After a Falafel wrap we stepped back out into Piata Alba Iulia and caught a bus towards Lipscani along Unirii Boulevard. The sun was out and beaming through the left hand side of the bus, cooking anyone stupid enough to stand in its path. We continued to cook until the bus arrived at Lipscani. Although we’d wandered through this part of town the day before, we wanted to visit some of the churches and other historic architectural features of the area.
The pedestrianised streets make Lipscani one of the easiest parts of Bucharest to walk around. Among the bars, restaurants and massage parlours are numerous orthodox churches. The first church we visited was “Saints Archangels Michael and Gabriel” which was part of the Stavropoleos Monastery. It was built in 1724 in Brancovan style, and extended between 1728 and 1733. The Brancovan style (or Brancovenesc) refers to the art and architecture produced in Romania during the administration of Prince Constantin Brancoveanu in late 17th and early 18th centuries, also recognised as Romanian Renaissance. The southern part of Romania was under the Ottoman rule at that time, so the style evolved as a fusion between Byzantine, Ottoman, late Renaissance and Baroque architecture. The intricate details and decorations of the church are a great example for this style: they have a distinctive Eastern feel to it, whilst the whole complex is very much European. The courtyard and buildings next to the church are, however, new additions from the early 20th century, as the church is the only construction left from the original monastery.
There weren’t many people here so it was quiet and relaxing to stroll around at a slow pace. We spent a bit of time in the courtyard before heading into the church. As we approached the entrance a large dodgy man tried to con us by playing a currency exchange scam. He was definitely local yet was pretending to be from Dubai and looking for someone to change his Iraqi currency with. We suggested he tried a currency exchange shop and went into the church.
We then walked along to Victory Avenue (Calea Victoriei) where we quickly popped into the far busier Zlatari Church before arriving at the Macca-Vilacrosse Passage. The covered arcade is a beautiful relic from the times where Bucharest was known as “Little Paris”. Inspired by similar structures in the West, the passage was designed by the architect Felix Xenopol and was built in 1891. Back then, the two arteries it connects, Victory Avenue and Lipscani Street, were the main commercial roads and suffered from high congestion. The municipality decided to buy the existing houses on the chosen site in order to build the thoroughfare. The buildings, owned by Xavier Villacross and Mihalache Macca, give the passage its name. It owes its fork shape to the fact that the owner of a hotel that was stood on the site refused to sell his land, forcing the architect to split the passage and build around the hotel. Originally, the ground floor was reserved for shops while the upper floor was residential. Nowadays, cafes and restaurants have taken over the passage, slightly taking away from its elegance. Still, the mellow warm light coming through the yellow glass ceiling and the rich stucco ornamentation of the interior facades do create a dreamy experience when walking through. It’s a shame that there’s little need for the passage as a route and destination anymore, instead it’s just a destination which appears to be on the decline, struggling with its own identity.
On our way to the next church we ended up having a look inside the former Stock Exchange Palace. It was erected between 1906 and 1912 in an Eclectic style. Interestingly, the structure speaks of the new advances in architectural technology of the time, with specially engineered bricks that can withstand 150kg/cm2, and slabs made of reinforced concrete. Presently, the building is for sale, with the ground floor being used for antiques and handmade accessories stalls.
The Saddlers Church (Selari) was built in 1700. Its present shape dates from the reconstruction of 1860-1868 in Romantic Neo-Gothic style. Like all Orthodox churches visited, it has a very cavernous, dark, intimate atmosphere, contrasting with that of the Western Catholic or Protestant churches we saw during our travels. While the great Gothic and Renaissance churches and cathedrals of the Western world look towards the sky, and imbue a sense of awe and heavenly inspiration, their Eastern counterparts encourage an intimate relationship with the divinity, introspection and introversion. They are places of whispers, closed eyes, hunched backs and kneeling bodies, smoke and deep incense smell. Gheroghe Tattarescu, a well-regarded Romanian Neoclassical painter, painted the interior of the Saddlers Church.
The final stop on the church tour was the “Saint Nicholas” Russian Church, erected between 1903 and 1909 with support from Tsar Nicholas II. Scaffolding unfortunately hid its beautiful exterior decoration, as the church is going through renovation. A slightly disorientating process of entry lead us into the cavernous hearth in a quiet but effective play of space.
After leaving we again discussed the differences between western and eastern churches, admiring how the dark and cozy eastern churches offer a perfect escape from the city outside. Such tranquil and introspective spaces are crucial retreats amid the increasingly commercialised and visually bullying atmospheres of contemporary cities. Surely such places would be of benefit to those, like ourselves, not seeking a place of religious worship, but instead looking for a calm place to enjoy in the midst of contemporary urbanity. The idea of a secular retreat is popular among student projects, but in our capitalist reality peace and contemplation are not economically viable, therefore considered worthless by society.
There is, however, a strong emerging culture around a different kind of retreat. Origo café, where we stopped for a coffee and a sketch, was one of the leaders in Bucharest’s trendy (hipster) cafe scene. Contemporary design generally seems to struggle to make an impact on the city, the younger generation of designers with their international influences and ideas are too far removed from the philistine politicians more concerned with meaningless gestures, lining their own pockets and preserving the out of touch establishment to consider the role architecture can play in developing the city. It appears that designers are finding their outlet through semi-public spaces such as bars, restaurants and cafes. Architecture practices like Lama Arhitectura have completed a number of cafes, clubs and restaurants in the city centre and are a great example of how contemporary design can attract likeminded youngsters and creatives.
After our little break we went for a lovely stroll in Cismigiu Gardens, the prettiest park in central Bucharest, opened in 1847. It was designed in a Romantic style by German horticulturists, with an artificial lake, bridges, statues and monuments, changes in landscape and various species of flowers and trees. Even on a chilly day the gardens were full with people, both young, old, and in between.
We continued our walk on Victory Avenue to reach Revolution Square (Piata Revolutiei), the main stage of the Revolution of 1989. It was here on 21 December 1989 that Nicolae Ceasescu’s organised rally turned into a jeering crowd during his speech from the Central Committee building (today the Interior Ministry) live on television. Fighting between the revolutionaries and authorities quickly ensued in the square, with the historical buildings enveloping it still showing the marks. The square is home to the Atheneum, the National Art Museum, the Cretulescu Church and the Architect’s Union. It also has an unfortunate fame for being the ugliest square in Bucharest, because of its random conglomeration of statues and monuments erected by various over-zealous politicians eager to leave their mark on the place.
After deliberating over which train to catch, we opted for another beer or two before heading to the railway station. We found M60, another somewhat hipster café with a minimal, light industrial interior. It’s hard to give a conclusive verdict on these kind of places. We appreciate their design and offering of a different type of place for New Balance wearing MacBook users to congregate, but there is a slightly intimidating air of conformist coolness about them. Perhaps this (and the expensive coffee) is the price that needs to be paid in order for the next generation to stake their claim for a role in shaping Bucharest’s future.
After a final beer in Shift Pub, another of Lama’s designs, we left ourselves little time for the next train. Fortunately we had it in our legs to maintain a sufficiently speedy pace to Gara de Nord in time for the train back to Ploiesti. As we chugged our way north we reflected on a busy couple of days and the cultural shift taking place in Bucharest. It’s a fascinating city which has an interesting and optimistic future of possibilities ahead of it, if only it chooses to take them.