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.