Discover Bucharest: a Tour of Communist Relics

Today I’m getting to another one of my favorite tours, despite the fact that it covers a less „pretty” area and reminds of the communist period, that did quite a bit of damage to some of the city’s most interesting areas and buildings. The tour combines several main tourist attractions, but also places a foreign visitor would probably never think of seeing while in Bucharest. So I really hope you enjoy it.

Starting point: Piața Unirii, in front of Hanu’ lui Manuc (on Strada Halelor). The tour map below (created using the interactive map on Salut Bucuresti) can be downloaded here.

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Cross the street at the pedestrian crossing in front of Hanu’ lui Manuc. You will be walking across Dâmbovița river, seeing on your right a wide building reflected in the river’s water. That is the Palace of Justice, one of Bucharest’s emblematic buildings, designed by architects Albert Ballu (who also worked on the Charleroi Palace of Justice) and Ion Mincu, and finished in 1895. This building in French Renaissance style is decorated by allegoric statues representing Attention, Vigor, Law, Justice, Eloquence, Truth, Strength and Prudence.

At the beginning of the 19th century, Dâmbovița (the river that stretches for about 22 km in Bucharest) used to be the city’s main source of water (most wells did not provide drinkable water), and people drank the river water after barely filtering it through primitive methods. This is why many residents suffered from frequent digestive diseases, as Dâmbovița was very dirty in the city area. There was even a trade of water in place, and water salesmen walked around carrying barrels in carts pulled by mules and sold it to those who were unable to provide it for themselves. These salesmen were also used as firemen in case of need.

Continuing on, you will pass a number of shops (mostly food shops) on your right, while on your left is Parcul Unirii, a small park known for the beautiful water wells built at its end towards Bulevardul Unirii.

Well hidden behind these shops (that are basically all part of the same tall and wide building block that continues on Bulevardul Unirii), you can check out an interesting Neo-Byzantine church from 1885, Biserica Domnița Bălașa. It has this name because it is found on the site of an older church that was built by Lady Bălașa, daughter of prince Constantin Basarab Brâncoveanu (17th century). The church contains the grave of Lady Bălașa, as well as that of Lady Zoe Brâncoveanu, wife of Wallachian Prince Gheorge Bibescu (19th century), both decorated with beautiful marble statues.

The Unirea park itself is quite small and has almost no decorations, but it is a hangout spot for many youths and on certain occasions it is transformed in a fair location with small wooden huts where handcrafted objects and handmade foods are being sold. It’s also very pretty in spring, when all the trees are blooming.

As for the fountains and Bulevardul Unirii, they have a far more interesting story. And it all began with Ceaușescu’s desire to demolish the old center completely and build what he called the Civic Center, the starting point of his dream of having a city with huge, grandiose buildings all around. As part of this plan, Bulevardul Unirii (the plan was for it to be called the Victory of Socialism) would stretch from the square in front of the Palace of Parliament (Piața Constituției) to Piața Alba Iulia, and would be wider than the Champs-Elysées in Paris. By building this road, the city’s initial axis was also changed. The fountains in the middle of the street have been recently fitted with colored lights, so they light up in various colors at night. Unfortunately, the fountains on the sides of the road are no longer filled with water and functioning, which make them look deserted and decrepit, despite their beautiful ornaments and bottom mosaics.

When you reach the intersection with Bulevardul Unirii, cross it on the other side, then go slightly left, towards Aleea Dealul Mitropoliei.

Before going up on this street, on the left you will see a small square with a statue. It is the statue of Barbu Catargiu, the first prime-minister of the Romanian Principalities, who was assassinated in 1862 under the belfry on the Metropolitan  Hill, by a person who remains unknown until today.

This street with a green space in the middle and interesting houses on the left side will take you all the way up to Dealul Mitropoliei (Metropolitan Hill), where you will find the headquarters of the Romanian Patriarchy and the residence of the Patriarch. It is also the place where Alexandru Ioan Cuza was elected prince of Moldavia and Wallachia in 1859, an event which meant the union of the two provinces, and the basis of forming today’s Romania.

On your way up, you will encounter the statue of Alexandru Ioan Cuza and the more whimsical statue of Șerban Cantacuzino (Wallachian prince in the 17th century).

The religious complex on the hill is made of:

  • the Patriarchal Cathedral (the initial church building was raised here in 1658, and was restored and extended several times),
  • the Patriarchal Palace (former Palace of the Chamber of Deputies, built in 1907),
  • the Patriarchal Palace’s Chapel (the most important building in the complex, restored in the 17th century),
  • the Metropolitan Hill Belfry (built in 1698 as a gate to the wall that used to circle the church complex, also the place where Barbu Catargiu was assassinated in 1862).

After you look around the complex, perhaps admiring the architecture of the Patriarchal Palace, Chapel and Church, you’ll be ready to take the secret stair (not so secret to people living in the area) taking you down to Strada Ienăchiță Văcărescu. The stair is right before the belfry, on your left, between two old houses (the one on the left has a beautiful wooden porch).

While descending, look around you and check out the cool details and signs all around.

Down in the street, you can go right to see the back of the Patriarchal Palace. The yard seems to be used as an old car cemetery, although I found no actual info about this.

Continue walking straight on the road in front of the stairway (which is, confusingly, still Ienăchiță Văcărescu). Say hi to the big gray dog on the fence of the house to your left (if he still lives there when you’ll be visiting). Also, say hi to the lazy cats sleeping around. Take your time and check out the houses around you. You might notice a lot of expensive cars and modern looking houses, contrasting with older houses in pretty bad shape. The modern houses should not have been there in the first place, this area should be protected because of its valuable old buildings, but that’s never the case in Bucharest…

This area is part of what used to be known as Flămânda suburb or outskirts (it was a poor suburb, the name meaning literally the hungry one). These communities forming around old Bucharest are what made the city expand to its actual boundaries. Basically, in places where a drinking house was built, people would start moving in and building homes. The city authorities would then move the city limit to include it. But, because barkeepers did not want to pay higher taxes, they would build other drinking houses outside the city, and so the city grew larger and larger.

Make a right into Strada Principatelor Unite, and continue walking until you reach Strada 11 Iunie. You are still in the old Flămânda area.

Another central point of these communities would be the church, and in this case, Flămânda church on Strada Olimpului was the center of this community. In this area, where Strada Principatelor Unite meets Strada Olimpului, you can see one of Bucharest’s old corner shop houses.

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Further towards the end of the street, on the left side, you can see the Dinu Lipatti National Arts School, which functions in an impressive 19th century house.

After passing the school, you will find yourself on Strada 11 Iunie, which takes you straight to Piața Libertății and Carol I park. This street is interesting for a lot of reasons. My number 1 reason is that I love to walk on it 🙂 It is a street that’s full of surprises…

…like a big classical Romanian house having a wine bar/shop at the first level, and a family living at the second level, hanging their laundry right above the shop,

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… or an old furniture reconditioning shop, and across the street from it, an entrance (dark red wooden door, always open) with an interior window painted in various shades of red,

…or the old house of a former city architect in communist times, now turned into a museum displaying the furniture and objects that once belonged to him and his wife (the Ligia and Pompiliu Macovei art collection at no. 36 11 Iunie street),

…or an empty courtyard where there used to be an old dog, to whom I used to say hello every time I passed by, about 8 years ago, and who now is no longer there (still have a picture of him though)…

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…or an old abandoned factory turned into a trendy club and terrace, plus a few hipster shops (Fabrica Club, where you can enjoy decent food and drinks in a cool atmosphere, and even go to concerts and other organized events),

…and the dark blue scrunchy gate right near it…

…or, further down the street on the left (opposite Fabrica), a place specialized in delicious ribs (Costelaria, a restaurant which prides on its Brazilian method of preparing the meat; and at the end of the meal, after your are covered in sauce and meat juice, they bring you a bowl of lemon water to clean yourself 😀 ),

…and this gem of a house right where the street ends:

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Besides all of the above, the street is full of tiny pastry shops, old style neighborhood shops, old houses of all types and original residents hanging around. Don’t be afraid if some of them look a bit dangerous, I’ve walked in the area by myself a lot of times and nobody ever bothered me. Just don’t give them any reason to be annoying (like taking their photo or something).

Now, you’re finally at Piața Libertății, which is a quite big square with a fountain in the middle. On the left side of the roundabout there’s an odd mixture of an ugly new building with a glass tower and some very interesting old houses. For some reason, I kind of like this puzzle, even if the new building is quite hideous and built obviously on the spot of an older building body that was in line with the remaining two old buildings.

The zodiac fountain in the middle of the square was inaugurated in 1935, during the reign of Carol II of Romania. Carol park, which was set up in 1906, used to be named Parcul Libertății (Liberty Park) in communist times. The huge monument in its middle is actually built in place of a Military Museum, that replaced the earlier Arts Palace.

In communist times, the Monument of the Unknown Soldier, actually a mausoleum, was named something like the Monument of the Heroes for the Freedom of the People and of the Motherland, for Socialism, and was dedicated to revolutionary socialist militants. Detailed information about the monument is available on Wikipedia. What might be interesting to see, besides the rotonda with graves of unknown soldiers (which is not open to the public), is the changing of the guard in front of the monument. You should be able to see it at the following hours (every 3 hours from midnight): 24-03-06-09-12-15-18-21.

The park, while charming in itself, also has a series of interesting monuments:

  • the statue of Doctor C. I. Istrati immediately on the right side after you enter the park; it was inaugurated in 1928.
  • the „Prof. ing. Dimitrie Leonida” National Technical Museum immediately on the left side after you enter the park, displays some pretty cool exhibits, such as the first aerodynamic automobile, replicas of the planes invented or used by aviation pioneers Traian Vuia, Aurel Vlaicu and Henri Coandă, replicas of various installations and other old machines, installations and vehicles.
  • the Giants: two statues created in 1906, along with the Sleeping Beauty statue now in Herăstrău Park, as part of the Grota Fermecată (Enchanted Grotto) complex of statues + artificial waterfall, which used to be placed in front of the no longer existent Arts Palace.
  • Cantacuzino Fountain, built in 1870 at the initiative of mayor Gheorghe Gr. Cantacuzino, close to the spot where an old monumental fountain used to be (Filaret Fountain, one of the main water sources of Bucharest residents in the 18th century).
  • The Roman Arenas built in 1905-1906 is a complex of buildings that was used for entertainment purposes during the reign of Carol I. A renovation in the time of Ceaușescu removed all details and decor reminiscent of the royal family. Although at the present moments concerts and other events are organized in the Arenas, the construction has become more and more degraded and risks to fall over its guests.
  • Vlad the Impaler’s Castle, also built in 1906, is actually a water tower named this way because it was built to resemble Poenari Castle in Argeș County. It is well hidden on the left side of the park, right before reaching the stairs to the monument. Unfortunately, it can only be visited only once a year, on Heroes Day (which falls on the same day as the Feast of the Ascension, 40 days after Easter).

The park also has some restaurants, a bar/terrace by the lake, a boat rental spot. In Piața Libertății square (at the park entrance), especially during the weekends, you will usually find a small antiques market in the area with many benches.

If you exit the park, then go left (through the flea market) and cross the street, but instead of continuing straight ahead on Strada 11 Iunie (on which you came), walk left on Str. Constantin Istrati, immediately you will run into a stairway that is painted with different scenes. This is Strada Xenofon, the only road made of steps in Bucharest. The painting was part of a project started in 2014, which aimed to make certain small streets known to the people.

If you climb the steps all the way up, you will arrive at Carol Park Hotel, considered by some the most luxurious hotel in Romania. The building (originally known as Suter Palace, after the German architect who designed it) was built between 1902-1906 in neoclassical style with influences from the Brâncovenesc style. After the communists came to power, it served as one of the Party’s offices, and even as a coordination center for local operations of the Soviet secret services (KGB). The Carol Park Hotel (see some images from the exterior and the interior) opened in 2007 and is known for its luxurious rooms, and especially for its Murano glass chandelier, which stretches over four floors. Although it went through vast reconstruction works, the current building resembles the original in a proportion of 70-80%.

From Xenofon street, continue on Aleea Suter – Strada Lămâiţei – Strada Fabrica de Chibrituri (along Filaret Park, with Filaret bus station across the street – the building of the bus station was built in 1869, for the first Bucharest train station, Gara Filaret) – Strada Mitropolitul Filaret – Strada Gazelei – Bulevardul George Coşbuc. The look of these streets might strike you, and at some point you might feel uneasy o unsafe, but the poor people living on the streets or in crumbling houses will probably not give you any problems. If you’re not uncomfortable, walk slowly and look around, some of these places are very close now to what Bucharest would have looked 100 years ago.

You will be exiting the area and running into Bulevardul George Coşbuc on the right side of a green space with a gas station. If you’re feeling tired, hungry or thirsty after all the walking, you can stop here for fresh coffee/ fruit juice/croissants/sandwiches at the gas station’s coffee shop. They even have tables outside, so you can enjoy a cup of coffee in a green space. It’s not your conventional coffee shop, but I really like to stop here.

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In the boulevard, cross the street and continue walking left. You will notice you are walking past a huge abandoned building. At ground level, the many broken windows let you look inside this creepy structure. This abandoned building is part of a 19th century brewery, owned by Dumitru Marinescu Bragadiru and known as Fabrica de Bere Bragadiru. In 1948, the communists nationalized the brewery and renamed it Fabrica de Bere Rahova.

To be able to see the rest of the complex, you can either pass through the George Coşbuc market through the flower market area (the shortest way), or, if you want to avoid the market altogether (and salesmen can be quite annoying, especially if you look a little bit lost), you can keep walking until you reach a big intersection, and then make right on Calea Rahovei. The back of the market looks like … well, the back of a market, a lot of garbage, people running around, the usual. From Calea Rahovei you can see:

  • a red brick industrial building, now known as The Ark, former Bursa Mărfurilor (Commodities Exchange) building. First opened in 1899, it served as a place of meeting for the workers assigned to build the Palace of the Parliament. It was in this hall that they gathered to receive instructions. In 1990, a fire made a lot of damage, then, then the owners delayed any consolidation and reconstruction works until 2005 (the reconstruction is close to the original, the statue on top is a reproduction). Now, The Ark is a private center that can be rented for exhibitions and events.

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  • a pink and green building, also with an industrial architecture – this is Bragadiru industrial hall, part of the old beer factory, and suffered a quite shameful rehabilitation, now looking cartoonish. Inside it there is an interior decorations shop.
  • some more buildings in the back, in a pretty bad shape – these also used to be a part of the beer factory; there’s a guard monitoring the buildings, so in case you want to have a closer look, he’ll probably ask you what you’re doing there.
  • Bragadiru Palace, further down the road, on the right side.

The Bragadiru beer factory had a club building, which served as an entertainment and relaxation place for customers. Bragadiru Palace, initially named Colosul (The Colossus) was built in eclectic style and comprised a ballroom which could be used as a theater or concert hall, a library, a bowling room, several rooms, shops and offices. During communist regime, it was called Casa de Cultură Lenin (Lenin Culture Center). Since 2003, the original heirs regained ownership and turned the palace in an event location. The ground floor spaces are occupied by several restaurants.

Right before Bragadiru Palace is Berăria Germană Bucureşti, a pub-restaurant known for serving beer and German food. The restaurant is located in the basement of an old building and is decorated to look like a cellar, but it also has a huge terrace outside. Considering the area, and if you don’t want to walk to Piaţa Unirii, this place is great for having a drink with friends, especially if you’re a large group.The food is not bad either, although a bit expensive considering there’s nothing special about it. And apparently they have a live Bavarian music every evening, in the restaurant (not outside).

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In Bragadiru Palace there are also a lot of food places. At this point in the tour you will probably be quite tired / thirsty / hungry, so I recommend stopping for a while and recovering your strength. You will need it to go further.

  • A large building looking unfinished, built in a style that will remind you of the Palace of Parliament (which is not far from it, and is connected to it through a tunnel). This is also one of the constructions started by Ceausescu, and was meant to be the office of Elena Ceaușescu, wife of Nicolae Ceaușescu, but the revolution came before the building was finished. Now it is known as Casa Academiei, and is home to some offices of the Romanian Academy.

From Casa Academiei, you are just steps away from Bucharest’s best known building, the Palace of Parliament or Casa Poporului. To get there, you will have to continue around Casa Academiei (on Calea Rahovei), until you reach Bulevardul Libertății, the continue walking up until you reach Piaţa Constituţiei (which is also where many concerts are organized).

I will not write a description here, as you can read detailed accounts on it on many websites, e.g. this one. The official website also contains a lot of information, including on visiting hours and fees. The E4 wing of the palace is home to Bucharest’s national contemporary art museum (MNAC).

Assuming you have visited the Palace, or stopped for pictures, etc., your tour is almost finished. From Piaţa Constituţiei you can look ahead all the way across Bulevardul Unirii, where you started. Just one item left to check on your list, if you still have energy left: Antim Monastery. This monastery is hidden on the right side, behind the first huge building. If you walk on the right side of Bulevardul Unirii towards Piaţa Unirii, you will easily find a small street leading behind the buildings.

The monastery complex was built at the beginning of the 18th century by Antim Ivireanul, and includes our only 18th century church to have a club shape. The small square in front of the monastery has a statue of Antim with a snail at his feet, a symbol of humbleness and a mark of Saint Antim. The snail is also present above the entrance door, carved in stone. The wooden door is especially beautiful.

So that’s it for this tour. From Antim monastery, you can walk towards the metro station at Unirea, or simply stop in the old center for a drink. The area around the monastery can be very photogenic, as it keeps some interestingly looking ruins.

If you’re curious about the communist age in Romania and how people lead their lives, you should look up two films, named Tales from the Golden Age, basically collections of short stories depicting those times with bittersweet comedy. Subtitles in English are also available on a few websites. I found them to be perfectly accurate and very well made, so if you get the chance, do watch them, even without subtitles (you’ll get a good enough idea).

 

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