Bucharest, the capital of Romania, is a shifting, disconcerting city with the provincial calm of sunlight-spattered streets, lined with secret gardens, town houses and small domed churches that look like cakes of brick sprout. It is also a dispersed city- an urban rift created by the megalomania of Ceausescu. The center of the city is undefined, even though Calea Victoriei remains the principal artery; fulfilling its new role as a luxury showcase for the city, it is once again an attractive boulevard. Bucharest begins to reveal its incommensurable charm once you start to wander through the maze of its neighborhoods by foot, keeping in mind that, if you walk through the city parks which feature numerous bucolic refreshment stands, Romanticism, though gone underground for a time, never completely disappeared.
Bucharest’s taxi drivers have a refreshingly liberal sense of equal opportunities, above all, when it comes to ripping people off, they view anyone as fair game, locals, foreigners, young, old, male, female, anyone who steps in the wrong kind of taxi can expect to be well and truly buggered. This city may just be one of the European capitals with the highest number of taxis per capita, authorities claim to issue about 10.000 permits each year, but everyone knows there are a lot more on the city’s streets. If you want to get by taxi to any meeting point in the city there are several rules you really have to keep in mind if you do not want to get outsmarted. Rule number one: you have to remember when getting into a taxi in this city there are two kinds: those which are operated by a tried and trusted taxi company (of course this is the good choice) and those who are independent drivers (and that is obviously the bad choice). You should avoid taxis with the number 9403 on it, because these are the independent ones, and you should be extra careful around Gara de Nord, Baneasa Airport, Bucuresti Mall, Piata Universitatii and Piata Unirii. Rule number two: only take a taxi that indicates the taxi fare per kilometer, in other words, a maximum of 3 RON (3.6 RON = € 1/ 2.5 RON = $ 1). Rule number three: before getting into a taxi you should ask the driver if he knows the street you are looking for. If not, you’re better off with another taxi, because Bucharest taxi drivers have the unfortunate habit of dropping customers off in the neighborhood, if they have indicated a nearby landmark as a reference. Rule number four: watch the meter, because it sometimes starts to turn rapidly once the passenger gets in. And rule number five, as a tip to all the people than plan to vacate in Bucharest: whenever possible, ask your hotel concierge to reserve your taxi for you.
Divided into six sectors, Bucharest is, similar to Paris, organized around piatas or ‘squares’, whereas sector one is the largest with an amplitude of 67.5 square kilometers. There is a ranger of beautiful streets compartmentalized in those six sectors. The Calea Victoriei, Bucharest’s main street, situated in sector one, leads from Kiseleff Boulevard to the north to the bank of the Dambovita River in the south. Despite all efforts, the Calea Victoriei illustrates a visibly Oriental penchant for disorder: it was not laid out in a straight line. The wealth of Bucharest is completely concentrated along the Calea Victoriei, and turns it into a mecca of shopping, as well as a showcase for western Luxury goods. In sector three you can find the city’s center of commerce in the 18th century, Lipscani, where tiny shops along Strada Lipscani used to sell linens imported from Leipzig back then, but in a poor state of repair and with an indigent population, Lipscani fell into decay during Ceausescu’s reign. A very interesting neighborhood is of course Dorobanti, situated in sector one, whose streets that head toward Piata Victoriei from Piata Dorobantilor are named for major European capitals: Strada Paris, Roma, Londra, among others.
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The beautiful Churches of Bucharest
In the beginning I wrote about small domed churches of Bucharest looking like cakes from brick sprout in the midst of concrete complexes inherited from the Communist past – the ‘blocks’, as the Romanians call them. When you walk through the streets of Bucharest you come across the most beautiful churches you have ever seen in your life, above all the Old Court Church (Biserica Curtea Veeche), the city’s oldest church constructed within the walls of the Royal Palace, which is now in ruins (Strada Franceza). After a while of walking through the romantic streets of Bucharest you stop to notice every single church because there are so many of them existing. Constructed on the Metropolitan Hill in the 17th century, the Metropolitan Church (Catedrala Patriahiei) is dedicated to Saint Helen and Saint Constantine. (Strada Mitroploiei). Bucharest’s best choir sings at Zlatari Church (Biserica Zlatari) during mass. Situated on the Calea Victoriei the goldsmiths guild built this church in 1715.
Ceausescu’s Palace is the most controversial building in Bucharest, whose construction began in 1983 on Ceausescu’s orders, who razed an entire neighborhood to the ground – an area that has often been called historic. In truth it was an outlying neighborhood with winding streets, low houses and numerous small churches. Its residents were evicted precipitously and relocated an edge of the city. It took 200 architects, 300 engineers and 20.000 workers about six years to construct this enormous white mass that swallowed about 20 billion lei (RON), but the construction was unfinished when the dictator was deposed in 1989 and it remained unchanged for several years as the Bucharest government did not know what to do with the People’s House. Today this building is known as the Palace of Parliament and became a tourist attraction. A forty-minute guided tour takes visitors through the ceremonial rooms. The Modern Art Museum is now located in the rear section of the building. Concerts and conferences are held here, and it has been used as a film set, notably for Costa Gavras’s ‘Amen’ – for which the walls were covered with icons.
Neither the romantic facets nor the beautiful constructions in between several blocks full of Romanian history will be forgotten if you ever visit this city. Marvelous churches, enormous Universities, Palaces and ruins that tell you a story about the history of this charming country will stay in your mind and remain there forever as a wonderful memory of being acquainted with a shifting, disconcerting and dispersed city called Bucharest.