Calea Victori is one of Bucharest’s major thoroughfares. I’m trying to imagine a time when it would have been a wooden street rather than paved; back in the days when it was built to celebrate victory over the Ottoman Empire.
Before the Ottomans it was Hapsburgs and before that it was the Romans, who conquered the ancient Dacian civilisation for its rich gold and minerals. Which is why Romania is the only country in Eastern Europe with a ‘romantic’ language – it is actually related to Latin.
Romanians have maintained a unique identity, religion and language through centuries of battling against neighbouring powers.
You could be forgiven for seeing similarities between the architecture of Bucharest and France. The city deserves its nickname the “Little Paris of the East”. There’s even a Charles de Gaulle Square and an Arch of Triumph.
Bucharest had its ‘golden age’ around the beginning of the 20th century and buildings from this time tended to imitate other European capitals.
There’s the grand Cretulescu Palace for example and a smattering of Art Nouveau architecture has also survived. For contrast, the austere Free Press House built in the 1950s is clearly in Stalinist style.
Bucharest is full of parks, pleasure grounds and boating lakes that make it a joy to wander the city, even when covered with snow.
For a snapshot of life in rural Romania in past times the Village Museum is a pioneering ethnographic museum built in 1936. Original houses were brought from around the country and reconstructed to show a way of life that in fact can still be found in many parts of Romania.
What about Bucharest today? Downtown the cafes are filled with young people drinking strong coffee and setting the world to rights in the golden, glass-topped arcade of Pasajul Macca-Vilacrosse.
Families and young couples pack Caru’ cu Bere (the beer cart), a hugely popular pub and restaurant, where they brew their own delicious beer to an 1879 recipe.
The façade has wonderful wrought iron decoration and the neo-gothic vaulted interior, built in 1898, is richly decorated with mosaics, paintings, sculpted wainscoting and stained glass.
Romanian food sticks to its roots, being hearty and tasty – stuffed cabbage with polenta and sour cream, goulash with meat and onions, potatoes, cheeses and fried egg.
Across the road stands the Stavropoleos Church, where black-robed priests and nuns with flat-topped caps glide about the 18th century courtyard with its modest domes.
All that is left of a once significant convent, the church is famous for its Byzantine music and library. An inn was also once part of the complex, designed to supplement the convent’s income.
Inside, believers stand, kneel, prostrate themselves on the carpet in front of the iconostasis; singing in harmony amid the rich Byzantine gold decorations.
The Orthodox religion is an important part of Romanian culture, standing apart as it has from the Catholic west since the First Century.
It is Holeva, the day of the dead, and a large cake awaits worshippers in the anteroom after the service. It’s a reminder that in Bucharest, ancient traditions are still a vital part of daily life.
By Natasha von Geldern
Have you been on a Bucharest city break? What did you like about the city?