Neo-Classical

As its name suggests, Neo-Classical architecture derives heavily from the Classical style familiar from Greek and Roman temples of antiquity. It began in the middle of the 18th century, partially as a reaction against the florid style of Rococo and Baroque. Perhaps because of our endless fascination with the ancient world, its modern day manifestation can be seen almost everywhere and the central and eastern parts of Europe are no exception.

Bucharest

As we have noted before, Bucharest was stripped of many buildings during the Ceaușescu regime and in one of those ironies that pervade life, the gross ego-trip that now serves as the Palace of the Parliament is built in a latter-day version of the Neo-Classical.

That palace

That palace

Few, however, would claim this monstrosity to be of great aesthetic value. For something more pleasing to the eye, the Ateneul Român (Romanian Athaeneum) is a much better bet. The building, designed by a French architect named Albert Galleron, was opened in 1888 and serves as the city’s main concert hall. It is home to the George Enescu Philharmonic Orchestra, named after Romania’s most famous composer.

Ateneu Român

Ateneu Român

Budapest

For a full-on Neo-Classical experience, a wander up to the top of Andrássy (or a trip on one of the dinky little trains on the M1 metro line) will bring you to Heroes’ Park. A vast monument stands at its centre, depicting Hungarian leaders and politicians. On the northern and southern sides, two grand Neo-Classical buildings face one another. To the north is the Museum of Fine Arts, bearing eight Corinthian columns topped by a portico depicting the legendary punch-up between Lapiths and Centaurs. Looking across at the museum is the Palace of Art, though it is not a mirror image of its neighbour. It has a mere six columns, but is no less imposing for that.

Heroes' Park

Heroes’ Park

Corinthian enough?

Corinthian enough?

Palace of Art

Palace of Art

Museum of Fine Arts

Museum of Fine Arts

Back towards the centre, on the very same street, is the splendid Opera House. Completed in 1884, it was built to rival that of Vienna. The façade is elegant and symmetrical, with sculptures portraying Hungary’s two finest composers, Erkel and Liszt.

Opera House

Opera House

The interior is, if anything, even more glorious, with its murals, chandeliers, vaulted ceilings and magnificent sweeping staircase, perfectly designed to let ladies of 19th-century Hungarian society to show off their (doubtless equally magnificent gowns.

The Hungarian National Museum deserves a visit for the impressive collections, but it also worth spending a while looking at the building itself. Located in the central part of the Pest side of the city, it was built in 1802 and the whole museum complex is a striking Neo-Classical vision of style.

Hungarian National Museum

Hungarian National Museum

One building that demonstrates that a mixture of style can work, if properly conceived, is the Vigadó concert hall, situated on the square of the same name, close to the Pest bank of the Danube. The present building is, in fact, a rebuilding, as the original was burned down. The new building, dating from 1864, is essentially Neo-Classical, but with a few added twists. Outside, look out for the Little Princess, a sculpture of a girl with a dog. Street sculptures are a Budapest speciality.

Vigadó concert hall

Vigadó concert hall

Berlin

Berlin is absolutely teeming with Neo-Classical buildings. Museum Island is not only a great place to enjoy the art and artefacts displayed within the museums, but to admire the buildings themselves. The Altes Museum was built in the 1820s to house the royal art collection. Its younger sibling, the Alte Nationalgalerie, was completed some 50 years later, also in Neo-Classical style.

Alte Nationalgalerie

Alte Nationalgalerie

Altes Museum

Altes Museum

Not far away is the beautiful Bode Museum, built in 1904. Today, it houses a fine collection of Byzantine art and visitors familiar with the city of Oxford may notice the similarities between the Bode and Oxford’s Radcliffe Camera.

The Bode Museum

The Bode Museum

The Neue Kirche (New Church) has been through several reconstructions. It was original built at the beginning of the 18th century, underwent considerable rebuilding in the 1880s and was almost completely destroyed in the Second World War, though subsequent reconstruction did not begin until 1977. For all its many travails, the church is another of Berlin’s great Neo-Classical buildings.

Neue Kirche

Neue Kirche

St Petersburg

For all St Petersburg’s love of the Baroque, one of its stand-out buildings is the huge Kazan Cathedral, midway along the city’s most famous street, Nevksy Prospekt. The cathedral was built between 1801 and 1811, a relatively quick affair by cathedral standards.

Kazan Cathedral

Kazan Cathedral

The cathedral is built on the lines of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Shortly after its completion, Napoleon invaded Russia and it became essentially a shrine to the Russian victory. The leader of the Russian army, Mikhail Kutuzov, was buried in the cathedral after his death in 1813 and a large statue of the general stands outside, along with one of Barclay de Tolly, the War Minister during the conflict.

de Tolly statue at Kazan

de Tolly statue at Kazan

Not far away is St Isaac’s Cathedral, completed in 1858 and based on the great Byzantine churches. It is, though, essentially a Neo-Classical take on the style. The huge main dome is, in typically understated Orthodox fashion, plated with gold. So conspicuous is the dome that it was painted black during the Second World War in an attempt to conceal it from enemy bombers. St Isaac’s is the world’s third-largest domed cathedral and took some 40 years to build.

St Isaac's Cathedral

St Isaac’s Cathedral

Built in a considerably shorter period of time (1819 to 1825, but no less majestic, is the State Museum of Russian Art, otherwise known as the Mikhailovsky Palace. To prove that nothing falls easily into a pigeon-hole, the palace has a touch of the Baroque to it and is enclosed by railings that are distinctly Art Nouveau. The palace became an art museum in 1898, when Nicholas II decided that St Petersburg should have an art gallery to match Moscow’s famous Tretyakov. The St Petersburg gallery grew to such an extent that its collection is around four times that of its Moscow counterpart.

State Museum of Russian Art

State Museum of Russian Art

Sofia

Though not an imposing building in terms of size, the National Theatre is one of Sofia’s most charming. A relatively recent structure completed in the early 20th century, it has great style and is perfectly located. Standing in the City Park at the heart of the Bulgarian capital, it provides a lovely backdrop to the surroundings and provides a pleasing view for those relaxing in the many cafés and bars in the gardens.

City Park and National Theatre

City Park and National Theatre

Of a more recent vintage is the National Library. Building began in 1939, but war intervened and the library was not completed until 1953. The official name is the St Cyril and St Methodius National Library, named after the brothers who introduced the Cyrillic alphabet. A statue of the brothers stands in the grounds.

National Library

National Library

Even more recent is the building that was the headquarters of the Bulgarian Communist Party. Built in the 1950s, it is constructed in the style known as Socialist Classicism. Many of the edifices constructed in this style are, quite frankly, ugly, but Party House has a certain elegance to it. There are, in fact, three linked buildings at the site, now occupied by government offices, the vast TZUM department store and an upmarket hotel.

The old Communiist Party HQ

The old Communiist Party HQ

The large Sofia Court House is of a similar style, though built a little earlier. It is another building that could defy categorisation, but with its 12 huge columns, comes closer to the Neo-Classical than anything else.

Court House

Court House

Of a more traditional style is the main building, or Rectorate, of Sofia University, though the university itself dates back to the late 19th century. The two statues outside the main entrance depict the Georgiev brothers, Hristo and Evlogi, who financed the building.

Sofia University

Sofia University

Art Nouveau Extra – Bucharest

Sadly, Bucharest was deprived of a vast number of buildings during the Ceauşescu years, many of them lost in the construction of the notorious Casa Poporului, which by a piece of sublime irony, the dictator was never to see completed. Away from this monstrosity, however, the visitor can still find some delights.

There is, for example, the Ateneu Român, a lovely concert hall in Neoclassical style that is home to the George Enescu Philharmonic, which offers classical concerts throughout the year. Surpassing this, however, and with a touch of neat symmetry, is the George Enescu Museum, half a mile or so to the north of the Ateneu.

Ateneu Român

Ateneu Român

George Enescu was Romania’s finest composer, though is perhaps better known, at least in the west of Europe, as the instructor of the world’s most famous violinist, Yehudi Menuhin.

The museum that bears Enescu’s name is probably the loveliest building in Bucharest. Its Art Nouveau splendour is so out of keeping with much of the city’s architecture that discovering the museum is a source of both surprise and delight. It was not, in fact, Enescu’s own house, but was built for a merchant named George Cantacuzino, in the early 20th century and is still sometimes referred to as the Cantacuzino Palace. Enescu himself did reside in the smaller pavilion behind the palace from 1937, having married Maria Cantacuzino, the widow of George’s son Mihail. The building’s architect was Ion Berindei, a Romanian who trained in Paris. The architect’s Baroque influences can also be seen, especially in the beautifully decorated interior.

Enescu Museum

Enescu Museum

The museum opened in 1956, a year after the death of Enescu, dedicated to the life and works of the composer. On display are instruments, documents, manuscripts, photographs and other memorabilia connected with Enescu.

Great Museums – Muzeul National de Istorie

Visitors to Bucharest’s National History Museum should not be put off by the appalling statue on the front steps. This abomination purportedly shows the emperor Trajan holding a wolf. It should be ignored, unless one takes the view that, like some cult films, it is so awful that it is, paradoxically, good.

Wolf-free version

Wolf-free version

Behind the ghastly statue sits the magnificent Neo-Classical building that houses the museum. It was completed in 1900 and was, until 1970, the home of the Romanian postal service, Poşta Romană. There are sixty or so rooms, though not all tend to be open at the same time.

Some critics might suggest that the museum is something of a one-trick pony. This, however, would be unfair, and in any case, the pony in question is a particularly impressive one and worth the admission money on its own. That pony is the replica of Trajan’s Column. Not just any replica – this is a full-scale affair.

Detail from Trajan's Column

Detail from Trajan’s Column

There are two significant and impressive collections. One is the Lapidarium, which displays some magnificent statues from a Bronze Age necropolis. This is where the visitor can follow, along the frieze of the column, the progress of the Dacian Wars (there were two in rapid succession) and the eventual and inevitable victory of the Romans – under Trajan, naturally – over the heroic Dacians. The extraordinary carved work shows around 2,500 figures, mostly soldiers, of course, but also statesmen and priests. Naturally, Trajan appears at very regular intervals.

Pietroasele dish

Pietroasele dish

The other superb collection is known as the Romanian Treasury. This includes Dacian jewellery and the Romanian Crown Jewels. The Pietroasele Treasure is a glorious collection of Gothic art, with gold dishes, cups and jewellery. Don’t be fooled by black-clad modern day Goths; fourth century Goths liked a bit of flashy colour.

Dacian bling

Dacian bling

The Crown Jewels comprise various crowns, swords, sceptres and jewellery. The Kingdom of Romania was a rather short-lived affair, lasting from 1881 until 1947, with only four kings, though one was to reign on two separate occasions. The collection is not, therefore, huge, but is impressive nonetheless. Top place in over-the-top jewel overload is probably the sword of King Carol I, Romania’s first king, encrusted with around 1,200 jewels.

Crown of Maria

Crown of Maria

The museum holds various exhibitions, often of an international nature. There is almost inevitably some kind of building work going on, but the museum always tries to keep its star attractions available for viewing.

Bucharest may not be everyone’s idea of a picturesque place and indeed there are some awful monstrosities (see the Presidential Palace). Many fine buildings were lost during the Ceaușescu period in particular, but thankfully the lovely National History Museum remains. But please do something with that statue…

Bucharest – Europe’s Fragmented Capital

Patriarchal Palace

Patriarchal Palace

The Croatian visitor was clearly baffled. “Can you tell me,” he asked, “where the city centre is?” There wasn’t a simple answer, other than “There isn’t really a city centre. There’s a lot of city, but no centre to it.”

Thus is Bucharest. The great part of the blame for the fragmentation of the city lies with Nicolae Ceaucescu, the Romanian president for 22 years. Ceaucescu it was who commissioned the giant palace that he was never to see completed, an edifice so huge that much of Bucharest’s old centre had to be destroyed.

It wasn’t just the palace, but the other stuff that went with it; the enormous grounds, the luxury flats near it, built for the party apparatchiks and the wide, tree-lined boulevard that leads to it. The whole area takes up a huge amount of space and churches, shops, houses and even a football stadium and monastery were razed to make room for it all.

That palace

That palace

The palace, despite its enormity, is not architecturally appalling, but the hideousness is more in what it stood for. This was megalomania at its most extreme and Bucharest continues to suffer from the dictator’s giant ego.

The result is that Bucharest is not the most picturesque of cities, but there is still plenty to see, although you might have to hunt around a bit. One thing to be aware of is that Bucharest does not expect tourists and as such, finding anything by way of information locally is not easy. Even fairly straightforward stuff like finding out when the airport bus runs becomes something you need to appoint a project manager for (in fact, the buses are very frequent and cost less than a couple of pounds).

This has positives and negatives. The place is not thronged with visitors, so there is not a huge choice of cafes, restaurants and bars. On the other hand, while these may take a little more finding, there are some decent places and they tend to be quite cheap. There’s a small area to the north-west of Unirii Square that is packed with faux Irish pubs, sports bars and similarly unimaginative offerings, but keeping them all in one area at least means it’s easy to avoid them.

Something definitely worth trying is Romanian wine, which doesn’t get exported much. It is not expensive, certainly by western standards, and red wine in particular is very good. Food tends towards the meaty – Romanians seem to enjoy large chunks of meat – and don’t be surprised to see all sorts of animal on the menu. One restaurant was serving ‘bear in mustard sauce’, though presumably not the whole bear.

Nothing should cost very much, whether it be food and drink or cultural activities. Bucharest is full of theatres, though all productions are in Romanian. Visitors, therefore, might prefer to visit the National Opera, which performs regularly. Tickets are very cheap, as they are for another favourite Romanian pastime, football. Bucharest has three major clubs, Steaua, Dinamo and Rapid, each with its own stadium. The Steaua versus Dinamo derby might not be the ideal fixture for those of a nervous disposition.

Something else guaranteed to make one jittery is the plethora of stray dogs. There are vast numbers in Bucharest and they have organised themselves into feral packs. These are dogs that were pets, but have been abandoned. The authorities claimed that they had not tackled the problem because public opinion was opposed to the destruction of the animals, though if people were so concerned, would they be there at all? It is, though a serious problem and walking past a group of 50 or 60 hungry dogs can certainly be a disconcerting experience. Recently, though, a small child was killed by stray dogs and this appears to have forced the government to do something at last. Certainly, something needs to happen, with reported figures of 65,000 dogs on the streets and more than 10,000 people treated for dog bites in the first eight months of 2013.

National Theatre

National Theatre

On a more uplifting note, while Bucharest may not be overloaded with museums, it has some interesting ones. The National Museum of Romanian History is a fine neoclassical building and is also well worth seeing inside. The highlight is a full-scale replica and frieze of Trajan’s Column, depicting the conflict between the Roman Empire under the Emperor Trajan and the Dacians, an early Romanian people, in the early second century.

The Peasant Museum is, perhaps, even better. It’s a large museum with thousands of exhibits and it’s also somewhere to buy a genuinely decent souvenir in the museum’s shop. There are regular, usually monthly, craft fairs held in the courtyard. The seemingly innumerable hand-painted Easter eggs catch the eye, but there is a lot more besides. The prices here can be a bit steeper, but the quality of the crafts is a great deal higher than the standard kind of tat sold in the average souvenir shop.

It’s almost impossible to visit Romania and not encounter Dracula in some form and indeed, Bucharest has a restaurant called Count Dracula, where a waiter makes intermittent appearances from a coffin. Meanwhile, on the Danube, relatives of Count Duckula paddle along, though they are more interested by the tasty Romanian black bread that is thrown to them than in vampirical ventures.

Duckula and friends

Duckula and friends

Bucharest might not be high on the wish lists of many tourists and it’s true that the city has been left as something of a patchwork quilt, but there is plenty there if you look for it and that is part of the fun of visiting a place. Now and then, there’s a pleasant surprise waiting.