Things did not look promising. When the tourist guide bought through the internet arrived in the post, it was more of a pamphlet than a guidebook; it looked as if five nights could be four too many. A search for the Romanian Tourist Office in London was not encouraging either; a few years ago it had been active at travel fairs but now I wished I had kept the brochures. The addresses which I found on the internet both seemed to be closed.
Yet, in the 1930’s Bucharest was known as the “Paris of the East” (or Micul Paris – “Little Paris”) due to its sophistication, grand avenues and architectural style. It had obviously suffered over the past decades, so what would there be to see today? The reality is a surprising amount and for anyone interested in history, politics, art and architecture, five nights is not enough, especially when it includes a trip outside Bucharest to the Germanic-alpine Peles Castle and the art-nouveau Pelisor Castle sitting together in the mountains in Sinaia.
Inevitably Bucharest’s architectural history is intimately intertwined with its political history which has swung like a pendulum between peace and prosperity and battles in leadership involving local rulers, the Ottomans, Germany and Russia.
A relatively modern city, thought to have been founded in the 15th century, ruins can still be seen of one of its earliest buildings, the Princely Court. The prosperity of the late 17th and early 18th is reflected in the Brâncovenesc renaissance style of the Orthodox cathedral and churches which have survived from that time and the Mogoşoaia Palace not far outside the city. Another period of prosperity in the late 19th century brought new boulevards, fine neoclassical administrative buildings and banking headquarters, hospitals, the Romanian Athenaeum and new theatres, continuing after a short halt during the First World War into the 1930’s when it gained its comparison with Paris.
Sadly, all this came to a grinding halt with the Second World War and afterwards when the communists took power donating to Bucharest the House of the Free Press (modern title) copied straight from Stalinist Russia, with a sister in Warsaw, just making sure you know who is in charge here! Then, after the 1977 earthquake, Nicolae Ceaușescu destroyed a whole area of the city to create his massive Palace of the People and a new centre for the city focussed along the five kilometre long Boulevard-dul Unirii. A sports stadium, historic churches, a monastery, a hospital and many homes came tumbling down to create the this new quarter of the city, including the second largest administrative building in the world after the Pentagon, designed by a young 28 year-old architect Anca Petrescuand, which Ceaușescu never saw completed due to his execution on Christmas Day 1989. Whatever you think of it, the main interiors are a great celebration of Romanian craftsmanship, though the effects of poor workmanship and materials are now showing on the outside with damage from iron fixings (presumably not galvanised) and water ingress. So much of the city was demolished that there is still empty land, on part of which the new immense Romanian People’s Salvation Cathedral is being built, it has to be said to a much better standard than Ceaușescu’s buildings.
Coming out of communism has provided a new opportunity; it feels a little like Glasgow after the 1960’s when suddenly the old buildings began to be appreciated, refurbished and cleaned up, supported with a new economy of hotels, restaurants and bars with old facades integrated into new buildings such as that of the Union of Romanian Architects. There is however still much to be done, and sometimes controversy about the scale of development, as with the future plans for the Stirbey Palace. Behind many fine facades, such as the Moorish building in Strada Slanic, there is nothing; roofs have caved in and possibly only the façade is saveable, but there are also some fine interiors evident such as in the Chamber of Commerce building which is currently used for a temporary art and craft market, but showing the scale of what needs to be done.