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A Day in the Old Town and Museums in Bucharest

ROMANIA | Sunday, 31 October 2021 | Views [160]

Memorial of Rebirth

Memorial of Rebirth

A Day in the Old Town and Museums of Bucharest

 I had wanted to get to Bucharest and to Romania for awhile, but the timing was never quite right.  I now had two weeks to visit museums and ancient sites in Romania and Bulgaria while friends watched over my dog and house. It isn’t easy to travel in major cities with a large dog who needs greenery and trees as I had learned earlier in the summer in Croatia. So, in spite of skyrocketing Covid statistics, I boarded the Wizz Air flight from Vienna to Bucharest hoping that with masks and social distancing as best as possible the trip would proceed without health or safety issues.  When I arrived in Bucharest, I was pleasantly surprised to see almost everyone on the street wearing masks, and the hotels and restaurants were taking the newly imposed restrictions very seriously. 

The purpose of the trip was to learn more about the ancient cultures of the region, so my first stop was the National Museum of Romanian History.  The museum is located along Calea Victoriei, Victory Way, the oldest street in the city. In 1692 it was designed to connect the Old Princely Court, in what is now the Old Town, with Mogosoaia Palace. The former oak beam paved road is now a multilane throughway tree-lined with expensive villas, former palaces and some of the most important monuments and squares in the city. There is even an Arc de Triumf, although it is only a third of the size of that in Paris. The National History Museum, located in Old Town, is housed in a remodeled former Post Office originally built between 1894-1900 at the height of the city’s Belle Epoche. The collection is on two floors; the permanent collection on the lower level houses the archeological section, with two distinct sections. The first has sections of Trajan’s column, the one where the Emperor is shown conquering the native Dacian population, adding the region to the Empire, and the local people adapting to Roman rituals, along with a number of Roman statues and gravestones.  The second is the heart of the museum, the Treasury.  This large room has gold, silver and jeweled displays from ca. the 5th-4th millennia B.C.E. until the early 20th C. of the Common Era. The earliest artifacts appear to be thin gold etched sheets cut into votive figures. By the beginning of the Iron Age, the typical Romanian vegetal motif is visible in the decorative objects.  The museum placards say that this Thracian design then spread across Europe, although I’m personally not sure this is accurate as the motif shows up earlier in Anatolia and some Central Asian countries, which would also have had contact with people to the northwest.  What does seem to be true, though, is that the Thracian artists and artisans incorporated ideas from trading partners who came via the Black and Mediterranean Seas as well as down from the Steppes into their local traditions and designs. This pattern of learning from and adapting techniques from other cultures was apparent in the rest of the display as well leading up to and including bejeweled royal crowns and ornately gilded religious artifacts. The Treasury is the centerpiece of the museum and was nicely laid out; the descriptions were thankfully in both Romanian and English.  The upper or ground floor of the museum was dedicated to the two world wars, with most of the exhibit showcasing material from 1941-1945.  At one end of the long hall, there were also two rooms dedicated to a children’s museum, which included old toys and puzzles.  

Across the street from the National History Museum, is the CEC Palace of Savings Bank.  This structure is in a French Neo-Baroque style and was built between 1896-1900, when the city was considered the Paris of the East. Next door to the museum is St. Zlatan’s Church which, like many other small churches in the area, appears like a shining star amid the oversized darker soot covered structures surrounding it. A few hundred meters down the pedestrian street behind the museum is one of the highlights of Old Town, the Stavropoleos Monastery, of which only the church remains. Originally built in 1724, the Monastery had an inn attached to it; the income from the guesthouse supported the monks and the church.  The vagaries of fire, earthquakes and the communist regime all took their tolls on the area and on this complex, although the archangels Michael and Gabriel seem to have protected at least the church that is dedicated to them.  The name of the church stems from the Greek term for ‘the city of the Cross.’

The Old Town has a number of Orthodox churches with excellent frescos, many of which have been somehow recaptured after the communist era when Ceausescu destroyed most religious structures. Wandering through the café and restaurant lined streets, I came upon St. Dimitru’s, which now serves as a University parish. In 1655 a church was constructed on this site, but given the damages to the region, the church had to be rebuilt a number of times. It became the “Oath-Taking Church” from 1819-1843, and after a fire in that year, St. Dimitru’s (St. Demitrius). It became a religious site for students in 2009. There were a number of people praying at the iconostasis and side altars while I was there admiring the frescos.  A bit further east and closer to the canal are three notable structures. The Old Princely Court, with a series of dungeons built by Vlad Tepes (the Impaler/Dracula), was closed off for renovations, but the Old Court Church, which was fairly recently remodeled, was open along with Mancu’s Inn. The Old Court Church is the oldest in Bucharest, the original structure having been built in 1559; it was the coronation site for the Romanian kings during the 16th -18th C. The frescos are beautifully painted with a number of images of the dormition of the Virgin Mary and the wooden doors to the church ornately carved. The museum on the site has a document which has the earliest mention of the name Bucharest for the city and was signed by Vlad Tepes on September 20, 1459. Vlad was actually the person who historically established the city out of what was swampy area. He needed a place to function as a barrier border to prevent the Ottomans from the south from attacking his kingdom. Over the years, the swamps were diverted into the lakes in the multiple parks in the urban area. While this may be the historical record, there is also the myth that the city was founded by a shepherd named Bucur on the Dambovita River. His name means ‘joy’ and his flute playing and wine from the nearby vineyards so delighted the people of the region that they named the place after him. It is entirely possible to combine the legend with the historical account, by placing the first before Vlad’s entry as people were clearly here prior to his establishing residency.

I didn’t go into the oldest operating inn kitty corner from the Old Court Church, but instead walked back to the main street to get back onto Victoria Way and onto the National Art Museum.  This museum is on Revolution Square, formerly known as Palace Square, and there are a number of former palatial buildings now encircling a little park with a marble column shooting the sky with a round black metal spiral that is supposed to be a crown near the top. This structure is the Monument of Rebirth, commemorating the struggle and victims of the 1989 Revolution and signifying the rebirth of the nation after the fall of communism. The sculpture was not universally accepted when it was erected in 2005 and is still a subject of contention. The buildings surrounding it are all from the late 1890s early 1900s and include one of the many large university buildings in the city, this one has an oversized equestrian statue of Carol I in front facing the Royal Palace. King Carol I was the first king of a modern united Romania and the one who stopped the country from having to pay tribute to the Ottomans. In the back of the square is the Athenium that houses a concert hall, and to the other southern side, the Athenee Palace Hotel. Just south of the National History Museum is the small red brick Kretzulescu Church, which contrasts with the heaviness of the nearby structures. I ducked into the early 18th C Orthodox site, which architecturally is quite interesting, especially its Brancovenesc façade surrounded by a bit of lawn amidst the huge dark concrete edifices engulfing it. The inside is decorated floor to ceiling with frescos but they are so darkened by soot and dirt that it is difficult to really see them.

The church is just a few steps from the National Art Museum, which is housed in the former King’s palace. The museum has a number of sections and I knew I wasn’t going to be able to see them all, so I skipped the European Gallery as the artists represented there have works that can be seen elsewhere and headed to the Romanian gallery.  This collection alone is in three levels. The first floor is dedicated to art from the late Roman early Christian era and includes icons up to the 18th C. The first three rooms, which housed the earliest artifacts, were closed, but the remaining displays provided a good overview of Greek and Byzantine influence over the years. The second floor had a collection of paintings by local artists who were clearly influenced by Spanish and Habsburg painters in the 1700- to early 1800s as well as by Titian and Rembrandt. The third floor was perhaps the most interesting as the display included a mini-Romanian version of Parisian painting styles of the late 1800s up to about 1945. There were impressionist, expressionists, post-impressionist, primitivists, cubists, and realists. The sculpture section had a room dedicated to Brancusi’s work and mentioned that he had studied with Auguste Rodin, but left as ‘nothing grows under the shadow of a great tree’. What struck me the most after touring the museum was how much Romanian artists absorbed other cultural traditions, which seemed appropriate given the country’s history of adapting to other cultures starting with the Greeks and Romans.

After leaving the Royal Palace, I took a taxi to the Village Museum. The outdoor museum is in Herastrau Park and showcases mostly late 18th to early 20th C houses and churches brought to the site from across the country. The houses are organized by area so that it is easy to see the differences among the three major provinces: Wallachia, Transylvania, and Moldavia. The re-erected buildings are nicely laid out along treelined walking paths some of which border one of the lakes in the quite extensive park. Most of the people in the Village Museum appeared to be locals out enjoying the museum as an afternoon walk in the nature. This museum was the only one that didn’t directly display foreign influences, but was uniquely Romanian in character.

There was one last stop that I wanted to get to before the end of the day and that was to the Parliament Building. Luckily, I made it in time for the last tour as entry is only allowed within a group. They also make one show an original ID/passport, a driver’s license is not enough, as well as the vaccination card/GreenPass. This building is simply huge, and the heightened security is understandable as it would be quite easy to get lost in the labyrinth. It was the largest civic building in the world when opened; China may now have one bigger and the Pentagon is larger, but that isn’t for civilian use. Ceausescu’s monstrosity has more than 3000 rooms, 60 corridors and 64 reception halls. Outside the ‘People’s Palace’ is the Central Civic Court also known as Constitution or Palace Square, which is modeled after a design he saw in Pyongyang. One dictator trying to outdo another…. Each room and hallway in the palace has an individual style. There is a German Renaissance room, a French Rococo salon, an Italian baroque room etc. etc. All of which are simply huge. What he did do that was distinctly Romanian was to use only (with two very minor exceptions) raw materials and artisans from the country. The wood, marble, glass chandeliers, rugs and furniture were all locally produced. The tour, which lasted well over an hour, took in only 5 % of the building Ceausescu built as if he were Nero’s successor – including leveling a former residential area to fulfill his plans. He had intended to have all government buildings housed within his personal residence but didn’t live long enough to move in as he and his wife were shot after the Revolution of 1989. The building wasn’t completed until 2004.

 It was a full day filled with competing impressions. As I walked back through the Old Town to find a restaurant for dinner, I looked at all the decaying graffiti covered structures that almost overwhelm the newer cleaner buildings in the city. It seemed to me that this was living proof of the lasting impact of harmful government. Megalomanic leaders, whether they go by communist, populist or religious labels, can cause economic and societal disasters that last for generations. Post-WWII, two important meetings took place near Revolution Square, the first in 1968 when Ceausescu split from the Kremlin to establish his own Communist regime and the second in 1989, when he planned for a repeat performance, but instead was confronted with a revolution that cost 1500 lives and toppled his dictatorship. The city still bears the scars from his reign, which really had nothing to do with a Marxian Communism, but everything to do with the narcissism of the ruler. Today, it appeared to me that the city was trying to recapture an air of the former, pre-communist flair of the Belle Epoche, but was struggling in the attempt. 


Tags: cities, history, museums, towns


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