No street in Bucharest has a history to match that of Calea Victoriei, the city’s most famous thoroughfare which runs - much as it has for more than three centuries - from Piata Victoriei in the north of the city all the way down to Piata Natiunilor Unite and the Dambovita river.
Lined with fine houses, palaces, churches, hotels, upmarket shops and museums, it remains perhaps the most prestigious address in the city.
Calea Victoriei was first opened to traffic - or what passed for traffic in those days - in 1692, originally part of the route from the Old Court (Curtea Veche) to Mogosoaia, where Constantin Brancoveanu, that great ruler of these parts who did so much to modernise the country during his long and distinguished reign - had his main palace. The street has had many names over the years, including Ulita Sarindar, Drumul Brasovului and Drumul Mogosoaia - its name until 1878 when it was christened Calea Victoriei in honour of victories recently won by Romanian armies fighting to preserve the country’s newly won independence from the Ottoman Empire.
The street - originally covered with logs, as was the norm in those days - was fully paved by 1825, one of the first in the city (Strada Franceza, in Old Town/Lipscani, closer to the Old Court, was in fact the first). There followed a blossoming of construction as the street became a magnet for wealthy merchants who built homes along its length, keen to be spared the ignominies of the mud streets which persisted elsewhere. Though much has changed since, and not a few majestic buildings have fallen victim to earthquake, war, socialist planning or modernisation, many of the buildings which went up along Calea Victoriei in the 19th century remain, and to walk the street’s length (around three kilometres) is to at once enjoy an architectural treat and history lesson.
Orientation: modern Calea Victoriei can be split more or less neatly into two sections: the residential northern part (extending as far south as Calea Grivitei), noted mainly for its fine houses and palaces and the commercial southern part, packed with hotels, shops, banks, restaurants and cafes. To start a walk of the full length of the street at the northern end (which we recommend, as you can then end up by relaxing in one of the cafes of Old Town), simply take the metro to Piata Victoriei.
Piata Victoriei to Calea Grivitei
For all its history, Calea Victoriei does not start well. Piata Victoriei is by and large an awful place, all cars and traffic, smoke and dust. The modernist building on the far side is the Palatul din Piata Victoriei, home today of the Romanian government (though when it was built in the 1930s it was the Foreign Ministry). On the other side of the square is the Grigore Antipa Museum of Natural History, built in 1906 and one of the best museums in the country. Elsewhere, Piata Victoriei is a socialist nightmare, with its more recently built office blocks barely more attractive than those built before 1989.
Heading off from here along Calea Victoriei itself, you need to walk for 200 metres or so alongside tall, communist-era blocks on either side until you get to the first of many neglected architectural gems, the huge Banloc-Goodrich building at No. 218.
The brand new Victoria Center faces another rather lovely building with Secessionist features on the corner with Strada Frumoasa. The building would be the highlight of many streets in Romania, but not Calea Victoriei. For next door is the Palatul Cantacuzino at No. 141, usually referred to (mistakenly) as the Casa Enescu. The building does house the Romanian Museum of Music (which carries the name of George Enescu, the country’s finest composer) but - contrary to popular belief, Enescu never actually lived here. There is a connection, however. The vaguely baroque, Louis XVI-style building dates from 1898, when it was built for the wealthy politician Gheorghe Cantacuzino. On his death in 1913 the palace became the property of Cantacuzino’s eldest son Mihai, who in turn left it to his wife, Maruca, when he died in 1929. Maruca subsequently married Enescu - in 1939 - but they chose to live in a smaller house at the rear of the palace. The building became the George Enescu Museum of Music in 1956, a year after the composer’s death.
In a well-kept courtyard opposite is the Church of St. Vasile the Great, rebuilt in 1848 after the 18th century original was destroyed in an earthquake. It’s lovely gate is bettered by the church’s neoclassical portal, above which an eye keeps watch for sinners. It’s worth popping inside to take a look at the murals painted by Anton Serafim in the 1880s. The church is better lit than many in the city.
Next door is the Casa Dissescu, built for Constantin Dissescu - a lawyer and for a short time the Minister of Justice - in 1910. It is today home to the Romanian Institute of the History of Art. It has a rather nice raised loggia, but the street has over the years encroached to be almost directly underneath.
Crossing Strada Gheorghe Manu and ignoring the building site on the right hand side of the road, you will come across two gorgeous houses next to each other: the Neo-Classical yet very French Casa Nenciu, was built in the 1830s for a Wallachian princess, the exotically named Cleopatra Trubetkoi. In 1847 Franz Liszt stayed here while on an extended visit to Bucharest. Next door at No. 192, and set back slightly from the street, is the Casa Manu, completed in 1843 for the modernising administrator Alecu Florescu, but named for the man who bought it in 1848: the legendary general Gheorghe Manu.
The Casa Lens-Vernescu at No. 133 (to give the mansion its full name) is one of the finest on Calea Victoriei, built around 1820 in an eclectic style incorporating many of the architectural trends of the time. For years it was regarded as the most beautiful house in the city, and belonged initially to Filip Lens, a lawyer and politician. On his death in 1852 the house became a residence for military officers, the Ministry of War moving in shortly afterwards. Another politician, Gheorghe Vernescu, bought it from the state in 1886, and had it extensively remodelled over a two-year period from 1887-9. It was at this time that the majority of the stunning interior frescoes were added. The building is now home to a restaurant.
The Casa Vernescu is almost eclipsed by the equally grand house opposite, the Palatul Ghica-Gradisteanu. Built first in the 1850s before being completely remodelled in 1898, it currently hosts the Romanian-Chinese Cultural Centre.
Those visitors to (and residents of) Bucharest who speed along in Calea Victoriei in cars - pausing only to watch the traffic lights turning green - often fail to realise that the street is blessed with a number of small parks. The Nicolae Iorga Park is just one of these. A gorgeous little place, the park is home to two large busts: one of Nicolae Iorga (a 19th century politician and polymath), and one of Nichita Stanescu, Romania’s finest 20th century poet.
The large, handsome church overlooking the park is the St. Nicolae Tabacu church, first built in 184. Opposite (and built at a right angle to the street) is the imposing Library of the Romanian Academy, a Duiliu Marcu design (Marcu was also the architect behind the Palatul din Piata Victoriei) constructed from 1936-7. More than four million books are kept inside.
The house on the south-western corner of the Calea Victoriei/Bulvardul Dacia intersection (opposite the new-ish Golden Tulip hotel), hidden behind advertising hoardings and trees is the once fabulous Casa Monteoru. One of the oldest on Calea Victoriei it dates from around 1810, although it was almost entirely reconstructed in the 1880s (to designs by Ion Mincu - an architect whose name you come across a lot in Bucharest). The building is distinguished by its uneven character: the ground floor is much smaller than the upper floor, the gorgeous balcony of which is supported by two broad, Corinthian columns. Eclectic both inside and out the building is today one of a number in the city owned by the Romanian Writer’s Union.
Next door is a fine palace, known as the Palat Romanit which hosts the Museum of Art Collections. The central corp was built in 1834, then rebuilt and extended in 1883, when the wings were added. For much of the 19th century the building was home to the Ministry of Finance, becoming an art museum in 1948, when the wealthiest families in Romania were made an offer they couldn’t refuse by the communist government, and forced to donate much (in many cases all) of their extensive art collections to the state.
Speaking of the state, the elegant, modernist if rather neglected (spotting a theme?) linear building opposite, at No. 152, is another Duiliu Marcu design, built from 1936-40 and which was from 1948-1989 home of the State Planning Committee (in other words, the building where bureaucrats tried to ensure that every collective farm in Romania had enough paper clips). Looking every inch a 1930s Italian railway station, the clock on the sublime tower is a gem. It is to be hoped that the building will soon be restored to past glories: it is one of the most overlooked and ignored in the city. This is a real shame.
Commercial Calea Victoriei
It is at the crossroads with Calea Grivitei that you notice a real change in the mood of Calea Victoriei. The road and pavements narrow, and houses, palaces and small parks give way to blocks - many of which are nevertheless elegant if run down - most of which are now used as offices, with shops on the ground floor.
But there are exceptions, such as the Stirbey Palace at No. 107, which dates from 1835, but which is rather hemmed in by the 1960s apartment blocks which surround it, and its facade is spoilt by the impromptu car park directly in front. For decades a museum of arts and crafts, the building is currently in limbo.
Past the courtyard that leads to the legendary jazz club Green Hours, next to which is a later 19th century low rise house that looks very out of place in such high-rise company is the extravagant, deliberately over-engineered Neo-Romanian AGIR building at No. 118. Designed by Petre Antonescu and completed in 1925 its facade apparently pays tribute to ‘the engineering genius of Roman aqueducts’. The AGIR was the pre-war association of Romanian engineers, and the building was very much seen as a ‘look what we can do’ calling card.
The next building of real interest will for most people be the little white church set back from the street in a small square on the corner of Str. George Enescu. Known colloquially as the Biserica Alba (White Church), it is offically the Biserica Sf. Nicolae and is one of the oldest in Bucharest, being founded in 1700. The current structure dates from 1827 however (the original was destroyed in an earthquake), with the interior frescoes for which it is famed having been restored a number of times, most recently in 1988. After the last major earthquake in Bucharest (in 1977) the foundations of the church were consolidated, and it is now considered one of the safest in the city.
The glass and steel opposite belong to the Radisson Blu hotel, opened in 2008 after a refit of several years had turned the tired, old and often infamous Hotel Bucuresti into the five-star wonder the rich and famous throng to today. The hotel’s interior courtyard is home - in the right weather - to one of the few outdoor swimming pools in the city. (The original Hotel Bucuresti was built from 1982-4).
In what is very much Bucharest’s Hotel Row, directly across the road from the Radisson is the Athenee Palace Hilton, one of few hotel’s in the world whose history is so intriguing that books have been written about it (Rosie Waldeck’s Athenee Palace details the intricate diplomatic discussions - official or otherwise - which took place here in the 1930s and 1940s). The hotel opened in 1912 (it was designed by a Frenchman, Teophile Bradeau) and was built on the site of an old inn, the Hanul Gherasi. The Calea Victoriei wing was added in the 1960s, and the hotel was entirely renovated again in 1997 when it became a Hilton property. Most recently the ground floor brasserie was remodelled and reopened as the Cafe Athenee. Despite all the changes, the Athenee Palace’s historic English Bar remains wonderfully old fashioned and has barely changed in decades.
The Athenee Palace vies for attention on Piata Revolutiei with the Atheneum, the Former Royal Palace, the University Library, the statue of Carol I, the Former Central Committee Building, the Revolution Monument and the Cretulescu Church.
First off, the University Library. It was designed by the French architect Paul Gottereau and built from 1891-95. Badly damaged during the revolution of 1989, it was faithfully restored from 1993-96 and is now one of the city’s finest buildings.
Take a look also at the building just behind it: a modern green office block inside the ruins of an old house first built in 1890. What happened here is simple: the original building was all but destroyed during the 1989 revolution (this square saw most of the action: it was from the balcony of the Former Central Committee Building that Nicolae Ceausescu gave his last public speech, before fleeing the next day from the roof in a helicopter). It was taken over by the Architects’ Union who then created the rather splendid mix of old and new we admire today. There is a cafe on the ground floor.
The Revolution Monument is a less impressive affair, mocked by locals who call it an olive on a stick. It seems a most unworthy memorial for those who died here in 1989.
Shops of the classy and expensive kind occupy the ground floor of the buildings that line Calea Victoriei as it closes in again, at least as far as the two hotels - historic both for differing reasons - that greet you at the crossroads with Ion Campaneanu. Before moving on to the hotels, take a look to your left at the Union Building on the corner of Str. Academiei and Str. Ion Campaneanu: it is an art deco masterpiece built in 1928-9 whose central facade looks much like a rocket about to blast off. It was renovated in 1999.
A more recent renovation is the Grand Continental Hotel, reopened in 2009 after being almost totally rebuilt. Opposite is the Novotel, whose faux Neo-Classical entrance is an exact replica of that of Bucharest’s original National Theatre, which stood here from 1852 until it was destroyed in an allied bombing raid in August 1944 (just days before Romania changed sides in World War II).
Next to the Novotel is one of Calea Victoriei’s most instantly recognisable landmarks, the art deco Palatul Telefoanelor (Telephone Palace). Built over three years from 1929-32 to serve as the headquarters of Romania’s national telephone company (which it remained until the early 1990s) it was the first building in the country to be constructed in the manner of an American skyscraper: concrete reinforced by a steel frame. Just over 53 metres high, until the Inter Continental was built in the early 1970s it was the tallest building in Bucharest.
There are three other hotels on this part of the street: the Majestic, the Capitol and the Casa Capsa - the latter being one of the oldest in the city, dating back to 1886. The cafe on the ground floor was for decades - especially in the 1920s and 1930s - the unofficial home of Romania’s best writers, who would wile away their days here. The name refers to the founder of the hotel, Grigore Capsa, who was said to be able to spot a decent writer a mile away: writers (a superstitious bunch at the best of times) came to his cafe to seek his approval.
While the Pasajul Villacrosse further along the street is the most famous of Bucharest’s 19th century arcades, it is certainly not the only one. Opposite the Telephone Palace is the Pasajul Victoriei, which, while not as architecturally pleasing as Villacrosse, has perhaps an even richer history: built in the 1830s it was home for a long time to the city’s biggest (and most luxurious) brothel. King Carol II was allegedly a regular client. The brothel was closed in 1947, but the goings-on inside (and in the pasaj in general) are immortalised in Ion Matei Caragiale’s Craii de Curtea Veche, a novel published in 1929 for which life the pasaj provided much inspiration.
An even narrower pasaj, the Pasajul Comedie, can be found on the left hand side of the Odeon Theatre (opened in 1911). A statue of the great Turkish leader Kemal Ataturk stands in front of the theatre.
The Cercul Militar was completed in 1912, on the site of a former monastery, the Sarindar. A recently renovated fountain in front of the building preserves the Sarindar name. Opposite is one of the more striking blocks built during the early communist period: the Romarta Block (completed in 1960), complete with a covered walkway on three sides. When In Your Pocket first came to Romania in 1999, our office was on the 5th floor.
Across the busy road junction is the Hotel Bulevard, built in the 1860s and the first in the city to have running water in all of its rooms. It closed in 2005 ahead of a five-star refit which looks to be nearing completion.
On the opposite corner, find the little courtyard (next to the take-away section of Pizza Hut) which leads through to one of Bucharest’s many hidden churches (Romania’s communist authorities had a habit of building tall apartment blocks around churches to hide them from public view). Dating from 1683 the church’s name is a mouthful: the Biserica Intrarea Maicii Domnului în Biserică (the Church of the Entrance of the Mother of God into Church). The recently restored frescoes are worth popping inside to see. The block above Pizza Hut is known as the Delta Dunarii (Danube Delta) block. Until the early 1990s a famous fish restaurant of the same name occupied the ground floor.
From here Calea Victoriei heads gently downhill towards the river. You will see the rather yellowy-orange facade of the Bucharest Police Headquarters, next to which is the Magazinul Victoria, built in 1928, and originally known as the Galeries Lafayette. It was the first department store to open in Romania. Lurking across the road is the Bancorex building (now called the Bucharest Financial Plaza): the first modern office block to be built after 1990. Bancorex - a bank set up to absorb and disperse foreign loans and investment in the early 1990s went bust in 1999, and the bank’s name has since become a byword for post-communist corruption.
Opposite on the corner of Strada Lipscani is the 19th century Palatul Dacia (built for the long defunct Dacia insurance company). Next to that is the Zlatari Church, built in the 1850s and most notable for the interior frescoes, painted by Gheorghe Tattarescu. Just past the church is the National History Museum while the Old Town/Lipscani area lurks behind the History Museum.
Opposite is the amazing CEC building, one of the city’s finest, with the elegant and recently renovated Casa Prager two buildings along. First constructed in 1770 for the Vacarescu family it carries the name of Sigmund Prager, who bought it in 1887. A wealthy merchant he opened a shop selling furs on the ground floor. It is of all things today the headquarters of the Romanian national lottery.
At the very bottom of Calea Victoriei, facing the river, are the Gloriette Buildings, neither of which is in the best of shape. Designed by local architect Petru Antonescu and completed in 1926, they are worth noting for the sinister reason that their design (particularly the belvedere at the top) was used a blueprint for the apartment buildings which went up in the Civic Centre along Bulevardul Unirii in the 1980s (and which, it should be said, have weathered no better).
On the other side of the river next to the Palatul Justitiei, the high rise Gioconda Block was completed in 1950 and was considered a wonder of the new utopian age Romania was about to enter. Where did it all go wrong?