Rediscover Bucharest: Calea Victoriei

02 Jun 2016

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. Designed by Octav Doicescu in 1938 it was completed only in 1946, and is elegantly functional, the bulk of the building being set back from the street, creating a small square flanked by the building’s twin wings. Banloc-Goodrich was the first tyre-manufacturer in Romania, nationalised in 1948. The building, a gem, is now owned by the state, but has been vacant for some time. It is also known as the Red Building, apparently because in its early years the exterior was painted red. Opposite, on the corner of Strada Sevastopol, is another wonderful building, the Casa Filipescu, a vaguely Secessionist house whose original wrought-iron balconies remain intact. Look out too for the sculptures over the windows. Built in 1892 the house is part of the Museum of Bucharest and is currently being fully restored. The orangery in the lovely courtyard sometimes hosts exhibitions.

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.

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Martin Speers
Looking forward to returning to Bucharest soon and have just re-read Olivia Manning's atmospheric 'Balkan Trilogy' in which pre-WWII Bucharest and the Calea Victoriei, the Athenee Palace and it's English Bar feature prominently; a good read that gives you a good sense of the city and its people at that time. (Manning worked there at the time)
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