Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Walk: historical Bucharest – Part 1

The comparative small centre of Bucharest is incredibly diverse, with the Old Town a startling juxtaposition to the vast and orderly Communist civic centre.

Allow about half a day, a full day if you stop and go inside the attractions.
Start at the front entrance of the Hilton (Metro: Piața Romană).

Ateneul Român
It is best visited in the context of going to hear one of the regular classical music concerts, but the majestic Athenaeum can also be viewed solely as a tourist sight. Designed by a French architect, it is predominantly neoclassical but also has romantic and neo-Baroque elements, including a stunning cupola. Don’t forget to look up or you’ll miss the series of 25 frescoes that depicts various episodes from Romanian history.

The statue in front of the entrance is of the national poet, Mihai Eminescu. The grace and sophistication of the Athenaeum is a striking counterpoint to the People’s Palace, with which Bucharest is predominantly associated.

If either building has a claim to belong to the people, it is the Athenaeum, which was completed with public donations after the funds of the original sponsors were exhausted.

Strada Benjamin Franklin 1-3 Tel: (021) 315 8798. Open: noon-6pm. Admission charge. Metro: Piața Romană  

Biserica Rusă (Russian Church)
Bucharest is brimming with beautiful churches that are worthy of a visit, but the Russian Church, also known as St Nicolas Stundent’s Church, stands out on aesthetic grounds. The seven shiny onion domes, typical of the Russian style, probably make the church the most distinctive in the city. The wooden iconostasis is covered in gold in a style said to be based on the Church of the Twelve Apostles in the Kremlin. The church is open to visitors, and you may even catch a service.

Strada Ion Ghica 9. Open: 9 or 9:30 am – 7 pm, festivals days 8am-10pm services, Tue-Sat 6 pm plus some morning sevices, Easter, Christmas Day and Saints days 8pm. Metro: Universității

Bulevardul Magheru
The main shopping street for the average Bucharestian (Calea Victoriei, which runs parallel, is home to mainly designer shops, far out of the reach of most local pockets ), Bulevardul Magheru is busy 24 hours a day. Its shops are a mixture, ranging from the odd austere Communist-era store that has managed to elude the developers to cheap and cheerful clothes shops selling the latest imports, and global staples such as The Body Shop and Nike. The shoppers are similarly diverse, and strolling up and down (or even sitting- there are a few benches) affords a fair cross-section of the capital’s citizens.

Highlights include the church of St Gheorghe, about halfway down the street on the east side, and the bookshop Cărturești (set back from the street near the Piatra Cinema), with its cafes offering an excellent and very international selection of coffees and teas, and an inviting large terrance at the back that is hugely popular with the trendy stundenty foreign crowd in warm months. In December, cheery Christmas lights are hung across the boulevard.

Metro: Piața Romană, Universității

Casa Poporului (People’s Palace)
Bucharest’s most (some would say only) famous building is notorious as the enormous vanity project that formed the centerpiece of Ceaușescu’s envisaged civic centre. Work started on it in 1984, and at the time of the dictator’s execution it was about half finished. When Communism fell, the authorities were not sure what to do with the building, but as it was calculated that it would cost as much to demolish it as to finish it, construction continued. Today it is still not entirely finished.

Some of the trivia surrounding the monolith affords a frightening insight into the megalomania of its conceiver. One staircase was ripped out and replaced three times because the Ceaușescus were not happy with the height of the steps, and the central room on the ground floor was designed to have an echo so that ten people clapping would generate the sound of a hundred. Only Romanian materials were used in the building and furnishing and it is said that so much marble was sucked into the project that during the early construction period tombstones had to be made of something else. There are also entirely incongruous religious frescoes on the wall, these are in fact props, put up by a film crew who used the palace as a set for the picture Amen, and never taken down.

Despite the building’s almost universally agreed ugliness (writers have remarked on the ‘combination of cultural and aesthetic illiteracy, rigid Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy and an innate taste for gigantism’ and the ‘staggeringly totalitarian frump of an exterior’), it is certainly worth taking the 45-minute tour. (Be warned that there is a lot of climbing involved.) Unless there is an event on, you will be able to go onto the balcony, which offers a fantastic view of the city, and form where Michael Jackson is apocryphally said to have greeted fans with ‘Hello Budapest!’(in fact he made the gaffe at the national stadium). As well as housing parliament, rooms in the palace are now let out for various events. (Capitalist giant Coca-Cola launched a product here, which surely would have had Ceaușescu turning in his grave.) Tours in English depart every hour or so.

Calea 13 Septembrie 1. Tel: (021) 311 3611. Open 10 am-4pm. Admission charge. Metro: Izvor Bus: 385.

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