Sunday, March 30, 2014

Walk: historical Bucharest - Part 4


Old Town

The town’s historic centre, sometimes referred to as the Lipscani district, the name of the main street that runs through it, must be one of the most authentic of its kind in Europe.
The isolation of Communism and the turmoil of the 1990a allowed the area to develop organically; a district of such ad hoc charm would have been fully harnessed by the tourist industry elsewhere. This is  now starting to happen, as trendy (and expensive) cafes join the art, antique and junk shops, and extensive renovation work is set to continue until at least summer 2010, but Lipscani retains its chaotic appeal.

In the Middle Ages, it was the most important commercial centre of its principality, and today the streets bear the names of the various traders who plied their wares on them centuries ago. There’s little left of the Palatul Curtea Veche (Old Court Palace) itself, but enough of the ruins remain to exude an old world atmosphere, and the Biserica Curtea Veche (Old Court Church), dating from 1545 and the oldest in the city, is still standing. The centre is approximately bordered by Piața Unirii to the south, Calea Victoiei to rhe west and Bulevardul Bălcescu to the east, and extends a little to the north of Strada Lipscani itself. The National Bank building at Lipscani 25 is  one of the city’s most attractive structures; another is the former CEC bank headquarters at Calea Victoriei 11.

Metro: Piața Unirii

Parcul Herăstrău (Herăstrău Park)

Both the park and its lake of the same name are hugely popular with promenaders, as the large number of cars parked nearby on a weekend will testify. The joggers pounding the path that circumnavigates the lake give the park an international flavour (Romanians have not traditionally been keen joggers, although this is now slowly starting to change); so, too, does the collection of top restaurants and trendy lakesides bars. If you want to take to the water- and providing it is summer- you can either go it alone, by renting a rowing boat, or do a half-hour cruise. Less appealing is the somewhat rickety fairground.

Metro: Aviatorilor Bus: 301

Piața Revoluției

Taking its name from being the location where teh Romanian Revolution (which started in Timișoara) erupted in Bucharest, the square is one of the most important and evocative of the city’s political history.

Many protestors died in the square in the violence that was triggered there, and the authorities have duly made the effort to create a contemplative atmosphere.

Several of the city’s most important buildings are clustered here. To the north is the Athenee Palace Hilton, originally designed by French architect Theophile Bradeau between 1912 and 1914. Today a haven of civilized hospitality, its history is more nefarious. The hotel was a centre of espionage both in the run-up to World War II and the Cold War, and it attracted a phalanx of spies, plotters, plants and prostitutes. The Communists bugged every room after the site was nationalized in 1948. It remained under state ownership until 1914, when it was bought, modernized and expanded by the Hilton group, but the sense of history (if  not of skulduggery) has been preserved.

In front to the left of the hotel is the Athenaeum, beyond which is the former Central Committee of the Communist Party, now ministerial offices, from the balcony of which Ceaușescu delivered his famous last speech. A plaque by the entrance is dedicated to Romania’s young revolutionaries. Few cars or pedestrians venture into the area just below the balcony, giving it a somewhat desolate and somber ambience. There are two memorials to the revolution in this part of the square. One is the traditional marble monument, with the dedication ‘Glorie Martirilor Noștri’ (To the Glory of our Martyrs). The second is a controversial modern sculpture, Memorialul Renașterii, or the Rebirth Memorial, inaugurated in 2005, with what is intended to represent a crown impaled on a 25m (82ft) spike.

Undeniably eye-catching, it has been criticised for a lack of taste and symbolism. On the same side of the square, between the former Communist Party headsquarters abd the Ateneul Român, is the Central University Library, which dates back to 1895 and is now occupied by the European Union. Tucked behind it is city’s most bizzare-looking building. The bottom of it is a derelict-looking shell, the remains of the Securitate (Communist Secret Police) building.

An ubermodern glass construction has been built within and over it, to house the headquarters of the Romanian Architecture Union.

Few other symbols could better sum up Romanian’s transition.

Directly opposite the ministerial offices and monuments, on the other side of Calea Victoriei, which bisects the square, it the National Art Museum in the Royal  Palace. To the south of the gallery is the Crețulescu Church, an attractive red-brick building commissioned in 1722, making it among the city’s oldest churches.
A blend of Byzantine and Western architecture  with local touches, its porch is home to an admirable collection of frescoes from the mid-19th century.

Metro: Piața Romană, Universității Bus: 126

Piața Unirii (Unirea Square)

The heart of Ceaușescu’s civic centre, Piața Unirii is a large, flat square, in the middle of which lies park of sorts (some patches of green flanking a pathway busy with pedestrians trying to make their lengthy way from one side to the other). Permanently teeming with traffic, the square is not the most pleasant place to sit, but there are some attractive fountains and Piața Unirii is a great vantage point for views of the Casa Poporului (People’s Palace), which sits imposingly at the end of Bulevardul Unirii. To the north  of the square  is the Old Town. On the east side is the Unirea shopping centre, with its exterior covered with adverts.

There’s little of interest to the visitors in it (apart from a few expensive tourist shops on the ground floor), but it is popular with Romanians. The hill that rises from the southwest corner of the square leads to Biserica Mitropoliei (literraly, Metropolitan Seat), the Romanian Orthodox cathedral. It’s a huge complex, containing frescoes, stone crosses and the Patriarchal Palace.

The centre of Romanian Orthodoxy, at various religious festivals it’s descended upon by the faithful in droves, and you can sometimes see long, overnight queues of people wanting to touch a relie or perform a devotion.

Metro: Piața Unirii  Bus: 104, 116, 123, 124, 232, 312, 385.