Rediscover Bucharest: Calea Victoriei

more than a year ago

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 - both historic if 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?

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Over a year ago
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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