Discover Bucharest: on Calea Victoriei

This tour takes you on a journey on Bucharest’s largest and best known boulevard: Calea Victoriei. Calea Victoriei (Victory Avenue) was named this way in 1877 to celebrate the victory of Romania in the Independence War against the Ottoman Empire. It stretches from the old center all the way to Piaţa Victoriei, where the Romanian Government building is found.

The tour will take you back in time to several different periods, starting as far back as the 17th century, and to several different lifestyles in Bucharest. You will learn about buildings with a history, but also about people and their lives in the Phanariote era, in the interwar period and in the communist age. So, in a way, this tour is very intimate and one of the most interesting, and might even help you understand a few things about the people of Bucharest and Romanians in general.

Starting point: the intersection between Calea Victoriei and Bulevardul Regina Elisabeta (in the area of the Military Circle – Sărindar fountain).

As I was saying in a previous article, this particular intersection is home to several very interesting buildings, such as the Palace of the National Military Circle, Grand Hôtel du Boulevard, Casa Capşa and Hotel Capitol. Since I have already talked about the first two, let’s turn our attention to the remaining two.

Casa Capşa is now a beautiful old fashioned hotel with a restaurant to match. But this interesting building was much more than that to the trendy society of Bucharest in the 19th century. It all started with a small confectionery shop opened by the brothers Capșa in 1852, where French recipes were first brought to Bucharest (up until then, Romanians knew only Turkish desserts, which were mainly pastries with syrup) – it was them who first introduced ice-cream to Romania. The business kicked off and a cafe was added in 1891. The cafe quickly became the preferred place of famous Romanian writers, journalists and actors, who often discussed politics (and exchanged insults) in this place.

Hotel Capitol across the street from Casa Capșa is another building with history. Since the end of the 17th century, the original building went though several phases, hosting various businesses. It burned down in a fire in 1911, then was rebuilt and extended, to stand through the two world wars and the communist period. A detailed account of its transformations can be read here.

Walking past Casa Capșa (on the same side of the street), you will soon reach Odeon square, with the beautiful Odeon Theater, first opened in 1946. The Majestic hall inaugurated in 1974 was one of the most elegant theater halls in Bucharest and the only one in Europe to be fit with a gliding ceiling. If you want to catch a play (though, in Romanian only), you can access the ticket page for current representations here.
Opposite Odeon Theater in a diagonal you can notice a more modern, white tower building with austere ornaments (Art-Deco style). This is the former telephone tower (Palatul Telefoanelor), which was built in 1934 and withstood the bombings of World War II, as well as the earthquakes of 1940, 1977, 1986 and 1990.

Another ghost from the past, the facade of the Novotel hotel on the same side of the street as the telephone tower is a faithful reconstruction of the entrance of a building that stood in its place. This was none other than the first Bucharest National Theater (opened in 1852), which was heavily bombarded in 1944. In honor of the building that is now gone, Novotel has rebuilt a facade that perfectly imitates the entrance to the old theater, except for its positioning (now, closer to the street).

Notice the modern clock tower building (formerly known as the Adriatica building, after the Adriatica insurance company that functioned in it) and keep it in mind for later, when you will run into its almost twin, also on Calea Victoriei. This building is designed in the modern style of the thirties, when Bucharest had started to borrow architectural styles from several international sources. Bucharest’s main railway station building (Gara de Nord) also has a similar clock tower.

Opposite the Novotel, make a right turn on Ion Câmpineanu street and walk just a few paces, until you see the Grand Hotel Continental, built in 1886 on the foundation of the older Grand Hotel Broft. Among the most famous guests of the Broft hotel were Prince Napoleon (cousin of Napoleon the 3rd), as well as Osman Pașa (leader of the Turkish army during the battle of Plevna, in the context of the Russo-Turkish War), who was detained in room 104 before being deported to Russia.

And since you’re already on this street, walk just a little bit further to Hotel Union, a beautiful Art-Deco building from the 1930s. Now, the building is called Union International Business Center and hosts the offices of several companies.

Union Theatre

Go back to the area of Grand Hotel Continental and exit left on Academiei street. The architecture of large building on your right might remind you of Casa Radio, Ceaușescu’ Palace, or Casa Presei Libere. This building used to be the Central Committee of the Romanian Communist Party (now, home to the Ministry of Internal Affairs), and it is from its middle balcony that Ceaușescu tried to address the people in 1989, in what was his last public speech, before the revolution sparked.

On your left side is a themed restaurant famous for its medieval decor and the huge food platters – Excalibur.

Take just a few more steps and you will be in Piața Revoluției (Revolution Square), thus named, you guessed it, after the 1989 Romanian Revolution. From where you’ll be standing, two elements will be immediately notable: the statue of Iuliu Maniu, and Memorialul Renașterii (the Memorial of Rebirth).

A well known politician (former Prime Minister of Romania in 1928-1933), due to his opposition towards the Communist Party, Iuliu Maniu came to represent a the symbol of hope and will of freedom for many Romanians during communism years. He passed away in 1953 in Communist prison and his body was thrown in a common tomb on the outskirts of the city. The statue is meant to symbolize the numerous tortures applied to his body, as well as his mind, during his imprisonment period.

The Memorial of Rebirth is supposed to suggest the Romanian people’s rebirth as a nation after the fall of Communism. It is made of several elements, but the most recognizable is the proverbial „potato on a stick” (it’s actually called Piramida Izbânzii –  The Pyramid of Victory and represents an obelisk with a „wreath” on top). The other elements of the assembly are: Piața Reculegerii (the Recollection Square, the miniature square surrounding the obelisk), Zidul Amintirii (the Wall of Remembrance – the statuary group at the basis of the obelisk, signifying the individuals’s desire for freedom), and Calea Biruinței (the Way to Victory, an oak-paved alley symbolizing the path towards democracy).

Across the street from the Revolution Square is a prominent building, a red brick church that dates from the 18th century. It is Crețulescu or Kretzulescu Church, built between 1720 and 1722 on the place of an older wooden church, brought from the village of Crețulești. The church used to be surrounded by houses, small shops and a clock tower, all of these constituting the old Kretzulescu Inn, demolished in 1939 in order to enlarge the area around the Royal Palace. The paintings on the veranda date back to the 18th century and depict the Judgment Day.

In front of Crețulescu church is, not without purpose, the bust of a tormented figure: it represents Corneliu Coposu, who worked as Iuliu Maniu’s personal secretary between 1937 and 1940, and was arrested in the same time as him. He survived prison and lived to tell of the horrors he was submitted to alongside others. He died in 1995 and was buried with honors, his funeral being attended by hundreds thousands of people from all over the country. The positioning of the statue in the spot across the street from Iuliu Maniu’s statue is, of course, intentional.

DSC_8931

From the Revolution Square, in the background near the Ministry of Internal Affairs, you might notice a very interesting building, that managed to perfectly integrate the old and the new architecture. You might not be surprised to find out that this is the building of the Union of Architects of Romania. The brick wall belongs to a 19th century building, while the modern glass facade was added in 2003.

Union of Architects building

Continue to look around you in the Revolution Square, and you will easily notice two two interesting buildings standing one in front of another, as well as an equestrian statue.

The beautiful classical building with the statue in front is the Bucharest Central University Library Carol I, built on the orders of king Carol I in 1893, following the plans of French architect Paul Gottereau.

The statue in front is, in fact, the statue of Carol I of Romania, but not the one that originally stood here. On May the 10th 1939, a statue created by sculptor Ivan Meštrović was inaugurated. The same statue was destroyed by the communists in 1947, after the forced abdication of king Mihai (Michael I of Romania, the last Romanian king from the House of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen). It was melted and turned into a statue of Lenin (that stood in front of the House of Free Press until 1990). The present statue was inaugurated in December 2010.

In front of Carol I’s statue stands the former Royal Palace, now the National Museum of Art of Romania. It seems that in 1866, when Carol I came to Romania, he was appalled by how small and unimpressive the initial palace was and decided to move to Cotroceni Palace instead. The huge building you see today is the result of modernization and extension of the modest initial building, during Carol’s reign.

Moving along, you will reach Piața George Enescu, the square that stretches between the National Museum of Art, the Romanian Athenaeum and Athénée Palace Hotel.

The Romanian Athenaeum was first opened in 1888. Since its opening, many of the world’s greatest musicians have performed here, including Maurice Ravel, Richard Strauss and Dinu Lipatti. The building is eclectic in style, with its beautiful Baroque cupola preceded by a monumental entrance with 8 ionic columns and its neoclassic triangular gable similar to those of ancient Greek temples.

Above the entrance there are five medallion portraits created using the mosaic technique. They represent, from the left to the right: Alexandru cel Bun (ruler of Moldavia in the 15th century), Vasile Lupu (ruler of Moldavia in the 17th century), Carol I (ruler of Romania from 1866 to 1914), Matei Basarab (ruler of Wallachia in the 17th century) and Neagoe Basarab (ruler of Wallachia in the 16th century).

Inside, the ceiling of the main concert hall is decorated with relief gold-plated anthropomorphic, animal and vegetal symbols, inspired by Romanian fairy tales. Above the boxes, the surrounding walls form a wide fresco made of 25 scenes depicting key moments in the national history.

Athénée Palace Hotel is the big white hotel on the left side of the Athenaeum. Built between 1912-1914, the Athénée Palace Hotel still retains its prestige and elegance. But what it is most famous for is not the quality of accommodation. In fact, the walls of this hotel have literally heard many secrets being told, especially in the first 7 months since World War II had begun. Apparently, the hotel possessed certain acoustic properties, which made it possible to hear from certain rooms what was being said in others, or corners where any word, even whispered, could reach another place.  It seems that many spies and journalists would check into the hotel, the main reason being that it was right across the Royal Palace. At that time, uncertainty regarding the war was in the air, and many eyes were on Romania. You can read more about the hotel’s past (including intriguing spy stories) in Rose de Waldeck’s book Athénée Palace.

The streets behind the Romanian Athenaeum will take you to more beautiful buildings, and are worth exploring during a walk…

… but in the purpose of this tour, we will try not to stray too much from Calea Victoriei 🙂

Walk past the Athénée Palace Hotel and take a right turn, and then another right, immediately after the restaurant that is in continuation of the hotel building, on what will seem to be a dead end street at the back of an apartment building – Nicolae Crețulescu Street. It will take you to a small, white church, incidentally called Biserica Albă (the White Church). It received this name because, for about 50 years since the building was finished, the interior was all white, with no paintings on the wall, which is very rare for an Orthodox church. The oil painting was added only in 1873, by painter Gheorghe Tătărăscu. The church is famous for its beautiful wood-sculptured choir screen made in Venice in oriental style in the second half of the 19th century. If you find it open and there’s no sermon going on, do have a peek inside to check it out.

White Church

Across the street from the church is an interesting looking apartment building, designed in French Art Deco style, that has survived a big earthquake, as well as World War II. One of the apartments in it was for a while the residence of famous Romanian musician George Enescu and his wife, Maria Tescanu-Rosetti. Theirs is a very interesting story of love and suffering, as they fell in love while very young, when she was married to another. Their relationship lasted a lifetime, but she would only agree to be his wife at 61 years of age, after a suicide tentative. It seems she was the melancholic type, never truly happy, always looking for what she couldn’t have, and he was always there for her, regardless of her behavior. They are now buried together in Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris.

Walk back to Calea Victoriei, cross the street and take a right on General M. Berthelot Street. Immediately on your left, you might notice an interesting, greenish building that’s not in very good shape. This is a former tenancy building, inspired by the French immeubles de rapport – buildings split into several lodgings, belonging to one or more owners, specially built to be rented. In Bucharest, these buildings were the starting point for the post-war collective apartment blocks.

Tenancy building

Walk along on the same side of the street, until you will reach a beautiful red brick church, the Saint Joseph (Sfântul Iosif) Catholic Cathedral, built between 1873-1884, according to the plans of the Viennese architect Friedrich Schmidt. Of course, first you will notice the huge, illegal office building next to it (Cathedral Plaza), which is supposed to be demolished at some point.

On the right side of the cathedral’s entrance you will notice a picture of a white bearded man, looking like a cardinal. This is Vladimir Ghika, from one of Romania’s princely families (Ghikas ruled Moldavia and Wallachia from the 17th to the 19th century), who embraced Catholicism at the age of 29 (although he was brought up in the Orthodox tradition), and dedicated his life to helping the poor and spreading the word of the Church. After Romania fell in the hands of the communists, he chose to continue his mission, supporting the Romanian Catholic Church’s communion with Rome. For his actions, he was arrested under charges of „high treason” and imprisoned at Jilava, where he suffered severe beating and torture to get him to give up his faith and betray other priests. He died in prison 1954 (before finishing his 3 years sentence), due to the cruel treatment he was subjected to. The Catholic Church decided to beatify him in 2013.

Across the street form the cathedral is a house that was designed by architect Ion Mincu, known as Robescu house. You can see it if you approach the fence from the street, but you might have to enter the yard from General Constantin Budișteanu street*, to be able to see the details on this former boyar house, especially the round recesses forming a pattern on the side of the house (where the stair is), the windows with rope-shaped woodwork (Brâncovenesc style), as well as the wooden pillars, and the two medallions above the windows at the main entrance. The house belonged to magistrate Alexandru Scarlat Ghica until 1901, then was bought by a Mathematics professor, A.F. Robescu, who donated it to the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Public Education. An all-girls school was established in it until 1948. Afterwards, it was an arts high-school, and then it hosted the workshops of several artists.

* 2016: the building seems to be under renovation, so the entrance from General Constantin Budișteanu street is now closed.

From General Constantin Budișteanu street, turn right on Banului Street and walk past the fence of Grădina Eden. This is an urban summer garden, known for it’s jungle-like appearance, as the bars and seating are installed in the former Ştirbey Palace’s gardens. During the hot summer days, many young people in Bucharest like to hang around for a sophisticated lemonade, or a one of the special beers sold here. The atmosphere is rather bohemian, with groups of people playing card or board games, or just hanging around wherever they can find something to sit on. On the downside, the prices are pretty high and on busy nights, despite the huge space, you might not be able to find a free table.

The actual Ştirbey Palace (basically, the building used for the toilets under ground 🙂 was built between 1833 and 1835 on the property of the Știrbey family, one of the best known historical Romanian families. Starting from 1849, it was used as the princely palace of Barbu Știrbey, former ruler of Wallachia. The emblematic caryatids and the tower on the right were added to the facade in 1881, when the building was renovated.

Știrbey Palace could very well be considered the place where Romanian society started behaving the Western way. The specific point in time is the moment when Wallachians were emerging from the Phanariote era and starting to establish connections with Western countries (after 1921). Due to the fact that Moldavia and Wallachia were under Phanariote rule for more than 100 years, you can only imagine the cultural gap between us and the Western countries when we were finally independent. For quite a long period of time, at various events, there would be some people dressed in Turkish attire, and others in Western fashion, which probably was quite a show. (As for habits such as bribing your way up, being corrupt and dishonest, these stuck for a while and it seems we’ve still not shaken them completely…)

Since Știrbey Palace hosted the most fashionable balls of those times, it’s no wonder that at some point, people who weren’t properly dressed (still wearing Turkish style clothes) were starting to be denied attendance to such events.

Moving on from the 19th century, look over the street and you will see a building with a familiar design – the clock tower building with a clear, symmetric design. This is the former Palace of State Monopolies, a building from the interwar period built in modernist style. The statuary group in the small square in front of it is called „Au bout!” (also known as the Runners) and is the creation of French sculptor Alfred de Boucher (well, actually, a copy of the original exhibited in 1886).

Before you go further, we’ll take a small detour on the street with the statue – Biserica Amzei. Walk on the left side of the street and you will reach a small arched passage at the ground level of a 4-story building (there are two shops on each side of this entrance). Don’t be afraid to go through the passage, this is public space. You will arrive before a a gate that is usually open (don’t hesitate to pull the lever in case it’s locked). After you pass the gate, you’ll believe you’ve suddenly traveled back in time to the 19th century. You will be able to freely admire the beautiful porches and windows of the former Brătianu lodgings.

Brătianu is a Romanian family with a history that goes back to the 17th century. Members of this family were known intellectuals and political figures, the most important being the former owner of this house, Ion C. Bratianu, elected prime-minister several times between 1868 – 1888, during King Carol I’s reign. The 19th century building is built neo-Brancovenesc style, with elements reminding of Paris villas, while some details are specific to monasteries in the South of Romania (Byzantine style).

Exit to your right, back to Biserica Amzei street. Right in front of you, you will see Amzei Church (actually called St. Nicholas Church), built between 1898-1901 in neo-Byzantine style.

Ironically, opposite the church is the so-called house with bells that once belonged to Maria Mihăescu, better known in Bucharest in the ’20s as Miţa Biciclista (Miţa the Cyclist). At 15, she was taken to Paris (with her agreement) to become initiated in being a courtesan. She had many famous lovers, such as King Leopold of Belgium, Romanian painter Nicolae Grigorescu, Romanian poet Octavian Goga, and even King Ferdinand of Romania (the villa is actually supposed to be a gift from King Ferdinand). Another thing she was famous for was her free spirit, Miţa being the first woman to cycle around Bucharest, often wearing pantsuits (which, of course, was very unusual of a woman in those times). She would also bathe in deux-piece bathing suits, unlike any other Bucharest woman in those times.

casa-mita-biciclista
Source: bucharestdailyphoto.ro

From Biserica Amzei street, return to Calea Victoriei and walk on the left side of the street. You will soon run into the Art Collections Museum (the former Romanit Palace).The construction of this 19th century building was started by a Romanian boyar and finished by the Greek treasurer Romanit. It served as chancellery to Prince Alexandru D. Ghica, then as offices for the Administrative Court and then, as headquarters of the Ministry of Finance (middle of the 19th century).

Walking further from Romanit Palace, you will reach a house with Gothic appearance. This building known as Monteoru House was built in 1874 and sold to Grigore Monteoru, a wealthy oil tycoon of Greek descent, who refurbished the interior with lavish decorations (you can see here some photos of the interior). The 3 statues placed in the front yard had been brought from Greece and fig trees had been planted in the garden. Currently, the back yard has been turned into a summer garden, Terasa Monteoru, where you can have a cold drink or some nice food during those hot summer days (and evenings).

From Monteoru house, turn left past the Golden Tulip hotel (on Bulevardul Dacia) and after a few steps, you will run into a small park with a statue in the middle. This is the Ion C. Brătianu Park and the statue is, of course, of Ion C. Brătianu. At the bottom of this park you will actually find the  front of the Brătianu lodgings which you have visited from Biserica Amzei street.

Immediately after the park you will run into a white neo-classical building, known as Scarlat Kretzulescu House, which was built in 1839. Until 2014, this was the Romanian Literature Museum. The museum was renting the building and was evacuated because the owner had not received his rent payments for the last 12 years.

From here on, Dacia boulevard will soon get you to Piaţa Romană, where you can either continue your walk, or take the metro, bus or a cab to wherever you need to get.

See also…

 

 

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