Bucharest – An Oddity Surviving Against All Odds

Bucharest (Rom. Bucureşti) has been some sort of oddity since the very first days of its existence. The legend has it that it was founded by a shepherd, named Bucur, and it was later named after him. Not remotely as glorious a godparent as the goddess of wisdom (the case of Athens) or a mythological warrior descended from the gods on Mount Olympus (the case of Rome). Not even a second rate obscure fifth-century saint like Geneviève of Paris. No, of all people, of all possible human businesses, it had to be a shepherd that founded a city, our capital city. And this original flaw, this curse of the beginnings, has accompanied the city throughout its history. What could a place imagined by a shepherd look like? The word sheepfold comes naturally to mind. Can you reasonably expect a shepherd's know-how in town-planning to go beyond the design of the shelter for his livestock? Western travelers visiting Bucharest have again and again tried to figure it out: was that collection of houses they saw before their eyes a town? or rather a village? or maybe a cluster of villages? or a combination of all these? As far as historical documents are concerned, things are not much better (at least from the perspective of Western Europe). The first document that mentions the place is one signed by Prince Vlad the Impaler (Vlad Ţepeş) on September 20, 1459. Bucharest is mentioned as a fortified place. The existence of a princely residence at that time is also attested to. In the following decade the city becomes the capital of the country (Wallachia). Notice, however, that Vlad the Impaler is the very same prince that is universally acknowledged to have been the source of inspiration for Bram Stoker's Dracula. A cruel and apparently sadistic character (resembling rather England's Richard III than the fantastic character in Stoker's book), Ţepeş was in fact an early victim of the invention of the printing press. Having antagonized the German merchants of Kronstadt (Braşov) he featured in a number of booklets printed by them in which he was depicted as a blood-thirsty monster. A clear case of character-smearing by political propaganda, we would say today. The city could hardly choose a decent patron when the choice was between a shepherd and a vampire. And the worst was still to come. As this conglomerate of houses, inns and orchards – a string of villages in reality – developed, the little independence that the country had enjoyed was vanishing. With the fall of Constantinople (six years before the official birth certificate of Bucharest) and the advance of the Ottoman Turks towards central Europe, the fate of the city seemed to be sealed. After less than a century of Western (Hungarian) influence, the Turks and Asia were taking over. For almost four centuries Bucharest shared the fortunes of the country whose most important city it had become. As the city continued to grow, its identity remained often as shady and doubtful as that of the country. Foreigners arriving in Bucharest were puzzled by this place that did not fit into any of the discrete and neat categories they were working with. They shared the astonishment of an entomologist that finds a bug that does not resemble any of the already known species. We would expect a big city to be a combination of squalor and luxury, that's what you find practically everywhere. What was special about the Romanian Capital was that the two were never actually separated. Rich and sumptuous palaces were surrounded by the filthiest imaginable dumps. Beside the rich houses of the nobility that alternated in the city layout with inns for townspeople and merchants, Bucharest boasted from the earliest times of its existence a number of beautiful churches that represented, throughout centuries, some of the few lasting landmarks of the originality of the city. Unfortunately, the short reigns of successive princes (always at the mercy of their Ottoman masters) and the uncertainty of changing times meant that no coherent and continuous effort could be made to give the city a lasting personality. The colorful world that all foreigners visiting the city were fascinated with seemed to be doomed to live under the sign of temporariness and improvisation. To the threats of foreign invasion and devastation natural catastrophes often added their touch. Fires, epidemics and earthquakes often obliterated important parts of the city and decimated its population. During a relatively long period in the 18th and the beginning of the 19th centuries in which the Phanariots (the Turks placed these Greek dragomans on the thrones of Wallachia and Moldavia as they considered them more reliable than the native aristocrats) reigned in the Romanian Principalities, the city witnessed a genuine cultural renaissance. Attempts were made by these corrupt, ruthless but refined princes to transfer to the area north of the Danube some of the surviving heritage of the lost Byzantium. New (Greek) schools were created, some of Bucharest's most beautiful churches and monasteries were built. The 19th century meant a growing influence of the West, paradoxically first through the Russian administration of the city and later through the efforts of the so-called 1848 generation, representative of the lower nobility who managed to put in place a program of modernization and westernization of both the country and its capital. The Union of the Principalities in 1859 meant that the city was now the capital of both Romanian countries. Over a period of about half a century the city underwent some of the most dramatic changes in its whole history. This exotic place on the border between Europe and the Asian world (still represented in Europe by the dying Turkish Empire) grew into a vibrant European metropolis purportedly shaped on the model of the French capital. Bucharest was known then as 'Little Paris' and all the Parisian fashions were duly imported into its younger and hopeful sister. World War I brought an even greater extension of the borders of the country and Bucharest was now the capital of all Romanians. New avenues were cut, impressive buildings were erected, and the old, shabby neighborhoods were reduced to rubble. Bad luck however was always lurking around the corner. The 1941 quake was a painful reminder of the transient nature of the city's good fortunes. Many of the big new buildings collapsed and the country itself was engulfed into a war that was to bring about an end to the prosperity enjoyed by Bucharest during golden interwar period. In a city that had been relatively spared during almost three years of war, several raids by the US Air Force and a couple of days of bombing by the Germans (angry at the betrayal of their former allies) meant the destruction of many of the few emblematic buildings: the Royal Palace, the University, the Athenaeum, the National Theatre. Their scary, black ruins remained for many years essential landmarks in an injured, ailing capital. Town-planning had never been the strong point of Bucharesters. It was their misfortune that after a new devastating earthquake left its mark on the city in 1977, the task of reshaping it should be assumed by the communist leader of the country, the world-infamous Ceauşescu. What wars and natural disasters had not achieved, this man seemed determined to accomplish. One after another whole neighborhoods were erased, old monuments, the pride of the city, were pulled down or pushed aside into dumping grounds to make room for the ludicrous architectonic ideas of a quasi-illiterate peasant. If, according to the legend, a shepherd founded the city, another country boor seemed keen on wiping it out. When he fled the city in 1989 to meet his fate in another former capital of the country – Târgovişte – the feared master of a wretched country left behind him a place haunted by desperation and stray dogs. Disfigured by a madman, the city continued its agony in the decades after the 1989 coup. Instead of plans for reshaping the city and healing its wounds, a fierce battle for plots of land whose value soared in no time started. The silhouettes of the unfinished buildings of the 1980-s still dominate the centre. The monstrous "People's House" still crushes by its dimensions a city mortally wounded by a Pharaonic project. The infrastructure – utterly insufficient and out of touch with the present-day needs of the city – has been permanently patched up by successive mayors and city councils. During the day, the traffic literally suffocates the narrow streets of the town. During the night, packs of stray dogs are the real masters of the streets, making walking in the city a dangerous venture. And yet, for us, the people who have spent their lives in this unfortunate place, learning to love it as you love a crippled child that is, however, your own, Bucharest has its charms and hidden attractions. There are still nice spots and shady streets and lovely parks that would enchant even the most exigent guest and there are still buildings that could stand comparison with the beautiful hôtels of France or palazzi of Italy. It's simply such a shame that people living here seem to turn an indifferent eye on everything around, being too busy with themselves. But this has always been the fate of this city: misplaced, mis-shaped, disliked, it continues to exist, to survive, against all odds, against its ill fate, against its very inhabitants.

by Dan Mateescu