resultant sprawling brownstone edifice has no real claim to elegance and the palace was spurned as a residence by Romania’s postwar rulers, Ceauşescu preferring a villa in the northern suburbs pending the completion of his own palace in the Centru Civic.
Since 1950, the palace has housed the Muzeul Naţional de Artă (National Art Museum) in the Kretzulescu (south) wing. During the fighting in December 1989, this building was among the most seriously damaged of the city’s cultural institutions, and over a thousand pieces of work were destroyed or damaged by gunfire and vandals. After a massive reconstruction project, during which time many of the items were repaired, the museum reopened and now holds a marvellous collection of European and Romanian art. Before entering, take a look at the photographs hung along the rails, which graphically illustrate the damage sustained by the palace during both the 1927 fire and the revolution.
Comprising works from every region of the country, the museum’s exhaustive Gallery of Romanian Medieval Art is quite spectacular, and the one section to see if pushed for time. Highlights of the first few halls include a fresco of The Last Supper – a mid fourteenth-century composition retrieved from St Nicholas’s Church in Curtea de Argeş – and a carved oak door from 1453 with shallow figurative reliefs from the chapel of Snagov monastery (which no longer exists). The Monastery Church in Curtea de Argeş is represented by some remarkably well-preserved icons and fresco fragments, while there are also some quite beautiful Epitaphios, liturgical veils embroidered on silk or velvet which were usually used for religious processions. Among the most memorable pieces is a sumptuous gilded Kivotos (a vessel used for holding gifts) in the shape of an Orthodox church, which was presented to Horezu monastery by Constantin Brâncoveanu, and some exquisite miniature wood-carved processional crosses from Moldavia, chiefly remarkable for the astonishing detail contained within – typically, scenes from the life of Christ. The standout items from the latter halls are the church door and iconostasis retrieved from Cotroceni Palace, fresco fragments from Enei Church, and a wood-carved iconostasis by Brâncoveanu from Arnota monastery. Trumping both of these, however, is a 6m-high, nineteenth-century carved walnut iconostasis taken from the Prince Şerban Church in Bucharest, albeit without the icons. The workmanship is extraordinary, featuring, in the finest detail, angels and cherubs, double-headed eagles and warriors on horseback.
Up on the second floor, the Gallery of Romanian Modern Art features the best of the country’s nineteenth- and twentieth-century painters, not least Romania’s greatest artist, Nicolae Grigorescu. Look out for his brilliant character paintings, The Turk, Jew with a Goose, Gypsy Girl from Ghergani and the dramatic The Spy. There are no less sizeable contributions from Aman and Andreescu, both of whom were heavily influenced by the Barbizon School. Pallady, meanwhile, is represented by a clutch of typically suggestive nudes.
There’s a terrific assemblage of sculpture, too, by the likes of Storck (Mystery) and Paciurea, whose grisly God of War is just one of several Chimeras. Most visitors, though, come to see the work of Constantin Brâncuşi, Romania’s one truly world-renowned artist. Using various media, Brâncuşi displayed his versatility in a sublime body of work, including the beautiful white marble head of a sleeping woman (Sleep), a bronze, weeping nude (The Prayer) and the limestone-carved Wisdom of the Earth.
Though not nearly as exciting as the Romanian galleries, the European Art Gallery (entrance A1) nevertheless contains an impressive array of work spanning the fourteenth to the twentieth centuries. Divided by schools, it has particularly fine paintings from Italian and Spanish artists, including Tintoretto’s The Annunciation and Cano’s beautifully mournful Christ at the Column. Among the line-up of predominantly lesser-known artists is a sprinkling of superstar names, including El Greco (three paintings, the pick of which is a colourful Adoration of the Shepherds), Rubens (Portrait of a Lady), Monet (Camille and Boats at Honfleur) and a painting apiece by Renoir (Landscape with House) and Sisley (The Church at Moret in Winter). Look out, too, for Pieter Bruegel’s spectacularly detailed and gruesome Massacre of the Innocents. The most prominent piece of sculpture is MeŠtrovíc’s superb bronze bust of King Carol I. No less impressive is the decorative art section, which contains one of the museum’s oldest items, the Reichsadlerhumpen Goblet from Bavaria, dating from 1596.
Piaţa Universităţii is the focus of city life and traffic, and was one of the key sites of the 1989 revolution, as evinced by the numerous memorials (note the ten stone crosses in the road island) to those killed at Christmas 1989 and in June 1990. The latter marks the date on which miners, under Iliescu’s orders, drove out students who had been on hunger strike since April 30, causing the square to be nicknamed Piaţa Tiananmen. The most poignant of the memorials is the black cross and wall plaque at B-dul Bălcescu 18, some 200m north of the InterContinental hotel – this marks the spot where the first victim, Mihai Gătlan, aged 19, fell at 5.30pm on December 21.
The northern end of Calea Victoriei culminates in Piaţa Victoriei, a vast circular space around which drivers maniacally jockey for position. The buildings surrounding the square are your archetypal Socialist monstrosities, not least the main government building, the hulking Palaţul Victoria, completed in 1944 but even then already showing a chilly Stalinist influence in its design. The main reason you’re likely to wind up here is for the clutch of fine museums nearby.
Housed in an imposing, neo-Brâncovenesc redbrick building, the Muzeul Ţăranului Romăn (Museum of the Romanian Peasant) ranks a very close second to the Village Museum as the top museum in the city. On show is a wonderful display of traditional peasant artefacts from all regions of Romania, including colourfully woven linen and textiles, carvings, ceramics and a fabulous hoard of icons painted on wood and glass. Nothing, though, beats the exquisite collection of two thousand miniature clay toys, many shaped into zoomorphic forms, such as cuckoos, horses and lions, as well as bird- and dog-shaped pipes. Of the several impressively reconstructed buildings dotted around the museum, the most eye-catching is an eighteenth-century windmill from Haţeg county, an enormous contraption that took three years to piece back together. Similarly, a thick-set peasant dwelling from Gorj county, comprising three rooms, a loft for storage and a superb porch/balcony, took around a year to reconstruct. There is also an incomplete timber church from Hunedoara, around which lie some of its furnishings – altar doors, a holy table, church bells and so on. A wooden church, typical of those found in Maramureş, stands on a neat patch of grass at the rear of the museum. One of the best places in the city for souvenirs, the museum shop sells a beautiful assortment of rugs, costumes and other folksy objects, while, to the rear, there’s a pleasant café. Look out, too, for the monthly craft fairs held in the courtyard.
The entire premises were actually occupied by the Museum of Communist Party History until 1990, and there are still remnants from this time in the small basement, which contains a curious collection of paintings and busts of former communist leaders. Notably, there’s nothing pertaining to Ceauşescu – most images of the dictator were destroyed following his execution.
SNAGOV, a sprawling village 40km north of Bucharest, is the most popular weekend destination for Bucharestians. Its beautiful 19km-long lake has watersports facilities and a reserve for water plants, such as Indian waterlily, arrowhead and oriental beech. In the centre of the lake is an island occupied by a monastery built in 1519. King Mihai and later Ceauşescu and other high functionaries had their weekend villas around the shore, and the lake was also the scene of the summit which saw Yugoslavia’s expulsion from the Warsaw Pact in 1948. Bălcescu and other revolutionaries of 1848 were held in the monastery’s prison, as was the Hungarian leader Imre Nagy following the Soviet invasion of 1956.
Systematization was Ceauşescu’s policy to do away with up to half of the country’s villages and move the rural population into larger centres. The concept was first developed by Nikita Khrushchev in the Soviet Union in 1951, to combat the movement of younger people to the towns by amalgamating villages to raise the standard of rural life. In 1967 Ceauşescu reorganized Romania’s local government system and announced a scheme to get rid of up to 6300 villages and replace them with 120 new towns and 558 agro-industrial centres.
Ceauşescu thought that by herding people together into apartment buildings so that “the community fully dominates and controls the individual”, systematization would produce Romania’s “new socialist man”. However, the project was forgotten while Ceauşescu was preoccupied by other projects such as the Danube–Black Sea Canal and Bucharest’s Centru Civic, but he relaunched it in March 1988, when he was becoming obsessed with increasing exports and paying off the national debt.
The model development was to be the Ilfov Agricultural Sector, immediately north of Bucharest, where the first evictions and demolitions took place in August 1988. Only two or three days’ notice was given before shops were closed down and bus services stopped, forcing the people into the designated villages. En route to Snagov, you’ll pass through the area most notoriously affected by the systematization programme. Baloteşti, just north of Henri Coandă airport, consists of stark modern apartment buildings, housing people displaced from villages such as Dimieni, which lay just east of the airport. Vlădiceasca and Cioflinceni, just off the DN1 on the road to Snagov, were bulldozed and the inhabitants resettled in Ghermăneşti, on the western outskirts of Snagov. In other villages across the nation, ugly concrete Civic Centre buildings began to appear in the centres of the planned New Towns.
There was widespread condemnation of this scheme that was set to uproot half of the rural populace; in August 1988, the Cluj academic Doina Cornea, one of the country’s few open dissidents, wrote an open letter (published in the West) in protest, pointing out that the villages, with their unbroken folk culture, are the spiritual centre of Romanian life, and that to demolish them would be to “strike at the very soul of the people”. She was soon placed under house arrest, but the campaign abroad gathered pace. Approximately eighteen villages had suffered major demolitions by the end of 1989, when the scheme was at once cancelled by the FSN, the new ruling party following the revolution.
Romania’s revolution was the most dramatic of the popular revolts that convulsed Eastern Europe in 1989. On the morning of December 21, 1989, a staged demonstration – organized to show support for the Ceauşescu regime following days of rioting against it in Timişoara – backfired spectacularly. Eight minutes into Ceauşescu’s speech from the balcony of the Central Committee building, part of the eighty-thousand-strong crowd began chanting “Ti-mi-şoa-ra”; the leader’s shock and fear were televised across Romania before transmissions ceased. From that moment, it was clear that the end of the Ceauşescu regime was inevitable. Though the square was cleared by nightfall, larger crowds poured back the next day, emboldened by news that the army was siding with the people in Timişoara and Bucharest. Strangely, the Ceauşescus remained inside the Central Committee building until noon, when they scrambled aboard a helicopter on the roof, beginning a flight that would end with their execution in a barracks in Târgovişte, on Christmas Day.
The revolution was tainted by the suspicion of having been stage-managed by the National Salvation Front (FSN) that took power in the name of the people. The FSN consisted of veteran communists, one of whom later let slip to a journalist that plans to oust the Ceauşescus had been laid months before. Among the oddities of the “official” version of events were Iliescu’s speech on the Piaţa Revoluţiei at a time when “terrorist” snipers were causing mayhem in the square, and the battle for the Interior Ministry, during which both sides supposedly ceased firing after a mysterious phone call. Given the hundreds of genuine “martyrs of the revolution”, the idea that it had been simply a ploy by Party bureaucrats to oust the Ceauşescus was shocking and potentially damaging to the new regime – so the secret police were ordered to mount an investigation, which duly concluded that while manipulation had occurred, the Russians, Americans and Hungarians were to blame.
Generally speaking, Bulevardul Regina Elisabeta – Bucharest’s main east–west axis heading west from Piaţa Universităţii – merits little attention, but there are a handful of sights worth exploring the further along you go, not least the tranquil Cişmigiu Gardens and, beyond here, the stately Cotroceni Palace.
Midway along Bulevardul Regina Elisabeta, the lovely Gradina Cişmigiu (Cişmigiu Gardens) were laid out as a park on land bequeathed to the city in 1845. Originally belonging to a Turkish water inspector, the gardens now fittingly contain a serpentine lake upon which small rowing boats and pedalos glide, rented by couples seeking solitude among the swans and weeping willows. Otherwise, the gardens simply provide a tranquil space, with workers snoozing beneath the trees at lunch times and pensioners meeting for games of chess. At the park’s northern end, a Roman garden contains busts of some of Romania’s literary greats while, for kids, there’s an attractive little playground next to the lake.
The Palatul Cotroceni (Cotroceni Palace) was built as a monastery by Şerban Cantacuzino between 1679 and 1682 and served as a base for the Austrian army in 1737, the Russian army in 1806 and Tudor Vladimirescu’s rebels in 1821. Damaged by numerous fires and earthquakes over the course of its history, the original building was demolished in 1863 and the palace rebuilt from 1893 to 1895 to provide a home for the newly wed Prince Ferdinand and Princess Marie – it remained a residence for the royal family until 1939. Under communism, it served as the Palace of the Pioneers – the “Pioneers” being the Soviet-bloc equivalent of the Boy Scouts. A new south wing was added during restoration following the 1977 earthquake and this is now used for presidential functions. In 1984, Ceauşescu had the church demolished, apparently because it spoilt the view; this has since been replaced by a replica, completed in 2009. The church’s original bell tower, from 1679, still stands.
Tours pass first through the remains of the monastery, where the Cantacuzino family gravestones are kept, then through the new rooms from the 1893–95 rebuild, decorated throughout by French architect, Paul Gottereau. The style is eclectic, to say the least, taking in a variety of Western styles, though there’s a notably strong German influence, inevitable given Ferdinand’s stock. The most eye-catching rooms are the Flowers Room, a beautifully light and airy space with richly stuccoed walls and ceilings, and Ferdinand’s small, French-style library furnished in maple and sycamore wood.
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