Guest Post: 3 days in Bucharest, uncovering chaos and The Zero Theorem

Right after spending two days visiting Brașov and Sinaia up in the Carpathian mountains, the train took us to the capital city of Romania, our last stop on a 9-day trip to the East that had started in Budapest, Hungary, on 1 August.

cazzavillanLuigi Cazzavillan is a very interesting street in downtown Bucharest

Even after having read some stuff about Bucharest – the worldwide famous Palace of the Parliament, some scary lines about stray dogs, the massive urban changes imposed by Ceaușescu in the ’80s – we must say, to be honest, that our first walk in the city, from North Train Station (Gara de Nord – n.r.) to a hostel on Luigi Cazzavilian Street was quite surprising: in less than 20 minutes we had the chance to experience Art Déco style mansions, a shirtless man shouting from the window of a crumbling Neoclassical villa and Communist skyscrapers, everything under blistering August midday heat.

barcelonaBarcelona’s famous carefully laid out urban grid

We asked each other ironically in Catalan: “On collons hem anat a parar?!” (Where the fuck did we end up!?). For two Spaniards from Barcelona, where at least 70% of the city is a quadrangular grid, Bucharest looked like a place ruled by chaos and mayhem.

ateneuThe Romanian Athenaeum, a stunning 19th century concert hall and landmark of Bucharest, surrounded by parking lots

That afternoon we had the opportunity to walk around Victory Avenue (Calea Victoriei – n.r.), visit the Romanian Athenaeum, explore Ceaușescu’s Palace-to-be (Casa Poporului – n.r.) and do some clubbing until dawn.

One of the reasons we chose Bucharest was actually the movie The Zero Theorem (2013), the last film by ex-Monty Python director Terry Gilliam. Despite being quite a narrative disaster, the whole dystopian and post-modern atmosphere of the movie is completely worth it, maybe because most of it is shot in Bucharest, indoors and outdoors: for example, the ground floor of the Romanian Athenaeum is the Baroque headquarters of a hi-tech corporation, while the main character’s home is in a Neoromanian mansion in Grigore Cobălcescu Street (now a Seismology research centre). We’d highly recommend watching the movie to someone who’s planning a trip to Bucharest, and also to those who’ve already been there, but also to Bucharesters, to get to see their city presented differently.

neoromanescA typical Neoromanian villa from the 1930s inserts Orthodox church ornaments into civil architecture

We were amazed by that gorgeous Neoromanian style which was completely new to us and we were of course impressed by the gigantic scale of many buildings and avenues, that seemed built not for regular men at all. We could see that Bucharest was quite different from all other European cities we had been in, but frankly, we didn’t find a logical answer to all that chaos and architectural eclecticism.

univUniversity Square
cotroceniCotroceni upscale residential district, laden with interwar villas in various styles
dambovitaDâmbovița, the river that flows through Bucharest
pta_uniriiUnion Square was totally reshaped in the 1980s, under the Ceaușescu regime
dealul-patriarhieiCentral Patriarchy Hill is hidded behind tall buildings from the 1980s. It’s the center of Romanian Orthodoxy.

Our next day started out in University Square (Piața Universității – n.r.). We walked from there through the former Jewish Quarter, then to the hill where the Patriarchal Cathedral stands, Carol I Park, the backside of Ceaușescu’s Palace and his wife’s one next to it (Casa Academiei – n.r.), the lovely Cotroceni neighbourhood, and then back on the Dâmbovița river bank. Among the weirdest things we noticed during that walk was how hidden from the city centre these places all were: if you don’t know Bucharest and find yourself in Union Square (Piața Unirii – n.r.), you don’t expect to find a hill with an Orthodox church compound behind those gigantic apartment buildings!

evreiescFew of what’s left in the central part of the former Jewish Quarter mixes with typical 1980s utilitarian architecture
casa_academieiThe unfinished Academy House, Elena Ceaușescu’s (wife of Communist leader Nicolae Ceaușescu) legacy from a delusional era

After the walk, we finally understood many of the things we couldn’t the day before: how real estate speculation – usually led by former owners of buildings in the area – was finishing off the former Jewish Quarter, leading to a chaotic mix of old, new, awful and gorgeous buildings that is actually a typical example of what’s been going on in the whole city for the last two decades: layers upon layers of different styles, ages and political systems. Particularly revealing and astonishing was for an architecture student (Alberto) to discover what is probably one of the few (let’s say) unfinished urban ruins from the 1980s in Europe: Elena Ceaușescu’s personal office building (Casa Academiei – n.r.), close to the Parliament.

armenescBeautiful street corner in the Armenian Quarter, laden with old architecture
casa_preseiThe Free Press House, a huge Stalinist printing house from the 1950s

The following day, our third, we took a walk around the Armenian Quarter, reaching the astonishing turn-of-the-century villas on Dacia Avenue. Later on, we had the chance to see a Stalinist palace: the Free Press House (Casa Presei Libere – n.r.) in Northern Bucharest, where we had a scary encounter with the worldwide famous stray dogs – the only incident in three days! No one was hurt, by the way.

Back at home lots of friends and relatives were asking: “And how was Bucharest?” Usually followed by: “Is it dangerous?” Unfortunately, the city seems to have a somnewhat bad reputation among our fellow citizens. Our answer: “No, it’s not dangerous, it’s just like any other big city in this world”, and then we struggled while trying to describe the city and ended up saying: “It’s a huge mix”, “It’s a big mess”, “There are like three or four different cities in one, but all of them in the same place and time” and “We have never been in a city like this before”, ultimately concluding: “You’d better visit it, if you want to understand it!”

After much deliberation, we concluded that Bucharest may be something like Moscow, Paris, Vienna and the monasteries in Transylvania all in one, mixed like a thick soup, probably beef tripe soup (ciorbă de burtă – n.r.), which takes time and patience to enjoy and digest.

The Barcelona aerial picture is taken from here.
The still frame from The Zero Theorem is taken from here.

Text sent by Arturo and Alberto Sancho. Follow them on Instagram.

Bucharest, as seen by an Albanian who grew up in Greece

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Membru fondator, activează din 2007 în zona istoriei şi antropologiei bucureştene, explorării urbane şi fotografiei citadine. S-a opus mereu proiectelor aberante ale administrației bucureștene. Susține și conferințe despre București.

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