Many eras are making their mark in this Romanian city, says Anca Ionita
Bucharest is a layered city. In fact, it’s several cities coexisting in a direct and sometimes rough relationship, each one unveiled in turn as you walk down the city’s wide boulevards and the narrow streets hidden behind them.
There is a French-German Bucharest, defined by the 19th-century buildings that make up the city’s main landmarks: the Triumphal Arch, the Romanian Athenaeum, the house of the ‘George Enescu Philharmonic’, the Central University Library, and the Royal Palace (now the National Art Museum). There is an avant-garde Bucharest of 1920s villas and houses scattered in the central neighbourhoods, small architectural gems that remind visitors of the most prosperous period of the city, between the first and second world wars. Many of these villas have been refurbished and transformed into restaurants and clubs that are crowded all year long. In the courtyards of the Gradina Icoanei area, you can still find hundred-year old trees (somehow surviving the uncontrolled construction fever of the past 10 years) next to modern, glazed office buildings that are out of kilter with the prevailing architectural style.
There is a Byzantine Bucharest, situated within the old part of the city, called Curtea Veche. Step into the courtyard of Stavropoleos church (1742) in the Lipscani area and you’ll find yourself among small isles of green gardens, surrounding Christian Orthodox churches with pillared patios and twisted columns. Their architectural style, Brâncovenesc, is named after Constantin Brâncoveanu, a generous prince who built large parts of the city when he ruled the region of Walachia in the 17th century.
Finally, there is communist Bucharest, with its neighbourhoods of concrete apartment blocks lined up in monotonous rows along wide boulevards – grey belts that surround the heart of the city. Its most prominent landmark, the Casa Poporului, or ‘People’s House’, now houses the Romanian Parliament. Commissioned by dictator Nicolae Ceaus¸escu, it is the world’s largest civilian administrative building, dominating the central downtown area of Unirii Piazza.
Bucharest’s charm and character lie in the rough mix of old and new, in the different heartbeats encountered every day, even in a 10-minute walk, in the unexpected combinations of styles of architecture. A city that lives several lives at the same time.
Getting there Austrian Airlines flies to Bucharest via Vienna, from Dhs1,887 return including taxes.
Where is it? Between the river Danube and the Carpathian mountains, on the banks of the river Dâmbovita in southern Romania.
Climate Very hot summers (temperatures reaching 38°C) and mild winters with little snow. The most beautiful time is spring, with temperatures hovering around 15°C.
Ethnic mix Romanian, Hungarian, Roma, other.
Religious mix 86.7 per cent Romanian Orthodox Church; 4.7 per cent Roman Catholic; 3.7 per cent Protestant, 1.5 per cent Pentecostal, 0.9 per cent Romanian Greek-Catholic Church.
Major sights Romanian Athenaeum, People’s House, Cismigiu Garden, Peasant Museum.
Insiders’ tips Visit the Sunday flea market in the courtyard of Bucharest City Museum, buy local fruit and veg from the Piata Amzei market. In summer, explore the terraces in the backyards of old houses in the Gradina Icoanei area.
Where’s the buzz? The bars, clubs and restaurants in the Lipscani quarter; the Peasant Museum’s Club; jazz, theatre and drinks at Green Hours Club; live performances at Kisseleff.
Became capital of Romania 1862.
First mentioned under its present name September 20 1459 as a residence of the Walachian Prince, Vlad Tepes (Vlad the Impaler), a bloodthirsty prince who inspired Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Communist dictatorship Nicolae Ceaus¸escu led the Romanian Communist Party from 1968 until 1989. In 1989, a popular uprising supported by the military led to the arrest and execution of Ceaus¸escu and his wife, Elena, on Christmas Day 1989.
Percentage of Bucharest razed for the construction of Ceausescu’s palace 20 per cent, leaving just one historic district, Lipscani.