Bucharest is a layered city, in fact several cities coexisting in a direct and sometimes rough relationship, each one unveiled in turn as you walk down the city’s wide boulevards and the narrow streets hidden behind them.
There is a French-German Bucharest, defined by the 19th century buildings that make up the city’s main landmarks: the Triumphal Arch, the Romanian Athenaeum, the house of the ‘George Enescu Philharmonic’, the Central University Library, and the Royal Palace (now the National Art Museum). There is an avant-garde Bucharest of 1920s villas and houses scattered in the central neighbourhoods, small architectural gems that remind the visitor of the most prosperous period of the city, between the First and the Second world wars. Many of these villas have been refurbished and transformed into restaurants and clubs that are crowded all year long. In the courtyards of the Gradina Icoanei area, you can still find hundred-year old trees (somehow surviving the uncontrolled construction fever of the past ten years) next to modern, glazed office buildings that are out of kilter with the prevailing architectural style.
There is a Byzantine Bucharest, situated within the old part of the city, called Curtea Veche. Step into the courtyard of Stavropoleos church (1742) in the Lipscani area and you’ll find yourself among small isles of green gardens, surrounding Christian Orthodox churches with pillared patios and twisted columns. Their architectural style, Brancovenesc, is named after Constantin Brancoveanu, a generous prince who built large parts of the city when he ruled the region of Walachia, in the 17th century.
Finally, there is communist Bucharest, with its neighbourhoods of concrete apartment blocks lined up in monotonous rows along wide boulevards – grey belts that surround the heart of the city. Its most prominent landmark, the Casa Poporului or People’s House now houses the Romanian Parliament. Commissioned by dictator Nicolae Ceauscu, it is the world’s largest civilian administrative building, dominating the central downtown area of Unirii Piazza.
Bucharest’s charm and its character lies in the rough mix of old and new, in the different heartbeats encountered every day, even in a ten-minute walk, in the unexpected combinations of styles of architecture. A city that lives several lives at the same time.