(Buchuresti), located halfway between the Carpathian Mountains and
the Black Sea, in southeastern Romania, has not earned the nickname
‘Paris of the Balkans’ by accident.
Its astounding range of architecture – from
Wallachian wooden and bell-towered mansions to Byzantine-style chapels,
neo-classical buildings, striking 1930s modernism and even the post-Stalinist
absurdities of Ceaucescu’s megalomaniac regime – cannot
help but leave the visitor in awe at the diversity of vision
that have taken place in this city, over the centuries. But Bucharest
has also been the epicentre of the country’s many cataclysms,
with the stages of the country’s history like vivid tattoos
etched across the city’s surface, each telling a different
chapter of the story.
The first reference of Bucharest is in a document
from 1459, signed by Vlad Dracula,
then ruler of the first Romanian state of Wallachia. Known as ‘Vlad
the Impaler (or Tepes)’ – for leaving his enemies
to die slowly on stakes – he became the inspiration for the
renowned vampire of literary and celluloid fame. Yet among his countrymen,
he is something of a folk hero, famous for standing up to the Ottomans,
Saxons and Wallachia’s noble families. The ruins of one palace
accredited to him can still be seen in old Bucharest, where trendy
bars and clubs also capitalise on his image, with cobwebs and dank
After the Turkish conquest, Bucharest sustained as a scene of rebellion
and was burnt by the Ottomans, in 1595. A century later, it was
made the seat of the Wallachian government, by Sultan Mustafa II.
The city was caught in the crossfire of conflicts between the Ottomans,
Russia and Austria– the city was repeatedly occupied and destroyed
until 1862, when it became the capital of a unified Romania.
But after liberation, Bucharest began to create a different
identity, with French architects called in to remake it
in the image of Paris, with long, tree-lined boulevards and a forging
of classical and new Romanian architecture. Between the world wars,
influenced by modernist trends from native artists who had lived
abroad, such as Constantin Brancusi, Bucharest began to
rejoice in a fusion of styles that would make it totally
individual and produced some of Europe’s most beautiful residences
for the elite.
This ‘romantic’ chapter came to a close when
Communism took root in 1946. Although never heavily bombed
by the Allies, in World War II, Socialist Realism ushered in dreary
Stalinist apartment blocks, many of which remain today. When Nicolae
Ceausescu became president of Romania’s Communist Party in
1965, however, he was so determined to create a replication
of Champs Elysee in the ‘civic centre’ that he destroyed
many historic buildings, including 26 churches. His plans were never
completed but the strange combination of neo-Stalinist architecture
nevertheless gives a nod towards the city’s futuristic tradition.
Strangely, all of these architectural incongruities afford
an added dimension to the city today. And as the city looks
hopefully to foreign investment and closer ties with the EU, historic
buildings and parks are being restored, fashionable shops, trendy
bars, restaurants and Internet cafés are popping up all over
and the sense of a new dynamism is evident.
Presently, however, the almost total lack of tourism infrastructure
or facilities can be exasperating. There is no tourist
office and even basic brochures in museums can be hard to find,
leaving one to fend almost completely on one’s own. Although
Bucharest enjoys a temperate climate, tourists
should avoid mid-summer visits, since temperatures soar,
air conditioning is rare and much of the city shuts down, as students
return home and locals head for the coast.